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Bach, The Musical Offering: Ricercar à 6, opening, in Bach’s handwriting

Program:J.S. Bach: Two Ricercars from “The Musical Offering” (1747)Charles Wuorinen: Horn Trio (1981)Paul Lansky: Three Moves for Marimba (1998)Arnold Schönberg: Ode to Napoleon (after a poem by Lord Byron) (1942)

Performed by the Ulysses String Quartet, Leelanee Sterrett (horn), Alan Feinberg (piano), Brandon Ilaw (drums), Eric Huebner (piano), Miranda Cuckson (violin) and David Adam Moore (reciter)

The House Blend concert series at PS 21 in Chatham, N.Y. kicked off its second season on Friday night (June 24). The PS 21 events will be curated by Elena Slyenko and the house blend programs will be developed by pianist Alan Feinberg, who was on hand to perform Bach’s two ricercars, which served as bookends for an entertaining and thought-provoking programme.

The series is characterized by the ‘merging’ of older music (mostly Bach) with a modern classic (in this case Schoenberg) and a selection of more contemporary works. Schoenberg’s setting of a long poem by Lord Byron was the focal point as the program’s most imposing, dramatic work. A denunciation of tyranny composed in the early days of World War II by a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany nine years earlier has powerful implications at this moment as a congressional committee uncovers the ways of a would-be dictator in our own country Resonances has attempted to establish minority rule in a pattern mirroring those who brought previous tyrants to power, notably Napoleon and Hitler. It was particularly poignant to hear this on the day that minority forces in government rescinded a fundamental right of women to determine the fate of their own bodies.

Despite these somber political undertones, the program contained essential balancing elements. The Bach works are serious and abstract (i.e. without external references), although they were written as a kind of homage to Frederick the Great: Bach had been invited to the royal court to meet the king of music, who presented him with a supposedly composed theme himself (probably assisted by a composer in his service, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach) and ordered his famous guest to improvise on it. The result was the first ricercar (an old name for a fugue) in three voices, which was subsequently written down. It has the character of a keyboard improvisation (of the highest order!) with a loose structure and flowing figures.

The story goes that the king then requested a six-part piece on the same theme, a seemingly impossible request. Bach said he had to work this out ‘on paper’ and went home to compose the second Ricercar, a work with virtuosic counterpoint (six voices) in a more antique style. Alan Feinberg made no attempt at a historically grounded performance; rather he used the resources of the modern piano (dynamic variation, pedal colouration) to uncover the underlying structure of the music. This worked well in the first work, but less so in the second, where the piano’s resources served to obscure its complex texture with an overemphasis on vertical harmony. This work needs the clarity of a properly registered organ or viol consort to reveal its mysteries. There is a remarkable transcription by Anton Webern (schoenberg’s pupil) that uses all the color resources of a modern orchestra to demonstrate the jewel-like complexity of this astonishing composition.

Bach’s three bookbound works of the 20th century used different forms of humor to shape their character. Scored for a rare combination of violin, horn and piano, Charles Wuorinen’s (1938-2020) Trio has a magnificent predecessor by Brahms and a powerful, almost contemporaneous accompaniment by György Ligeti, performed at PS 21 last year by the same musicians. The challenge in composing for this combination is to bring together instruments with very different characters and sounds into a coherent body of sound. Brahms did this through skillful use of warmly blended romantic harmonies, while Wuorinen and Ligeti both exploit the instruments’ inherent contrasts, sometimes to comic effect.

Wuorinen’s music is known for its atonality, uncompromisingly powerful gestures and seriously worked out structures. This piece offers a contrast. It consists of a single movement with episodes of distinct character. Dynamic is these instruments’ struggle for common ground: they begin to try to articulate the same tone, but their different ways of doing so quickly let the texture fly away, as if subjected to centrifugal forces. A high-energy form of organized chaos follows, sometimes comical or menacing (or both) and sometimes trying to find an approximation, including a section that sounds like an attempted waltz and a clear repeat of the opening. Then, after a series of failed attempts, the trio come to a fragile agreement to end.

Paul Lansky (born 1944) is known as a pioneering composer of computer-generated music, but in recent years has focused on music for acoustic instruments. Judging by “Three Moves,” he seems to have decided to have fun with it. The “Moves” are composed for a large five octave marimba that requires the player to move slightly on their feet to reach all registers (I estimate the instrument is about 9 feet long). This requires the performer to either have multiple music stands available or play entirely from memory, which was the choice of virtuoso Brandon Ilaw. In a sense, the music choreographs the performer’s “movements,” both the footwork and the action of the arms and hands, each holding two mallets at different angles. The visual spectacle was complemented by the different colors of the four mallet heads, which drew graceful arcs in space over the course of the three pieces. The music was light, jazzy, syncopated, clever and full of delightful surprises, all enhanced by the fun Ilaw was clearly having throughout.

After these imaginative forms of entertainment, the program moved on to Byron and Schoenberg’s sarcastic “Ode” – a gloating work celebrating Napoleon’s resignation from power in 1814 and his subsequent (albeit short-lived) exile to Elba. Schoenberg set Byron’s taunting verses (19 stanzas) to a form of recitation called the speaking voice, which he invented thirty years earlier for his masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire, in which the speaker’s voice slides from note to note without actually singing (i.e., sustaining) them ). The rhythm of the words is fully defined and in tune with the accompanying string quartet and piano ensemble, but the pitches are only roughly indicated by the pitch of the notes relative to a central single-staff. The result sounds a lot like old-fashioned political rhetoric or pulpit rhetoric, a tradition kept alive in some black churches. The poem is read directly aloud at normal recitation speed, much faster than traditional singing can do, requiring perfect diction. David Adam Moore came close, but a slightly fuzzy sound system left some gaps in intelligibility. (The words must emerge through some very dense and active musical textures.) The poem compares Napoleon’s fall to classic and historical examples of kings and tyrants either relinquishing power, always to Napoleon’s detriment: ‘Since he, erroneously called the morning star, neither Man and devil have fallen so far…” etc.

While Schoenberg’s music has been negatively stereotyped as gloomy and somber, this is a score full of contrasts of character and mood, including many subtle imagery. Unusually for a late work by this composer, the terrifying ‘twelve-note’ technique is relieved by fleeting references to more traditional harmonies, including a triumphant concluding E-flat major triad that can be read as a foretelling of imminent Allied victory. The score even includes the motto of Beethoven’s Fifth, which was a universally recognized symbol of “V for victory”. In addition to this offering of commonalities between traditional and innovative musical languages, the score contains a spectrum of musical gestures from intimate and mysterious string harmonies to the powerful collaboration between quartet and piano to create an almost orchestral sonority. The cast did a good job in getting all the dramatic juice out of this great score.

Schoenberg spent the last 18 years of his life in Hollywood, teaching at UCLA, and was part of a community of exiled artists who fled Europe before the Nazi onslaught, including Stravinsky, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and many others. There he became friends with Charlie Chaplin, who had a great success in 1941 with his film The Great Dictator. Chaplin regretted that he had taken a light-hearted approach to portraying Hitler after the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust came to light at the end of the war. It is plausible that Schoenberg had similar reservations about the tone he adopted when allegedly addressing Hitler. After the war he composed A Survivor from Warsaw, which takes a much more somber documentary approach to portraying the fate of European Jews, finding solace in their adherence to their faith, evidenced by its Hebrew setting of the “Sh ‘ma Yisroel,” sung by the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto. In moving from parody to serious accusation, Schoenberg may offer us a way forward as we deal with our current situation. Perhaps we should reverse a famous dictum of Marx: “History happens twice, first as farce, then as tragedy.”

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