in: Reviews

March 22, 2010

Still Waiting for Lefty: Callithumpian Consort at Avant Gard(e)ner

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Music Director Stephen Drury seemed almost surprised, in introducing the Callithumpian Consort’s program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (self-dubbed the “Avant Gardner” on its program bulletin) on Thursday, March 18, that it contained music spanning a full century (but of course he wasn’t surprised, since the concert was entitled “Century Classics”). The major — at least the longest — work on the program was The Exception and the Rule, a new work by Christian Wolff, a premiere in its staged version. The rest of the program ran from the Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano by Charles Ives, through 26 Simultaneous Mosaics by Henry Cowell, to Treatise by British composer Cornelius Cardew. The concert was also the culmination of a several-day program sponsored by New England Conservatory honoring the 75-year-old Wolff, who, since his retirement from teaching classics and music at Dartmouth College, has devoted himself primarily to composition.

The program opener was the Cowell, a late (1963) work by this pioneering eccentric (1897-1965). It consists of 26 musical fragments to be played in any order and combination, with a few helpful hints by the composer on matters such as texture. The fragments range from scalar material, jigs and folkish melodettes, to a few gnarly passages (Cowell had mostly by then abandoned the cragginess and tone-clusters for which he had become famous earlier in life. Hold this thought). The Callithumpian players (they call themselves “Thumps”) for this piece, Gabriela Diaz, violin, Benjamin Schwartz, cello, Rane Moore, clarinet, Jeffrey Means, percussion, and Mr. Drury, piano, handled each of the fragments with careful respect for their individual character. The whole thing was over so quickly, though, that it was hard to form any overall impression of their assemblage as a work — if the composer permits it, some artful repetition of material would have helped to shape something a bit more persuasive.

There followed a rendition of the evening’s one acknowledged classic, the Ives Trio. Coming from the composer’s middle period, but with many elements pointing towards his late masterworks like the Concord Sonata, Three Places in New England and the Fourth Symphony, the Trio is experimental in structure and greatly affecting in spirit. The first movement shows Ives deconstructing his own layering techniques: it begins with a duet for cello and piano right hand, moving from a craggy almost atonal melodic fragment to a plainer, hymnodic conclusion; then ditto in duet for violin and piano left hand; then the two separate layers are combined for the full trio. The famous scherzo, subtitled “TSIAJ” (this scherzo is a joke) is all you could ask for in terms of Ivesian quodlibet techniques, jamming hymn, patriotic, college and popular tunes into teeming and coruscating thickets of sound that progress more in terms of texture than thematic development — but underneath all is a cannily organized stream of consciousness informed by a sometimes bumptious sense of humor. The concluding V-I resolution never fails to garner a chuckle, and in this case a ripple of applause for the doughty performers, Diaz, Schwartz and Drury. The finale takes one to a very different corner of Ives’s world, with its Romantic evocations and earnest religiosity. One clearly had the sense that the players enjoyed this work, and particularly the chance to bite into the juicy rubatos and plummy harmonies of the finale.

The featured work, as noted, was the opera-Singspiel by Christian Wolff. Wolff, born in 1934, was long identified with contemporaries like Rzewski, Cardew and mentors like John Cage. He has most consistently favored indeterminacy as a way to make music a more equal collaboration between composer and performer and has explicitly linked this methodology with leftist politics.  The Exception and the Rule is a setting of a short play by Bertolt Brecht written in 1930 and revised in 1938 as one of a series of didactic Marxist “Lehrstücke” or “teaching pieces.” It tells the story of a merchant — more like a business finder — on a hunt to find oil ahead of his competitors, who mistreats and, in an epic misjudgment fires, his guide, as well as abusing his porter (“coolie” is the term the English translation uses), eventually killing the latter in a fit of paranoid misunderstanding. He is tried and eventually exonerated on the grounds that as an abusive master it was reasonable for him to believe that his servant wished to harm him. Wolff has now set this bit of shabby 1930s agitprop, leaving the bulk of the text spoken, and the sung parts split between “normal” classical singing modes and chest-voice popular styles. The instrumental sections — a short prologue and incidental passages — and accompaniments are spare and, although there are some improvised bits, mostly conventionally notated. The sound is rather different from the works on which Wolff built his reputation, even the more recent ones that NEC has posted on its Wolff page; perhaps this is a new direction, perhaps only a response to the specific text. In any case, the sound world harkens back to the famous Weill-Brecht sound of the 1920s, with sharp attacks undercutting lyrical aspects of the melodic line. In fact, “atonal Kurt Weill” might be a good shorthand description. The instrumentation, we are told, was chosen for its dark timbres: viola (Ms. Diaz), bass (David Goodchild), clarinet (Ms. Moore), trombone (Christopher Moore) and percussion (Mr. Means). A webpage with links to Mr. Wolf’s music is here.

