I use that noun "atmosphere" in recognition of what (thanks to Stanley Kubrick) may be the best known composition of György Ligeti, "Atmosphères." Composed in 1961, this work for full orchestra with 55 distinct string parts did not necessarily challenge our awareness the way Javanese gamelan does; but it certainly challenged any sense of awareness based on "musical objects," so to speak. In place of the usual perceptual categories of themes, harmonic progressions, or voices in contrapuntal interplay, there was only a tightly (but intricately) woven texture, from which the mind behind the ear was at liberty to form its own perceptual categories.
Six years later Ligeti made his own individual move closer to the spirit of the Javanese aesthetic. The result was "Lontano;" and Michael Tilson Thomas chose this work to open this season's subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. The title of the work means "distant;" and the experience of listening to it is rather like trying to hear sounds from a distance very close to the threshold of your perceptions. Thus, any sense of beginning or ending comes not from the music but from the inferences we draw by observing Thomas at the podium. (Ligeti was apparently well aware of this, particularly since I was left wondering if the last few measures that Thomas led with a light pulse from his baton were actually a tacet for the entire orchestra. Was this actually the case, or had the sounds finally diminished beyond my own threshold of perception? My guess is that Ligeti wanted me to think about this question, without necessarily arriving conclusively at an answer.)
Thomas prefaced his performance with a few remarks to prepare us for the experience. This was probably a good thing. In the past his audiences have had problems with what I have called "the unbearable being of silence," particularly when he has programmed the six short orchestral pieces of Anton Webern. However, last night's audience was as silent as I have ever heard them (so to speak) and did not appear to be uncomfortable with being subjected to sounds that could barely be heard. The result was sublime, almost in the physical sense of the word denoting the direct transition from solid to gaseous state, in this case applied to the "sublimation" of those usually anticipated "musical objects." When you think about it, Thomas' decision to launch his new season with a work so subtle (and, in many respects, still experimental forty years after its completion) was a bold move; and the enthusiasm with which his audience embraced this move once he set down his baton (and we could all assume the performance had concluded) is a sign that San Francisco remains a good city in which to hone one's craft at being a better listener.
"Lontano" was followed by a performance of Francis Poulenc's D minor concerto for two pianos; and my application of the adjective "sublime" to Ligeti might be seen as an invitation to apply the adjective "ridiculous" to Poulenc. My guess is that Poulenc would not be offended by that invitation. After all he was one of the more prominent members of "Les Six," a group of six French composers whose "patron saint" was Erik Satie, much of whose own compositional work seemed calculated to draw our attention to the ridiculous. Thus, in many respects Poulenc's concerto can be seen as an effort to take all prevailing expectations of a concerto for piano (or pianos) and orchestra and stomp all over them with barely (if at all) repressed glee. Consequently, while Felix Mendelssohn had undertaken two such "double piano" concertos, the composer most associated with such an ensemble was still Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Mozart is very much present in the three movements (particularly the second) of Poulenc's concerto. Furthermore, it is not the apotheosized Mozart of the academic specialists; rather, it is the unabashedly bratty Mozart who so enjoyed writing all those scatological letters to his sister (and setting similar texts to music).
To make matters even more interesting in light of my introductory paragraph, this is also the Poulenc who heard a Balinese gamelan at the Colonial Exposition of Paris roughly a year before he began work on this concerto; and, whatever his understanding may have been of what he heard, this is very much a work in the spirit of Balinese, rather than Javanese, aesthetic. We are shocked to attention by the very first gesture, and the music never releases its grip on that attention until the final chord. The sounds are anything but Balinese, even when Poulenc is confining himself to the pentatonic scale of Balinese metallophones. Rather, probably as an offering to "saint" Satie, both melodic lines and harmonic support are infused with the grammar and rhetoric (if not logic) of music for popular entertainment; so both the ancient traditions of Bali and the more familiar traditions of Mozart are swallowed up by the spirit of the music hall, digested by Poulenc's own compositional logic, and transformed into his unique form of energy.
