Sunday, February 24, 2008

Homebound Music & Agoraphobic Film

This weekend's entertainments included a viewing of the new film Vantage Point and yet another use of my St. Louis Symphony Orchestra "Winter Pass."

Vantage Point is a plot-driven, action-packed thriller that begins with the President of the U.S. being assassinated, followed closely by a bombing, in a public square in Salamanca, Spain. Only, nothing is quite what it seems at first. The same events are played over and over again (until one could hear a sigh of resignation rise up from the audience), each time from a different character's point of view, until what REALLY happened is revealed. By which time a sharp-eyed film aficionado will probably have guessed most of it anyway.

Nevertheless, the film ratchets the tension up degree by degree, and there is plenty of running, shooting, and blowing things up to keep you from spending too much time trying to figure things out. So it's just possible that your mind will be (a little bit) blown by the cunning revelations at the end of the film. More likely, you will feel that you have been hypnotized and brainwashed, so clearly will you recall many events that you have seen repeated again and again. You will probably also feel an urge to stay indoors for a while, after seeing so many ways a person can get hurt on the street.

The film utilizes a large and international cast, including some big-name Hollywood faces who, in some cases, surprise you mostly by how little time they spend on screen. Appearing in no particular order: William Hurt as the president (both of him); Sigourney Weaver as a snarky TV news producer; Dennis Quaid as the shell-shocked Secret Service agent who is a surprised as anybody else when he turns out to be a hero; Forest Whitaker as an American tourist whose camcorder captures way more than he bargained for; Matthew Fox of TV's Lost as another Secret Service guy; Bruce McGill as one of the President's handlers; and a bunch of other people I am too tired to IMDB for you, so the rest is up to you.

The concert, on the other hand, was full of music united by a "domestic" theme. The first piece was Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, a warm, gentle, loving piece he wrote for his wife Cosima after their first year of marriage, and the birth of their son Siegfried (who, together with the Idyll, was named after the opera Wagner was working on at the time. The opera shared some themes with the Idyll as well). The story of how the piece was first performed - by handpicked musicians, on the staircase of the Wagner family's lake house in Switzerland, as Cosima awoke on the morning of her birthday - evokes very Romantic feelings, and prompts many people to wonder what it must have felt like to wake up to the sounds of the strings playing the soft opening bars from outside the room.

The music may have awakened Cosima, but it had the opposite effect on me. I struggled to stay awake through 20 minutes of prettiness that gushed forth in a continuous stream without any point of rest, without much tension or drama, without seeming able to complete a single thought until the very end. Wagner can be trying, I find, but at least most of the time he is carrying forward some dramatic scenario which gives you something to focus on. Not so with the Siegfried Idyll.

I was much more interested by the next piece, Igor Stravinsky's ballet Jeu de Cartes, or "Card Game" - a single piece of continual music that nevertheless has a kind of three-movement structure. Stravinsky referred to them as three "deals," and set them off by a common opening gambit which he called "the shuffle." Coming from Stravinsky's "neo-classical" period in the 1930s, Jeu de Cartes sound a good deal like a piece by Haydn filtered through a distorted lens: clean, crisp, simple textures, but colored by Stravinksy's unusual combinations of instruments, dissonant harmonies, spiky rhythms, and angular tunes.

A couple of times I blinked and thought I had fallen asleep and awakened in a performance of something by Prokofiev. But then there are also whimsical allusions to Rossini's Barber of Seville Overture, and other wry turns on familiar styles of music. The story of the ballet sounds kind of weird - something about the cards, in three hands of poker, personified and promenading around the stage, forming alliances, and trying to get the better of the mischievous Joker. I can still hear snatches of it in my head 24 hours later.

Finally, the concert ended with the Sinfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss. It was a lovely piece of music for a rather large orchestra (in contrast to Wagner's chamber group and Stravinsky's Schubert-sized ensemble). It has themes that evidently symbolize the characters, activities, and relationships of members of Strauss's family, including his flamboyant actress wife and their infant son (whose theme is introduced by an oboe d'amore - an instrument rarely heard outside of Baroque music). It is very descriptive music and conjures all kinds of charming images, and has some wonderful drama and contrast in it, and a triumphant conclusion - everything you could ask for in a tone poem or symphony.

I just wish Strauss hadn't felt compelled to share with the world the "programme" he had in mind. I am totally "down with" a composer seeking inspiration from a text, story, or dramatic scenario - even in a piece of pure, instrumental music. But once he has achieved his aim, I think he should bury his scenario and let the audience appreciate the music on its own terms, as pure music - or let them conjure whatever imagery or narrative seems best to them. I recognize that Strauss depended on a "programme" to give his music oomph. His tone poems and operas are musical works of great warmth, variegated colors, and dramatic power, while some of his pure music (such as the Oboe Concerto) is simply pretty, but in an ice-cold way. Nevertheless, we could perhaps appreciate Sinfonia Domestica without knowing that this theme represented him, that one her, and the other one their little kid.

Conductor Mark Elder led the symphony in giving a persuasive account of all these pieces. At least two out of the three are pieces I hope to hear again, and I doubt I will hear them done better than last night. But sometimes I do wish I could write a letter to R. Strauss and encourage him to put a little more faith in his music!

IMAGES: Scenes from Vantage Point; the stair from the Wagner house in Lucerne where the Siegfried Idyll was first played; a performance of Jeu de Cartes; Richard Strauss.

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