Lincoln Center Festival – Varèse: (R)evolution

Poème Électronique
Un Grand Sommeil Noir
Dance for Burgess
Étude pour Espace
Density 21.5

Anu Komsi (soprano) & Alan Held (bass baritone)

Mika Rännäli (piano)
Jonathan Golove & Natasha Farny (cello theremins) & Claire Chase (flute)

Musica Sacra
International Contemporary Ensemble
Sō Percussion
Steven Schick

Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tuning Up
Amériques [Revised Version]

Anu Komsi (soprano)

Oratorio Society

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 20 July, 2010
Venue: Alice Tully Hall & Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)Two locations over two consecutive evenings for the complete works of pioneering French composer Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) were here presented by the Lincoln Center Festival – called (R)evolution, highlighting the revolutionary and evolutionary aspects of Varèse’s music.

Part I, in the intimate Alice Tully Hall, included all the works utilising electronic equipment, whereas Part II offered mostly the works written for full orchestra. Varèse’s music forces the listener to endure scores that usually concentrate upon complex rhythms and alternates between hushed mysterium and mind-bursting explosiveness propelled by pounding percussion.

Varèse began his schooling in his native Paris. He moved to Turin at age nine to study with the director of the Turin Conservatory. Returning in 1903, he studied with some of the leading French musicians of the day – Vincent d’Indy, Albert Roussel and Charles Widor. Later, commuting between Paris and Berlin, he met such notables as Debussy, Rodin, Busoni and Romain Rolland (the hero of whose novel Jean-Christophe resembles Varèse). Through these distinguished artists, he met Richard Strauss, Karl Muck and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, each of whom helped the budding composer while he tried to establish himself as a conductor. After being discharged from the French army for health reasons, he went to New York and became active in artistic circles, establishing ties with the Dadaist circle. During his first sojourn in New York, Varèse established and conducted the New Symphony Orchestra, the International Composers’ Guild (with Carlos Salzedo) and the Pan-American Association of Composers (with Nicholas Slonimsky, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and Carlos Chavez).

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)In the mid-to-late 20s, Varèse began experimenting with electric instruments and media. Upon returning to New York in 1940, he founded the New Chorus (later called the Greater New York Chorus) for the performance of early music. The works he wrote during this period focus on textures and timbres as well as rhythm and accentuation, and less on harmonic and melodic content. He picked up his attraction to block-forms from Stravinsky, extending this structural principle by creating large layered cycles that continuously generate new juxtapositions from previous material, that forms an image of solids revolving in space. Occasionally, twelve-tone aggregations appear (as in Intégrales), but their use does not relate to Schoenberg’s methodology. Influenced by the Futurists, he disputed their intent to generate music from “what is commonplace and boring in the bustle of our daily lives”.

Varèse’s vision encompassed an entirely different sonic perspective. His search for new instrumental forms – from greater emphasis on percussive effects to sounds not tied to the tempered scale – without being bound to a systematic pulse, resulted in his combining sounds from everyday life with those generated through electronic technology and using the voice to express much more than words. In the last decade of his life, Varèse made use of acoustic tape and electronic media as well as electrified instruments and the human voice to further his experiments. All this occurred long before electronic music was in vogue.

Varèse’s most significant innovations relate principally to his attempt to dispense with traditional ideas of melodic line and developmental forms. By creating blocks of sound, shifting fragmentary figures and textural effects that concentrate on sound densities, patterns of rhythm and accent, and unusual timbres, he sought to free music from the confines of process and symbology. Yet he never really divorced himself from notions of ‘meaning’. This is particularly evident in his later works, which attain high drama from countervailing vocal, instrumental and electronic sources.

So the engaging title of this two-part series, “Varèse: (R)evolution”, conveys the notion that this unique composer, who was certainly a revolutionary, also evolved during his fascinating career by constantly experimenting with the very principles that made him a revolutionary in the first place. From his early flirtation with Impressionism (of a quite different sort than Debussy and Ravel) to his exploration of new compositional styles for traditional instruments, to his inventive use of tape and electronic media, Varèse’s (R)evolution provides one of the most intriguing stories of artistic exploration that one can imagine.

