“Beyond the Score,” a signature program format developed and copyrighted by the Chicago Symphony and now embraced by the Seattle Symphony, is a kind of Music Appreciation 101 with live orchestra, actors, narrator and a big screen. Three times a season for some years now, the SSO has presented well-known musical works this way, giving the background of each through letters and diaries from the composer’s life as he composed it, with photographs or videos on screen of people and places that inspired it. And, of course, with the Seattle Symphony to play excerpts in the first half of the program and a full performance in the second half. The point of the programs is to encourage, enlighten and attract new or hesitant concertgoers of all ages, though many regulars go as well.
Sunday afternoon’s program,which opened the 2013-14 season of BTS, was a little different, as the chosen piece was Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde,” not a work which can be described, examined, put in context, excerpted and then put together in 90 minutes, even without an intermission. As such, it was a difficult work to be highlighted in this fashion (the last one I heard was Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” which lent itself well, as will Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which comes in March).
Nevertheless, it was an absorbing hour and a half, in which narrator Steve Reeder and actors John Patrick Lowrie, Meg McLynn and Dave White drew the parallels between Wagner’s infatuation with a young married woman, Mathilde Wesendonck (understood through their correspondence), and how he wrote his passion into the legendary doomed love affair of Tristan and Isolde.
They delineated the famous musical chord in “Tristan” which Wagner frequently used, and was seen at the time as innovative and even revolutionary. The musicians illustrated it on piano and in the orchestra under Ludovic Morlot, so that later it could be easily recognized in the musical excerpts. With words on the screen over video of a restless sea under a darkened sky, one could see their emotional content and simultaneously hear Wagner’s glorious doom-laden swell and ebb of the music.
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Later, we heard read some reactions to the first performance in 1864: disgusting, erotic painting, nothing to edify, despicable … on the other hand praise from such people as Nietzsche, Baudelaire Mark Twain, Marcel Proust. As well, excerpts from composers influenced by “Tristan”: Mahler, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and more.
The whole was rather heavy-duty for newcomers to this kind of music, though beautifully played. As my concert-going friend remarked, “It was a musical bath.”