The Cat House Afire
Edgard Varèse arrived in New York in 1915, age 32. His journey from his native Burgundy had taken in most of Europe’s cultural capitals, where his scores had been played, admired, and many lost in a couple of fires. He had attended the notorious premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as would become obvious in some of his own music, notably Amériques, his first major work composed in what would become his home territory for the rest of his life. That work begins with a shameless rip-off — the first of many — of the Stravinsky shocker that New Yorkers had not yet heard in its pristine form. It soon becomes overlaid with a hammering, perhaps of workmen building a New York skyscraper: perfect music to cap the inaugural concert in the Philharmonic’s “Concrete Frequency” series last weekend, the latest admirable attempt by the orchestra’s programming management to draw a message from the concert-going experience, that these splendid concerts fit together to form a meaningful series.
The matter at hand is the city, and its impact on the lives and the culture of people who live in cities. And so we find Monsieur Varèse transported to his adopted land, at the beginning of an era in American history when great buildings rose in the cities, and American audiences also began to become aware of their own cultural importance, not just a veneer imported from European sources. Amériques — huge and scary, often reckoned the loudest symphonic score ever written, took a while to find its champion, but did so in 1926 in the person of Leopold Stokowski, whose performance awakened a chorus of New York critics with terms such as “boiler factory” and “a fire in a cat dormitory.” Its scoring was well-respected in David Robertson’s eloquent — yes, eloquent — Philharmonic performance in the matter of doubled brass, sirens of various tonalities and the exotic noisemaker known as the lion’s roar. There are passages when those sirens get going — softly, menacingly — when your skin really gets to crawl. And there are others where you’re sure the young composer had spent his formative years bathing in The Rite — specifically, that passage as the Old Sage makes his entry near the end of Part 1, where you always wished the music would never stop and this time it doesn’t.
Robertson, Santa Monica–born, whose current conductorship at the St. Louis Symphony has enlivened that city in the matter of energetic, new-music programming beyond anyone’s expectations, conducts two more programs in this beautifully planned series, not easily defined but all having to do with people and cities (with nothing on the programs as easily defined as An American in Paris). A splendid, witty host at both microphone and baton, he had a lot to say about the music on hand, and how it served the occasionally tricky program theme.
That included the opening work, The City, Pare Lorentz’s half-hour film for the 1939 World’s Fair, touting the small square house up the next block of square suburbia, with equally small square folks and their neighbors — the Americana dream of the time, now a relic with Aaron Copland’s music a sometimes-sardonic comment. A print of the film was shown in splendid, surviving black and white; the music, in similar coloration, was played live and in sync: all of it just swell. Would not Copland’s Quiet City, even without (but better with) its Jerome Robbins choreography, have served a better programmatic and musical purpose?
And then there was Frank Zappa, whose music earns space on distinguished programs through his avowed nonconnection with Varèse, consisting of one phone call to his wife, set forth in ecstatic Jabberwocky in a famous article — practically a credo — in a 1971 Stereo Review easily downloadable. “I never got to meet Mr. Varèse,” he proclaimed, on the strength of which I have seen him barge into Varèse concerts, memorials and symposiums and claim podium space, mouthing vitriol and potty-talk, offering music to match. (I never got to meet Mr. Beethoven; surely there must be some career mileage for me too.)
Zappa’s spot on the Philharmonic’s cityscape was Dupree’s Paradise: the name from a bar in South L.A., the music — seven minutes’ worth — from not much of anywhere. A jittery rhythmic motive wound its way through other short fragments for a few inconclusive moments and was soon gone. The program listed an impressive gathering of winds, brass and percussion, not many of which actually showed.
Far more remarkable, if less noted in audience response, was George Crumb’s 17-minute soundscape A Haunted Landscape, music by a composer once greatly admired who keeps dropping out of sight these days. Bartók is somewhat the influence, those nocturnal pieces where single, mysterious instrumental intrusions ruffle a dark, sustained sound surface. Crumb has written wonderful music in this genre, and this work of 1984, an enthralling lingering at the edge of silence, is music worth restoring to our active presence. So is its composer.
Mozart as Torture
Never in this lifetime did I expect to commit those words to paper in that order, but there they are. On New Year’s Day at 12:01 a.m., I joined what must have been several thousands, phoning in to begin their Medicare prescription plan for the new year and get their new pills for zero copay. Rather than being connected to a clerk in Wichita or Bangladesh, I found myself in the arms of . . . Mozart: specifically, a hacked-up, tattered version of the “Kleine Nachtmusik” Serenade, which then segued to a similarly fragmented, bleeding chunk of the first movement of the “Hunt” Quartet (K. 458), the sequence then repeated, and repeated, on into the wee hours. Since any pill-popping Mozartian knows both these works by heart, the agony of hearing them thus butchered ad nauseam — interrupted only by assurances that “our associates are serving other customers in turn” — was bloodletting enough. During the 60 or so minutes that I waited on the line before just giving up, I endured the torture through some 50 repeats of these segues. Can anyone on this planet explain what purpose was better served by filling my tortured ear with these sewn-together scraps of Mozart than by playing the marvelous music whole? Two days later, by the way, I mustered the courage to try the call again, and it went straight through.