On Aug 9 The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by David Atherton, presented the first performance of …onyt agoraf y drws…(…unless I open the door…) by Welsh composer Guto Puw. The title of the piece refers to a Welsh saga in which, after suffering heavy losses in a battle with the Irish, and the death and beheading of Bedndigeidfran, his men, having been enchanted, return to Harlech and feast happily for seven years entertained by the singing of Rhiannon’s birds and cheerfully conversing with Bendigeidfran’s severed head, without any recollection of their past troubles. Eventually they move on to a hall in Pembrokeshire, where they continue partying happily for another 80 years, never in any of this time either aging nor remembering the past. The hall has three doors at its end, and they are told that they should not open the third door. When they eventually and inevitably succumb to temptation and open the door, they are flooded with all the tragic memories which their enchantment has spared them, except with even greater intensity and greater sorrow.
The strength of Puw’s piece, which depicts the partying and the aftermath of the opening of the third door, is in its orchestration and its writing for instruments, which is masterly and colorful. The beginning music is bustling and cheerful, featuring the piccolo alluding to Rhiannon’s birds and the gradual emergence of a Welsh foksong (‘Machynlleth’); Puw uses sustained chords trading off between various sections of the orchestra in the midst of the general bustle to suggest time’s standing still. Although this first section is involved with the opening of the first two doors, it doesn’t actually depict those two openings, only the general party atmosphere during that time. There is a moment depicting the opening of the third door, but the sense of any change in the emotional atmosphere in its aftermath is almost completely lacking. Puw’s program note claims greater chromaticism at this point, but it is only slightly more so than formerly, and doesn’t read as any kind of real change. An Irish reel thrown into the texture may be supposed to allude to the enemy that defeated the Welsh in the battle, but the whole tenor of things is just as jolly as ever, so one misses a sense of any dire consequences from the opening of the third door. It may be that Puw was worried about being too vulgarly pictorial, but, in fact, for this listener vulgar pictorialism, especially at that point, was just what the piece could have used more of.
The Puw was followed by the Walton Viola Concerto in a very fine performance, with Lawrence Power as the soloist, and the Rakhmaninov Symphonic Dances, played about as well as one could ever hope to hear them played. Although both of those pieces are quite high grade stuff, they both leave me a little cold. In the case of the Walton this makes me a little sad, since I generally like his music and I’ve often tried to like it, but it always seems to me to be a little aimless and featureless, lacking in color and nice tunes. The concert on August 16th with the Bergen Philaharmonic, conducted by Andrew Litton, presented Walton’s First Symphony, one of his very best pieces, which is full of color of all sorts, tuneful, and tightly and impressively made, particularly in its incessantly abrasive scherzo and its intensely sad slow movement. In a performance as good as this one was, it’s completely thrilling.
The Prom concert on August 7 began with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20, the intensely dramatic and mostly pessimistic piece, with each of its movements referring to a section of the requiem mass, which, bizarrely enough, Britten had thought, in 1939, was just thing to satisfy a commission from the Japanese government to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire. (In the event, the Japanese rejected the piece on religious grounds, and added that it didn’t sufficiently ‘express felicitations’ for the event.) Although in three movements, the work is really in one very tightly constructed span, starting with a slow lamenting march, moving through a relentless and ferocious ‘Dance of Death’ scherzo, and ending with a serene peaceful apotheosis of the material of the first two movements. The completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, by Derek Cooke and others, which followed, is, of course, not exactly the piece, but rather a very fully fleshed out version of Mahler’s sketches for the work as he left them when he died (described by David Mattews, who was one the people responsible for the realization, as having been in ‘a complex state of incompleteness’), suggesting what the piece might have been like had he finished it. Mahler’s sketches included a full score of the first movement, a ‘full score sketch’ of the second, a full score for the beginning of the third movement, followed by a short score, and an indication of ‘da capo’ for the first section, and short scores for the fourth and fifth movements. Although in many places the texture is very thin (one line) there are no gaps in its continuity, so the length and scope of the piece is fairly clear, even if many of the details are not worked out, so the realization consists of filling out textures and, in certain places, of making decisions about orchestrations. The Mahler is probably a little less complete in its realization of what the piece might have been like than is the Mozart Requiem, and a little more so than the Bartok Viola Concerto. The performances of both of these two works, by BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, were somewhat understated, if not downright bland. It would have been good in each case to have had a more urgent sense of the drama of the work, since both have plenty of drama. I found particularly bothersome in the Mahler, the modern almost complete avoidance of portimento in the strings, even when it was indicated in the score and the music cried out for it.
