NORTH BETHESDA, Md., May 23, 2012 – In an extraordinarily bold bit of programming, the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale topped off its recent celebration of French composer Claude Debussy’s 150th birthday with a performance of Claude Debussy’s curious, intense quasi-cantata, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian at Strathmore.
In addition to a full chorus, last Saturday’s performance of the work also featured three female soloists, one of whom provides a poetic narration (in French) in addition to her vocal duties. An additional English-speaking narrator, the Philharmonic’s associate conductor, Victoria Gau, was added to this performance to introduce the work and occasionally contribute bridge narrative. She subbed for the initially scheduled narrator, Eliot Pfanstiehl, who was indisposed.
The ensemble believes this to be the first virtually full performance of St. Sebastian in the DC area, roughly one hundred years after the composition came into being.
Much of the reason why St. Sebastian is rarely performed can probably be attributed to the fact that it pretty much defies genre classification. Part poetry, part narrative, part drama, part dance, and part orchestral and choral music, it was originally conceived primarily as a showcase for the verse of French poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the skills of controversial dancer Ida Rubenstein.
Debussy was contracted late in the development of this performance vehicle to write “incidental” music as part of this early multimedia piece. By several accounts, Debussy was initially perplexed by the concept and daunted by the task of coming up with a full score of music—including chorus—in about two months.
Nonetheless, the composer buckled down to the task, completing the score in record time and achieving further economies by employing others to help orchestrate it. There is even some evidence that one of his collaborators may have contributed much if not all of the final chorus.
Like many odd artistic schemes, however, St. Sebastian ran into numerous difficulties. In the first place, the original full performances of the work have variously been estimated at four and one-half to five hours in duration. That was quite a bit to endure, even at the work’s premiere in 1911, back when audiences had more tolerance for length than they do today.
Secondly, the work was modeled on the medieval miracle play, essentially a dramatic teaching vehicle supported by the Church as a way of reinforcing spiritual values for its flock of believers. Part truth, part dogma, part fantasy, the realism of these plays was less important than its communication of inner Christian truths and beliefs.
D’Annunzio ran with this context but did it one better, creating central texts that wove together a crazy quilt of myths conflating the stories of ancient Greek and Roman gods with the basic story of Sebastian himself.
This soldier-martyr of the late Roman Empire period is perhaps best known today through his depiction in numerous medieval and Renaissance artworks as being shot through with numerous arrows, due to having been discovered by the Emperor Diocletian—once his patron—to be a member in good standing of the persecuted Christian sect.
Many of the paintings depicting Sebastian have a somewhat unsettling erotic aura about them, something that probably appealed greatly to a sensuous poet like D’Annunzio, adding a pagan frisson to this work that ostensibly celebrated one of Christianity’s early rock stars.
If this whole concept is beginning to sound muddled, it is, aptly reflecting the nature and the impulse of this strange work.
In any event, the initial performances of St. Sebastian were generally judged to have been failures, due at least in part to the active hostility of the Catholic bishops. They regarded the whole work, including Debussy’s music, as far too sensuous, dwelling somewhere between heresy and sacrilege, given its conflation of Christian, pagan, and erotic elements. It didn’t help that dancer Ida Rubenstein was unabashedly Jewish, either. As a consequence of all of the above, the bishops did their best to suppress the work and were largely successful in doing so.
After that kind of rocky start, it’s not surprising that St. Sebastian was rarely performed after that. Such performances as did occur usually involved only short excerpts from Debussy’s score. It’s these fragments, if anything, that the public is familiar with today, if they’ve had the opportunity to hear them at all.
Modeled somewhat on a comprehensive San Francisco Symphony Orchestra reconstruction and performance of the original multimedia work, the National Philharmonic chose to perform what was essentially Debussy’s musical contribution to the whole—a most fortunate decision from a time and quality standpoint.
Joining the National Philharmonic chorale and orchestra for this concert were mezzo-soprano Linda Maguire and a pair of contrasting sopranos, Audrey Luna and Rosa Lamoreaux—the latter also serving as a voiceover narrator—all of whom performed, without pause, somewhat over an hour’s worth of music and narrative.
Saturday evening’s audience was somewhat sparse, perhaps due to a lack of familiarity with this work. On the other hand, a good many seats were filled with Debussy aficionados—this is the 150th anniversary of his birth—and with concertgoers curious to hear a work they may have known about but had never had the opportunity to hear. (Such as this reviewer.)
What listeners actually heard on Saturday was reasonably good Debussy that was heavy on atmosphere, surprisingly modernistic in parts, but largely lacking in memorable moments. It’s hard to fault the composer for this. After all, he was essentially contributing his famous name to music intended as a backdrop to a poetry, narrative, and dance performance. His contribution in some ways resembles one of today’s symphonic film scores, which provide a kind of overture for the opening credits before fading into the background to support the action that follows.
Saturday’s performance, under the not-always-decisive baton of Stan Engebretson, might have benefited from more rehearsal time, although today’s smaller ensembles, already on tight budgets, can rarely afford such luxuries. As it was, the performance was competent but not inspired.
Debussy’s music has its own impressionistic, hazy, watercolor-washed ambience. But Saturday’s performance added an air of uncertainty to the whole, due in part we suspect to the fact that the musicians—like the audience—probably entered upon this score as neophytes.
Most pros could walk into a symphony hall today, pop open a copy of, say, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and crack off a pretty competent performance right off the bat, due to the fact that they would have read and performed this score numerous, perhaps dozens of times. But in the case of St. Sebastian, the Philharmonic’s musicians probably had little if any performance history or experience, and in this case, it often takes more time for a performance to gel. We understand. But still…
Making matters a bit more disappointing was the muddy sound of the Philharmonic’s chorus. French diction was almost entirely lacking, portions of the choral parts were, on occasion, entirely inaudible, and entrances were often surprisingly sloppy.
Again, the members of the chorus were, like the orchestra, almost certainly seeing this music for the first time, so we can’t fault them entirely. But their tentative approach to the music still lacked passion and served to weaken the overall impression created by the work.
Perhaps the brightest parts of the evening were the performances of the female soloists. Ms. Maguire, whose contribution was limited primarily to the work’s opening statements, was steady and decisive. Ms. Lamoreaux was powerful and convincing in her dual roles as vocal narrator and reader. And Ms. Luna’s sweet, much lighter, more ethereal voice added just the right otherworldly, almost childlike ambience to St. Sebastian’s “heavenly” vocal moments.
In the end, the National Philharmonic gets an A- for effort, choosing to bravely present the first Washington performance of a largely forgotten work by a major composer whose output was not extensive to begin with. That said, this is also not top-notch Debussy, and the Philharmonic’s halting approach to the work was somewhat disappointing as well.
Rating: * ½ (One and one-half out of four stars.)
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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