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.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Aaargh, you remind me of a posting I must make. It is not the "Great" Symphony, it is the "Great" C Major Symphony, so called to distinguish it from the earlier "Little" C Major Symphony.

Les said...

Joshua Kosman apparently went to the same performance as you did:

He overheard somebody say: "Oh I see," she said to her friend — "it's weird. Like a Picasso."

Which he sees as a central problem in 20th century music, but I don't what else you would expect pairing Xenakis with Bach and Schubert. It's like if you stuck Pollack between the Mona Lisa and the Dutch masters. No context at all.

I think Xenakis is awesome. Do you like listening to recordings? I think some of his stuff is on ubuweb and he's definitely on Pandora.

Also, that certainly is some wild hair!

sfmike said...

Dear Lisa: I've gone back and added C Major to the "Great" Symphony because I know all about pet peeves and respect them.

Dear Les: It's nice to have you back in the Bay Area. The concert definitely made me want to hear more Xenakis. Are they going to let you back into that nasty England to study or not?

Mr. Ripley said...

I was at this performance and, wow, I never knew harpsichords can be so outrageously cool. You did the right thing by leaving at intermission. I couldn't concentrate on Schubert at all after She left the stage.

sfmike said...

Dear ripley: Thanks for the confirmation. And you're right, I also never knew that a harpsichord could be so "outrageously cool."

Dear les: Checked out your "Les Said The Better" blog and see that you are leaving us for England again. Good luck with your transformation, dude.

Franny Egan said...

Dear All:
Loved the entire program. The amplified harpsichord was a first and thanks to MTT's hand held wireless mic comments it was far more meaningful. Miss Chojnacka's mastery of Xenakis was manifest. What a treat. Loved the big hair. The Bach Orchestral Suite with Tim Day's wondrous flute brought the 18th century to life. As to the Schubert Symphony in C major, The Great, I stayed and was not disappointed. 18th, 19th & 20th centuries, all different and each wonderful in its own way. Thank you SFS.