Dharma at Big Sur
7:30pm, Sun 16 Mar 2008
And so, for my final Festival show of ff2008, I trundled into the Festival Theatre for my regular dose of the ASO. And this performance, much like ff2006’s Leningrad Symphony, proved to evoke a real mixed bag of emotions.
The first piece, Toshio Hosokawa’a Circulating Ocean, felt like it oscilated with the tides; periods of unstoppable power alternated with implausibly deep quiet passages. The opening had the audience barely daring to breath, such was the slightness of the violins’ bowing; the ending, in particular, faded into nothing, into a deep murky blackness that had ears yearning for more.
The second piece, however, was almost a polar opposite; opening with a percussive punch, it seemed like it might have blown its wad a touch too early – given that the piece was a mere eight minutes long, this was a bit of a concern. But using the percussion as a recurrent theme, and allowing other sections the opportunity to follow the percussive lead, Gareth Farr’s From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs: Part I turns into an absolute blinder, well worth the price of admission. And yes, that means I’d be happy paying $9 a minute for the privilege; it really was that good. There’s something about the sight of a massive string section attacking their instruments in unison, bows viciously jagging away, that completely sucks me in.
As for the titular piece, John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur… well, it was a massive letdown. Import electric violinist and Michael Bolton wannabe Tracy Silverman attacked his strings with all the subtlety of a boor early on; harsh strings ahoy. It must have been intentional, since later addressing of his bow sounded much smoother; but he never recovered from that rough start. His rock-star facials were also a bit of a turn-off.
After the performance (and a little eavesdropping) I turned to my neighbour: “Excuse me; I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of this music in any way, shape, or form – but you sound like you do. Is it just me, or was that piece shit?” Bemused, he replied “You’ve got a good ear, then. Silverman has a massive reputation, and I don’t think either of us can see why.”
The ASO, however, managed to hold their own, though their role in the piece was relegated to providing a lush backdrop to Silverman’s strangulations. If it were not for their stony-cold professionalism – and a stellar first half – this programme would have been a mess.