George Benjamin leads San Francisco Symphony

Exotic birds fill Davies Symphony Hall

The San Francisco Symphony held a two-week mini-festival to honor George Benjamin, this year’s British composer-in-residence. He personally conducted the second of three programs, held Jan 14 -16, interspersing an early success and a recent piece of his own between Ravel and Messiaen, composers who shaped his work.

It was informative to hear a composer amid his influences, drawing our ear to musical lineage and strands of harmonic DNA.

Benjamin made a splash as a 20-year-old with Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980), deriving his French coloring from Ravel. His more recent Duet (2008) displayed the exotic pull of Spectralism and the fearless harmonies and rhythms of Messiaen.

His program opened with Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, a collection of passages named for Mother Goose stories. Originally designed for children to play as four-hands piano, we heard his later orchestral version. Ravel kept the spirit of gentle wonder, but spiced it with harp and flute, and one was reminded that Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, originally scored for piano and likewise an episodic journey.

Ravel’s exotic timbres informed a generation.

Flutist Tim Day set the slow opening with liquid tones, and violins entered after with a high shimmering note. In “Tom Thumb” the harp and marimba lent gorgeous textures, from silken to sullen, and in “Beauty and the Beast” Nadya Tichman’s violin portrayed a sweet fullness against a contrabassoon’s gruff Beast.

When Benjamin wrote Duet, he was re-thinking the concerto form. “The piano has a fairly homogeneous tone-color,” he noted. “Chords begin to die away the moment they’re struck. Orchestral timbres are immensely varied. There is a fundamental incompatibility between these resources.”

Rather than the usual mediation, he decided to celebrate their differences.

Enter Nicholas Hodges

Stage right emptied as violins deserted, while handlers brought in an array of gongs and other percussion. Using forceful and oddly bright intervals, pianist Nicholas Hodges sharply fingered single notes, filtering Messiaen through a Spectralist attention to decay. Low notes gave way to rumbling figures, and muted brass hollowed the air. Winds entered, festive with the clack of wooden blocks.

Bright celeste and tubular bells, growl of trombone, sharply limned piano notes against a pool of brass and bows—Hedges maintained a striking self-assurance in the unresolved tensions.

When next they played Oiseaux exotiques, it became clear how much Benjamin owed to Messiaen. Just 16 when he apprenticed to the 68-year-old composer, Benjamin learned Hindu rhythms and exotic birdsongs from his master. And that mastery was evident at Davies. The further reduced orchestra—principal winds, brass and percussion—joined piano in a display of Asian and American bird songs which Messiaen assembled into a work of haunting delicacy and power.

Hodges pummeled the keys with lightning passages that paused and repeated with the insistence of mating urges. His spine-tingling display of virtuosity was answered by perfect winds—Carey Bell led the clarinets, William Bennett on oboe, flutes that strutted and cawed, and sensual French horns. A cymbal’s thunder was answered by piano trickles and wood thrush warbles. Then sharp unisons propelled the dramatic finish.

After this display, Benjamin’s early Ringed by the Flat Horizon felt nearly traditional. Sourcing T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and the New Mexico desert, the work may have inspired Michael Daugherty’s Ghost Ranch, as both enjoy an open coloring and thunder of distant storms. Rising phrases and an earnest cello added to the dreamy quality of the performers, while its thin textures paraded their artistry.

The Symphony concluded with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, where the lustrous satins of Ravel’s weave balanced Benjamin’s somewhat pedestrian pace.

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma appears with the Symphony this week, from Jan. 20 to 26. For tickets and times see

—Adam Broner

Photo top, George Benjamin, photo by Betty Freeman; Photo bottom, Nicholas Hodges