I was not optimistic about James Miller’s opening solo: he was playing Berio and he came out in a clown costume. But five seconds after he put his trombone to his lips I realized that this was going to be one of the best musical performances I’d see all year. He blasted through the impossible Sequenza V with panache, revealing it to be funny, touching and twitchy. It was the most appealing performance of Berio I’ve heard in 20 years.
Then Joanne Pearce Martin performed seven selections from Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, emphasizing their delicacy, rather than the drama. I was puzzled how this fit in the program: Cage at his least antagonistic?
Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte was the novelty that drew me to this concert. As the title advertises, it’s emphatically a composition, a form that unfolds over time. The ten musicians begin with delicate squeaks. As they proceed, one by one, musicians leave the stage. When they were reduced to harp, piano, cello, bass clarinet and flute I noticed that music had been getting more and more attractive and compelling as the ensemble got smaller. It ends with the piano, which storms away in Lizstian abandon. It really is a kind of chamber piano concerto. Opaque but tantalizing.
I didn’t realize beforehand that the big event of the evening would be Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, but it was.
When Antony and the Johnsons performed last October I remember thinking that one of the things they were born to do is tackle the zany avant-garde vocal music of the Sixties. This two-part piece from 1962-6 for example.
Kiera Duffy, Mary Nessinger and Eugene Chan not only pulled it off, but put it over. It was a complete theatrical success: the audience roared at the funny bits and squirmed at the disquieting bits. It was theater of the absurd in a pure state—without any intelligible words, or action, but incessant, animated emoting and acting up.
The first part has the character of a chamber opera. What was the story? I couldn’t say. Two women and a man interact, then they each withdraw, then they interact. They each express a range of emotions—nervousness, hysteria, discomfort, exhilaration. Sometimes they express these things in pure tones, other times they express them with ridiculous screeches, cluckings, belches, mutterings. It was like observing a domestic drama among incomprehensible Maritans. The emotional exertions of the singers, their changes and fluctuations of mood, are pointedly pointless. You note it all without a drop of empathy. It is very funny, but very dark.
If the first part is a scene of a drama, the second is an discussion after the drama is over. The sonority changes: it becomes more like an instrumental piece with singers. The instrumental bits become more than punctuation, and take on independent significance. The percussionist in particular had a field day: he got to beat pillows, tear sheets of paper, beat a rug and smash china. Duffy’s performance was a diva-quality parody of a hysterical soprano, Euenge Chan earned laughs and stares with his wide range of musical growls, but Mary Nessinger, whispering while her eyes stared crazily, stole the show.
Kurtág’s Stele began with a wavering-pitch blast of
horns out of a Tibetan monastery. Dudamel loves color, and he made the most of
this strange sound. All through the piece are moments of this wavering,
uncertainty of pitch. It’s bizarre and eerie.
Perhaps it was the context, but the Mozart concerto
#23 in A major that followed sounded extremely modern: single notes sounding in
the vastness of the concert hall. Then another extreme: Strauss’s Alpine
Symphony, with everything reverberating and resonating with everything else at
fever pitch for 45 minutes.
I had never seen Carmen before. I had been primed
by Nietzsche’s ravings:
“It’s cheerfulness is African; fate hangs over it;
its happiness is brief, sudden, without pardon. I envy Bizet for having had the
courage for this sensibilty which had hitherto had no language in the cultivate
music of Europe--for this more southern, brown, burnt sensibility.--How the
yellow afternoons of its happiness do us good! We look into the distance as we
listen: did we ever find the sea smoother?--And how soothingly the Moorish
dance speaks to us! How even our insatiability for once gets to know satiety in
this lascivious melancholy!”
Well, maybe …. Viktoria Vizin was a good singer and
actress, but she was struggling against her environment: a bad production happening to
a good Carmen.
Last wee Dudamel led the Israel Philharmonic through Bernstein's appealing mini-concerto for flute Halil and his annoying Jubilee Games, and a wild ride through Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony. But the hit of the evening was the final encore of the Carmen Miranda hit Tico-Tico.
A century ago George Bernard Shaw complained about Tchaikovsky’s "thoroughly Byronic power of being tragic, momentous, romantic about nothing at all," … but what’s wrong with that?