Sunday, May 29, 2016

concert review: Curious Flights

I skipped out on the opportunity to hear the Redwood Symphony power its way through Beethoven's and Shostakovich's Fifths (two of my favorite symphonies, but they don't really go together) so that I could take the exceedingly rare (west coast premiere, it says) opportunity to hear Marc Blitzstein's World War II epic The Airborne Symphony from a rather ad hoc, but magnificently skilled, ensemble called Curious Flights.

But this is the last time I try to dine in the City before a Saturday concert. I sat for so long without even a glass of water or an attempt to take my order that I realized that even two hours wasn't going to be long enough to have dinner in; so I got up and left and, nourished only by a salami stick and some corn chips from a nearby deli, hobbled over to the main hall of the SF Conservatory for the concert whose first half consisted of some other curious works of that era from American composers: Copland's Sextet (clarinet, piano, string quartet), one of the more agreeable outputs from his early modernist period. Samuel Barber's A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, his setting of a poem by Stephen Spender (or, as the typo-ridden program book had it, "Splender") about the death of a soldier in the Spanish Civil War for men's choir accompanied by timpani. Extremely eerie, and hard to believe it was by the composer of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. And, some film score songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, some with exceedingly fruity lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, sung with full-throated disregard of campiness ("I mean to say 'I love you'!!") by tenor Brian Thorsett.

Blitzstein spent most of WW2 writing The Airborne Symphony, though it didn't get finished and performed till 1946, hampered by the disappearance in shipment of a trunk with most of the score in it; Blitzstein had to rewrite the work from memory and then found, when the trunk turned up, that the second version was much better. I can only wonder what the first was like.

It's scored for large orchestra, men's chorus, two male soloists, and an unceasingly chatty spoken narrator, who is probably most responsible for the work's obscurity. (The program note suggested that the history of narrated music, in which it cites Lincoln Portrait and A Survivor from Warsaw but not Peter and the Wolf, is not a successful one.) Perhaps only the earnest and unironic performance of radio announcer David Latulippe in this role saved it. Blitzstein wrote all the texts, so blame him.

The symphony is in three movements, each divided into several parts: the first movement traces the history of dreams of flight up through Kitty Hawk; the second on the horrors of aerial war; the third taking the view of Allied airmen. The bulk of the music is of a kind familiar to anyone who knows Soviet patriotic music of the same period, or all the other fanfares from the same series as Copland's for the Common Man but which have been deservedly forgotten. It's a huge sound, brassy, featuring striving melodies over large blocky harmonies.

There are, however, breaks from this program. The second movement includes a sarcastic choral hymn to Hitler in erratic, bouncy, heavily dotted rhythm. The third movement depicts the airman's life in a light choral song on the theme of "hurry up and wait." This is followed by an extremely quiet account of one such man trying to write a letter home to his girlfriend, sung softly and tenderly by baritone soloist (Efrain Solis) with all the true emotion missing from the bombastic Korngold songs. For the ending, Blitzstein avoids getting all peroratory, allowing darker harmonies in his scoring and having the narrator repeatedly intone the words "Not without warning!"

This monster of a piece - it's an hour long - was excellently and cleanly performed by all, under the direction of Alasdair Neale, a conductor with a heart-on-sleeve style and a willingness to tackle all sorts of odd repertoire. I doubt I will ever need to hear this again, but I'm so glad I heard it this once.

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