Shakespeare Meets Sibelius, Auden In A Tedious ‘Tempest’

The LA Phil and The Old Globe theater troupe take bows after presenting a multimedia `Tempest.’ (All Photos: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s centennial season started out audaciously in September, continued audaciously well into November, and will keep on going that way for some time to come. Not the least on the calendar of bold projects are the concerts under the direction of the orchestra’s superb Finnish principal guest conductor, Susanna Mälkki.

Mälkki’s first concert date here on Nov. 1 featured the world premiere of Steve Reich’s gently beautiful Music for Ensemble and Orchestra – his first new orchestral work in over 30 years – along with a crackling good Mahler Fifth. For her next act the following week, Mälkki presided over a real outlier – a multi-discipline, multi-media melding together of Shakespeare and W.H. Auden with a performance of Sibelius’ little-known incidental music for The Tempest.

Susanna Mälkki was right on target leading the Sibelius score.

The entire rear orchestra seating portion of Walt Disney Concert Hall had to be cordoned off to accommodate the production, and the rest of the hall looked far from full on Nov. 9, a Friday night. Box office success was probably not on the minds of those who dreamed up this idea. But bringing all of these resources and talents together in yet another Philharmonic attempt to create a new Gesamkunstwerk – Wagner’s term for a “total work of art” – resulted in what can charitably be called a partial artistic success. Alright, let’s put it bluntly; a good deal of it was tedious.

The Tempest was pretty much the last major composition completed by Sibelius before he retreated into the so-called “Silence of Järvenpää,” where he spent the last 26 years of his life. Having been commissioned to write incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare’s play in Copenhagen, Sibelius responded with over an hour of music that ranged all over the lot from a (pardon the pun) tempestuously wild chromatic Overture to brooding meditations, lilting melodies and dances, and brief colorful strokes signaling the entrances and exits of Ariel the spirit.

Miranda (Audrey Corsa) plays chess with herself just before the Overture.

A pair of concert suites from the score caught on somewhat when the vogue for Sibelius was at its height before World War II, but the complete score remains a rarity; it wasn’t even recorded until 1992. One reason is that it requires a large orchestra, five solo voices, and a chorus. Another is the fragmented nature of the music: some of the cues are barely 20 seconds long. And another, alas, is that Sibelius remains out of vogue, though his reputation has been on the rebound over the last 15 years as more become aware of the influence his music has had upon composers like John Adams and Philip Glass.

Prospero the magician (Lior Ashkenazi) confers with Ariel the spirit (Beth Malone).

In any case, Sibelius’ music was the best thing about this production, a collaboration between the LA Phil and The Old Globe theater company from San Diego. No surprise that Mälkki would have an idiomatic grip on this work, and she pushed it forward with an easy, graceful feeling for its lilting rhythms and ferocious dynamism in that astounding Overture. The bulk of the songs – whose words come from Shakespeare’s own lyrics in the play – are given to Ariel, here entrusted to the deep mezzo-soprano timbre (more like that of a contralto) of Elizabeth DeShong. The other able vocal soloists were soprano Ying Fang, tenor Joshua Wheeker, and baritones Timothy Mix and Jarrett Ott. Almost all of the score was in place, mostly in the right sequence but with some switching around and a few cuts (the Overture was trimmed to a bit over half its length). The LA Phil had never performed this much of the score before – no surprise there, either – and they played with their customary scintillating execution. That is, when we could hear them clearly.

Caliban (Tom McGowan) against the wheel.

See, the orchestra was pushed back against the rear wall, with the front of the stage dominated by a long curved wooden boardwalk, a wooden wheel, a large white umbrella, and eight small stage monitors. Members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, singing their wordless choruses grandly and luminously, were huddled in the rear orchestra seats in two sections, separated by the biggest projection screen I’ve ever seen in Disney Hall.

A team of actors (different from the singers in the same roles) went through the paces of a text that was a mash of Shakespeare and passages from W.H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, a long poem that is supposed to be a set of commentaries by The Tempest’s characters after the play is over. As directed by The Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein (who also adapted the text), the acting seemed rather broadly done and ultimately wearying to me. The voices were heavily amplified and often difficult to understand in this reverberant hall, and they interfered with the orchestra, even managing to drown out the extraordinary storm in the Overture.

Ferdinand (Grantham Coleman) kneels before his true love Miranda.

On top of that, it was assumed that an unsuspecting audience would brush up on their Shakespeare before coming to the hall, for they got no help from the program book. While there were more than eight full pages of bios of everyone involved in the production, there was no synopsis of the plot and only three short paragraphs of notes about the music, plus some comments by Edelstein. There were minimal projections on that huge screen, the only words being English translations of the Finnish-language songs. Judging from the greater number of empty seats after intermission than before, I suspect many just gave up trying to figure out what was going on; according to one overheard conversation, some were expecting an opera.

Mälkki’s next venture in the centennial season, on Jan. 18-19, 2019, will also be a newsmaker: the U.S. premiere of fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho’s Trans for harp and orchestra, and Messiaen’s wonderful, gigantic Turangalîla Symphonie. And it will be just the music. Really.


Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.