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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Concert Review: The Last Party Hats

The American Symphony Orchestra fétes John Cage.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
John Cage turned 100 this year. We celebrate with this photo of him in a hat.
Image © The Estate of John Cage.
In New York City, the year 2012 will be remembered for natural disasters, pseudo-Mayan hysteria and the cheerful mayhem caused in the city's concert and recital halls by due to the observance of the 100th birthday of John Cage.

On Friday night, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra acknowledged the centennial of that iconoclastic American composer with The Cage Concert at Carnegie Hall. The performance, which is (as far as we know) the last major concert of the year to feature Cage's music, included the New York premieres of two late works.

Unlike some concerts which rely on this composer's vast output to stand by itself, Dr. Botstein chose to place John Cage in a context of important musical directions of the 20th century. In encyclopedic fashion, the set list covered minimalism, indeterminacy, 12-tone serial organization and a healthy sense of the absurd, before culminating in the performance of three Cage compositions.

The performance opened with the most conventional music of the night: Anton Webern's Symphony. An example of Webern's intricate 12-tone style, this two-movement ten-minute work creates spidery, delicate textures, a brush of bassoon, a short series of notes on the strings, and (most importantly) a breath of empty space between the notes, the rests themselves forming part of the work's integral fabric.

Morton Feldman was an important contemporary of Cage who shared similar ideas of indeterminacy and the importance of silence. ...Out of Last Pieces (heard here in a seven-minute excerpt) uses free thematic developments by diverse instruments to create a glittering carpet of sound, one that compels the listener and gently massages the subconscious.

A performance of the ballet score to Erik Satie's Parade followed. Satie's work was a collaboration with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, incorporating musical pranks (pistol shots, a harmonica made from glass bottles) with Satie's minimal melodies and occasional swings into cabaret-style themes. The players dealt with the work's eccentricities deftly, putting genuine swagger into the brass figures and bringing forth fine detail in the strings.

With the percussionist's toy pistol safely packed away, it was time for some proper Cage music. Cheap Imitation draws its inspiration from Satie's own Socrate. (Cage wanted to use that composer's work as a source but the work was under copyright by Satie's publishers.) Hence the work performed, which incorporated nonsensical French syllables sung simultaneously with quotations from the American poet Walt Whitman, whose groundbreaking style was also an inspiration for  Cage.

Although listening to this half-hour work is initially a frustrating experience, its actual, meditative theme coalesces before the listener as the music enters its final movements. This is a difficult to describe moment: as Cage's seemingly chaotic juxtapositions coalesce into a gorgeous, melodic reality, a structure that only emerges after careful, concentrated listening over a vast (35 minute) span of time.

The second half of the concert was played before a sparser audience, and featured the New York premieres of two audacious late Cage compositions. Etcetera (played here in a short excerpt--the whole piece is 90 minutes) is in three sections.

The first is for musicians tapping, slapping and drumming on white cardboard boxes, creating a sound of collective, rhythmic chaos against the hisses and hums of an amplified, prerecorded tape. Eventually, the boxes were traded for instruments and the amelodic musical ideas appeared against the taped background. Finally, the little ensemble played in clusters against the tape, stopping only when the recording ceased its preordained run.

The second piece was even bolder in its conception. Etecetra 2 (Four Orchestras) divides a large ensemble in a radical new way. Four solo stations at the front of the stage, allowing musicians to come up and improvise at will. (Almost every player in the American Symphony Orchestra did this, with the exception of the one harpist.) Four conductors led the newly quartered orchestra, which played chords or individual melodies against the chaos of the prerecorded tape and improvised solo fragments.

One advantage of this unusual composition was the opportunity to hear short solos from unusual instruments: the contrabassoon, the bass clarinet, the lions' roar (a punctured bass drum with a "pull" that makes a deep, whooshing noise.) Even Dr. Botstein took a turn, setting down his baton and scraping a fiddle borrowed from a second violin. The effect of the piece was both bewildering and amusing. Perhaps that was Mr. Cage's intent.

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