Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Lera Auerbach’s Imaginative Diptych for SFP

Pianist and composer Lera Auerbach (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night Lera Auerbach returned to Herbst Theatre to make her fourth appearance presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). This time she came as the third of the four pianists giving recitals in the 2017–2018 Piano Series. Her program was a particularly special one, however, because the second half consisted entirely of the world premiere of Labyrinth, which was commissioned by SFP and written in honor of SFP Founder and President Emeritus Ruth Felt. This extended suite, roughly 50 minutes in duration, was preceded by another extended suite of approximately the same duration, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

It would be fair to describe Labyrinth as a “response” to the “call” of Mussorgsky’s suite. However, the response tends to be more one of differences, rather than similarities. Mussorgsky composed a well-considered “promenade” through an imagined but orderly display of drawings and watercolors produced by Viktor Hartmann. Auerbach’s labyrinth certainly has order; but it is, to paraphrase Henry Miller, an order which is not necessarily readily understood. Thus, in place of Mussorgsky’s “Promenade” movements, which guide the lister from one visual impression to another, Auerbach introduces an imagined character called the Traumwanderer (dream wanderer), whose “passages” follow the twists and turns of the composer’s imagined labyrinth in which pictures have been replaced by the “imaginary beings” conceived by Jorge Luis Borges.

However, before examining the nature of these passages and beings, it is necessary to consider Auerbach’s “response” as a pianist to the “call” of Mussorgsky’s score. The very opening notes were delivered with intense attacks and raised dampers that allowed the entire body of the piano to resonate with every note. Rather than serving as a polite entry into a room of images, Auerbach confronted the listener with a challenge:
I know you have heard this music many times before; but, believe me, this time will be different!
There is no doubt that difference was established to a significant, if not awe-inspiring, degree.

The most evident feature involved wild swings between dynamic extremes. Just as wild were her virtually unfettered approaches to rapid passages, played as if the keys were about to fly away from the body of the instrument. In addition there was her ability to invent embellishments for certain passages that had not been captured by Mussorgsky’s marks on paper, every one of which made perfect sense in the context of the notes that the composer did write. Finally, there was some sense of a tongue-in-cheek reminder that Mussorgsky was subject to fits of madness, which were probably related to his alcoholism. Auerbach seemed to be channeling a persona that was not quite in its right mind, but there was never a sense that her own performing was about to run off the rails.

Labyrinth, on the other hand, might be viewed as a journey through efforts to seek out order in the midst of a vast imagined confusion. In addressing the audience before playing her music, Auerbach stressed that the audience was not obliged to know anything about Borges’ imaginary beings, just as most who listen to Mussorgsky’s suite have seen few, if any, of Hartmann’s images. Indeed, even the Traumwanderer music is more of a mood setting than the clearly defined theme of Mussorgsky’s “Promenade” movements. That mood then inhabits those imaginary beings that inhabit Auerbach’s labyrinth, and it is unlikely that even those familiar with Borges’ descriptions would have recognized them on the basis of only a single listening experience.

However, if the level of detail was never “intuitively obvious,” one had no trouble apprehending the overall rhetoric of uncertainty. Indeed, in her remarks Auerbach even made it clear that most listeners could well get lost in her labyrinth. However, she assured all that she would eventually lead us to the exit.

Thus, I have no trouble asserting that my own listening skills were put to the test. Nevertheless, while there were times when, even with the title headings on the program sheet, I was not sure where I was, as I wandered further into Auerbach’s labyrinth, I realized I could look back and detect the first signs of order in where I had been. By the time I reached the exit that Auerbach has prepared, I realized that I was all set to make the journey again. I just hope that I do not have to wait too long for my next venture into that labyrinth!

As a “reward” for our completing her journey, Auerbach served up four encores, announcing none of them. The one everyone recognized was a repeat of the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” from the Mussorgsky suite. Auerbach served up a clear sense of humor when she performed this in the context of the entire suite, and her humor was just as enjoyable in the excerpt. That selection was preceded by music by Alexander Scriabin that I have not yet had enough experience to identify. The chicks were then followed by two of Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas. Here, too, I cannot recognize all of them specifically; but the second was the K. 9 in D minor, which seems to be a favorite for many pianists, past and present. (In my personal collection of recordings, one of those “past” pianists is Dinu Lipatti.)

[added 3/28, 10:35 a.m.:

The Scriabin encore was the second (in A minor) of the Opus 11 set of 24 preludes in all of the major and minor keys. (I feel very sheepish about this, since I actually put some time into learning to play that particular prelude!) The first of the two Scarlatti encores was the K. 149, also in A minor.]

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