Philips Pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier The house lights were extinguished as Part I was about to begin. No musicians needed here, for the first work on the program, Poème Électronique (1958), consists of “Organized Sound” for tape alone. Written for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, it was then played through more than 400 loudspeakers set inside the Philips Pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier. The original four-track tape was reduced to two tracks to create a stereophonic effect that befits the work’s compositional structure. It was in this format that this eight-minute piece was presented. Varèse utilises many familiar sounds, including the human voice, as well bells, gongs, explosions, sirens, and a myriad of electronically generated sonic effects, all processed through an oscillator and generator, and recreated through loops, filters and various devices to literally reconstitute the sounds employed. Although Varèse was hesitant about discussing any particular meaning associated with the work, he did suggest that with the female voice heard at the end he “wanted to express tragedy – and inquisition”. What an overwhelming effect the darkened hall and the huge, reverberant stereophonic speakers had upon the benumbed audience!

The earliest piece on the programme was “Un Grand Sommeil Noir”(1906), a song for soprano and piano to a text by Paul Verlaine. Written when Varèse was a student of Widor at the Paris Conservatory, it bears the distinctive marks of his teacher with hints of an impressionistic orientation.

Three works from the 1920s followed: Hyperprism (1923), “Offrandes” (1921) and Intégrales (1925), the latter revised and edited by Chou Wen-chung in 1980. Hyperprism is a four-minute piece for nine wind instruments and seven percussion players on unpitched instruments (except for the siren). As in most of Varèse’s compositions from this period, melodic ideas are reduced to cycles of repeated notes and figures, the principal content consisting of rhythmic patterns and divergent accents. Wind and percussion groups function both independently and in tandem. Percussion writing is very complex, including passages for four separate parts.

Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961)“Offrandes” is a setting of two poems for soprano with piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, solo strings and percussion. The poems, “Chanson de Là-haut” (Song From On High) by Vincente Huidobro and “La Croix du Sud” (The Southern Cross) by José Juan Tablada, are dedicated to the composer’s wife, Louise, and to his friend and colleague, Carlos Salzedo, who conducted the first performance in New York in 1922. One is quite aware of the transitional influences, particularly in the use of solo winds.

Scored for eleven winds and four percussionists, Intégrales is constructed in three principal sections, the first of which focuses upon a rising three-note figure consisting of a tritone followed by a tone played first by the trumpet, either sustained or attacked in succession so as to produce differing intensities. As in Hyperprism, frequently varied juxtapositions of the same musical figures replace traditional thematic development.

The longest and most substantial work on the first part of this program, “Ecuatorial” (1934) contains parts for a piano and two cello theremins (the score specifies two ondes Martenot), the latter admirably performed by Jonathan Golove and Natasha Farny. The rest of the ensemble consists of four each of trumpets and trombones and six percussionists. A bass-baritone sings a prayer from the “Popol Vuh” of the Maya Quiché. This fascinating work of about twelve minutes in length is intriguing for both its evocation of the sounds of a tropical jungle and the declamatory vocalism used to invoke the Mayan gods.

Burgess Meredith (1907-97)The rarely-heard Dance for Burgess (1949, edited by Chou Wen-chung in 1998) provided a modicum of witty relief from intense, driving rhythms and explosive sounds. Burgess is none other than the esteemed actor Burgess Meredith, for whom the work was written. It was intended to be used in a musical, “Happy as Larry”, that Meredith, a good friend of the composer, was to act in and direct. Unfortunately, the play closed after its New York opening on 6 January 1950, and the work lay dormant until it was finally published in 1998. Clearly, Varèse was no Broadway composer. Its relatively mild sonorities, jazzy elements and uncharacteristically gentle rhythmic patterns, as well as its minimal length (less than two minutes), all make it more of a curiosity than a work of significance.

