John Cage Uncaged – BBCSO Barbican Weekend (16-18 January: Tim Ball’s report)

Cage in his American Context (16 January, Barbican Hall)

New England Triptych
The Seasons
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [London premiere]
A Jazz Symphony
Central Park in the Dark
El Salón México

Philip Mead (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Lawrence Foster

Piano (16 January, St Giles Cripplegate)

Bread and Roses
Piano Pieces, Op.33a & b
Solo for Piano

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Praise and be Prepared (18 January, LSO St Luke’s)

Hymns from the Old South
Selection from Sonatas and Interludes – Sonatas 1, 2 & 3

Psalm 143
The Sixty-Seventh Psalm
Selection from Sonatas and Interludes – Sonatas 4, 5 & 6

In the Beginning
Selection from Sonatas and Interludes – Sonatas 11 & 12

Variations I for Stephen Montague [world premiere]

BBC Symphony Chorus
Stephen Jackson

Rolf Hind (prepared piano)

Deborah Miles-Johnson (mezzo-soprano)

Cage and the New York School (18 January, Barbican Hall)

Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety
Spring [UK premiere]
Concerto for Prepared Piano
Apartment House 1776 [UK premiere of original version]

Clio Gould (violin)

Ralph van Raat (prepared piano)

London Sinfonietta
David Porcelijn

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 January, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, St Giles Cripplegate & LSO St Luke’s, London

John Cage (1912-1992) would have doubtless been highly amused to find his work lauded and feted in and around the Barbican and vigorously publicised by the BBC, which deserves every commendation for presenting this “weekend of musical mayhem”, as its promotional material had it.

However, there was very little (unintended) mayhem at the four concerts (of eight) that I attended. On the contrary, the music and performers were listened to attentively and applauded with gratitude and appreciation. A far cry from the jeers Cage often received in his lifetime – and those just from audiences. The leers and sneers of commentators were inclined to dismiss his ideas out of hand or treat him, as he remarked himself on more than one occasion, as a “clown”.

The opening concert placed Cage alongside some of his – mostly somewhat older – contemporaries. The programme – and indeed the series – demonstrated, to a considerable extent, just how radically different Cage’s aesthetic later became but, perhaps more importantly, verified what a wealth of American repertoire there is that is still comparatively unknown and, more to the point, comparatively rarely played or recorded.

William Schuman, born in 1910, two years before Cage, was as far removed musically as is imaginable from Cage’s eventual leanings, with his unashamedly tonal harmonies and, in the case of the New England Triptych, revelling in the melodies of the 18th-century New England composer William Billings, whose tunes form the basis of the three pieces and whose name frequently cropped up as a starting point for a number of works at these concerts.

Although perhaps helpful or convenient for the listener to consider the work to be a set of variations or a fantasy on Billings’s originals, Schuman preferred to think of them as “a fusion of styles and musical language”. The opening and closing pieces – ’Be glad then, America’ and ’Chester’ – are vigorous and declamatory in character, with the former featuring prominent timpani (superbly played). The tunes are easily discerned whilst Schuman weaves his own ideas around – and sometimes in conflict with – them. The central ’When Jesus wept’ is more lyrical and touching, with expressive bassoon and oboe lines underpinned by an ominous drum rhythm almost suggesting a Mahlerian mood. Mournful strings join, and perhaps Schuman glanced in the direction of another England, for the ghost of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia did not seem so very far away. Lawrence Foster conducted the BBCSO in an energetic fashion, who responded accordingly. The gentler strains of the second movement were touchingly evoked.

Conductor and players were also well attuned to the first music by John Cage to be heard, which is actually untypical of him. His 1947 ballet score The Seasons is scored for conventional instruments, and is fully notated. Its general atmosphere is quite gentle, with isolated chords and notes suggesting some influence of Webern – though whether Cage (and others) would have known Webern’s music at this time is doubtful.

The introduction of scherzo-like music brought a whiff of impressionism into the air, with uncharacteristic gestures such as harp glissandos. There was also some brief snatches of melody – that for the flute at the opening and reprised at the close was especially evocative.

Tougher fare followed in the shape of Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, here receiving its London premiere. Rarely performed, it had to wait 50 years after its completion in 1928 before being heard in Europe. Cowell, with his questing spirit and experiments in music, was very much a kindred spirit to Cage. Indeed his manipulations of the piano are the direct precursor of Cage’s own development of the prepared piano where the sounds of the instrument are transformed by various objects being placed on and between the strings. In Cowell’s concerto, the pianist is required to play heavy clusters of notes for most of the time, with the main body of melodic ideas being given to the orchestra.

Philip Mead, sporting finger-less gloves, tackled the fearsome solo part with considerable aplomb and far from creating merely a forbidding torrent of sound, he played with considerable conviction and a deal of humour. This is an exuberant work, and it was given a performance to match.

