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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Concert Review: Cage Match

The Juilliard Percussion Ensemble pays homage to John Cage.
Fingers on the hammers: John Cage prepares a piano.
Monday night at Juillard's Sharp Theater was the second concert in this year's FOCUS! Festival. This year, the festival celebrates the coming centennial of John Cage, the always quotable, often imitated father of the avant-garde movement in American concert music. When needed, New York Philharmonic percussionist Daniel Druckman conducted.

For the uninitiated, Cage's music grew out of the experimentation of composer Henry Cowell, who was a pioneer in writing "tone clusters" (mashing down multiple keys of a piano at once) and to "prepare" a piano (holding down the strings with we objects.) Cowell's Ostinato Pianissimo led off the program, a shimmering, airy web of sound that seemed to emerge, unfold in the air, and dissolve. 

It was followed by Three2, a late Cage composition for three players. The percussionists stood at distance from the stage, making soft noises on a snare drum, eerie wailings on a lumber saw and gentle tones on tuned gongs. The music was wispy, almost insubstantial. Then it was gone.

The Third Construction is an earlier Cage work, with four percussionists playing in sync like a particularly noisy gamelan. Noisy, because the instruments include large coffee cans, bamboo cricket callers and a "lion's roar" (performed with a bass drum and a rope.) But despite the clatter, the music never sounded cacaphonous.

The second half of the concert opened with Mr. Cage himself. His disembodied voice, lecturing on the concept of "Nothing", filled the air of the Sharp Theater, sounding uncannily like the HAL-9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eerie, fascinating and a performance in itself.

The silence was soon ended, by Cage's Credo In Us, which pitted a prepared piano and percussion instruments against a recording of the Largo from Antonín Dvořák's New World Symphony. The older piece was turned on and off seemingly at random, creating chopped phrases of English horn, 'cellos and brass that jabbed their way into the textures created by the percussion players. When the electronic orchestra was cut off mid-phrase, the piece was over.

The concert ended with the Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orcestra by Lou Harrison, a longtime associate of John Cage. The Harrison Concerto featured the organist playing his instrument with fingers and wooden blocks on the keys, creating liud tonal clusters for the percussion to clatter and bash against. The second movement was quieter, and more atmospheric. The third returned to the high-volume non-chords and discordant percussion, creating brusque blocks of sound for the audience to contemplate.

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