Symphonic work responds to Ives’ ‘Question’ 

Charles Ives’ 1906 “The Unanswered Question” is one of the most original and dramatic works in contemporary music. A brief, gripping piece, it has a trumpet located behind the audience playing a mysterious theme (the “question”), with offstage strings responding, but not resolving, the suspense created by the music.

San Francisco Symphony has commissioned a work from Russian composer Victor Kissine called “Post-scriptum,” which was inspired by “The Unanswered Question.” It gets its world premiere in Davies Symphony Hall next week.

Is his work the “answer”? Kissine says absolutely not. Speaking from Belgium where he is a professor at the conservatory, the composer, born in St. Petersburg in 1953, says, “The Ives piece has no end. The main protagonist is the listener, who asks a question. I do not pretend to give an ‘answer,’ just to put myself in the position of the ‘listener.’”

James M. Keller’s program notes describe Kissine’s music as displaying “an edgy, quivering quality, [deriving] important aspects of its character from minute details of sound such as trills, glissandi and insistent arpeggios. At heart, his music seems infused by a cool objectivity born of ultraprecise notation — a meticulously defined text from which an interpreter may build.”

Kissine’s own description of “Post-scriptum” provides an analysis of Ives’ puzzling construction: “What we actually hear [in “The Unanswered Question”] is a theme constructed out of series of five sounds. But one can say that there are, in fact, six sounds, because, every time the question is repeated, the last sound changes, forming with the preceding one an interval of either minor or major third.

The idea, the subject, the form, the tonal order, and the orchestration of my ‘Post-scriptum’ all stem precisely from this alternating sequence.”

The upcoming concerts, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, also feature Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” and Liszt’s “Tasso: Lament and Triumph.” The program centerpiece is Tchaikovsky’s huge, demanding Violin Concerto, with soloist Christian Tetzlaff.

The German violinist, a frequent visitor to San Francisco since 1991, was named Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year” in 2005; he’s won various honors for his numerous recordings.

When the San Francisco orchestra goes on a national tour in March, Kissine’s “Post-scriptum,” Tetzlaff and the Tchaikovsky piece will be featured in Illinois, Michigan, Washington’s Kennedy Center, and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony
 
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and March 5-6; 2 p.m. March 7
Tickets: $15 to $140
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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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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