Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra;
Daniel Spalding, conductor
Guy Livingston, Piano
George Antheil is probably best known for his 1924 work, “Ballet Mecanique“. Featuring 16 player pianos, electric bells, three airplane propellers, a siren, and several percussionists, this piece sounds like it could have been written today.
Why, then, did Antheil leave this form of music, and spend much of the rest of his life writing music in classical forms for conventional instruments? His autobiography may give a clue. It’s title, “Bad Boy Made Good”, suggests that Antheil didn’t really think this wild music was that good. He wasn’t alone – the premiere of Ballet Mecanique at Carnegie Hall in 1927 was a dismal failure.
While Antheil was in New York for this performance, another premiere of his was occurring in Paris, where he lived at the time. “Piano Concerto No. 2″ was also a failure in Paris, probably because the European audience was expecting another “Ballet Mecanique”. Concerto No. 2 is anything but, a relatively conservative and traditional piano concerto. The piece contains a dissonant interval here and there, some rhythmic irregularities, and drastic changes of mood, but overall I find it hard to justify this piece as an “experiment in classical form” as described by the pianist on this CD, Guy Livingston. But those better trained than I in classical form may feel otherwise.
Antheil, originally from Trenton, NJ, moved back to the States in the early 1930s. He worked for a period of time for a movie studio in Queens, beginning a lifelong career in movie music that would eventually bring him to Hollywood. While in Queens, he wrote the music for George Balanchine’s ballet “Dreams”. The nine part music for “Dreams”, premiered in 1935, seems a little more relaxed and sure of itself than the earlier Concerto. There are still drastic changes in mood from piece to piece, but I think you can hear the influence of being back in America. Where the Concerto seemed to try to be something it was not, the nine miniatures in “Dreams” seem to be more of an artistic refection of the composer rather than a forced experiment with traditional forms. The nine short pieces each seem to contain their own sound world in a way that reminds me of Satie’s early piano works, influenced by American rather than French experience. “Acrobat” stands out as a bright point for me in this series.
“Serenade No.2″, written in 1948, is the most recent composition by Antheil on this CD. Written while Antheil was composing for film in Hollywood, this piece is certainly the most mature and polished work on the CD. Gone completely are the last vestiges of the experimental young composer who wrote “Ballet Mecanique”. Like many compositions of its day, to me it seems well constructed, but lacking in something – the piece does not stand out to me. It could easily sound old and fuddy-duddy compared to the new young upstarts of the time. Remember that in this is the same year that John Cage wrote “Sonatas and Interludes” for prepared piano and the “Suite for Toy Piano”.
The recording and performance on this CD are both excellent, and Guy Livingston deserves praise for championing the works of a composer who is being forgotten today. Two of the pieces on this CD have never been recorded before, and for this reason alone the CD would be valuable to a fan of Antheil’s music. For someone who only knows the “Ballet Mecanique”, it might be good to get to know the other side of George Antheil – less brash, perhaps, less iconoclastic, but more subtle and at times beautiful.