The 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage was celebrated in Pasadena, California at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center with a concert by Gloria Cheng titled Two Sides of Cage’s Coin. The Boston Court venue is comfortably cozy and all but a few of the 100 seats were filled to hear Water Music and the entire sequence of Sonatas and Interludes. Despite the modern industrial construction of the hall – it has corrugated steel walls – and a play going on in the adjacent theater, the acoustics proved more than adequate for the intimate space.
John Cage was born in Los Angeles and has many connections here despite being known primarily as a New York composer. Cage studied with Schoenberg at UCLA – where Gloria Cheng is now a faculty member. He lived for a time in Pacific Palisades and later in Hollywood. Cage was also a colleague of Lou Harrison and taught at Mills College in the Bay area. To mark the centennial here in Los Angeles of the birth of John Cage – one of Americas most influential composers – is entirely fitting and appropriate.
The first piece on the program is known generically as Water Music but as Ms. Cheng explained the official title should be Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 because Cage had intended the title to be taken from wherever it was performed. This piece was first presented as 66 W. 12 at Woodstock, NY August 29, 1952 and so the title is updated on each playing. Water Music is partly music and partly performance – the score calls for a table radio, three kinds of whistles, cups and pitchers of water, a wooden stick and a deck of playing cards, all in addition to the piano. (A similar piece – Water Walk – was once performed by Cage himself on the old I’ve Got A Secret TV program and you can see this here on You Tube.)
Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 started with the rolling out of a small cart full of items to center stage – the radio plays – and Ms. Cheng began a series of activities such as pouring water from cup to pitcher, blowing various whistles, etc. This was all done by timing the sequence of actions with her iPhone (a nice 21st century touch) and following Cage’s score, which was projected overhead for all to see. No one brings as much dignity to the concert stage as Gloria Cheng, but she could have been a 1950s housewife scurrying about attending to various domestic chores. When the score called for a chord or two on the piano, however, everything changes: it is the virtuoso who – with just a few notes struck – suddenly and decisively shifts the focus to an artistic perspective. It is this overlap between the mundane and the suddenly artistic that makes this piece so intriguing – our ordinary lives are never quite removed from the arts – and art bleeds into our everyday experience.
Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano was written over two years,1946 to 1948, at a time when John Cage was working with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Ms. Cheng explained that because there was no room in the dance studio for drums, Cage hit upon the idea of adding various pieces of hardware to the piano strings to give it a more percussive sound. He eventually devised explicit instructions on how the piano was to be prepared and he specifies individual types of screws, bolts and plastic pieces for each of 45 different notes on the piano. A complete chart by Cage showing how the piano is to be prepared was included in the program.
To those who have never heard a prepared piano the resulting sound invariably exceeds prior expectations. The lower prepared notes have a wonderful gong-like quality while the middle register can produce beautiful bell tones. The higher notes tend most toward the percussive, at times resembling the notes from a music box. The added texture of the prepared piano is fully explored in Sonatas and Interludes which are, by turns playful, dramatic, solemn, agitated, languid, mysterious and tranquil. The ‘Sonatas’ are played in groups of four followed an ‘Interlude’ for a total of 20 pieces – all played sequentially. This work was written at a time when Cage was studying South Asian music and culture – the various pieces in Sonatas and Interludes evoke a definite exotic and mystical feeling and are intended to portray the eight permanent human emotions as defined by Indian philosophy.
As might be expected, Sonatas and Interludes is a very challenging work for the performer – from the 3 hours of piano preparation time to understanding just how each note will feel and react. And of course you can see that the piece is technically difficult just by looking at the notes on the score – rapid runs of complex arpeggios, soft quiet stretches and dramatically loud passages. Because the hardware tends to shorten the duration of the sound when a prepared note is struck, this music is typically a sequence of single notes and rapid runs with very few long chords – a good test of the performer’s dexterity. Ms. Cheng was up to all of this but what impresses most is her ability to find just the right dynamic and “touch” for each section – even with 45 of the keys prepared. I asked her afterwords if she had much chance to practice on a prepared piano and she responded that at one time she did so but now feels confident given her experience with Cage’s music. In any event the results were well-received by the audience who brought Ms. Cheng back for two curtain calls amid much cheering. Gloria then invited those interested to come on stage to look inside the piano – and help her “de-prepare” it – a gracious gesture from an accomplished performer.