But Dance for Burgess Dance takes its cue from the earlier Etude pour Espace (1947, orchestrated and arranged for spatialized live performance by Chou Wen-chung in 2009). Performed by two pianos, instead of the wind and percussion ensemble Varèse had intended to accompany the chorus, he soon became disenchanted with the work and, when he hit upon the idea that came to fruition in Déserts, he transferred some of the material from Espace to that work.

Density 21.5 (1936) is a miniature for solo flute, and admirably performed by the talented Claire Chase. Set in a slow tempo, the first phrase, and its extensions, contain the principal material, which is restated, varied and modified in a variety of pitch levels, with subsidiary segments expanded in subsequent episodes. Although some aspects of the work recall Debussy’s Syrinx, Varèsian characteristics are apparent, such as repeated intervals; variations in dynamic levels and alteration of octave dispositions. Varèse exploits the flute’s timbre and tone-colour throughout the entire range of the instrument, and explores what were new ways to utilize it, such as percussive clicks produced by hitting the keys with the fingers instead of merely depressing them.

The final work on this first programme is certainly the most substantial and possibly the composer’s masterpiece: Déserts is written for 2 flutes (alternating with piccolo), 2 clarinets (alternating with an E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, contrabass tuba, piano, percussion, and 2 magnetic tapes transmitted stereophonically. It was conceived for instrumental and electronic media, played independently and in alternation. The instrumental music generates the impression of spatial motion, with ever-changing and contrasted volumes and planes determined by the intervals between pitches, without establishing a fixed set of intervals, in an effort to eschew set principles of musical measurement.

Although the title may well be misleading, Varèse made it clear that he had not intended the music to be descriptive, nor to comport with any programme or extra-musical reference. As he put it, the title suggested not only “all physical deserts (of sand, sea, snow, of outer space, of empty city streets), but also the deserts in the mind of man; not only those stripped aspects of nature that suggest bareness, aloofness, timelessness, but also that remote inner space no telescope can reach, where man is alone, a world of mystery and essential loneliness.”

Steven Schick. Photograph: musicweb.ucsd.eduBoth the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Sō Percussion, both under the admirable direction of Steven Schick, performed with requisite skill, traversing the extremely complex rhythms and intricate marking in the scores to these extraordinarily difficult pieces. Anu Komsi has a silken voice that has a remarkable range. She displayed her many talents as a singer of challenging modern music in both “Offrandes” and “Etude pour Espace” with unwavering pitch, dexterity and impressive dramatic intensity. Alan Hale gave an impressive performance of declamatory power and dramatic depth in the passages from the Popul Vuh included in “Ecuatorial”.

Part II took place in Avery Fisher Hall, the New York Philharmonic beginning with probably Varèse’s most familiar work, Ionisation (1931) written for 13 musicians playing a total of 37 percussion instruments. This ensemble, including instruments of high and low pitch, concentrates on Varèse’s most important compositional principle: rhythm and timbre. Structurally, Ionisation consists of sections that are identifiable by their particular instrumental combination or range of sonority. Dynamics are an integral part of the work not merely an adjunctive element. Rhythmic unisons provide relief from complex percussive textures, sometimes involving multiplex meters. Vertical and linear expansions of rhythmic ideas generate excitement, particularly when set against diverse instrumental timbres. In the last section, identifiable pitches appear with repeated piano clusters in the bass and a conglomerate of rhythmic configurations of three chords played on piano, glockenspiel and tubular bells. With this work Varèse succeeded in using non-pitch sounds without requiring electronic equipment.

Octandre (1924) is the only work that Varèse organised in a traditional multi-movement structure, written for flute (alternating with piccolo), clarinet (alternating with piccolo clarinet) oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and string bass. The title comes from the flower Octandrous, whose eight stems correspondence to the number of instruments. The second movement provides an early example of Varèse’s germinal technique – a motive of a repeated one-note rhythmic figure in the piccolo, which is interrupted by appoggiaturas, recalling the beginning of both Intégrales and Hyperprism, which were both written at about the same time.

