Marc-André Hamelin  Photo by Fran Kaufman

Sometimes things just don't go as planned. Last Wednesday night I walked over to the Herbst Theater, where San Francisco Performances was presenting a recital by Marc-André Hamelin- the pianist and composer has received an enormous amount of positive press during his current tour and I'd never seen perform before. I was a bit surprised the house wasn't full- he's performed here many times and few rival his reputation. Besides that, the program was especially inviting- the Berg and Liszt sonatas, to be followed by five of Hamelin's own compositions: the world premiere of Theme Variations (Cathy's Theme); his take on Variations of a Theme of Paganini, and three Etudes, including one based on Erlkonig, which I was especially interested to hear.

I took my seat inside the sweltering theater just a few minutes before the concert was to begin, in between two elderly ladies who seemed surprised by my arrival. For some reason it took Hamelin some extra time to take the stage and I sensed a slight tension build in the audience while we waited. Hamelin appeared, faced us, and after a curt bow, took to the bench and began the Berg.

Playing the formidable work sans score, I was immediately struck by the cool precision of Hamelin's approach. It's a daunting piece, but you would have never known it watching Hamelin, who worked his way through the development as if it were the most stable music ever written. It was an entirely different approach than the last time I'd heard it performed, when Yefim Bronfman tackled it like a loose, baggy monster. I'll admit to being  puzzled by the approach, unnerved even, but I admired the technical virtuosity of the performance.

Hamelin approached the Liszt in the same manner, ridding the piece of the bombast with which most pianists seem determined to give it and again performed with an almost surgical precision. In the beginning movement I found this fascinating, but soon afterward I was disengaging from the performance- it was as if I was hearing it dissected note-by-note, even during the most furiously fast moments where the piece seems like it's about to explode. There were moments of stark beauty in this and the consistent clarity of Hamelin's playing impressed me greatly, but in the end it felt dispassionate- too intellectualized to my ears- as if the piece had been deliberately bled to within an inch of its life.

At the conclusion something very strange happened. Hamelin held his hand aloft over the keys, to let the final note resonate and someone in the balcony began to applaud loudly, clapping twice, perhaps three times, then suddenly stopped as if they noticed no one else was and they had broken decorum. Hamelin continued to hold his hand over the keyboard and then the person in the balcony started applauding again, very aggressively, as if to confront the pianist. Finally Hamelin dropped his hand and the entire audience began to enthusiastically applaud, but I felt like I had just watched a performer get mugged onstage. I have no other way to explain it, but it was quite disconcerting.

At intermission I stepped outside to get some air and the evening was interrupted by a bomb going off in my hand in the form of a phone call I took while standing there in cool air. Sadly, I never made it back for the second half of the performance, thus marking the night with successive muggings taking place onstage and off. In speaking later with someone who attended the entire performance and greatly enjoyed it (whose opinion I always respect, even when it differs from my own), the second half went very well. I'm sorry to have missed it and am on my way to a full recovery.