It would be a public disservice to deny or fudge that we found the work as a whole insufferable. First, the world (apart from Mr. Wolff and a few Latin American dictators) having awakened from the grisly nightmare that was applied Marxism, texts like Brecht’s should have been left for dead as embarrassments to the memory of a sometimes great playwright. There is not a scrap of human depth in it, no credible characterizations, just the cardboard cutouts of a blinkered age. Second, the music is weak, with too many obvious tropes like tremolos to denote suspicion. The vocal settings can’t make up their minds whether they mean to coordinate with the text or ignore it, nor did we get an impression of an underlying musical structure to hold the many scenes together. The rhythm, too, seemed clunky — we don’t know where the bar lines fell, but it sounded like they fell very, very regularly. Third, the vocal writing, though sometimes soaring, often cut too sharply against the singers’ grain (we’re not talking about extended techniques here, of which there were none to speak of). The “moral” recited at the end of the work says “recognize it as abuse; do something about it.” The work thereby writes its own epitaph.

The piece calls for performers who only speak (David Prum as the merchant and Nathan Troup as the guide); those who sing and also speak (Jennifer Ashe, soprano, as the porter and later as his widow, and Brian Church, baritone, singing the merchant’s lines and also taking the role of narrator/Greek chorus); and lines assigned to be spoken or sung by the musicians. Ms. Ashe and Mr. Church sang well, especially in their “classical” voices; the music for their demotic lines did not show them to best advantage. As actors, Messrs. Prum and Troup did as well in their characters as the script permitted, and on the whole served the play better than it deserved, though Mr. Prum seemed poorly prepared (everyone was “on book” but he stumbled occasionally); the singers as actors acquitted themselves ably. Mr. Drury conducted, and kept things together, but though the score itself may be the culprit here, he could not elicit much in terms of expressivity from the ensemble.

The concert closed as it opened, with an unexpectedly brief piece, this from Cornelius Cardew (1936-81), which he created over several years in the 1960s, while he was in his middle, aleatory-avant-garde phase. Cardew went from hyper-organization to a more free-wheeling improvisatory spirit, and like Wolff and Luigi Nono (among others) used music as a political soapbox; but unlike these, Cardew later renounced and denounced avant-gardism in favor of a populist voice more akin to Frederic Rzewski’s. He thus did consciously in his music what Cowell did organically. Treatise, here performed by a largish mixed ensemble (the scoring is itself indeterminate) featuring an electric guitar laid flat and used to generate a range of electronic sounds and amplifications of natural sounds (we spotted a small electric fan), is notated only to the extent of various graphic directions that, with greater or lesser precision, tell the players how rather than what to sound. The program notes by Adam Roberts well describe Cardew’s dilemma of wanting to find a means through special graphic notation to mind-meld with the performers, while sometimes rigging the table by offering very precise “suggestions” for executing some of these glyphs. Thus do all utopias founder on the nettlesome individual human mind. The result, in the Thumps’ realization, was highly atmospheric and rather pleasant, with many extended sounds for the instruments. The (naturally) un-conducted, and highly effective, ensemble comprised Ms. Moore and Alexis Lanz, clarinets; Ms. Diaz, Sarah Darling and Stephen Upshaw, violas; Mr. Goodchild, bass; Mr. Moore, trombone; Mr. Schwartz, cello; Ms. Means, Trent Leasure and Andre Sonner, percussion; and Keith Rowe nimbly taking the multifarious electric guitar part. We especially noticed with approbation Ms. Darling’s agility in coaxing a variety of grunts, groans and creaks from the viola.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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