Last week's program at the San Francisco Symphony carried a sense of celebration with it. John Adams was in attendance, giving luster to the orchestra's new performance and recording of his "Harmonielehre" under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. (Edo De Waart taped the piece in his final year as Music Director, when Adams was composer-in-residence.) There has always been a tendency to rally around the orchestra in San Francisco — cultural boosterism being one of the old-fashioned charms of this now rather important city, which sometimes still thinks of itself as a town and behaves like one in its enthusiasms — and John Adams is a local hero in the orchestra's history. But the spontaneous applause I heard on Saturday seemed to go beyond these boundaries. It is a though, from the standpoint of an audience, Adams were being hailed for having rescued contemporary music — and indeed, he just may have.
A year ago, when Frank Gehry was commissioned to design the new business school for the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) he was asked if he liked the proposed site. His response — “I like the problem” — was both diplomatic and revealing, for UTS, the youngest of Sydney’s four major universities, exists in a part of town with a lot of likable problems. Like NYU, UTS is an urban university with no real campus. This lack is no problem if you have a Washington Square Park, an expansionist attitude and a Greenwich Village to compensate, but UTS is stuck in a defiantly unlovely part of Sydney. Even if it had the beautiful lawns and gracious old buildings of the nearby University of Sydney, UTS would struggle to maintain a physical identity among the dense but generally mediocre surroundings to the west of Central Station. In a sense UTS’ problem is a condensed version of central Sydney’s more persistent malaise; it is not a place where people linger. While Gehry might seem an obvious choice for any university looking to promote, as the current jargon goes, “stickiness,” UTS and Gehry are in fact an ideal match. As his now-unveiled design for what will be known as the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building reveals, he has solutions to their problems.
To create a seamless, whole Nutcracker, Peter Wright and John Macfarlane have married the ballet's greatly varied styles, scenes and tones, with their own greatly varied décors, colours and styles while melding reality with fantasy. Not fantasy in the sense it's often used these days to describe something frivolous and unreal, but the act of creating a subworld (to refer to Tolkien's On Fairy Stories) full of wonder, inspiring curiosity with a self-propagating energy and its own internal logic or rules which allows more than the mere prosaic "suspension of disbelief," but draws us in, absorbs us, allowing us to keep our belief and private imagination intact as we participate. And it leaves a piece of itself with us for a long time afterward. Their ballet is naturalistic too, certainly organic, as if it grows and comes alive, the décors and costumes showing a deep observation and understanding of nature, often recalling Robert Herrick's poem Delight in Disorder. Each scene changes naturally and smoothly with the music, lightly carrying and passing on the momentum of wonder however great the change in tone. Recognizable historic and stylistic fragments — subtle but familiar images or patterns — thread through the piece. They deftly weave many other threads through the whole ballet to connect discrete dances and divertissments and make them seem all of a piece. Fore example, Clara dances in almost every scene, adapting to and relishing the different styles of the Spanish, Chinese, Flower Fairy etc. dances while retaining her character's personality.
The Orpheus and Eurydice tale never really spoke to me, as it is now accepted in Ovid's version. I was fed it over and over again through school, but always felt manipulated by Eurydice's double death, which the storyteller designed to be super affective by describing their ardent love with so much intensity. It is really a quadruple death since the two lovers become so absorbed into one another, one's death is the other's; all pathos is destroyed in the end and the story goes beyond mere tragedy. The pivotal twist caused by Hades' rule forbidding Orpheus to look back at Eurydice as they leave the underworld is arbitrary and puritanical; placing such negative importance and obsessively focussing on a simple and natural physical movement is a hallmark of Puritanism and conservative Catholicism. Also, the Eurydice in Ovid's myth is a very weak character, only existing to be a victim. In fact, according to Robert Grave (The Greek Myths, 1960), Eurydice's death and the the lovers' rendez-vous in the underworld is a late addition to the myth of Orpheus, priest of Dionysus, resulting from misinterpretations of paintings depicting Dionysus' harrowing of the underworld to rescue his mother Semele, a journey on which Orpheus accompanied him to charm Hecate and the spirits of the dead. Eurydice herself is a literary descendant of the more ancient queens, whose sacrifices were sometimes poisoned with snake venom. The barbaric Dorians who invaded Greece from the north several centuries after the fall of Knossus may have made many brutal additions to myths, like the double death. They imposed their patrilineal customs and changed the native myths to suit by depreciating women. The more ancient version does end with Orpheus' death by Maenads tearing him limb from limb, but this somehow makes more sense, like Le sacre du printemps, on a mystical level, something which attracted Yeats, whose plays A Full Moon in March and The King of the Great Clock Tower were based on Orpheus' Irish counterpart King Bran.
Michael Tilson Thomas was looking hard for insight in Schubert last Saturday. He found it in words, if not in the music. Indeed, you might say he chose the first Entr'acte from Rosamunde for an illustration of his point. As a young man, Thomas managed to alienate the Boston Symphony for decades by talking too much, and the tendency to lecture and otherwise condescend to his audiences from the podium still remains. This time, though, the music happened to be rather forgettable, and Thomas' remarks about it more interesting. The Entr'acte seems to be part of a dry run for Schubert's "Unfinished," and MTT correctly pointed out that its harmony is headed in the direction of Mendelssohn and Schumann.