Monday, March 28, 2016

Outré SoundBox

SF Symphony Music Director led this month's SoundBox concert for the first time since he inaugurated the nightclub series in 2014. He seemed to be more relaxed last Saturday evening, and was obviously having a great time along with the sold-out audience.

The program was all French music, beginning with excerpts from Jean-Féry Rebel’s 1737 Les élémens, which opens with a fabulously dissonant depiction of "Chaos" before water, fire, earth, and air make their appearance. There are so many original instrumental ensembles in the Bay Area that it was odd hearing this kind of music on modern instruments, but it was given a fun, jaunty performance by the chamber orchestra and the projections by Adam Larsen for the various movements were perfection.

This was followed by even more ancient music, the 1199 Sederunt principles (The Princes Sat) by Pérotin, one of the earliest polyphonic works in existence, written for performance at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, which was then under construction. Elliott James Encarnación above, along with Jonathan Thomas, Adam Cole, Matthew Peterson, Chung-Wai Soong, and Clayton Moser below, gave a superb performance in what sounded like very tricky music to perform.

As Tilson Thomas mentioned in his explanation of the history of the piece, the long-drawn out syllables and repetition look forward to late 20th century minimalism. "It's one of the Steve Reich's favorite pieces of music and mine too."

The second set started with Syrinx, a 1913 Debussy flute solo performed by Tim Day, which was followed by the most substantial work of the evening, Messiaen's Couleurs de la cité céleste (Colors of the Celestial City), a 1963 depiction of the Holy City in Saint John the Divine’s vision in the Book of Revelation. This being Messiaen, the Holy City sounded a bit like a tropical rainforest filled with exotic birds, and Tilson Thomas prefaced the piece by trying to whistle the birdcalls found throughout.

The complex, strange, and demanding music was given a superb performance and the audience, as it had been all evening, was amazingly quiet and attentive. Besides a huge percussion component that would not have been out of place in a gamelan orchestra, there was a prominent part for a piano soloist performed by Orion Weiss above.

The third set began with Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov, accompanied by pianist Robin Sutherland, in a pair of short, lovely salon pieces, the 1907 Pièce en forme de Habanera by Ravel and one of the last works by Saint-Saëns, an excerpt from a 1921 Oboe Sonata.

This was followed by Tilson Thomas conducting a small orchestra in Darius Milhaud's 1930 Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra with Principal Percussionist Jacob Nissly seemingly playing 40 different instruments at once in a wildly amusing piece of music that managed to sound simultaneously complicated and transparent.

The young Matt Damon lookalike returned with the chamber orchestra for Milhaud's Scaramouche, a short, delightful paean to Brazil which closed out the show. Realizing that I had never heard a single one of these musical pieces before made me wish the main Davies Hall SF Symphony concerts were even half as adventurous in their programming.

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