Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Gaffigan Redux at the SF Symphony

The SF Symphony presented a wildly eclectic program last week that was entertaining for a lot of reasons, but principally because Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas withdrew suddenly with illness and was replaced by conductor James Gaffigan who had been on the podium just last month. The original program was a lot of Debussy, which MTT was recording, along with Ligeti's Piano Concerto. Last-minute substitutions started with Saint-Saens' 1876 Bachanalle from Samson et Dalila. Reviewer Johua Kosman described the music "as cheesy and racist a collection of Orientalist hoochie-koochie as any composer of the 19th century ever penned." He's not wrong, but that opera and the Philistine Orgy scene in Act III in particular are favorite guilty pleasures, and Gaffigan obviously enjoys it too, leading a fun, dancing performance.

This was followed by some of the brainiest music imaginable, Ligeti's 1988 Piano Concerto, with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard who has been playing this concerto almost since its premiere. He gave an authoritative performance of difficult, oft-kilter music and seemed to be enjoying himself besides.

I went to the final performance on Saturday evening, and it was amusing watching the small chamber orchestra filled with principal players congratulating and hugging each other at the end of the five movements, partly just to have gotten through the difficult piece as well as they had. The first movement starts off with a deceptively jazzy tune that fractures into varying time signatures that start to sound like one of Nancarrow's multi-layered player piano pieces, except this was being performed by real people in real time. The second movement is slow, dark, Bartokian, that builds beautifully into piercing bursts of sound. The third through fifth movements were spare, complex, and strange, and I'd have to hear the music a bunch more to make any sense of it, but Ligeti is one of the few composers I always give the benefit of the doubt.

After intermission, there was an ode to the City of Detroit called Something for the Dark. Commissioned in 2016 by the Detroit Symphony from composer Sarah Kirkland Snider above, the 12-minute piece seemed to be one brass fanfare after another, interspersed with pretty music for a large orchestra. After the Ligeti, the piece sounded bizarrely old-fashioned, plush in sound and thin in invention.

The final piece was Debussy's 1905 tone poem about the sea, La Mer. The mixture of misty pointillism and bold Technicolor tunes makes it a tricky piece to pull off. Gaffigan managed to give both the delicacy and the bravado their due in the best live performance I have heard of this pictorial work. I finally heard all the different waves for the first time.


Matthew Hubbard said...

Hello, Michael. Do you have time to get together? I've lost your email address, so this is my best way to get in touch. The e-mail linked to this comment is the best way to get back to me.

Civic Center said...

Sent you an email, Matthew.