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[whitespace] Diabolical Bravura

The San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Ivan Fischer did right by Haydn, Liszt and Bartok at Flint Center in Cupertino

By Scott MacClelland

HOW COULD such a lovely Sunday afternoon in Cupertino suddenly turn into a biblical hell? What had started as a bucolic Danubian lark turned into a seething brimstone on the Dies Irae, then descended even further into a sordid brothel to bear witness to murder most gruesome. By that time, its veneer of propriety scraped clean to the bone, the San Francisco Symphony shrieked and howled with pornophonic pleasure at its April 9 visit to the south bay.

There must have been some in the Flint Center audience who left the concert eager to find absolution and redemption from sin. The rest of us simply reveled in a godless celebration of diabolical bravura and sensual thrills.

Distinguished Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer took the podium to survey musical works by three of his famous countrymen: Josef Haydn, Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok. With an easy physicality, Fischer led a small orchestra in Haydn's Symphony no. 88 in G, one among the composer's first attempts to test the appeal of his music internationally.

As it turned out, subscriptions to public concerts in Paris--the first of their type--mushroomed in response to Haydn's symphonies. So popular did they become that other composers sought to sell their own works under Haydn's name. Haydn was now in his definitive maturity, and the Symphony no. 88 bears all the trademark devices and techniques that one hears in the more frequently performed London symphonies, including a sonata form finale with a startling development section.

Fischer's approach to the piece was generous and warm, not hard-bitten as some young podium Turks like to play it. Unusually, he omitted the first-movement repeat.

Off to the Races

Then it was off to the races with thoroughbred pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet prancing his way through Liszt's Piano Concerto in E flat, one of that composer's most concise essays in any form. Admired as it is for its concision, the work nevertheless remains a virtuoso showpiece, and Thibaudet's keyboard artistry is ideally suited to such stuff.

The young Frenchman (who used to wear red socks to his concerts) always gives an object lesson in how to play the instrument, just as he always goes on to make other pianists feel hopelessly inadequate.

As if he didn't drive those points home in the concerto, he followed up with a blistering performance of Liszt's Totentanz, an absurdly brilliant variations on the 13th-century sequence Dies Irae, that ominous promise of eternal judgment that composers have for more than two centuries wickedly appropriated for terrifying effect. This setting is certainly among the most notorious, from hellish bravura at the keyboard to incendiary effects on the orchestra, punctuated by explosions on the brass.

While he didn't appear to change podium technique, Fischer nevertheless was now tapping the infernal and getting spectacular results from the fully enlarged orchestra.

But even the Liszt was no match for Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin, one of those works that began as a ballet but found its true calling as an independent concert suite. One has to reference Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps to find a precedent that sustains a combination of such symphonic violence and dissonant harmonies. The Flint Center's acoustical sympathy magnified the effects, assaulting the audience with no more pity than befell the mandarin himself.

Without the dance aspect, acquaintance with the original scenario is a key to organizing the listening experience. However, due to its lurid content, children should only be allowed to make sense of the music unaided. Fact is, they can handle it better than most adults.

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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