Magazine article The Spectator

Highlights and No Lights

Magazine article The Spectator

Highlights and No Lights

Article excerpt

San Francisco, vertiginous city with a grid-plan imposed irrespectively over hill and dale; its streets buckling like a switchback, ending up in all directions in blue waters sparkling or sonorous, fringed with `painted ladies' - delicious wooden houses in frilly fretwork, picked out in a rainbow of colours gaudy or subtle -- interspersed with intermittent little peaktop parks from which the larger vistas quiver as in a dream. Especially dreamlike early last month when this vibrant toy town was paralysed for half a day by a power cut. I was driven to an orchestra rehearsal through quiet empty streets, unchecked by traffic-lights, passing electric trams locked in grotesque appeal like dinosaurs overtaken by climatic change, to reach the Symphony Hall dimly dark under storage-energy, slowly filling with musicians from the Bay area with tales of abandoned cars, immobilised subways, jammed garage-doors. They gathered in the obscured corridors, killing time with games, chat, solitary practice making pungent Charles Ives polyphony.

Meanwhile the management had to cope with another crisis; the solo soprano had developed a heavy cold and was unable to sing the heroine's big number from my opera Clarissa. Willynilly everyone acquiesces, sacrificing with a pang the colossal if unfocused power of her upper range and the juicy chalumeau of her lower, that made such an unforgettable impression at a piano run-through the day before. Fortunately, the rest of the musical sequence from the opera is purely orchestral. Determined to rescue at least the prelude and postlude of the soprano-scena, I immediately set to, by the light of a convenient window, to cut and stick, with a few seconds'-worth of musical elastoplast that only requires the conductor's endorsement before being taken down to the nether regions where the library's copyists begin, machineless, to translate scribble into practicality.

It was a good moment seeing through the same window the first frozen tram twitch into life. Lights didn't follow at once, but players were now numerous enough to make feasible a rehearsal at 1 (only three hours late). After working on Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel in the gloaming, a moment of pure magic as the auditorium's seasonable fairy-bulbs twinkled on. Soon after, the full lighting was restored, and work began on the surviving Clarissa music. Losing a three-hour session and a three-ton soprano cancelled out, since there was less difficult music to rehearse in the reduced time. As the orchestra moved into Brahms 4, I slipped downstairs to the copying-cave, its Xerox machines newly able to duplicate the alterations for multiple string parts. The first performance, the following evening, still showed a slight bruise; by the third, the band's innate brilliance and the inexhaustible brio of maestro Tilson Thomas had made the enforced shape effortlessly convincing, almost as if it had indeed been planned from the start.

With everything going smoothly, there was time to sample more freely the rich musical life of this exhilarating city. The Opera stands adjacent to the Symphony, civic Library, and City Hall whose dome solemn lead cheered with gilded swags and crowned by a delectable gilt cupola, newly reconstructed after the most recent earthquake - was a little further unveiled each day. Avoiding Turandot, I caught glimpses of two excellent shows: an act of Peter Grimes (before jetlag precipitated early retirement) - a no-nonsense production, a Suffolk fishing-burgh c. …

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