Things have changed a lot since the Opening Gala for the Centennial Season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) back in September of 2011. If memory serves that was the last time that the occasion celebrated what SFS does best, making music from a broad sampling of the repertoire joined by soloists just as committed to music-making and led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) with both verve and a perceptive appreciation of the program selections. Since then there has been a gradual erosion of the repertoire that SFS rules in favor of selections that are more in the spirit of “party music,” particularly show tunes written for a far grittier environment than places like Davies Symphony Hall.
Last night in Davies that repertoire had been eroded down to less than half an hour of a two-hour evening. That was enough time for one selection, a piece that had been conceived from the get-go as musical spectacle at its most flamboyant. That piece was Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Festivals, a suite in four movements, played without interruption, that depicts Roman revelry from the time of the Caesars to Respighi’s present day. (While Respighi’s movement titles never explicitly cite any of the Roman emperors, he used an earlier unfinished symphonic poem about Nero as a source for his thematic material.)
Whatever else may be said about Roman Festivals, there is no doubting that it makes a mighty noise. One need only consult its Wikipedia page to see the full measure of instrumental resources required for a performance. Indeed, many of the mightiest noises made by Hollywood film scores can easily be traced back to Respighi’s skills in managing resources on such a large scale. Mind you, the partygoers were already making mighty noises of their own long before MTT took the stage last night, probably a consequence of more and more time spent with the eardrums being assaulted by earbuds. (The “normal tone of voice” for speaking seemed to have left Davies along with the SFS bread-and-butter repertoire.)
Still, there was much to be said for last night’s performance of what may be the grandest music spectacle that has nothing to do with opera. Beyond simply understanding such a wide scope of instruments and knowing the different ways in which they could be assembled, Respighi was a master at evoking elaborate textures through the superposition of repeated patterns (not that anyone would dare call him a minimalist). In addition, he could use superposition of themes to evoke a particular tone of dissonance that perfectly captured revelry at its most raucous. Indeed, because superposition comes into play on so many different scales, Roman Festivals is one of those pieces that will probably never be given a satisfactory account by even the best recording equipment. One has to be in the physical presence of that music being performed to appreciate just how much Respighi put into it and how well he assembled all the components. Whether or not the revelers in the audience were aware of it, MTT led SFS in a reading of Roman Festivals that could easily have been everything Respighi wanted it to be.
The problem with opening with such an intense level of spectacle is that everything else becomes anticlimax. Shows like Carousel, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady just cannot compete on the same playing field, just as one doesn’t try to compare the latest products from the Marvel Universe with the latest romcom. Matters were not improved by providing vocalists Nathan Gunn, Alexandra Silber, and Kelsey Grammer with microphones, making them all sound even more artificial after all of Respighi’s razzle-dazzle with real instruments.
Still, there was one saving grace to that portion of the evening. Stephanie Blythe happened to have last night off from singing Mrs. Lovett in the current run of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, being performed across the street by the San Francisco Opera. She used her break to visit the Davies stage and sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” If she was wearing a microphone (as she has been doing regularly in the Sweeney Todd performances), the electronic enhancement was barely noticeable. What we had was her pure crystalline voice delivering Oscar Hammerstein’s moralistic words to Richard Rodgers’ four-square music so directly that her expressiveness transcended the music’s corny tradition. Other singers, even the more experienced ones, can still learn a thing or two from her.