Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the SF Symphony and Alonzo King LINES Ballet in Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye | Credit: Kristen Loken

Sometimes a concert program works because of the similarities, sometimes because of the differences. For the first of his four programs this month, San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen chose the latter, leading spectacular performances on June 7 of Maurice Ravel’s delightful ballet Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), with choreography by Alonzo King and featuring Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Arnold Schoenberg’s wrenching monodrama Erwartung (Expectation), directed by Peter Sellars and sung by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams.

For these concerts, the orchestra was placed toward the back of the Davies Symphony Hall stage. All of the action — dance or drama — took place on a strip at the front of the stage and on a platform built out from the center.

Ma mère l’Oye started life as a five-movement suite for piano four hands. Composed for children and featuring such fairy-tale characters as Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb, the piano version isn’t very difficult. Ravel orchestrated the suite, then expanded it into the delicious six-scene ballet that the SF Symphony performed here. Like Salonen’s previous performances of the work, this one had charm and elegance.

King’s choreography for Ma mère l’Oye is as colorful and eye-popping as the music is ear-filling. His dance vocabulary expands on traditional ballet steps. The dancers sway and ripple, swirl and weave, contract and expand with the music. They move with a loose, spontaneous, and natural-looking style. Their costumes flow with their bodies and the music.

The dancers themselves were more individual in their physical appearances, particularly the men, whose heights and builds were far from uniform. They ranged from compact and elegant in body and movement style to taller and more expansive. Sometimes their usual elegance yielded to a more rawboned directness. When the men stood on one leg and extended the other to point to the ceiling, you were reminded that in traditional ballet you’d more likely see women in this position. Likewise, you’d hardly ever see same-sex dance partners or a woman leading a man.

King’s choreography is richly in tune with Ravel’s music. Every movement and every dancer reflect the clarity and phrasing of the score, no matter how complex the physical movements. It wasn’t always obvious how the dances related to the fairy-tale realm of Ma mère l’Oye, but with such a marvelous visual feast, it didn’t matter.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams in Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the SF Symphony | Credit: Kristen Loken

When Sellars directs, you never know whether he’ll be brilliant or self-indulgent. In the case of this Erwartung, you might have thought that you were getting the latter because the staging opened with Williams sitting in a chair and staring at a body bag. A couple of policemen then briefly came onstage to have her sign a form, while the phrase “Accidental Death in Custody” was projected above the scene.

Have no fear: That phrase flavored the action without dominating or distorting Erwartung’s shadowy stream-of-consciousness narrative, in which a woman wanders a forest at night seeking her lover. In the present day, in the context of police violence, Sellars’s framing is all too reasonable. To have the woman address much of what she sings to her already dead lover, rather than seeking him in the forest, makes good dramatic sense.

Moreover, Sellars’s superlative moment-to-moment direction showcased a tour-de-force SFS debut from Williams. The soprano is both a tremendous physical actor and a vocal powerhouse, with a big, warm sound given character by just a bit of grain. She gives weight and meaning to every word through her articulation of the text and ever-changing vocal color. She whispers, she shrieks, she drops into chest voice, she floats high notes. She embodies stillness, contemplation, fury, longing, anger, terror.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams in Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the SF Symphony | Credit: Kristen Loken​​​​​​

Erwartung is a century old but still can shock. In this context, you know that the woman didn’t kill her lover, but you flinch when she kicks his body. You gasp when she clutches her abdomen, perhaps in pain but perhaps also signaling a pregnancy.

There’s plenty of ambiguity remaining in Sellars’s staging, despite how he contextualizes the action. Schoenberg’s music, in a free-floating harmonic style he called “emancipated dissonance,” is just as ambiguous as the text. The whole thing is gorgeously orchestrated, and Salonen brought out the score’s beauty and provided superlative support to Williams.

All in all, it was a marvelous evening, showcasing both the orchestra and what it can do in collaboration with singers and dancers. This is the kind of imaginative programming that, sadly, is slated to be reduced with the orchestra’s budget cuts and the departure of Salonen at the end of next season.