Friday, October 7, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Symphony plays Stravinsky, Gershwin, and Varèse; 10/1/2011

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
George Gershwin: An American in Paris
Edgard Varèse: Amériques

Two of these pieces are so familiar as to hardly warrant a “review”. Instead, I will write about their juxtaposition, and the performance itself.

A more “logical” order would be to put the (only slightly) less familiar Varèse piece in the middle or at the beginning, with the two “showstoppers” (Stravinsky and Gershwin) at the end so the audience would wait for them. However, presented as a “triptych” with the Gershwin in the middle, the three pieces formed what could almost be considered a larger, continuous work. The Stravinsky, with its fragmentary melodies and sudden jumps and cuts, could have been an extended introduction…

This is not to say that “The Rite of Spring” is not a complete work in itself. It is. And it is still startling after a hundred years – how Stravinsky managed to get the orchestra to make all those “barbaric” sounds yet still be (despite the dissonance) melodic and to have moments of exquisite subtlety. A lesser composer writing the same piece would simply have gone for the shock of the loud and violent; the audience at the premiere would undoubtedly have been titillated but the piece would quickly have faded into obscurity. What perhaps was so shocking about this premiere (and we all know the story of how it caused a riot) was that, beneath its bombastic and horrific surface, there was beauty to be found. Of course one notices the continuous loud rhythms, the thundering bass drums and timpani, the sustained dissonance, the traffic accident of simultaneous rhythms and keys (at one point I counted four meters going on the same time) and the headlong rush to that final cataclysm without pausing for anything as banal as a development section or a recapitulation. But in between, there are those moments of clarity: the violin solo in the central (“quiet”) section; the delicate underpinning of a single bassoon among numberless sounds; the mysterious harp-like tinkling that seems to emerge when instruments play each others’ harmonics. This was the first explosion of modernism, a premonition of the appalling century that would bring two world wars, genocides, and the atomic age – but it also contained hope that not all would be lost and beauty would still remain. Or so one hopes when listening to this music… At the end, this hope fails. The orchestra pounds out apocalyptic rhythms as loud as possible and then concludes with a tuneless shriek and a blat – violence has triumphed and beauty is extinguished; the modern age has begun.

Any concert that begins with “The Rite of Spring” has to be about making some kind of statement, and this was what happened. Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” is as familiar as the Stravinsky, written about a decade later, and something of an opposite aesthetic. This is a much more tuneful work, certainly, “modern” in that it incorporates Gershwin’s signature jazz elements (and use of percussion, particularly the xylophone), but at the same time more of a “romantic” 19th-century tone-poem than the Stravinsky. This can be seen in the (over-)abundance of melodies, the rich use of the full orchestra, the often nostalgic air, and the lush sweeping gestures that at times are reminiscent of nothing so much as Tchaikovsky. Situated in this concert between the Stravinsky and the Varèse, it could be seen as something of a melodic interlude (akin to the smaller pieces one finds between gigantic movements in a Mahler symphony), though of course it’s much too large for that. At the end, we encounter a celebration of street noise, though it’s all classically and cleverly worked out in layers of counterpoint.

The last piece on the concert, “Amériques” by Ergard Varèse, completed the trilogy. Here was a Frenchman looking at New York (to compliment Gershwin’s American looking at Paris) but aesthetically more in lines with the Stravinsky. This is not to say that it really was in the same style as “The Rite of Spring” (it wasn’t) but it did contain the disjointed juxtapositions and startling dissonances. It was also probably considered the work of a madman when first played (though I’ve never heard that it started anything akin to a riot). Listening to it with these other two pieces, however, shows something that is usually not associated with Varèse: conventional harmonic and melodic development (closer to Gershwin than Stravinsky!). It is, after all, a symphonic tone-poem not too distant from Ravel’s La Valse. Like La Valse, it uses harps to created mysterious effects: the phantom harps of the Stravinsky actually materialize here. Also, like La Valse, its “Frenchness” (whatever that means) shows; there are those melodies that remind one of Debussy and Dukas (there’s an almost direct quote from L'apprenti sorcier) and oddly, anticipations of Messiaen. The whole piece moves forward from what appear at first as disambiguated fragments into a long development section and a crescendo into what could be taken as pure noise (a friend of mine stated that it sounded like the Art Ensemble of Chicago with a sixty-piece band) but is really a contrapuntal recap of all the foregoing material. Presented at the end of the concert, this climax seemed to be the culmination not only of Varèse’s piece but of the Stravinsky and the Gershwin as well, and with a 180-degree shift in the “meaning”: if the end of “The Rite of Spring” is gruesome and apocalyptic, this was ecstatic. Dissonant, yes; but positive. Stravinksy’s piece ends with a sacrificial death; this ends with an affirmation of new ideas and new forms of beauty. “Spring” seemed mired in violence in the Stravinsky; in this piece, it blossoms.

