Tully Scope Festival Opening Night: International Contemporary Ensemble play Chance Encounters: For Morton Feldman, with Webern, Xenakis, and Cage…and a prelude by Nathan Davis

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Tully Scope Opening Event: Nathan David, Bells, in the Grand Foyer of Alice Tully Hall. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

Tully Scope Opening Event: Nathan David, Bells, in the Grand Foyer of Alice Tully Hall. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

Tully Scope Festival Opening Night

For Morton Feldman: Chance Encounters
Tuesday, February 22 at 7:30 pm
International Contemporary Ensemble
Steven Schick, conductor and percussion

Feldman: The King of Denmark, for solo percussion
Webern: Concerto for nine instruments
Xenakis: Jalons, for 15 instruments
Cage: Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for 12 radios
Feldman: For Samuel Beckett

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how listening habits…maybe it’s better to say methods of listening…change over time. Perhaps it’s because of my anticipation of Tully Scope, or perhaps the Sibelius festival at Bard, music festivals in general, or perhaps Markand Thakar’s intriguing and important book, Looking for the “Harp” Quartet, an Investigation into Musical Beauty, which I’m currently reading…In any case, the unique sound of the new Alice Tully Hall, the character of the opening, and the plan of the festival as a whole drove home to me that we are in a simmering period of change, right now, as new work comes into the repertoire and new environments for listening to music appear on the scene. “Methods of listening” may all boil down to our direct experience of music, sitting quietly, maybe not so passively in our seats, but it involves a lot else besides: the architecture and atmosphere of the hall, who we go with or see there, how we behave at the concert, and before and after — that is, how we engage socially and respect our fellow participants’ enjoyment. An event like Tully Scope opening night reminds us that we are all participants, even the most visibly passive of us. Nathan Davis’ Bells — without seeming precious or gimmicky at all — established a participatory precedent, which we shall most likely take with us when we come back for Schubert, Liszt, Tyondai Braxton, and all the rest.

The expansive Grand Foyer of Tully is quite a unique space, which encompasses the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue and its impersonal post-sixties high-rises, along with the foyer itself, one of those rare urban spaces that is both public and open, as well as intimate and warm. It’s not at all the usual pretentious wasteland typical of the ubiquitous expansions of museums and culture centers around the country. For one thing it has a long, long bar which extends over the entire inner wall. There are comfortable tables and seats for the consumption of the drinks, sandwiches, and cakes purveyed at said bar — all, especially the drinks, outrageously overpriced.

Above all, the space can be used for performances of many kinds. For Bells, the musicians took places at the sides and amidst the crowd, coordinated from a cantilevered platform over the entrance to the inner lobby of the hall itself. As the music began, the lobby was full, but still comfortable, and generally quiet in anticipation of the music. Many were perhaps moving on to the concert, which was to begin an hour after Davis’ thirty-minute piece was over; others seemed to have dropped by just for the unusual free pre-concert event.

As I entered the lobby, I was handed an elegant little card with instructions on how put my cell phone to work in Davis’ composition, which begins with live music played by the International Contemporary Ensemble and is gestated through various electronic processes, which ended up sounding through the loudspeakers of our cell phones. This was easy and fun to do. I noticed that many drilled beforehand to be ready and not distracted from the music. Now this  creative balance of interaction and distraction was what was unique about the event, not to mention Davis’ absorbing music, and I believe that, beyond the quality of Davis’ work, the musicians of ICE deserve credit for this. At intervals, the musicians left their stands and proceeded through the audiences with their own cell phones in service. Meanwhile they set an example, as they concentrated, transported on the sounds that filled the lobby. Some had an almost hieratic manner. For my part, if I put my cell phone’s speaker close to my ear I heard distinctive electronic patterns from my chosen channel (the “Astral,” of course), but whatever the speaker contributed to the general sound was most likely as indistinguishable as a speck of dust.

ICE Flautist, Claire Chase, with flute and cell phone. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

ICE Flautist, Claire Chase, with flute and cell phone. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

Above all, the audience listened intently, as they dutifully held up their cellphones. The melodic lines and the structure of the work itself had a clear shape, a climax, and a conclusion. Its effect was powerful, not only because the music was beautiful in its own right, but in brought in an immensity that went far beyond the imposing confines of the location. As Mr. Davis has said, “The concept is that bells, historically speaking, are used as a means of communication over distance – to signal alarm, announce celebration, call to prayer, etc.  Now bells are used primarily as musical instruments, but still carry with them these associations.  To communicate over distance we use telephones – but still respond to the sound of a bell to answer them.”

