Composed and deComposed: Music of Our Centuries

Steve Koenig

[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

There has been so much activity on the new music front that I am physically incapable of writing about some of the concerts I’ve attended this season. Therefore, more to follow next issue. The majors have nigh closed up their classical divisions, but the indies keep on rolling, and Qualiton, Naxos, Harmonia Mundi and Allegro keep bringing things in, but, alas, they can’t do it all. Notable omissions: some Xenakis and Scelsi discs available only in France, which is inexcusable. On to the music, mostly live.

Ilhan Mimaroglu has a new disc of previously unreleased compositions which is a real treat. Part of the Chicago-based Southport label’s Composers Series, Outstanding Warrants (S-SSD-0086, 72:30, is an excellent anthology of fourteen works ranging from 1976-1996. The composer is perhaps best known as a producer for Atlantic and its Finnadar imprint. You probably have him on your Columbia-Princeton Computer Music Center LP (or CD reissue). Long out of print is the powerful Sing Me A Song of Song My, with texts about the Vietnam war, with Freddie Hubbard doing some of his most worthy work. The pieces here are sequenced for sound, and they bring to mind how Mimaroglu and his peers created many of the sounds that now we connect with the ambient or dark or insect-music genres. “Fanfare” is a dark, moody piece, and “Prelude no.17 (London Fog)” lives up to its programmatic titles. This one is highly recommended to all tape and electronic music lovers. I have been trying to peg another Southport disc, Trinity (S-SSD-00–, 2 CDs, xx:xx), an expansion of a Finnadar LP by pianist/composer George Flynn. I keep playing this anti-war trilogy, but it doesn’t click with me. It’s not static per se, but the routes grab my attention less than the program does, yet I keep feeling there’s something there that I’m not quite getting. Instead, I’m quite enjoying a new release with pianist Douglas Madge playing Flynn’s Derus Samples (S-SSD-0085, 41:36), a piece both romantic and pointillistic, but the pointillism often Impressionistic rather than thorny. If you like the piano music of Scriabin or Schoenberg, try this.

Carnegie Hall, March 2. Boulez, Vienna Philharmonic.

There are some experiences that affect you more in the aftermath. In a program which caused me to explore the music even more deeply after I got home, Pierre Boulez conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a program of Bartók, Webern, Debussy and Stravinsky. The Carnegie acoustics were, from my rear orchestra seat, striking in their three-dimensionality, the sounds reflecting off the side walls suspended mid-air. Our editor probably would find a tweak to make it even more vivid. [I hope Steve was smiling when he keyed in that thought. I really wouldn’t know how to go about tweaking a concert hall. The Editorial Aerie’s sound system’s enough of a challenge. Ed.]

The Hungarian’s Four Pieces for Orchestra, op.12, were breathtaking; even moreso when you see the date of composition, 1912. The Preludio was spotted with irony, and an antecedent to the brass of both Shostakovich and Bernstein. I’m dumbfounded to not find any performances in my collection, nor in the shops. Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6, were again a backwards reminder of the curious and beautiful little wisps of much of Gyorgy Kurtág’s work. It hit the totally silent audience like a drug. The third piece should appeal to lovers of trance and ambient music, although it ends in a tsunami of percussion which drops to dead silence.

After intermission, Debussy’s Jeux from 1912, his only self-orchestrated work, written for a Nijinski-Diaghilev ballet, the subject, “mysterious nocturnal,” about a story of a youth looking for a lost ball and encountering two girls on a tennis court. Even so, it was denounced in its time as too risqué. The piece seems to rise out of nothingness, not quite like Ravel’s La Valse, but as rhythms springing from the groundflow. When I got home I started comparing some dozen CDs, but I haven’t the space here other than to recommend Bernstein, Tortelier, Michael Tilson-Thomas and a probably o/p Boulez set on Montaigne. Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements was appropriately sharp. The encore was a raucous Circus Polka that puts to lie any previous impression that Boulez’ intellect overshadows his spirit.

So often you have records of pieces which you like but which take a live performance to really make it come to life. This was certainly true for me at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s performance of Janacek’s The Makropolous Case at Brooklyn Academy of Music ( Conductor David Atherton and the New York Virtuoso Singers made the best possible case for this piece, from the first note of the passionate, exciting prelude, which functioned in its gothic-expressionist way much like a Broadway overture sets the mood. Strangely, I kept hearing echoes (pre-echoes?) of Sondheim’s “Joanna,” from Sweeney Todd. The stage was like the Guggenheim ramp, with an immense and ominous Austrian black-and-gold statue of an eagle off to the side of the set. Throughout I was enrapt, and kept telling myself, “What great storytelling!” Anja Silja was the box-office draw, and worthy indeed she was, imperious and seductive as the opera singer who could not die. I know that sounds like a joke, but there’s an elixir, you see. Her scenes were often a tad melodramatic, I assume directed so by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, and although it fit the era, I would have preferred a more realistic stance. Too often an “oh dear me” pose had Silja draped over a desk with her hand to her forehead like a silent movie heroine. Kudos to Nigel Douglas’ excellent acting for his Hauk-Sendor, an “old, half-witted, ex-diplomat.” I can’t wait to, though I’m sure I’ll have to, see this opera again. Meanwhile, I’m again enjoying both the Gregor and Mackerras recordings.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music presented the Mark Morris dance company in a double-bill of World Power, and the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein masterpiece Four Saints In Three Acts. The first featured the Lou Harrison works for gamelan, Bubaran Robert, and two movements from his Homage to Pacifica: “In Honor of the Divine Mr Handel” and “In Honor of Mr Mark Twain,” with a text by Twain about the US invasion of the Philippines in 1899. The group Gamelan Son Of Lion played the Harrison works, along with prominent harp and trumpet sections, brightly done by Nina Kellman and Terry Szor, respectively.

