Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Twentieth-Century Concert

I look forward to Ingo Metzmacher’s visits to the San Francisco Symphony. He always prepares interesting programs, and I always enjoy the insights his conducting style offers. This year he chose to begin with a work the Symphony had commissioned, György Ligeti’s “San Francisco Polyphony.” Ligeti’s approach to polyphony may be the closest we get to falling back on Donald Francis Tovey’s characterization of polyphony as texture, although I would not go as far as Michael Steinberg in characterizing Ligeti’s best-known orchestral work, “Atmosphères” as “polyphony-as-blur.” Even when polyphony is at its thickest, the ear seeks out “perceptual objects;” but the objects it finds may vary from one listening to the next.

“San Francisco Polyphony” is an homage to a city that Ligeti described as “one of the most beautiful and most poetic cities of the world.” However, his specific impressions of the city are not explicated by his polyphony. Rather, those impressions emerge from his polyphonic texture, guided by the ear of the listener as much as that of the composer. Indeed, after hearing the work performed, Ligeti himself associated the music with the Vienna of Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg, while I found myself hearing intimations of Richard Strauss in some of the “busier” voice lines.

Because there is so much going on in all of those voice lines, it is hard to assume that a conductor can do anything more than “traffic management.” However, it was clear that Metzmacher had his own thoughts about where the perceptual objects were; and the Symphony seemed willing to give him what he wanted. Still, there is more in this work than can be perceived in a single performance, even if one has been informed by a recording (as I am). Since Ligeti himself calls the work “pure” music, one good way to approach is like a gallery exhibition of abstract art. The ear will find what it finds. On another occasion it may find something else, but that should in no way diminish what one gets out of any single listening experience.

In the first half of the program, Ligeti was following by his Hungarian predecessor, Béla Bartók; and, like “San Francisco Polyphony,” Bartók’s third piano concerto was written in the United States. It was written at the end of his life for his wife, Ditta. Steinberg claims it was intended as a surprise gift. The story I heard as a student was somewhat more tragic:

America was hard on Bartók. Paid work did not come easy, and the compensation he did receive was meager. Furthermore, his health was failing. He knew that death was approaching, and he wanted to leave Ditta with means of support. So the story goes that he wrote a final piano concerto that was more “accessible” than its two predecessors (even to the point that, if you “squint your ears,” so to speak, you may catch a hint or two of the more popular Rachmaninoff). He hoped the work would, itself, be popular enough to leave Ditta with a viable career as a performer.

This story is often told by academics to justify paying more attention to the first two concertos. Taken for what it is, however, this final piano concerto is an exciting piece of work, shining with a positive attitude that one could not associate with an aging composer in deteriorating health. Hélène Grimaud captured that positive attitude with a dazzlingly energetic technique, and Metzmacher supported her with Bartók’s keen ear for orchestral color at every step along the way. As always seems to be the case, we do better to listen to performers like these, rather than the esthetic proclamations of those academics!

In a similar way the final work on the program, the sixth symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, has also been a thorn in the side of the more academically inclined. They do not know what to make of the balance between a long opening largo movement followed by a brief scherzo and a madcap presto, which, together, take less time than that first movement. Of course the final song of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde can take as much time as the five songs that precede it, so Shostakovich may have just wanted to turn Mahler’s architecture on its head. Another possibility is that the symphony may have first been conceived as a single-movement work, after which Shostakovich decided that the audience needed some relief from the hyper-emotionalism of that movement. Certainly the scherzo is more familiar territory, particularly with the mocking sounds of the E-flat clarinet; and, if Steinberg hears Haydn in the final movement, I tend to hear the sort of “Looney Tunes” moments that Prokofiev had elicited in the last movement of his fifth symphony. If nothing else, this movement pulls all the right strings to summon a cheering audience after it goes out with a bang.

This latter hypothesis of “emotional balance” was probably informed by the way in which Metzmacher chose to conduct the symphony. He let the largo play itself out with all the intensity it deserved, allowing it to move forward at its own pace without overstaying its welcome. After that, we all had to breathe (on stage as well as off). The other two movements were there to lift the mood that had descended upon us, and they were delivered with just the right energetic pacing. The audience responded as expected; and, as a result, as the cliché goes, a good time was had by all.

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