Proms concerts are available on line for listening at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.
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The Prom concert on Saturday night, August 11, featured the music of Nitin Sawhney exclusively. I have to confess that I did not know who Sawhney was, which is an big oversight obviously, since his website says that he is “widely regarded as one of the most influential and versatile creative talents alive today.” Had I been more observant, however, I would have realized that I had heard some of his work previously, though, since he is the composer of the music for the recent movie, The Namesake. Although he apparently does not like for his music to be described as fusion, in fact the two or three people I asked about him all used exactly that term in telling me about it.
Although his description of the Proms in his program notes (“…a slightly antiquarian and jingoistic institution…exuberant flag-waving [which] seemed unnervingly imperious and superfluous to the enjoyment of some breathtaking music…”) strictly speaking only applies to the Last Night (all the rest of the time one sees not a single flag of any kind, let alone seeing it waved), the fact of the program on the Proms once again raises (however tacitly) the question of how ‘universal’ (for lack of a better word) western classical music is: whether it speaks, or can speak, to the conditions of all people of all conditions, or is only the artifact of a specific society and can only be meaningful to those who are members of that one group (i.e. “dead white men”), and whether people of non-European origin are not only simply, as it were, locked out of an undertaking like the Proms, but are, in fact, discriminated against by not being by not having their own particular music included. In any case, the fact that one entire evening of the Proms was devoted to the music of a (native-born) British composer of south Asian origin was a significant event, and it was certainly seen as such by the many more than usual people of south Asian origin who were there. There were, in fact, plenty of people there–the place was completely packed–, reflecting, apparently (judging by sight), all kinds of other ethnic origins as well. Sawhney himself is certainly trained in western classical music and values it (“I liked playing Bach for control, Debussy for the emotion, Mozart for melodic ideas, and Chopin for the pyrotechnics,” he is quoted as saying in the program notes.), but he also casts a wide net of other interests and influences, including flamenco guitar, Punjabi folk music, tabla rhythms, and jazz. Each of these various interests was amply represented at some point in the thirty pieces on the program, performed by Mr. Sawhney, along with seventeen of his closest friends and the sixty-strong London Undersound Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Hussey.
The program included selections from his seven studio albums, along with music from a number of theatrical productions and movie soundtracks, and two works in progress. For this listener the most appealing music was found in the second half of the program, which included music from The Namesake, flowing seamlessly into The Boatman, both ‘inspired’ in ways not specified by Tagore, Nadia (meaning ‘the river’), all of those featuring the singing of Reena Bhardwaj, and Charukeshi Rain, a collaboration with Anoushka Shankar. The Conference, in which a considerable number of the performers participated vocally, is a fiercely difficult bit of “tabla pyrotechnics,” and was perhaps the most impressive number of the evening. Perhaps the least personal music was contained in the two battle scenes from ‘the forthcoming and highly anticipated’ video game Heavenly Sword. A long stretch of the second part of the first half, comprising Noches en vela, Part I, Sandesa, Journey, Breathing Light, A Throw of the Dice, and Koyal seemed to have been produced in reference to the same polling which produced Dave Soldier’s Most Wanted Song, since they shared a certain mid-tempo blandness and easy listening scoring with it and with each other. Excerpts from Zero Degrees, a theatrical work written by Sawhney with choreographers Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley about a trip from Bangladesh to Calcutta, in which a man harassed by border guards finds himself sharing a carriage with a corpse, were threaded through the whole evening; they were performed in a lazer speed unison speech by Khan and Cherkaoui with passion and humor, and they were mesmerizing.
Throughout the concert it was very hard to make out words. The acoustics in the Albert Hall can be difficult, but the high degree of amplification not only didn’t help things, it seemed to be a positive hindrance. In Dead Man, at the end of the first half, which traces two parallel lives in India and America, and in which it is apparently important that there is ‘a sardonic English refrain and fateful Bengali verse’, it was simply impossible to tell that the performers were singing in any language at all. There is also some irony in the fact that each of the members of the London Undersound Symphony Orchestra, ‘painstakingly selected’ by Sawhney himself, was closely miked and mixed into a homogenous whole where it was impossible to hear how good any of them might be or what any of them might be doing, the goal seeming to be to produce a sound exactly like a highly produced recording with no perceptible qualities of a live performance at all.
