Wednesday, January 13, 2010
George Benjamin at the San Francisco Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony started a new series last year, hosting a living composer for a couple of weeks while featuring their music on subscription orchestral programs along with chamber music recitals and lots of interviews with the press and public. Last year the focus was on the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who was given to dour pronouncements but whose music was rich, strange and extraordinary.
This year it's the turn of George Benjamin (above right), a onetime British wunderkind who is just turning 50. He's a charming, articulate interview subject but unfortunately his actual music is rather dreary, a series of complex miniatures that don't amount to very much.
The best part of the concert last week was at the beginning of 1985's "Jubilation," where the Crowden School Allegro Chorus initiated the piece by banging on claves in a simple rhythm before the whole orchestra took up the music and before the kids sang a piercing set of notes over the noisy ensemble. I kept waiting for a sense of actual jubilation to arrive, but instead the music just sort of petered out in a not very interesting way.
The other Benjamin composition on the program was 2004's "Dance Figures," a huge orchestration of nine piano miniatures that hardly lasted fifteen minutes. It was alternately quiet, noisy, complicated and boring, and made me long to see the actual ballet that was choreographed with this piece in Brussels since the music alone wasn't very compelling, even under conductor David Robertson's passionate conducting (above left).
I went to the concert with the pianist Sarah Cahill above, who has a weekly radio show on Sunday evenings on KALW (91.7), and who interviewed Benjamin on the evening after the concert. The interview turned out to be fascinating, but unfortunately the talk about the music was more interesting than the actual excerpts that were played which is not a good sign. For instance, there was an excerpt from Benjamin's recent, first foray into opera, "Into The Little Hill," a treatment of the Pied Piper story written for chamber orchestra, a contralto and a shriekingly high soprano, and the gloomy, ugly sounds made me never want to hear anything by the composer again.
Though Benjamin is the opposite of prolific, he certainly does have his finger on musical politics. He's going to be returning to London after these concerts to celebrate his 50th birthday with a series of gala concerts of his musical work, and is returning to be the conductor and composer-in-residence at the Ojai Music Festival in Southern California this summer. Benjamin's music isn't bad, exactly. I just don't see it being played 50 years from now, and the only thing truly memorable about Saturday night's concert was the insane pair of high heels Sarah and I spotted on a fellow patron.