Monday, October 04, 2010

Berio in Stereo

As much as I may be coming off as, like, Luciano Berio’s biggest superfan on the planet (three mini-Berios versus God: I take, the Berios, 17-13, in overtime…), the piece of his that was featured on the last of the Musikfest Berlin that I made it to, his Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, was one that I was totally unfamiliar with. I didn’t even know that it existed. But it’s really good too! Maybe not as worldview altering as Stanze or as sonically and sculpturally badass as Coro, but a stirring piece that, additionally, helps to inform some of Berio’s overall aesthetic project in the meantime (though, as usual, I’m gonna go all Fermat’s enigma on that, and leave out most of the explanation of the very interesting explication of that notion that I’ve developed).

Pianos are really bizarre instruments. I really enjoy a lot of piano music, and find the sound to often be very beautiful. And I think there’s an argument to be crafted for the piano as a triumph of use-value, since equal temperament is incredibly functional, but at the same time, pianos are really quite alienating (and I wonder if you couldn’t come up with some kind of argument against egalitarianism using the piano as your central metaphor) since all of its scales abide in a no man’s land of pitch-relations; that is, in order to play in all of the Western keys, you must simultaneously play in none of them (and someone out there who is smarter than me about music, please debunk this for me). And Berio’s Concerto has two pianos! Doppelbizzaro!

So, the thing that’s so interesting about Berio’s Concerto is hearing his sound-fields as played by instruments in equal temperament. You can hear that they’re the same (the same, but different) as when they come out of the orchestra, but they’re also totally different, since the strings and winds all play justly, and even in a tonal world that is as fractured as Berio’s can be, they’re still bending and blending to whichever intervals they hear themselves as most interacting with (this tendency is, I still argue, best exemplified via Ligeti’s Horn Trio, where you have the added intricacy of a horn playing in natural intonation, against the equal temperament of the piano, and the just temperament of the violin, whose tendency will be to bend towards the piano). There’s a long and permanent discussion/argument/investigation to be made into exactly how and in what way tonal systems are arbitrary or not (and whether the orchestra or the organ is the apex of Western instrumental technology), but that starts to distance me from what I meant to be writing about here, so let’s leave this one incomplete as well.

In a way, hearing the note-stacks coming out of the pianos makes Berio more understandable (not that his music is ununderstandable; I certainly feel like I “get” his music in spite of my education, not because of it), or put another way, one can hear, out of the featured pianos, that Berio makes his strangenesses through utterly normal means (as opposed to say, Scelsi (that’s right, quarter tones aren’t normal…)). And, since I’m writing about this concert two weeks after it happened, and I don’t have the same kind of emotional nostalgia for it as I do for Stanze or Coro, I guess that’s why this post hints at more of the explanatory role the Concerto played for me as opposed to any sheer experiential thing.

So I can also mention: I like Kent Nagano. I’m distanced enough from the classical music world at this point that I don’t know if that makes me a chump or not. But I liked his stage presence, and I liked his hands pretty well too. It was also interesting to hear the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, since I think for the most part one only hears the Radio Orchestra up out of Bayern. And, in general, I like hearing opera orchestras play in non-operatic contexts, since there’s a palpable difference in their approach to things (who is it palpable—once again, figure it out for yourself, gladiator…).

The next piece after the Berio was Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for strings. I don’t get tired of hearing this piece performed, especially by German string players. Once again, like with the previous concerts, part of me was willing to just tune out once the Berio portion of the concert was finished, but the Metamorphosen is a piece that commands and deserves the attention and praise that it gets. I guess all it takes to make great music is to be a Nazi and then have a big old “Oops! My bad!” moment (maybe this is why Heidegger’s poetry is so terrible). So, as mentioned already, this concert definitely had me in a more intellectually-engaged mode as any of the others (and opposed to the intellectually-meta-engaged way of listening present in the Boulez concert), and I thusly did poke a bit more at the piece (and I know it pretty well, so that helps too, I guess) as I listened to it, trying to make sure that it really did and was holding up, but after a while I had to let go of that, since, really, one should listen to these strings doing what they’re doing as they do it.

After the break came Stravinsky’s Petruschka. Not quite the waste of time that Pulcinella is! Some part of me has a bit of a soft spot for Petruschka, mostly because I feel like it’s the neglected corner of the Stravinsky’s Russian Triangle, and because I’m pretty sure I made it until my first year of music school before ever actually hearing it, and so somehow I feel like Petruschka is more sophisticated than either Firebird or The Rite of Spring (though, I guess RoS’s hexachords are more intricate than Petrushcka’s tritones?). This is the second time I’ve heard it in the Philharmonie (first time was with Mariss "Rockstar" Jansons, and his stoic run-through); I liked Nagano’s take on it, which was definitely more in line with the burlesque (and less with the permafrost). I think I still prefer the Stravinsky of the Symphonies of Psalms and C, and I guess of Les Noces, but Petruschka isn’t bad. Just antique.

This being the last of the Musikfest concerts that I attended (with mixed feelings at having gone to so few of what was an amazing sequence of concerts), so props to the folks that put this shit on! Even though I’m here for another three weeks, there’s no way any of the remaining concerts I’ll make it to will have the impact of these ones. I consistently find it an odd thing to be a 28 year old human that likes modern art-music so much, and going to concerts filled with so many stuffy rich old people, when I should be out doing young and vital (and anti-capitalistic) things (I stop myself short of thanking the festival’s sponsors…), but Berio is good for good reasons, and these reasons are all the clearer in a live acoustic and space. It’s too bad that there aren’t more orchestral communities in the world that are dedicated to making new music as vital as it should be, but it’s been great being in contact with this one.


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