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Other Voices, Other Universes

New York
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Juilliard Scvhool
10/13/2011 -  
Gérard Grisey: Vortex Temporum
Magnus Lindberg: Action-Situation-Signification
Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Silbury Air

AXIOM, Jeffrey Milarsky (Conductor),

We had a confrontation at AXIOM last night. During the intermission, a sophisticated pianist, schooled in contemporary music, respectful of Magnus Lindberg, quietly derided the composer’s Action-Situation-Signification being of little importance. Simultaneously, a listener with little musical learning but good intuitive judgment, came rushing up stating that the Lindberg piece was “wonderful...brilliant...putting us into a different sphere.”

Since Mr. Lindberg’s musical logic was firm, and the musicians dedicated, their opposing perceptions were both correct (though I sided with the pianist). But this was the kind of concert where musical miracles vied, at times, with “Was it worth the effort of conductor Jeffrey Milarsky and his brilliant musicians?”

One work had no opposing views. Gérard Grisey, the “spectralist” who had renounced the word he invented, was introduced to this listener by Alan Gilbert with a performance of the brilliant, other-worldly Four Songs For Passing the Threshold. His Vortex Temporum (The Vortex of Time), was more secular, certainly more joyous, but encompassed the same exploration of sound, through this time sound attached to a particular figure, the arpeggio. In particular, the Ravel arpeggio.

Whatever sneering description of “diaphanous” or “glossy” by others, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé arpeggios, barely disguised at the start, were transformed into the most gorgeous arrays of hues and structures, whirling constellations which hid well their origins. With a mere septet of instruments (strings, piano, clarinet and flute), including eighth-tones and quarter-tones, Grisey took three movements and led us into an emotional...well, yes, emotional vortex, from which we poor listeners were hurtled from side to side.

Grisey had explained his work partly humorously (“Our model is sound, not...archeology...or acupuncture”) but seriously exemplified his visions of time-sounds in the movements. “Human time” is normal, “whale time” is low and elongated”, “bird time” is high and compressed”. True to his words, his second movement, à la Sciarrino was, like that Italian composer, slow enough, the arpeggios hidden. But the outer movements took the Ravel phrasing and offered another universe of unceasingly varied textures and tones.

The opening work was from the young Harrison Birtwistle, though the “air” of Silbury Air came late. If Grisey relished sound, Mr. Birtwistle has always offered pulse, rhythm and volition in his music. The first half here was not complicated all–for the listener! For the 14 musicians, it must have been hell to play. One set of about eight notes was stated at the beginning, and for the next 10-odd minutes, the instruments, repeated it with minute, hemidemisemquavers apart, taking the tune apart but never exactly leaving it. Mr. Milarsky’ pinpoint conducting and the brilliant musicians apparently got it right.

The second half was more complex, but the air, introduced with flute and tom toms had the flair and frenzy and individual solos (unlike his usual blocks of sound) that were, like the Grisey, putting us listeners into another dimension.

Magnus Lindberg’s work as resident with the New York Philharmonic last year, was brilliant accessible, and extremely orchestral. His Action-Situation-Signification, I fear, was as abstract as its title.

The program notes offered exact political and musical reasons, but none really came through. Certainly the “four instruments” was a misnomer. The cello, clarinet, piano and percussion used lots and lots of other sounds–inner piano, rubbing wood and metal, a shofar–like horn–but the sounds didn’t really mean much. In a way, it was like the kind of music which was parodied some 30 years ago (he wrote it in 1982).

The composer used the four feng shui elements of wood, metal, fire and wind, but admittedly, the only sounds I wanted to hear came out of a sound machine. The rain and the wind were actually rainy and windy, and it gave me, at least, an appreciation for nature.

Every musician in AXIOM deserves not only credit, but honors putting the Nobel Prize into a category for best Halloween costume. But Conor Hanick is a pianist who defies human description. For an interlude in Grisey’s work, his ten-minute cadenza was a cosmic creation of digital leaps, screams, shouts, meteoric crashes and….any other image you’d like to imagine.

Except that no image is appropriate. More important, it fit perfectly in Grisey’s complicated, multi-tonal exercise in aural excitement.

Harry Rolnick



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