March 05, 2015
(++++) THINKING THEATRICALLY
Lully: Suite from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”; Rebel: Les Éléments; Marais: Suite from “Alcyone.” Tempesta di Mare—Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra. Chaconne/Chandos. $18.99.
Michael Gordon: Dystopia; Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by David Robertson (Dystopia); Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott (Rewriting). Cantaloupe Music. $16.99.
Gregory W. Brown: Five Women Bathing in Moonlight; Vidi Aquam; Spring; Missa Charles Darwin; Entrai, Pastores, Entrai; Three American Folk Hymns. Navona. $14.99.
Zvonimir Nagy: Works for Solo Piano. Geoffrey Burleson, Zvonimir Nagy and Mabel Kwan, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The incorporation of music into stage performances dates back to ancient Greece, if not before; and in the years since opera began to assume the form in which we know it – that is, since the early 17th century – the intertwining of drama and music has become very close indeed. Among the earliest and most vigorous proponents of theatrical music was Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), who actually arranged to have a legal monopoly on the composition of opera until his death. Lully also composed works that included dances plus a carefully structured plot – they were called comédies-ballets and indeed had something in common with ballets as those evolved over the centuries. And of course he composed at the beck and call of the French nobility, specifically King Louis XIV – who ordered a work containing a Turkish ceremony after the Turkish ambassador paid the French court a visit in 1669. This was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and the suite from this piece from 1670 – played with tremendous spirit and enthusiasm, in highly idiomatic period style, by the musicians of Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra – sounds just wonderful on a new Chandos CD. The use of percussion for a “Turkish” sound is notable here and looks forward to similar approaches by later composers; the solid March strides forth quite impressively; the music accompanying stage protestations of love in Spanish, Italian and French is lovely and lyrical; and requirement that the musicians clap their hands as part of the rhythm of one dance is both forward-looking and unusual. Accompanying Lully’s work on the CD are pieces by two of his students. The suite from the 1706 opera Alcyone by Marin Marais (1656-1728) is tuneful, poised, elegant and (in a Sailors’ March) quite folklike in character – Marais clearly had a talent for lyricism. The use of a wind machine in Marais’ musical portrayal of a storm shows just how willing composers of this era were to experiment with ways to integrate drama with music. In that regard, the 1737-38 ballet Les Éléments by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) continues to astonish with its very extended opening depicting Chaos, which starts with all the notes of the D minor scale played at once and gradually pulls earth, air, fire and water from the morass. The excellent playing by the Philadelphia ensemble, which performs without a conductor, lends weight and solidity to this theatrical music while showing quite clearly how distinctive Rebel’s approach to the material was.
By our own time, the theatrical elements of music have been thoroughly incorporated into forms of all sorts, being used for everything from multimedia presentations to rethinkings of the role of music as both entertainment and enlightenment (as, for example, in Orff’s original concept for Trionfi, which contains Carmina Burana). Michael Gordon (born 1956) tends to bring a stage-oriented sensibility to all his works, as is quite clear in the new Cantaloupe Music CD of Dystopia and Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The live recording of the first of these works is of the piece’s première in 2008 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by David Robertson. The music for Dystopia was actually created just as part of a presentation also involving an old film, presented as a kind of tribute to Los Angeles past and present – in all, a highly theatrical presentation. The music itself, shorn of the visual elements, sounds rather weird, although it is no stretch to imagine that it was intended just so. The strings, for example, sound distorted just about throughout the half-hour work, and the whole orchestra sounds mostly, well, loud – very loud. Why? That is not particularly clear – the reason seems mostly to be that Gordon can have the musicians play this way, so he does. Every section, right down to the concluding sort-of-fugue built up from the deepest bass line and filled with every kind of percussion Gordon can assemble, is intense and demanding and pushy and very, very “modern urban.” Hearing the organ alone (sounding as far from a church instrument as possible) is enough to make listeners wonder what exactly Gordon is getting at. And that is also a reasonable question when it comes to Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, in which Gordon – well, rewrites Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. He does not pay tribute to it, does not use it in any particularly cohesive way, but simply pulls bits of it into his, Gordon’s, modern orchestral idiom, and throws the result out at the audience for it to understand (or not) as it will. This work was commissioned by the Beethovenfest Bonn and is here heard in a live recording of its 2006 première, with the excellent Bamberger Symphoniker under Jonathan Nott doing a splendid job in presenting music that comes across as much ado about very, very little. Gordon retains a single element from each movement of Beethoven’s work and then does what he will with it. He uses the opening chords of the first movement, a modification of the second movement’s main theme, the background accompaniment of the third movement, and the main theme of the finale – and everything he does results in the absolute certainty that Beethoven deserves much better than whatever is done to his music here. Yes, every composer rediscovers Beethoven in his or her own way and filters the music through his or her own thought process, and yes, Gordon is certainly entitled to noodle around in and with Beethoven’s art as he wishes. But the result, unless you are a huge fan of Gordon, is more cacophony than music – although of course there are many who will argue (in the John Cage mode) that there is no difference between those two types of sounds. Those who believe that will consider this a (+++) disc; others will scarcely have any reason to pay attention to it at all.
