in: Reviews

October 6, 2013

“Banned in Boston”? Not Exactly

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Boston Musica Viva, the new-music ensemble, opened its 45th season Saturday night with a concert of three substantial works at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center. Music director Richard Pittmann conducted chamber ensembles in music by three established composers, in a program titled “Banned in Boston” and illustrated on the program cover by a couple dancing a sultry theatrical tango.

Local composers Gunther Schuller and Martin Brody, both present, were engaged by Pittmann in extended comments prior to the performances of their two works, which made up the first half of the program. Many in the audience of about two hundred were cheered to see the 87-year-old Schuller engaging in lively repartee with Pittmann and relating some of the background to his Sonata serenata for clarinet, violin, cello and piano of 1978. Schuller, who served as president of New England Conservatory from 1967 to 1977, is known especially for his “third-stream” compositions, which mingle elements of jazz and Western classical music. His 1968 book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development was a pioneering history, still basic. In his conversation with Pittmann, Schuller recounted learning of the death of jazz violinist Joe Venuti as he was beginning to write the second movement of the Sonata serenata. As a result, the movement incorporates a technique introduced by Venuti: the cellist at one point switches to a modified instrument and bow that permit the playing of chords on all four strings simultaneously (rather than breaking the chords, playing one or two notes at a time, as in normal string technique).

To these ears, the result failed to convey the intended sound, described by Schuller as resembling a harmonium (a type of reed organ that was popular in 19th-century homes). This is no reflection on the playing of cellist Jan Mueller-Szeraws, however, and it was of no consequence for the performance of a piece that was surely the high point of the evening. The work belies any expectations raised by its neoclassical title and movement designations—and perhaps by Schuller’s own extended account of it. Neither third-stream nor neo-Classical, the Sonata serenata is an elegant example of the uncompromisingly chromatic contrapuntal writing that was favored in American academic music departments during the later twentieth century. Its traditional four-movement form includes a slow second movement, a scherzo-like third, and a rondo finale. But as in similarly designed works from the 1930s by Schoenberg and Webern, the sound is utterly un-classical. The ensemble of four players plus conductor realized Schuller’s meticulously crafted score with vehemence, where it was required, but also with the delicacy that is called for in most of the work.

Schuller’s score includes more than four pages of detailed performance instructions. But much of the music is so densely textured and goes by so quickly that I could hardly tell whether the performers were observing all the details, or whether that even mattered. What I can say with certainty is that Musica Viva played, beginning with the almost improvisatory opening measures, with great sensitivity to the inventive sonorities of the piece. Although I did not hear a harmonium in the second movement, what Schuller described as the “chirping” of the violin (played by Gabriela Diaz) and the “sad” phrases of the clarinet (William Kirkley) indeed formed a delicate counterpoint to the sustained cello chords. The result was something vaguely reminiscent of the so-called night music in some of Bartók’s slow movements.

The third movement, marked “Romanza (Menuetto)” in the score, struck me as more of a scherzo, albeit less one of Beethoven’s than perhaps something by Brahms. Schuller mentioned “rhythmic things” from Brahms among the work’s “allusions to the past,” and here pianist Geoffrey Burleson frequently had what sounded to me like little Brahmsian gestures, played expressively in a meter independent of the rest of the ensemble. Even if the concluding “Rondo Giojoso” is a little more square, less fresh-sounding than the first three movements, the work certainly merited this exquisite revisit from Musica Viva, who, according to Pittmann, had played it some twelve years ago. The performance, incidentally, surely benefited from the presence of a conductor. Although the composer’s detailed performance notes make no mention of a conductor, it is hard to imagine coordinating the many difficult entrances and the ebb and flow of the tempo (especially in the first movement) without one.

Martin Brody’s Feral: 3 Sketches for Bisclavret was described, in both the printed notes and the composer’s spoken remarks, as a set of “character sketches” relating to an opera that is as yet unfinished. Based on a poem by the twelfth-century Marie de France, and setting a libretto by Mary Campbell, the opera concerns a knight who has the misfortune of also being a werewolf (bisclavret in Old Breton). It came as a bit of a disappointment to realize, in the course of the composer’s extended account of the work, that what we were to hear were three purely instrumental movements. These are scored for the same ensemble as the Schuller work, with the addition of flute and percussion; they bear the titles “Drone,” Brawl,” and “Catch.” The first title refers to sustained two-note chords that were clearly audible through much of the first movement in the violin and cello. The latter two titles are puns, referring not only to the Renaissance branle (English “brawl”) and Medieval caccia or round, but, in the latter case, to a hunt of the werewolf through the forest.

My impression is that this work, here receiving its world premiere, was performed accurately and with spirit. Is it possible, however, that the rather confusing nature of Brody’s own account of the work reflects a certain lack of clarity in both the meaning of the plot and the design of the music? The remarks of the composer, who teaches at Wellesley, evoked some potentially vivid images. The drone in the first movement represents “a source of potential stability” that tends to get drowned out (intentionally), especially by drums. These are replaced by castanets in the second movement, which represents “a seduction scene between the knight and his wife.” Here Brody invited us to imagine the removal of an article of clothing whenever we heard the castanets.

