Saturday, February 28, 2009

SSO 2008 take 1

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Mendelssohn - Shakespeare, 

or Shakespeare - Mendelssohn in this case.

Friday night was the second 'gala' night of the first performances of Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 2008 season. There had been a considerable build up, not the least emphasising a good dose of magic and mayhem, and an extra two marriages to the play's already three. We were there to witness the marriage of music and theatre as well as the marriage of the Orchestra to its new principal conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy. I hope the latter works out better than the former.

As usual, Friday had been a longish day, a solid 10 hours at the factory, so Puck grant me, the dreamer, all forgiveness; I did my best.

     If we shadows have offended,
    Think but this, and all is mended,
    That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
    And this weak and idle theme,
    No more yielding but a dream,


We managed to arrive comfortably, have dinner, a little drink, make that 2, pick up the October 2007 Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek, Strauss Mackerras/SSO CD, enjoy the pre-concert talk, and slip into our seats; hello neighbours, ...hello big line array of speakers, umm...hello mixing console.

I quite like Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I don't love it and I don't have a copy in the house. There have however been some memorable moments based around it. We had heard a particularly ethereal Boston Symphony performance years ago in Carnegie Hall with Kathleen Battle tossing off some vocals, and years before that I'd heard a revelatory performance in Hamburg, the city of Mendelssohn's birth, where the synergy of this music with contemprary dance was, at the time, I thought the most sophisticated thing I had ever seen.

Things started well. There was a general sense of thankfulnesss that the orchestra, playing at its considerable best, was at last in Ashkenazy's hands. Everyone was paying attention. As the evening unfolded, the music was to be soon delivered in conjunction with the text, that we expected, it is after all, an overture and incidental music. What wasn't expected was just how incidental the music was to be. 

Amplification was the issue. The speaker distortion was so bad that most of the words were indecipherable, and as seems the case these days, delivered so quickly that it was actually a strain to try and listen. What's more, it was loud, unreasonably loud, which of itself was unpleasant but also made the return of the orchestra sound recessed and entirely secondary. It was brutal in its dominance and the effect was not much short of coarse. What this really necessary anyway. When Ashkenazy himself finally did speak, half back to the audience, his voice seemed to travel well enough . Can't actors today project? Not only was the actual detail lost, we also lost the natural beauty of the spoken word.

Talking with C and G at interval (they were seated front stalls), I was saying how my ears were starting to hurt. C said he couldn't work out why his eyes were getting sore till he realised he was trying to lip read. G wished they would just stand there and speak. Now, C has audiophile ears second to none, and part of his explanation was that the line array playing to the rear wall of the hall (where no one was sitting) had a time delay and that this was likely a major factor in the distortion. There was one lovely exception: Heather Mitchell's Titania. Whether it was her voice in relation to her mike, or more likely her pitch, or the mixer, or whatever, but her lines came out with clarity and softness, and with all the nuance and cadence of the text intact.

The second half was more of the same. The drama came and went, lighting did moody night things, fairy lights continued on and off, and Bottom did his funny dying routine, but people were leaving, ferries were departing, eyes got heavy, and I found myself looking foward to it finally ending. Not really a good sign I think. I timed it at 2.40 all up, 20 minute interval, and about 52 minutes of music.

That said, others absolutely loved it.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100% about the amplification, though I found myself able to surmount it in the end so far as it was an obstacle to enjoyment of the occasion as a whole. As I've said already on a blog we both read, this was a fairly profligate use of an orchestra, and I don't really see such things as the way of the future for orchestral concerts. For that matter, the Prokofiev concert at the end of this year which includes Peter and the Wolf is the one which I don't propose attending, despite the attractions of the other works programmed.

wanderer said...

Perhaps "such things" are the tail-end of the 'popularisation', for want of a better expression, of programming under the Libby Christie chair, the replacement of the Bronfman Bartok No 2 last year being another. We are, after all, subscribing to the Master Series.

