Tribuna Musical: Avantgarde good, middling and bad: From Schönberg to Cage

Blog Tribuna Musical | miércoles, noviembre 21, 2012
Avantgarde good, middling and bad: From Schönberg to Cage
Many people don´t seem to realize that throughout the history of music we have always had avantgarde, if by that term we define those special artists that have advanced towards the future. They weren´t called that way, but no matter: they innovated validly (both words are equally important). Pérotin, Machaut, Monteverdi, Berlioz, Debussy: all of them were avantgarde. But the term seemed to really jell in the immensely productive and creative first half of the twentieth century. And a division came about: those who created new worlds firmly based on the past and those that wanted to destroy everything and start from zero; the latter category was basically nihilist and little good could come from them. Unfortunately, some had a huge influence and now are feted as if they were in the same plane. Schönberg, Stravinsky, Ives are those that deserve a high place in history; Cage, Feldman and Sciarrino are those that are ruining music .

As I have written in previous years, Martín Bauer, Director of the Cycle of Concerts of Contemporary Music of the Teatro San Martín, has a sad penchant for the latter group and a very biased look of contemporary music. However, he does have a balancing feature: each year he pays homage to great ones of the past. Last season it was Varèse; now two concerts gave their due to Charles Ives, Arnold Schönberg and Pierre Boulez, and whatever else may happen in these weeks, those occasions, both conducted by Alejo Pérez, will remain as high spots of the year.

"Contemporary" certainly doesn´t apply to those greats that I mentioned above, with the exception of Boulez; and as for the nihilists, both Cage and Feldman are dead. The cycle should rather be called "XX-XXI". If one person can be called the King of Pioneers, it was Charles Ives: his incredible adventures in sound were ahead of anything happening in Europe. This New Englander, brought up on hymns and marches, was soon imagining astonishing clashes of sound, harmonies and timbres never heard before. Buenos Aires is still far behind in its comprehension of Ives: the only pieces that have been heard with some regularity are his "Concord" Sonata and "The Unanswered Question".

His symphonies have had rotten luck: except an isolated performance of the Second about 35 years ago, none of the other three were heard, nor the fascinating "Holidays Symphony". And there seemed to be a jinx on the Fourth, the most complex, for it was programmed both in 2010 and 2011 and plans came apart both times. And even this year, it was supposed to be played by the National Symphony and it then changed to the BA Philharmonic; the venue was first the Usina del arte, and then they had to accept that this symphony needed the Colón, considering its huge requirements. Finally it came about, in a marvelous programme that also included the premiere of Yannis Xenakis´ "Jonchaies" and the return of Cristóbal Halffter´s most famous piece, "Tiento de primer tono y Batalla Imperial" .

There was a time when Xenakis was roundly booed in BA (that was when booing was accepted; what a distortion that now it is not…). He didn´t merit it, for both "Achorripsis" (Scherchen, 1958) and "Pithoprakta" (Le Roux) were arresting experiments in sound, such as this composer-mathematician-architect provided with great talent. But decades passed before we could hear his "opera" (of a kind) "Oresteia", one of Bauer´s good ideas. And now came "Jonchaies", which means "rushes"; not "Jonchaïs", as in the hand programme, which means nothing: 12 minutes of paroxysm, intense and fascinating. Halftter gives a twentieth-century turn to Late-Renaissance music, with an impressive decibel count.

And now the Ives Fourth. By far the most difficult and disconcerting, it needs a big orchestra, three small ones , a solo piano and a mixed chorus. It was finished in 1916 but was premiered only in 1965 by Stokowski and assistant conductors. Why? Because often one of the small orchestras goes rhythmically its separate way from the main one. If the short Prelude and the final hymn tend to transcendence and Protestant tradition, the great Fugue pays tribute to the Baroque. But the so-called "Comedy" is an 11-minute hullabaloo of crossed rhythms and sundry quotations, fantastically complex. Pérez again showed his disciplined mind, obtaining a very good performance out of the BA Phil, complemented by Italian pianist Emanuele Torquati, assistant conductress Annunziata Tomaro and the Coro Lagun Onak (Miguel Ángel Pesce). One of the small orchestras was up in the central loges.

It seems unbelievable that Schönberg´s "Pierrot Lunaire" is centenary this year, for its modernity remains whole and astonishing, an atonal expressionism of marvelous workmanship on the sharp gallows humor of Albert Giraud´s poems. Its companion piece was "Le marteau sans maître", a masterpiece of total serialism by Pierre Boulez on René Char´s strange surrealistic short poems. Again wrongly claimed as a premiere (Bauer should check such things far better) it was first offered here by Ernst Huber-Contwig in 1970 for Amigos de la Música; it dates from 1957. Firmly handled by Pérez, the players were very good in both scores. Mezzo Margriet Van Reisen (debut) was outstanding in Boulez and Rosa Domínguez understood the theatricality of "Sprechstimme" ("Singspeak") though she overdid the shrillness in high notes. This was at the Sala Casacuberta of the San Martín.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Tribuna Musical: Avantgarde good, middling and bad: From Schönberg to Cage

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