In 1947, during the production of the film “Carnegie Hall”, Varèse’s friend, producer Boris Morros, convinced him to write a few minutes of music to parody the orchestra’s tuning-up before a concert. Although Morros wanted comic relief, Varèse took the project seriously, and the result was the work called Tuning Up. Unfortunately, it proved to be a dismal failure, through no fault of the composer, and was not included in the film. But he retained some of the music and patched in music from several other of his works, sometimes modified or reconfigured with new material in two drafts. Hints of the following work, Déserts, occur. Flashes of orchestral sonorities, a panoply of percussion colours, spatial effects of sirens and the undulating sound of the orchestra ‘tuning-up’, together with humorous treatment of the pitch A. An excellent choice with which to begin a symphonic concert.

Paracelsus (1493-1541)Written for a full orchestra, including 70 strings, 8 percussionists to play 40 instruments, 8 horns, 5 each of the standard woodwind complex, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sarrusophones, heckelphone, contrabass clarinet and contrabass trombone, Arcana (1927) requires the largest instrumental grouping of any of Varèse’s works. The title means “secrets”, both undivulged knowledge and occult mystery. It is dedicated to Leopold Stokowski, who conducted its premiere. The score’s quotation from the sixteenth-century alchemist and physician Paracelsus ponders the mysteries of the stars and their meaning. Three principal ideas are presented at the outset: a pounding figure in bass instruments and timpani, a dissonant fanfare, and a rough-hewn flourish for high strings, clarinets and xylophone. Several other ideas occur during the rest of the piece, such as quintuplet fanfares and themes based upon a single, obsessively repeated pitch, yearning string phrases and a boisterous march for high woodwinds and percussion. A quiet close seems to gaze into the infinite.

Varèse’s final work, “Nocturnal”, for soprano, male chorus and orchestra, was written in 1961, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1969. The text excerpts words and phrases from Anais Nin’s “The House of Incest” and uses phonetic sounds provided by the composer. In incomplete form, it was premiered at Town Hall, New York, on 1 May 1961. Significant here is the non-traditional and unrestricted use of the voice. Unlike his manner of treating instruments, Varèse’s use of the voice is both dramatic and mysterious, yet achieved in a simple, even naturalistic manner, in keeping with his love of Medieval and Renaissance music. Interplay of volumes and planes seem to evolve toward a larger configuration of elements in a dramatic manner.

Part II concluded with Varèse’s most expansive (30-minute) work, Amériques (1918-21, revised 1929). It is the first of his works to have been written after he came to the United States, and picks up, as the composer suggested, on the theme of “all discoveries, all adventures … the Unknown.” He declared that: “with Amériques I began to write my own music.” Amériques employs 27 woodwinds, 29 brass and possibly the largest assemblage of percussion instruments put together in its time (adding steamboat whistle, cyclone whistle and crow-call for good measure). Through these massive and diverse forces, Varèse was able to create fascinating bursts of colour, cascading sonic effects, whirling rhythms and thrusting motions that erupt with an intensity that goes far beyond his earlier experiments, in a miasma of sound masses that continuously reconfigure their shape, direction and tempo. Tender, nostalgic moments also occur, echoing memories of his real and inherited past. It is almost a musical journal of the composer’s life-long search for music truly representative of its time yet speaks to the future, implicit in the closing moments that sound as if they could go on forever, seeking new horizons.

Alan Gilbert did not miss a step in these rhythmically tricky scores, nor did the New York Philharmonic. The only drawback was in the manner in which Ionisation was presented, played toward the back of the enormous stage, behind empty chairs for the full orchestra. The result was lack of presence and immediacy, the music sounding as if coming from afar, when it should have had a direct impact on the audience. In contrast, the performance of Amériques was the most impressive of the evening’s fare. Gilbert charged at this music with unremitting intensity and achieved moments of both overwhelming power and haunting mystery.

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