Thursday, April 21, 2016

Calefax, Part 2: Scriabin, Reich... & More

When Calefax comes to town – and this is their second visit to Harrisburg, this time at Market Square Church, Saturday at 8pm (tickets for the Saturday concert are $35, $30 for seniors, and $5 for college students; concerts are free for school-aged children and an accompanying adult can get a $5 ticket) – it's more of an event than just another concert.

Given they're a quintet of reed instruments rather than a standard classical ensembles like a wind quintet, a lot of what they play is either works they've commissioned or standard repertoire they've arranged. And sometimes, the curiosity is just to see (and hear) how they're going to do some of these things – I mean, Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel was written for a hyoooge orchestra: how are 5 people going to make sense out of all that?

If you haven't already read it, check out the first post about this concert – which includes videos of the original version of Schumann's piano pieces, Waldszenen and a clip of excerpts from one of Calefax's performances of their version of it. And then there's Till Eulenspiegel – with the full orchestra version plus another way of looking at it in a light-hearted (but very serious) adaptation for – yes – five players called “Till Eulenspiegel Another Way!” In this case a violin, a clarinet, a horn, a bassoon and a double bass – which kind of makes sense, given the big solos for horn, for clarinet, and for the concertmaster. But how do an oboist, a saxophonist, a clarinetist, a bass clarinetist and a bassoonist bring that off? Who plays the big horn solo? And, I'm wondering, who gets to do the big drum roll at Till's execution, hmm?

There's been a slight change in the program – all additions, as it turns out: the program opens with a Bach Prelude & Fugue in E-flat and, on the second half in between the Scriabin Etudes and Reich's “New York Counterpoint,” is something called “Billie”. More (as usual) of that, later.

Scriabin in 1892
The Market Square Concerts season opened with Peter Orth playing Alexander Scriabin's 24 Preludes, Op. 11, written in 1896. We end the season (almost) with Calefax, the reed quintet, playing Scriabin's 12 Etudes (for solo piano), Op. 8, written in 1894. While you might think, “well, we haven't gone very far, have we?” there's a world of difference – sound-world, at least – in the music. The music, of course, is the same – but how do you turn these monsters of piano technique into something for five wind instruments?

For the historical background in Scriabin's life when he wrote these pieces, you can sift through the blog post for Orth's recital (which also includes information intertwined about his contemporary Rachmaninoff who's 1st Sonata was also on the program).

If you only have a few minutes, listen to this performance of the last of the 12 Etudes by the composer himself. Yes, they were written in 1894 and last year marked the centennial of his death, but this is one of those Welte-Mignon piano rolls Scriabin recorded in 1910. That in itself is amazing.

If you have more time, here is a video (with scores) of all 12 Etudes performed by Nikita Magalof. According to the wonder of YouTube, each etude should automatically roll into the next (though I apologize for any ads that crop up in between them...).

You'll notice, if you read music, that Scriabin had a preference for tonalities that had a bazillion sharps or flats in the key signatures – keys like D-sharp Minor (really, wouldn't it be a little less challenging in E-flat Minor?). But he was one to choose keys for specific, often psychological reasons, depending on the mood he wished to express. The etudes are often given indications like “tempestoso” – a natural for Scriabin's feiry romanticism – or a contrasting “piacevole” peaceful, and the final “patetico” which is far from the “pathetic” we might associate with a sonata by Beethoven or a symphony by Tchaikovsky.

If you really want to earn extra credit, look into Scriabin and synesthesia – where music in certain tonalities suggest colors which some people can see in their mind's eye while listening to the music:
Follow these fascinating links: a five-minute interview about what Scriabin might have “seen” when writing his music; a more inclusive wikipedia entry about synesthesia in art in general (but which includes references to Scriabin).

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Steve Reich and NYC
The last (scheduled) work on the program is by New York composer Steve Reich who turns 80 in October. While it's never become the iconic New York theme song that Bernstein's “New York, New York” from On the Town has (a helluva song), Reich's “New York Counterpoint” is no less a tribute to a great city, drawing inspiration from the constant flow of life there, in a place that never seems to sleep.

