A wave of multi-media productions has been rising over the past few years at the San Francisco Symphony: treatments of works by Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Thomas Adès, John Cage and others, drawing on a mix of music, theater and computer-generated visual projections. One or two such productions each season has become the norm, putting this orchestra at the cutting edge of new technology in the concert hall.
Chalk this neat development up to music director Michael Tilson Thomas, whose family roots are in the theater (his grandparents helped pioneer Yiddish theater in New York) and who clearly feels comfortable merging his wide-ranging interests, as he looks for new ways to tell a story. For instance, he is a devoted reader of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose "Peer Gynt" -- mythic tale of a hollow man, a real no-goodnik -- is onstage through Saturday at Davies Symphony Hall in a new multi-media production prompted and led by Tilson Thomas.
Semi-staged with a troupe of actors, "Peer" switches back and forth between spoken word and Ibsen-inspired music, all topped off by Adam Larsen's dreamily evocative projections. The production is imaginative and accessible. Tapping into Ibsen's folk-based symbolism and directed by James Darrah, it makes for smart, if not entirely successful, entertainment. Structurally, it falls flat in the second half.
Still, it's hard not to admire the way this orchestra and its leader think outside the box; it's getting to be a habit for them.
For most of Thursday's performance -- the first of three -- the orchestra sounded unusually plush, precise and emotionally involved, performing this unique "Peer Gynt" triptych, which draws on music by Edvard Grieg (who famously set Ibsen's original production in 1876), Alfred Schnittke (who composed his own music for "Peer" in the 1980s) and Robin Holloway (whose extended "Peer" opus is excerpted here, a world premiere). Even when the production lost its footing, there was soprano Joelle Harvey in the role of Solveig, the young maiden who stands by her man, the peripatetic, heartless Peer Gynt.
She was the heart of the show. What a voice -- as pure as Solveig's character -- precisely pouring across her wide range, with a perfect leap up an octave at the end of Grieg's haunting "Solveig's Song." Wow.
Derived from Norwegian folklore (though partly based, Ibsen said, on the life of a real man from the valley of Gudbrandsdalen), "Peer Gynt" remains a radical work. More dramatic poem than narrative, it has about 40 scenes. If performed in full, it lasts four-plus hours, tracing its anti-hero's exploits as he manipulates, philanders, abandons his mother and lovers, kidnaps a bride, courts evil trolls -- and their Troll King, who makes his home in the "Hall of the Mountain King," musically brought to life by Grieg. (Here, the king is played by scarily whimsical Jesse Merlin.)
Peer also travels the world for 30 years as a slaver and businessman, running away from everyone and everything, scamming the system of life. "Go around," says the voice in his head; it belongs to an invisible shape-shifter, known as the Boyg. Pursued by the devil, Peer returns to Solveig at the end of his life, and falls asleep in her loving arms. It's too late.
All this is boiled down here to about 90 minutes, with actor Ben Huber centering the production with his appealing and realistic performance as Peer: He's lost, he's a winner, he's a cheat, he's a naif, he's a momentary penitent. Larsen (whose imagery graced last season's "Le martyre de Saint Sébastien," by Debussy) has created projections that hang amid clouds over the stage. These delicate images -- leafless trees, fleeting flocks of birds -- enhance the work's moods of alienation and grief. Sometimes, Peer/Huber looks up at multiple images of himself: Who am I? What am I? Is this a dream?
Several scenes are given over to the Russian Schnittke's shadowy music: vinegar chords for winds and brass, ascending "A Day in the Life" effects for strings, eerie combinations of harpsichord, metallophones and percussion. It suits to a T -- though not so well as Grieg's incidental music, which can be lovely ("Morning Mood"), but also dangerous and steamy, as in the sex scene between Peer and the troll princess, known as the Woman in Green. (She is portrayed by the devilishly commanding Peabody Southwell.) Directed by Ragnar Bohlin, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus became a jabbering choir of troll-demons here. Terrific.
But, oh, the second half. It felt hollowed out, stripped of action to make way for English composer Holloway's 20-minute tone poem, depicting the 30 years of Peer's wanderings. Roughly played by the orchestra, this music was as peripatetic as the work's namesake. It fluctuated between echoes of Mahler, Wagner and dark Gershwin-y passages, as well as seafaring rhythms, lonely folk tunes from the heath, moments of Elgar lyricism and more. It was music that couldn't make its mind up, like Peer Gynt.
San Francisco Symphony and Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, music director
Presenting Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," with music by Edvard Grieg, Robin Holloway and Alfred Schnittke
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 18-19
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $37-$150; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org