John Cage’s 100th anniversary celebration with Stephen Drury and the SICPP continues on at New England Conservatory every day through the culminating “Iditarod on Saturday at Jordan Hall. Contrary to what might be expected, last night’s Jordan Hall audience was not at all a thin one. Even by concert’s end, enough were still around to acknowledge, after all these years, Cage’s mighty, if not iffy, legacy. On hand was Christian Wolff, the last surviving member of the New York School of composers who “revolutionized music in the 20th century.”
Two surprises there were not, the first being the Callithumpian Consort, which once again was setting benchmarks in contemporary music performance, and the second being that hit-or-miss nature of this particular marque of revolutionized music.
This June kickoff concert opened with a piano composition by Wolff, who is some 24 years younger than his more famous elder. Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida (1979), his variations on Holly Near’s 1978 song (dedicated to the Chilean women who disappeared or were murdered during the Pinochet junta in the 1970s), began with chords in straightforward rhythm. Right-hand tremolos came next, followed in turn by repeating chords. Juxtapositions of textural complexity and simplicity were succeeded by octaves over a drone-like interval of the fifth. All in all during this 15-minute set of variations, these and many more compositional articulations made for clear connections with the past. Facing unbound pages of music, flipping them one by one to the side (one page coming close to misbehaving), Stephen Drury whipped through an untold number of demands with apparent ease. There was an intellectualism not only to Wolff’s concept of variations but to the very detail of his sound choosing; all of this Drury thrust into his own musical space, a vast one at that, where one can find him passionate about just about every note there might be on the planet.
In his role as artistic director of the Callithumpians, Drury conducted his Consort with Yukiko Takagi as piano soloist in John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950–51). It was as elegantly groomed as ever could be. A student happening into the concert between homework stretches obviously enjoyed the 24-minute work that worked, hitting on all cylinders. His take was intriguing, if not predictable, in his comparing the concerto to a cartoon. (How many young students continue to do the same!) There was “a background to this piece, one little move coming right after another, with each having its own character and mood.” Another music student confessed to waiting for repetitions in the music, a “habit” he said.
For me the silences as well as the sounds were perfectly — can I say, harmoniously — delivered seriatim. I believe the audience was also quite taken by Takagi’s graceful, highly sensitized performance on a finely tempered prepared piano. Even in her well-deserved bows she kept us in that spell of the concerto’s singular time-space through shy, highly reserved responses. There are resemblances of the three-part concerto to Cage’s own String Quartet in Four Parts from the same year, which will be performed at Tuesday’s concert.
If syntax was in fact visible nearly everywhere in Wolff’s variations, it was not in his Overture (2012, this performance being its world premiere). If space was everywhere around sound in the concerto for prepared piano, it was really nowhere to be found in Cage’s Music for 17 (1984-87). Both of these pieces went after single-note whispers or blasts, two-note or three-note, even five-note sequences all for the same purpose of stating little if anything, a kind of cancellation process. You play a soft note, I play a loud note. You go this way, I go that way. You play something delicate, which I zap, well, with whatever. A wonderful title from another member of the New York School of composers, Morton Feldman, comes to mind, his False Relationships and The Extended Ending. And speaking of endings, both Wolff’s Overture and Cage’s Concerto took to increasing silence, or the dissipation of sound, or to use a less poetic analogy, a running-out-of-steam, a more common way of ending modernist music.
Perhaps a reason for the variations and concerto overshadowing the Overture and Music for 17 is that the former pieces are composed, the latter largely improvised or created from indeterminacy. The former hit, the latter missed.