Monday, May 02, 2011

Or Spring Afternoon, or Whenever Really

My friend Dan was on the East Coast last week, in from Ann Arbor, and I was in New York for yet another weekend; we popped into Alice Tully Hall yesterday for a piano and percussion concert. To start with a mundane observation: a 5 PM concert start time is really nice. You can still spend the prime part of the afternoon wandering around Central Park, but after the concert it's still light out and there's plenty of time to get back to New Haven. (You can generalize that description as needed.)

George Crumb's Music for a Summer Evening was the highlight. I have a very personal response to this piece and find it deeply touching; Dan has the same feeling about it. It's very much a Swarthmore piece, most literally in that Crumb (a UPenn figure) wrote it on a commission for opening the school's music building back in 1974. But there's a lot of Crumb in the air at Swarthmore, both in performance and in spirit, and a lot of my composing activity a decade ago unconsciously made its way to holding down a practice-room piano pedal and trying to come up with the same kind of ringing chords that flash through Crumb's writing. You can fake that to an extent as a composition student, but the real sounds really touch a nerve.

More broadly speaking it's a piece that's very touching in spirit, and very lucid in the sense I not very successfully tried to get at the other day. Its resonating sounds are most often suspended in a mystical, expectant mode, but a rarefied emotional light passes through them very clearly. The noises are intentionally unpredictable and unconventional, but the expressive meaning is absolutely straightforward.

Crumb has a way of sounding flatly dated and magnificently timeless at the same time, possessing an anything-goes spirit of percussion-lab experimenting that feels fixed in the 1970s but still hits its otherworldly notes. In the concluding minutes of Music for a Summer Evening, the pianos take up a simple, serene ostinato pattern, broken with some of those magnificent resounding chords and embellished with a Bartók-style chatter inspired by the nocturnal insect world. (And, of course, the pianos are amplified and have paper laid over their strings, creating a weird, rattling synthesizer-ish effect.) This builds into a naturalistic hubbub, then gradually subsides. The placid conclusion is one of the sweetest moments in modern music.

The performance came across as utterly committed. Gilbert Kalish was one of the premiering pianists back in '74; Lincoln Center fixture Wu Han joined him, along with two top-flight percussionists in Ayano Kataoka and Daniel Druckman.

The other half of the concert was the Crumb piece's antecedent, Bartók's mid-1930s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I heard it in New Haven a year or two ago, too. What I've discovered is that I find it highly satisfying, even though little of it sticks in my mind afterwards. Large expanses of the first and second movements submerge into a thicket of dense counterpoint, and yesterday I lightly dozed off on a couple of occasions. The third movement is much dance-ier, though, and the piece has one of the great conclusions, evaporating into some wonderfully gentle quiet cadences in the pianos (blending a couple of keys, it sounds like) and then trailing off in pattering snare drum taps. So Daniel Kahneman's peak-end rule ensures a pretty nice experience.

Kataoka started the concert with a fifteen-minute Iannis Xenakis survey of several drums and a set of woodblocks called Rebonds, from 1988, a piece that marries a compositional severity with good old-fashioned percussive ass-kicking. Dan and I were sitting in the second row from the stage, from which vantage point Kataoka was largely hidden behind the drums. Her sticks would fly around the edge of the visual obstruction, and you'd get a fair amount of her arms and occasionally a partial look at her head. I would add that Rebonds is a pleasantly loud composition.


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