ASO: Robert Spano with Some Soloists Whom I Didn’t Hear

I originally wasn’t going to attend the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season finale because there was only a little over 20 minutes of music on the program that I wanted to hear. It took me roughly that long just to drive to Symphony Hall with all of the extra traffic in my neighborhood due to VaHi’s Summerfest. I ended up with an extra ticket to exchange, though, so I decided to come to this for three reasons. First, there was a world premier and, sadly, world premiers are often also the world finales of many wonderful works of music. Secondly, I really love the sea interludes from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and suspected that Spano was likely to do a really good job with them. And, finally, my ticket for this evening also granted entry to the chamber concert this past Thursday.

The chamber concert was surprisingly crowded. I’ve only been to a few of them since my commute on Thursday evenings is usually so rough, but this was the largest turnout that I’ve seen for one. It was a good one for everyone to attend, too: there was a really good performance of Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings in which Tiscione’s oboe really really drew me into the piece. It was followed by a solid performance of Wagner’s Sigfried Idyll, which, unfortunately, wiped some of the Britten from my head. I find Wagner’s work tedious: it’s completely bereft of nuance and subtlety. Whereas I love evocative and dramatic music, Wagner demands emotional responses rather evoking them. He tells a story by shouting instructions to the audience about how they should be reacting to it: “Feel love! Now is where you feel love! This is tense and scary! Be scared! Now cry! You should be sad! Cry! Schnell!” There’s an exclamation mark at the end of every music phrase; even the soft ones. As I said, it was a solid performance but I don’t really think that his work suffers terribly from weak performances since there really isn’t that much subtlety to bring out from the work.

This evening’s concert began with the world premier of Mark Buller’s “The Songs of Ophelia,” which was commissioned for the ASO as part of his reward for winning the Rapido! competition in 2016. I liked his work that won the competition as well as the expanded version that the Atlanta Chamber Players premiered. (Sadly, though, the ACP performance was on an evening where I couldn’t write about it so I don’t really recall much about the piece.) I enjoyed this evening’s work even more: it was certainly a lot more polished than the piece for Rapido! could have been and he took advantage of the larger ensemble to create a much more rich, lush sound. The intention of the work is to provide a little deeper characterization of the character of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In a roughly six minute tone poem, he provided a depiction of an early innocence with a naiveté through a light theme that reminded me slightly of Prokofiev’s theme for Juliet in his ballet, “Romeo & Juliet.” Ophelia’s theme then shifts into a darker tone as her naiveté is taken from her by Hamlet’s rejection and harassment of her followed by his murder of her father. This is overcome by a sustained tension with an undercurrent of madness that eventually gives way to a morose ending. It was a rather shocking amount of drama for a scant 6 minutes but it was definitely effective and quite moving. I’d love to hear it fleshed out a bit, perhaps doubling the length of the current material and adding onto it to create a full work of incidental music or a ballet. Perhaps, instead of trying to impose more on Ophelia than Shakespeare gave us, this could be included as one of three or four movements depicting the sort of tragic female characters that the Pre-Raphaelites were so fond of depicting, such as the fair Rosamund or the Lady of Shalott.

Next up were Britten’s Sea Interludes. I’ve loved these since I first heard the opera many years ago. I extracted them from the album that I had of it and listened to them all the time before I realized that there were stand-alone recordings of them. I’ve been wanting to hear them performed live for a long time and, I’m pleased to say, Spano handled them magnificently this evening. He started off with a solid reading of “Dawn,” laying down a solid undertone of melancholy tension with beautiful overtones of a new day timidly creeping in. It was with “Storm,” the final interlude, that I think Spano really showed his talent: he worked in a good sense of madness into the stormy bits with an undercurrent of worry and frustration in the softer bits, with the orchestra totally sticking the strong, sharp ending.

I’m not an incest fetishist, so I didn’t stick around for the last piece on the program, act 1 of Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” Although the romance between Siegmund and Sieglinde isn’t as vapid and misogynistic as that between their son Siegmund and his aunt Brunhilde, it’s hard for me to be charmed by these two victors/victims. Wagner imbues them with a naiveté that goes all the way to stupidity. This is their romance in a nutshell:

Siegmund: A girl’s family was making her marry someone against her will so I tried to slaughter them all. The girl died and nobody seemed very grateful for what I did and they kicked my ass and broke all of my weapons. Now her extended family wants to kill me and I’m on the run.

Sieglinde: I’ve been enslaved to my husband and imprisoned in our home and know absolutely nothing about the outside world. I’d totally run away with you, though, because I apparently like violent men who don’t understand why people would be upset at him for killing a bunch of their kith and kin. I’ll drug my husband while you pull that magic sword from the tree over there.

Siegmund: I realize now that we’re actually twins; let’s bear a child who will be totally fearless and totally an asshole.

Hunding: I’m going to kill you both!

Fricka: Wotan, my husband, I want you to stop fucking other women and having children by them. You have to let your bastard twins die!

Woton: But I don’t want to!

Fricka: Do it!

Woton: Fine! Brünhilde, my daughter by yet another woman, go make sure that Siegmund loses.

Brünhilde: I know that you don’t really want them to die, so I will love them and try to protect Siegmund, instead.

Woton: Dammit! Now I have to help Hunding win!

Hundling wins. Siegmund dies. Sieglinde gives birth and gives the baby to the first evil dwarf that she sees to raise for his own nefarious purposes.

Woton: You disobeyed me! I’m going to hide you in a castle surrounded by fire that is really Loge who will only allow my asshole grandson – your nephew – in to have sex with you and then run off with your armor and leave you stuck in the castle, impotent and bored, while he falls in love with another woman and then helps her father to have sex with you.

Loge: I suppose that’s better than seducing a horse and giving birth to an eight legged stallion like I did in the original version of the myth.

(to be continued…)

It kind of makes a rather sick tale even more gross for me to be familiar with the Volsunga saga. If you know the story then you realize that Wagner added an extra bit of incest for the last two operas in the cycle by making Brünhilde the daughter of Woton (Odin) – which really adds absolutely nothing else to the tale – and that he stripped Sieglinde of all of her agency and strength of character. Couple that with my afore mentioned opinion of his music and you can see why I’d want to call it an evening after the Britten. Still, a lot of people were inspired to make some really great music because of Wagner, so I understand why his work is programmed even if I don’t really understand why so many people like it.

I don’t particularly like leaving at intermission – it’s rude to the performers and, if it were a sold out show, I’d feel bad for taking a seat for just half the concert. Plus, I was home by 9pm on a Saturday night, which isn’t exactly exciting: I was home in time to have a snack, wash up, and write this bit in my little arts journal and still have time to read some science fiction and go to bed at a reasonable hour…all alone…wondering why it has come to this. At least the Buller and Britten were great to hear, though.

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