Who would have thought that only 30 years after Mozart died, a lone composer living in America was already exploring the boundaries of contemporary music? Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), born and raised in France, composed along a classical romanticist vein until the age of 30, when a fire destroyed all but one of his manuscripts. Varèse decided to turn away from the classical tradition and embrace a radical form of modern music, ignoring the outrage of critics and his former peers.
Last Friday night, the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra performed two of Varèse’s works, along with the more classically oriented Mozart and Brahms, at Chapin Hall. The concert, featuring soloists Joana Genova and Scott Woolweaver, was called Ironic Juxtapositions.
Varèse composed his innovative and initially rejected “Octandre” in 1923, a time when jazz was beginning to lay down its roots in American popular culture. Even the opening notes, which would better fit the beginning of an eerie horror movie than an early 20th century wind ensemble, made it clear that “Octandre” is nothing like a typical classical piece. The oboe leads with a series of calls, answered by the clarinet, which quickly grows into a dissonant chord from the entire ensemble. A similar theme runs throughout: One instrument takes a bold stand while others support the soloist in a series of call-and-response segments, all overlapping with one another. One of the first modern pieces composed by Varèse, “Octandre” rejects the traditional form to experiment with the dynamics within a wind and brass ensemble.
Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante, K.364 in E-flat Major” followed on the heels of the avant-garde Varèse, of which Genova on violin and Woolweaver on viola gave a thoughtful rendition. Entirely in sync with one another, Woolweaver masterfully played off Genova’s intense style with a lighthearted air. The orchestra, too, responded to Genova’s playing style with an insistent – and not at all passive – sense of pulsing. Genova herself gave a powerful interpretation of the work with a brilliant attitude – one unusual for the typical Mozart piece, but perfectly suited to the rapid movement of this miniature symphony. The second movement was muted while losing none of its clarity or lachrymose character. The mutual understanding between Genova and Woolweaver worked a sense of passion into the piece, creating an atmosphere that felt less like a dirge than a courtship. During the final movement, both the soloists and the orchestra burst into energy while maintaining rhythmic precision. Genova and Woolweaver gave each other a long look as they ended the piece; they timed their parts perfectly between themselves and the orchestra.
“Intégrales” (1925), the second Varèse composition, followed intermission. This piece, like the last, featured wind and brass instrumentalists, resembling a symphonic winds concert. Its score focused tightly on musical texture and atmosphere, even more so than “Octandre.” Varèses used the stark contrast between dissonance and silence to undermine the then-typical school of thought of music as a continuous, flowing line. His wide dynamic range emphasized the extent of the extremes, as the quiet knocking of a wooden block sounds softer than usual when heard immediately after an overwhelmingly dissonant crescendo. At times, the broken quality of the music lent it a stop-and-start feel as if it were a medley of the introductions to a variety of modern works. “Intégrales” is a composition that needs the audience to listen in a visceral manner; you could easily call Varèse the first “movie” composer, as his works are prized most for the tone they set.
The final piece on the program was “Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16,” composed by Brahms. “Serenade” takes on the relaxing mood often found in Brahms’ work, despite the lack of any violin parts and the symphonic form of the first three movements. In the first movement, woodwinds and the string section grew in swells, gently supporting the rising-upward melody line and ending quietly but firmly. The second movement began with a surprising energy, as variations on a fast-paced dotted melody beginning in the woodwinds were passed around to the rest of the ensemble. Its shortness – in length and in character – contrasted the movements preceding and following it, both of which had a smoother feel. The final movement returned to the quick, short notes in a dancing melody. A resounding brass section, together with the lower strings, provided a rich complement to the weightlessness of the woodwinds. The joyously rendered theme of a short, three-note motif pushed to conclude the “Serenade” once and for all while the piccolo seized the lead.
Ironic Juxtapositions provided a chance to listen more closely to classical music and determine what precisely makes it up, while also exposing the early modern elements in Varèse’s work that remain obscure to many of the more traditional classical musicians. Ultimately, the concert’s contrast between modern and classical proved less ironic than enlightening.