The Boston Modern Orchestra Project has been all over the news for the promise of hearing the Boston premiere of the near-original version of George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique, which it delivered under the direction of Gil Rose at Jordan Hall on Friday the Thirteenth. About that more later, but the real story of this concert was the variety of sound and expression of which percussion ensembles are capable.
The evening began, before the concert, with a panel discussion-cum-Q & A among several BMOP artistic advisers, including Paul D. Lehrman, who was the principal force behind the re-engineering of Antheil’s work for modern presentation. Some of what he said you can read in his interview with Lee Eiseman on BMInt, here. There were further fascinating comments on gamelans, which feature so much in Lou Harrison’s work, including the one performed at this concert.
The concert itself opened with Edgard Varèse’s pioneering Ionisation of 1931, billed in Robert Kirzinger’s program notes as the first all-percussion ensemble work. Nicolas Slonimsky, who conducted the premiere, famously observed that the six-minute work was in sonata form. Your correspondent is not fully prepared to agree — the recapitulation seemed a bit obscure — but there is no doubt that there were distinct sound patterns, timbral and rhythmic, that are presented and worked out. This is a work that has passed the test of time by dint of its vivacity and compositional integrity; Rose and his ensemble kept everything clear, moving, directed and handsomely shaped.
In sharp contrast to the hard-edged esthetic of the Varèse that preceded and the Antheil that followed it, the main event of the first half of the program offered the soft side of percussion, Lou Harrison’s 1973 La Koro Sutra for chorus and “American” gamelan. As Prof. Jody Diamond pointed out at the pre-concert panel, the American gamelan has little specific in common with its Javanese and Balinese inspirations. In fact, the assortment of homespun assemblages of pipes, planks, vibes, drums and sawed-off oxygen tanks that comprise Harrison’s ensemble bears a closer relation to the tinkering of Harry Partch, without the microtonal tunings. Harrison constructed his cantata, setting an Esperanto (the work was commissioned by and first performed at the World Esperanto Convention) translation of the ancient Mahayana Buddhist text, “The Heart Sutra,” into a prologue, seven “paragrafos,” and a final mantra left in the original Sanskrit.
While the timbres of the gamelan (supplemented by harp and electric organ) resemble at a distance the Indonesian originals, the melodic content derives more from Harrison’s idiosyncratic marriage of European plainchant with East Asian styles and rhythms: Paragrafo 2, for example, has the chorus harmonizing in fourths and fifths, with triplet rhythmic patterns self-consciously styled on Pérotin. For the most part, the chorus lines were in unison, the second, fifth and seventh paragrafos excepted. There is not a lot of dynamic variation until the crescendo and strong polyphonically-driven climax of the work — this is not a piece that relies on the sharp contrasts favored in Western music since the Baroque. The overall impression is of the serenity of the “voidness” — the somewhat ungainly translation of the Esperanto “malpleno.” Indeed, one young lady in your correspondent’s vicinity seemed fully blissed out. That’s not to say that the music was monotonous or uninteresting; Harrison’s ever-evolving melodic development rewards the patient listener, though it certainly requires an attitude different from what one brings to Beethoven or Schoenberg.
Conductor Rose kept the balance of vocal and instrumental forces at optimum counterpoise and clarity. Special praise is due to the chorus, the Providence Singers under Andrew Clark, who have dedicated their volunteer forces to contemporary and otherwise recherché repertoire. This is a crack ensemble, the like of which may not exist in our own city; it is gratifying that they have undertaken to work with BMOP on several projects, a collaboration whose continuation one encourages.
George Antheil earned his self-bestowed sobriquet of “the bad boy of music” with his 1924 Ballet mécanique, originally conceived for forces including 16 player pianos, airplane propellers, sirens, many and varied things to bash, and pretty literally all the bells and whistles. The 1920s were, after all, the years when composers (and artists of all media) came to grips with the jumbled, helter-skelter, discordant, grisly and monumentally ugly beauty of industrial society. The provocative intent here was to throw the brutal energy of modern life in the face—more specifically, the ears—of its beneficiaries, at the highest decibel level then obtainable. Alas, owing to technical difficulties beyond his control, Antheil was unable to achieve the full measure of his intent—among other things, it proved impossible to coordinate all those player pianos—and so all performances in his lifetime were compromised in varying degrees. Now, through the magic of computerized controls and digital sampling, it is possible to get a much better idea of what Antheil had in mind, through Prof. Lehrman’s realization entailing eight Yamaha Disklaviers.
So what, apart from the frisson and the noise, can be said of this work as music? For one thing, this is music, not just a high concept. In fact, after 85 years and a lot of water over the musical dam, this is weirdly traditional-sounding music. Despite the 640-odd metric changes in the piece, necessitating Rose’s use of a click track to keep on top of them, the basic metric pulse for the most part was quite regular, even, dare one say, rather square. There were themes, all pretty diatonic, scales, the occasional riff of ragtime. Toward the end Rose put down his baton, the live players sat back with arms folded, while the player pianos churned on to the occasional punctuation of a siren or alarm bell—OMG, it finally dawned, this is the cadenza! And it ended, just before the last few “chords” from the orchestra, with an oscillation of cluster-chords that was the traditional closing trill. So, yes, this was a highly composed, thoroughly worked-out, fully satisfying hoot of a piece. Rose and his team, abetted by Prof. Lehrman controlling the sirens with a Wii remote, brought it all off with precision, panache and a glorious flourish.
By way of final thoughts on the program, which was as satisfying and revelatory as a whole as its parts were individually distinguished, it occurred to your correspondent that all of these pieces, outré in sound and/or esthetics, were the work of “dead white guys.” While avant-garde pursuits continue, they have become ethereal and wan. One wonders if the type of banshee ethos this concert reflected has died as well.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.