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A Quartet of Quotations

New York
BargeMusic, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
02/17/2011 -  
The Mostly “Here and Now” Series
Phillip Ramey: Bagatelle on “Panis Angelicus”
Augusta Read Thomas Six Piano Etudes
John Zorn: Carny
Charles Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass. 1840-1860

Stephen Gosling (Piano), Kenji Bunch (Viola), Immanuel Davis (Flute)

S. Gosling at BargeMusic (© Herring Rollmop)

The British-born, New York residing, ever-traveling Stephen Gosling may have performed at the world’s greatest concert halls. But when he reaches BargeMusic, the great pianist relaxes, takes off tie and jacket and sinks his digits into some of the most challenging music in the contemporary repertoire.

Perhaps it’s something about the sight of BargeMusic, lolling on the Brooklyn banks of the East River, the piano sometimes shaking with the waves, the silhouette of Lower Near York through the stage windows. More likely, it’s that Mr. Gosling can perform an evening of music which would barely attract full houses elsewhere.

Not that BargeMusic was filled last night. But the presence of a few dozen admirers, including composer John Zorn, led to the most intimate atmosphere. Mr. Gosling played perhaps the most difficult long work in the American repertoire, he played a slight bagatelle, took on Zorn’s eclectic Carny and transformed four works into a salon concert for the elect.

Two of the composers were new to me Philip Ramey’s Bagatelle on “Panis Angelicus” was complicated for its short duration, and while I didn’t catch anybody’s “Panis Angelicus” in the music, the sounds were appealing.

Agusta Read Thomas, another new name, wrote Six Etudes for around six composers. It was a game, but cleverly done, since the composer knows her icons. Here were unmeasured meters for Bartók, bird-like phrases for Messiaen, and sl-o-w sounds for Morton Feldman, with resonant mathematical puzzles for Berio, and less recognizable music apparently imitating Boulez and David Radowski.

J. Zorn at BargeMusic (© Coco T. Dawg)

I’m not belittling these works, and they gave Mr. Gosling a workout. But Ms. Thomas wrote homages to her composers. The last two works were more than clever games, though they both quoted others. Yet the challenge of both Ives and Zorn had more in common.

Both John Zorn’s Carny, and (especially) the “Hawthorne” section of the Concord Sonata thrived on a salmagundi of styles, sudden changes from the mighty and massive to the pop and jazzy. True, Charles Ives was exploring–transcendentally–the great Transcendentalists of 19th Century New England. John Zorn seemed to be strolling through the fairway of an old fashioned carnival. But both composers flourished with careening musical experiences rather than following the expected musical line.

Ives and Zorn love quoting from the unexpected as well. That word “careening” especially refers to Zorn’s mutations of music. Rather than trying to identify scraps of Mozart, Chopin or Bartók, John Zorn strolled (or scuttled or crept or ran) from one composer to another, overlaying them or permuting them. Was Chopin played backwards? Was Bartók teamed up with an atonalist?

Zorn isn’t satisfied with that. One heard the style of Fats Waller, some boogie-woogie, hints of jazz soaring over what seemed to be Stockhausen. And while nobody could identify each permutation, not with an initial listening, nobody could fail to be delighted–as well as entranced by Mr. Gosling handling the most difficult passages–at this fairly long work.

The Charles Ives piano magnum opus, then, was not a shocker. It was, yes, the more majestic, more serious, of the two. The “Concord” didn’t only transform music (from Beethoven to Columbus, Gem of the Ocean), but it transformed people. An evening with the simple Alcott family (albeit with dissonances thrown in like a Picasso cubist portrait), a conversation with mighty Emerson (later to be expanded with the “Emerson” Concerto), and perambulating with Thoreau.

The inward-outward totally personal transformation by one giant to a series of giants is not essayed lightly, and we have all heard it played with lightning, even violence. But in the confines of BargeMusic, played by a perfectonist like Mr. Gosling, nothing was foreboding in the dissonances. More important, the transparencies were more transparent. Instead of a series of granite movements, we could hear the contrapuntal lines, as well as Ives’ meticulous working out of personalities, always with the motif of Beethoven’s Fifth in the background.

The composer never felt that he had finished it, but did add two short optional parts for viola and, towards the end, a nostalgic flute. BargeMusic gave the opportunity to hear this rare version. The sounds in the composer’s mind are rarely transformed to the stage. Mr. Gosling, in his affectionate performance, played with clarity, skill and, best of all, devotion to this most Olympian composition.

Harry Rolnick



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