Two different kinds of dramatic music were paired at last weekend’s San Francisco Symphony concerts, and both were a success, though in very different ways. One had plot, characters, words, even narration—a veritable orgy of theatrical elements. The other, though it had vocalists, was dramatic in almost entirely musical terms. It allowed us to experience the whole arc of a theatrical event, culminating in an intense and accessible climax. It gave us the theatrical satisfactions of motion, of conflict, of change. And yet it did so without a single comprehensible word.
That wordless piece was John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, conducted on the Davies Hall stage by the man who composed it thirty-two years ago. It featured two grand pianos (grandly played by Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham), three vocalists (a trio of two sopranos and an alto who call themselves Synergy Vocalists), and a range of background instruments—including tuba, glockenspiel, piccolo, tambourine, and a number of other brass, woodwinds, and percussion—that veered forward into solos at unexpected moments. The sensibility was, to begin with, Minimalist, with a lot of repetition and near-repetition, especially on the pianos and in the vocalists’ non-meaningful syllables. But it eventually modulated into something more complicated and overpowering than that. Its thirty-minute length seemed like no time and all time: we had clearly been somewhere, by the time we got to the end, but the visit we paid was to no country any of us had ever seen before—at once melodic and dissonant, harsh and tender, archaic and new. It felt to me like the work of a brilliant young man who was putting everything he had into a single piece and hoping it would work. It did.
The second and last piece on the program was a concert version of Stravinsky’s 1918 L’histoire du soldat, rendered into English so that it could be taken in like a musical play—something like Peter and the Wolf, say, though without Prokofiev’s obsessively instrumentalized characters. The Stravinsky was a party piece in every sense of the word, part of the Symphony’s weeks-long celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas’s 70th birthday. MTT, who conducted the whole performance, also briefly played the role of The King; the other parts were spoken by Elvis Costello (The Narrator), Malcolm McDowell (The Devil), and a talented young Bay Area actor named Nick Gabriel (The Soldier). The band was small but lively, with only seven musicians making enough good music, both incidental and pointedly lyrical, to carry the whole show, even had there not been a complicated folktale plot to follow.
Everyone’s performance was both casual and professional—a difficult feat to pull off, and one that made the audience feel as if we too had been brought into the small circle of this work’s early performances, in nightclubs during the First World War. The sound was jazz transmuted through some alien sensibility, somewhat as if a multi-talented Martian had come down to earth, decided become a jazz musician and, amazingly, pulled it off. This phenomenon was well explained by the program note, in which Stravinsky himself was quoted as saying that at the time he composed this piece, “My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written.” A curiosity, perhaps, but one well worth reviving, as the delightful SFS performance amply proved.