Baritone William Sharp and soprano Jayne West joined the other soloists and chorus conducted by Craig Smith in a performance which deliberately understated the humor of the overall text, underscoring the wit of specific lines. Although the dancers were joyous, at the vociferous curtain calls the company nodded to the instrumentalists and singers, but they did not get their proper due, as they beautifully carried this opera cum pageant. The Nonesuch recording, I believe still the only complete version, features Betty Allen and Clamma Dale, and is indispensable, as is the RCA original recording of excerpts from the Broadway production of 1947.

Continuum continues to offer amazing single-composer concerts after more than two decades. February 10th was Mauricio Kagel night at Miller Theater at Columbia University ( An Tasten-Piano Etude used romantic pedaling, but strange, alluring up-and-downs, both in pitch and in speed. Very thick textures were never turgid under Cheryl Seltzer’s hands, full of momentum. The New York premiere of Die Stücke der Windrose was immediately otherworldly, glissandi within both salon and folk traditions: maraca, clarinet and harmonium stood out in the chamber orchestra. It carried the emotional impact of one of Buñuel’s black and white Mexican films. There was a percussion duet between the bass body and the piano lid. It ended softly with a teasing piano and clarinet. Even Hollywood doesn’t achieve a mix like this. Kristina Reiko Cooper played the solo cello piece Siegfriedp’ admirably, this piece of course in honor of the great Siegfried Palm. The other New York premiere was the first performance of the English version of …,24.xii.1931. Baritone André Solomon-Glover, whom I had reason to lavishly praise recently in this column, was again the perfect singer-reciter for this piece about various world events on that day. It brought to mind Per Nørgård’s String Quartet 9, which the Vertavo SQ presented in this same hall last year, in it’s brief sections of programmatic wartime reminiscences.

Carnegie Hall presented a weekend called “When Morty Met John…: John Cage, Morton Feldman, and New York in the 1950s.” I was only able to make one of the three days. In addition to music there was a walking tour, rare films, and several lectures and discussions on the arts of the period. Joan LaBarbara, Margaret Leng Tan and the Flux Quartet were the featured performers. On February 12th, Tan played Christian Wolff’s For Prepared Piano in 4 movements (1951) with spellbinding pacing, the piano prepared with a pod rattle that Cage gave to Wolff in 1950. LaBarbara offered a fluid yet solid interpretation of Cage’s Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. Feldman’s Structures for string quartet (1951) sounded dated. Earle Browne’s Octet I for eight loudspeakers was very unlike “computer sound” from that era. There were many smaller pieces, with the closer an excerpt from Cage’s Speech for five radios with newsreader. The radios, though tunes randomly, seemed to play pretty much the same thing. This is the state of American radio today, and pointed up the importance of festivals such as this all the more. The weekend was such a success that Carnegie announced this will become an annual event. Next year promises Feldman’s seminal Rothko Chapel to be performed at Columbia University’s Paul Chapel, and in the main auditorium, Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, with Tan and the American Composers Orchestra, who are regulars at Carnegie.

Speaking of Paul Chapel, the Vox Vocal Ensemble presented a series of three concerts dedicated to the works of little-known British composer Robert Parsons (c.1530-1572). Also featuring works by John Shepherd and Thomas Tallis, the concert of English Works (I was unable to make the two Latin concerts) was striking in the ensemble of the ensemble: total unison, yet each voice in high relief. Combine their natural voices with the acoustic the venue provided, and tears came to my eyes. Such music needs to be in these settings. Parsons’ compositions often paled beside Tallis, but individual pieces were strikingly beautiful. The Vox Ensemble, rather than deal with the vagaries of the recording industry, has decided to make these and other recordings available free on the internet.

Next issue, we bring you special unreleased recordings just for the edification of and even possible purchase by La Folia readers, thanks to the composers and performers who value your readership. Coverage of the Music From China concerts and the International Festival For Music and Theater, Mexico City will tease you to attend the upcoming events yourself. Discs from Naxos include the cpo midprice five-CD box of Hindemith Orchestral Works, Vol. 2, previous available individually at full price, and a budget Naxos with exemplary performances of Penderecki chamber works. Carnegie Hall coverage will include Levine and Miss Jessye, and a brilliantly-programmed series by Peter Serkin, who sadly was unable to perform due to emergency eye surgery for a detached retina. We wish him a speedy recovery, and are grateful that the series went on with slight changes, with Oliver Knussen conducting. Stay tuned: Same Website, same webchannel.