Yet I could not make out anything clearly evocative of a werewolverine transformation in the first movement. Nor did I hear anything particularly seductive or erotic in the “Brawl” movement—which did not seem to me all that different in sound from the opening “Drone.” The concluding “Catch” did successfully delineate an antithesis between loud unison playing—and hand clapping—by most of the ensemble, on the one hand, and quick passages by the violin, on the other. These violin statements gradually become shorter and higher in pitch before evaporating into silence at the end of the piece. But although Diaz executed her solos with great finesse, I never had the impression of a “frightened creature” on the run. Perhaps I was missing something—or perhaps these pieces would be better heard outside of the context of an extra-musical narrative, even if it is the latter that inspired the composer to write them.

The sole work on the second half of the program was another re-performance, this time of the “one-act comic concert opera” Tango by the Texas composer Robert Xavier Rodgríguez. Born in San Antonio and now on the faculty of the University of Texas at Dalls, the composer is said to be best known for his stage works. This was, however, my first exposure to his music.

The libretto, assembled by the composer from contemporary documents, concerns the first international craze for the tango, which took place exactly a century ago on the eve of World War I. Accused of exciting lascivious and immoral thoughts; the dance was attacked by politicians and even the pope. The text of the opera consists of an Italian cardinal’s letter to a Roman newspaper, framed by quotations from the contemporary press. The news clippings are mostly read in a spoken voice; the letter is sung as an aria that also incorporates quotations from sermons on the subject. All three scenes or sections are accompanied by an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion, and accordion; the latter is a stand-in for the bandoneón of a traditional tango ensemble. (The text of the opera can be read online here.)

Boston tenor Frank Kelley executed his part with panache, entering and exiting elegantly as a tuxedo-clad tango instructor, seating himself behind a small table at stage left to read the news clippings into a microphone, donning a choir robe and moving to a lectern at stage right to sing what was in effect an extended sermon. During the news reading his voice, at first accompanied chiefly by an onstage typewriter (played with impressive wpm by flutist Ann Bobo), was gradually covered up by the ensemble as additional instruments entered. Perhaps this was intentional, as the rather predictable reports about the spread of the dance and its effects on public morality became tiresomely repetitive. Kelley came into his own as a singer in the aria, which, although at first limited to rather characterless recitation, achieved moments of intensity as the fulminations against the dance reached a climax.

I was not overwhelmed by the originality of the music. The concept of the work is mildly inventive, but Rodríguez’s eclectic writing at many times consists of little more than sound effects, and the intention of the many quotations in the score was unclear to me. I did not understand the purpose of quoting the Andante from Schubert’s E-flat-major piano trio during the final newscast—unless it is to point out that the piece’s quasi-ostinato accompaniment closely resembles a formula prominent in 20th-century tango music. But why exactly was it used to accompany some philistinic remarks about “music as we know it”? It was potentially clever of Rodríguez to incorporate the minuet from the famous scene in Don Giovanni where three different dances are performed simultaneously. But what is the significance of having the minuet gradually transform into a tango?

Stanley Kubrick had used the same Schubert theme prominently in his 1975 film Barry Lyndon; Elliott Carter had pointed to Mozart’s opera as a precedent for his own complex counterpoint of musical tempos and characters. The slightly stale quality of the musical allusions in Tango might be irrelevant if the work’s premises were clearer or its execution stronger. But the tango is hardly the first dance to have been criticized or even banned. The fandango and the waltz suffered the same when they were new in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and one could easily find further examples.

In fact the tango was not exactly “banned in Boston.” Mayor John F. Fitzgerald (“Honey Fitz”) did, according to contemporary reports in the Globe and the New York Times, issue an order in 1911 to prevent its use in public dance halls. On the other hand, a “morceau de concert” entitled Tango by the Spanish violinist, conductor, and composer Enrique Fernández Arbós was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra as early as 1903. It was even included in one of their programs that year during their first concert trip to New York. So the dance has a long and distinguished history of inclusion in Boston new-music concerts.

Indeed, my strongest reservation about Rodgríguez’s work concerns the use of tango itself. I did detect occasional echoes of real Argentine tango music—the type that one hears today in milongas throughout the world, imaginatively transformed in the compositions of Astor Piazzola and in contemporary tango nuevo. But it seems to me that what Rodríguez had in his ears (and the type depicted in the program artwork) is the vulgarized “international” tango of Hollywood and Broadway. For this reason, although the work vaguely criticizes the demonization of a simple dance, or the censorship of an art form, it never adequately conveys the expressive or creative aspects of the particular art form that is its subject. Instead the tango of Tango is a caricature, not so far from the very thing that it was claimed to be by its detractors.

I’m nevertheless glad that Musica Viva offered a second performance of this reasonably recent semi-staged work. Perhaps some inventive younger composer or performer in the audience will have gained a suggestion from it for something that will be more consistently original. Creative musicians can be inspired by failures as well as successes, learning at least as much from what proves to be an over-extended experiment as from a finished masterpiece.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

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