Brit composer celebrates The City 

So far, 2010 is shaping up as a landmark year for George Benjamin. The British composer, who turns 50 this month, has performances of his music scheduled throughout the year in cities around the world. And the celebration starts in San Francisco.

Benjamin will be in The City Thursday through Jan. 17 to launch the San Francisco Symphony’s new Project San Francisco.

The multi-faceted residency program includes two weeks of orchestral concerts, chamber performances, talks and related events (the project also features a second residency with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Jan. 19-26.)

The program offers a rare retrospective on Benjamin, whose appearances in the Bay Area have been all too infrequent. For the composer, it’s a chance to return to one of his favorite orchestras.

“This orchestra and its musicians have a very dear place in my heart,” Benjamin said in a recent call from England. “I’m thrilled at the thought of so much activity and so much to do on this visit.”

In addition to Benjamin’s music, the programs include works by his most profound influences, including French composer Olivier Messiaen. The first concert (performed Thursday through Sunday), conducted by David Robertson, features the West Coast premiere of Benjamin’s “Dance Figures.” The composer’s “Jubilation,” Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony and Debussy’s Three Etudes complete the lineup.

Benjamin conducts the second program (Jan. 14-16), which pairs his recent piano concerto, “Duet,” with his first major orchestral work, “Ringed by the Flat Horizon.” It also includes Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and “Rapsodie espagnole,” and Messiaen’s “Oiseaux exotiques.”

The music traces Benjamin’s stylistic progression from youth to maturity. “You’ll hear that the sound I make in my pieces has changed a lot,” he says. “I think there’s a greater clarity in the more recent pieces, intentionally so.”

Benjamin is particularly pleased to share the podium with Robertson. “He’s been my most loyal and enthusiastic supporter,” the composer says. “He’s done more performances of my music than any other conductor.”

Benjamin emerged as a gifted prodigy nearly three decades ago; at age 16, he became Messiaen’s favorite student. He made his S.F. Symphony debut in 1992 as conductor, pianist and artistic director of the orchestra’s Wet Ink Festival, and returned in 1999 to conduct his own “Viola, Viola” — which will be performed by SFS musicians on the chamber concert Jan. 17.

Later this year, Benjamin will assume a new role, as music director of Southern California ’s Ojai Music Festival.

For now, though, he’s focused on San Francisco. “It’s a special moment in my life,” he says. “I know what a particularly wonderful orchestra the San Francisco Symphony is right now, so it will be a real delight for me to work on these pieces there.”


Project San Francisco

Presented by San Francisco Symphony

6:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday for opening concerts; programming continues through Jan. 26
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15 to $145
Contact: (415) 864-6000,
Note: The opening concert also is at 8 p.m. Thursday at Flint Center, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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