Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The G-Team: Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Milhaud, Schoenberg, Shilkret,
Stravinsky, Tansman, Toch

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Second UPDATE, Sunday June 1, round-up of other reviews.

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UPDATE, next night 2nd thoughts below.

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Did they rehearse?

It was bad enough that Oscar-winning actors F. Murray Abraham and Patty Duke occasionally stumbled over the archaic syntax of the King James Bible in tonight’s performance of the Genesis Suite with the Seattle Symphony and the University of Washington Chorale. But when Duke gave Abraham a “look,” as if to say, “your turn,” and Abraham returned the “look,” and both stopped reading, and the ending of the text to the sixth movement -- “The Rainbow” -- got dropped, that was embarrassing.

Seven composers wrote the seven movements of Genesis Suite, six of them European refugees, brought together by the seventh, a Hollywood composer named Nathaniel Shilkret. The two biggest names of mid-century classical, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, opened and closed the piece. Darius Milhaud is the only other big name; I had never heard of the others -- Alexandre Tansman, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch, and Shilkret -- before borrowing the CD from the library a few months ago. Tonight’s performance was the first since the 1945 Los Angeles premiere. What should have been historic was a train wreck.

Schoenberg's wordless prelude set a promising atmosphere. The other movements set stories from the first book of the Bible -- the Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood and Noah’s Ark, the Rainbow, and Babel. Hollywood star Edward Arnold narrated the premiere. An interesting mishmash of dissonant modernism and Hollywood emotionalism, the Hollywood emotionalists totally hold their own -- after all the Bible is, among many other things, a hot Hollywood property. Schoenberg’s mysterious, delicate abstraction works well for the prelude, but Stravinsky’s anti-climactic closing is a dramatic let-down and an emotional bummer. It works narratively -- his music accompanies the story of Babel -- and in the context of Nazi-era refugees it makes sense. (Six of the seven composers -- all but Stravinsky -- were Jewish.) Ernst Toch ends "The Rainbow" -- the penultimate movement -- with a rousing glow; "Babel" was -- is -- truer to the historical moment.

The orchestra and chorus sounded well, but Duke and Abraham have no excuse. Gifted actors both, they appeared to be reading the text “cold.” When they hit it, they were terrific, but at times they stumbled like 14-year-old congregants volunteering to do the reading at the Sunday morning service. And, as I mentioned, during “The Rainbow” they just stopped -- and never even mentioned the rainbow!

Conductor Gerard Schwarz should have taken the movement again. Is classical music a genre of vaudeville? Is the motto, “the show must go on?” When, at one point during the premier of Kierkegaard, Walking by Kyle Gann in January,
the Seattle Chamber Players got lost, they stopped and started again. A much more respectful approach -- respectful to the composer and to the audience. When things went kerblooey tonight, Schwarz hoped to pull a fast one. While Duke’s face beseeched him for direction, he ignored her and kept barreling ahead, hoping to “put it over.”

He probably got away with it.

They got a Standing O.

While the audience stood and clapped, the soloists and Schwarz put on brave faces, and the orchestra members grimaced. Duke leaned up to give Abraham a showbiz kiss, and he stood stiffly and barely reciprocated. So awkward! Everybody onstage knew they had blown it.

It was a shabby show in another way too. Schwarz commissioned local glass artist Dale Chihuly to contribute a moving backdrop to accompany the suite. Chihuly commissioned a filmmaker to film his paintings in an abstract, animated fashion. The result was an occasionally pretty, irrelevant, incompetent distraction that had nothing to do with the text or the music, thematically or emotionally. Once I realized that they had no clue about what they were doing, I did my best to ignore it.

But Chihuly is a star, Seattle’s most famous artist. If that's how the so-called Arts Community works, it's a sham. Famous people working together, charging high prices, and exhibiting no care as to whether what they’re doing makes any sense or has vitality, can only be about famous-name prestige-enhancement. It's not about the work.

