Wednesday, January 20, 2010

George Benjamin conducts SFS

George Benjamin conducts the San Francisco Symphony
Sat, Jan 16, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

George Benjamin, conductor
Nicolas Hodges, piano

Ravel: Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose Suite)
George Benjamin: Duet (2008)
Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques
George Benjamin: Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980)
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole

Over the weekend I caught the last concert of English composer George Benjamin's 2 week residency with the SF Symphony. Mr. Benjamin opened with a smooth & even performance of the Mother Goose Suite. He often looked like he was moving in slow motion or underwater.

Duet is Benjamin's version of a piano concerto, though it did not feature the piano in opposition to the orchestra, as in a traditional concerto. Instead the piano seemed to be an integral part of the ensemble. The piece uses no violins, & the piano was placed directly to the left of the podium, facing into the orchestra. Pianist Nicolas Hodges thus had his back to us. Mr. Hodges had a lot of notes to cover, & he played with a percussive, spiky attack. During the Off the Podium talk, Mr. Benjamin revealed that he had premiered a new ending for these concerts. The piece ends with a loud clap, as if a heavy lid had been slammed shut. Mr. Hodges was also featured in Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques which followed. He is a confident player, & he executed a sort of cadenza near the end with astonishing clarity & speed.

After intermission we had a full orchestra back on stage for Mr. Benjamin's large & splashy tone poem Ringed by the Flat Horizon. It starts with the rumbling of distant thunder. Sustained slow passages periodically gather up into noisy & chaotic climaxes, sometimes piercingly loud. In one of the lulls, principal cellist Amos Yang played an extended singing solo, after which he inserted plugs into his ears. The piece ends in silence.

Despite bookending the program with audience-friendly Ravel pieces, the hall looked barely half full. After the intermission, I sat in a 1st tier box by myself. At the Off the Podium event, I may have found Mr. Benjamin & Mr. Hodges more engaging as conversationalists than as performers. An elderly gentleman from the audience told us he was moved to tears by the concert & was curious about Mr. Benjamin's experience as a student of Messiaen. A small girl wished Mr. Benjamin a happy birthday & asked if he had received her card.

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