George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony dates from 1925, the year following the first performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in its original Paul Whiteman version. Antheil’s work was also commissioned by Whiteman, and its jazz-infused sound from the 18-piece ensemble places it more in the world of the jazz-band than the symphony orchestra. Its varied moods, including some stalking piano cakewalk music, were colourfully conveyed by Foster and members of the BBCSO, who tore into the textures – particularly the corny closing bars – with relish.

Ives’s Central Park in the Dark, like much of Cage’s music was to do, superimposes different textures and, indeed, tempos. Over a calm, still background of strings, winds and piano delineate more animated sounds evoking, in the composer’s words, “Central Park in the Dark in the Good Old Summer Time”. Again, a kind of distorted ’impressionism’ is the result. Once a rarity in the concert hall, Ives’s ’Contemplation’ (one of two, the other being The Unanswered Question) is a more regular visitor, and this performance was subtle and atmospheric. Anthony Legge was the discreet assistant conductor.

The brazen sounds of Copland’s El Salon Mexico were highly refreshing – it is amazing how fresh triads and tonal harmony can still sound! – and the rhythmic kicks and springs had all the requisite punch. The piece can be rather more unbuttoned than it was in this performance, and the gentler music more lingering and quiet, but Copland’s ebullient invention was ideal preparation for the final item of this concert.

Described by John Cage as “the most practical piece I ever wrote”, 4’33″ has probably done more than anything else to suggest that the composer was some kind of crank – or worse. But this period of silence – divided into three movements – surely has a more serious intent. If it does nothing else, it gives pause for thought. In a century peppered with provocative works, such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Stockhausen’s Licht (a work still in progress), perhaps the quiet little subversion of 4’33″ is the most provocative of them all, from the imagination of perhaps the most provocative of all 20th-century composers.

Lawrence Foster gave the signal for the start of each of the three sections, and the orchestra simply sat in silence. In the auditorium, we could hear the air-conditioning and, inevitably, after a while, coughing. Strange how simple silence can make people restive and apparently uncomfortable.

Hot on the heels of the opening concert was a piano recital at St Giles Cripplegate. Uncomfortable seating was not helpful, but the dedicated musicianship of Nicolas Hodges focussed the attention.Feldman’s Piano explores sonority and contrast. Primarily, there are alternations between single notes and denser chords, generally at a low dynamic level. Intensity increases leading to some powerful outbursts – rare in Feldman – and then the sound recedes.

Christian Wolff’s Bread and Roses follows the example of Frederic Rzewski, in that the piece is based upon a protest song, the melody of which is deconstructed, varied and transformed. I suspect that the impact of the piece would be the greater if one were more familiar with the original, but Nicolas Hodges ensured that the subversive spirit intended by Wolff was conveyed.

It is almost incredible to suggest that Schoenberg’s music can come as ’light relief’ in any context, but in this particular one, his two piano pieces seemed distinctly old fashioned and rather gentle on the ear. One can think of Schoenberg, in many ways, as the last of the Romantics, and his debt to Brahms – in spite of the use of serial techniques – was certainly clear in these grateful performances.

John Cage’s Solo for Piano is the piano part of his Concert (sic) for Piano and Orchestra – not, unfortunately, programmed this weekend. This is an indeterminate piece, i.e. the performer has to make decisions as to the aural outcome based on the notations and instructions supplied by the composer. Suffice it to say that there was a bewildering array of sound from the piano itself played in many different ways, and from supplementary instruments including a toy piano and a bell-tree. This was carried off with considerable aplomb and not inconsiderable virtuosity.

In LSO St Luke’s, the BBC Symphony Chorus, under the flexible direction of Stephen Jackson, gave a varied programme of American choral music, culminating in the world premiere of a Cage piece written for Stephen Montague, the mastermind behind the weekend’s activities.

The harmonies of William Billings’s Chester were strikingly redolent of the Victorian era rather than those of 1770 when the hymn was composed, whilst Virgil Thomson’s selection of four Hymns from the Old South preserves the original harmonies andintensifies their effect through dynamic and expressive variety.

This opening group of pieces was then followed by the first three of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, sensitively played by Rolf Hind. Further selections ’broke up’ this otherwise all-choral programme. I had some reservations about the preparations to the piano, as rather too much of the ’normal’ piano sound was audible. Furthermore, Hind played in a somewhat romantic manner, whereas this music really depends on an austere, hierarchic approach. Nevertheless, the fascinating tintinnabulation made their effect, and Hind’s sensitivity had its own rewards.

The settings of psalms by Hovhaness and Ives revealed the familiar words in an unfamiliar light, and the piquant harmonies of the Ives must have proved somewhat indigestible to a no-doubt uncomprehending New England congregation in 1898. Randall Thompson’s Alleluia was a Koussevitzky commission for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center in Lennox, Massachusetts in 1940. It is an amiable enough piece for its intended purpose, but the endless repetitions of the one word are assuredly protracted, and a more flowing tempo in the central section would have helped.