Next year will be telling with Ashkenazy in firmer control.

Anonymous said...

I got the impression Bronfman requested the substitution for the Bartok, though the SSO must have acceded to his request.

wanderer said...

That's interesting. My thoughts were supposition only, fueled by the fame of his Bartok recordings, and perhaps the 'perhaps' was not given enough emphasis.

Anonymous said...

Marcellous is correct re the matter of Bronfman. I would also point out that the SSO made haste to include the replaced work as early as possible in a future season. As a result Cédric Tiberghien will perform it with Simone Young on 5, 6 and 7 August this year. Yes, it's perhaps a pity not to hear it from Bronfman, given the reputation of his recordings, but the original program change was in no way an instance of faint heart on the part of the orchestra as I think has been demonstrated by the concerto being reprogrammed.

Believe it or not, orchestras don't change their programs on a whim (really, we don't!). Changes are nearly always artist-generated, usually a very serious and not lightly made request or as the result of a cancellation. And they are agreed to with great reluctance. Programs aren't random collections of music after all.

On the surface the choice of Tchaik PC1 might have looked like a popularistic backing down from Bartók PC2. (Ok, it did look like that, as your and others' reactions have demonstrated.) But in fact it was, of the replacement works offered, the concerto that would best complement the remaining program (Firebird) and which hadn't been performed too recently in the same series, these being the two main considerations in these circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I would disagree with "tail-end" or even "popularisation" as a characterisation of the MSND concert. On the contrary, in many respects a staged MSND could be considered an audacious thing to attempt (not least because of the risk of it being misunderstood in its intent or flawed in its "mechanical" execution). I don't see how it could be regarded as dumbing down, for all that it was attractive and entertaining. In many ways it did require a "masters" listener – a connoisseur – to grasp the subtlety of the two works in combination.

In any case it doesn't make sense to seriously think that a new principal conductor would want to begin his tenure with "tail-end" thinking. Quite the opposite. Every incoming music director – certainly for the recent few – has put a stamp on things, communicating in different ways a distinct spirit, personality, philosophy. The opening two weeks for this year (especially when taken together) have been no different. I for one take heart from it. If there's anything that orchestral concerts the world over need it's more genuine excitement, more joy, and less rigidity/compartmentalisation. Achieving that in all sorts of ways may entail some risks but they're risks worth taking. Will there be another show quite like MSND? Maybe not, but I think the tone has been set.

@marcellous: You're staying away because of Peter and the Wolf? What a pity. That's one laconic little (master)piece that deserves to be heard with grown-up ears. No fancy staging either, just narration as Prokofiev wrote it. (And when next will you get to hear the Fifth Piano Concerto?)

@wanderer: My ideal Master Series looks like The New Yorker. Lots of meaty articles on a myriad of topics (including themes that have never occurred to me before), leavened with some wonderful cartoons and pithy humour. Even as a connoisseur I want to have some fun.

wanderer said...

T there is no underestimation about the complexities of programming, none.

At the time, the Bronfman didn't particularly look to me like a backdown, disappointing though it was, and not without criticism. However, with some Libby Christie smoke around, fire or not, and the opening 'gala' and whatever else having all the signs of appealing to popularism, which it did, nothing wrong with that per se, it is natural to wonder about such shifts or patterns. That's what subscribers do.

re the MSND, my issue is not the intent, but the result, and for me it was not fun. I actually found it really annoying, and I'd call it a lot of things before settling on subtle (note I did make special mention of how others "absolutely loved it"). Beware blaming the listener. The risk with audacious is exactly that, the risk.

Agreed about The New Yorker, a consistently excellent magazine whose format never changes.

Anonymous said...

To clarify: wasn't saying that the evening overall should be characterised as subtle, not at all; merely that there is subtlety (or maybe finesse is a better word?) in the way the two works combine in M's treatment. In no way "blaming the listener" in making the observation that one type of listener might recognise that ahead of others.