Last night San Francisco Performances (SFP) made the first appearance of its 2015–2016 season in the recently renovated Herbst Theatre. Many more will come over the course of the season, but it was clear from the welcoming remarks by SFP President Ruth A. Felt that this was a particularly joyous occasion. Most of the music on last night’s program turned out to be a well-wrought reflection on that joy.
The performance itself marked the SFP recital debut of pianist Gloria Cheng, playing in duos with Thomas Adès. With one exception, an early four-hand sonatina by György Ligeti, all the works on the program were for two pianos. Two of them were arrangements that Adès had prepared, one of his own music, a concert paraphrase of excerpts from his opera Powder Her Face, originally written as a piano solo, and the other transcribing two rhythmic studies that Conlon Nancarrow had created by punching player piano rolls by hand. The major work of the evening, however, was Olivier Messiaen’s cycle of seven religious meditations collectively entitled Visions de l’Amen.
This final selection provided the most intense test of the new Herbst acoustics, and the results were definitely impressive. Much of the score evokes the tolling of church bells and the complex nature of the amplitude envelope each time a bell peals. This involves not only the rich spectral content of the sound when the bell is struck but also (and even more critically) the complex reverberations that emerge during the extended decay period. Much of this music is played with the damper pedals raised, and the bodies of two grand pianos can sustain considerable reverberation. The resulting effect was particularly evident at the conclusion of the final movement (titled, appropriately enough, the “Amen of consummation”), when both Adès and Cheng kept their dampers raised until even the faintest echo of reverberation had run its course.
As a composer Messiaen was far more interested in sonority than in more conventional grammatical foundations concerned with harmony, counterpoint, and thematic development. Given that his “day job” was that of a church organist, one might have thought that he would have found a single piano limiting and two of them even more so. However, the sonorous fabric of Visions de l’Amen is as rich as that of any of his orchestral or organ pieces. Adès and Cheng clearly both appreciated the sonorous significance of this music, always skillfully choosing tempos that would allow every instance of spectral coloration to register with the listener. The result was an awe-inspiring experience, intense enough that one could begin to appreciate the extent of Messiaen’s own religious devotion.
In that context, the Powder Her Face paraphrase, which preceded the intermission break before Visions de l’Amen began, made for an ironic contrast. The opera’s libretto, by novelist Philip Hensher, offers a darkly uncompromising view of the decadence of British aristocratic life over the course of the twentieth century. In his own program notes Adès observed that he felt that many of the scenes from this opera “would translate into a piano Paraphrase rather in the manner of Liszt or Busoni.”
The original version of this effort was a piano solo co-commissioned by SFP, the Vancouver Recital Society, and the Barbican in London. The United States premiere took place at an SFP solo recital by Adès on March 16, 2010 (in Herbst Theatre). As might be guessed, that “manner of Liszt or Busoni” emerged as a rich serving of highly ornate embellishment. Indeed, the idea of ornamentation approaching an excess that threatened to obscure what was being ornamented may well have been a reflection on the superficiality of aristocratic life as the very nature of aristocracy became increasingly irrelevant.
Presumably, Adès turned to two pianos to achieve a better balance between the embellishing and the embellished. That version received its premiere in Los Angeles almost two months ago; and, writing as one present at the 2010 performance, the presence of two instruments did much to bring clarity to the “source text.” One could appreciate what the themes were, even if one was unfamiliar with the opera itself. Nevertheless, the second piano also allowed for even more ornamentation to be introduced, possibly out of a desire to try to account for more of the original instrumental content. Dramatically, however, the strongest impact of the paraphrase still came with the passing evocation of Franz Schubert’s D. 531 song “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (death and the maiden), although the protagonist is hardly a maiden by this point in the opera’s narrative.
Most importantly, however, this is music in which the clarity of a thick texture of context is critical to the listening experience. Both performers and acoustics supported that clarity with the fullness of their respective abilities. Thus, from a dramatic point of view, the coupling of Adès’ paraphrase with Messiaen’s religious meditation made for a compelling complementation of the secular and the sacred.
Clarity was also of the essence in Adès’ two Nancarrow arrangements. Each of these amounted to an “experiment” in creating and listening to complex rhythmic patterns. One advantage of the arrangements is that they allowed for more expressive use of dynamics. Nancarrow’s player piano allowed for dynamic control, but it could only provide a single dynamic level for the entire instrument. In the performance by Adès and Cheng, the attentive listener could better grasp the individual threads of Nancarrow’s fabric, often shaped by subtle but clearly identifiable phrasing techniques. If the Nancarrow originals often suggest some sort of “infernal machine,” the “human factor” of last night’s performances escalated his studies to a level of musical experience he might not have anticipated.
The intensity of Nancarrow’s complexity was then relieved by Ligeti’s sonatina in three short movements. Since this was a four-hand piece, it had more of a social element, simply by having the performers sit side-by-side, rather than on opposite ends of the stage behind their extended grand pianos. The work was composed in 1950 and is particularly notable for the lightness of its rhetoric. Indeed, Ligeti seems to have been so taken with the opening movement that, shortly after completing the sonatina, he would refashion it to fit into the plan for his Musica ricercata cycle for solo piano (and that same content would then find its way into the first of six bagatelles for wind quintet composed in 1953). Joy is the dominant rhetoric of the sonatina, and Adès and Cheng were in perfect agreement over conveying that joy.