When you listen to Liszt's 1856 Dante Symphony - not something that
happens every day - these are but a few things you may hear:
- The "Tristan Chord" from Wagner's 1859 "Tristan und Isolde"
- The "sound" of the 1882 "Parsifal," especially Act 3
- The first harp glissandi in a symphonic history
- The whole-tone harmonies of Debussy works, written decades after "Dante"
- Stretching tonal ambiguities and venturing into dissonance that won't
really become widespread until the turn of the century
- The gigantism and hokey bluster of Respighi, operating a half a century
These points (except the last one, which is mine) were made by James
Conlon tonight, in Davies Hall, in a lecture and then in a splendid
performance of the Dante Symphony. The San Francisco Symphony once again
played its collective heart out for the conductor, who is a true, sincere
admirer of Liszt.
It was Conlon's sincerity and mastery in controlling large forces
effortlessly (so well demonstrated in the Verdi Requiem that's also part
of the June Festival) which swept the audience along on the wings of
religious romanticism in this festival of "Romantic Visions." A former
student at the Franz Liszt Academy, with my early years marinated in
Liszt, was not well swept, but impressed, yes, with Conlon's dedication
and his ability to make such a good case for this big, bathetic work.
It doesn't really matter what Wagner stole (or borrowed) from Liszt
or who was the nicer guy (no contest there), the fact is that Wagner,
Debussy, the early Schoenberg, and many others - but not Respighi -
developed, actualized, realized, accomplished something more complete
and masterful than Liszt, even if he was way ahead of them chronologically
in many ways.
While the Dante Symphony is rarely heard, this particular performance
was a US premiere in Conlon's realization of the ever-pioneering Liszt's
idea of a "multimedia" presentation. A good half century before motion
pictures, Liszt thought of showing pictures about the music's topic
during the performance, and he had men drag Filippo Bigioli's "Divine
Comedy" paintings across the stage.
First in Rotterdam 20 years ago, and now in San Francisco, Conlon
fulfilled Liszt's idea by using projections of the Bigioli paintings,
and of Bonaventura Genelli's drawings Liszt tried - and failed - to
present with the only audio-visual device of the day, the Laterna Magika.
To up the ante, Conlon also provided intertitles, so the affair turned
into a veritable silent movie, text and pictures projected, the orchestra
playing the "background music" or, rather, what has turned into that.
Liszt is an outstanding soundtrack composer, perfect for TV commercials,
but somehow the Dante Symphony deserves better, that is to say, less.
(Admittedly, this is a minority report; the audience loved it all.)
The Inferno movement was true to the "Allegro frenetico" marking,
Purgatorio unfolded well, but the best (or the worst, depending on
your tolerance for the borderline mawkish) came in the "Magnificat,"
the title changed from "Paradiso" when Wagner protested that no one
(probably except for him) can possible write the music of paradise.
Hidden from view, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, Ragazzi, and Pacific
Boychoir joined voices to provide the music of angels, as the music
soared and stormed heavens, becoming heaven itself, at least from the
Lisztian perspective. Other than the Verdi and Berlioz Requiems, only
"Gurrelieder," "Mefistofele," the finale of Kernis' Second Symphony, and
Jon Leifs' "Hekla" (with its 19 percussionists around the organ and full
orchestra) can outdo the volume and climactic excess of "Dante," but -
to Conlon's credit - somehow this didn't sound too much, only... well...
[log in to unmask]