Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Ligeti's Requiem and Argerich's Ravel
Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a sensationally interesting program, starting with an Italian Renaissance motet by Giovanni Gabrielli conducted by the new chorus director, Ragnar Bohlin.
There were only three trumpets, three trombones and an organ providing accompaniment to "In ecclesiis" and the large chorus was divided into three groups, one onstage, and two on the left and right aisles of the Davies Hall orchestra section in an attempt to give the big hall a church-like polychoral sound. The effect worked, at least for those of us on the main floor, and it was fun listening to stereophonic effects created simply by the placement of the singers.
It was a perfect warmup for the fiendishly difficult "Requiem" by Ligeti from 1965, which was having its San Francisco premiere. Though it's uncompromisingly "modern" classical music, much of it is already widely familiar because of its use in Kubrick's "2001," where sections from the first two movements are featured in the apes and black monolith scenes.
The Latin text is pulverized into washes of sound clusters that are strange, mysterious and altogether unlike anybody else's music. The four-movement piece seemed to polarize the audience completely, with people either loving or hating it. That was true of plenty of writers, too, from Janos Gereben's all-out rapture (click here) to Jolene at "Saturday Matinee" (click here) quoting a friend who thought "the experience was like trying to eat razorblades through his ears."
My friend Charlie Lichtman and I were on the ecstatic side of the coin and hope they repeat the "Requiem" in the next couple of years while the chorus still has it in their systems. Also worthy of a special shout-out was the mezzo-soprano Annika Hudak (above left) who managed to hit tones one thought impossible. The entire performance, in fact, was amazing.
After intermission, the legendary Argentine pianist Martha Argerich played the 1931 Ravel Piano Concerto. Ms. Argerich is legendary for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is nothing rote about her playing. She seems to be channeling some divine energy which makes for completely idiosyncratic and brilliant live performances. She also cancels a lot, and is reputed to be something of a mental basket case backstage, which only contributes to the legend.
On Thursday evening, the multiple ovations after the concerto prompted an encore of the final movement of the Ravel. Friday evening's performance didn't include an encore, possibly because Jolene was in attendance. Saturday's performance included an encore with the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and Ms. Argerich playing the final movement of Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite" in a four-handed piano version. The performance felt impromptu, with the score threatening to slide off the piano the whole time, and it was extremely sweet.
The concert ended with an early Liszt orchestral tone poem, "Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo" which was completely unnecessary after the long, rich musical stew that preceded it. I would have rather have floated out the hall with Martha's piano playing rattling about in my ears. Still, that's the only criticism I have of an amazingly interesting evening.