Notes from the underground

This week, I was hoping to review my first CD of the year. After the dramatic build-up of the last two weeks. In this week’s column my plate, as they say, is full. Not only will I review my first CD of the year, but I’ve also been conned into reviewing Friday’s Williams Chamber Players concert – my editor used the devious technique of “asking me nicely.” So I think it’s time to get going on the music before I waste any more of my precious space on this page or test the limits of my readers’ attention spans.

Reviewing a concert given by faculty performers is no easy task. If I hate a performance, I don’t feel entirely comfortable speaking my mind because it’s likely that I’ll come into contact with the performers at one point or another. For example, if I hated Carl Jenkins’ performance on the oboe in Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy for Oboe, Violin, Viola and Cello, which was performed Friday night, I wouldn’t feel that I could say so without a number of qualifications. After all, he’s the principal oboist in the Berkshire Symphony, and if I write an oboe solo in my senior thesis, I don’t want him thinking bad thoughts (evil thoughts?) about me while he’s shaping my phrases. For the record, I enjoyed his performance Friday night, but now no one will believe me anyway, so what’s the point?

The reason I mention this is because I do want to give an unfavorable review to a portion of this concert. I respect all of the musicians who were involved in this performance, a point which makes me feel more at ease in bashing this particular selection, namely, the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major by Mozart which opened the program.

I’m not what you would call a Mozart fan. There are a handful of his pieces which I think are superb and many more which are probably worth programming at times. But I despise the “classical music” culture which has Mozart played on every other concert, hailed as a genius without fault and mourned because he died so young, leaving us with only a thousand works which are all programmed at some point or another.

The Quartet on this concert is a piece that I’ve played before. It’s a great student piece, involving all three stringed instruments and providing a reasonably easy piano part (for two movements, at least) with enough challenges to keep it interesting. Students bring a lot of energy to a piece like this because it’s unfamiliar to them and they see it as a challenge. Friday’s performance of this piece left me with the impression that the players were going through the motions; although they exhibited their tremendous skill at certain points (particularly in the slow movement), much of the time the piece was simply a chore. No music can survive such treatment, not even Wolfgang’s.

The rest of Friday’s concert was very good. Karl Korte’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano, written when he was still a student, was boisterous and full of life. I always like hearing a student work such as this – it provides an insight into the core musical values of a composer. Before he developed a more refined technique, Korte exhibited a love for the popular music and jazz of the time, an influence you can still hear in some of his more recent works. It’s nice to hear those influences out in the open, a quality that is often found in student works. Timothy Baker and Doris Stevenson did a fine job of delivering Korte’s work.

Following the intermission, we heard the Britten Phantasy, performed fabulously by Jenkins, Baker, Susan St. Amour and Douglas Moore. It’s amazing that Britten was already writing such sophisticated music in his second published composition. In 1932, the year this work was written, many composers were simultaneously looking forward to the “modern” era and looking backward for influence from earlier periods. The Phantasy is a perfect example of this juxtaposition of old and new: although it maintains the antiquated form of a Fantasy, its complicated textures and rhythms point it toward the future. All in all, it is a haunting, beautiful piece, one of the better chamber music compositions that I’ve heard in a long time.

Rounding out the program was the Brahms Piano Trio No. 3 in C-minor. I do not like much Brahms – although his music has a great sense of drama and he wrote some terrific melodies, he tends to be extremely long-winded. This Trio, however, is an extremely concise work in addition to being beautiful and dramatic. While it hasn’t changed my mind about Brahms in general, I would definitely say that this is a Brahms piece that I enjoyed and would like to hear again. The performance was superb – it seemed that Baker, Moore, and Stevenson spent the most time with this piece and were more comfortable as an ensemble than they were (along with St. Amour) with the Mozart.

Now to the CD. Some readers may recall a column reviewing Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach in which I discussed the style of music known as “minimalism”. The man who more or less invented this style is the composer Terry Riley, and folks, he’s a hippie. This week’s CD is his A Rainbow in Curved Air, featuring the title work and Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, both played on a variety of instruments by “Terry,” as the back cover refers to him. On the inside of the jacket one can find poetry describing the end of war and work, as well as the pouring of metal from melted weapons back into the earth. This, my friends, is a hippie!

The Riley piece which started it all is called In C, a work for as many people as want to play in which each performer plays short fragments as many times as he or she likes. All in all, it’s a fun work to play and rather tedious to listen to. So I was a bit skeptical when I popped in A Rainbow in Curved Air. But these works are different; although they are monotonous in certain ways, they are far more hypnotic and catchy on a certain level than was In C.

A Rainbow in Curved Air (the piece, not the album) is very happy music. I was cleaning my room while listening to it for the first time and thought, “man, I could be happy just doing this all day long!” I don’t know if that trick would work if you listened to the piece while, say, reading Kant or doing an Organic Chemistry problem set. But the piece does grab you, using the simple formula of repeated underlying harmonies with bursts of activity on top of them, somewhat like funk or even jazz, which certainly was an influence for this style of music. It’s a piece that seems like it could exist outside of temporal boundaries, beginning and ending at any point.

Poppy Nogood is a darker work with less rhythmic drive and a more dissonant sound. There’s much more variety in the sound-worlds that Riley visits here, due in part to the greater degree of electronic manipulation which he seems to use. After hearing A Rainbow, it’s easy to think that the sounds he gets in that piece are the only sounds he’s capable of crafting. But Poppy Nogood is also a minimalist piece and is completely different in character. The solo middle section is absolutely amazing – it’s a more contemporary take on the idea of a canon, with the same melody entering at different times, creating a wonderful effect.

All in all, I totally recommend this disc. I think it will appeal to a wide variety of listeners, although some people may be put off by hearing twenty-minute compositions that lack a strong sense of direction. This is an easy disc to listen to, insofar as it’s obvious what your ear should focus on at most times. In addition, it’s built around standard harmonies, which will be familiar to all listeners. It’s also called A Rainbow in Curved Air – who could dislike that?

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