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Contemporary, demanding music

Yannis Xenakis’ Pléïades with the Percussion Group of The Hague.
Yannis Xenakis’ Pléïades with the Percussion Group of The Hague.
Yannis Xenakis’ Pléïades with the Percussion Group of The Hague.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald

Reich, Xenakis and Messiaen performances


What is contemporary? The matter is controversial; my definition is whatever I feel corresponds with my own lifespan. But the word embraces two antagonistic possibilities (in this case applied to what we call classical or academic music): a work that pushes the limits to open new horizons, or one that is content with following on the steps of predecessors. The ones I will comment are of the first type.

Inaugurating the Mozarteum Midday Concerts at the Gran Rex, MusicaQuantica, conducted by Camilo Santostefano, premièred The Desert Music by Steve Reich in chamber version by Alan Pierson (2001) accepted by the composer. Reich, who visited us months ago, is one of the Big Three of minimalist US music, along with Philip Glass and John Adams. Inspired by poems of William Carlos Williams (1954), the score we heard was composed in 1982 to 1983. For the poet, the desert is a metaphor: a place where humanity can contemplate itself, retrieve their spirituality and make the decisive choices between changing for the best or destroying their very basis. The text is used by bits as part of the total massed sound and is quite unintelligible; the mere listing of the variegated orchestra tells us the density of it: the Percussion ensemble of the Conservatoire Astor Piazzolla, eight-strong (directress, Marina Calzado Linage); the Wind Ensemble of the Colón’s Institute of Art (flutes and brass) prepared by Claudio Fenoglio (11 players); the String Ensemble 440 (Ignacio Andrés Mandrafina), 14 instrumentalists; and four pìanists. Plus the eighteen voices of the choir. A grand total of 55 people.

The five pieces last 50 minutes but the third is divided into three, so there are really seven. The technique Reich used is called “phasing” and consists in a combination of minimal patterns; the whole consists in entering or going out of phase. Relentless repetition of a rhythm with different colours combining the aforementioned ensembles, dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo, gradual changes, some counterpoint and dissonance, strong pulsating effect. The work has impact and as far as I could apprehend was quite well done under the expert hands of Santostefano.

Mathematics-inspired

Architect, mathematician and composer, Yannis Xenakis (1922-2006) was a controversial creator who based his music on very complex mathematics-inspired schemes. In 1981 Les Percussions de Strasbourg premièred Pléïades for the Mozarteum at the Coliseo, and I was vividly impressed. The score had been commissioned by the Opéra du Rhin for those six brilliant players. Now the Colón Contemporáneo offered it with the Percussion Group of The Hague, quite cosmopolitan: two Dutch, two Mexican, one Spanish, one Japanese (the only woman).

It’s a long score (53 minutes) divided into four parts: Mixtures, Brass, Keyboards and Skins (Drums). The instruments include one invention of Xenakis: the sixxen, metallophone tuned microtonally similar to the vibraphone but with aluminum profiles instead of plaques. They were imitated by the Colón’s artisans. I found the whole work fascinating, with a colossal variety of timbres and rhythms and dynamics controlled by a mind that knew how to give a solid structure to what could have been a sprawling chaos. And the players were excellent, especially the Japanese Ryoko Imai, adrenalic but strongly disciplined. Before Xenakis we heard James Tenney’s Having never written a note for percussion, and in its original version it would have been a frightful bore, for it merely was a tremolo tam-tam going from pianissimo to fortissimo to pianissimo, and it could last ad libitum “for a very long time.” But The Hague players did something intelligent and interesting: not one but six tam-tams placed at different heights in the vast hall and a total length of seven minutes. The two culminating minutes had a visceral repercussion such as I have seldom experienced.

One-off

There has never been a composer like Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and there will never be another: he created a musical world that is completely personal.

Not only his brand of mysticism is all-encompassing but, to mould it into music, he imagined a panoply of techniques that are all his own and of whom he was a past master. You need a very particular vision to call a symphony movement “Joy of Stars’ Blood.” It is the fifth of the 10 movements of the gigantic Turangalîla Symphony, presented by the National Symphony under Francisco Rettig at the Blue Whale. It’s only the third time that it has been played in BA; the second was two decades ago, by the same conductor and orchestra; and further back Pedro Calderón conducted the première. Last year occurred one of the Culture Ministry’s habitual snafus: the plane tickets for Rettig and the Martenot player weren’t sent in time and the project collapsed...

The score was commissioned by Koussewitzky for the Boston Symphony; it was written between July 1946 and November 1948 and premièred a year later at Boston conducted by Bernstein. There are two soloists although it’s a symphony: a pianist who has to surmount enormous obstacles; and a specialist in Ondes Martenot, the electric instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot; it can produce microtones; it has a keyboard, and registers can vary the sonority and produce glissandi; it is purely melodic and the sounds are quite beautiful and mysterious. Turangalîla is a Sanskrit word; Turanga is time, Lîla is play in the sense of divine action on the cosmos, and also love. The movements are based on four cyclic themes that recur and are complemented by many others. It is, says the composer, a song of love and a vast counterpoint of rhythm. The instrumentation is monumental and extremely varied, winds, strings, keyboards and a huge assembly of percussion. And it lasts almost 80 minutes.

An experience

This isn’t just a concert, it’s an experience; let yourself be penetrated by it and you will come out transformed, at least for a while. The vast audience gave the performance a rousing ovation, which speaks well of them, but also of the great job done by Rettig and the orchestra (save slight misadjustments in the first minutes) in music of the utmost difficulty, and the tour de force of Marcelo Balat, again demonstrating that he is an admirable pianist, plus Thomas Bloch on the Martenot waves, although I found him too subdued now and then. A triumph for this lovable orchestra, so often mismanaged.

I will end this article staying with the orchestra although not in contemporary material except for one work. In what was a commendable and desirable initiative, to bring the National Symphony to the Colón after an unconscionable 14-year absence, again the damnable bureaucracy of the Culture Ministry botched it by not paying on time the orchestral and vocal material for Prokofiev’s Cantata Alexander Nevsky, with the Coro Polifónico Nacional thus stranded and conductor Javier Logioia Orbe resigning in protest. Darío Domínguez Xodo came to the rescue; he respected the First Part, starting with Elegía, a brooding and overlong score by Manuel Juárez (1937) and completing it with a brilliant interpretation by Tomás Alegre of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto. The Argerich protégé is a real talent, and encored with a Chopin Nocturne and something of Scriabin. And the conductor presented after the interval a serious and honest version of the great Sixth Symphony “Pathétique,” also by Tchaikovsky. Rather sparse audience due to bad communication.

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