June 21, 2005

Rzewski at NEC

This week, the New England Conservatory is running a summer institute in contemporary piano music. Frederic Rzewski has come to coach students in playing his music; in return, several nights are being devoted to concerts of his music. Monday night featured his most famous contribution to the repertoire, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, along with a few other pieces that demonstrated the breadth of his output.

The one thread that tied the pieces together for me was their awareness of the performer. This music didn't push the players away in order to reach its ecstatic peaks. Rather, it dramatized their very presence. Having only heard Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues on recording, I only knew what it sounded like. The half-comical sight of watching Jung Hee Shin pounding away with her forearms provided bizarre counterpoint to the clangorous sound mass she conjured up.

The fragmentary design of The Road (part one was on the program) made it seem ill-suited for the concert hall. It would be interesting to hear it played by a friend in his home, letting him jump between sections and insert comments as he pleased. One of the sections featured the pianist rattling around on the piano with its lid shut. Some of John Mark Harris's gestures suggested a sped-up caricature of a piano virtuoso. If this moment was Rzewski's creation, it suggests an interesting sense of humor about the virtuoso pianist-composer tradition he falls into.

Whangdoodles was a partially improvised piece for piano, violin and hammered dulcimer (doubling on vibraphone). The piece consists of 108 segments that are freely coordinated between players. Every ten seconds or so they line up, but it is otherwise indeterminate. The instrumentation and concept would make it an interesting companion piece to Feldman's Why Patterns?

According to the notes, the piece is meant to express “the idea of an open, planetary approach to relationships of conflict: allowing real life to determine the course of action, rather than trying to force life into pre-conceived models.” In order to fully enjoy it, one must not search for a strongly-cast narrative (“pre-conceived models”), but instead be content with the sounds themselves. Listening in this mode, the happenstance moments when a clear beauty emerges are heard as simple gifts, not moments which one is otherwise deprived of. The idea of selfless listening (and ultimately acting) feels like well-trodden territory now, but the folk materials (Yiddish and Appalachian songs) which frame it provide a novel angle.

Stephen Drury presented The People United at the end of the night. His performance (from memory) was marked by a steady confidence, never distracted by the piece's kaleidoscope of styles. Despite his demeanor, he seemed to take a difference presence on stage along with each of the styles. The variations cast in a grand Romantic vein placed him on a grand stage, while those with echoes of minimalism brought a surprising intimacy to Jordan Hall.

The most striking moments occurred at the piece's moments of repose, when the virtuosity subsided into quiet, spare chords. While the rarity of these moments gave them a special poignancy, the high whistling accompanying them reminded one that even in musical moments which push towards transcendence, the audience cannot get there without the performer's efforts.

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