This concert was sponsored by Piano Spheres and information on their upcoming concert season can be found here.
The great diversity of the Los Angeles area has produced a wide variety of cultural institutions and one of those is the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) – an expression of the sizable Jewish community here. The LAJS is “Dedicated to the performance of orchestral works of distinction, which explore Jewish culture, heritage and experience. It also serves as an important resource for aspiring composers and musicians. As part of its mission, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony is committed to building ‘bridges of music’ and understanding within the diverse multi-ethnic communities of our great city.”
The LAJS marks its 18th or ‘Chai’ anniversary this year with a concert on August 26 titled ‘Chai-lights – Celebrating 18 years of Jewish Music‘. The concert includes a contemporary work ‘Klezmopolitan Suite‘ by Niki Reiser, in its US premiere. Past concerts have included themes from bible stories, the Sephardic-Latino connection, a tribute to Jewish film composers and many educational performances given throughout the city. As part of its mission, the LAJS actively commissions new works and often includes contemporary pieces in its programming.
Dr. Noreen Green, artistic director, conductor and one of the founders of the LAJS, recently met with Sequenza21 to talk about Jewish music, the LAJS and the process of programming and selecting new pieces for performance.
So what is Jewish music and how do you program it? Dr. Green describes: “People have this idea what of Jewish music is – like its bas mitzvah music – so I try to take it beyond. We do a lot of klezmer, but we do it within the framework of the orchestral instruments so it expands the colors of what klezmer is – I think it adds another level to it. And we also do Castelnuovo-Tedesco [an Italian-Jewish composer who came to Los Angeles in 1939 as a refugee] and we also do Bloch and we also do Korngold and a lot of the film composers. Being a good programmer is really key to how the audience is going to react. Whatever you want to say, we are entertainment dollars, so we want people to come and feel like they have had a high musical experience, but in addition I want them to feel like they have learned something – and had a little fun.”
How do you go about selecting new music for the LAJS? The process, admits a smiling Dr. Green is ‘mystical’, but she declares: “Well, it’s all subjective. First of all, I have to like it. I have to make sure it also fits into whatever theme the concert is. I will commission [a piece] within a theme, like the Istoria Judia, the piece had to fit into the whole.”
The Istoria Judia concert this past March had as its theme the expulsion of the Jews from Spain after 1492 and featured a commissioned work by composer Michelle Green Willner. There was a close collaboration between Dr. Green and the composer as the piece was written, but this is not necessarily the case for new music programmed by the LAJS.
Dr. Green explains: “I seek out the people I want to work with. Now of course there are a lot of people come to me and say ‘will you perform my music?’ – that’s more difficult. …I get bombarded with scores – as you can imagine. The ones I don’t even look at are the ones that come without an initial solicitation – a note or letter [from the composer] that asks ‘would you be interested in something like this?’ I have to come up with a kernel first – something to work from – then I go and seek out music. I have a file – and when people will say ‘I have a cello klezmer concerto – would you be interested in that?’ – and I’ll say ‘Maybe in the future but send me some information’ and that goes in the file. I’ve just done our repertoire for next year, so I went back into that file to see what I had – and I didn’t remember some of the things that had been sent. It can take several years sometimes, before a new piece fits into our programing.“
The LAJS does just a few concerts a year, so the opportunities for new music to be performed are also few, even given the commitment to programming it. It can take years for the right combination of theme and music to converge. This was the case with the ‘Klezmopolitan Suite‘, a work that has been around for some time. Dr. Green describes: “I think what is interesting about the Klezmopolitan Suite is that when I read the description of the themes that he [composer Niki Reiser] took, it encompassed all of the elements of what the Jewish symphony is about, because it uses Sephardic themes, it uses Ashkenazic and it intermingles those two main streams of Judaism in a very interesting and ingenious sound. It has ethereal sections and then it has the real flat out klezmer sections – and how he balances these out – I think it is an ingenious work and I’ve been wanting to do it for 10 years.”
