Monday, September 24, 2012

Orchestra 2001 performs (and doesn't) John Cage

Yesterday I attended the third of Orchestra 2001's three "happenings" celebrating John cage's centenary (which fell on April 5). It was held at Swarthmore College, SW of Philadelphia. I rushed in late, missing the first piece on the program (Inlets for conch shells), after spending an hour driving on Route 1 and another half hour wandering around campus looking for the hall. Needless to say, I was in an angry, rotten mood when I sat down, and it is a testament to both the composer and the performers that I was so happy, elated, and hungry when I left.

The program included selections from the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (including Sonata XII, my favorite), performed variously by James Freeman, Mark Loria (who played No. XII) and Andrew Hauze. Those in the audience who were unfamiliar with Cage were surprised and impressed by just beautiful the music was. This was the first time I had heard a prepared piano live, and I must say the sound is much more striking and resonant than it is on recordings. It was a treat, as was the opportunity to inspect the instrument up close during intermission.

Soprano Delea Shand, who came in from New York to sub for the ailing Ann Crumb, sang (and otherwise vocalized) the brief, funny “Aria.” She was a real trouper who gave the piece everything she had, and Freeman and company had the inspiration to project the graphic score on a screen during the performance, which let us see exactly was Shand handled Cage’s open-ended recipe.

I also liked the Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for 12 radios and 24 players, which is like walking down a long, empty corridor and hearing sounds spilling out of the open door as you pass. Believe it or not, this was the second time I’d ever heard it, and I don’t own a recording. The piece has to be experienced live. Otherwise you don’t get the little frissons that come from hearing own, local radio stations. During yesterday’s realization, for example, I heard the name Jimmy Rollins, and also the voice of Merrill Reese calling the Eagles game.

The afternoon ended with a (non)performance of Freeman’s own large-scale arrangement of 4ʹ33ʺ, which included audience (non)participation. I enjoyed it, but as I told James afterward, his tempi were a little brisk for my taste. I feel piece should have a stately, Brucknerian grandeur.

One word of criticism: Somebody switched on the speaker system just as Mark sat down to play the Sonatas. It was unnecessary, and the incessant background buzz throughout the performance was distraction to say the least, annoying to say the most.

One other word of criticism: Cage was an amateur mycologist, and in a tribute to his obsession, mushroom pizza was served at the post-concert reception. Unfortunately, only six pies were ordered, and, at eight slices a pie, that comes to only 48 slices for a crowd that numbered over 100. It was gone by the time I got out there. Oh, well. On the way home I stopped at a Mexican takeout in Bala Cynwyd and had a veggie burrito. Before intermission, this slip was shown on a screen above the stage.

Now, I ask you, what TV show today, on a commercial network, would dare have an artist like Cage as a guest?

1 comment:

Cal said...

"Now, I ask you, what TV show today, on a commercial network, would dare have an artist like Cage as a guest?"

And what late-night host would treat a John Cage with the respect that Garry Moore showed him? Both men came off very well, I thought.

The piece, while strange, is obviously carefully thought-out and purposeful. If it can be said to have one clear musical characteristic, that for me would be tone--calm, gentle, precise. I enjoyed the way the sequence moved from one item and event to the next, each one seemingly meant to startle but none of them in the end being more alarming than party balloons being bumped up into the air.

The YouTube video led to another performance of the same piece by a different performer. He and it gave me all the same impressions as the Cage performance, except that the radios in Cage’s version were funnier.