16 January 2010

George Benjamin at the San Francisco Symphony: Week 2

I’m starting to love the rush ticket thing, though the rumored $15 tickets proved as elusive as ever. I was exhausted and run down from the week and was thinking it would be OK if they were sold out, but they weren’t and I’m glad I went to hear some restorative music. I thought it was a nicely planned program: open with Ravel, then some Benjamin, then Messiaen, then (after intermission) another Benjamin, then close as we opened, with Ravel, who does seem to be the go-to guy for filling out these composer-in-residence concerts, but Benjamin, who conducted this week, seems to have a genuine connection with his music, and unlike last time the Ravel was beautifully played. We started with Ma Mere l’Oye, and I was very happy at the end of this week to enter into its fairy-tale world.

I had gone to hear Benjamin interviewed (by Laura Stanfield Prichard) at the pre-performance lecture, partly because of my morbid interest in seeing live composers talk and partly because I needed to kill some time. Even with leaving work late, walking the two miles or so to Davies Hall (at an average pace and stopping a couple of times), and having dinner, I still had well over an hour before the concert started. Remind me again why everything has to start at 8:00. And then explain why, no matter what time a concert ends (this one ended at 10:15) I always seem to have just missed a train, necessitating an almost twenty-minute wait. I didn’t get home until 11:30.

Anyway, normally I would have sat in the lobby and read, but I was so tired I knew I couldn’t concentrate on my book (Cymbeline), and besides I do like hearing composers talk about music, even while recognizing the limitations inherent in talking about music, even (or especially) music the speaker has composed. I thought Prichard did a good job asking questions about the program and then letting Benjamin take over, which is a good quality in an interviewer. The talk was pleasant but not absolutely necessary, since most of the pertinent information was already in the program book, particularly Benjamin’s view of the piano concerto: he doesn’t like most of them.

Basically, he feels the piano is a percussive instrument without sustained tones, whereas the orchestra is all about sustained tones, and “there’s a fundamental incompatibility between these resources.” But it seems to me that the incompatibility is where the drama lies (though I should note that part of Benjamin’s objection is that the forces aren’t used dramatically – that often the ensemble is just doubling the soloist). This view, with its distaste for a contrast that seems an obvious source of drama, made me curious to hear (or preferably hear and see) Benjamin’s dramatic work, Into the Little Hill.

Which brings us to Duet, the second piece last night. I assume the title refers to equality between the partners, though since any strings in the ensemble play pizzicato and percussion and harp are prominently featured for piano compatibility, the piano and the orchestra seem like extensions of the same thing rather than separate (but equal) partners – the piano goes with rather than against the orchestra. I enjoyed the piece, but the drama it had was not the clash you expect from a concerto. This may simply be a “naming is claiming” moment, since categorization sets expectations; if the piece had been described as a tone poem or orchestral essay we all just would have said, yep, that’s what it is!

Duet was followed by Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques, and if I’ve learned one thing about George Benjamin the past few weeks, it’s that he was one of Messiaen’s last pupils. It was just wonderful, though as we broke for intermission afterward one fairly young woman could be heard saying it was “excruciating.” Of course, I also saw a hipster-looking guy announce that Davies Hall was “so beautiful,” so you see there really is no accounting for taste. It was such a rich and bright performance that it’s a shame we don’t get more Messiaen from the Symphony. Nicolas Hodges was the excellent pianist for both pieces.

After the intermission – and what with set-up for each of the three pieces and so forth, it’s already 9:30 – Benjamin conducted his earliest big composition, Ringed by the Flat Horizon. And if I’ve learned anything else about George Benjamin this week, besides his connection with Messiaen, it’s that he had this piece played at the Proms when he was twenty (that would be thirty years ago). Not unnaturally under the circumstances, it has a strongly Messiaenesque flavor. In fact I’m not sure I would have programmed it with the Messiaen, or at least not right after it, even with an intermission in between. It’s kind of an odd piece in that I thought it ended a couple of times before it actually did, though I assume this is deliberate since Benjamin had referred before the concert to a structural “surprise.” The title comes from The Wasteland, and I’m slightly embarrassed to say I didn’t realize that until I read it in the program book, since The Wasteland is one of those poems (along with Paradise Lost and The Rape of the Lock) I frequently just pick up and read random passages from. Well, that’s why re-reading is useful. Once you have placed the title, the mood really falls into place, a tense oppression that is never really relieved, despite passing echoes of thunder and rain.

Then we closed with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, about a Spain which is as real and as invented as the fairy land in Ma Mere l'Oye, and I very much enjoyed it , though I have nothing to say about it beyond that, really.


Civic Center said...

The $15 seats are for the uncomfortable Center Terrace right behind the orchestra, and you can buy them ahead of time. The rush tickets are sold on the day of a concert when it's not very popular, and they are $20.

Glad you enjoyed the concert. It really didn't sound like my cup of tea or glass of vin, so I skipped it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Ah, thanks for the explanation. My misunderstanding -- I thought the rush tickets were having their price lowered at certain concerts. Well, it's worth the extra $5 to have a semi-comfortable seat.

You've mentioned not being a Messiaen fan, and I keep hearing echoes of Messiaen in Benjamin's music, so I can see why this whole concert wouldn't appeal to you.