Arditti String Quartet, Oppens, Carter (Paris)
Indonesian Festival (Leipzig)
Kassandra, Jarrell (Nanterre)
'E Zezi (cité de la musique, Paris)
John Adams Concert
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Arditti String Quartet

Arditti Quartet at the “Présences” Festival
January 30th, 1998
Salle Olivier Messiaen
Radio France, Paris
Concert review by Dan Warburton

This year's Présences Festival of free concerts of contemporary music at Maison Radio France is loosely constructed around Paris, New York, and Montréal, the Parisian element focusing on the work of Pascal Dusapin. Regular visitors to Présences, the Arditti Quartet were joined on the 30th of January by pianist Ursula Oppens, and opened the show with Charles Wuorinen's Piano Quintet, which as his pieces go was quite user-friendly—the pitches are better than they used to be and the scoring recalls Bartok's Third Quartet (good move), even if the rhythmic writing still retains all the stodgy regularity of late Schoenberg (bad move). The performance, as one might expect, was exemplary, deftly highlighting all the composer's glaringly obvious motivic developments—subtle is not a word that springs to mind with Wuorinen—this is one of those pieces that belongs in a Freshman Ear Training exam. Quite the opposite of Serge Provost's “Ventis-Arboris-Vocis” which seemed to be a piece in search of a style, unable to make up its mind whether to be spectral, microtonal, new complexity or post-Feldman and ending up as nothing much at all, even though it had its interesting moments. The main criticism was that it was too long; just because you get a commission to write for the Arditti, you don't have to overdo it—fifteen minutes is enough. In this respect, Dusapin's Fourth Quartet was about right, and made up for its relative paucity of material with dashes of typically French instrumental color, earning it a warm reception from the home crowd.

Thank goodness the original program order had been changed, so that the concert could end with Elliott Carter's Piano Quintet. Written in 1997, this was so far above the rest of the program in every sense as to make the other three composers seem like hack amateurs (then again, Carter has a certain track record...). This was a truly Beethovenian conflict between the percussion instrument that is the piano—thank you Ursula Oppens for reminding us of this—and the strings, the composer outdoing himself in melodic lyricism. The Indian summer continues for Carter—I know of no other composer capable of producing such a work at age 89—though this would have been an amazing piece even had it been written by an unknown youngster. It's by no means easy-listening though; like Birtwistle, Carter makes concessions neither to his audience nor his performers. However, on the strength of this one extraordinary performance, I'm placing an advance order with Mode records who I believe are issuing the piece with the same performers later this year, and you'd be well-advised to do the same. Is it too early to nominate this as the greatest piano quintet of the century?

Szene Jakarta, Leipzig

Ensemble Avantgarde
Concert Title: Szene Jakarta
Mendelssohnsaal, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
February 3rd, 1999

Ralf Mielke, Flute
Volker Hemken, Bass Clarinet
Stefan Stopora, Percussion
Josef Christof, Piano
Steffen Schleiermacher, Piano

Colin McPhee: Balinese Ceremonial Music (for 2 pianos)
Slamet A. Sjukur: Ji — Lala — Ji (1991) (for flute and percussion)
Harry Roesli: Asmat Dream (1991) (musique concrète)
Paul Gutama Soegijo: Klavierstudie I (1968)
Slamet A. Sjukur: Yu-Taha (1998) (piano)
Nyoman Windha: Kindama (1985-92) (Gamelan gong kebyar)
Dody Satya Ekagustdiman: Langendria (1998) (piano)
Dieter Mack: Taro (1987) (flute, bass clarinet, percussion, 2 pianos)

Review by Justin Urcis

With over three hundred different and autonomous ethnicities living within its borders, it is difficult to identify a new music of Indonesia. The Ensemble Avantgarde, a group of Leipzig musicians under the artistic and administrative direction of Steffen Schleiermacher, reflected part of Indonesia’s diversity and pluralism in their performance of modern Indonesian works and Indonesian-inspired works by Western composers.

Sjukur’s “Ji — Lala — Ji” was the most exciting live performance of the evening. This work, based on the popular West-Javanese folk song “Jali-Jali,” transforms the flute from a wind instrument into a percussion instrument. Ralf Mielke, the very-able flautist, often tapped, hit, and struck the metal surface of the instrument. Soon, the fingers pressing the metal keys on the flute to elicit the instrument’s “normal” sound became a percussive effect.

