Thursday, February 16, 2006

Abject Disclaimer of Any Objective Merit as a Review

When I was in college I had a t-shirt silk-screened with a page from Brahms' German Requiem on it. Someone once asked me, "can you play that?" and (thinking myself quite the wit) I responded, "No, I don't play the orchestra." Nobody plays the orchestra, get it, get it?

Alarm Will Sound gave a sort of mash-up themed concert at Zankel this evening, pairing "odd couples" of composers whose stories intersect in one way or another. Seriously, for once, I'm going to try to be brief, because I mean, I'm a Wagner-Strauss sort--I'm from Philadelphia*; we believe in God...** If things get any less instinctually graspable than Wozzeck, I have to fight not to fade into the rabble of middle American anti-intellectualism, turning into your Uncle Cletus who resorts to highly rigorous criticism of the form "my four year old coulda composed that aleatory and highly performative fantasia on sound and meaning." I do think I have a certain ear for virtuosity, but as AWS concerts go, a relatively small part of the evening was devoted to pieces that could stand on the staggering technique of ensemble alone. And I'm afraid I'm particularly out of water trying to wring the musical worth of things like Varese into words, though in fact Varese is by some random chance one of the post-Schoenberg composers I do get on some gut level. Integrales was given a showy staging that stood unafraid on the precipice whence artful looks down on silly. The placement of players in the theater can look like a stunt if you can't back it up with unfailing chops and unblinking conviction.

That said, with a ready hand on the delete key in case of impending cold feet, I'm going to say something a little critical of a concert given by a bunch of people I think highly of, some of whom I know personally: I just don't see how, as an audience member, one can not feel a little bit condescended to when 4'33" or its pal 0'0" is programmed. It amounts to an undergraduate lecture, an aural but non-aural conspiratorial wink, something I think works better as a historical event than a present one in the post-Sprockets age. But, as I've said so many times, I'm something of a half-wit, so more's my loss for not getting a seminal (the seminal?) piece of music after modernism. Maybe it's just harder to countenance now that we're all painfully aware now that those five minutes of cheeky neo-dada pile up to about fifteen bucks in the pocket of some Carnegie stagehand.

There, I'm done. Now back to the task of trying not to overuse the word "virtuosic." Go hear them next time and you'll see why this is an issue. Really the pieces that showed off the group at its best, according to me, were: Will Sound, commissioned for them from Wolfgang Rihm, not something written in language I can parse much but a swell platform for the always astonishing musical sense of conductor Alan Pierson; and...which one was it that featured Courtney Orlando adding the accordion to the long list of instruments she plays? I stand corrected on one thing. It seems very possible that Ms. Orlando plays the orchestra. (In case you didn't read your Chekhov, if there's a t-shirt in the first paragraph it has to go off in the fourth. Suddenly it seems I'm writing about burlesque.)

It becomes something of a nightmare to single out individuals for praise when everyone is so sure-footed, but for the hell of it I'm going to toss out random props to percussionist Dennis DeSantis, partly for his gripping John Cale arrangement, and percussionist Payton MacDonald and...Jesus, if you'd told me in high school orchestra that I would ever have anything nice to say about percussionists I'd have told you to light up another one. The Cale selections, from his music for Warhol's Kiss were performed with clips of that film projected behind/above the players, and of the pieces I've seen AWS do that call for a spatially motivated, quasi-theatrical staging, I think this one worked best.

Least informative review ever. I'll leave it for others to comment on such as Woma's Gyil Mambo which I enjoyed but not in any very specific way or Bermel's Three Rivers which I didn't enjoy, but not in any very specific way. [Conveniently, smarter listeners than I am have provided links to more informed opinions from those who really get this kind of music.] A small, heartbreaking note: those metal detectors that caused such a backup getting to the will call window? They're not permanent; just deemed necessary for a performance by the Israel Philharmonic. Once in a while one is reminded in a mundane way of the fact that, while monotheistic religions are clearly a big mistake in general, monotheistic religions with a concept of martyrdom really take the cake in the disaster bake sale.

*Not true.
**Even less true. I'm just making a movie reference for the amusement of exactly two people.


Brett said...

I recently attended a performance including some contemporary music, much of which I hated. I really tore into it in my LiveJournal...

Anonymous said...

I don't know much Rihm, but what I do know of his has this *energy* which always makes it fun to listen to, even when the pitch-organization language is thorny. Sometimes I think you can do a lot of wacky things with pitch if you keep other variables, like phrasing or orchestration, more accessible...