at Orchestra Hall

November 26


at Orchestra Hall

January 8

I’m not sure whether a trend is developing here, but a number of performers have been presenting recitals of what they wish us to believe is all “new” music, thereby making it look as if they’re doing their bit for the promulgation of contemporary music. In reality, these performances are often little more than ego massages for the performer–the music being new only in the sense that it was written recently, having little if anything to say that hasn’t already been said in a more timely and effective manner.

Peter Serkin has always been something of a musical rebel, which was perhaps inevitable given that he grew up as the son of the legendary Romantic pianist Rudolf Serkin. The younger Serkin took up the piano but carved out an unusual career for himself, based as much on jazz and contemporary music as on traditional repertoire. As founder of the new-music ensemble Tashi in the early 70s, Serkin helped introduce a younger audience to new and interesting music of their time. In recent years Serkin’s career has taken a more conservative path, in that he has turned largely to the standard pieces more associated with his father. But unlike most pianists, Serkin will usually include an unusual or new piece or two in his recitals.

In a much-publicized and well-attended piano recital a few weeks ago, Peter Serkin presented a program in which every piece was specifically commissioned by and for him. The 11 composers represented a broad spectrum of styles and influences, but had in common the fact that they were important figures on the new-music scene. So far, so good.

The one restriction was that the piece each composer wrote (at $5,000 a commission) was to be a brief statement, about six minutes in length. The problem with this otherwise inspired idea is that instead of two or three really meaty pieces that had something important to say, we heard 12 homages to Serkin, all far too much conceived with his sound and technique in mind to find a place in the standard repertoire. As one composer friend of mine observed during intermission, it was as if “they all had been drinking the same water.”

A couple of the pieces were considerably shorter than six minutes, notably Luciano Berio’s “Feuerklavier,” which was basically less than a minute of atonal banging, with little of the thought and structure that one tends to associate with him. This was not the meaningful brevity of Anton Webern. This was, “Sorry Peter, I’m kind of busy right now. But I’ll take the money and run.”

Other composers who had more or less the same idea were Hans Werner Henze, with his “Piece for Peter,” also of Webernesque length but with minimalist content, and Tison Street, with “Romanza,” who represented the now popular but shameless practice of calling a series of Romantic quotes (in this case, from Chopin) your own after a few abrupt key changes and subtle alterations. Yawn.

As for the other pieces, there wasn’t one that couldn’t have been premiered in Paris in the 1920s, so little “new” was in them. Most were dense and quite busy, like musical illustrations of obnoxious people who mindlessly chatter on even when they have nothing to say.

Another consistent problem was lack of overall form. Perhaps brevity was too much of a challenge for these composers. At any rate many ended up penning what could easily have passed for subdued piano improvisations of Keith Jarrett.

Even so, there were a few gems. Interestingly enough, the two most effective pieces came from composers with roots in the Far East: Chinese- born Bright Sheng (currently Lyric Opera’s composer in residence), and Japanese-born Toru Takemitsu. Sheng’s “My Song” manages to successfully fuse Chinese folk-song material with a Western style, using more or less the same techniques that Bartok employed with Hungarian and Romanian folk songs. With its shimmering bell-like clusters and use of the pentatonic scale, the work becomes wildly syncopated in its contrasts and colorings. The Takemitsu piece, “Les yeux clos II,” named for a series of lithographs by French artist Odilon Redon, is more reminiscent of the sound world of the quiet Charles Ives, with subtle tone clusters and sudden bursts of color.

Christine Berl’s “Lord of the Dance” is based on musical materials of southern India. Basically an aural depiction of the dance of the Hindu god Siva, this work makes chromatic use of the tritone and plays the lead tune in seconds and sevenths, creating the effect of out-of-tune octaves. But it was given a wonderful transparency of texture by Serkin’s masterful playing and superb use of the sostenuto pedal, which is virtually a lost art among most contemporary pianists.

Am I being too hasty in taking such a dim view of the rest of these commissions (which also included pieces by Alexander Goehr, Leon Kirchner, Oliver Knussen, Tobias Picker, and Peter Lieberson) after a single hearing? Perhaps. But then there was little in the pieces that calls me back for a second hearing. (In fact, I find many of my own student piano pieces far more interesting–but I don’t have a particularly high opinion of them either.)

As for Serkin’s idea that he should make up for years of neglect of contemporary music by contemporary pianists, great. But any individual nuances these pieces might have had were totally lost when so many of them were presented one after another. How about one or two substantial commissions every recital tour, presented alongside some standard repertoire, rather than a rare new-music baptism by water hose?

