Tuesday, November 1, 2011

“Modern Music” Weekend: Seattle Modern Orchestra 10/28/11 and Seattle Symphony plays Webern and Stravinsky (and Bach) 10/29/11

This has turned out to be a Modernist Music Weekend. I attended two concerts with works by composers from the Second Viennese School, along with other 20th-century pieces (and two by Bach).

The first of these concerts was the Seattle Modern Orchestra led by Julia Tai, at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center. This has become a well-known Seattle venue for experimental and classical music.

After a brief lecture about the history of the relationship between text and (instrumental) music and demonstration of Sprechstimme by soprano Maria Mannisto (both probably unnecessary for this audience), they played two song cycles; one by George Crumb and one by Schönberg. Crumb’s “Night Music I” was a reverberant, haunting, nocturnal soundscape of clanging metal percussion and silences (several times I heard echoes of flutes, which were not actually in the ensemble) interspersed with expressive recitations of Lorca’s mysterious poems. I used to criticize Crumb for being “only” effects; closer listening has revealed a great complexity and depth of feeling behind those sounds (and in fact I’ve been composing in a similar vein for several years now). Obviously the phantom flutes were one of the “effects” (created by close, microtonal resonances on the vibraphone and crotales); others were the extended piano techniques, the water gong, and the soprano’s sometimes startling intonations. Though this piece had more instrumental than vocal music, it affected me much the way other Crumb compositions have in the past: after seeing it performed, my impression is of having seen a play rather than having heard a piece of music. Crumb undoubtedly intended this; he has spoken of the relationship between music and theater, and it was supported by the singer’s Sprechstimme, the long (and precisely-timed) silences, and the instrumentalists all moving around the stage doing very strange things to their instruments.

Schönberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” sounded positively conventional (or “classical”) in comparison. The vocal lines are again mostly Sprechstimme (here a way to make the rhythms of the poetry more deeply felt), though they were accompanied by tight chamber pieces that, despite their “atonality”, seemed to derive their gestures from Mahler and even Richard Strauss. Such are the currents of creativity. All in all this was an effective performance – and (as I commented to another audience member) a profound way to bring the poetry of the text to the front (and therefore related to more recent versions of text-based music such as Beatnik poetry and Rap). The instrumentation included piano, violin, cello, flute, and clarinet – a much more “classical” chamber ensemble than for “Night Music I”.

The second concert of the “modernist weekend” was by the (scaled down) Seattle Symphony under Andrew Manze. Not that it was all modern, of course – much of the concert was taken up by two relatively large-scale pieces by J. S. Bach. The highlight of the two of these was the last piece in the concert, the Brandenburg Concerto #5. This is instrumental Bach at its most scintillating: a trio of flute, violin and harpsichord create a kaleidoscope of interweaving parts over and against the string orchestra; all is based on different lengths of reiterations of the main themes. Sometimes the strings drop out entirely, leaving the soloists in extended cadenzas – the most obvious of these is of course the long harpsichord solo in the first movement, but there are others (such as the fact that the second movement doesn’t use the strings at all!). Harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout played with a lot of verve (making the instrument actually appear to play crescendos – impossible on a harpsichord) and the conductor danced with infectious enthusiasm. It wasn’t entirely an “authentic” performance (whatever that really means) – these were of course modern instruments, in modern tuning, and they were amplified slightly to be heard in the large hall – but the sound was gorgeous. I’d like to hear the same group play the entire set of Brandenburgs…

The “modernist” part came in the form of the Symphony by Webern and Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto. Again, the conductor felt it necessary to give a long talk introducing the Webern – and again, I don’t know if this was necessary, though in this case it served as the pre-concert talk that they usually do at Seattle Symphony concerts. He compared Webern’s dodecaphonic technique to Bach’s counterpoint, had the instrumentalists play examples, and stated that Bach would probably approve. Whether that’s the case, I wouldn’t know – to me at any rate they’re both “classical music” but in a quite different vein for a different century, and I don’t know how I at least would react to something that will be done two centuries in the future. At any rate the Symphony sounded sparse, bare, mysterious, as if carved in musical stone – as far as possible from the Bach while still being expressive and containing moments of exquisite beauty. There was even a little humor: at the end of the second (last) movement, after an intellectually challenging set of variations and dissonant extremes of pitch, all the instruments dropped out one by one, leaving the harp to give a final “ker-plink” – though I can’t be sure if this is an affirmation or negation of all that came before.

(An aside here: I happened to hear another audience member comment that the term for Webern’s style should be pronounced with the same stress pattern as pol-LYPH-o-ny, – so it should be do-de-CAPH-o-ny. I commented that, depending on one’s opinion, this could be close to ca-CAPH-o-ny, but that I don’t hear it as such – to me it’s just a more abstract style of classical – a Kandinsky painting as opposed to a Vermeer.)

Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks”, always a catchy piece, represented the other side of modernism. Again the conductor gave a little introduction, though in this case he merely talked about how he’d fallen in love with the piece when he’d first heard it as a teenager and that recently when he played it (on a CD player) for his toddler son, he’d started dancing around in approval as well. The piece is more like the Bach than the Webern – rhythmic, based on catchy tunes that dissolve into great complexities of counterpoint. It also adds a little dissonant “spice” here and there, and unexpectedly syncopates the melodies (delaying an occasional note by a full beat or more – a decidedly anti-jazz way to syncopate, though jazz was coming into its own around the time that Dumbarton Oaks was written). (The only jazzy use of this same type of syncopation I’ve heard is in a jazz/funk anime soundtrack by Yoko Kanno.) …Unfortunately the performance seemed to lack focus. The three movements were joined together into one long and somewhat unwieldy selection. Presented in this manner it seemed to lag behind itself somehow, as if it forgot where it was going and had to plug along to fill up some stretch of predetermined time. The musicians (and conductor) tried to battle the aimlessness by emphasizing certain parts of rhythms, but all in all it fell rather short. I found my mind wandering, and I waited for the Bach. Judging from the audience’s enthusiastic response, however, not many others felt this way.

A good couple of concerts, well worth seeing (and hearing). But, a question surfaces: what, exactly, is the significance of “modernism” now that it’s no longer modern…? To me, at any rate, it’s another form of classical, no more or less conventional or experimental than baroque or impressionism (all forms of “classical” were modern at one time, of course). One can say that a difference is that recent trends in symphonic and chamber music have tended to completely reverse the aesthetic presented by modernism – in a recent NPR interview, Steve Reich stated (this is not an exact quote) that “It was up to composers of my generation to say ENOUGH! to this kind of modern music…” But, of course modernism itself did the same to impressionism, which did the same to romanticism, and, etc. Presenting “modern” music along with Bach shows more similarities than differences anyway.

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