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New piece is no 'bang on a drum' all-star
- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, June 11, 2005
Suppose you're composer William Kraft, and you've written a marvelous timpani concerto full of dazzle and wit. Now David Herbert, the brilliant young principal timpanist of the San Francisco Symphony, asks you for another one. What do you do for an encore?
I have no idea, and I suspect Kraft didn't either. His Timpani Concerto No. 2, which Herbert and the Symphony premiered in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night, sounds like the work of a composer twisting and squirming and trying in every way he can to get out of writing the piece he's agreed to write.
Kraft has spent his entire career in Los Angeles, right in Hollywood's backyard. Surely he knows about the dangers of sequels.
In truth, you don't even have to remember Kraft's Timpani Concerto No. 1, written in 1983 and thrillingly played by Herbert and the Symphony in 1999, to sense that something is amiss in the new one, which bears the inscrutable title "XIII/The Grand Encounter."
There's plenty of vivid, dramatic writing in the 21-minute score, but the soloist hardly gets any of it. He thwacks away to underscore the big, stomping "Rite of Spring" chords that open the piece, and he provides a rhythmic foundation for much of the full-orchestra writing (most of it fairly loud and dense) that follows.
But opportunities to show off, or even to engage in the traditional dramatic byplay with the orchestra, are scarce. There's an extended cadenza for the entire percussion section plus harp, and a fetching little solo for the principal flute (beautifully played by Robin McKee).
Finally, the soloist gets a brief moment in the spotlight, but Kraft quickly ushers him off again, as though he were a drunken cousin allowed to make one short toast at the wedding. Even the performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that followed intermission gave Herbert a more prominent role. For his piece, Herbert commissioned the creation of a series of small, high- pitched timpani to complement the traditional instruments, and he performed within a ring of 15 timpani of various sizes. Yet not even having this wider tonal palette available seems to have inspired the composer to let the soloist cut loose. What's strange is that Kraft is a percussionist himself, who spent many years as principal timpanist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And still the entire project is infused with a sense of ambivalence, even embarrassment, over the very notion of a timpani concerto.
The program notes go on at great length about Kraft's reluctance to write even his first concerto; the main drama behind this piece was evidently Herbert's virtuosic arm-twisting to get it written. It was a Pyrrhic victory.
For the rest of the evening, Michael Tilson Thomas led a rough-hewn, intermittently potent account of the Beethoven Ninth to conclude his 10th season as music director. For much of the performance, he seemed intent on achieving a certain athletic vigor even at the expense of clarity or ensemble.
So the first movement galloped along in a rambunctious way, its textures often coarse-grained (especially in the mysterious opening measures) and its rhetoric impassioned but blunt. The scherzo zipped past at top speed, even in the trio, where the fast tempo tripped up one or two of the instrumentalists.
But things came more into focus in the slow movement, done with a winning combination of tonal sweetness and rhythmic energy, and the choral finale was a powerhouse display of communal urgency.
Raymond Aceto was the wonderfully imposing bass soloist, issuing his artistic call to arms in ringing tones, and he was ably joined by soprano Twyla Robinson, mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. The Symphony Chorus, led by Vance George, brought lusty, well-tuned vitality to the performance.
San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and next Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall and at 8 p.m. Friday at Flint Center, Cupertino. Tickets: $30-$103. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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©2005 San Francisco Chronicle