Whatever reservations I might have had, though, it was manifestly clear that all of the performers involved were wonderful musicians playing with great intelligence and absolute dedication, and their performances were being received with great enthusiasm by a packed out Albert Hall, none of whose members had any reservations at all.
This concert, along with all the others, is available for listening online for one week after the actual performance at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.
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On July 3, the very excellent percussionist, Sam Solomon, presented a Boston University Tangelwood Institute (BUTI) faculty recital at Trinity Church in Lenox (Ma). His program included pieces by Nico Muhly, Eric Hewitt, Michael Early, David T. Little, Marcos Balter, and Judd Greenstein, two of them–Hewitt and Early–first performances. Due to the circumstances, the place was packed with attentive and enthusiatic teenagers, although that doesn’t mean that such a demographic wouldn’t necessarily show up to such a performance somewhere else, given how exciting and entertaining this one was.
Every one of the pieces was thoughtfully made and impressively and interestingly executed, and every one was snappy and enjoyable to listen to, and, I suppose, to watch, although my own sight lines weren’t all that good. Anyone of them, by itself, would have impressed me a fair amount. I found myself thinking, though, that, just as just about every piece for harp, flute, and one or two strings seems to suggest that Debussy figured out almost everything that could be done with the combination and did it a while ago, and therefore just about every piece ends up sounding a little like the Debussy sonata, every piece for percussion has a similar kind of strategy and intention. Each had its point, including the peppy beginning of the Muhly, the slightly random, water dripping in the sink, first section of the Early, and the general spashiness of the Balter. David T. Little’s Three Sams concentrated first on pitches in (—)I Am (a very engaging line with unexpected and enjoyable twists and turns, then on non pitched elements, especially cymbals and drums in the dark and angry Son of (—), and then combined them in the slow and mournful Wicked Uncle (—), with the pitched elements suggesting the ghosts of half remembered half recognizable hymns and patriotic songs. Judd Greenstein’s biblically titled We Shall Be Turned, was perhaps the most memorable for being the quietest and most meditative of the pieces, starting with a simple pattern and returning to it again as the starting point for each of its increasingly longer and most complex discourses.
Sam Solomon’s performance was elegant, eloquent, and full of pazazz. He played each of the pieces as though it was the most important thing in the world. It was wonderful to hear. The recital, at just about a hour without an intermission, was exactly the right length.
In 1973 my mother bought me my first toy piano at Harvey’s Department Store in Nashville. This is not quite the heartwarming tale of a little tyke that it might at first seem to be, since I was at the time a student at New England Conservatory, and she was getting it for me so I could play the Cage Suite for Toy Piano in a concert in Jordan Hall. It turned out that, completely inadvertently (only operating according to her generosity), she had got me the Steinway of toy pianos, a Schoenhut. I’ve continued to play the Cage over the years, and last summer my toy piano more or less just fell apart.
As I thought about buying a new one, it occurred to me that I should do an inaugural concert on it. I began to ask people to write pieces for me, and mostly they agreed to do.
The concert is on Sunday, April 8 at 8:00pm in the Marshall Room in the Music Building at Boston University (855 Commonwealth Avenue).
The concert includes–in addition to the Cage–pre-existing pieces by Kyle Gann, Eve Beglarian, Richard Whalley, and Dai Fujikura (for toy piano and violin pizzicato–the violinist will be Peter Zazofsky). There are new pieces, which will be having their first performances, by Lyle Davidson, Pozzi Escot, Stephen Feigenbaum, Michael Finnissy, Philip Grange, John Heiss, Derek Hurst (with electronic sounds–i.e. on my boombox), Matthew McConnell, Matthew Mendez, Nico Muhly, Ketty Nez (for toy piano and piano–Ketty will be the pianist), Dave Smith, Jeremy Woodruff, William Zuckerman, and me (for clavichord and toy piano–the clavichord player will be Peter Sykes). (I’m pretty sure that’s everybody.) The pieces are all really good and all really different from each other.
I hope you can come to this (what can only be described as an) unusual concert.
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