Salonen and the SFS extend works by Ravel and Schoenberg with stagings, dancing and singing

United StatesUnited States Ravel, Schoenberg: Mary Elizabeth Williams (soprano), Alonzo King LINES Ballet, San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 8.6.2024. (HS)

Adji Cissoko (left) and Shuaib Elhassan (right) in Ravel’s Mother Goose © Kristen Loken

Ravel Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)
Schoenberg – Erwartung

Director – Peter Sellers
Lighting – Luke Kritzeck, Seth Reiser
Choreographer – Alonzo King

A double bill of Ravel’s Mother Goose (Ma mère l’Oye) as a ballet and Schoenberg’s one-act operatic monodrama Erwartung may not seem a standard pairing. But the wealth of talent on display, from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony to soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams and the dancers of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, created an evening of extraordinary panache.

The ties may not be obvious. The program booklet notes how both works reflect the way music can portray time passing – Schoenberg with a woman coming undone by the murder of her husband, Ravel with the enchanted world of a child. The works emerged around the same time: Schoenberg’s tour-de-force for soprano debuted in 1909; Ravel’s music, originally for two pianos, was first performed in 1910 and the orchestrated ballet in 1912.

These opuses came at inflection points for both composers. Schoenberg had been stretching ultra-Romantic chromatic musical language as far as it could go – he wrote his book Harmonielehre the following year, proposing a whole new approach to tonality, and debuted the groundbreaking Pierrot Lunaire in 1912, which in its way was as revolutionary as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913). For Ravel, Mother Goose was the first of his celebrated ballet scores, followed almost immediately by Valses nobles et sentimentales and Daphnis et Chloé, three works that essentially put him on the musical map.

The tautly focused 90-minute program opened with King’s ceaselessly energetic, distinctively quirky choreography for Ravel’s fairy-tale music. Twelve dancers wove patterns and created an uncanny and beautiful visual reflection of the music. The stars, for my eyes, were the lithe, limber and expressive extensions of Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan in ‘Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Conversations of Beauty and the Beast’. They intertwined elegantly to supple, soft-edged playing by the orchestra, clustered upstage to give the dancers space.

The trio of Ilaria Guerra, Lorris Eichinger and Madeleine DeVries led the entire company in ‘Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas’, with subtle moves that suggested Ravel’s chinoiserie as tastefully as Salonen’s conducting did. In the ‘Enchanted Garden’ finale, the orchestra carefully held back on the gradual expansion in Ravel’s instrumentation as the piece built to a stately climax.

Mary Elizabeth Williams and Esa-Pekka Salonen in Schoenberg’s Erwartung © Kristen Loken

As good as that was, the best was yet to come. During the intermission, the stage was reset to bring the orchestra forward so the Erwartung action could take place on a thrust stage addition. Director Peter Sellars designed the space, deftly and simply lit with rectangles of light which defined the settings and framed the closing-in of emotions that bedevil the unnamed character who has just learned of her husband’s murder. There was no forest for her to roam in, and a body bag at her feet supplanted the discovery of the corpse that the libretto calls for. A rise in intensity of white light suggested the moonlight that marks a central scene.

Those adaptations mattered less than Williams, who deployed a hefty but agile soprano and an astonishing range with richness in notes well above and below the staff. Her understanding of the character’s ravings was palpable. Reflecting her detailed study of the score, she even wrote the English translation of Marie Pappenheim’s intentionally semi-coherent libretto for the projected titles and the program.

‘The text’, she wrote in a program note, ‘careens, uncontrolled and without warning, between present and past; reality and imagination, coherence and instability’. That translated in performance to a winning approach. ‘The shock causes her mind to run through the stages of grief at warp speed’, which the audience can ‘witness, as it happens, from a front-row seat inside her head’.

I had not read these notes before Williams’s intense, hyper-real performance wowed me. But that is exactly how she played it, as Schoenberg’s music traced this psychological chaos, untethered by tonality or a listener’s expectations of where the melody might go, jumping from one partially expressed thought to another, right along with the singer’s words.

With the support of Salonen and a hyper-responsive orchestra, the performance made spectacular sense of what might first strike a listener as nonsense. It found coherence in Schoenberg’s music like no other production I have experienced.

Harvey Steiman

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