The most substantial item was Copland’s marvellous In the Beginning, which sets the first 38 verses of the Book of Genesis in the King James version. Copland’s word setting is extremely evocative, with the creation of ’lights’ being, literally, an illuminating moment. The conclusion had a powerful fervour about it in this extremely well sung performance. Deborah Miles-Johnson was an accurate soloist and storyteller. If lacking the ideal ’homespun’ quality, her diction and intonation were admirable.

Following his meeting with Cage in 1975, Stephen Montague had often requested a piano piece from him. In 1990, Cage responded with a graphic-score realisation of his 1958 Variations I, and dedicated it to Montague. A toss of a coin determined that it would be a choral piece. At this premiere, the singers stood in five lines that bisected each other and articulated or whispered letters and vowels from the names of the composer and the dedicatee. At one point the sound blossomed into a beautiful chord, and with its muttered syllables, it created a very varied texture. There can probably be other realisations of the score, but this first one was extremely effective and quite moving.

Back at the Barbican, Cage was again heard alongside him compatriots who rather loosely formed what is known as “The New York School”, although Cage himself was loath to attract disciples. “Two composers writing the same kind of music is one composer too many” was one of his monitions.

Morton Feldman’s touching tribute to his old piano teacher is characterised by a two-note figure which might suggest sighing or even tears. It is mainly played on the flute, then passed to others in the 12-piece ensemble. For all its brevity, it is as an affecting piece, its emotions seemingly contained.

Christian Wolff’s Spring finds the composer feeling his way towards an ideal where music becomes very much a “collaborative and transforming activity”, although it should be noted that a conductor is still required. William Billings crops up again in the second movement, where Wolff creates variations of Billings’s anthem, I am the Rose of Sharon. Parts of this become dissected, and the orchestra is divided into differing groups playing their own individual materials. The resultant sound is not entirely devoid of clutter – as might be expected – but Wolff’s clarity of line and scoring is a refreshing element in itself.

In Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, the alluring sound of the solo instrument is engaged in dialogue with a varied ensemble that includes a range of unusual percussion instruments. The sense of exchange makes this, on the surface, no different from other concertos, but the music for soloist and ensemble are radically different and, from time to time, there is little apparent connection between them. Ostensibly in three movements, albeit continuous, variety is achieved through changes in sonority rather than from traditional melodic developments. Thus, the gentle, floating isolated sounds of the opening are in stark contrast to the short, sharp and even violent eruptions later on.

Johanna MacGregor was originally scheduled as soloist, but Ralph van Raat was excellent in his own right, and the London Sinfonietta, under David Porcelijn, was superbly responsive and sensitive – as they were throughout this demanding programme.

Earle Brown’s Centering, for solo violin and 10 instruments was a London Sinfonietta commission and first performed in 1973 under Hans Zender, with Paul Zukofsky as soloist. The solo part makes horrendous demands upon the player, with an immense range of sound and modes of attack demanded – and quite a lot of it is very quiet, thus requiring extra control. Clio Gould was hugely impressive, notwithstanding her self-effacing demeanour.

The musical language employed is fiercely atonal, and yet Gould extracted moments of expressivity, not least at the conclusion which quotes five notes from Bruno Maderna’s First Oboe Concerto. The Italian composer/conductor, who was Brown’s closest friend and stanch champion, died just before Centering was completed. Retrospectively, it is not so difficult to consider the whole work as a memorial from one composer to another.

Finally, the UK premiere of the original version of Apartment House 1776 was given by a conductor-less Sinfonietta. Apartment House was one of a number of bicentennial commissions which Cage received, and is in the form of a ’musicircus’, whereby several ’layers’ of related materials (or, sometimes, not-so-related materials) are superimposed upon one another.

Here, early American choral pieces were subject to ’subtraction’ whereby notes were removed and elongated by Cage. These are added to a mix that includes 18th-century popular melodies, marching drum rhythms, native songs and African-American calls – the latter two ingredients pre-recorded on this occasion. It is all good fun, but I suspect that it is more enjoyable for participants, or as part of a multi-media experience rather than a merely aural one from a concert hall seat.

Still, it was interesting to see the Sinfonietta doggedly going in their own directions, either as individuals or small sub-groups, and the performance did not outstay its welcome or interest – just.

This series of concerts was a remarkable undertaking and proved that, for all his maverick qualities, the influence and legacy of John Cage is not to be underestimated. It would be a pity, however, if all this music were put away to languish, having been given this high-profile airing. In particular, some of the other composers featured need to be played more, although it is doubtful that much of what was heard this weekend will ever be part of the mainstream repertoire.

But, like 4’33″ itself, this series has given much food for thought and has perhaps served, in the words of John Adams, the BBCSO’s Artist in Association, as a “spring cleaning”.

Perhaps the last word should be left to Cage himself, when talking about his own music: “Some people take it too seriously, others don’t take it seriously enough and other people play it just right”!

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