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The Axe Manual: Bang the Drum Quickly

Good Old Sir Harry

Betty Freeman

Composer Harrison Birtwistle

Two of the world’s most endearing originals showed up at the most recent Monday Evening Concert — their music did, at least. One was Ralph Shapey, long gone but long remembered by us ex–New Yorkers for his fiery spirit: a small, ill-tempered but somehow lovable fighter for a square deal for new music. That music was equally ill-tempered, tough-minded, seldom gracious, always big and argumentative in just causes. Cellist Erica Duke Kirkpatrick, pianist Liam Viney and, above all, percussionist Amy Knoles argued the cause of his Second Evocation, a bristling, abrasive piece, pure Shapey. Britain’s Harrison Birtwistle was the other one, still very much with us on the one hand, but actually not nearly enough. His The Axe Manual (a tribute to our own Emanuel Ax, get it?) gave the evening a bang-up ending.

Why hear we so little of Sir Harry? I ask the question every time one of his immensely expressive, massive works makes it through the cracks: his imposing Earth Dances or the sublime piano concerto Antiphonies, composed for Uchida. There are huge, original operas, while our local company celebrates Puccini. On Monday evening, The Axe Manual held the crowd — or me, at least — enthralled for nearly half an hour with just the interplay of piano (Aleck Karis) and Ross Karre, all over the place with his percussion monster: mostly woodblocks, temple blocks, vibe and marimba.

Best of all, the piece was an exercise of pure wit, of the Harry Birtwistle a small and selective world has come to know and love, handing out small but pertinent observations on the world around him and on the music he is being handed by a spirit of comparable consequence. I think that this is what music is supposed to be. Why did it have to stop?

Next night there was “Piano Spheres” in the same Zipper Hall (and what a fine meeting place that has become, with the Colburn School’s student cafeteria now functioning as a valuable adjunct). Once more, the apparently endless celebration of the Messiaen centennial (12-10-08) exerted its hold, with Visions de l’Amen occupying most of the hour, and the services of Joanne Pearce Martin and Mark Robson on two pianos — the school’s Steinway and Fazioli, which, I was coming to realize, were beginning to sound somewhat mismatched.

What am I to do with this music? For the better part of an hour, it had me pinned against a wall of seductive flame, flayed alive with these violently twisted strands of human emotion, drawn seductively across willing flesh. This was music beautiful beyond human permissiveness. Its ingredients were pure; not a false note disturbed the serenity of its surface. Its cadences were exactly well-placed, yet every step forward seemed sinful, a violation of the most basic laws of beauty.

The music surged ahead, not especially dissonant, a sequence in added sixths as in some most sophisticated jazz riff. Played on an organ, or in dense handfuls of notes as in Messiaen scores for piano, everything sounded rich and over-colored. Early in the program, there was a tiny Messiaen solo, Morceau de Déchiffrage, which Robson copied (“déchiffrer”) from a catalog page; funny, it had all the sweet beauty of the composer’s music, with no more than the required number of notes. Robson’s solo program also included Ravel’s wondrously scary Gaspard de la Nuit, the evening’s best music and best performance.

 
Stand and Deliver

At the end of the Philharmonic’s performance of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony at Disney Hall last Thursday night, conductor Semyon Bychkov had the whole brass contingent stand to deliver their final peroration, their instruments, newly polished, waved back and forth to the point of blinding the audience. Forgotten was the merely excellent reading of Rachmaninoff’s “Paganini” Rhapsody, with the red-shoe-clad pianist Stephen Hough and the orchestra early on. This was what the crowd seemed to have come for, and the audience went off its collective rocker: whistles and yells. You’d think that Shostakovich and his Soviets had just won the war — some war — all over again, and maybe they had.

I was there. At summer camp on a July afternoon in 1942, we gathered around a radio to hear Toscanini’s broadcast of the new symphony of Soviet determination; heard Koussevitzky’s overheated performance in Boston a few months later (with an extra cooling-off intermission after the first movement); noted with pride the appearance of a real live composer on the cover of Time.

It took a few years of artistic growth on the composer’s part, a few more symphonies, a certain settling in the world’s values, to establish the fitting reputation for Shostakovich, cultural hero and composer of far finer symphonies and string quartets. The Seventh Symphony survived as the right music for the right time as, perhaps, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was for its. Better, though, it survives, on the excellent press that has accompanied it from the time its first note went to paper, and on its sheer bulk. The vivid pictorials of its first movement render immaterial the awfulness of the ensuing scherzo and elegy (and the tune for double-bass clarinet in the scherzo is rather charming, actually), and that riot at the end of the finale is always good for getting an audience to its feet. History ordains the survival of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony. An eager conductor, which Mr. Bychkov certainly was, and an outlay of brass polish certainly help.


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