The New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble performed an attractive program last night at its own Jordan Hall with pieces ranging from the Renaissance to Avant-Garde and Jazz. The evening included an installment of the ongoing Gabrieli Project, in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the composer’s death, as well as NEC’s Cage 2012 series, celebrating the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth. The concert opened with two canzonas by Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli which brilliantly displayed his virtuosity of instrumental writing. Canzona IX came from a brass ensemble positioned in the balcony behind the audience, which called attention to the hall’s beautiful reverberations. Directly following this, a chamber ensemble on stage performed Canzona III. The separation of the ensembles gave the audience a sense of how Gabrieli’s music might have been heard antiphonally in its original context in St. Mark’s Basilica, where multiple choir lofts surrounded the congregation.
Following the canzonas, Richard Strauss’s Serenade in E-flat Major from 1882 was an alluring example of the romantic idiom from a young Strauss under the influence of Wagner. Still, the piece, written when Strauss was only 18, was an indication of the composer that would later help give birth to a more modern ethos. Charles Peltz took the podium and conducted a fine performance, liberating the expressive lyricism of the melodies.
After the Serenade, the stage underwent a dramatic change as the jazz ensemble set up. Gunther Schuller stepped up to conduct several Duke Ellington compositions. Schuller charmed the crowd with his informative program notes, given from the stage, concerning the “jazz interlude” and even sharing a few anecdotes of his personal experience with some of the pieces. The tunes included Ellington’s first piece, East St. Louis Toodle-oo, which Schuller called “the first real composition in jazz” and an almost atonal Ellington in Clothed Woman. Schuller even took the audience into the start of the bebop era as he closed the first half of the concert with the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie tune, Anthropology (arranged by Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans) and Dizzy Gillespie’s Things to Come (arranged by Gil Fuller).
During the intermission a drama unfolded as the stage was being prepared for John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra. The piece, which calls for 25 performers and the “most complicated” piano preparations Cage ever required, also includes an amplified slinky, several gongs and timpani, and an additional grand piano, with the lid removed so that the strings are easily accessible for striking and scraping. As the lights in the hall went down the audience’s attention was drawn to the baby grand center stage. In the reflection of the lid one could see the strings of the piano mangled with screws, bolts, and strips of rubber, which altered the piano’s sound dramatically.
First presented in 1951, the piece was apparently intended to dramatize the struggle between personality and impersonality — a struggle which Cage would battle in his music for the rest of his life. In the first movement, the composer consulted a 14×16 chart of sonorities and a cycle of rhythmic proportions to compose for the orchestra, while the soloist is meant, according to the composer, to “express the opinion that music should be improvised or felt.” The second movement shows the piano moving closer to impersonality, playing music composed using a separate chart, similar to the one from which the orchestra derives its musical tones. Finally, the third movement, composed entirely using chance methods, “signifies the coming together of things which were opposed to one another” as the piano joins the orchestra in impersonality. Through his complex methods of composing by chance, Cage sought to rid his music of ego and personal taste.
When hearing music by John Cage, the listener should not anticipate being able to derive meaningful harmonic relationships between successive sounds and should rid himself of expectations imposed upon him by the canon of conventional Western music. Likewise the performers should discard traditional forms of expression and cast aside partiality to certain sounds over others. Many of the players in the young orchestra were trying to impart their sound with individual expressivity — inappropriate in this context and rather outdated. Too often an oboe tone would rise beautifully above the orchestra relishing in its delicate vibrato; perfect for a Strauss serenade but sounding tawdry in this setting. Cage wrote of this piece that the orchestra should “express only the chart, with no personal taste involved.”
The soloist, Stephen Drury, who has masterminded many of the Cage 2012 performances so far, paid careful attention to Cage’s philosophy. He played the piano with delicacy, when the part called for it but was able remove himself when necessary. The conducting of Charles Peltz held the piece together nicely, but could have been more transparent in its influence over the orchestra. The third movement was punctuated by moments of stark silences, almost deafening in their confidence. After the last note sounded there was a long period of silence before the conductor let his arms fall. As the tail of reverb faded into nothingness the audience’s awareness of the desolate silence surrounding them grew, a silence which at once separates and connects us; the medium through which all sound is possible. It was a nice touch, one which Cage would have appreciated.
The evening closed with a performance of Luigi Cherubini’s Overture to Médée, followed directly by the 20th-century composer Jacob Druckman’s Engram. Cherubini, regarded by Beethoven as the finest of his contemporaries, offered a chamber version of his overture for a wind octet. It was a pleasing performance and a nice interlude between two 20th century pieces for larger ensembles.
The Druckman composition made a perfect finish. It contained a display of classical harmonic language but with the adventurous spirit of Cage. It was here that Peltz, did his best work of the evening, demanding just the right spirit from the orchestra and controlling the players with subtlety and elegance. Parts of the piece sounded like a Beethoven symphony from a dream that is not recalled quite right. Heroic melodies rise and fall but without proper development and just a hint of chromatic dissonance. These old-style melodies float up like ghosts from an age past, only to be blown away by a dissonant orchestral swell, ear-splittingly loud which jolts the listener back to end of the last century. Cage’s influence was evident in the bold percussion writing and the extended techniques giving birth to remarkable sounds. It was a wonderful example of how the idioms of the western music may be brought together harmoniously, and also gave hope to those who doubt the dignity of post-World War II concert music.