An hour later the main concert began in the hall itself. Dedicated to Morton Feldman, its title, “Chance Encounters,” is inspired by a chance encounter between Morton Feldman and John Cage in 1950 at Carnegie Hall at a performance of Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra. We didn’t hear the Six Pieces, rather Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, a playful, concerto grosso-like work, very much at home in the time of its composition. Viennese tradition was not far removed, especially in the distilled waltz, from which all superfluities had been drained out, leaving truncated, but connected Kandinskian patterns. The ICE musicians played it with confidence and an inner comprehension of Webern’s composition, so that the Concerto was not only accessible, but in no way compromised in its range of color or in their exquisite detail in phrasing. The ICE musicians are masters, most of them on the younger side of forty, capable of the most subtle nuance while keeping the pulse intact, and projecting the mood the composer intended, under Steven Schick’s articulate and expressive direction. As I have mentioned in my reviews of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic’s playing of Schoenberg and Webern, this music has really come into its own in the hands of musicians who really understand it, have the technical ability, and are not inching their way through an alien score.

The concert began, however, with a tour de force of an intimate sort. Steven Schick himself, a percussionist by training, played Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark, mostly caressing melodic pianissimi out of cymbals, gongs, and drums. As the program notes emphasized, music was all about sound for Feldman. Structure and compositional devices were anathema to him, things he wanted to be liberated from as a composer. Nonetheless, the evanescent sounds Schick so delicately produced from the instruments had a distinct shape and progression. As atmospheric as the piece was, as Schick played it, the performance seemed tight and decisively formed.

In this way, Schick and the ICE are inviting us to enter Tully Scope listening — or existing amidst — sound and duration. They are primary, although in execution form seems to be as inevitable as St. John’s logos, as well as a passion of Mr. Schick’s and the musicians.

The King of Denmark established a perspective in which the Webern seemed to belong to another age. It may as well have been a Mozart symphony, and an early one at that, although by no means the less for it. Xenakis’ Jalons, in this context, also seemed a bit rhetorical. There were fanfare-like formulae that seemed a trifle old-fashioned. Still, the work was vigorous and full of color. It also showed a powerful sense of process and development, almost like Brahms in his Third and Fourth Symphonies. This is, however, my first hearing of the work, and given the way Xenakis has set it down, it is likely to sound entirely different in another execution. To get an idea of such a work, one has to hear it in many different interpretations.

After the break we heard a piece by John Cage, which also varies hugely from performance to performance, his Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for 12 radios. In this, Schick and the ICE were brilliant comedians as well as musicians. Schick himself started the fun with his usual precise stick technique, perhaps a little, but only a little, exaggerated. The musicians had their instruments in their hands at first but put them down to pick up silver boom boxes, two to a device. One musician controlled the volume while the other sought out stations. In this performance rhythms were crisp and tight, and a marked sense of shape emerged. I’ve heard successful Cage performances with vaguer contours, but the precision and rhythm of this was especially satisfying musically, and the collision of the best sort of musical values with the sound of portable radios (I think Cage intended them to be AM, which is totally different today from what it was in his time.) was hilarious — especially because the carefully modulated radio noise actually sounded quite musical in the Tully acoustic.

The evening closed with longer work of Feldman’s, For Samuel Beckett, his last completed work. It consists of phrases and sonorities which are repeated over and over for almost three quarters of an hour. Clearly one is meant to approach such a work in a meditative state, which for some can cross the boundaries of sleep. No matter. In my meditative life I have fallen asleep, I have even snored, but I did not on this occasion. The beauty of sound and the nuances of execution, which undermined…no, created a counterpoint to the repetitions in the score, were so fascinating and pleasurable, that I found myself deeply immersed in Feldman’s universe. My state of consciousness may have come close to sleep, but never entirely. The ICE played the alterations of note values in the latter part of the piece with such refinement that I was in a way awestruck. The fading of the final tones was typical of the strange and wonderful acoustical traits of ATH. One is not so much aware hearing tones directly that disappear amidst their reverberation as that of a wholly knit sound in the process of vanishing.

Bravo to Steven Schick and the International Contemporary Ensemble. They are truly among the great musicians working in contemporary music. They are the utmost virtuosos, who don’t let technique get in the way of the significance of the music. They consistently make it serve the music and its higher meaning…and it would be easy to let pure sound run away with them in this program.

With Webern on the program, I couldn’t help thinking of a creative tangent for ICE. Webern loved to schedule Haydn symphonies on his programs, but his obsessive understanding of Haydn’s sonorities, as he knew he had a kindred spirit in him, led him to insane lengths in rehearsal. This might be an interesting experiment for ICE, and a salutary one for Haydn. The insights of the Second Viennese School in the music of Haydn, as attempted by Webern, Scherchen, Rosbaud and their like, were never really fully developed. There is room to carry on from a contemporary viewpoint, and, with a group like ICE, there would be no need for the endless rehearsals Webern demanded from the orchestras available to him.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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