Thursday, May 24, 2012

Concert Review: Seattle Modern Orchestra plays Dufourt and Feldman; 5/19/2012

This concert presented two pieces based on visual art. The idea is familiar from Mussorgsky and Respighi and more recent pieces; I have used it myself (see the note at the end of this post).

The first half of the program was “L'Asie d'aprés Tiepolo” by Hugues Dufourt. This was my first chance to hear a French spectralist work “live”; the effect of the timbre-based music was nearly overwhelming. The piece was based on a chaotic depiction of “Asia” by Baroque painter Tiepolo. The first movement was indeed very chaotic, though chaotic in a familiar (if organized) way – the use of multiple layers of extreme complexity to give the impression of chaos is a frequent feature of various other European “modernisms” including works of Ligeti, Xenakis and Messiaen. All of those achieve their complexity/chaos in different manners (mathematical formulae and birdsong, among others); Dufourt’s use of timbre to “cause” composition was another twist on the concept, but in the end, the “newness” is purely academic. The overall effect, like that of Ligeti’s piano concerto or the wilder parts of Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony”, is mostly excitement; a driving force (like an action movie) beneath (or above) layers of noise. Whatever; it was fun and interesting music.

A sudden moment of silence and a piano cadenza led into the longer second section, which consisted mostly of unstable clusters of notes (too slow and quiet to be “chaotic” anymore) that faded into silence. It resembled music by Feldman, and of course set up the expectations for the next piece on the program.

Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” (for chorus and small ensemble) is one of the seminal pieces of late twentieth-century music. Ambiguous “cluster chords” float above nothingness, blank sounds in imitation of Rothko’s “blank” canvasses. Through its several connected sections, the music gradually brings out melodic material: beginning nebulous, then with the barest hints of a “tune” in a simple timpani ostinato, then a soprano solo that keeps attempting to be diatonic but is foiled by stubborn off-key intervals, and finally with a modal (and very recognizable) melisma for viola. In the end, however, there is that ambiguity – the choral “cluster chords” return and the modality is obliterated. This use of sound symbolism and “traditional” melody is at odds with much of Feldman’s music; it may represent the ambiguity of the Rothko Chapel itself – if it is about all (or no) religions, and the paintings (and architecture) avoid any recognizable religious iconography, then who is the God at the center?

The playing of both pieces was excellent, both in technique and interpretation. Oddly, however, the performance space was less suitable for the Feldman than one would expect; the high ceilings create wonderful echoes for small instrumental ensembles, but somehow the chorus didn’t sound resonant enough. This was no fault of theirs; it may have been only because of where I was sitting (in the middle of the large audience) but it surprised me anyway. I’ll have to hear another Seattle Modern Orchestra concert with a chorus to see if this is the case.

Now for that comment about music based on art: I’ve often used the same idea in my own pieces, such as the Ukiyo-è piano pieces, and my set of “SoundScrolls” – both of which will be played in my concert tonight, 8:00, at Good Shepherd Center. The Seattle Weekly has already called one of the pieces “gorgeous”. I had to get in a plug there before I signed off…

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