Sunday, June 26, 2011

Music After the Future

Orchestra of the League of Composers @ Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York, New York
Saturday, June 18, 2011

John Schaefer: host
Louis Karchin: conductor

More Melisma (2006) by Milton Babbitt
Fred Sherry: cello

Silent Voices (2010) by Shulamit Ran
Peter Van Derick: reader

Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra (2008) by Elliott Carter
Virgil Blackwell: bass clarinet

Sound Merger (2011) by Arthur Kreiger

Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) (2010) by David Rakowski
Fred Sherry: cello

Violent, Violent Sea (2011) by Missy Mazzoli

The Orchestra of the League of Composers is a medium for realizing a musical aesthetic that was once touted as "the music of the future." A musical vein that passes through the second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and into the sonic worlds of Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions. Eventually, that future came and went and the emphasis of "the music of the future" dissolved into "a music of the future" as a plurality of stylistic approaches and aesthetics began to co-exist without a single set of rules to judge the "rigor" and intellectual brawn of each piece of new music. Now that careers and tenure are no longer gauged against fidelity to set theory it is possible to hear the current works within this tradition in a new light.

Milton Babbitt's More Melisma is a beautifully lyrical solo cello work. Fred Sherry gave an outstanding performance that never allowed the extreme virtuosic demands of the piece to overwhelm its gentle humanity. It was a ringing sonic reminder that Milton Babbitt possessed a remarkable compositional instinct and sense of humor that was in full command of the heady underpinnings of his musical language.

Silent Voices
by Shulamit Ran is a piece based on Draft of a Reparations Agreement by Dan Pagis. Words and music about the Holocaust presented along side one another as Ran developed a sonic texture from the expressive qualities of her writing for chamber ensemble. The words and music were powerful enough to more than justify their temporal separation.

Speaking to the durability of the tradition of the League of Composers was Elliott Carter's Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra. A piece composed when Carter was 100 years old. And performed with Carter in the audience at age 103. Carter's own career has been intertwined with the League for many decades. Age has not dulled his ability to write demanding, virtuosic music.

Arthur Kreiger's Sound Merger is a tightly orchestrated piece for large chamber ensemble with an electronic track. It is an extremely polished set piece that blurs the distinction between the prepared recorded material with the live realization on stage. The widely dynamic sense of reverberation within the electronic component stood in stark contrast to the static, stage reverberation of the ensemble. While it was a nearly flawlessly realized and executed piece I was left craving a more improvised interplay between the two parts.

David Rakowski's Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) presented a transparency of process as the solo material in the cello part formed the generative material for the ensemble as a whole. This worked extremely well.

The program concluded with Missy Mazzoli's Violent, Violent Sea. A through-composed, lush work that drew more heavily upon intuitive sensibilities than the other pieces on the program. And it packed a more emotionally loaded punch as a result. It was a detail rich piece that deserves performances well beyond this world premier.

The Orchestra of the League of Composers reminds these ears that "the music of the future" thrives when it is so well rehearsed and presented. It is not served nearly as well by the in between interviews conducted by John Schaefer. While Schaefer is a passionate host who mercifully kept these interviews with the composers limited to the duration needed to change the instrument configurations on the stage, they were still an unnecessary dialog for a music that stands well on its own merits. Empty moments to reflect upon this music more introspectively would be an improvement.

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