Three solo piano pieces were included on the program, the most striking being Sjukur’s “Yu-Taha,” performed with concentration by Schleiermacher. The short piece begins with a single octave played repeatedly by the right hand alone. The music develops but maintains a “minimalistic” aesthetic. One concentrated on the decay of the sound — perhaps, in this respect, similar to Feldman’s piano works — and the simple space between intervals. The composer writes that the dynamic changes are used to “strengthen the interval between two tones.”

In contrast to these aforementioned “performed” pieces, two works were presented over loud-speaker.
Harry Roesli’s “Asmat Dreams” expressed the song-gestures of the Asmat from Irian Jaya through electronic means. Roesli has a peculiar connection to this ethnic group, as he traveled with them throughout America and Europe in 1991. In Roesli’s composition, we hear folk instruments next to the chirping of crickets and native tribal chants. The effect of hearing this elemental and raw sound-world is particularly striking, similar to that of watching an old silent-film accompanied by a player-piano (not Nancarrow’s!) and then stepping into a Sony theater with Dolby and THX stereo-surround sound.

In Nyoman Windha’s “Kindama” the speakers became personalities of their own — the right producing deep throbbing whole-note-like bass notes which supported the repeated chiming flurries from the left speaker. The work, which begins with a short introduction and is followed by three cyclic parts, creates an engaging dialogue between the speakers. Its activity is intensified by Windha’s instrumentation, namely instruments that contain an underlying five-note mode but which allow other scales to be played through two additional keys.

With this country’s variegated musical landscape, it is not surprising that Western composers have looked to Indonesia for inspiration. One of the first to do so was the Canadian Colin McPhee, whose “Balinese Ceremonial Music” began the Leipzig program. Schleiermacher and Christof, the two pianists, brought this classic transcription for two pianos of gamelan music to life with clear and articulate playing that rang through the acoustically lively Mendelsohnsaal. The brightly voiced pianos heightened this “ringing” effect, particularly in the first movement with its hypnotic and direction-less wanderings and pentatonic-related scales.

Dieter Mack’s “Taro,” from ten years ago, also pays homage to the country’s musical traditions. Instead of trying to imitate or transcribe native music, as McPhee does, the composer expresses that his is “the attempt to realize another music concept in the frame of the tradition of my own necessarily Western musical language.” Mack’s work is based on a type of seed-melody which is developed through counterpoint and rhythmical variety. Toward the end, the pianos and percussion unite to create a nervous strand of notes, which lead us to the sudden end.


Michael Jarrell's “Kassandra” at Nanterre Amandiers
February 11th, 1999
Article by Dan Warburton

Knowing that “Kassandra” had previously been staged at the Théâtre de Châtelet, you might be forgiven for thinking it is an opera; Jarrell describes it in fact as a “monodrama”, but I venture to suggest that monologue is nearer the mark. Narrator Anne Bennent did little dramatic except wave her arms a bit and prowl around the stage once or twice—she could easily have been seated by the ensemble and the piece performed as a concert work (it's frustrating to have such a fine ensemble as the Ensemble Modern and park them so far back on the stage that nobody can see what they're up to). In fact, Bennent didn't need to be there at all... her excellent speaking voice could have been on tape, and we might have been spared the sight of a sack-of-potatoes dress which made her look like someone from a student debating society instead of the wild-eyed prophetess of Troy (for those of you who are not up on the Trojan War, go read Homer... then you can appreciate the clever twist put on events by librettist Christa Wolf). Alternatively, a French narrator could have been found (Isabelle Huppert would do nicely) and we would have been spared the neckache of reading the French overhead translation.

As for Jarrell's music, “Kassandra” is further proof—not that any be needed—that he deserves a few more things out on disc. With its excellent ear for texture, the score reveals fine writing for percussion and intelligent and discreet use of two synthesizers, plus an impressive mastery of the large form. What a shame the punters had to pay the astronomical ticket price of 160 francs for this one piece alone (less than an hour of music), when the Ensemble could easily have given us a first half consisting of other Jarrell works (or related pieces from their impressive repertoire). After the rip-off of Donatoni's so-called opera, I wouldn't thought the Amandiers would have tried it twice. You deserve your subsidies, guys, but give value for money in exchange, or you're playing right into the hands of those who would gladly close you down tomorrow.

