Other Minds 24, Concert Three, Reviving the Music of a Forgotten Master


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Photo: Ebbe Yovino-Smith

The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series.  Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex.  The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.

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But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event).  When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step.  When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”

If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music.  A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key.  Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought.  1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.

Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris.  It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work.  This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.

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Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.

While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music.  That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive.  One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.

The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs.  You can download a PDF file of the program here.  It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.

One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers.  Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music.  Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann.  His extensive information on the subject can be found here.

The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos.  It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals.  The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett.  This was a US premiere.

Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days).  This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.

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Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.

Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere).  The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”.  It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers.  What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive.  Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.

Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works.  She would appear in the second half of the program.

If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique.  Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning.  So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.

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Shot of the two piano stage set up.  Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.

It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket.  As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo.  The link to their work in that area can provide more information,

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Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo

They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives.  It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.

Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.

Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn.  As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus.  This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.

The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963).  This time they performed without a conductor.  Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically.  This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently.  And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.

Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38:  Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959).  Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance.  The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present.  What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.

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The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two.  Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion.  This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight.  It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony.  The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.

This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”.  Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.

Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it.  With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement.  This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.

On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer.  The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.

Kenji Bunch’s Snow Queen


 

Kenji Bunch (1973- ) is a musician whose name has made it to my personal orbit many times but this is my first encounter with his music and what an encounter it is!  This two disc set comprises a full length ballet commissioned and performed by the Eugene (Oregon) Ballet.

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Kenj Bunch

Bunch is an American composer who hails from Portland, Oregon the child of a Japanese mother and a Scottish father.  He studied at Julliard and this is approximately the 18th CD release to contain his music (if I counted correctly).  A prolific composer, one can find a decent listing of his compositions on his website.  And he was a violist performing with the esteemed Portland Youth Philharmonic from 1986-1991/

There are at least two symphonies, numerous soloists and orchestra pieces as well as solo instrumental music.  Though I’ve heard just snippets of his music aside from the disc under review here I think I can safely say that his style can be described as essentially tonal, even perhaps somewhat conservative, but the accessible qualities of his music do not translate into mediocrity. Quite the contrary, he is a very exciting composer and his style seems very well suited to an undertaking such as this ballet.  Bunch appears to be a master of orchestral color and he uses it to great effect here.

The two discs comprise 23 tracks much like one would expect of most classical ballets. The individual movements are 3-10 minutes approximately and they correspond to specific scenes that tell the classic story of the classic Hans Christian Andersen story.  No doubt cost is the barrier which precluded a DVD release which looks like it was a gorgeous production.

It is at least this writer’s impression that much of classical ballet music does not do well without the visuals of the dance.  I am referring to 19th century models such as Coppelia whose music might be best performed in excerpted suites if dancers are not a part of the performance.  Bunch’s ballet is more in the spirit of perhaps Prokofiev or Stravinsky wherein the music stands quite well on its own and even does a great job of evoking the images of the given scenes.  Basically the music stands on its own as a narrative.

Orchestra NEXT  is a training orchestra and resident ensemble with the Eugene Ballet Company.  They handle this complex and musically challenging score with seeming ease under music director Brian McWhorter.

There is little doubt that those who were fortunate enough to see this fully staged production will appreciate the opportunity to relive their memories by hearing again the recorded score.  But this will likely appeal to most fans of new music as well.  It is a major work by a composer who deserves serious attention.  This writer will certainly be listening.

Right of Spring, Left of Spring but Not Necessarily in Spring


Disruptions, dissatisfactions and even stronger reactions are not actually that uncommon in classical concerts. But some of these disruptions have taken on a sort of mythical dimension while others remain lesser known. The significance of these disruptions is usually based on failure of expectation or fulfillment of a foregone conclusion. Either the audience is unpleasantly surprised by the music or they come with preconceived notions of the inherent difficulty and/or insignificance of modern music. I think that these events signal a revolution not so much in music as in hearing. Audiences’ horizons are being expanded and many rebel against being taken out of their comfort zones. It is much like the paradigm shifts in science delineated by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. Indeed some of these concerts seem to signal aesthetic revolutions.

