08 November 2008

Solar Anniversary

Two years ago tonight, members of the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, led by Charles Peltz, played the premiere of Out in the Sun. [ recording ]

Later in the evening, violinist Stephen Symchych remarked:

A most successful premiere tonight, played with elan and precision by a group of undergraduates at NEC. There were some other guys on the program too, and their stuff was pretty good. Gabrieli, Ligeti, et al. Al wasn't at all bad. And I had no idea that Ligeti produced music that sounded like his music for winds (1953/75). Great stuff.

But the audience saved its most enthusiastic response for the Henning.

And Peter Czipott wrote a more thorough review of the entire program:

This was my first time in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory: a lovely 19th century interior in warm woods, with an impressive organ backing the stage. The layout is nearly semicircular, with one horseshoe balcony (the rear walls form a polygon – I didn’t count the number of sides – inscribed in the circle). The result, judging from a seat near the very center of the orchestra level, is a warm sound with a lot of reverberation (well over two seconds). It must be glorious to sing in.

The concert opened with a bare stage. Two brass choirs (each consisting a brace each of trumpets and trombones) stood in the balcony on either side of the stage to play antiphonal music by Ludovico Viadana (Sinfonia, “La Bergamasca”) and Giovanni Gabrieli (Canzon Primi Toni à 8). The young players, led ably by Charles Peltz, played wonderfully (the choir on stage left seemed ever so slightly more secure than the other – could it be because that’s the side Peltz was on?), and the acoustic, of course, suited the music perfectly. The Gabrieli, after all, was written for the echoing spaces of St. Mark’s in Venice. Gabrieli’s piece is relatively familiar; Viadana’s is a slightly earthier (because intended for secular performance) example of the same style.

As the musicians decamped from the balcony, ten other players made their way onto the stage. Let me see if I can recall the instrumentation (which the program did not indicate): two flutes (doubling piccolos), two oboes, two French horns, bassoon, English horn, two clarinets (one of them doubling the squeaky high one). The work: Six Miniatures for Wind Ensemble, by György Ligeti. I was nonplussed when I saw the work’s title, because I thought I knew all Ligeti’s works, and didn’t recall one by this title (nor one for ten winds). It turns out that this is an arrangement, by one Friedrich Wanek, of Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet. Ahhhh… this work, I know and love. It was composed in 1953, thus either under the Stalinist terror or just after, but in any case before Ligeti made it to the West, in 1956 – and thus, before he found his mature voice(s).

This work pretends to fall into the Hungarian mainstream of folk-inspired music in the post-Kodály and post-populist-Bartók tradition – the only sort of classical music accepted in early-50’s Hungary. However, as Ligeti writes, it “contains too many minor seconds. (Dissonances and chromaticism were still ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘hostile to the people’ [even at the time of its public premiere in 1956], just somewhat less so than previously.)” He continues, “The audience of intellectuals and musicians was at a loss as to whether or not they were permitted to enjoy the music or to applaud.” The Bagatelles are characterized by a winning concision: Ligeti says what he wants to say and then moves on; the six pieces last about 11 minutes.

Wanek’s arrangement certainly gives everyone plenty to do, as well as finding some new colors for the work (the plaintive English horn’s being especially felicitous), but I suppose its main value is pedagogical, giving a larger ensemble the opportunity to work on the music. The ten instrumentalists, conductorless, played it simply magnificently. Jordan Hall’s reverberant acoustic is not, however, made for the rapid figurations to come across with ideal clarity. The audience was permitted to enjoy this music, and gave ample evidence of having done so.

Next on the pre-intermission agenda was the world premiere of Karl Henning’s Out in the Sun, Op. 88, for ten winds. Would it stand up in comparison to the preceding Gabrieli and Ligeti, or to the concluding Debussy? Karl’s instrumentation is radically different from the Ligeti/Wanek: two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone), two tenor trombones, bass trombone and tuba. Karl’s musical concerns are also radically different from Ligeti’s, and actually links back to the Renaissance polyphony of which Gabrieli was an exemplar.

To quote the composer: “I played with patterns of staggered superimposition … I enjoyed the challenge of composing with the repeated patterns, enjoyed the question of how a passage of such apparently ‘mechanical’ ostinati differs from the larger question of composition and shape… My linear approach in the unfolding piece is perhaps something like the points of imitation of Renaissance polyphony.” This play with patterns, then, dictates a scale unlike the concision of the Bagatelles. Henning again: “Once layered ostinati are set in motion, the important compositional questions of where you go, what is the end, and how do we know it’s the end (how does the ending ‘convince’ me) all remain.” The work is 16 minutes long.

