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In San Francisco : Premiere Of Getty's 'Plump Jack'

June 29, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — The first skimpy installment of "Plump Jack" by the generous Gordon Getty was performed by the grateful San Francisco Symphony in 1985.

Friday night at Davies Hall, two years and millions of dollars later, the same orchestral beneficiary ventured the premiere of the now-complete "concert opera in four scenes."

Actually, ventured may be the wrong verb. It doesn't take much daring to perform an hour of painless, faceless, unabashedly eclectic, pleasantly decorative, sporadically engaging music by a quasi-amateurish but ultra-supportive patron of the arts whom Forbes magazine recently labeled the wealthiest man in America.

This season's Getty gift to the San Francisco Symphony, not incidentally, was a $2.5 million matching grant.

The premiere bore all the trappings of a gala event. Make that a capital G. Tickets cost up to $100. Major-league parties were held before and after the minor-league concert. The press--local and national, social and musical--came out in force.

"Plump Jack" happens to be based on various Falstaff scenes from Shakespeare's "Henry IV" and "Henry V." But this was much ado about little.

Getty, 53, is not without talent. He has assimilated a century of operatic cliches with crafty zeal. He knows his away around Verdian parlando and Straussian ooze. He savors the impact of a pretty melodic fragment here and a pompous bit of declamation there.

He obviously loves his literary source. He also has the good sense to avoid anything deja-entendu involving the fat knight and the merry wives of Windsor.

However, his biggest talent--doubtlessly a dubious one--involves his uncanny ability to be pretentious and naive at the same time.

The pretension is reflected in the unrealistic grandeur of his rhetoric and the self-confidence of his ambition. The naivete emerges in the simplistic, antiquated devices he chooses to recycle.

No one in this blighted day of minimalist formulas and neo-romantic mush would claim that novelty is an aesthetic end in itself. Nevertheless, it is difficult for some of us fossils to abandon the idea that original thoughts are important.

In "Plump Jack," Getty is content to embroider his text with safe sound effects. There is no room in this tight little structure for the dramatic amplification or thematic development implied by the old-fashioned idiom. Nor are Getty's one-shot expressive strokes bold enough to command much interest as isolated statements.

The static little scenes--which, we are told, may be staged next year by the ever-resourceful Music Center Opera--certainly don't work as new music. For all their economy and accessibility, they don't work particularly well as old music either.

Be that as it may, the San Francisco Symphony treated Getty's not-so-magnum opus with tender, loving care.

Andrew Massey, the resident associate conductor, sustained symphonic clarity while striving for theatrical impact. John Del Carlo brought fervor, wit and a touch of pathos to the selective baritonal utterances of Falstaff. Paul Sperry delineated the hearty whimsy of Hal and the cruel superiority of Henry V with Brittenesque point. Clarity James as the Hostess delivered the narrative of Falstaff's death with striking, dark-toned sympathy.

Smaller roles were deftly undertaken by Arnold Voketaitis, Michael McCall, Peter Lightfoot and Grant Schley. The Symphony Chorus, trained by Vance George, dispatched its incidental duties (not much beyond the odd Westminster chant and all-purpose chaotic murmur) with aplomb.

A dutiful, slow-standing ovation greeted the poor little rich composer when he took a bow at the end. He looked very happy.

One had to admire him, in spite of "Plump Jack." This philanthropist at least puts his money where his art is. That seems infinitely better than building castles or sending cash to the contras .

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