Needless to say, that kind of energy only works when it is properly honored by the performers. We know we can expect such treatment from Thomas; and his soloists, Katia and Marielle Labèque, were unabashedly within the spirit of the moment. They must be reading some of the remarks in the popular press, which have noted that they are turning 50 in the same year as Madonna, since it was clear that their matching purple and green outfits had as much to do with the spirit of the music as their keyboard technique did. The "bratty" adjective again comes to mind, but again with the same positive connotation that can be applied to Mozart. Also, for all the furious energy with which they attacked their respective keyboards, they never overplayed any of Poulenc's "jokes of appropriation," whether he was deliberately warping favorite passages from Mozart, the keyboard virtuosity of Sergei Rachmaninoff, or a revised take on a passage from his own sextet for piano and wind quintet, which he had completed shortly before beginning this concerto. These were all throw-away gags, designed not to take over the attention, lest our listening experience miss out on the next one that unfolds.
After the intermission, Thomas concluded his program with Sergei Prokofiev's fifth symphony in B-flat major (Opus 100). This is the symphony that the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic performed in Davies almost a year ago under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov in a performance that, when it was given in Carnegie Hall, led New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini to invoke the spirit of Looney Tunes. Such a perspective made it an excellent companion to the Poulenc concerto; and, while the symphony was not completed until January of 1945, it is worth observing that Prokofiev was in Paris when the Poulenc concerto was first performed and, given his artistic connections, was probably well aware of the work. This does not mean that he was channeling Poulenc while working on this symphony; but, for all the dues that Prokofiev had to pay to being a proper Soviet composer, the work reveals any number of intimations of irreverence.
Since there was no way I could ignore my past listening experience, I feel it would be fair to address last night's in terms of what I wrote after hearing Temirkanov:
Regular readers know that I am not one to place Prokofiev in the same company with Mozart and Beethoven. I have called him a "burned-out firebrand" and celebrated his raucous qualities. His fifth symphony gives us more of the raucous, but without the cinematic backup of his Alexander Nevsky music. The Andante and Adagio movements are meditative, but the seem to be meditating more on big sounds than anything else. The scherzo between them seems to have picked up a pop-style cadence and keeps tossing it around the way a dog would a stuffed toy. As is the case with the dog, the novelty wears off before the enthusiasm. The final movement pulls out all the stops for both energy and sound, somewhat like a locomotive pulling a train too fast to control. Needless to say, this was where one could appreciate all the machinery behind Temirkanov's technique as a conductor and the fearlessness of his musicians to follow him anywhere. Tommasini invoked the spirit of Looney Tunes, but there was too much seriousness of purpose for that metaphor to stick. I prefer the locomotive metaphor, because one listens in the fear that the entire ensemble will derail; but Temirkanov's hand is too steady to allow that to happen.
In listening to Thomas' own stamp on this music, I was probably most drawn to the way in which he took an almost lyrical approach to the scherzo, thus relying less on that sense of novelty. If the basic ideas of this movement run the risk of recurring too many times, Thomas found a way to bring uniqueness to each recurrence. The result was that, as was the case with the Poulenc concerto, that "pop-style" wit spoke for itself without sounding too forced. I had never heard the scherzo played quite this way in any of my previous experiences with the symphony, and it was refreshing. Similarly, Thomas knew how to bring just the right level of urgency to the rising energy levels of the Andante and Adagio movements, which may actually be why he let go of that urgency in his approach to the scherzo; and the final movement was, once again, a case of over-the-top fearless abandon. The locomotive was still the dominant metaphor; but, particularly in the context that the Poulenc concerto had set, the Looney Tunes spirit was more evident in Thomas' reading than it had been in Temirkanov's.
From that point of view, I rather hope that this is the program that the San Francisco Symphony will be taking to opening night at Carnegie Hall. I have great admiration of Tommasini as one of the more perceptive writers about both music and how it is performed, and my decision to buy tickets at the last minute to hear Temirkanov was motivated by my reading his review. So I would be very much interested in reading what he would have to say about Thomas' approach to Prokofiev, both on its own merits and in terms of the context set by this particular program.