It was a merging of two worlds at the San Francisco Symphony. In a daring program led by conductor Edwin Outwater, the headliner for the show was a suite from Duncan Sheik’s new musical Whisper House, arranged for orchestra by Simon Hale. Following the immense Tony award-winning success of Spring Awakening, this is Sheik’s second Broadway musical that recently played at the Old Globe in San Diego with lots of early buzz.
It’s easy to see how this suite could easily see the music backing a “a hybrid alt-rock concert-psychological ghost story” of ghosts telling a little boy about life and love through evocative stories both startling and touching. Atonal influences are sprinkled throughout, lending an eery tension and wavering longing. Duncan Sheik himself sang, as well as Holly Brook in ethereal tones.
As an element of a big picture, this score might work successfully in creating a compelling theatrical atmosphere. However in this setting, Sheik’s Whisper House was a bit of a fish out of water. Unfairly taken out of context, it was disorienting without a plotline as to what was going on and who the characters were as the audience was plunged into the songs with barely any warning.
It’s difficult to be scared of ghosts in bright house lights, which were on to allow for the audience to read the lyrics in the program, as the first song warns, “We’re here to tell you/ghosts are here for good/and if it doesn’t terrify you/it should!”. Also, without a sweeping storyline or characters you care about, lyrics such as “Steel your heart/Life is hard/Never easy/Believe me” fell a bit flat. Without the dramatic pull of a full production, it’s a bit inconclusive if the music is enough to stand on its own.
However, the orchestra provided a shroud of atmospheric sound that is never heard in a Broadway stage these days. The richness of Hale’s orchestration was easy to get lost in, and Sheik’s evocative melodies and themes are heart-tugging in a poignant deja vu sort of way. Sheik’s music encompasses a broad spectrum of influences that makes his vision for Broadway so visionary. Even though this might not have been the best setting for his music, it still made me curious about the musical itself.
Vivier’s Zipangu was the odd piece in the program, an experimental piece written in 1980 for a small string ensemble. Amidst the grating dissonance and unearthly harmonics, there is a hazy outline of variations on a theme and the semblance of a meandering development as Vivier explores the range of sounds that the strings have to offer, from string plucking to slides. An uneasy tension prevails, and is never quite resolved. It’s a piece that I’d picture in a smaller venue, played loudly and unapologetically, maybe at a smoky underground speakeasy or accompanying a Merce Cunningham dance performance.
Edwin Outwater led the San Francisco Symphony with admirable restraint. Gounod’s Ballet Music from Faust was refreshingly lacking in pretension, shaped with gentle dynamics in an interpretation that allowed the music to shine. Outwater coaxed a remarkable clarity and articulation from the orchestra. Even in the crowded stage that played Poulenc’s densely layered Suite from Les Biches, the orchestra played as one in a witty and exhilarating interpretation.
Even if the evening wasn’t to your taste, the spirit of adventure in the San Francisco Symphony is admirable and challenging. This new direction of welcoming artists outside the classical music world was also successful at recruiting a large percentage of younger people in the audience, the largest percentage of under 30′s that I’d seen in a long time.
San Francisco Symphony website