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S & H International Concert Review

Debussy/Holloway: En Blanc et Noir, Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives, Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, March 12, 2004.

Contemporary English composer Robin Holloway, best known for his concertos for orchestra and his opera, Clarissa, has a particular fascination for Debussy. His scholarship on the turn-of-the-century French composer, conducted in his role as a professor at Cambridge University, is considered pretty much definitive. So, an inspired orchestrator well versed in Debussy seems the perfect composer to tackle the task of bringing Debussy's two-piano work, En Blanc et Noir (1915), to the full orchestra. The new version of the 16-minute work was commissioned by San Francisco Symphony and given its debut performances in this week's subscription concerts.

As a realization of the timbral and textural possibilities in Debussy's music, the piece is endlessly fascinating. Less successful, to my ears, are Holloway's responses to the challenge of transferring pianistic flourishes to wind instruments. In the big, sweeping gestures, Holloway finds some thrilling solutions, but single lines don't always work. In the opening measures, for example, there's a melody with a grace note at its apex, a lovely touch on a piano, not so great when played by a row of French horns. It just sounds like they're missing the note -- in both iterations of the melody -- until the phrase is repeated in the woodwinds. These shorts of details make an audience uncomfortable for the wrong reasons.

At other points in the work, the wash of sound gets a bit thick and muddy, missing the clarity Debussy so carefully crafts, even in his big moments. And En Blanc et Noir has some big moments. Debussy wrote it at a point in his life when he was turning away from big, orchestral works. This was the beginning of the period of his life when he was turning to smaller-scale sonatas and chamber works. Despite his reputation for cushiony harmonies, Debussy gives us plenty of big gestures in these smaller works, and Holloway misses no chance to amp them up for us. The result is a work that seems a bit over-the-top on the calorie count.

It didn't help that it was followed on this program by John Adams' 2003 work, My Father Knew Charles Ives, also a San Francisco Symphony commission. Adams, who calls himself an "American ethnic" composer, pays loving tribute to that quintessentially original American musical force in the dense layering of colloquial and symphonic elements and the reiterations of elements familiar to those who know Ives' orchestral works. Anyone familiar with Three Places in New England will recognize Ives' three-part form, each part anchored to a specific location, and the Impressionistic scene-painting achieved by juxtaposing gauzy, colorful nocturnes with pages of craggy polyrhythms.

Hearing the piece a second time in less than a year -- Tilson Thomas and the orchestra took it on tour to Europe last year and are taking it through the eastern United States next week -- solidifies my earlier estimation that this is one of Adam's most successful scores. In the opening measures, a long trumpet soliloquy floats over a gorgeous carpet of softly dissonant harmonies and colorful woodwind and harp interjections. Repeated hearings reveal subtle, complex harmonies and orchestrations. Adams is clearly a master of his craft, and the highly personal references -- reminiscences of the music he heard wafting across the lake in his New England youth, quotations from other works, from Beethoven to the dance bands in which his father played clarinet -- would have made Ives smile in recognition.

My Father Knew Charles Ives is a tour de force of compositional chops by America's leading composer. It's not as easy to listen to as some of his earlier works for a big orchestra, such as Harmonielehre or Naïve and Sentimental Music, but it seems to me it will take its place as one of the important signposts in serious American music.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, himself a renowned orchestrator, did some of his most vivid work in Scheherezade, which occupied the second half of the concert. It was an opportunity to hear the orchestra's principals put their own personal stamps on Rimsky's generous scattering of melodies for them -- most notably concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who played the heroine's sinuous tunes with slender and slyly sexy charm, and clarinetist David Breeden, who shook a little extra pepper on his moments in the spotlight. Bassoonist Stephen Paulsen and oboist William Bennett also distinguished themselves in their brief turns.

Tilson Thomas steered Rimsky's music down the middle in a reading long on charm, emphasizing the orchestral colors and various personalities. On the way out, thought, the mist on that New Hampshire lake in Adams' music was still wafting in my ears more compellingly.

Harvey Steiman




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