There is something about the availability of large forces that seems to push modern composers to increase the theatricality of their music, and this applies to vocal works as well as instrumental ones. The new Navona CD of choral and vocal music by Gregory W. Brown (born 1974), for example, includes Five Women Bathing in Moonlight (2012), written for the 450 members of the combined choirs of five colleges. Performed here by The Crossing under Donald Nally, the work does not seem to need a particularly large ensemble to have its effect: it is based on a Richard Wilbur poem that idealizes a scene Wilbur observed in the 1940s, and Brown’s use of canonic structure and Baroque-style ornamentation actually seems more effective with a smaller vocal ensemble. The same performers offer Vidi Aquam (also 2012), for mixed choir and piano with baritone and mezzo-soprano soloists. This time the text is much older, dating to the 16th century and having a specifically religious significance in which water, a recurrent image, plays an important part. A religious spirit also underlies Entrai, pastores, entrai (2008), the third work on this disc featuring The Crossing. This piece is adapted from a Portuguese carol and pays tribute to Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes-Graça, but for those unfamiliar with that composer, it is simply a pleasant Christmas-themed work that keeps dramatic elements to a minimum. An interesting contrast to the avowedly religious works on this disc is Missa Charles Darwin (2010-11), performed by the unaccompanied male vocal quartet known as New York Polyphony. Structured along the lines of the traditional Catholic mass but using texts written by Darwin, the work raises intriguing questions about the continuing discomfort felt by some religious conservatives regarding evolution. It is a touch over-clever – Brown used some of the amino acids in the genetic sequence of a bird to generate its basic theme – but is interesting in part because it does not insist on an overly theatrical handling of its material. New York Polyphony also presents Three American Folk Hymns (2005, 2010, 2012), and these stay true to the basic spirit of folk music both rhythmically and harmonically. This (+++) CD also contains Spring (2004), a canonic presentation of a translated text written by Anacreon – a pleasant enough work that is performed by a group called “Spring” Ensemble, put together for this recording and conducted by Eric Dudley. Some of Brown’s music certainly has theatrical elements, but the more-effective pieces tend to downplay grand gestures in favor of more-modest means of expression.
There can, though, be a kind of staging even of music for a single instrument. The music of Zvonimir Nagy (born 1978) on a new MSR Classics release is entirely for solo piano, with Nagy himself performing some works while others are handled with equal aplomb by Geoffrey Burleson and Mabel Kwan. The disc’s structure is clearly staged with an eye toward contrasting the musical forms in which Nagy worked over the period from 1998 to 2014. Thus, the first work here is of the lake I from 2007 (albeit revised in 2014); in the middle of the CD appears of the lake II (2010); and the final work is of the lake III (2014). These three pieces provides touchstones of similarity – the final one ends with an inversion of the opening notes of the first – while allowing scattered other piano pieces to show the way in which Nagy has moved from more-traditional compositional forms to a kind of static, Buddhist- or New-Age-inspired contemplation. After the first track come Illusion (2002), And so she said… (2005) and Vestiges (2003-04), then the second of the lake, then touché (touched) (2003), Canon – Inner Self (2007), and Sonata (1998), followed by the final piece. Those strongly interested in Nagy’s work will find the juxtaposition of the earlier and later works here quite interesting, but those not already enamored of his style (or styles) will more likely find that the music lurches from one form to another, with the entire arrangement of the CD being rather artificial in seeking to impose a kind of creative order on pieces that, heard objectively, have little to do with each other no matter in what sequence they are presented. Many composers, not only modern ones, show significant stylistic progress over time, and indeed those who do not seem to keep up with trends of their time (such as Saint-Saëns) are often described (not particularly fairly) as overly conservative or unable to adapt. But the reality is that composers go where their musical inspiration, training and influences take them; in this way Nagy is no different from many others. This (+++) set of world première recordings of his solo-piano works is intermittently interesting, but unless a listener is quite devoted to Nagy’s work, he or she will likely simply hear each of these pieces on its own, not as part of an overall structural or compositional flow – finding some more accessible, some less, without regard to just when each piece was composed or just what influences Nagy was channeling when he created a particular one of these piano works.