Note that Henning is concerned with process here. However, his preoccupation seems not at all unhealthy to me, for the musical ends are always paramount. (Had the preoccupation been unhealthy, the piece might have been dubbed Sunstroke.)

Peltz conducted the instrumentalists in the Henning, and from the get-go conductor and musicians alike were swaying, bouncing, counting but, above all, swinging the complex rhythms. The music has a – to use the obvious modifier – sunny disposition, and everyone on stage could be seen visibly enjoying the experience of performing it. To my ears, Karl’s “performer’s instincts” are true; the piece is never mechanical; it always has a sense of direction.

Above all, Karl’s compositional voice is strong and individual: there’s no mistaking this piece for anyone else’s music. One aspect of his voice is his amazing ear for timbre. Two examples will suffice: an unexpected and simply gorgeous duet for bass clarinet and baritone sax, and a chorale for tenor trombone, un-muted, accompanied by the other brass, muted. (That chorale provides structural pillars for the work, appearing in three different instrumental guises and tempi.) As a performer, Karl also knows how far he can push his players; solos are always challenging (Karl: “I wanted to give the tuba player something that would repay time spent in the practice room”) but grateful to the ear and, I’m told, to the executants as well.

This work got a very warm reception from the audience and from the performers as well. Charles Peltz is forwarding the score to several colleagues at other institutions, and one of the saxophonists approached Karl at Pizzeria Uno (where we repaired for a post-concert bite), giving him his card and inviting Karl to think of him any time he was inspired by the idea of a work for solo sax. As for me, I can hardly wait for the recording to appear magically on a CD in my mailbox! And I hope that the recording also clarifies the details washed over by the hall’s acoustic (Karl is not afraid of keeping his players busy!).

Following intermission came a performance of Decem Perfectum by Robert Rodriguez, a composer born in 1946 and published by Schirmer. This work is scored for an orchestra of winds and percussion, plus ten soloists (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, tuba, French horn, trombone, and two trumpets) in a sort of ripieno. According to the composer, the work’s title and structure are inspired by Pythagoras and the pitch material is based on the perfect intervals (unison, octave, fifth) in sets of ten pitches presented in rhythmic groups of five.

I rapidly gave up on trying to identify the pitch and rhythmic groups. The work is attractive, but not an unqualified success. The opening and closing movements seem, in their most striking moments, to be based on some pretty obvious sources: an extended riff on various Tristan-like chords; a riff on a brass motif from Firebird; and, at the conclusion, a strong whiff of the Danse générale from Daphnis et Chloë. Karl noted that the work's title, Perfect Ten, might invite a reference to Boléro and Bo Derek, and indeed, near the end there, briefly, is the snare-drum tattoo (but for only one snare drum, not two).

The central movement, entitled Cadenza, is a set of solos – interesting solos, and interestingly linked from one soloist to the next, but all too baldly structured. The flute (seated stage right) starts, then yields to its neighbor the oboe, and so on down the row of ten seats (and down the range from flute to bassoon and sax, to tuba and then back up to the trumpets). The only element of surprise is to combine the trumpets in a duet rather than give each a solo. Even though the solo passages are full of interest, the structure is so plain and so obvious that it seemingly encourages a checklist mindset – not to the work’s benefit.

The full band performed wonderfully, as far as I could tell, and Peltz conducted with verve and apparent conviction.

The concert ended with an arrangement of Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse by the noted South African composer, Kevin Volans, for winds and percussion. The original work, of course, is a piano masterpiece. Volans’ arrangement yielded many striking colors (wonderful use of alto flute, for example), but not all of them seemed (to me) to serve the purpose of illuminating Debussy’s work. Nevertheless, both work and performance were highly enjoyable and brought the concert to a pleasing close.

For me, the concert had twin high points: the Ligeti and the Henning. And the great, happy news is that Henning’s music stands its ground proudly in mighty fine company. May it have many opportunities to do so in the future!


Anonymous said...

Ah! I am looking forward to reading about your music, Karl; but better yet, looking forward to someday hearing it. Best wishes to you.


Houston Dunleavy said...

Everyone deserves a review like that, dear friend - you in particular!