To San Francisco I journey for John Adams’ music; it is his shrine. Last season, his Doctor Atomic at the Opera House celebrated the blotting out of the sun; this past weekend, A Flowering Tree at Davies Symphony Hall celebrated its restoration. Peter Sellars, who supplied the words for both major events, was on hand both times, beguiling early arrivals with what has become, for him, not so much a pre-event lecture as an evangelical sermon, eyes wide shut, fortissimo to pianissimo. The crowd, at least on Saturday night, exploded. Ah, San Francisco.
First staged as part of a festival organized by Sellars in Vienna last year (to honor Mozart, you might know, by not playing a note of his music but observing his spirit indirectly), the work was brought to San Francisco with the staging cut down but the gorgeous power of its narrative maintained. An impoverished maiden transforms herself into a tree whose blossoms’ fragrance enchant a prince. He marries her, but her jealous sister destroys her beauty. Both the maiden and her prince journey the world in broken state; a miracle reunites them. It is a kind of love story often retold; this version is from south India, and its overtones are not all that far from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Mostly, it deals with the motivating force of myth – transformation – and that becomes the strength of Adams’ extraordinary score.
His performing forces, which he conducted, are large: full symphony orchestra plus, of course, all the percussion you can name of Eastern and Western worlds, including an exquisite array of metal chimes that put Davies Hall’s own ugly Erector Set décor to shame. Against this barrage there is – of course, this being John Adams – an exquisite array of small sounds: recorders, small glockenspiels, wind chimes and the like that gave the effect of a whole ‘nother world. Frankly, I felt the sound spectrum of A Flowering Tree sloped somewhat more toward the large sound; the gorgeous colors, on first hearing, tended now and then to run. But only now and then. The story is told in English; a chorus comments, rudely at times, in folksy Spanish.
George Tsypin’s original Vienna production used that amazing chorus from Carácas that erupts with such pizzazz on the recording of the Osvaldo Golijov Pasión (and sang it live twice in lucky Costa Mesa). Whatever those young singers have, it apparently doesn’t translate; the one weakness last weekend was the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Nicely done up in pastel togs in a balcony, it stomped and shouted the Spanish text, preserving the notion of surrounding the Indian folktale with another folklike level, but did so routinely, and brought things down.
The solo cast, all seen in Vienna, consisted of three singers and three dancers whose movements doubled the emotions of the singers or, you might say, paraphrased their earthly experiences into their extraordinarily subtle and complex dance language. Eric Owens, whose Grendel we may now forgive, was the Storyteller, that eloquent, essential binding force in all exotic drama. Jessica Rivera was the ravishing young Kumudha of the blossoms; we know her from work with the L.A. Opera Workshop and the recordings of Golijov’s Ainadamar and his Pasión. Russell Thomas, new to me, was the passionate Prince.
Surrounding this fine vocal group, and welding themselves to its artistry in a way you’d have to see to feel, were three dancers from the Indonesian Institutes for the Arts in Sukarta. Their exhilarating strength lent an entirely new dimension to the entire passionate creation. Even though little of Tsypin’s production traveled to San Francisco – it will be done complete in London in August, and here in concert form in 2009 – the presence of dancers completed the dimension of the work most thrillingly. There was one (of many, actually, but especially one) moment of haunting beauty in the work; it stays with me still, and my eyes mist as I tell it.
The crippled Kumudha lies helpless. “My eyes,” she remembers, “were like the lotus. My arms had the grace of bamboo.” Across the stage, the sorrowing Prince wanders, lamenting, “I grieve for you, lie lost and sick for you.” Their songs, borne by mute dancers, meet midstage. That’s John Adams.
Purple, StreakedI had not intended to write about Brahms at this length. Hearing all four symphonies in five days should have clogged my pores for weeks, yet here we are. I have no fondness for terms like “meat and potatoes,” at least in musical parlance, but that’s what these performances under Christoph von Dohnanyi actually were: thoroughly wholesome, beautifully balanced, every first flute in coordination with every second. Ending the set was the Second Symphony – some folks’ favorite – and its turgid, strained slow movement with horn solo that is like a paradigm of a tune that meanders onstage with no idea where to go. (Mozart did it better in his Musical Joke.) But that symphony allowed for some good, hefty brass at the close; if the Messrs. Green and company had stood up for their last fanfares and released a flock of white doves into the hall, it would not have been out of place. Strange to relate, but after Brahms, the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony on the same Disney stage this past weekend sounded downright lovable – Tchaikovsky!!
A couple of days following the Brahms orchestral orgy, however, came an appendage to the event that nearly obliged me to swallow every harsh word I have flung at old Onkel Johannes these past weeks. Midway through an all-Brahms chamber concert by Philharmonic members came the Clarinet Quintet, a late work not often heard, music of lavender and deep purple, shot through with burnished-bronze outcries from the solo wind player. Memories of the similarly scored work by Mozart are not out of place; nothing else of Brahms – possibly excepting the trio with French horn – sends forth such immediate waves of deep, penetrating beauty. Well into the slow movement, David Howard’s solo clarinet unwound its slithering melodic line across the musical spectrum; the strings answered with passionate shivers, and their moonstruck conversation continues to echo in my skull days later. That’s Brahms.