Dissenting Opinion
by Guy Livingston

This was a breathtaking piece. While I was also put off by the staging (or lack thereof); I felt that the text works far better in German than it would in French. The political relevance may be lost on the French, but the not-so-veiled description of a police state by author Christa Wolf—writing from East Germany during the last gasp of the Cold War—is powerful stuff.
It is true that actress Anne Bennent was dreadful (purposely so?) and moved with all the spontaneity of a wooden leg. Yet she thrilled us to the core as she created one Greek hero after another out of thin air with no means but her voice: Brilliant depictions of a tragic and relevant story.

Italian Factory Music?

‘E Zezi Gruppo Operaio

cité de la musique
Paris, February 19th, 1999
Review by Guy Livingston

What excitement! Demonstrations on stage! Chaos! Improvisation! Dancing! No, not the Fluxus Orchestra; but an even more radical ensemble called ‘e Zezi. Hailing from Naples, this group grew out of the infamous factory workers’ demonstrations of the sixties. Now, they’ve reached a comfortable middle-age, and are releasing CDs and touring the world with their simulated riots and political slogans. Does an avowedly communist group really belong on stage, using $100,000 worth of sound and lighting equipment? Can they authentically sing about poverty, misfortune, and the abuse of the working class to audiences who are paying $20 a set? Maybe not, but it sure was fun, both for them and the audience.

The songs they sing are latter day versions of the Tammuriata, the oldest and most unchanged vocal form of Southern Italy. Using complicated rhythms, dancing, and simple percussion instruments, particularly the tomorra (a large tambourine/drum) these songs have traditionally a had political flavor, and hence were well-adapted to the ALFASud automotive factory, where the group 'E Zezi was born.

Naive and Sentimental Music

John Adams
Naive and Sentimental Music
(1998-99; world premiere)
review by Justin Urcis

Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (with support from the Brady New Music Fund and the Freeman Fund for Contemporary American Music), the Vancouver Symphony, the Sydney Symphony, and Ensemble Modern

I. Naive and Sentimental Music
II. Mother of the Man
III. Chain to the Rhythm

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
February 21, 1999

After perfunctory run-throughs of Haydn and Schumann on the first half of their program on February 21, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, came alive to perform the world premiere of John Adams’ Naive and Sentimental Music, his most ambitious piece to date, aside from his two operas. The curious title is inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s essay, “Ueber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung.” (Mr. Adams explains this allusion in his detailed and articulate program notes, which hopefully will be re-printed with a future recording.).

The first movement begins with a simple triad and a melody which “floats throughout the twenty-minute structure like an idée fixe,” according to the composer. What begins as something “similar to a Joni Mitchell song,” evolves into a beautiful landscape as the melody—the naive tune—is influenced by other musical ideas—the sentimental persuasion- and adapts itself to this changing sound-world. Yet the initial easy-going atmosphere disappears as the musical argument develops; at one point it becomes so agitated that the percussion places us in a world similar to Mosolov’s orchestral Iron Foundry.

The delicate second movement, a cradle song influenced by Busoni’s Berceuse Elégiaque, begins with a gently moving chord in the strings. Synthesizer effects accompany a lightly amplified guitar, which takes over in a concerto-like manner. I wanted to imagine myself in bed, gradually falling asleep, but this performance was marred by coughing and other sounds from the audience, which disrupted the soporific effect of the movement.

In the third movement, Adams makes a conscious return to his minimalist roots. The phrasing and subtle changes in pulse excite, both aurally and visually, as one watches one section, and then another, going back to the old one and realizing, that they are not playing the same thing anymore! Performed with great flair by the orchestra, the work “culminates in [a] fast, virtuoso surge of orchestral energy.”

One of the most notable features throughout the work is Adams’ manipulation of orchestral color. Adams creates a new-age aesthetic—producing sound effects with integrity—avoiding the cheap tricks characteristic of such new-age stars such as “Yawni.” Much reminds of the earlier Harmonielehre—and even of Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal with its soaring trumpet line and undulating string accompaniment. One secret of Adams’ palette is his coloristic use of the percussion section; he exploits instruments such as small Chinese gongs, crotales, “ranch” triangles, and large sleighbells.

The piece has much promise—it is well orchestrated, lyrical, exciting, virtuosic, and thoughtful. Now we must wait for future performances and recordings...and the next work from Adams.

Copyright 1999 by Paris Transatlantic