Just as Robert Indiana’s familiar 1970 Love Sculpture became an apt symbol of the freedom and pleasure seeking 1970s, the Swiss artist Arnold Böklin’s evocative painting “The Isle of the Dead” from 1880 captured the darker, mystical imaginings of fin de siècle Europe. In 1909 the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff composed an orchestral tone poem based on Böklin’s painting, which he also titled “The Isle of the Dead.”Friday, February 9, under the baton of Associate Conductor Sameer Patel, the San Diego Symphony gave a moving performance of Rachmaninoff’s tone poem at the conclusion of a “Beyond the Score” presentation in Copley Symphony Hall that provided an extensive illustrated narration of the work’s genesis and meaning.
Given the dark nature of the painting, it is not surprising that Rachmaninoff relied heavily on the low strings and winds to create a somber and at times turbulent musical tapestry, infused with variations on the “Dies Irae” chant motif from the traditional Roman Catholic Requiem and his own disturbing, asymmetrical 5/8 rhythmic ostinato. Avoiding various lugubrious possibilities, Patel and the orchestra gave a thoughtfully sculpted account of the score, allowing its unrelenting drive to pull the listener through its at times murky tangle of sinuous themes. Patel made the most of the score’s few climactic moments and skillfully guided the players through precarious transitions.
Unlike other “Beyond the Score” presentations I have attended that included bits of dramatic exposition, the narration for “The Isle of the Dead” was straight music appreciation lecture, equally divided between two able narrators, Nuvi Mehta and Paul Maley, although the projected artworks and appropriate historical photographs on a wide screen above the orchestra relieved the tedium of the lecture format. The solid research that underlies “Beyond the Score,” a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its Creative Director Gerard McBurney, is nonpareil
But I wonder if a 20-minute tone poem is worth an hour-long lecture. Years ago, when I taught music appreciation at the university level, I could cover an entire era of western music history in an hour’s lecture.
This Beyond the Score presentation and performance by the San Diego Symphony was given on Friday, February 9, 2018, at the Jacobs Music Center in downtown San Diego.