Monday, March 10, 2014
G is for Generations
Last Friday night was a Forum Neue Musik concert at the Hessischer Rundfunk, played by the HR Symphony under Franck Ollu. The playing was terrific, as usual, Ollu's conducting sharp and shaped, as expected, but the programming was both problematic and revealing. The Forum Neue Musik has been, for decades, one of the most important live & broadcast concert series for new music in Germany, and over the years has featured landmark performances, including all of the major orchestral works of Morton Feldman and important orchestral and ensemble performances of works by a real diversity of composers: among the most notable, off the top of my head: Scelsi, Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, Obuchov, de Alvear, Lucier, Sorenson, Zimmermann, Lachenmann, Bauckholt, Ayres. Schnebel, and Young. Unfortunately, it seems to me that it is presently going, programmatically, through a very weak phase these days. I suspect this is most likely due to the internal politics of having an orchestra attached to a micropolitically complex institution like a German public radio station: the curator for new music may want one thing, the music department head another, but the orchestra leadership wants still another (for example, to show off a guest artist in residence or feature particular orchestra members), and still other pressures come from the present station leadership, which is close to the market-oriented Christian Democratic party, and would like to treat all radio activities as individual profit centers, thus insisting on a bottom line which sees, for example, the station's library of old recordings as unrealized investments that compete directly with any new activities, like the commissioning, performance, recording, and broadcasting of new works. The problem for Forum Neue Musik is that it is becoming much harder to justify the "new" in the title when a program like last Friday's, in which two works were around a half century old, a third work was a John Adams arrangement of Debussy — and late 19th century, "Wagnerian", Debussy at that — and the two "new" works were undoubtedly by contemporary composers, lively composers at that, but definitely senior figures. The other programmatic weakness suggested a critical glance at American music, if not a latent anti-Americanism at work. The theme was, very roughly, the minimal in music and there was a decided Europe-against-America agon in play, with two examples of European composers working in territory similar to and comporaneous with, if not predating, early American radical music with a minimal impulse (a 1963 piece by Pärt, Perpetuum Mobile and Scelsi's 1959 Quattro Pezzu su una nota sola) posed against with Adam's showpiece orchestration of Debussy's Five Songs of Baudelaire (entitled Le Livre de Baudelaire, as if Adams was playing out an orchestrator's rivalry with Boulez) and Steve Reich's The Four Sections (which is, and isn't, as the program notes hint, Reich's agon with Bartók, but also, in particularly with the string writing in the stubborn counterpoint of the first movement, with a body of mid-20th century American orchestral music that is largely unknown here (I'm not enthusiastic about The Four Sections, but I came 'round to admiring the Reich formal stubbornness here, sticking with a grating string texture until it became background noise and his use of the horns as a harmonic background later in the piece. (In the Adams, coincidentally, the horn writing was also the best part.))) All of this was unnecessary and unfortunate, particularly because the strongest work on the program (and also, coincidentia oppositorum, the most modest in resources demanded) was the new commission on the program, De-Crescendo by Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, the soon-to-be octogenarian former new music curator at HR, a gracious man and musician who has never found much charge in opposing the musics on either side of the Atlantic to one another, but rather considerable charge in their co-resonance. Stiebler achieved something here connected to his experience with minimal musics of all sorts that was profoundly about drawing out a continuity of sound from tightly circumscribed initial impulses, here an unassuming melodic-harmonic cell in a pair of oboes, intuitively using a mixture of local and ad hoc processes to generate the passing figurations which project that continuity. The revealing aspect of the program was that the Scelsi Four Pieces on a Single Note, a piece which I have known for about 30 years, and loved in its first LP recording, can work in a recorded environment, in which a good sound designer can create just the right reverberation, but is so fragile in live performance, even in a forgiving hall like the HR Sendesalle, that it is just not a reliable concert piece. With the room full of people, it was an extremely dry acoustic, and the schematic, measure-by-measure, quality of the orchestration was exposed. Instead of a continuity, it was broken and discrete. My sense was that the conductor and players were really doing everything they possibly could to make the piece work, but I think it may actually be an example of a piece for which the historical importance is certain but the actual quality is not.