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scene...

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scenery sketch. 1912 (from a reproduction) For Diaghilev’s production, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1913 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

May 29th, 2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ at the then newly constructed Champs-ÉlyséesTheatre in Paris. The performance was a dance concert with the Ballets Russe with the mercurial Vaclav Nijinsky and with choreography by Serge Dhiagalev and sets by Nicholas Roerich with Pierre Monteux conducting the orchestra. The audience reaction disrupting the performance and the composer subsequently sneaking out the back way is the stuff of legend now (if not strictly truth). The public and the news media love anniversaries so it is no surprise that a great deal of writing, lectures and concerts fill this, the year of that anniversary.

The score went through several revisions (1921, 1926, 1929 and 1943). It is the 1929 score that is the one most performances now follow. Curiously the 1943 revision of the Sacrificial Dance has never been performed as far as I can determine. The Paul Sacher Foundation is making the 1913 version of the score available for the first time in celebration of the centennial.

The first work on that concert was a performance of Les Sylphides, a ballet consisting of piano music by Frederic Chopin orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov. For this concert orchestrations were commissioned from Anatoly Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnin, Sergey Taneyev and Igor Stravinsky. It was followed by the Hector Berlioz 1841 orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber’s piano piece,’Invitation to the Dance’ (1819). This certainly satisfied mainstream expectations but provided a stark contrast for the next work which was the now infamous Rite of Spring. In the tradition of well-trained professional performers the musicians and dancers continued in spite of the disruptions and even concluded with another tamer work, the ‘Polovetsian Dances’ from Alexander Borodin’s Opera ‘Prince Igor’ (1887).

Musikverein - Dumbastrasse - Innere Stadt -Vienna-

Musikverein – Dumbastrasse – Innere Stadt -Vienna- (Photo credit: Million Seven)

Almost two months before on March 31, 1913 there was a concert in the Musikverein in Vienna by the RSO Wien (Vienna Radio Symphony) under the direction of Arnold Schoenberg. Alex Ross brought this incident to my attention in his blog. The music on the concert was Anton Webern’s ‘Six Orchestral Pieces’ (1909-13), Alexander Zemlinsky’s ‘Four Songs on Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck’ (1913), Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘First Chamber Symphony in E major Opus 9’ (1906, played in version with an augmented string ensemble of 1913), two (out of five) of Alban Berg’s ‘Altenberg Lieder Opus 4’ of 1912 (“Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen den Wald”, op. 4/2 and “Über die Grenzen des All”, op. 4/3) and the last programmed (but not played due to the police shutting the concert down) first of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (1904).

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, bel...

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, believed to be taken in 1948. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before this there was the unwelcome reception of musicians and audiences to Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera ‘Pelleas and Mellisande’. Both the musical language and the frank treatment of sex in the libretto contributed to the initial hostile reception. Of course the work is now acknowledged as a masterpiece.

The 1926 première of George Antheil’s ‘Ballet Mecanique’ (1924) in Paris was promoted as radical new music seemingly to create another controversy like that of the Rite of Spring some 13 years before in the very same theater. As near as I can determine there was only one other work on the program (Symphony en fa) and it is not clear whether or not it was the first or last piece on the program (though I suspect it was last). The audience was clearly divided and perplexed by the music and likely also by the technical failures that occurred in this complex work whose demands on mechanically operated instruments wouldn’t actually be executable as the composer intended until the year 1999 . The première in Carnegie Hall New York in 1927, again a concert entirely of Antheil’s works also created controversy and supposedly the controversy continued outside the concert hall with some minor rioting in the street. This concert was duplicated by conductor/historian Maurice Peress and recorded on CD. That concert began with the 1925 Jazz Symphony (played by the W.C. Handy orchestra) followed by the 1923 Sonata for Violin, Piano and Drum and then the String Quartet of 1925. The second half of the concert contained the Ballet Mecanique. While both the Paris and New York premieres were significant and somewhat controversial they did not quite have the impact of the Rite of Spring.

