Hello, fellow SPCO music lovers! Dee and Paul here, hoping that you all are well, safe, and warm as we foray into our second week of the Festival. First, if you have yet to attend a concert at the SPCO Music Room in the Hamm Building in St. Paul, do! We all felt like adventurers, braving the bitter cold to hear some contemporary music.
Dee: The evening began exquisitely with Birtwistle’s Cortege, a Ceremony for 14 Musicians. Never having heard his music before, I didn’t know quite what to expect. From the title, I guess I thought there would be fanfare...pomp. And that was true, but it was too fragmented and even comic to be pompous, as if the composer had taken little pieces of pomp and put it into composed frames. After the piece, I whispered to Paul, “I felt like I was waiting for a bus outside of some type of musician’s hostel, where each musician is shown practicing the piece.” Distant skronks from a tired trombone, booming drums, persistent bassoons. The sounds waxed and waned, sounding at times like the Doppler effect, but in reverse. It was as if the music was a separate entity from the musicians and it was blowing by, leaving the orchestra and the audience standing.
Paul: It wasn’t as easy for me to find my way “in” to the first piece as it was for Dee (she paints, and clearly that metaphor helped her inside the piece—“composed frames” etc.). I found myself struggling to latch on. And I’m afraid this exercise in humility, while no doubt good for my soul, went on a little too long. It did serve to remind me that art is always baffling without an interpretive idea to let you in to start to make sense of it. One of the fun, challenging and exciting things about newer music for me is that there aren’t as many “received” ideas about how to understand the pieces, the way there are with, say, Bach.
I liked the bit of physical theater at the end, the “ceremony,” as the flute player went to each of the other players, played directly to them and moved to the next after they responded, as if the flute were summoning/waking them. Made me wonder: why doesn’t the continuing tradition of European art music use theater more (besides the obvious practical considerations)?
Paul again: I loved the second piece, Or Voit Tout en Aventure for Soprano and 16 Players. The piece seems to be in part a meditation on musical aesthetics: high Renaissance celebrations of classical artistic forms meet with objections and complaints both more modern and more ancient, embodied by abrupt shifts in mood and form. Or Voit more fully revealed to me the high level at which the London Sinfonietta obviously functions. They weaved in and out of each other’s lines of argument as if they were used to conversing only through music. And soprano Claire Booth was wonderful, with beautiful diction and clear, ringing tones. They weren’t just “playing”; you could see them tracking through the dilemmas the piece presented, in both form and content.
Dee: I’m skipping over a couple of pieces to reach Benjamin’s Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra. I saw this piece as both modern and primal. The trumpets blasting were overrun by piccolos and pennywhistles; the brasses plucked at by violins and violas until their tones were velvet-soft. Now muttering, now whining. Chatter. Shriek! Shriek!
Paul: Yes, I agree with Dee that this piece had a certain almost physical presence underneath its dissonance. By the last movement, booms and cries resonated from the percussion and wind instruments respectively, while the strings hopped and skittered over them.
So we both enjoyed the evening. The London Sinfonietta musicians are obviously ace players and we felt very lucky to be able to see them in this intimate space, so far from their home.
The concert as a whole also made us think about the issue of “new music” versus “the classics” in classical music halls. As audience members we both prefer to support the “artist” role for classical players - the role of the sensitive and mindful interpreter and creator, rather than the “athlete” role, asking for someone who will perform these works for us “correctly,” (as if that’s possible) but as moribund museum pieces. It seems as if there’s always the danger, because much of the music belongs to the past, especially the music we the audience mostly seem to prefer, that an orchestra will tend toward the latter model, but supporting the active and continuing new music seems to work against that tendency . . . or at least, we think so. We’re open to correction!
We’re going to see the London Sinfonietta twice more, on Saturday at the Ordway with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the SPCO, and the OAE and again at Ted Mann on Sunday, to do this same program, but substituting Stravinsky for the Bedford piece. See you there!