So that was the music – what of the performance? This was not the first time I’d heard the Seattle Symphony’s new conductor, Ludovic Morlot (I’d heard the opening night gala concert as well), but this showcased his readings of the music quite well. These were all dynamic pieces with a lot of intense rhythm and volume (I would say that it was one of the loudest symphony concerts I’ve attended), and he practically danced his enthusiasm into the orchestra and audience. What he can do with quiet, contemplative pieces is yet to be seen: if the more subdued moments in this concert were any indication, then his interpretations of these kinds of pieces will be as good. I’m looking forward to hearing other works.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Concert Review: Tom Baker, String Quartet "Invisible Cities" – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 9/28/2011

Before the performance, composer Tom Baker gave an introduction to the music, and to the book “Invisible Cities” on which it is based. Or maybe, “based” is not exactly the right word – Mr. Baker emphasized that the separate sections of the quartet, though named after sections in the novel, were not intended as tone paintings describing events in the book, but as reflections on the “essence” of that particular “invisible city”.

Some clarification is in order here for anyone who hasn’t read the book. (That would include me, though as I write this I’ve just gotten a copy out from the public library.) “Invisible Cities”, by Italo Calvino, is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon; Polo consoles him with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels. At some point it becomes clear that most (or all) of these cities are fabrications, and the question is asked, “…are imaginary places as interesting as real ones…?” There is no particular “plot” other than this; the book is open-ended and could theoretically be read in any order.

"Invisible Cities", painting by Nora Sturges.

Mr. Baker’s quartet had the imaginary, dreamlike atmosphere of these imaginary places, conveyed with a heavy use of delicate harmonics and whispery ponticello (bowing near the bridge). There were five movements, each describing the “essence” of one of Calvino’s Cities. The opening movement recalled the later quartets of Shostakovich. Melodies were treated contrapuntally, with an elegiac mood. This was the most “classical” part of the work; subsequent movements became progressively atmospheric and even surrealistic (though lacking the sense of disquiet often associated with surrealism, and of course I’m not exactly sure what “surrealist” – not serialist – music would entail anyway). One highlight was the fourth movement, which described a city so perfectly aligned with the stars that any change in the city brought a new nova or collision of planets. This was a moonlit piece of music; infinitely slow, mathematically structured, not rhythmic yet not exactly freeform; quiet chords (microtonal, neither harmonious nor quite dissonant) came and went like slow breaths, suspended above their own silence. As Mr. Baker pointed out after the performance, this piece could have been much longer (but if so, would have destroyed the structure of the quartet as a whole). I agree on both counts – a much longer version of this piece is possible, but in a different context; I’d like to hear it perhaps as some of Pierre Boulez’ works that exist in several versions – one being an extended work that outgrew its boundaries in a multi-movement piece.

The fifth movement was something of a culmination: rapid quasi-aleatory figures gave rise to rhythms from the first movement and then a slow disappearance (fading like a dream upon awakening) – the last thirty seconds or so were “played” in pantomime. This was a beautiful work, and I’m waiting to hear more – Mr. Baker announced that it is only the beginning of an extended cycle of quartets based on Calvino’s Cities…

Guitarist Tom Baker has been active as a composer, performer and music producer in the Seattle new-music scene since 1994. He is the artistic director of the Seattle Composers' Salon, and plays guitar in the group “Triptet”, both of which I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog. The Quartet was played by Eric Rynes (violin), Tari Nelson-Zagar (violin), Brianna Atwell (viola), and Peter Williams (cello).