The Sound of Death and Argerich's Musical Delights

The San Francisco Symphony's program last night was simply terrific on every level.

The first half featured two liturgical works written nearly 400 years apart yet sharing a common desire to break new musical ground. The second part was two pieces of romanticism played with brilliance, including a fantastic appearance by pianist Martha Argerich

The first piece, Giovanni Gabrieli's In ecclesiis from Symphoniae sacrae used minimal instrumentation and a chorus placed onstage and spread up the orchestra aisles. Using only the organ, three trumpets and three trombones, it beautifully resonated through the hall as the chorus, coming from three different parts of the hall, created quite a Gothic sound. It was conducted by Ragnar Bohlin.

Next was Gyorgy Ligeti's Requiem, being performed for the first time by the SFS in these concerts. Parts of this score are familiar from Kubrick's 2001 - the music is featured during the obelisk scenes, among others, and has appeared in numerous horror movies. After hearing it in its entirety for the first time, I can understand why- this is probably the most frightening music I've ever heard. The chorus sounds like they are the dead themselves, giving their own eulogy. The orchestra accompanies them straight into the inferno without a trace of melody, just huge masses of sound, loud squeaks, weird shrieks and small plaintive cries from single wind, horn, bass or violin.

Two soloists are also in the work, Hannah Holgersson and Annika Hudak, who added their distinct voices as tortured souls during the Kyrie and especially, the Dies Irae segments. Having seen Ligeti's Gran Macabre opera a few years ago, I thought I would be prepared for what this may sound like but I was stunned by how thrilling this work was. The overall effect is a beautiful yet terrifying chaotic wall of sound that swells into climaxes and the subsides into faint cries of protest against total silence.

During these near silences many members of the audience seemed to intentionally cough very loudly to express the displeasure with this work. Even Tilson Thomas shook his head in exasperation with them at one point. I cannot fathom why people are so rude. Even if one didn't like this piece (and I suspect many didn't), anyone could plainly tell this was an incredibly difficult score to play and it was being played to perfection. You could just sit on your hands at the end, not applauding, and not try to be a disruptive and disrespectful ass.

I think I read in the program that someone once programmed this with Beethoven's 9th Symphony. That would be an incredible pairing, a great representation of what can be expressed musically at both ends of the human emotional spectrum- but I would definitely want to hear the 9th come after this. I don't know if I would ever want to listen to this at home, but like the 9th, I would attend another performance of it at any opportunity. It's a bold, amazing work and it was played brilliantly. It was one of the finest performances I've seen this orchestra give in the dozen or so years I've been regularly attending their concerts. Absolutely thrilling.

And there was more!

Martha Argerich made a rare appearance to perform Ravel's Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra. This isn't a great nor terribly original piece, and what's best about it was done better by Rachmaninoff and it borrows quite a bit from Gershwin. Though it lacks memorable melodies for the orchestra, it overcompensates with gorgeous solos for the piano.

Argerich is all fire and passion- there is nothing light nor "pretty" in her playing and thank god for that. It is full of feeling and exploration, but never becomes showy or histrionic. Where I was seated I could see her fingers flying over the keys with lithe dexterity but unfortunately I couldn't see her face. Her body moved as it followed her hands across the keys, her head bowed at times, but there was no exhibitionism or posing that is now so common with younger players. Just musical passion and extreme talent. In her hands the adagio sounded like a lament for a lost friend and it was some of the most beautiful playing I've ever heard, but never once did it become sentimental. The allegremente and presto were played with tremendous speed and fluidity, yet every note came through, one galloping on top of the other as if she couldn't contain them under her fingertips. In a word, Argerichwas awesome.

The audience applauded for about ten minutes, she took five curtain calls, but didn't perform an encore, as she did the night before, which was the only disappointment for the entire evening (besides the boorishness of some of the audience during the Requiem).

With Anne-Sophie Mutter's appearances last week, Argerich's this weekend, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet coming to town next week (with James Conlon), the Symphony is having a terrific run of guest artists right now that will probably be the highlight of the season until the Berg-Schubert concerts at the end.

The evening ended with Liszt's Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo.

Liszt called this a "symphonic poem" and I liked it quite a bit on hearing it for the first time. It did however, strike me as sounding very Wagnerian. In fact, so much of it sounded to my ears like Tannhauser or Dutchman that I had to check my Kobbe's when I got home to see which had been written first, in order to figure out who was stealing from whom. For the record, as I suspected (because he is by far the inferior talent when it comes to composition), the thief is Liszt.

But it was an enjoyable theft.

If you missed these concerts- you truly missed out.