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.


jolene said...

I am mentally protesting universal social injustice because you guys got a spectacular encore from Martha Argerich, and we didn't get ANYTHING. The audience kept on demanding one, but she did look genuinely apologetic. It almost seemed like she didn't have anything prepared since she repeated the last movt the evening before us. I've never heard of anyone doing that before, but at least that would have been better than NOTHING.

So did the pair play the "Enchanted Garden", the slowish grandish piece that builds up nicely? I believe that's the last movt of the Mother Goose Suite. Wow it seems like she was really in the mood for Ravel that night.

It surprised me that I found Ligeti riveting and strangely compelling. I actually believe that I liked it. I'm not sure if I'd want to hear it again though, or put it on repeat on my ipod.

Anyways, awesome writeup and photos, as always! I love your photos of Martha Argerich, especially. I loved the cha cha skirt on her.

Unknown said...

Excellent report !

I was there both Friday and Saturday so was able to enjoy MTT's really charming and quite beautifully played duet with Argerich (and heard the Ligeti twice, the first time from the front row center and the 2nd time from 10th row center -- the soprano has been somewhat slighted in reviews because what she had to do with all those QUIETLY beginning high notes that seemed to come from nowhere was VERY difficult to do at those 'heights' -- and not only was her pitch superb but so was her lack of wobble while supporting the straighter tones necessary. Their 2nds together were amazing. The mezzo was appropriately dramatic, certainly and the leaps she had to navigate were, well, unearthly.
They were just amazing. My response to the Ligeti is closer to Jolene's. As an SFSC member for 9 years, I admired what they were doing and I was as struck as Jolene by some of it, but I did tell someone I wouldn't go looking to hear the piece again.

Your description of Argerich's playing makes clear why she is mesmerizing (to most) and her performances so very effective. They're not 'studied' and are never the same - you can hear her discovering new things as she mines the depths of even the most familiar pieces.

Besides, she has jazz in her soul and Ravel is a good place to express it.

Thanks for all your FINE pictures too!

Axel Feldheim said...

I'm really sorry I missed this concert, so thanks for your account! The Ligeti interests me even more than Argerich's weird playing. I know someone who's in the chorus, & he says it was the hardest thing he's ever done. I think you're right that the Lizst doesn't sound like quite the right way to end the program.

Civic Center said...

Dear Andrys: Thanks so much for your report and also for standing up for the soprano, Hannah Holgersson. The "Requiem" is not a piece I would listen to at home, except when my partner is watching "2001" for the umpteenth time, but as a concert experience, it was extraordinary. I'd go out of my way to hear it performed live whenever/wherever it was being done. In truth, according to Mark Swed at the L.A. Times, the only other place it's been performed in the United States is at the Los Angeles Philharmonic (twice). That Esa-Pekka fellow is such a showoff.