Bringing avant-garde to masses

The second half of Krakow’s big-budget Sacrum Profanum Festival drifted into territories of avant-garde seldom seen on the stage of the Philharmonic, which probably had less to do with the radical leanings of the organizers than the simple fact that American classical music is primarily music of the 20th Century. The composers being presented (except for Bernstein, whose music hardly bears discussion, whom this article will pass over in silence) fell into three camps: the Phillip Glass school of repetitive film soundtrack music, post-Schonbergian atonality, and plain weirdness. Representing the first camp was Glass himself in a performance of five of his quartets that bored a late-night audience to near desperation at the Schindler Factory.

Of greater interest was the John Adams evening at the Philharmonic, conducted by Marc Minkowski and performed by the Sinfonia Varsovia, who were in top form on this occasion. The first piece, entitled “The Wound Dresser,” had a rather pointless string section playing music that now rose, now swelled, behind an operatic singer (Garry Magee).

The text being sung was awful enough to bear quotation: “Oh, the amputated hand!…The bloody stump!… The fractured thigh!… Come sweet death!” As parody this would have been barely tolerable, but I suspect Adams would have liked for us to take it seriously, or perhaps Minkowski simply missed the joke. A second piece called “Shaker Loops,” on the other hand, was like Phillip Glass with a good deal more intelligence and ambition. A subtly and obviously demanding piece, “Loops” is repetitive but never redundant, employing strange limping time signatures. The final piece was “Fearful Symmetries,” and this time the repetition inspired the audience to nod off, only to be jarred awake by some crashing loud parts. Steve Reich is too interesting a composer to be properly linked with the above, his brand of Minimalism articulated somewhat by painter Ad Reinhardt: “no texture, no brushwork, no sketching or drawing, no light, no space, no movement, no object, subject or matter.”

What you did have at the Schonberg Ensemble’s performance of “Drumming” was eight percussionists (xylophone/marimba/bongos) and two female vocalists doo-dooing and sometimes whistling for a very long, unbroken period of time. There is certainly a hypnotic appeal to this music, and Reich uses silence in intriguing ways, but surely 80 minutes is too long for all but the most determined thrill-seekers.The next day at the Philharmonic again a surprisingly large crowd showed up to see the Asko Concerto play works by the 99-year-old Elliott Carter (currently writing a new composition to celebrate his own 100th birthday). Carter has said:

“I regard my scores as scenarios for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and as participants in the ensemble.” This sounds almost like Charles Ives in premise, but Carter’s music abandons Ives’s forays into melody altogether. The composer has even confessed that he writes primarily for recordings, as his music is too difficult to digest in a single sitting. The “Asko Concerto” (written for the ensemble performing the piece) is precisely such a composition. The remaining two works (“Dialogues” and “Double Concerto”) both gave listeners a bit more of a foothold, owing in part to the conversational aspect between the solo instruments and the ensemble – or, in “Dialogues,” a lovely call-and-response passage between the trumpet and the piano. Coming at last to the out-and-out weirdness category, we have John Cage, the composer famed for sitting at a piano and not playing anything for over four minutes. In addition to such conceptual diddling, Cage does have some very wonderful pieces, such as his tribute to James Joyce entitled “Roratio.”

“The Music of Always,” however, presented here by the Theater of Voices, falls among his more irritating conceptual pieces. Voices announce things such as “I am here and there is nothing to say,” or “What we require is silence, but what silence requires is that I go on talking.” This is that furthest-out culture of the 70s that brought us Yoko Ono, drug experimentation novels and Andy Warhol, none of which, alas, has survived too well to the present day. The singers alternately sniffle, pant, sing angelically, and generally make odd noises. The capacity audience begins thinning out, the bleachers creaking as they go. Nothing has changed, the masses still dislike the avant-garde with all of their hearts, but in this one case – the masses are probably correct.

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