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Program Craft

November 4, 2005

Oliver Knussen

Peter Serkin

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We Appreciate

By Michelle Dulak Thomson

The Scottish composer and conductor Oliver Knussen arrived at the San Francisco Symphony last week bearing gifts. One was a delightful piece of his own; among the others were a keen, focused conducting technique and a program as interesting and as ingeniously constructed as any in the Symphony's current season.

The program sandwiched two pieces of Stravinsky (the Concerto for Piano and Winds of 1924 and the much later Movements, both with Peter Serkin as soloist) between two large chunks of Britten (the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the 1945 opera Peter Grimes, and the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra from the following year). Knussen's own 1990 The Way to Castle Yonder was tucked in after Movements. It was the best sort of concert, one in which the continuities and the discontinuities both caused you to think. Everything seemed to illuminate everything else.

The two Britten works, for example, are superficially far apart from one another, despite their chronological proximity. But bookending the concert with them was calculated to get you to notice the ways they're alike: the ingenuity of orchestration and of design, as well as the union of imagination and craft.

A substantial work

The Young Person's Guide certainly didn't sound like kid stuff in Saturday night's performance. It sounded like what it is: an intricate and marvelously constructed concerto for orchestra. And Knussen had an orchestra fit for the task. Apart from a little intonational disarray in the upper woodwind (which also surfaced a couple other times on the program), the Symphony was in top form, each section seductive or brash according to its assigned role. The trombones and tuba deserve to be singled out for the warmest, mellowest account of their variation I've heard. And the following, whimsical percussion variation — led archly by timpanist David Herbert, whose subtlety and variety of phrasing were a delight — was magnificent. In the final fugue (in which the various instruments enter one by one in the order of their variations), Knussen drove on with great energy. When, at last, the original theme comes back in the brass on top of the swirling fugal subject, the effect was terrific.

At the other end of the program were the Sea Interludes, and they were also very fine. Knussen certainly knows how to get the sound he wants out of an orchestra. The violins in the opening "Dawn" were cold and piercing, answered by brass that were almost impossibly quiet, sweet, and in tune. In the third Interlude, "Moonlight," the strings sounded quite different, this time plush and yielding. "Sunday Morning"'s bells swung splendidly, and the concluding "Storm" showed that the Symphony brass can be menacing as well as mellow.

Knussen put the less frequently played Passacaglia in the sequence it would have come in the opera, between the second and third of the Interludes. It's another Britten tour de force of design, built over an 11-beat theme whose construction forces the listener to concentrate to keep place. (The first nine beats fall neatly into threes, and the last two notes in those nine beats are the tonic, as is the one note in the "extra" two beats, so you repeatedly think you know where you are in the cycle, and just as repeatedly are proved wrong.) The piece both opens and ends with long, expressive viola solos, lusciously played on Saturday by Yun Jie Liu.

Forever Igor

The two Stravinsky works in between, separated as they are by 35 years and several shifts of the Stravinsky persona, might seem an odd pairing. It was doubtless a good idea to divide them by an intermission (for the soloist's sake, at least), but putting them together proved once more that Stravinsky remains Stravinsky whatever he's doing, even if it's endeavoring to channel Webern. The 1959 Movements is gnarly music, hard work for listeners and players alike, but it has the same hard rhythmic edges as the Concerto, and even the same insouciant sense of gesture. Serkin, with his light, rather percussive pianism, made a good fit with the music in both works. He played the Concerto from the full score, necessitating a page-turner. It was worth the trouble, because he seemed alert to everything in the orchestra and practically pounced on opportunities one player or another gave him.

The Way to Castle Yonder, which came between Movements and the Young Person's Guide, was music of a quality you wouldn't necessarily expect of an outtake from an opera titled Higglety Pigglety Pop! It's intensely imaginative and richly scored, full of incident of the kind that sets the mind to manufacturing plots if you don't know the actual one. The opening movement of the three, for example, has a continuing but mysteriously varying castanet part that suggests horses' hooves. The opera's horses are drawing a milk wagon, and the protagonist is a dog, but the effect is of a secret journey, destination unknown. The finale (depicting a ride on a lion's back) begins with exhilarating swirls of notes and eventually lapses into calm. It is all wonderful, harmonically dense but with an intelligible leading line throughout, and scored so beautifully that even the reduced orchestra (strings were 6/4/4/4/4) sounded a lot bigger than it was.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! is, as you'd guess from the title, a children's opera (a companion piece to Knussen's best-known work, his setting of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are). Juxtaposing this suite and the Young Person's Guide (and putting both cheek-by-jowl with Movements, of all things) was possibly the best idea in this uncommonly well-designed program. Hearing the Stravinsky first primed the audience to take the following Knussen and Britten equally seriously. And both the pieces and the performances deserved as much.

(Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.)

©2005 Michelle Dulak Thomson, all rights reserved