Sunday, March 08, 2015

Recently heard

•Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question.
•Darius Milhaud: La création du monde, op. 81.
•Jean Sibelius: Luonnotar, op. 70.
•Thomas Adès: In Seven Days.
     Thomas Adès, San Francisco Symphony; Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Kirill Gerstein, piano; Tal Rosner, video artist
     Heard March 6, 2015, in Davies Hall, San Francisco
Eastside Road, March 8, 2015—
ON PAPER, as the cliché goes, the concert program was very attractive, attractive enough to suggest a couple of hours driving to hear it. And in retrospect I'm glad we did: but in the event the evening could have profited from more expressive conducting. The conducting composer is one of the problems (by far not the biggest!) attending contemporary orchestral music. I can see why composers contribute to the problem: it's a living; undoubtedly a better one than composing. It's a sad fact that the creators of music are rarely rewarded as well as their interpreters. But a couple of recent experiences have led me to believe really fine conductors deserve their rewards; they bring something to the concert hall their part-time colleagues rarely seem able to supply.

The program in question was thematic: all four compositions address the concept spelled out in Milhaud's title, and suggested in Adès's: the creation of the world. That was an intriguing idea, particularly when expressed by two of my favorite pieces from the previous century and two more that I'm unfamiliar with. Ives;s The Unanswered Question is of course well known. It calls for a string ensemble, preferably unseen, which drones quietly away on slowly changing chords suggesting some kind of ethereal process. A solo trumpet plays a slow five-note call whose pitch contour and rhythm suggests
What - is the An-swer?
, repeating the call without variation a number of times; each time the call is answered by a quartet of flutes playing increasingly more discordant, strident responses. Ives had a program in mind: the strings represent "the silences of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing"; the trumpet repeats "the perennial question of existence"; the flutes are the "fighting answerers" who, as Jan Swafford writes in the useful book Charles Ives: a Life with Music,"for all their sound and fury, get nowhere." (The Ives quotes are from Swafford's book, where they are unattributed.)

In this performance the strings were backstage, conducted by Christian Baldini, and barely audible. The solo trumpet (uncredited in the program!) stood downstage center in the traditional soloist's position and played, commendably, from memory; Adès stood nearby to direct the flute ensemble, standing (good! not sitting!) upstage left. The performance was, I think, the most satisfying of the evening: Ives does nearly all the work with his score.

I would have thought La création du monde nearly as foolproof, but in spite of fine instrumental and ensemble playing this performance seemed dull. I don't think this is the necessary result of playing the piece in a big concert hall, though of course that doesn't help. Milhaud scored his haunting, poignant ballet score, commissioned by the Paris-based Ballets suédois, for an unusual combination: according to the useful article on Wikipedia, reduced winds including an alto saxophone, one French horn, two trumpets and one trombone, and four strings: two violins, a cello and a double-bass; with a large percussion section including tambourine, four drums, five timpani, piano, cymbal, anvil and wood block.

Milhaud's twenty-minute score is in six sections, with prominent solo roles for saxophone, clarinet, and double-bass. The music is heavily influenced by Milhaud's enthusiasm for the (mostly black) American jazz he'd heard in New York in 1920, and the instrumentation probably suggests the pick-up theater orchestras prevailing in that milieu and vaudeville. (Ives was similarly influenced; there's an interesting affinity between Ives and Milhaud, who both excel at integrating vernacular and "high-art" musical styles.)

While La création du monde is narrative and suggestive, clearly written for choreography, it is also contrapuntal and even oddly austere, a parallel I think to the sober browns and muted colors, the arbitrary and abstraction-oriented geometry of Braque and Picasso at the peak of Cubism. Its effect depends on the sonorities of its instrumental writing and the energy of its rhythms, but also on the structural, architectural quality of its construction, which must not be neglected in favor of surface color and "expressivity." I was concerned before the piece began, listening to the saxophonist warming up and pracising his vibrato, and alas I was right to have worried: the performance was like fine dancers being sacrificed to the novelty of their costumes.

But then Sibelius's Luonnotar ! What a marvelous piece! Composed in 1913 (halfway between The Unanswered Question and La création du monde ) and scored for full orchestra (winds in pairs, normal brass, but two sets of timpani and two harps), it is a demanding scène dramatique or concert aria for solo soprano, to a text from the Finnish epic the Kalevala, again addressing the creation of the world. Luonnotar is — again I rely on Wikipedia — "the Spirit of Nature and Mother of the Seas," a virgin daughter of Air who after seven centuries' ceaseless swimming in Ocean gives birth, by charitably offering rest to a similarly restlessly flying teal, to heaven, moon, and stars.

Sibelius "portrays" all this through his characteristically restless rhythms containing hard-edged, brittle themes, with the surging power of lower strings and winds and the bright icy sparkle of high winds and percussion. And against this, always, the soprano, whose very difficult role involves every corner of a two-octave tessitura, a command of Finnish consonants (and vowels, of course), and the ability to maintain presence within a full orchestra even while singing quietly.

This was the best performance of the evening, completely persuasive, largely because of Dawn Upshaw's glowing power and unflappable presence. The orchestra played well, with contained strength and focus, and Adès shaped and controlled the flow of the music carefully and expressively.