Chamber Music Chicago’s recent presentation of “Carol Wincenc and Friends in Concert: The American Flute Project” had a similar pattern: great idea, great promise, and the additional novelty of flutist Wincenc being accompanied on piano by four composers in performances of their own pieces. Unfortunately, the end result was probably the new- music disappointment of the year, as most of the scores suffered from terminal cuteness and an extremely shallow view of the flute as an instrument.

Composer-satirist Peter Schickele began things by playing the Invocation and Pastorale from his Spring Serenade while Wincenc entered from the back of the hall playing her flute, a bit of corny theatricality borrowed from James Galway. Schickele’s two excerpts also showed how much the satirical music of P.D.Q. Bach has influenced his supposedly “serious” writing. In truth, I couldn’t hear a difference. The Invocation explored a single note to an extent that would have made Schickele’s old classmate Philip Glass blush; the bright Pastorale was a cross between bad New Age and game-show music. Schickele returned toward the end of the program with his Music for Mary, a three-part piece that also lacked substance and meaning; it explored Romantic arpeggios, repeated “Mary Had a Little Lamb” riffs, and in the last movement used repeated low fourths and fifths and flute overtones to approximate bagpipes. A Schickele encore was his arrangement of Paul Hemmer’s “The Lazy Mississippi,” with its high, bell-like block-chord accompaniment. Schickele has more than demonstrated his compositional facility with his P.D.Q. Bach pieces, but compositional facility and originality are not necessarily the same.

Paul Schoenfield was the dominant pianist on the program, although perhaps the weakest. He began with Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s 1918 Poem for Flute and Orchestra, transcribed for flute and piano accompaniment. This fluffy neo-Romantic piece was not at all helped by Wincenc’s bringing to it a thin, wispy tone that was uncentered and had a breathy timbre. Given the range of sounds that Wincenc is obviously capable of producing, I assume this was a conscious choice, but it was ineffective. A full and imaginative piano accompaniment might have made a stronger case for this piece.

Schoenfield also accompanied Wincenc in Aaron Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano, and in a group of pieces by various composers entitled “An American Set,” which included one small Schoenfield piece that was held back as an encore. The Copland had the advantage of being one of the more interesting pieces on the program–though this would seldom be the case, which indicates the superficial level of programming here. The work managed to provide all of the usual devices we associate with Copland–particularly lyricism and open fourths and fifths–and could well have been titled Fanfare for the Common Flute. Yet here again I felt Wincenc’s sound was too harsh and uncentered, with a lot of contrast of color and timbre, but little of dynamics. Schoenfield’s accompaniment tended toward the bland and colorless–purely perfunctory.

Wincenc announced that the restriction she imposed on composers in commissioning “An American Set” was that the pieces be a minute in length. Here’s a sure formula for musical meaning, eh? And I thought Serkin was stingy! Yet much to the composers’ credit, most of them succeeded admirably in making a statement in that brief amount of time. Robert Beaser’s “Minimal Waltz” features a peaceful, beadlike use of repetition, while Joseph Schwantner’s “Soaring” offers a nice atonal, frantic contrast and calls for a literal “spit attack” on the part of the soloist. Yehudi Wyner’s “Carolmania!” returns to tonality, decorated with lyrical, smooth flute lines punctuated by tone clusters and slow arpeggios, while David Baker’s “Inspiration” is the most conservative and Romantic piece of the set. Schoenfield’s “Tom’s Tune–A Rag,” his only composition of the evening, is stylistically reminiscent of William Bolcolm, but without Bolcolm’s substance, wit, or charm.

Probably the less said about David Del Tredeci’s “Acoustic Song” the better. This was pure ham on rye, with its gooshy arpeggios and Liberace-like tinklings. All that was missing from Del Tredeci’s piano was the candelabra.

Of the four composers who played, American music legend Lukas Foss, certainly the luminary on the program, was by far the standout pianist. His Three Early Pieces dates from 1944-45 and is very reminiscent of Satie in both its pianism and flute lyricism. But the work cannot be said to be among Foss’s more inspired music from that period. Even Foss, usually a composer of great substance and originality, apparently views the flute as a silly, frivolous instrument. Still, the third piece, “Composer’s Holiday,” cleverly combines a Bartokian sound world with bits from “Dixie.” Wincenc provided a great sound by playing on the edge of her lip, creating nice dissonances and overtones.

The most interesting piece of the evening was Ezra Laderman’s June 29th for Solo Flute, written as a birthday gift for Wincenc. It attempts to describe conception and birth, including the heartbeat that begins life; flutter tonguing and key clicks are meant to represent birth pangs. There are many sudden and interesting shifts of octaves and keys, awkward intervallic leaps, and colorful overtones. Wincenc’s playing was so smooth and full that at times it sounded as if she was playing a wooden flute. It’s a great piece, though even here little is said that can’t be traced back directly to Edgar Varese’s Density 21.5 from a quarter century ago.