There are many “-isms” in music – Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Serialism – and these are generally attempts to describe in the most general terms, composers of a certain stylistic period have in common. Debussy, a very visually oriented composer, hated the term “Impressionism,” already familiar to the painting style of several French artists before his time, and “Serialism” has taken on such a negative connotation it can be destructive when applied to music that has nothing to do with the serial technique that has alienated so many listeners over the past century.

And “Minimalism” is another one of those terms. It's usually applied to the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and those they've influenced – though Terry Riley's “In C” was certainly one of the first examples of the style, stripping music down to the barest of bones, the anti- reaction to almost everything prevalent in 20th Century music heard before the '60s and '70s (remember the '60s? yeah, well, not everybody does...) – the “imponderable complexities” of serialism (pro or con), the huge orchestras playing lushly textured works by Mahler, the equally lush harmonies of Rachmaninoff or other Post-Romantic composers, the complex rhythms of, say, “experimental” jazz.

It might come down to a sense of pulse, a single chord, a simple color – all of which, in its hypnotic obsessions, can create a completely different experience with the least (the “minimal”) amount of material. While I joke about the chipmunk outside my front door chirping away at Philip Glass's Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Wood Block, I can also find the magic beneath the unexpected change lifting you from one chord into another through subtle and gradual changes. To one person, it may be maddening; to another, a revelation. There may be those who will be annoyed by the constant repetition (“alright, already, I get it” when, in fact, no, you don't) just as there may be those who, say, find Scriabin's thundering left-hand harmonies (speaking of repetitions) monotonous despite the fact everybody else is being blown away by the pianist's virtuosity!

Just as there are Big City People and Small Town People.

New York City

Reich's “New York Counterpoint” is essentially written for one clarinetist who plays all twelve clarinet parts, several of them simultaneously. How do you do that? Through the magic of multi-tracking pre-recorded sound files that create an accompanimental “backdrop” (rather than “background”) for the soloist. Today, the idea of playing to a CD or DVD-sound file or mix-tape or whatever – karaoke, anyone? – is common, but Reich created his “Counterpoint” in 1985. (“Vermont Counterpoint,” a similar work for flutes was written in 1982: this video might give you an idea how it works.)

Reich in his Studio: remember tape?
Richard Stolztman wanted a piece for 9 clarinets and 3 bass clarinets that he would play – live but with the other 11 clarinets, also played by him, pre-recorded. Therefore, the live player interacts with his pre-recorded self to create a shifting texture that, like the city it's named for, is in constant motion but with constantly shifting vantage points.

To take the easy way out, these works can also be played by twelve live players – but then, I ask, what's the point? The point, for me, is to have the interactivity between the one player and the others in a way that's at least technologically a little different than a solo concerto or an old Baroque concerto grosso, but I digress...

How Calefax chooses to realize the possibilities intrigues me, and seeing it listed for the end of the season, here, has had me salivating all year long. Well - now, it's here!

This performance, by a Hungarian clarinetist in Budapest, plays one live part against his pre-recorded selves, and then interlaces the video with first a photo montage (the composer, the commissioning clarinetist, the recording) as well as numerous images of New York – from the air, from street-level, from across the river, from atop a building – during the middle “slow” section (it's more about energy than tempo), the photos become “vintage” black-and-white and, when we return to the live stage at his concert, it's done in through b&w grainy filter. Then, in the final “fast” section which cooks along until it stops (rather than ends), we see more of the newer New York. A good visual presentation as well as a musical one.

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Now, to hear how Calefax does it!

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About one of the pieces that's being added to program, saxophonist Raaf Hekkema, who's arranged tons of pieces for the group, told Jess Hayden in the interview for the Carlisle Sentinel, “It’s a work that uses segments of interviews with Billie Holiday as a soundtrack and then composed music to go with that. So it’s fun to do because we get to perform with Billie Holiday!”

While I'm not sure who JakobTV is – his real name is Jacob ter Veldhuis – doing an internet search comes up with a piece for alto saxophone and “tape”-accompaniment. While I've been told it's a 3-minute piece and will require speakers and a screen for film projection (Market Square Church was asked to supply a “beamer” and much hilarity ensued before we realized this was Brit-slang for “projector,” not a BMW), the videos I find on-line are about 11 minutes. Regardless, here's one realization of the piece (another uses a “ghettoblaster” to deliver the other tracks) that becomes a jazz riff on the voice of Billie Holiday.

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- Dick Strawser

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