Style and Performance

I wanted to write a post on style and performance, and then I remembered the following review from the November/December 2000 American Record Guide. In re-reading it, I can see the beginnings of some of the ideas I explored in the unpublished piece on criticism I wrote for ARG as well as the genesis of the 101 project. Here it is, with some changes.

DAVIDOVSKY: Selections
New York New Music Ensemble; Speculum Musicae; Susan Narucki, s; Peggy Pearson, ob; Bayla Keyes, v; Mary Ruth Ray, va; Rhonda Rider, vc; David Starobin, gt
Bridge 9097 (Koch) 67 minutes

If musical modernism (I mean “modernism” with a capital “M”, but I’m not going to capitalize it) was a failure, as many would have us believe, who is to blame? Is it composers for writing music “people” can’t understand (though many people can and do understand it, whatever that means, if anything), or for getting too far “out in front” of audiences, performers, and (especially?) critics, or for merely not being Beethoven or Tchaikovsky?

Before assigning blame if blame must be assigned, the “failure” of modernism should be defined, rather than merely asserted. Many writers and others point to the small audience for modernist music as a sign of its artistic failure: If it was any good, people would want to hear it, so the familiar argument goes. This kind of market theory of artistic value puts our music on a slippery slope, as classical music as a whole is not terribly popular with a large, general public. And besides that, I remain unconvinced that audiences for modernist music are necessarily small when compared with other art music audiences.

Proponents of modernism often claimed that once their music was heard enough, the public would follow, even to the point of Webern’s famous declaration that one day his music would be “sung in the streets”. This has not come to pass, as readers of ARG well know. There are now regular performances of the central composers and works of the modernist movement, so it would seem that if mere exposure to the music was to convert the public, it would have been converted by now.

What if those who claimed that composers were too far ahead of performers were right, but that as the gap between composers’ conceptions and performers’ ability to realize them shrank, the public would begin to find connections with the music?

Happily, there is anecdotal evidence that this phenomenon may be taking hold. Recent concerts featuring the music of Elliott Carter have drawn large crowds and the attention of the world press, and England’s Proms series continue to include major modernist pieces and play to big crowds.

The new disc of chamber music by Argentina-born Mario Davidovsky represents another aspect of this nascent trend. Here we have difficult, uncompromising music played with care, understanding, and most importantly, expression.

Modernism, it is clear at this late date, was not as absorbed with “obliterating” the past as it often seemed, or even as many of its practitioners declared. The kinds of performances on this disc show that there is a clear connection with the past in this music. The performers, including members of Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble, as well as soloists and members of other ensembles, shape his sometimes lyrical, sometimes angular phrases as though they were as easy and direct as phrases by Mozart, Wagner, or Chopin.

Each piece on the program has its moments, at least. Flashbacks (1995) is a colorful and evocative work scored for Pierrot* ensemble plus percussion. Lyrical lines stand beside dramatic, angular gestures in this piece, as they do in Festino (1994), for guitar, viola , cello, and percussion. The 1983 song cycle Romancero (if the poet is credited in the notes, I missed it) too combines long lines with sharply-etched instrumental gestures. The Quartetto 2 (1996) for oboe and string trio is reminiscent of the Carter Oboe Concerto in the playfulness and serious lightness of the oboe line against a sterner accompaniment. Peggy Pearson captures the spirit wonderfully.

Davidovsky is probably best known for the Synchronisms series in which instrumentalists, usually soloists, though some of the pieces have ensembles, play with and against pre-recorded electronic tapes. David Starobin, one of the foremost interpreters of contemporary guitar music, gives a powerful performance of Synchronisms No. 10 (1992). Part of the tension and drama in this piece lies in the fact that the guitar has a full four and a half minutes of virtuoso music before the tape ever enters. As in all of the pieces in the series, the implacability of the tape set against the expressively flexibility of the instrumental music provides contrast and drama.

Much of Davidovsky’s music has the surface volatility associated with modernism, to be sure. This volatility comes to the fore through much of the course of the String Trio (1982). Longer lines and delicate harmonics mediate the volatility, making the piece an expressive study in contrast.

What this disc embodies, then, is a new approach to the performance of modernist music. In the past, the “strangeness” or “otherness” of the music was emphasized in performance, to the detriment of the traditional musical values given equal status here. The dialogue between the past and the present was/is an integral part of the modernist movement.

These performers make a strong case for Davidovsky’s music, as does Bridge, with its excellent sound. That is all any composer can ask for, and the least they should be able to expect.

*Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) is scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, in addition to voice. This combination became semi-standard (often including percussion) in the 20th century, because of the wide range of timbres available with a small number of players.

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