Wednesday, August 18, 2010

many voices (2)

Monday, August 16 2010
Lincoln Center Presents Mostly Mozart: Bach & Polyphonies

International Contemporary Ensemble
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, keyboards

Purcell (trans. Benjamin), Fantasia VII
George Benjamin, Antara
Harrison Birtwistle, Selections from
Bach Measures
Birtwistle, Slow Frieze
Bach (arr. Berio), Contrapunctus XIX, from The Art of Fugue
Lachenmann, Mouvement (--vor der Erstarrung)

For a program this ambitious and audacious to exist under the auspices of the Mostly Mozart festival is truly remarkable. This summer, Lincoln Center has seen the fruitful results of a gradual and important transformation and updating of its festival repertoire, from the sensational Varese fest to electronic gamelan to Aimard's polyglot of polyphony.

At Monday's concert, we heard not a single work of Mozart's, but also not even really a single work of Bach's: both of the "Bach" pieces were in fact re-compositions of the master's music through the lens of post-war modernism, demonstrating more about Luciano Berio's and Harrison Birtwistle's styles than those of the Baroque polyphonist (and the same goes for George Benjamin's Purcell "transcription"). Rather than illuminate Bach, the three-day festival has accomplished the more intriguing goal of shedding light on what other people think about Bach (Aimard himself included). Bach's music serves as a vehicle for other composers' and performers' ideas, a kind of blank slate upon which they can inscribe their musical agendas.

Benjamin, in his version of Purcell's two-part Fantasia VII (originally written for viol consort), uses timbre to emphasize the unfolding of eerie counterpoint. Scored for the odd ensemble of cello, violin, celeste, and clarinet, the soft arrangement feels almost frozen in time, with the glassy colors of the plinking celeste setting the framework. The other instruments bring out various lines in the keyboard part, weaving around Aimard's crystalline playing; Benjamin crafts each moment with care, doing justice to Purcell's technical brilliance.

The rest of the first half of the program left me mostly cold. Antara is one of the first pieces of music I have heard in a long time that feels like a complete cop-out. Apparently drawn to the acoustics of the pan-pipe, Benjamin decided he wanted to write a concerto for the instrument. But rather than deal with the difficulties of composing complex, atonal music for such a limited range, Benjamin stepped around the issue: the pan pipe is played by electric keyboard, which is, to quote the program notes, "unconstrained by the limits of normal human performance."

Now I am not one of those people who yammers on about how using electronics somehow remove the human aspect of the music. Composers are free to do what they want, and there will always be a human aspect to music, even if it's randomly generated by software designed by a robot. Benjamin's idea, though, strikes me as inherently flawed and somewhat disingenuous, a retreat from the hardships of writing for an instrument that doesn't do everything that you want it to. I'm not sure exactly what his solution should have been in this case, but it definitely could have been subtler than keyboard sampling pan pipe.

Now, the actual piece was moderately interesting. An ensemble of two flutes, two trombones, two keyboards, strings, and electronics played various hockets which shot across the theater, creating agitated clangor. Overall, though, the work dragged on too long (twenty minutes), losing most of its momentum by the end. Aimard played the quasi- New Age, quasi- serial keyboard part with conviction, almost convincing me that it was a good idea to begin with, and Ludovic Morlot conducted with urgency.

Things didn't particularly improve in two mediocre selections from Birtwistle's Bach Measures, a set of chorale prelude orchestrations. The first, strangely ornamented and highlighting flute and clarinet soloists (Claire Chase and another member of ICE, uncharacteristically subdued) was courtly and dull; the second, buoyant but uninspiring. They felt more like exercises (and not particularly good ones) than actual pieces; I would rather have heard a Bach arrangement classic like Webern's "Ricercar a 6" from The Musical Offering.

In Slow Frieze, Birtwistle sets up a series of spatial arrangements between small groups of instruments, scattered through the Rose Theater. Various rhythmic layers propel the music forward, but it was difficult to grasp onto anything; briefly, the ensemble snapped into a tight groove, but that quickly dissolved. Incessant motives continuously return, with fierce drums and twitching violins, but the individual ideas didn't add up to a compelling narrative. Jacob Greenberg, ICE's virtuoso pianist, stole the show by playing the cluttered chords like they were written by Liszt, bombastic and arch-romantic.

Fortunately, the second half of the evening brought together two fantastic works. Berio stands with Webern as a successful recomposer of Bach's music, and his orchestration/completion of the final triple fugue from The Art of Fugue does justice to its source material. Like Webern, Berio focuses on that most German of words, Klangfarbenmelodie: using shifting instrumental colors to draw out melodies. Each of Bach's twisted contrapuntal lines receives different treatment under Berio's hand, and he creates a sense of endless, almost Wagnerian melody out of the overlapping phrases. Individual lines breathe with unique character, as in the rhapsodic solos of the second fugue, and the themes within themes of the third. As Berio picks up where Bach left off, things get weirder and the dissonances pile up. The final chords, a cluster sounding the B-A-C-H motif simultaneously, resound with a sickly hum and pose a question: did Berio intend this as a little joke, or is he implying that the natural result of Bach's experimentation results in atonality? Maybe both. Polystylistic and non-dogmatic, Berio was probably commenting on the inane teleology of his friends at Darmstadt, who saw atonality as the final step in the grand march of musical history.

Helmut Lachenmann takes one step beyond that. By breaking down every aspect of the musician's relationship with his instrument, Lachenmann creates tapestries of otherworldly sounds, attentively forging an orchestra which sounds more like electronic experiment than acoustic convention. This deconstruction certainly has a post-Adorno agenda, but lose the philosophical baggage and his music becomes almost fun in its childlike glee at the sheer array of noises an instrument can make. Mouvement separates two groups of winds and strings on the stage (along with three lone violins in the balcony), and plays out a face-off of crazed instrumental effects. Strings buzz, woodwinds sputter, marimbas are bowed. It's a complete inversion of what constitutes regular music-making, tipping the scale so far towards extended technique that the stray A-flat or D-sharp sounds foreign to the ears. Lachenmann erects a tonality of effects, systematizing the bizarre and constructing the deconstructive.

The quick crescendos and decrescendos which make up the first section of Mouvement endow the work with a rigorous pace: bleating clarinets emerge from nothingness, flutists hit their music stands, and trumpeters make fat slaps by putting their palms to their mouthpieces. Effects grow sparser in the second section, which contains a variety of quasi-electronic sounds. Gradually, things gets more crowded again, and at a critical moment the music stops and a solo violin holds a single, high-pitched note for a second before the chaos returns. In the end, slap-tongued clarinets and slap-palmed trumpets, as well as strings bowing the top of their instruments' bridges, come together for an immensely entertaining riot. Throughout the work, the musicians of ICE played with wild, bright-eyed, and absolutely irreverent intensity; Morlot's conducting radiated power and demonstrated that he had internalized Lachenmann's madness.

Despite not enjoying a few of pieces, I found the entire concert engaging for its mixture of works and ICE's impressive musicianship. I can only hope that Lincoln Center and Mostly Mozart will continue to seek out intrepid musicians like Pierre-Laurent Aimard to supervise further weekends of adventure.

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