How has new music been received by audiences? According to Dr. Green: “It depends on the piece – some people like it and some people hate it! And that is one of the beauties of new music, it engenders discussion.. and I think it’s great when people have very strong reactions to music. I would say 90% of the time mostly people like it, but sometimes people will say ‘well, that didn’t really resonate with me’. [and I say] ‘Great, didn’t resonate with you – but somebody else was crying during it’. It is similar to the way everyone reacts differently to a movie and that is part of the beauty of live performance. If you sit in front of the computer to watch something or listen to it on the radio – that is not a public experience, it’s not a shared experience – and I think we all need more of that, a shared, live experience.”
And that is as good an argument for live performance of new music as you will find!
Further information about the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, Dr. Noreen Green and the August 26 concert are here.
There has been plenty of eulogizing and assessment of Maurice Sendak’s remarkable career, most of it focused (rightly so) on his wonderful books. While Sendak’s work in opera and ballet has been praised, I don’t feel that enough attention has been paid to the two operas he worked on with Oliver Knussen. The first, Where the Wild Things Are, is the best children’s opera of our time; the second, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, is one of the best late 20th-century operas of any type. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a fairy tale with great appeal to children, yet the surreal story of a selfish dog’s quest for happiness is laden with potent symbolism that speaks deeply to adults.
The efficiency of Sendak’s librettos to both works, and the ways he created new dialogue for Where the Wild Things Are, and distilled the text for Higglety Pigglety Pop!, reveal the handiwork of a shrewd man with a gift for the stage. Knussen’s music–impressionistic in Wild Things, parodic and post-modern in Higglety Pigglety Pop! is colorful and contemporary, yet highly accessible. I hope that more companies consider mounting a production of one or both operas.
I’ve posted my review of the 1990 LA Opera production of both works on my blog, and I hope it will give you a sense of the magic that Sendak and Knussen conjured for an audience full of children and adults. You can read the review here.
Two American premieres of important new works by Louis Andriessen at the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert tomorrow evening (Feb. 28), 8 pm. Get there at 7 pm for the preconcert talk with Andriessen and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
We had just seen John Cage recite his mesostic/theater work, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet. My composition teacher, a tenured faculty member who had won many awards including a Pulitzer Prize, told us, “Everyone should see John Cage once.”
And then, as if to underscore the idea that one only needed to see Cage once, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer added, “But of course, his ideas are much more important than his music.” At that time (the early 1980s), there weren’t many recordings of Cage’s music available, and I rarely encountered any performances of his music, so my professor’s utterance was a reasonable statement for many.
Three decades later, there are 279 recordings featuring one or more works by John Cage available on arkivmusic.com; my old teacher has under 30 listed. It isn’t just that Cage is the most-recorded member of the postwar avant-garde—he has more recordings than plenty of conservative composers. Here’s a list of the top 10 recorded composers born in the 20th century at arkivmusic.com
1. Shostakovich 1449
2. Britten 958
3. Bernstein 632
4. Barber 541
5. Rodrigo 461 (and 103 of those are the Concierto de Aranjuez)
6. Messiaen 431
7. Walton 413
8. Khachaturian 357 (138 of those are the Sabre Dance)
9. Cage 279
10. Arvo Part 239
Clearly, Cage’s compositions, as well as his ideas, are very important in the classical music industry. This year you’ll be hearing a lot of his music, as various cities and organizations celebrate the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth. The John Cage trust is a useful web site to learn about upcoming performances, but if you live in Southern California, you’ll want to consult this list I compiled for the LA Weekly of Cage events this year.
