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Wild Ride on Horn and Hide

February 5, 2008

Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger and British percussionist Colin Currie offered a virtuosic and highly polished performance last Tuesday at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. All the challenging compositions on the program, from a wide range of contemporary European composers, were technically proficient and effective, and made expert use of the colors that the trumpet offers, as well as a great variety of percussion sounds.
Possibly the simplest but the most emotionally resonant work was Toru Takemitsu's Paths, for solo trumpet, which opened the second half. Composed as a memorial to composer Witold Lutoslawski, it had a mournful, plaintive quality, as a meandering melody wandered through desolate landscapes. The piece had a nice arc to it, building to a long, loud high note that faded into nothingness.

Hardenberger executed it brilliantly. I have never before heard a trumpet fade so dramatically on a high note with such finesse. The entire piece displayed the soloist's playing at its finest. Not only did he maintain exquisite control over the uncharacteristically delicate sonorities called for in the work, but he also gave his most emotional performance of the evening.
Fascinating Cross Rhythms
Currie had a chance to shine in the next work, Woodpecker, for solo percussion, by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Beginning with a literal representation of its subject — a series of fast rolls on woodblock with abrupt silences in between — the piece went on to explore the sounds of a woodpecker, as well as the abrupt, herky-jerky quality of its movements. Currie offered an appropriately insistent, machinelike performance that highlighted the rhythmic momentum and wit of the work.

Currie offered another impressive solo performance on the program's second piece, Danish composer Per Nørgård's Fire Over Water From I Ching. It opened with complex patterns of cross rhythms between different drums that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) their compositional rigor, sounded almost improvised. The work had a visceral, propulsive drive and a lurking groove that was always on the verge of being felt but that never quite materialized.

A particularly effective technique, and one that must have been mind-bending to perform, was Nørgård's use of fading cross rhythms, with one drum getting softer on one rhythm at the same time that another drum grew louder with a different, seemingly unrelated rhythm. Currie performed all these complicated shifts with dexterity and intensity, though the gentle vibraphone interlude would have been a more effective contrast if it had been played even more gently. The contrast was apparent, but Currie still attacked the vibraphone with relatively crisp, punctuated mallet strokes.

The remaining works on the program — Swedish composer Daniel Börtz' Dialogo 4, U.K. composer Dave Maric's Lucid Intervals, and French composer André Jolivet's Heptade — were scored for trumpet and percussion together, and displayed Hardenberger and Currie's strong ensemble playing.

Dialogo 4 began the concert with gently repeated, muted high trumpet notes, imitated by the marimba. The piece gradually opened up in such a natural way that at some point I realized it had gotten rather loud, but the build had been so smooth that I hadn't consciously perceived a sense of crescendo. The piece then wound its way down again, ending with a beautiful, lyrical trumpet melody played over gongs and marimba. Although effective, this was one of several moments in the evening when I wondered if Hardenberger could have performed with greater lyricism and sense of the long melodic line. While every note was clear and had a good tone, and the connections between the notes were smooth, it lacked a sense of larger shape.

Lucid Intervals, which closed the first half, shifted between rhythmically driving and lyrical material, with occasional hints of minimalist textures. The third movement was particularly beautiful, and featured some of the most relaxed, singing playing of the evening.

Closing out the program was Heptade, a seven-movement work full of colorful interplay, propulsive rhythms, and hints (though no more than that) at jazz and rock. Hardenberger executed its fast trumpet runs pristinely, making his instrument seem as fleet and agile as a flute or clarinet.

As an encore, Hardenberger and Currie crossed over into jazz territory with composer Rolf Martinson's arrangement of Donna Lee, by Charlie Parker. This was a showpiece for Hardenberger, who executed the scurrying arpeggios at least as fast as Parker himself, and possibly faster, though otherwise the performance (and the arrangement) felt a bit stiff.
Letting Go
In all, it was a breathtaking performance by two highly proficient performers. Both players exhibited stunning virtuosity, though always at the service of musical effect, never for its own sake. As astonishing as Hardenberger's precision was in the many fast runs, most impressive was his ability to play extremely soft high notes. These players had absolute command over their instruments. There was no gap between what they wanted to express and what they were technically capable of expressing.

Sometimes in the sections of music that tended toward the lyrical or the groovy I wanted them to let go a bit more. While there were moments of tender lyricism and carefree abandon, sometimes I wished that things could be a little messier, that a melody could risk sounding over-the-top and sentimental, or that a rhythmic groove could get so exciting that the precision was in danger of being lost.

Any performer would envy such refined technique. Yet perhaps the final stage of technical achievement is not only being able to do anything you want flawlessly, but also knowing when flawless may not be the best option.

Jonathan Russell is a professor of musicianship at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and music director at First Congregational Church in San Francisco. He is active in the Bay Area as a clarinetist, bass clarinetist, and composer.