After the intermission we heard Adès's piano concerto, In Seven Days, composed in 2008, a century after the Ives. In seven connected sections the piece addresses the traditional Judeo-Christian seven-day Creation myth, less persuasively, I think, than Milhaud's "primitive" version or Sibelius's exotic pagan one. On the one hearing, in the back of the balcony seating, I had a hard time hearing either sonic details or structural units. The piano clattered away; the orchestra played smoothly and without much articulation; at the back of the orchestra, cartoonlike images played with a nine-section grid, suggesting Walt Disney collaborating with Pong. Sea and Sky emerged from Chaos, I read din the program; Land, Grass and Trees appeared, likewise Stars, Sun, and Moon; a couple of fugues accompanied the appearance of animal life; and the piece ended in Contemplation, as the concert had begun. Like Ives's flutes, Adès's forces seemed to me to get nowhere.
•Charles Amirkhanian: Dumbok Bookache; Ka Himeni Hehena; Marathon.
•Errollyn Wallen: The Errollyn Wallen Songbook.
•Pauline Oliveros: Twins Peeking at Koto.
•Don Byron: pieces for his ensemble.
     The composers, with the Del Sol String Quartet; Frode Haltli, accordion; Miya Masaoka, koto; and the Don Byron ensemble
     Heard March 7, 2015, at the Other Minds Festival; San Francisco Jazz Center
THAT WAS A RICH night in the vicinity of Davies Hall: Sarah Cahill was, unknown to us, playing music by Terry Riley on the same block; Other Minds was opening its 20th annual festival down the street. We returned the next evening to hear the second Other Minds concert. Other Minds is an annual assembly of internationally prominent (or in some cases not so prominent) composers who gather for a few days of conversation and show-and-tell, then attend a series of concerts in which each presents music to a generally young and attentive audience (including, of course, the composers themselves). (I should mention here that I was one of the group in 1996, in the third annual OM festival.)

Other Minds is directed by the Bay Area composer and factotum Charles Amirkhanian, who, because he turns 70 this year, chose this year to include his own music on each of the festival's three evenings. This is not as arrogant an act as it may seem: his work is modest, humorous, and unpretentious, and serves well as an opening act. The three selections last night were "text-sound" pieces for speaking voice (Amirkhanian), spoken live over a pre-recorded background of other spoken lines (still Amirkhanian) and percussion.

The source is Ernst Toch's Dada Fuge aus der Geographie, composed for speaking chorus in 1930 or so, and the source is not far except in years. I think Amirkhanian's sound-text pieces would gain from greater diversity of voice: the composer's baritone is clear and pleasant, but grows wooly when redoubled and -tripled electronically.

Errolyn Wallen was a new personality to me, but is apparently well enough known; born in Belize, she was moved to London at the age of two, and has developed a considerable career in the UK. She has a strong clear focussed soprano voice and considerable chops as a pianist — at one point, in one of the seven songs she presented, her piano technique suggested she'd be at home in Ives's Concord Sonata. Her songs occasionally brought his to mind, too, with their constant references to a vernacular, even commercial style, and the directness (not to say naïvety) of their verbal and musical content. When they're light-hearted, as in "What's Up Doc?," they're engaging; when they reach toward emotional seriousness they grow too sentimental for my taste. All of them were with only her own piano accompaniment except the last, "Daedalus," accompanied by piano and string quartet — here, the Del Sol Quartet, with a substitute for first violinist Kate Stenberg.

The concert shifted gears after intermission. Pauline Oliveros brought a new work, for two accordions and koto, perhaps twenty minutes long, full of surprising beauty, with silences, a great dynamic range, an enormous range of instrumental color, and the composer's characteristic good humor — a piece full of heart and invention, occasionally hearkening back to the avant-garde of the 1960s: I thought I heard Robert Erickson's sunny straightforward "experimentalism" channeled in a sudden upwelling near the center of the piece), and the totally accepting state of mind, eager to explore any kind of sound and allow it its place, confirmed Oliveros's place alongside that of John Cage.

Then the clarinetist Don Byron came on, with his ensemble: John Betsch, drums; Cameron Brown, bass; Aruán Ortiz, piano. Their improvisations, over charts, were supple, witty, resourceful, and engaging — a throwback in spirit, though stylistically more advanced I think, to the "third stream" music that tried to negotiate between chamber jazz and avant-garde concert music fifty years ago. (When Byron played his clarinet into the sounding-board of the open Steinway it was impossible not to think of Mort Subotnick back at Mills College in the 1960s.)

Where the first half of the concert had shown awareness, intelligence, and skill, this second half was all artfulness and vision. It closed a pair of musical evenings on a note of pure pleasure.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

Of these pieces, only Milhaud's Creation is familiar to me.

It was on an LP that my mom had, Columbia ML 2203, featuring Bernstein and the NYPHIL in a recording from 1951, with Copland's El Salon Mexico on the flipside--two sophisticated, jazzy modernist war horses.

Pretty elegant stuff for a 12 or 13 year old, when I heard it in the mid-1950's.

The Milhaud, it turns out, was one of his most approachable pieces, not exactly what he might have thought, certainly not when he composed it in 1922-3.

Probably a bear to play, with its jagged shifting rhythms, and abrupt changes of pace. I remember thinking as a boy how "jammed together" it seemed, almost packed. Nervous, with an undercurrent of satiric humor. Rather like Prokofiev or Bartok when they were trying to sound modern. I think this is "cubistic" quality you're suggesting.

Rorem says that Milhaud is, like other Frenchmen, a composer of the Mediterranean, with a sunny, at times glare-y, yellow light, spring rushes, delicate colors and tints, with occasional unsettling winds. Milhaud is harsher than Debussy and Ravel, more like Poulenc, his rough contemporary.

Did you ever meet Milhaud, who taught at Mills, from 1947 up to the early 70's? I wish I'd had the occasion to, though I was just a college undergraduate at Berkeley by the late 60's.

Prolific composer, and an inspiring one too--Brubeck and Bacharach were students.

His keyboard works can be tough to play.

I've written about his Saudades.

His work is largely neglected today. And too bad, because it's rich and layered, and filled with color and light.