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A Very Spatial Occasion

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
06/01/2008 -  
Toru Takemitsu: Cassiopeia
Andrzej Panufnik: Sinfonia di sfere (U.S. Premiere)
Rued Langgaard: Sfaerernes musik (Music of the Spheres)
György Ligeti: Apparitions – Atmosphères

Jonathan Haas (Percussion), Blair McMillen (Piano), Carolyn Betty (Soprano)
The Dessoff Chorus, James Boswell (Choral Director), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Music Director and Conductor)

No doubt remains that Leon Botstein has taken the American Symphony Orchestra exactly where its founder, Leopold Stokowski decreed. Stokowski never paused for a moment when a new piece of music came his way. Whether he was premiering Ives or Mahler, Ruggles or Varèse, he had the personality and musical magic to make fireworks with his orchestra, so that audiences rushed to all his concerts.

Mr. Botstein may not have Stokowski’s Hollywood-glitter /Page Six personality, but every single concert of his is another adventure in the music. It could be a remote Strauss opera, a musical picture of Italian fascism or, as yesterday’s performance showed, four examples of “spatial music”. But whether his music is lauded or despised, each concert belies New York’s conservative tastes.

For his “Spatial Explorations”, Mr. Botstein obviously had to cut out thousands of works that fit the bill. He could have played a Gabrielli canzone, made to fill St. Mark’s Cathedral, or tried Scriabin’s spatial last symphonies (if only he could get some instruments to hang from the clouds!), or Carter’s Concerto For Four Orchestras.

But the four works here were all so unusual that they needed special care, for audience and musicians alike. The only work subconscious familiar, was the final work, Ligeti’s Atmosphères. This texture of up-and-down canons was part of the score for Kubrick’s 2001. (But here’s a sad story: Ligeti was neither asked for permission or given any money:. After a long lawsuit, he was paid a miserly, miserable $3,500 from the Kubrick estate!)

The opening work was a surprise indeed. Toru Takemitsu, usually a gracile miniaturist, wrote Cassiopeia for huge orchestra—and a solo drummer with the most mammoth forces. Usually, it would take two drummers to play the 44 percussion pieces. To quote from the program, “they range from castanets and tamboure to Trinidadian steel drum, African karimba, steel sheet, pedal timpani and two bass drums.”

But Jonathan Haas, the pre-eminent percussion player in American today, brought in his own instruments, all of them ranged upon a giant rack which was just beside a 6-foot-long bronze drum which looked like a cooking-pot for Amazons. (Haas explained that it was a converted Swiss cheese-maker! And, to quote from Monty Python, “Blessed are the cheese-makers.”) For Haas played this almost impossible part with absolute perfection, imitating orchestra when necessary, playing a cadenza which nobody could quite believe.

And the music? Well, so much of it sounded like Japanese noh theatre. The percussion was rarely a simple bang or click: the sounds echoed up and down, and one expected some vocal exclamations from the back room. My suggestion? A DVD to show just how Mr. Haas actually played this music.

This was hardly the end of the drums, Andrzej Panufnik had an equally huge orchestra, with choruses of kettledrums on all corners. They could only be equated with African talking drums, for these were the “spheres” of the Polish title. Yet the four brass soloists in front of the orchestra did equal “talking”, taking the motives, playing canons and variations, and, with the orchestra, giving a thickness and intensity. (Panufnik enjoys these forms. His Arbor Cosmica illustrates 12 trees by “thickening” each motive .like branches sprouting.)

But the only work which literally explored special relations was written almost 100 years ago by the very obscure Dane, Rued Langgaard. A very eccentric person, he wrote music for insects, and music for great choirs. His Symphony of Spheres had a) one full orchestra on stage, b) a full choir behind (singing about one minute of music), c) lots of drums, d) a miniature orchestra in the high balcony of Avery Fisher Hall, and e) a fine soprano, also in the back.

But if you saw the full score, you would have noticed Langgaard’s descriptions of sections: “Sunbeams on a coffin”…”the refraction of sunbeams in the waves”…”the twinkling of a pearl of dew in the sun….” He also described it as having “completely abandoned any sort of motif, planned structure or form.”

That left us to simply hear the sounds—flutterings, tremolos in the strings, some beautiful high wind scales which repeated themselves in angelic harmonies, and of course the angelic sounds behind and in front of us.

One cannot say that the afternoon was as phantasmagoric as it should have been, but this was not Mr. Botstein’s goal. He wants to open New York ears to unfamiliar music of every style and every form. I imagine that his rehearsals might have been even more interesting than the music itself, for the conductor had to deal with orchestras within orchestras, soloists with a phalanx of “tools,” and aural adventures. Some was bombastic, some was unbearable, all of it had moments and sections which were sounds of pure genius.

Harry Rolnick



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