Maverick Wrap-Up

by Sedgwick Clark

I didn’t react favorably to all the works in Michael Tilson Thomas’s American Mavericks series, which has consumed this blog for three weeks. But that’s not the point: This is the kind of programming that keeps our concert halls vital, and the full houses certainly bespoke wide interest, especially among younger listeners. As I write this (4/19), I look forward to a program tonight at Carnegie Hall of George Crumb’s music, courtesy of Leon Botstein and the American Symphony. Among other works, I’ll hear Crumb’s Star-Child, which I haven’t heard live since its premiere in 1977 with Boulez and the New York Philharmonic. Long may these enterprising conductors wave!

Partch, Bates, Del Tredici, Harrison (3/29)

The music of California composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) is genuinely unique, played only on instruments he himself created. My interest has been known to wander in his longer works, but his 17-minute Daphne of the Dunes (1958; rev. 1967) was an aural delight and never outstayed its welcome. I was struck by the similarity of the work’s opening rhythm to the fandango beat in Bernard Herrmann’s title music for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

Mason Bates’s “stylistic signature,” writes Thomas May in the program notes, is “the blend of acoustic instrumentalists and/or singers with electronic sounds.” The quarter-hour Mass Transmission, for organ, electronica (the composer’s own moniker for his “palette of digital samplings and techno beats”), and chorus, was composed for this festival. It sets texts by early 20th-century Dutch parents attempting to reach their children in Java via radio and an online blog describing a woman’s impressions of Java. The 35-year-old Bates’s music sounded like ’60s MOR.

At intermission, composer David Del Tredici (b. 1937) upstaged his own music with his personal performance art involving a youngish man, chains, and a silver-spiked dog collar and leash. In his comments prior to conducting DDT’s piece, MTT with tongue in cheek called him “the most maverick composer in the room.” DDT’s 45-year-old 12-tone Syzygy for soprano and 20 instrumentalists sets poems by James Joyce—a far cry from his latter-day neo-Romantic Alice in Wonderland period. It received a committed performance from the not-always-ideally-audible soprano Kiera Duffy and MTT. A few days later, I listened to Richard Dufallo’s 1970s Columbia recording of Syzygy and found it a much more approachable, less dissonant piece. I have no idea which best represents it.

Those colorful percussion instruments had all the fun in Lou Harrison’s Organ Concerto with Percussion Orchestra (1973). I can’t imagine that Paul Jacobs, the fine soloist, enjoyed playing the 1974 Rodgers electro-acoustic organ. For all I know, its desiccated wheeze was the authentic timbre of an organ baking in Java’s salt air, but it certainly wasn’t a balm to the ears. Most interesting to me was Harrison’s borrowing of Varèse’s ambling Ionisation rhythm for the snare drums early in the concerto.

Reich, Monk, Foss, Subotnick (3/30)

Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) is one of his minimalist, all-percussion works that never fails to send an audience into ecstasy. What a great concert opener!

Meredith Monk (b. 1942) is Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 2012, but she is also a singer, keyboardist, dancer, choreographer, director, and film maker. Her Realm Variations, for several San Francisco instrumentalists and her own vocal ensemble, demonstrated that her status as a composer is no less distinguished. It was the most sheerly beautiful piece in the festival, and I look forward to a recording so I can get to know it well.

I heard Lukas Foss (1922-2009) play the piano part of his Echoi (1963) two or three times over the years, and I have his recording on Epic, but it never seemed to run as long as this performance did. He allowed for improvisation in the piece, which I presume accounts for the inflation. The program book lists 24 minutes, but these fine performers took 30:10. Too long.

It pains me to report that I found little to engage me in Jacob’s Room: Monodrama by Morton Subotnick (b. 1930), a composer whose early electronic works for Nonesuch Records I admire greatly. Jacob has undergone many incarnations, including a full-length opera, since 1985. In the new version, music and text for several characters in the opera are now given to a single voice, spoken and sung by the composer’s wife, soprano Joan La Barbara. Electronic manipulation “throws” her voice and what the program bio describes as “her unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques—multiphonics, circular breathing, ululation, and glottal clicks” around the auditorium in a manner that I found distracting to such a serious subject, which the composer explains thusly: “The basic notion of Jacob’s Room is that holocausts are not just local catastrophes; they also gradually destroy the thin fabric we have of being human. They deprive us of the artifacts we have created and our empathy as a group. When these things fall apart, we find ourselves alone in the universe.” Simplicity was called for.

Looking forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

4/23 Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space. Cutting Edge Concerts/Victoria Bond, conductor and host. Theodore Wiprud: My Last Duchess (world premiere). Robert Sirota: The Clever Mistress (New York premiere). Fully staged one-act operas.

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