Abraham and Duke could have been brilliant, had they cared to read the text a few more times before opening. When they connected, they knocked it out of the park. Both conveyed the joy of the Biblical Creation story more thrillingly than anybody I’d ever heard. Abraham nailed God’s frequent wrath. I’m left feeling floored both by their talent and their unprofessionalism.

The orchestra deserved better too. The concert’s first half -- a symphony by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu and a violin concerto by Erich Korngold -- came off well. Like the composers of Genesis, Korngold and Martinu were refugees from the Nazis and wrote these pieces in America.

Korngold’s concerto was the hit of the evening. Drawing themes from his popular Hollywood film scores and interspersing them with virtuoso turns for the violinist, Korngold packed a crowd-pleasing punch. Sexily-clad soloist Stefan Jackiw -- open-collar shirt untucked -- filled Benaroya Hall with the sound of his violin. His playing -- and his look -- were hot. The crowd loved him, and the soaring proto-John Williams-esque theme of the third and final movement sent us to intermission happy.

And even though the actors crashed and burned, it was a treat to hear the Genesis Suite. Kudos to Schwarz and the orchestra for interesting programming and good performances. Next time, though, please rehearse more with your guest stars.

-- Photos lifted from The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, which sponsored the publication of
Genesis Suite.

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UPDATE, next night, a few notes:

A co-worker saw the concert too. She noticed that Patty Duke looked lost at one point, but she didn’t realize that the narrators actually dropped text. (I’m not certain that Duke was at fault; it could have been Abraham’s mistake. The 1945 premiere employed a single narrator.)

My co-worker loved Dale Chihuly’s visuals. People like pretty. I felt snobby for feeling that the pretty should relate to the music and the text. But that's the way I feel!

I wish I could go to Saturday night’s repeat of the concert, because I’m certain that the actors will nail it.

“Crash and burn” is too harsh a description of the actors’ mistake. “Stumbled and fell” is fairer.

Live orchestral music: It’s great. The dynamic range and the sounds of the instruments are tremendous.

The tuba player used a mute on two pieces. The mute looked to be three feet tall. I’d never seen one before.

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2nd UPDATE, Sunday night, June 1:

I really thought that the second performance of the Genesis Suite would draw more attention. It was the only piece upon which Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky collaborated. They were the two most influential classical composers between Debussy and Cage, and they happened to dislike each other to such an extent that they took pains never to meet, even when their collaboration was in rehearsal and performance.

The Seattle performance has only received a brief review in each of the Seattle daily papers (only one of which is available online), and one blog post besides mine.

The other reviewers were more positive than me. Nobody else mentioned that in the “The Rainbow,” the narrators neglected to mention the Rainbow, which is indeed mentioned in the text. (I checked the Naxos recording before posting Thursday night.) Blogger Zach Carstensen noted the Duke stumbled at points, particularly during “The Rainbow,” but he didn’t mention that Abraham had stumbled as well. Carstensen also noted that the narrators’ amplification was too loud, which indeed it was.

John Sutherland, writing in the Seattle Times, complained of Duke’s timbre, which underscores the liberties that Schwarz took with the piece. The original version used one actor to narrate. Schwarz’s Naxos recording (which I recommend) used five narrators, and the Seattle concert had two. Dramatically, I liked the alternation of male and female voices, but it did give the piece an unorthodox feel. I grew up in a Protestant church with female ministers. I appear to be the only person to have found Dale Chihuly's contribution distracting and irrelevant. Seriously, a computer I had seven years ago had a built-in program that generated more interesting psychedelic images in response to music.

It appears that the actors will have gotten away with their slipshod preparation. The cavalier contempt that the actors displayed toward the composers, the audience, and the orchestra and chorus, who were well prepared, is depressing.

I should -- and do -- feel grateful to have had the opportunity to hear the piece live. But expecting the actors to prepare to the extent that unusual turns of phrase don't throw them for a loop is not too much to ask in exchange for $29, the cheapest ticket available when I bought mine, and the 2nd cheapest listed.

It ain't right.

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