Wednesday, November 9, 2011

JACK, Part 2: Meet G, C and P

The JACK Quartet will be performing their GPCI Program on Saturday – November 12th – at 8pm at the Temple Ohev Sholom on North Front Street in Harrisburg (just below Seneca Street) – I’ll be doing a pre-concert talk at 7:15, by the way.

G = Guillaume Machaut (c.1300-1377): Three Pieces arranged by Ari Streisfeld 
P = Philip Glass (b.1937): String Quartet No. 5
C = Caleb Burhans (b.1980): Contritus (a work composed for JACK)
I = Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001): Tetras

Very often, when people go to concerts where a work by a still-living composer is performed, if they don’t like the “new music,” it’s the composer’s fault but if they don’t like the Beethoven, it’s the performer’s fault.

Most of that comes from familiarity. The Beethoven You Know, whether it’s from recordings or other performances you’ve attended, is something “measurable.”

The New Guy is not.

It’s possible you’ve never heard his or her music before, much less this particular piece. And if it’s a World Premiere, no one has a yard-stick they can measure it by so you can’t even use somebody else’s opinion – a critic or the friend who talked you into coming to this concert – to base your own reaction on.

I got a phone call one night, when I worked at the radio station after playing some music by a Living Composer (something this listener equated more with a Zombie), something he didn’t particularly like. In fact, he was arguing that it wasn’t even, really, music, much less “classical music.”

Of course, I could spend hours writing about that, alone, but the comment he made about not playing music that has not reached a certain level of popularity struck a chord with me (so to speak).

This is what I now call the Reality TV Reaction – a combination of “Survivor: New Music” and “American Composer Idol” – in which listeners essentially get to vote new pieces off the island.

He said if it doesn’t “reach” an audience, “it has no right to stand next to a great work of art like the Beethoven Violin Concerto.”

I thanked him for choosing that particular piece because he just made his own argument invalid.

I explained: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is regarded as one of the Two Greatest Violin Concertos ever written. Beethoven wrote it in 1806 and it was a disaster at the premiere (for any number of reasons: the soloist did not have enough time to learn it and was, essentially, practically sight-reading parts of the last movement). It was rarely performed because many considered it too long and too difficult to play and listen to. It did not enter the repertoire until Joseph Joachim championed it after playing it the first time in London with Felix Mendelssohn on the podium in 1844. If you’re not quick on the mental math, that’s 38 years after it was composed and 17 years after Beethoven’s death. (Oh, and Joachim was 12 at the time.)

So yes, sometimes it takes a while for a work we think of as great to “find its audience.”

As a composer, I find no more reassuring literature to read than the famous bad reviews that Nicholas Slonimsky (himself a composer and conductor of then new music) collected in an amazing little volume called The Lexicon of Musical Invective which could be subtitled “They Don’t Write Reviews Like That Anymore.”

In “classical music,” we regard what the composer wrote with all the reverence of a sacred text. Modern performances can succeed or fail on how closely they come to the composer’s intentions (whatever that is).

At least as long as the listeners are familiar with it.

One of my favorite “gottcha” moments was the fallout following a concert about 30 years ago by a famous interpreter of modern piano music – unfortunately, I’ve now forgotten her name; French, I believe – and a major Carnegie Hall recital which included works by Schoenberg and Xenakis. It was hailed as a triumph, especially the Schoenberg which, amazingly enough, she played from memory. I remember, reading the review, thinking how true it is that committed playing can win over a doubtful listener who still finds Schoenberg daunting to listen to.

Well, as it turned out, Paul Jacobs, who was a pianist also specializing in contemporary music and who’d recorded all of Schoenberg’s piano music, was sitting in the audience wondering the 1980s equivalent of “WTF?!” And he wrote a “letter to the editor” in which he voiced his opinion that very little of what she played was actually Schoenberg.

It turned out – and the pianist admitted this later, out of embarrassment – she had several memory lapses and rather than stop and start over, she kept on going, improvising “in the style of” Schoenberg and some of the most astute critics in New York City were none the wiser. (She said she’d spent so much time worrying about the Xenakis, she took her memory of the Schoenberg for granted.)

Would the same thing have happened if she’d had a similar problem in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata?

(True story: when I was a child and first taking piano lessons, I used to improvise at the piano all the time and of course hated all the time spent practicing. I decided I wanted to become a composer because that way, I would be the only one who’d know if I was making mistakes.)

So, to give you an idea of how differently interpretations may affect how you react to it, here’s a “period instrument” version of one of Machaut’s “greatest hits,” the song, Douce dame jolie. I’m not saying either of these are “wrong” or “better” – just different interpretations of what was once on the 14th Century Hit Parade.

Here, Theo Bleckmann performs the same song: the title translates as “Sweet, lovely lady (do not think any has sovereignty over my heart but you alone).”

Ari Streisfeld, the “A” in JACK, has arranged three works by Machaut for string quartet, playing with the lines, moving parts around, making good use of the timbres available in a string quartet.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Caleb Burhans is a more recent composer – to put it mildly – born 31 years ago rather than over 700. And one I’ve not heard before, so I am definitely looking forward to discovering his music. Here’s a link to his web-site bio.

About the work he composed for his fellow Eastmaniacs in JACK – entitled Contritus – he wrote this which is included in the program notes:
--- --- --- ---
Contritus is Latin for “crushed by guilt”. In the Catholic Church there are many prayers of contrition and penance. Composed in the fall and winter of 2009, Contritus is in three sections that organically flow into one another. These sections represent three different prayers of contrition. Much of the string writing in Contritus is evocative of early music and viol consorts while still portraying a sense of modern guilt. 
--- --- --- ---
When I saw the title, my first expectation was he might be finding some inspiration in medieval or renaissance church motets – or maybe not: it could also sound completely (and possibly) wildly different, a 21st Century take on a 15th Century model? But reading his comment about the piece, it seems that first expectation might be more accurate. I’m eager to find out how he translates one age into another.

Here is an example of another work of his, excerpts from “The Things Left Unsaid” for cello ensemble, composed in 2006.

Philip Glass has become one of the “Grand Old Names” in Modern Music, recently surviving the public recognition of his 70th Birthday. Glass’ music is no stranger to Harrisburg – his Violin Sonata was given its world premiere on a Market Square Concerts program at Whitaker Center, commissioned to honor Lucy Miller Murray.

Glass himself, with his ensemble, played the filmscore to Koyaanisqatsi live at Whitaker Center and though I find it difficult to sit in a room and listen to the full recording of the music, the actual experience of hearing (and feeling) it live while watching the film it was meant to accompany was astounding – riveting, in fact – and by the time it was over, I thought we had only reached intermission. 

Here is a performance of the 5th Movement of the 5th Quartet which JACK will be performing Saturday night. And this is also an example of another great name for an all-male quartet – I suspect it must be pronounced in the Italian way as “tes-tahs-steh-ROH-neh”…

For Iannis Xenakis, the last composer on this program, I’ll include an introduction to his “Tetras” in a separate post.

- Dick Strawser

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