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Music review: George Benjamin in San Francisco

January 15, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Reporting from San Francisco

George Benjamin -- who is the featured composer in the San Francisco Symphony’s "Project San Francisco" festival this month and who will be music director of the Ojai Music Festival in June -- is known as Britain’s French composer. That’s because as a teenager he studied in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and a decade later returned to the French capital to work with Pierre Boulez. And it’s because Benjamin has a sensual streak, a flare for color and a musical mind that works rationally.

Benjamin Thursday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, Benjamin conducted a program that included his first work, “Ringed by the Flat Horizon,” and the West Coast premiere of his most recent, the extraordinary “Duet” for piano and orchestra. He surrounded his music with luxuriant readings of Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and “Rhapsodie  Espagnole.”  In the center of the program was Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques,” a bird orgy, also for piano and orchestra.

Everything played off everything else. Benjamin brought out, for instance, the piccolo tweets in the “Tom Thumb” section of “Mother Goose,” and he attended the naiveté and near eroticism of Messiaen’s music. “Flat Horizon” reflected what might have been the pastels of Provence. “Duet” expressed the Cartesian clarity of thought, the originality of timbre and texture, the exquisite incisiveness of Boulez. 

Still, we do well not to let too many preconceptions of France fence Benjamin in. The curious thing about this British composer, who turns 50 on the last day of January, is that he has slowly and with extreme meticulousness carved out his own musical niche.

He’s been much written about, having made a splash in 1980 with “Ringed by the Flat Horizon.” His music seduces the ear and makes sense, yet his work and his development are not easy to describe. Despite its obvious influences, Benjamin’s music exerts a certain mystery.

Part of the problem with Benjamin is that we don’t have a lot to work with. He composes slowly, laboriously. His largest score is his only opera, “Into the Little Hill,” completed in 2006. It is 37 minutes. “Duet,” Benjamin’s piano concerto (or, as he puts it, “anti-piano concerto”) and his next major composition, was given its premiere by the Cleveland Orchestra, with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland 15 months ago. Thursday’s San Francisco Symphony performance, conducted by the composer and with the excellent British pianist Nicolas Hodges, lasted less than 12 minutes.

Benjamin removes the violins and brings out percussion instruments that mirror aspects of the piano sonorities, especially in the percussion. Harp and tubular bells are prominent. A celesta is placed in front of the orchestra (next to the solo piano), and its fantasias of tinkles sounded almost like an extension of Hodges’ right hand.

“Duet” begins with the pianist picking out pitches percussively. The orchestra enters to enlarge the picture but also to further focus it. Basses are plucked like bass notes of the piano and softly struck drums underscore the quality of the plucked basses. Often the orchestra has the texture of sonic velvet and that is particularly enticing when it includes the brass.

At its center, “Duet” slows down and the sound fragments to almost nothing. The piano’s chords and pitches become isolated, while the orchestra supplies wisps of gaseous clouds. Movement is resumed, and we move on to glittery realms. The concerto ends abruptly, but the sounds are so special that they seem to echo with long afterlife.

“Ringed by the Flat Horizon,” which took its title from T.S. Eliot and its inspiration from a photograph of a New Mexico thunderstorm, is precocious. It has the cosmic sense of “Duet” without the concision. But it also has lovely passages of thick sonorities that satisfyingly stretch a thunderstorm to epic proportions. A solo cello adds useful lyricism.

On the podium, Benjamin is friendly but not animated. He easily loses himself in Ravelian lushness and in details and inner lines that interest him as a composer -- hence the “Mother Goose” aviary. But he balances sensation with rhythmic acuity, and so his Messiaen sang as well as twittered. Hodges played this difficult music, as well as "Duet," with uncanny confidence.

In 1992 Benjamin led a six-week festival with the San Francisco Symphony. This was his first time back, but the orchestra played as if for an old friend. It also honored him with the kind of substantial program notes and essays that few orchestras bother with anymore. 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: George Benjamin. Credit: Betty Freeman