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Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does William! William! William!

Friday, November 12, 2010

rufus.jpegThe American rocker Rufus Wainwright stepped out before an expectant audience at Davies Symphony Hall for the world premiere of his new song cycle based on five sonnets by William Shakespeare dressed in a puffy, white Renaissance shirt embellished with what looked like a piece of squashed Victoria sponge cake, lilac taffeta trousers and patent black clogs. A silver chain-link necklace glistened between the dark hairs on his pale chest.

Fortunately, Wainwright composes better than he dresses.

Five Shakespeare Sonnets includes a part for solo tenor voice featuring jagged atonal hops, swooping highs and lows and emotional melodic lines. The orchestration has some beautiful colors in it. A grave viola solo and sparkling glockenspiel scales are just two of the details I picked out of the texture. And the San Francisco Symphony does a wonderful job of balancing turbulence and stillness.

The only other thing, besides the soloist's getup, which bothered me about last night's performance, was Wainwright's voice. Wainwright's nasal twang always has a hint of desperation about it. At Davies Symphony Hall, it sounded overbearing and whiney amplified as it was with the swirling orchestra behind it.

As I listened, I couldn't help but imagine how amazing the piece would sound sung by a classically-trained or jazz singer. I hope the work gets future airings with different kinds of voices. On its maiden voyage, I don't think the the composer does justice to his own composition by singing it himself.

On a related note, it's curious to me that the San Francisco Symphony would go to the trouble of commissioning such a famous artist to create a new work and then fail to engage the organization's main figurehead, Michael Tilson Thomas, to lead the world premiere. Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik was also missing. Last night, a young Englishman, Michael Francis, made his San Francisco Symphony debut on the podium and associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman sat in the first chair. The absence of the two uppermost artistic personnel of the organization suggests a lack of interest or faith in its commissioning strategy and process.

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