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (lef...

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (left) and John Cage performing at the 1971 festival.(Photo courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation archive) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 29th, 1952 pianist David Tudor performed one of the most controversial musical pieces of all time. In Woodstock, New York audiences sat (mostly perplexed) as Tudor opened and closed the lid of the piano and marked time with a stopwatch. It was the première of 4’33” by John Cage in the aptly named “Maverick” concert hall. Kyle Gann writes in his book, ‘No Such Thing as Silence’ (written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the première) that, like the Schoenberg concert, the program consisted of other contemporary pieces. Morton Feldman’s ‘Extensions 3’ (1952) began the program followed by one of the pieces from Christian Wolff’s ‘For Prepared Piano’ (1951) and then the very complex Piano Sonata no. 1 (1946) by Pierre Boulez.

Cage’s was the penultimate work which was followed by Henry Cowell’s ‘Banshee’ (1925). The concert was followed by a question and answer session. There was no riot in the cool intellectual atmosphere of this concert venue but Gann states that one artist exclaimed at one point, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town.”

John Cage would have a much more unpleasant experience at the hands of the New York Philharmonic with the première of his ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ (1962). On February 9, 1964 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein this piece was performed as part of a series of contemporary pieces played by the orchestra that year. Concert programmers sandwiched the work between performances of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and the Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony.

Benjamin Piekut, in his excellent book, “Experimentalism Otherwise”, investigated the circumstances surrounding this concert attempting to separate history from legend by interviewing some of the musicians who participated. He reports that there were technical problems with contact microphones, mixing consoles and amplification. But there was also rebellion by the musicians some of whom destroyed the contact microphones and/or declined to play the notes provided. These technical issues which occurred seem similar to the Antheil concert in that technology was behind the composer’s intentions but the willful destruction and misuse of the technology by the musicians themselves suggests an added level of hostility which of course did not help the audience’s reaction which was anything but favorable.

A 1971 concert by the Boston Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas included a work for 4 organs and maracas by Steve Reich. The piece, titled simply ‘Four Organs’ (1970) is a study in ‘augmentation’ the lengthening of notes and musical phrases, stretching time as it were. The maracas simply play steady 8th notes creating a pulse that the musicians can count. They wind up having to count up to 120 beats at times and concentration is paramount in a successful performance of this music.

The first recording of Four Organs

The first recording of Four Organs

The piece had been premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970 and was reportedly pretty well received. The context of a new music concert in a non-traditional venue no doubt contributed to the more favorable response because the audience was expecting a challenge. Reich was skeptical about the presentation of this music in a more traditional venue and indeed he was correct in assuming that it would receive a different response.

The theme of the concert was ‘multiples’. The first piece on the program was the Sinfonia for two orchestras by Johann Christian Bach (one of the sons of J.S. Bach). It was followed by Mozart’s Notturno for four orchestras and the Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936. Again the newest and most controversial piece would hold the penultimate position followed by Franz Liszt’s Hexameron Variations for six pianos.

English: Michael Tilson Thomas

English: Michael Tilson Thomas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Tilson Thomas, who was at one of the farfisa organs (along with the composer, Ayrton Pinto and Newton Wayland), reports that there were wide differences in the reactions to the music, a great deal of noisy reactions both pro and con. Thomas appeared to like the music (and likely the reaction to it) well enough to program the piece again in 1973 in New York’s Carnegie Hall to an even more hostile response which, according to Thomas, included a woman who came to the stage and banged her head against it saying, “Stop, please, I surrender”. Clearly the issue here in not one of technology but definitely one of failure to meet expectations of many listeners. It was a very different sound especially in the context of the concert hall and programmed with far more conservative music preceding and following it.

These are just a few of the most prominent such responses in the twentieth century. One is left to wonder when and where such a strong reaction might occur again. It is one of the joys, I believe, of going to concerts. The audience response is a valuable part of the experience.