Review: Duncan Sheik & Holly Brook @ SF Symphony, 04/10/10

A few days after I returned home from seeing Whisper House at The Old Globe in San Diego (see review here), I found out that Duncan Sheik and Holly Brook were going to perform songs from Whisper House with the San Francisco Symphony. I instantly bought my tickets for third row, center. How could I not? I was so enamored by the production in San Diego that I wouldn’t miss this show for the world.

One of my favorite parts of the San Diego production was the incredible orchestrations that featured a fantastic woodwind/horn section – clarinet, bass clarinet, french horn, trumpet and piccolo trumpet. It was incredibly creative and added so much “ghostly” depth and warmth to the show. I couldn’t wait to hear how Simon Hale orchestrated the songs for an entire symphony.

Overall, the presentation of the six song suite from Whisper House was way too short. They only performed the songs: “We’re Here to Tell You”, “And Now We Sing”, “The Tale of Solomon Snell”, “Earthbound Starlight”, “I Don’t Believe in You”, and “Take a Bow”. The performance was padded by Gounod’s “Ballet Music from Faust”, Vevier’s “Zipangu” and Poulenc’s “Suite from Les Biches“. It all didn’t really seem to fit together.

Sheik only performed for about a 30 minutes and I wanted to hear more. They could have performed the other five songs from the musical as they were initially orchestrated for the show in between the new fully orchestrated pieces. This would have aloud the audience to understand the story and music in a more meaningful way. For me, I knew exactly what was happening, so I instantly connected to the music and the story, but I felt that there was a lack of emotional connection for most of the audience.

Hale’s orchestrations were thrilling. I loved the opportunity to see what the a full orchestra could do with Sheik’s music. The “drama” in the music was easily exaggerated to include a lot more percussion (yet I still found myself missing the drum-set), strings (a beautiful cello solo in “I Don’t Believe in You”) and the electric guitar backed by a full orchestra was awesome. But something was still missing.

I believe that the San Francisco Symphony just didn’t understand the sentiment of the music. It’s pop/rock music – should be easy to play, right? Wrong. To them, it seemed to be just music on paper that they probably could have easily sight-read. The whole style of it seemed to be missing. Edwin Outwater’s conducting also didn’t do anyone any favors; there never seemed to be a steady beat. “Take a Bow”, written in 4/4 time signature, was being played consistently with added beats to make 5/4 measures and sometimes even missing 1/2 a beat. (I don’t think that was intentional.) It was a wonder that they even finished that song all together. To someone who has never heard the score, then it was probably easily missed because they all covered it quite well, but I had a hard time with the fact that a professional orchestra of that stature couldn’t play in 4/4 time together.

Shiek’s vocals were great though. I think he felt a little out of place not being able to banter with the audience as he probably does when he performs by himself but his personality still came out in his short introduction of the songs. Holly Brook, the other vocalist, was also stunning, as she usually is. (She performed in the San Diego production and you can also hear her vocals on Sheik’s album “Whisper House”.)  It’s obvious that the two have worked together for a long time as they sang in perfect harmony with each other.

As I sat there listening to the first number, “We’re Here to Tell You” and as the music overwhelmed my senses, I almost started crying. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful; I never wanted it to stop. And then it did, way too soon. Though it was short, the performance just made me want to see another production of Whisper House again. I’m a little disappointed that I was only able to see it once at The Old Globe but at the same time fortunate that I did see it.

Very few musicals have made such an impression on me in such a short time. There’s just something in Sheik’s story-telling that emotionally involves me almost instantly.

I just hope that Whisper House finds another theatre soon (hopefully Broadway), so that I’ll be able to revisit this show over and over again. Though, it was a treat to hear Sheik’s music fully orchestrated, I still prefer the incredibly original, intricate and creative orchestrations from the musical. There’s something so fierce about those woodwind/horn arrangements in the original that were lost in the new orchestrations. But, still it was a total treat to hear these songs in a new light and especially for someone who’s been following Sheik’s music closely for years.


4 thoughts on “Review: Duncan Sheik & Holly Brook @ SF Symphony, 04/10/10

  1. Hi – great blog, btw! It was an fascinating writeup from the point of view of having seen the original musical at the Old Globe.

    I saw this program on an earlier evening, on Thursday night, including the post performance discussion with Sheik and Hale. Not having seen the musical before, I thought it was an interesting piece of music, but it didn’t feel like the best way to present his music in these surroundings. Perhaps it was the musicians who aren’t familiar with the music and its style, and nothing will really replace the beat of a drum set. Holly Brook was a gorgeous addition.

    1. I wish I could have seen the post-discussion with Sheik and Hale! That would have been fascinating. Any great questions/comments you can share with the rest of us that weren’t there?

  2. I think by Saturday some of the timing issues were in better sync. The only song where I felt it was a bit odd was Solomon Snell, where Duncan seemed a bit uncomfortable with the ‘speaky’ rhythm of the verses…. the refrain was nice with the big orchestra bells. “We Don’t believe in you” is the best song on the album, in the play and here in SF even if Gerry’s haunting guitar was a bit drowned out by the big sound.

    All in all it was overwhelming. Unlike the reviewer, I felt that two of the other pieces were very well matched, the Faust and Zipango both had relevance to the Whisper House theme. Zipango with the allusion to the Yasuhiro character. The final performance of Poulenc’s piece was a bit odd, I would have preferred some “Danse Macabre” by Saint Saens, which I feel would have closed out the symphony with something similar to Whisper House, whimsical and ghostly.


  3. Mostly the questions weren’t about Sheik or Hale’s material, unfortunately. The most time was spent on talking about the iPad that Duncan brought up on stage with him. He gave it a fairly negative review, even blaming it for a botched entrance on one of his songs.

    One person commented on the interesting tension between the dynamics of audience behavior at a classical music concert and a rock concert, and the different cultures between the two. After each song, the audience was unsure of applause, because as a classical concert, it’s frowned upon. However, in a Broadway theater, it’s common to clap after each song. Conductor Edwin Outwater commented that he wishes people would relax more and clap when they want to, but on the flip side, Duncan Sheik commented that he appreciates the type of reverence that comes from people being swept away by music. It’s interesting how the grass looks on the other side of the fence.

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