Varèse: (R)evolution, Part I
International Contemporary Ensemble
Steven Schick, conductor
There are few composers for whom two normal-length concerts comprise a complete retrospective. Besides Edgard Varèse, the only other one who comes to mind is Anton Webern. How was it possible, in the first half of the twentieth century, for these two men to foment such revolution in so few hours? Varèse's complete works add up to less time than The Godfather, and could be performed in a "marathon" concert shorter than the average Rossini opera.
Monday night's performance showed that, though Varèse may have been responsible for a musical revolution, he was no revolutionary. His music is couched in the aesthetics of his time, drawing on a vast number of influences and filtering them through his outlandish personality. And in those musical moments where Varèse seems to reach to an electronic future which did not yet exist, we catch a glimpse of his musical progeny.
Opening the first Varèse night (alas, I was unable to attend the second, featuring Alan Gilbert's New York Phil) with the Poème électronique, his final work, was a stroke of programing brilliance. Kudos goes to Lincoln Center Presents and their crew for not only conceiving of a smart two-day celebration, but also of giving individual concerts a narrative scope. It is difficult, though, to reconcile Poème électronique's importance as a cornerstone of early electronic music with its actual enjoyability as a piece of music. Varèse provides a series of engaging sounds, isolated from their context: the pealing of bells, a Zappa-esque moan, beeps resembling a hearing test, antiphonal chants. But it is not a convincing sequence, more intriguing as experiment than as music.
The question to discuss, then, is how does revolution hold up over time? I think of the opening chords of Beethoven's First, a series of harmonic ambiguities which in 1801 were considered an audacious way to begin a symphony. Today, we can appreciate this fact, but it is not what makes the sequence compelling. We are drawn to the succinct writing and the instrumental colors---we hear the ambiguity, but not what made it daring. Similarly, it is hard for me not to appreciate Varèse's poem merely teleologically, as an important step towards Stockhausen and the electronic soundscape of the 1960s. The chuckles from the audience during a series of bleeps and bloops confirmed this; today, sounds that resonated powerfully in 1958 seem less to have anticipated Stockhausen than to have anticipated Pacman.
In a kind of Proustian flashback, the concert segued directly from the late Poème to Varèse's earliest surviving work, the limpid art song Un Grand Sommeil Noir (1906). By beginning with the end before launching back to the beginning, the programmers endowed the rest of the concert with a dramatic thrust. Soprano Anu Komsi's dark, full singing projected Varèse's vocal writing, which echoes Fauré in its fluid, eloquent Frenchness; Mika Rannali provided supple piano accompaniment.
Varèse created an explosive trilogy of works in the early 1920s, demonstrating his command over small and colorful ensembles of instruments. Hyperprism and Integrales, the latter two of the three, are hard-edged, tightly composed works for shrieking winds and wild percussion. In Hyperprism, Claire Chase's pure, cutting flute solos (reminiscient of shakuhachi), as well as piquant duos of piccolo and clarinet, showed off the composer's cunning use of woodwnds. The raging progression of Integrales, an onslaught of noise punctured by moments of eerie quiet, grasped the ears and refused to let go. Offrandes stood as an interlude between the two, a series of lither snarls, and Anu Komsi inflected Varèse's somewhat-conservative vocals with gusto. Through all three, Steven Schick conducted with fierce precision.
As the first electro-acoustic piece on the program, Ecuatorial (1934) proved strange in more than one manner. Varèse creates a mass of atonal organ, two screeching cello theremins (which oddly resembled Guitar Hero guitars), wailing brass, and stormy percussion. Finally, after I nearly forgot that the piece had a part for bass-baritone, Alan Held intoned the primitive Spanish text. Though it is a prayer, it sounded more apocalyptic than soothing, and Held brought out the primal elements of the words. In both the prayer and the instrumental parts, Varèse invokes ancient mysteries, utilizing hyper-modern textures to illuminate a prehistoric world. The primitivist elements occasionally felt a little silly, though, and the acid-jazz sound of the theremins somewhat distracted from Held's forceful voice.
Dance for Burgess, Varèse's 1949 attempt to compose something like popular music, was a brief, Ivesian delight, refracting the sound of a Broadway band in a danceable swirl of timbres. It, as well as Etude pour Espace, could not have been performed without scholar and former pupil of Varèse Chou Wen-chung's excellent editing and orchestration. The Etude, with its use of microphones and spatial placement of speakers, develops an ethereal allure through extremely low brass growls, a chorus mumbling nonsense syllables, and sudden moments of schmaltz. Occasionally, the overlapping chant of Musica Sacra resembled Reich's Tehillim. Entrancing harmonies surrounded Anu Komsi's falsetto screeches, and a sensational final chord finished the spellbinding work.
The modernist solo flute repertoire is a vast body of work; Debussy opened the doors with his Syrinx in 1913, and Eliott Carter continues to hold them open today. Varèse's Density 21.5 is an integral part of this tradition and his only solo instrumental work. It consists series of expanding gestures, foreshadowing Berio's Sequenzas and drawing on a gamut of extended techniques. Claire Chase gave it a consummate, captivating, and athletic performance, with steely slap tongue and an incredible severity of attacks---she, more than any other flutist performing today, seems to have internalized the ferocity required for this music.
Finally, Deserts, the longest work on the program, brought the evening to a close. It is an alternation between Varèse's typical instrumental chaos (although, written three decades after the works of the 1920s, demonstrates significantly more refinement of orchestration) and cadenzas for tape. The ear-cleaning roars of the electronics sounded portentous in their clangor, but the work dragged on too long. After two hours of Varèse, my ears became dulled to his musical rhetoric, and I could no longer appreciated the genius of combining fifteen instruments to mimic the sound of a freight train colliding with a skyscraper. And as in Poème électronique, some of the ideas in Deserts seemed to outpace their medium, and the electronics felt somewhat unsatisfying. The final moments sounded almost dirge-like, a soft sigh of strangeness before the tumultuous applause.
Not only was the concert mostly awesome, but it pointed to a number of interesting solutions to the "problem" of classical music. As everyone claws at ideas for the future of the medium, this performance (like Varèse's music) seemed to be broadcast back from that bright future. In a coming post, I will talk about the idea of selling classical concerts as "events," and why that makes the difference between a decrepit, coughing audience and an engaged, youthful full house. But something else came to mine as well: rather than conscripting a reduced version of the New York Philharmonic for the first night, Lincoln Center Presents chose to combine smaller, specialist ensembles for these performances. Many cities will probably lose the capability to sustain major orchestras in the coming decades, and we may see concert halls used less as residences for house bands than as venues for touring groups like ICE and So Percussion. The technique of combining two groups to form a kind of avant-garde Jefferson Starship may become an important model as well--rather than breaking down a large orchestra (as in, say, the NY Phil's Contact series), the ideal solution may be to construct one from smaller ensembles.
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