Steve Reich and Music for 18 Musicians comes to Disney Hall on Jan. 17
For the LA Weekly, I compiled a list of what appear to be the best classical music events next year in Los Angeles. (Of course, the 2012-13 seasons haven’t been announced yet, so there will likely be events in the fall that I’ll be crazy about, and REDCAT had not published its Winter/Spring concert schedule by the time I turned my copy into my editors)
Just about all my picks involve 20th/21st century music (there’s lots of pre-20th century music at Ojai, and although Mahler may not seem 20th-century to many classical music mavens, over half of his output was composed after 1901). Here they are, in order of Most-To-Least Amount of Regret One Will Have For Not Attending The Event:
1) Steve Reich played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and red fish blue fish, Jan. 17
2) The LA Philharmonic’s Mahler Project, but in particular the rarely performed 8th Symphony
3) The Ojai Festival–lots of new music, but especially the West Coast premiere of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit on June 7
4) Jacaranda’s March 17-18 concerts, featuring the LA premiere of Christopher Rouse’s astounding String Quartet no. 3, played by the group which commissioned it, the Calder Quartet
5) Violinist Shalini Vijayan will perform Cage’s One6 and One10 with musical sculptures by Mineko Grimmer (which Cage approved as appropriate companion works to his music), as the opening concert of Cage 2012
My story, along with lots of links and videos, can be read here.
Some observations and amplifications I couldn’t squeeze into a 500-word story:
REDCAT is doing a 2-night Cage Festival, including performances of 103 and Fifty-Eight on the first evening. But from what I can see right now, that and Southwest Chamber Music’s Cage 2012 are the only big birthday celebrations going on for Cage in his native city. Green Umbrella will present Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, performed by Gloria Cheng and conducted by John Adams; the other works scheduled for that program include Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (the “Carnival of Venice” for new music groups) and a new work from Oscar Bettison which is more likely to be in Cage’s spirit than Stockhausen’s goofy Zodiac pieces.
The all-Andriessen Green Umbrella concert looks very promising–2 multimedia works, (the lurid Anais Nin and Life) plus the US premiere of La Giro. It’s worth attending just to see the riveting Cristina Zavalloni, who’s become one of Andriessen’s chosen interpreters
I feel sorry for all the other composers on the above Jacaranda program (Richard Rodney Bennett, William Schuman, and Leon Kirchner)–memory of their music will be completely obliterated by Rouse’s compositional juggernaut, his Third Quartet. There’s a video of the Calder Quartet ripping it up (the West Coast premiere) here. The Calder will also play Rouse’s Second Quartet, but the ending to that work has always struck me as contrived
Jacaranda has 2 other exciting programs coming up: the American premiere of Terry Riley’s Olson III, a work from the time of In C, and a January concert of chamber music by Dutilleux, Takemitsu, Ung, and Saariaho. It was a real coin toss for me to choose between Olson III or Rouse Third Quartet, but I ultimately went with Rouse because the Calder knows the work cold, and a successful performance is certain (unlike Olson III)
In addition to Inuksuit, JLA’s Red Arc/Blue Veil and the two-piano-plus-tape version of Dark Waves will be heard at Ojai. Marc-Andre Hamelin, a pianist I would not associate with JLA’s music, will be performing in the latter 2 pieces–I look forward to hearing what he does with the piece. I imagine he’ll get authoritative guidance from Steve Schick, his partner in Red Arc, and from JLA himself. Amusingly, John Adams’ Shaker Loops will be on the same program as Dark Waves. I wonder how many inattentive audience members will think they’re works by the same composer? Much more up Hamelin’s alley: Ives’ Concord Sonata and Berg’s Four Songs, op. 2, and following his performance of Dark Waves with Leif Oves Andsnes, the pianists will play Stravinsky’s 4-hand arrangement of Rite of Spring (done on 2 pianos, because the hand crossings and elbow bumpings are ridiculous)
Last Saturday night I caught a trio of Philip Glass‘s slightly more obscure music, performed by a well-rehearsed Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale (based in Orange County, California) as part of their annual American Composers Festival. Although lesser-known than its Los Angeles counterpart, the symphony is staffed with many fine Southern California-based musicians and performs in the recently built and acoustically impressive Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
The opening piece, “Meetings Along the Edge” from Passages (1990), featured Glass’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar, in which both agreed to each compose a melody for each other and write a new composition around it. Usually I cringe at the results at these attempts at cultural exchange and creative collaboration, but in this rare instance I was very taken with the way Shankar’s Indian melody combined with Glass’s signature contrapuntal and harmonic elements. It created a fascinating juxtaposition, that gave me new insights on how Shankar’s Indian musical elements integrated into his very recognizable compositional language.
The Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995) was written to serve dual purposes: first to be performed primarily as a saxophone quartet (here handled by the Prism Quartet), and secondly to be performed with an added orchestral accompaniment. Judging by the many recordings available of the quartet (sans orchestra), it has become a popular addition to the saxophone repertoire, but at Saturday evening’s performance it was hard to forget that much of this music was very similar or even repurposed from Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990), Glass’s song cycle collaboration based on Alan Ginsberg’s spoken-word poetry with solo piano. Reusing music has been widely accepted (besides borrowing heavily from Mozart and Purcell, Michael Nyman is a common recycler of his own music) and I think there is nothing inherently wrong with reusing one’s material, but in this case the unintended results were the equivalent of watching James Gandolfini from The Sopranos appear in another TV show. No matter how hard you try, it’s hard to see him as anybody but Tony Soprano. Comparing this secondhand saxophone showcase against the powerful combination of Glass’s music with Ginsberg’s poetry doesn’t really equate apples to apples, but more like apples to apple butter.
After intermission, just from viewing the assembled 140-member Pacific Chorale and orchestra, it might be easy to assume that Glass’s The Passion of Ramakrishna would feature a grand spectacle similar to his non-narrative operas like Akhnaten and Satyagraha. But for reasons I can’t fathom the assembled full chorus and orchestra wasn’t used to its full potential, at least in comparison to his similar vocal and operatic works.
The libretto, which recounted the final months and last words of the 19th-century Indian philosopher Ramakrishna, were surprisingly taciturn and the music was pleasant, but as the Passion of Ramakrishna was coming to a close I was struck that I had never been left so cold by a Glass vocal piece: It was basically 50 minutes of recitative with no aria (i.e. mostly all story and very little emotion). After the performance my concerns were confirmed when some of the performers said that Glass had mentioned he’d been hoping to eventually to flesh out the piece further, which was especially curious because the weekend’s performances were being recorded for a possible release on Naxos or Glass’s own Orange Mountain Music label.
Whether or not the piece performed Saturday night was the final version, it does leave me to think that in its current version, the Passion of Ramakrishna could use a few changes — namely, more “Passion” to balance out the exposition. As a composer who has learned much from studying and performing Glass’s music over the years the music presented Saturday night shows that even though many already are calling him a “living legend”, sometimes deadlines and professional obligations lead to music that was created by a mere mortal.
JACK Quartet presents two concerts in LA this coming Sunday and Monday. On 2/13, they’re giving an afternoon concert for the Da Camera Society (tickets/details here) at the Southern California Instituteof Architecture. The program includes early music – Machaut and Gesualdo – as well as contemporary works: Philip Glass’ 5th Quartet and Tetras by Iannis Xenakis. The selections certainly suit the concert’s location: both Xenakis and Machaut are composers who should be of interest to architects!
On Monday, JACK will present a different program as part of Monday Evening Concerts at the Colburn School (tickets/details here). It includes both of Aaron Cassidy’s quartets, John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, Anton Webern’s Op. 9 Bagatelles, and Horaţiu Rădulescu’s String Quartet No. 5 “before the universe was born.”
This looks to be an amazing double header of new music programs. I hope that some of our Californian readers will be able to attend. If so, please send us a report.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson has an excellent post about Aaron Cassidy’s 2nd Quartet on New Music Box today.
As Tim pointed out on his blog, Paul Griffiths’ notes for the 2/14 program are online.