Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sunday Mass with Frank and Alfred, plus Percussive Insanity Kagel

So, yes, Sunday was an uncommonly good day for hearing twentieth-century choral music around town. There are huge perks to living near a large university with a great school of music.

Secure agnostic that I am, something unusual is generally needed to get me to church in the morning. A service performance of an Alfred Schnittke requiem works. I had no idea Schnittke even composed a requiem till a week ago, when I saw it in the university's concert calandar. The chorus at the university chapel sang it, with intervening homilies by a Div School professor with an intense and poetic bearing. He endeavored to contextualize the piece as a stubborn religious cry from the atheist Soviet Union. I don't know Schnittke's religious temperament, and it may be that. The music points to something murkier, though, the dominant feeling being muted bleakness. Several sections break off without resolution at the end, while others mull over the same musical idea for a while before quietly letting it go. Choral dissonances usually create a flat, gray, foggy sound, so there was usually a sonic scrim of that over the altar, with angular solo-voice melodies wandering through. A small instrumental contingent relied mostly on piano and pitched percussion, creating strange luminences. The movement where the piece steps outside of itself -- and maybe validates the reading of a protest against official atheism -- is the Credo, where the chorus finally cuts loose and sings with some declamatory fire, while one of the percussionists sits down at a trap set and puts a rock-style beat behind it. The opening and closing Requiem Aeternams are lovely, by the way, quietly layered and patterned almost like a Pärt piece. Overall the piece is more intriguing than moving, and more secular than sacred, although that might just be to my particular ears.

It was music that felt out of place at the university's well-appointed and comfortable chapel, which seems remote from either Soviet drabness or a treatment of death as a cold and cryptic thing.

At the back of the church program there was a note that their former choir director, a master's student at the university, was giving her diploma recital up at the Div School later in the day, conducting a program of Byrd, Stravinsky, Mahler, Palestrina, and Martin. Well, that program is right up my alley, I figured, and a sunny Sunday is when you want to be sitting in the Div School's marvelous chapel. Also, it would be great if that turned out to be Martin's Mass for Double Choir. Which it was! I've been waiting to hear this piece live for several years now. Not bad for something you find out about by accident.

The Byrd motet was plaintive, full of spiritual sadness evoked with light major-mode consonances. Some of Stravinsky's chamber-orchestra miniatures were a set of tart little sorbets, woodwinds with a nice ruddiness, strings a bit pitchy but with good rosin. Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were sung by a rich-voiced university vocalist with expressive eyebrows, the left moreso than the right. I was delighted, in my optimism, to hear "Ging heut Morgen übers Feld" and get Mahler 1 back in my ears again. Palestrina is, as ever, aesthetically centering.

The Martin Mass is something else entirely, and a piece I have an incredibly hard time pinning down with words. (You know those NASA photographs of nebulae, with the gas regions portrayed in wild colors? Martin's Mass for Double Choir is like a cross between a Renaissance vocal mass and one of those.) Martin wrote it in the 1920s in kind of an extended polyphonic style, melodies artfully traced, harmonies generally modal but rich with expressive inflections. The Mass is, if you can use the word, orchestrated with great care for the voices, so that the texture and body and resonance of the sound are in constant flux too. Emotionally, Martin will hang back for a while and then work up a couple of phrases that just floor you. So he'll take you some places. Everything on the program was performed admirably well, too.

Martin, incidentally, wrote the piece and then put it away for four decades, considering it a private matter between himself and God. So in that, and in its reverberating spirituality, it's a near opposite of the Schnittke Requiem.
* * * * *
Saturday night's university Percussion Group concert was the usual pleasing affair, the rhythmic precision on display inspiring a strong "OK, yeah, I will never be able to do that" kind of awe. The entire second half was given over to a pranksterish three-student inhabitation of a dadaist 1980s performance piece by Mauricio Kagel. (Titles have eluded me, sorry, as I forgot to keep a program.) Instruments were sparse, the stage given over to portraying something like a room in plywood props. Details are easier to summarize than the whole, which was a half-hour pseudo-narrative array of inexplicabilities. The best moments were at the very beginning, reaching the first mini-climax as one percussionist, playing a jaunty Spanish-sounding tune at the marimba, was threatened into silence by another, looming over her and wielding a chair held threateningly over his head.

Elsewhere on the program: an invigorating rendition of John Cage's "Third Construction" for basically everything he could get his hands on; a solo traversal of an Indonesian-inspired setpiece by an Englishman by the name of James Wood, featuring a wonderfully humming Indonesian gong and some microtonal bells; about twelve minutes too many of Piazzolla arranged for flute and marimba; and, at the very start, a wittily choreographic three-person mid-1980s showpiece by a Dutch composer whose name I forget, performed sitting at a table, with bare hands, on flat wooden panels rigged with contact mikes. What I like about these percussion concerts is that you hear nothing like these peculiar sounds anywhere else in your life.


Blogger Dan B. said...

Sadly, I had to pull out of attending a professional performance of the Martin Mass just this past weekend due to other nominally scholastic commitments. I'll be sure to pick up a CD and give it a listen though!

2/26/2010 3:21 PM  

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