The San Francisco Symphony’s attempts at multimedia musical spectacles have generally been quite patchy in the past. The heavy-handed take last year on Messiaen’s Le Martyr de Saint Sebastien is a case in point.
Constructed in the 1980s, Davies Symphony Hall was built before technologies like digital video projection expanded the possibilities of what orchestras could do in their auditoriums.
But with the orchestra’s ambitious latest production of Peer Gynt all the elements, from music to acting to visuals, come together organically.
The San Francisco Symphony’s vision weaves together music inspired by Ibsen’s play from three composers — Edvard Grieg, Robin Holloway and Alfred Schnittke. The styles in which these composers write is entirely different. Grieg’s score is of course the one that everyone knows. The melodic lines are so beautiful and the orchestra gave a characterful performance throughout, albeit perhaps overdoing the rubato a touch in the iconic “Morning Mood” movement.
The production devotes the most airtime to Grieg, but Schnittke’s more modernistic lines and Holloway’s ethereal soundscapes added fresh material to the mix that made the work come alive in a new way.
The production tells the Peer Gynt story through scenes from Ibsen enacted by a cast headed by a lithe and pleasingly disheveled Ben Huber in the title role. Even the San Francisco Symphony Chorus gets to act in this production — serving as a sort of omnipresent jury watching over and at times physically reacting to the action downstage from their view in the chorus seating above the orchestra.
The visuals for this production are also eloquent. Above the orchestra hangs a mesh-like form resembling a patch of moving fog or cloud. Video designer Adam Larsen, director/production designer James Darrah and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock set a mood for each scene that’s subtle and doesn’t try to manipulate the audience’s emotions.
The first half of the program feels more focused than the second overall — the second half loses some of its momentum during a very long and not extremely evocative piece of music about Peer’s sea voyage composed by Holloway. But the ensemble manages to sustain a dreamlike, narrative quality throughout which is quite spellbinding.
Peer Gynt plays through this weekend at Davies Symphony Hall.