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S & H International Concert Review

Boulez, Messiaen, Ravel, Debussy, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, Jan. 31, 2003 (HS)


Michael Tilson Thomas has shown a powerful feeling for French music during his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony, especially, in previous performances, Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel. Combine that with his enthusiasm for the more colorful wing of late 20th-century music and you have a dazzling, somewhat offbeat program that combines Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen with Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

Boulez studied composition with Messiaen, who in turn learned from Ravel, and it all leads back to that seminal work of 20th-century French music, Debussy's "La Mer." As if to demonstrate how each composer influenced the next, Thomas chose pieces that clearly show these influences, coming as they do in that portion of the composers' careers after they had established their own styles, and he arranged them in reverse chronological order, leading to many "aha" moments when the ear hears something in the earlier music that connects with the later piece. The program began with Boulez's 1976 "Messagesquisse" for seven cellos, followed by Messiaen's 1964 "Couleurs de la Cité Céleste," and Ravel's 1922 "Duo for violin and cello" arranged for string orchestra by assistant concertmaster Mark Volkert, the concert culminating with Debussy's 1905 masterpiece.

This order of performance also leads from the cello-only timbre of the Boulez to the percussion, brass and woodwinds (no strings) of the Messaien, to the strings-only Ravel and finally to the glorious, full orchestra of the Debussy. Want another connection? The first movement from the "duo" got its first hearing at a 1921 concert organized to honor Debussy.

"La Mer" is the wellspring of much we associate with French 20th-century music, not least because in it Debussy finally moved away from the fuzzy water-color harmonies of his earlier music into a more muscular, incisive sound. That links it to Ravel's "Duo" music, which in the original version manages to suggest dense, even astringent harmonies. And that connects with Messiaen's outrageously colorful harmonic palette, the echoes of which can be heard, pared down to an essence, in the Boulez.

All that would mean little if the music did not deliver something beyond an intellectual game. The major thread that ties these pieces together is a particularly French fascination with timbre. In that, the symphony did itself proud, reveling in the sheer joy of orchestral colors. The opening bars of the Boulez, for example, linger over the six whole notes of a tone row, the solo cello stating each in turn while one of the other cellos picks it up, pianissimo, holding it to form a chord. Boulez goes on to develop the tone row, creating some paradoxically beautiful dissonances.

For Messiaen, famous for seeing actual colors in musical sound, writing a piece called "colors of a celestial city" represents a chance to write those colors on a big canvas. He does so, with his trademark clanging of gongs, rattling of marimbas and xylophones and big brass rhetoric. He also puts these sounds cheek-by-jowl with complete disregard for compositional transitions. The effect can be jarring, and in this piece, as with much of Messiaen, it's tempting to wonder where it is going. Let's put it this way. It's not an easy first half for those who came for "La Mer."

To be sure, the orchestra found a more comfortable footing in the Ravel and Debussy pieces that occupied the second half. Volker's deft setting of the "Duo" expanded only subtly on Debussy's original voicings, only occasionally filling it out with more than two- or three-part harmonies. Especially luminous was the slow movement, which found magic in solo work by Volkert, in the concert master's chair, and principal cellist Michel Grebanier, delicately emerging into a string quartet with the addition of a second violin and viola, before expanding into the full ensemble. The piece works beautifully for string orchestra. Volkert's orchestration should find a home with many orchestras.

The glory of the concert was "La Mer," which found all the orchestra's principals playing brilliantly, in particular flutist Paul Renzi, English horn Julie Ann Giacobassi and principal clarinet David Breeden. Thomas stressed clarity in his conducting, especially of texture and rhythm. Harmonies emerged in rich colors and the attention to rhythm paid off big time as the climax built with a naturalness that made them feel exactly the sea rising and washing across the prow, making a thrilling climax to a thought-provoking concert.

Harvey Steiman

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