Dwellers all in time and space
William Schuman: New England Triptych
John Cage: The Seasons
Henry Cowell: Concerto for Piano Orchestra
George Antheil: A Jazz Symphony
Charles Ives: Central Park in the Dark
Aaron Copland: El Salón México
John Cage: 4'33"- tacet for large orchestra
Philip Mead (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Lawrence Foster (conductor), Anthony Legge (assistant conductor)
Edgard Varèse: Amériques
John Cage: Aria
Erik Satie: Parade
Carl Ruggles: Sun-Treader
John Cage: Atlas eclipticalis with Winter Music, Cartridge Music
Loré Lixenberg (soprano), John Tilbury (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Porcelijn (conductor)
Morton Feldman: Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety
Christian Wolff: Spring
John Cage: Concerto for Prepared Piano
Earle Browne: Centering
John Cage: Apartment House 1776
Clio Gould (violin), Ralph van Raat (prepared piano)
David Porcelijn (conductor)
John Cage was a major presence in the Barbican's magnificent American Pioneers season in 1998-9, an austere, conceptual pathfinder into the ego-free space filled sensuously by the minimalists. This year's BBC Symphony Orchestra composer weekend at the Barbican was something of a replay. Given the "difficulty" of his works for the audience, as well as his own insistence on avoiding the ego, Cage was inevitably the occasion and focus rather than the subject of an event which involved some tedium but was also thought-provoking and at times thoroughly good fun.
An opening concert, "Cage in his American context" surveyed what could be called American ambient music, not in the sense of music for supermarkets but in that of the composers' attempts to evoke or simulate a sense of a unique experience rooted in a particular place. William Schuman's presence on this programme seems odd, except perhaps that his dates of birth and death coincide exactly with those of Cage. New England Triptych consists of perky, old-fashioned treatments of the American hymn tunes that form a running thread through the weekend, without much sense of place. Perhaps the communal creation of hymns and the heightened, self-transcending experience of their performance even for unbelievers made them appeal to Cage as they did to Charles Ives. Ives was represented by a youthful snapshot of life in New York City, Central Park in the Dark, in which ambient strings maintain a constant background across which a runaway horse charges. Aaron Copland's similarly early El Salón México was a more conventional slice of life, in a dance hall in Mexico, while George Antheil's toe-curlingly dreadful Jazz Symphony, an insensitive knockoff of Rhapsody in Blue with added minstrels, tried to do the same for a jazz club. Lacklustre performances probably didn't help any of these works
Lawrence Foster and the BBC Symphony Orchestra did rather better with the London premiere of Henry Cowell's once scandalous Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. The soloist Philip Mead had his glasses tied behind his ears and donned mittens for what might have been nothing more than a spirited parody of the conventional concerto pianist's thrashing at the keyboard but which turned out to be wonderfully musical, a celebration of excess of the type that Antheil aimed for in the Jazz Symphony and missed.
Cage's own 4'33"- tacet for large orchestra was certainly worth hearing, if only as a reminder that the hum from the backstage microphones is unacceptably audible in the Barbican Hall. Foster conducted with gentle humour, and there was a general sense of good-natured collaboration by all involved.
At a contrasting volume level, Musicircus, the happening on Saturday afternoon was likewise a mellow shared experience. There seemed to be an ensemble in every twist of the Barbican Centre's maze, and perhaps for the first time ever the about-to-be-demolished bridge across the internal facade of the theatre came into its own as a route past assorted groups. There were many melodicas, acrobats in white, a couple of Irish fiddle bands, uniformed attendants who broke into song, a chess game with beer bottles, a choir singing hymns, a couple of dinner parties, a lecture on mushrooms and amplified plants. It was more of a zoo than a circus, but great fun.
David Porcelijn, who conducted one concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and one with the London Sinfonietta during the weekend, might be worth a punt as the replacement for Leonard Slatkin (notable for his absence this weekend). The London Sinfonietta are as at home with Cage as any orchestra on the planet, and if their performance of the Americana-themed Apartment House 1776, small groups playing transformed patriotic tunes on an aleatory schedule, wasn't as much fun as the big musicircus, it was the most entertaining work in a rather severe Sunday afternoon of intense composer and performer virtuosity. The BBC Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening seemed transformed from the night before: they gave stonking, irresistible performances of Carl Ruggles' almost romantic symphonic movement Sun-Treader and, especially, Varèse's Amériques, a kind of urban Rite of Spring located perhaps twenty blocks south of Ives' Central Park in the Dark. Satie's Parade, a fairground scene related to Petruschka, was another embryonic musicircus. Cage's contribution to this concert, Atlas eclipticalis for orchestra, Winter Music, for piano and Cartridge Music, apparently for amplified random sounds, all played together, was characteristic Cage and worth hearing seriously for that. But Loré Lixenberg made him much more likable with a delightfully theatrical performance of Aria.