Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, written in the Dano-Norwegian language, is the most widely performed play by a Norwegian author. Over the course of its five acts, it traverses 40 scenes that, as its Wikipedia page puts it, “move uninhibitedly in time and space and between consciousness and the unconscious, blending folkloric fantasy and unsentimental realism.” On that same page, the full list of characters, presented in two columns, practically fills an entire screen; and, when performed in its entirety, the play tends to run for about four hours (often presented on two successive nights in two-hour portions).
In this country the name of the title character is best known through two orchestral suites by Edvard Grieg, extracted from incidental music he composed for the entire play. The Wikipedia page states that the full score requires about 90 minutes; but the recording I have, with Per Dreier conducting the London Symphony, along with soloists and the Oslo Philharmonic Chorus, takes almost fifteen minutes longer. The soloists include Knut Buen performing two folk dances on the Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele) without accompaniment.
Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) has decided to distill the full scope of Ibsen’s epic into a two-hour semi-staged production for which he will conduct the SFS and the SFS Chorus. This performance will require only one vocal soloist, soprano Joélle Harvey in the role of Solveig, while the other roles (all male) will be shared by the actors Ben Huber (as Gynt) and Jesse Merlin (covering the other parts). All of Ibsen’s texts will be performed in English. The staging will be directed by James Darrah; and it will be supplemented with abstract video projections designed by Adam Larsen, whose work was seen about a year ago in Davies at the semi-staged performance of Claude Debussy’s score for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (Le martyre de Saint Sébastien). Lighting will be designed by Cameron Jaye Mock.
The first half of the program will feature twelve of the numbers from Grieg’s full score of incidental music, performed in their original ordering. This will include several of the selections that Grieg would later include in his two suites. The second half of the program will then turn to two other composers inspired by Ibsen’s play. Between 1985 and 1987 Alfred Schnittke collaborated with choreographer John Neumeier on a free adaptation of Ibsen’s play as a ballet. Schnittke suffered a stroke while working on this project but continued with it after his recovery. The result requires resources as extensive as those of Grieg, if not more so. The second half of the program will begin with two excerpts from Schnittke’s score, his own opening prolog and his music for Gynt’s encounter with the disembodied Bøyg. This will be followed by the first performance of a massive undertaking by Robin Holloway, the distillation of Ibsen’s entire fourth act, which involves a 40-year ocean voyage, as a symphonic tone poem. For the record, Ibsen first approached Grieg to compose incidental music for the first performance of his play in a long letter written in January of 1874. In the course of that letter, he suggested that his entire fourth act be cut and replaced by such a symphonic tone poem. So Holloway’s resulting “Ocean Voyage” is actually the fulfillment of an idea first suggested by Ibsen himself.
There will be three performances of this epic production in Davies Symphony Hall. These will all take place at 8 p.m. on Thursday, January 17, Friday, January 18, and Saturday, January 19, respectively. The Inside Music Talk will be given by Laura Stanfield Prichard one hour prior to each concert, free to all ticket holders. In addition a free podcast about Grieg’s incidental music will be available for download from the Podcast page shortly before the first performance. Ticket prices range from $31 to $150 and may be purchased through the event page for this concert on the Symphony Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Davies Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street or by calling 415-864-6000.