Friday, January 18, 2008
Elisabeth Chojnacka, Goddess of the Modern Harpsichord
Since there were $20 rush tickets available at the San Francisco Symphony on Thursday evening, I decided to be adventurous and check out the program because they were playing a piece by the recently deceased Greek composer/architect/mathematician Iannis Xanakis whose difficult music is famous but I'd never heard a note of it.
The concert started off with J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2, which is basically a 25-minute flute concerto consisting of a series of dances in eight movements. Though I wasn't crazy about conductor Tilson-Thomas' way with Bach, the flute soloist Tim Day was marvelous, and by the final movement the piece came together beautifully.
The Xenakis piece was called "A I'lle de Goree" (I'm missing lots of accent marks in there) and was a twenty-minute concerto for amplified harpsichord and a chamber ensemble of about sixteen musicians consisting of a few strings with brass and woodwinds. It was sensational.
Tilson-Thomas gave a short lecture before the piece that was graceful and informative as he explained what to listen for in terms of its "pointillistic rhythms," and the fact that it was an "attractive" piece, and then he introduced the harpsichord soloist Elizabeth Chojnacka, for whom the music had been written by the composer in 1984.
Not only did Ms. Chojnacka have the most outrageous hairdo I've ever seen at Davies Hall, the 67-year-old legendary performer of contemporary music in her San Francisco debut gave one of the wildest and greatest performances I've ever heard of anything. Forget the Rachmaninoff piano concertos. They are child's play compared to this piece, and Ms. Chojnacka played it with a mixture of sensitivity and outright abandon.
Tilson-Thomas stood behind her and the harpsichord, conducting the chamber ensemble, but at certain moments Ms. Chojnacka was leading the entire group as if she were a jazz or rock bandleader, varying tempos with a fine sensitivity to the other players. Plus, there were so many notes that she had a special score made up of about a dozen wide pages, and at the end of each page, she matter-of-factly tossed it onto the stage floor, something else I've never seen at Davies Hall.
I didn't stay for the second half with the orchestra playing Schubert's "Great" C Major Symphony because I'm getting old and can only handle so much stimulation in one evening, but I'm sure the performance was lovely. If you get a chance, check out the legandary Chojnacka, who will be repeating the program on Friday and Saturday evenings.