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Saturday at Ojai: One for Two

Last night’s concert introduced us to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Douglas Boyd.  The major work was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, transcribed for a chamber orchestra by Schoenberg in 1921 for a chamber orchestra of 14, and completed by Rainer Riehn in 1983.  I didn’t like this.  At over an hour in length, it wasn’t a condensation.  “Listen to all of Mahler’s pretty melodies without all those messy instruments getting too emotional.”  (Yes, I recognize that Schoenberg’s motivation was to try to bring a contemporary work to a local audience, even if he had to strip things down to fit the resources available.  Something similar is given as a reason for condensing books.)  The singers were good, but I thought the piece made a marvelous case for our copyright laws.

The concert opened with “Chinese Opera” by Peter Eötvös, which is neither Chinese nor opera,  Instead it’s a strikingly colorful work for 26 instruments (mostly wind).  To me it’s a work about off-stage music, about how much drama and suspense and emotion and feeling can be created to support actions on stage.  You can hear clips of the work at Amazon.  Missing from these clips is the stereophonic space created.  Eötvös separated the pairs (or triplets) of instruments, placing them across the stage and gave them parts that were off-set in timing or that gave song-response lines so that we had a wall of sound before us.

Saturday afternoon’s concert was a triumph for Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  This was a program constructed by someone who had thought about music and the meanings and feelings behind the sounds.  The first half of the program took a series of works by widely different composers, and Aimard performed the pieces without pause, creating an arc of connections and feelings across generations and works that seem to have no connection.  Schumann: 5 Morning Songs (1853); Bach: 2 fugues from Art of the Fugue (1749); Carter:  Intermittances (2005) and Catenaires (2006); what linked these works?  Yet Aimard created a flow.

After intermission Aimard gave an astounding performance of the Charles Ives “Concord” Sonata (1909-1915).  A narrator was included (in addition to the viola and flute), reading appropriate sections from Ives’ Essays before a Sonata in which he described the subject of each movement and discussed his intent for the music he was creating.  Given that the Concord is such an episodic work, this use of narration wasn’t an interruption but an amplification.  Now for a lot of pianists this incorporation of the narration would be risky because the pianist would then have to pay attention to Ives’ words as well as to his written notes.  Aimard, however, seemed to welcome the challenge of fully realizing the intentions of the composer.  At the conclusion of the final, “Thoreau”, movement the pianist held his position, motionless.  A few seconds went by.  A minute.  More.  In the quiet you heard the birds in the trees, the occasional sounds from the playground in the park and the movements in the street.  (John Cage would have approved.)  Finally the spell ended and the applause began.