There are many features that make Claude Debussy’s music memorable. However, when one considers the full corpus of his work (which occupies 141 entries in François Lesure’s catalog, from which the composer’s last work for piano is missing, and covers the composer’s life from the age of seventeen in 1879 to 1917, shortly before his death), one is struck by his attentiveness to unique textures arising from the interleaving of multiple voices, which often seem to be independent. Last night’s program at Davies Symphony Hall, with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), demonstrated how Debussy was always rethinking how those textures could be woven into new patterns.
The evening was framed by two major orchestral works demonstrating the changing nature of Debussy’s thoughts. The program concluded with “La mer,” one of the composer’s most familiar works, which has been performed many times in Davies. In this case the approach to texture may have emerged from Debussy’s exposure to Katsushika Hokusai’s woodcut, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” I have previously suggested that Hokusai captured the textural essence of that wave through the intensity of detail in the interplay of curved arcs realized at many different scales of magnitude. In “La Mer” those arcs become motivic fragments, only a few of which ever grow to “thematic status;” but through the overlay of those different scales of magnitude, one readily senses the sea as a richly textured body always in motion.
Composed in 1905, “La mer” was the work of a mature composer confidently exploring new approaches to expression. Last night’s program complemented the piece by beginning with a later and far more adventurous composition, the score for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “Jeux,” choreographed for performance by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Debussy wrote this score in about a month, between mid-August and mid-September of 1912; and the ballet was first performed on May 15, 1913. Once again, Debussy was working with fragments; but even fewer of them ever emerge as themes. Furthermore, there is a strong preference for both minor and major seconds, not only in the fragments themselves but in the intervals between voices when those fragments are superposed.
This music is also distinguished by a source of influence that many would think unlikely. The scenario for the ballet involves the erotic complexity of a man intruding upon a pair of women. As might be guessed, waltz rhythms insinuate themselves throughout the score; but the eroticism is further reinforced through a somewhat veiled reference to one of Richard Wagner’s most erotic passages, the seductively chromatic harmonies of the six flowermaidens who try to seduce Parsifal in the opera for which he is the title character. Through Debussy this music is deconstructed and reconstructed, but the erotic connotations are as strong as ever. Furthermore, if reference to Wagner was not sufficient, “Jeux” concludes with a much more recent cross-reference, a final gesture through which Igor Stravinsky is reflected in his depiction of one of Nijinsky’s previous roles with Ballets Russes, that of the frustrated puppet Petrushka.
Last night MTT approached both of these scores with that level from which Debussy’s sensitivity to texture emerged in all of its acoustic splendor. By choosing to open with “Jeux,” he could dwell on the mystery of the generally unfamiliar qualities of the music, allowing all of those fine-line details to emerge as discoveries by the listeners in the audience. The familiarity of “La Mer” then affirmed the significance of all of those details, bringing the listener onto more familiar ground where similar rhetorical techniques were brought into play.
Within this framework the heart of the program was the first performance of an SFS commission, C’est l’extase. This is a suite of orchestrations of Debussy’s settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, all originally composed for soprano and piano. The orchestrations were by Robin Holloway, who also provided linking material to endow the sequence of poems with a broader narrative arc. (Unfortunately, at last night’s performance, that arc was not resolved, since the concluding poem of the suite was omitted.)
Holloway’s approach to orchestral color nicely complemented that of Debussy’s own orchestral writing. However, he tended to work with more limited resources, through which Debussy’s textural logic would often emerge with greater clarity. Those resources were probably also conceived to provide a more suitable balance for the soprano soloist.
Unfortunately, even with that deliberate assistance from the composer-arranger, soprano Renée Fleming, appearing as this season’s Project San Francisco artist, never seemed to find the right level of balance. Furthermore, her approach was so understated that it offered little by way of reflection on the text of the seven poems she performed. Even the burst of energy intended to depict a carousel in language that approached the brink of sanity came off as surprisingly calm. If both “La mer” and “Jeux” thrived in the connotations of spirit sensualized, no such spirit emerged, even if Holloway’s approach to Debussy seemed to provide all of the right ingredients.
That spirit was also lacking in the three settings of Auvergne folk songs by Joseph Canteloube performed after the intermission. The first of these, “La delaïssádo” (the abandoned shepherdess), was being performed for the first time by SFS; and Fleming’s subdued approach worked at its best in capturing this short and painful account of love betrayed. On the other hand none of the jibing mockery of “Malurous qu’o uno femo” (wretched is the man with a wife) had any life to it, while all the seductive instrumental textures of the “Baïlèro” (the best known of Canteloube’s setting) were never complemented by Fleming’s rather detached interpretation.
Once again SFS, itself, was the star of the evening, offering up a wealth of orchestral colors in a broad assortment of different settings.