Monday, June 15, 2009

Ojai Festival 2009 - Opening Concert: MUSIC FOR A SUMMER EVENING

-------Theirry de Mey’s Musique de Tables - Photo: Robert Millard

Thursday, June 11, 8:00 p.m., Libbey Bowl

THIERRY DE MEY: Musique de Tables
(3 pairs of hands, 3 plastic tables)

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: Dark Waves (2 pianos)

(2 marimbas, vibraphone, crotales)

GEORGE CRUMB: Music for a Summer Evening - Makrokosmos III (two amplified pianos and percussion)
I. Nocturnal Sounds (The Awakening)
II. Wanderer-Fantasy
III. The Advent
IV. Myth
V. Music of the Starry Night

Lisa Kaplan/Jeremy Denk, piano
Greg Beyer/Matthew Duvall/
Todd Meehan/Doug Perkins, percussion

Review by Rodney Punt

Viva percussion! The 63rd Ojai Festival began with a bang, in fact, lots of bangs.

According to eighth blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan, the group determined early on that George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening - Makrokosmos III should be featured at the end of the opening night concert. (This work is to a percussionist what the rainbow is to a prism; it contains everything but the kitchen sink in that family of instruments.) The puzzle then became what to program first. How they solved it was not explained, but here’s an educated guess.

Three works were carefully chosen and strung together for the first half of the concert, joining the Crumb to form a proto four-movement work that operates on two levels: as program narrative for a nocturnal creation story, and as a nifty subliminal music appreciation class. In the process the four become greater as a whole than the sum of their parts. It was a canny plan to familiarize us with uncanny sounds.

The resultant narrative on the idea of night music takes us on a musical journey from simple origins to vibrant complexity in one long arc. The narrative scheme can be put in fanciful terms as: 1) “the spark of creation”, 2) “watery masses emerge”, 3) “life-bestowing rain falls on the land”, and finally 4) “movements in the night; visions of heaven.”

In achieving this narrative, our ears accept unusual but relatively accessible sounds in the early works, becoming subtly accustomed to wilder, more far-out timbres when the denser Music for a Summer Evening arrives.

Theirry de Mey’s Musique de Tables (Table Music) starts where music itself begins, as pure rhythm. Three pairs of hands tap and scrape in percussive precision on three plastic tables (see illustration above). These rhythms are later elaborated, going in and out of phase or in contrast with one another. Spotlights on the hands working their rhythms give them a visual life independent of the black-clothed bodies of the three performers (and suggest the cinematic out-of-body shoes of Deco era dancers like Fred Astaire). We know immediately that visual effects and a theatrical flair will be integral to the music festival. We also know that music-making at Ojai this year will be at least as playful as it will be thought-provoking.

John Luther Adams’ Dark Waves moves us into the deep waters of a primordial sea. Fearsome depths in the opening bass rumbles of the two pianos slowly arise in vast watery movements to a state of emerging creation. Ominous power transitions to something lighter, with a gradual layering of arpeggios and spiky figures in ever higher registers that resemble emerging flecks of light. Oscillating loud and soft volumes lead to a concluding sustained chord, suggesting a first calm in the sea of life.

Toro Takemitsu once said that composition “gives a proper meaning to the ‘streams of sounds’ which penetrate the world that surrounds us.” With his Rain Tree we are on terra firma hearing the streaming sounds of marimbas, crotales and a vibraphone depicting dizzy, tingling raindrops on all kinds of surfaces. This rain will sustain life. The evening’s lighting engineers tease the audience with alternating spotlights in a playful game of dueling marimbas. Although a bit arch, in the context of the festival’s theatricality it celebrates whimsically the evening’s narrative of creation.

--George Crumb's Music for a Summer Night - Photo: Robert Millard

It is but a few paces from Takemitsu’s life-giving rain to Crumb’s nightscape of earthly sounds and heavenly visions that vibrate in the second half of the program. In Music for a Summer Evening we have entered the world of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and his Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Crumb’s own subtitle for his work, Makrokosmos III, further acknowledges his debt to the works of the Hungarian master, who was one of the first to use percussion instruments expressively.

As no other journalist will likely include the full, mind-blowing array of percussion instruments (in addition to the two amplified pianos - all illustrated above), here it is in all its glory: vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, crotales, bell tree, claves, maracas, sleigh bells, wood blocks, temple blocks, triangles, several varieties of drums & tam-tams & cymbals, two slide-whistles, metal thunder-sheet, African log drum, jawbone of an ass, sistrum, Tibetan prayer stones, musical jug, recorder, thumb piano and guiro. Whew!

The ears needed to be prepared for this fusillade. The real art, however, is in how Crumb uses these instruments in imaginative combinations to create his eerie sounds. As the composer himself explains: “Some of the more ethereal sounds… are produced by drawing a contrabass bow over tam-tams, crotales, and vibraphone plates. This kaleidoscopic range of percussion timbre is integrated with a great variety of special sounds produced by the pianists. In 'Music of the Starry Night', for example, the piano strings are covered with sheets of paper, thereby producing a rather surrealistic distortion of the piano tone when the keys are struck.”

To close our program narrative, from the spark of creation through the terror of ocean depths, rain engenders life. In Music for a Summer Evening , the “cosmic drama” is replete with struggle, yet we the living look ever upward at the starry night in transcendent awe of the heavens.

A minor miracle happened at Thursday evening's opening concert, an evocation of revealing, wonderful worlds of sound, without, by the way, a hummable melody to be found.

Every aspect of the performance of this and the earlier works was carefully gauged and skillfully executed. The performers were in fine form, the ensembles ready at every turn. Sound amplification worked unobtrusively but effectively. Lighting effects came off with flair and without a hitch. In short, a brilliant feat of programming, spectacularly realized.

The 63rd Ojai Festival was off to an exciting start.

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