Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Tale of Three Symphonies 2: Berkeley

On Thursday evening, just about everybody who was anybody was at Zellerbach Auditorium for a concert by the Berkeley Symphony, featuring the West Coast premiere of Verge by the Chinese-born Californian composer Lei Liang, along with the 1985 Piano Concerto by Lou Harrison, and the Sibelius 5th Symphony from 1919.

The guest conductor was Jayce Ogren above, who gave a short talk at the beginning of the concert about the sound worlds of the three pieces, and how much he loved all of them. The affection showed, particularly in the opening Lei Liang piece for a string chamber orchestra. The composer writes: "The 18 strings are divided into antiphonal groups: left versus right, front versus rear. They diverge into various sub-ensembles, quartets, and also appear as 18 virtuosic soloists. Near the end, they converge into a singular voice." Amazingly, you could clearly hear all of that and more in the ten-minute piece, not to mention the Mongolian overtones the composer had in mind.

The pianist Sarah Cahill above was the soloist in the ambitious, four-movement Lou Harrison piano concerto which the great, recently deceased local composer wrote in 1985 for Keith Jarrett. Though Jarrett recorded the concerto in Japan (click here), he hasn't continued to play or champion the piece which is unfortunate because it's a major work by a vastly underrated composer.

Part of the reason for that might be explained by a letter Harrison wrote to a friend after he finished the concerto, which is in the archives at UC Santa Cruz:
"When keith, despite my repeating to him many times that he only had to ask a foundation to help (or arts council or various friends), did not pay me a cent for my piano concerto with selected orchestra I was angry -- look at the writing of the last page. This meant that I was unprofessional, but it felt to me like castration. BM even called Keith’s manager in the last stages, to hear the reply “there was no contract, was there?” Keith’s long phone call requesting me to write for him evidently did not at all mean that one professional was asking work of another, despite his long talk about why he was asking me, especially, to compose for him. So- to cauterize the wound. I did learn from both concerti, though, that concert grand pianos are not instruments at all -- they are symbolic fetishes, just this side of the holy grail. The steinway company was nervous that I required kirnberger’s no 2 temperament for carnegie hall. it was allowed, though, and it was a pleasure to hear keith play my standard use of the tuning."

The music of Lou Harrison above strikes me as almost the perfect antithesis to John Harbison's music, which was played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra the night before. The wonderful English classical music blog, On An Overgrowth Path, reprinted a fascinating interview with Harrison by Joanna MacGregor, and this Q&A jumped out:
How would you describe 'West Coast' music? What would you say is its essence?
Well, there's no one 'is' about it. I have defined it as being freer. We're not bound up with industrial 'twelve-tone-ism' quite so much as the East seaboard is, and also we're not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don't see that increased complexity is any solution at all.
Harrison also described the wisdom he gleaned from Mr. Twelve-Tone-ism himself, Arnold Schoenberg, when the latter was his teacher in Los Angeles:
"From Schoenberg, oddly enough, I learned simplicity. I got myself into a corner one day, so I took the problem to him. He extricated me by saying, 'Only the salient. Only the important. Don't go any further. Just do what is going ahead and in its most salient form.' In short, no complications - strip it. I've sometimes wondered whether, when I write a Balungan for a Javanese gamelan for only five or seven notes, it might have something to do with Schoenberg's admonition. When I left he said that I was not to study with anybody, that I didn't need that. He said, 'Study only Mozart'."

The piano concerto starts with a long allegro that sounds almost like Virgil Thomson or Aaron Copland at their most traditional with an Asian tinge to its sound, partly because of the "just intonation" of the specially tuned piano. The second movement "Stampede" is a thrillingly virtuosic duet for the piano and percussion, here played principally by Ward Spangler who was sensationally good. This music didn't sound influenced by jazz so much as it is jazz with an infusion of Indonesian gamelan. The short third movement was a case study in not being afraid of music which sounds simple and pretty, and the even shorter final movement was another piano and percussion duet that was so beautiful and energetically rhythmic that its sudden end was almost jarring.

The performance by both Sarah Cahill and the small orchestra was fabulous, and in a more perfect world, major orchestras all over the globe would be retuning a grand piano to "Kirnberger No. 2" and inviting Cahill to play what should be a standard work in the modern repertory. The concerto, in fact, has never been played by the San Francisco Symphony in the 25 years since it was written, which is something of a disgrace that could easily be rectified, particularly since music director Tilson Thomas was a friend of the composer.

The Sibelius Fifth Symphony in the second half of the concert was less satisfying. The strings were as superb as they had been all evening, but the winds and brass were off-pitch enough times that the quivering, climactic Sibelius sound world was more discordant than written. The conducting by Ogren was fine, and it was obvious he understood and loved the music, but the performance was a reminder that musicians like Mark Inouye at the San Francisco Symphony and Elizabeth Rowe at the Boston Symphony get paid the big bucks for a reason.

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