MUSIC REVIEW : Pacific Symphony, Clark Venture ‘Gurrelieder’

Times Music Critic

Arnold Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder,” which Keith Clark ventured with the Pacific Symphony on Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, represents one of the last and one of the mightiest gasps of a decaying German romanticism.

Written during the first decade of the century, it is a weird and wonderful piece, a sprawling symphonic cantata with grandiose operatic inclinations. It deals in mystical drama as well as ethereal lyricism, gushes in waves of heroic naivete, points daringly toward the verbal quirks of modern Sprechgesang, wallows in swollen rhetoric and rises to smashing, whomping, thumping, crashing climax after climax after climax.

Within its own dazzling, rambling, benumbing idiom, it manages--brilliantly--to out-Wagner Wagner and out-Mahler Mahler. In “Gurrelieder,” Schoenberg actually made the Richard Strauss of “Salome” sound like a timid schoolboy.


The next step for him had to be revolutionary. Atonality--and, eventually, serialism--followed as inevitable byproducts and natural progressions. There was no place else to go.

“Gurrelieder” is no challenge for the faint of heart, or for the poor of purse. It requires a huge orchestra, a massive chorus, five singers blessed with leather lungs, a charismatic, musically sophisticated narrator and, above all, a conductor who, against the odds, can sustain clarity, unity and poignancy, not to mention delicate balances.

Clark, the embattled incipient ex-music director, did his estimable best under staggeringly difficult circumstances. He enforced sweeping momentum, kept the line taut and the emotion tense. He obviously knew what he wanted and often got it.

His approach, however, proved needlessly broad, needlessly primitive. By stressing any impulse that could be loud and fast, he slighted crucial opportunities for introspective nuance and dynamic expansion. He also tended to allow his reasonably responsive orchestra to blanket the voices.

Given the healthy larynxes at his disposal, that must have been something of a feat. George Gray, replacing the late James McCracken, sang the extraordinarily strenuous music of Waldemar with a generous, dark-toned Heldentenor--the real thing--and somewhat monochromatic expression. Rita Hunter hardly inflected the text at all and encountered some problems regarding steadiness of tone, but she brought to the love music of Tove the advantage of bona-fide Brunnhilde resources.

In the celebrated Song of the Wood-Dove, Marvellee Cariaga sounded compellingly luminous at the top, somewhat breathy in the lower range. She obviously is more soprano than mezzo these days.

James Johnson attended deftly to the crusty duties of the Peasant. Misha Raitzin suggested a Shuisky rather than a Mime in the folksy flourishes of Klaus the Fool.

The performance was dominated, predictably, by Hans Hotter. The greatest, noblest Wotan of them all once again abandoned retirement to declaim--and sing!--the wrenching “Sommerwind” coda. Even though Clark left him little room to breathe, much less shape and groom his phrases, he offered object lessons in dramatic point and communicative urgency.

The Pacific Chorale, trained by John Alexander, made a secure but all too modest noise from its communal perch far upstage. One couldn’t gauge if the sonic inequity should be blamed on the distant singers, the overzealous conductor or the lingering acoustical quirks of Segerstrom Hall.

Jens Peter Jacobsen’s poetry, not incidentally, was articulated in vague approximations of German by everyone (except Hotter, of course). The English translation that appeared in the sloppily edited program magazine was also flashed on a screen high above the podium.

And so, the infernal supertitle enters the concert hall, expensively and redundantly.