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More Proms–White, Barry, Rzewski, Feldman, and Vir

The late night Prom presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov on the 19th of August is the kind that is guaranteed to draw an audience whose interest and enthusiasm is in inverse proportion to its size. I think there used to be more of them, but it’s hard to be sure. John White, born in 1936, is a rather legendary figure of one wing of the British avant garde, associated with composers such as Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars, Howard Skepton, Roger Smalley, and Dave Smith, as well as Michael Finnissy. He is best known for his piano sonatas, of which there at least 200. People who know his music are devoted to it, but it rarely gets played. This performance of his Chord-Breaking Machine from 1971 was the first one I’ve encountered. The piece involves short rhythmic patters repeated at different rates in the winds and strings, while the brass sustain the harmonies produced thereby, against conflicting rhythmic patters in the percussion. The process as set up blurs the edges of the boundaries of the movement in time from one harmony and the next. It’s really an early minimalist process piece dating from a time before the genre had been conclusively named. This was a very good example of it, with lots of energy, and it was enjoyable and interesting, although it seemed a bit short.

Gerald Barry’s No other people has something to do with Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa, a poem whose technique of composition, as explained in Barry’s program notes, is somewhat like the oulipo exercise where one does a “translation” of a poem into another language not by translating the meaning of the words but by assembling words in the other language which have similar sounds to the original, but in this case, apparently, more sustained over the course of the work and further extended to its structure. In addition the poem was “illustrated:” by an artist, described by Barry as a hack, who never met the poet or read the poem, but was following directions given to him by Roussel through a private investigator. The pictures, Barry writes, are “impersonal, the people in them unaware that they lead another life in a poem of which they know nothing.” The sense of elements not quite consciously fitting together, but nonetheless having a strength and cohesion through a sort of obstinate determination, and being, ultimately, compelling and satisfying, is, it seems to me, characteristic of Barry’s music. This particular piece, though, seemed to lack the hard edge and the obstinance to make it quite work, so what came out seemed repetitious and rambling, and ultimately a little unconvincing, and, since it is based on a sort of nonsense, not something that one can much remember.

Frederic Rzewski was the soloist in his Piano Concerto, which had been commissioned by the BBC and was receiving its first performance. Written for a small, ‘classical-sized’ orchestra of double winds and two horns, with the addition of tuba and percussion, the piece is in four movements and lasts about 20 minutes; the program notes said that two of the minutes consisted of improvisation by the soloist, without giving in clues as to where they were, and hearing the piece didn’t make it clearer. Unlike the piano writing in a lot of the music for which Rzewski is well known, the soloist’s part in this work was not particularly showy or bravura, nor was there the dramatic strategy of opposing the soloist and the orchestra found in many concertos ; here the piano was, in Rzewski’s words, “mostly…just part of the band.” The first two movements were in a sort of near American neo-classic style, somewhat in the manner of early Lukas Foss or David Diamond; the beginning movement was fast and muscular, the second a faster and lighter three part scherzo. The third movement was slow and motionless with periodic faster figuration of increasing speed. The last was a kind of perpetual fugal exposition which, without necessarily articulating any kind of structure, went on for a while and stopped. This seemed to be more or less the kind of music which Rzewski fought against in his youth. He’s become his father.

The major piece on the program was Coptic Light by Morton Feldman. His last orchestral piece, it’s certainly one of his best and the epitome of what his music was like from his earliest works: quiet, sure, luminous, spellbinding and beautiful. The performance was magisterial and moving.

Param Vir’s Cave of Luminous Mind, a BBC commission, began the Proms concert on August 21 presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Skari Oramo. The title refers to the Tibetan sage Milarepa, who spent years of his quest for enlightenment meditating in a series of caves, each of which he eventually named; one of them, the ‘Cave of Luminous Awareness,’ was the source of Vir’s title. The work is about twenty minutes long, and is in two movements. The first is a motionless field, of what Vir dexcribes as “Radiant tetures…embedded within shimmering harmonic fields of varying density,” on which are set at various times, interjections of varying lengths, intensity, and speed; some are highly virtuosic solos cadenzas, and some more textural and involving groups of instruments. The second, which is about half as long as the first, is fast and bustling and highly directional. Its aim of having a slam bang finish is somewhat undercut by the fact that it path to the end is littered with a few too many windups. The Cave of Luminous Mind is a big, ambitious piece, realized with enormous skill and control.