Monday, January 11, 2010

San Francisco Symphony, January 10, 2010

I picked up three nosebleed section tickets last Thursday to the week's San Francisco Symphony concert, which is the first of a pair that will showcase the works of British composer George Benjamin. The third member of party bowed out on grounds of a bad cough - I shouldn't have bought the ticket without checking how she was doing - and when my partner and I showed up at the box office to pick up the tickets and turn in the third for a deduction, we got upgraded to seats in the orchestra section. I am not quite sure why, and I had no idea orchestras ever did this, but the gent at the box office did say something about "frequent buyers and subscribers, not everyone" I thanked him and said that my big January ticket buy was coming up soon.

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, an interesting interpretive choice which is what's in the score (oops; see comments). I wish he'd milked the first movement rather more - it cries out for a highly romantic treatment with lots of rubato - but overall it was a fine and affectionate performance. Hat tip to Carey Bell for the great clarinet solo; if you know the piece, you know which one I mean.

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).


Michael Walsh said...

Mendelssohn actually writes attacca at the end of the first three movements of the Third, so playing them through without pause is the composer's intent.

Thanks for this review. I'm definitely seeing this week's SFS program.

sfmike said...

The Saturday night performance looked heavily papered since half the patrons seemed to be elderly Russian people who probably picked up the tickets for free at a senior center. Since there wasn't any Russian music or soloists on the program, it seemed to be the only thing that made sense. Glad the ticket dude treated you like an old Russian.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oops. I've put in a correction on the attaca! Mike (Walsh), which performance are you going to?

SFMike - hahahah.

Immanuel Gilen said...

Speaking of January ticket buys, do you know whether the Symphony will be doing their big annual sale (like previous years) later this month?

I'm afraid I'm not that surprised about the low turnout. I'm a big music fan, but I don't understand George Benjamin's music at all...the only thing I hear in his music is traces of Debussy, whom I have a hard time with as well. Perhaps it's a matter of education as much as inclination, but who's going to teach me how to appreciate Benjamin?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Immanuel, I don't know whether they're doing the big ticket sale again, but given the need to sell tickets...probably they will.

As far as learning about Benjamin's music, I would personally start with the program notes for the three programs, which are pretty informative. He also participated in at least one of the pre-concert talks.

Debussy might be an influence, but he studied with Messiaen, which was most audible in Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which I found a little puzzling myself.