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The Ill-Tempered Harpsichord

January 22, 2008

Music from three centuries was featured on last week's San Francisco Symphony programs in Davies Symphony Hall. But on Thursday even the inestimable Michael Tilson Thomas couldn't fully pull off his non sequitur program of Bach, Xenakis, and Schubert, highlighted by a bizarrely dressed harpsichord soloist, Elisabeth Chojnacka, for the Xenakis.
The evening opened with Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067, with the orchestra's principal flutist, Tim Day, as soloist. This was followed by the local premiere of the late Iannis Xenakis' 1986 À l'Île de Gorée (The Isle of Gorée) for amplified harpsichord and a chamber group of a dozen instruments, with which Chojnacka was making her S.F. Symphony debut. The hit of the evening, however, came after intermission: a superb performance of Schubert's Ninth Symphony, the "Great C Major," D. 944.

Trained in both mathematics and architecture, Xenakis (1922-2001) approached music relatively late in life while working for a dozen years as an assistant to the inventive architect Le Corbusier. He studied with Nadia Boulanger before taking on Olivier Messiaen as his major teacher, and major influence. Xenakis became recognized as a force in the European avant-garde of the late 1950s, particularly after winning a Donaueschingen Festival prize for his Pithoprakta, for string orchestra and wood blocks. That ensures roughly the equivalent recognition factor of an actor winning an Academy Award. Win that, and you're an automatic insider.

The Isle of Gorée is off the coast of Senegal in West Africa, and is said to have been the place from which the first black slaves were captured for transport to the New World. That partly accounts for the brutal volume levels of the piece. (I say "partly" because Xenakis' music usually screamed at his audience.) What emerged was 16 minutes of din, using only four wind instruments, three brass, and a string quintet to challenge the harpsichord's capacities.

The most surprising element of the piece is, from an architect-composer, the lack of structural cohesion. It's just a string of isolated segments that neither are bound to each other nor appear to have any common thread of texture or melodic design. If some sort of variation principal was at work, it escaped my notice.
Diabolical Keyboard Work
Xenakis wrote the piece on a Dutch commission for Chojnacka, who proved to be a formidable virtuoso indeed. She spent most of the time flailing away at the keyboard like mad, with blinding runs in between the tedious ostinato passages. (Xenakis had begun to digress into minimalist textures during his final years.) Fine playing, then, of a difficult piece, hampered only by stale concepts and, to a lesser degree, Chojnacka's bizarre costuming.

She wore a male black suit with something resembling a breastplate under the jacket, along with the most outlandish hairdo ever. I suspect it was a wig, but in general she looked like something left over from the bar scene in Star Wars. This could not camouflage the fact that she was playing a piece of uninspired music.

By contrast, Bach's seven-movement Suite turned out to be a mixed bag. It came into lively exuberance only toward the final dances, notably so in the Polonaise and the famous Badinerie finale. All the opening movements struck me as a bit under tempo and way too sustained. Most of the strings were playing détaché, a style in which the bow moves up and down the string without leaving it. Flutist Day had no technical problems, and displayed a fine timbre, too, although he tended to play with more legato than is healthy for a sprig of dance pieces.

What really saved the concert was an amazing, virtuoso performance of Schubert's "Great C Major." (It's called "Great" to distinguish it from Schubert's shorter Sixth Symphony, which also happens to be in C Major — and because the Ninth truly is a super-duper symphony.) The flow of melodic material, the mastery and originality of harmony are jaw droppers.

The Scherzo's modulating keys flood the senses like some sonic kaleidoscope in motion. The shifts happen so subtly that they do not call attention to themselves. I doubt anyone would notice them at all unless they were struggling through a class in chromatic modulation.

Tilson Thomas did not take all the major repeats in the first and fourth movements. They form a dubious necessity, at best. Schubert was merely observing a tradition passed down from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. As played on Thursday, the Schubert lasted 45 minutes, and that was plentiful enough to delight. Long? No, it almost sounded too short.

Tempos were right on the button, balances were excellent, and MTT had obviously taken great pains with shading dynamic levels. Passages marked pianissimo were as light as a scrap of onion skin, while at the other extreme the fortissimos shone out like a sun free of glare. At both extremes, and at every dynamic in between, the warmth of sound was striking. Even the brass and percussion sounded thoroughly housebroken.

The musicality of the San Francisco Symphony at its current best equals that of any orchestra in the world. I only wonder whether the community realizes this.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.