We got into the hall and I started to understand why. The concert was a rare Sunday matinee, and the hall looked about 1/3 empty. It's too bad; yesterday was chilly and unpleasant outdoors and there was fine music to be heard. And how could you go wrong with David Robertson conducting a program of mostly-20th-century music?
I will first dispatch the least-interest work on the program, orchestrations of three Debussy etudes. Why, oh, why? They were pretty but didn't in any way deepen my understand of the works, and the arranger was hard-pressed to deal adequately with the more percussive sections of these piano works.
The two George Benjamin works, both new to the Symphony, were Jubilation and Dance Figures. He's also a composer new to me, but one I'll be following closely. Jubilation featured the participation of the Crowden School Allegro Choir, a chorus of under-12-year-olds, I'd guess, from Berkeley's Crowden School of Music. They were a fabulously self-possessed group of children, about 50 or so strong and put very much on the spot by Jubilation, which opened with one of the children clicking a pair of claves together, metronome-like. It took me a moment to even locate the sound, because Robertson was just standing there at attention watching the kids intently. He picked up his baton eventually, as other kids joined in with their own claves. Then the orchestra entered, and off it went.
Benjamin's work is beautiful and interesting, sometimes sounding very much like an analog to color-field painting. Notes are held for long durations, during which instruments exit or enter. The timbre changes slowly over time. But then the pace quickens, the music picks up, and the organization starts to sound less as though it's built entirely around timbre.
Yes, the kids did eventually get to sing, though I couldn't tell what exactly they were singing. The program notes indicate that the work premiered with a children's chorus of 100, so I wonder if the piece wouldn't have sounded even better with more kids.
Dance Figures is something of an orchestral dance suite, with several contrasting movements, in the structure, if not style, of a Baroque suite. There's more of the color-field style, but also a movement with rocking energy that made me think of Petroushka. That would explain why a friend who'd heard some Benjamin said the music sounded Russian to him. Chords moving in parallel and a big orchestra with plenty of wind outbursts! And I loved the pounding percussion at the end of the "Hammers" movement.
The second half of the program was given over to a rousing and nicely-paced rendition of Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, which I'd never heard live. Robertson took little or no time between movements,
Update: Patrick Vaz has written a funny account of what transpired at Friday's 6.5 concert. And now you know why I avoid those like the plague; I can't bear the thought of as much talk as music for the first half of a concert. Patrick is so right that most of the time you're better off letting the music speak for itself.
Update 2: If you want to hear some George Benjamin, try this week's SFS program (two Ravel works, two Benjamin works, one Messiaen, all conducted by Benjamin) or the SFS Chamber Music program next Sunday afternoon (Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp; Benjamin, Viola, Viola, and Britten's Second String Quartet).