Saturday, February 25, 2006

Sørensen's Symphony Wins in a KO

I went to the Forum Neue Musik concert last night at Hessischer Rundfunk, a program of recent orchestral music by four composers (James Clarke, Klaus Lang, Bruno Montovani, Bent Sørensen) played by the HR-Sinfonie Orchester. Forum Neue Musik has been an important series, essential, for example, in establishing the orchestral works of Feldman and Scelsi, but also in exploring the periphery of the repertoire from Carillo and Obuchov to Chris Newman and Maria de Alvear. The orchestra played well last night, as usual, but with real engagement saved for a single work on the concert. In theory, there was something for everyone on the program -- some complexity, some minimal-meditative pianissimoism, some "jazz" riffing on accompaniment figures from Schubert Lieder, two pieces with soloists (percussion, bass clarinet) -- and although the first three quarters of the way through the program, the orchestral-writing competence of all the composers was everywhere in evidence, I was suffering from a real bout of the tired-new-music-cliché-blues. Clark, Lang, and Montovani all made the mistake of using all of their toys in their instrumental toy boxes. I think that if you're going to use a lot of instruments in a piece, you have to have good reasons for using each and everyone of them, and simply having the instruments pre-paid in an orchestral roster is not a good enough reason for me. The Clark Maailma, for solo percussion and orchestra, had a typical new music concert array of percussion and used all of it in turn. It was a bit like reading a percussion cabinet inventory without any ear-convincing rationale for doing so. It's a shame: Clark's rhythmic writing is inventive, and had he simply kept those rhythms intact and had the soloist play a single instrument -- let's say, a tom-tom -- it would have been a more intense experience. The orchestral writing for strings and brass was excellent, and a bit more economy -- why not just eliminate the woodwinds and orchestral percussion? -- would have usefully tightened the piece. Klaus Lang's Tausend Kraniche, a "mourning music with obliggato harpisichord", should have been the piece on the program closest to my own sympathies. But instead, it was one large empty gesture with a bad joke thrown in at the end. I don't feel competent to say much about the Montavani Mit Ausdruck for bass clarinet and orchestra; I simply can't assess the relationship to Jazz that the composer claims, and the relationship to Schubert lieder was not vivid enough for me.

I could have left the concert at that point and the program would probably have been forgotten by the time I reached the parking lot, but I stayed, and I'm glad that I stayed because the fourth work on the program was excellent and will remain in memory for a longtime. I had never before heard a single note by Bent Sørensen, probably because we come from very different neighborhoods in New Music Land. Sørensen's Symphony was one of those rare pieces that had enough connections to traditional repertoire (Mahler, everywhere, but to many others as well -- Bernard Herrmann, perhaps?) and to traditional orchestral interpretative practice that the orchestra was fully engaged. At the same time, Sørensen made no compromises and his work was always something new and of a piece with itself. The piece worked both globally and locally; long term connections were underlined by striking details. The quiet lamento high strings over loud and narrow contrabass sighs at the close of the work, just barely suggesting nostalgia for a contrapuntal world beyond the confines of the piece, both tied the Symphony together, and left it shattered. Although both technically and musically difficult, the orchestra simply liked playing the piece, and I really liked listening to them play it.

1 comment:

rchrd said...

I think I share your tired-new-music-blues. But it's good to hear that the Sørensen piece broke thru. I'm now anxious to hear the two pieces he'll be presenting at OM 14 in a couple of weeks. And to meet him, finally.

And I agree with your aversion to the full-catalog approach to writing for instruments so common over the past 25+ years.

It is possible to present a work without requiring the composer demonstrate every bizarre technique they know.

But I suspect this is more political than aesthetic. Some composers feel they won't be taken seriously unless they push the limits of notation and performance.

I don't think listeners approach it that way. Maybe it was an appropriate strategy for the 1950's. But I think we've grown up since then.

At OM14 on Thursday March 5:

Bent Sørensen:
Shadows of Silence (2004) Jens Elvekjaer, piano
Phantasmagoria (1993) Trio con Brio Copenhagen (piano, violin, cello)