Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Music, Absolutely

Jacaranda features Bach and Webern

The Denali Quartet ~~~~~~~ Tereza Lucia Stanislav
Review by Rodney Punt

Jacaranda’s homage to Olivier Messiaen, The OM Century, resumed at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica last Saturday evening, after a season opener at the new and nearby Eli and Edythe Broad Stage. Jacaranda’s is the most comprehensive local survey yet of the seminal 20th Century French composer, and explores as many influences on his style as its organizers can conjure.

Sometimes the OM label stretches the imagination, as in this evening when not a note of Messiaen’s music was actually performed, his phantom presence in the hall only an idea. Three big solo works of J. S. Bach surrounded six tiny chamber or solo works of Anton Webern. Messiaen was well-acquainted with these two composers who appealed to that part of his creativity that relished sound for its own sake.

Before the word “absolute” took on its recent negative connotations (like from those who profess absolute certainties), it had more palatable employments. Take, for instance, the phrase “absolute music” which describes a musical purity that contrasts with mixed-media “program” music of a literary reference, descriptive text, or excessive emotional narrative.

Absolute music stands at an intersection where intellect meets sound. Exemplar works in this form are equal parts craftsmanship and abstract inspiration; listening to them is literally a mind-trip. The instrumental works of Bach fit this mold, as do those of Webern, one of the last composers in a long unbroken line of Austro-German musical purists, abruptly severed by the ravages of World War II.

Bach represented the apogee of 150 years of ever more complex Baroque musical art, and his well-tempered harmonic explorations set in motion possibilities for what was to follow in serious Western music. Webern began composing 150 years after Bach, a time just after the Romantic style had peaked, seeming to exhaust the possibilities of Bach's tonal system. In his slender works, Webern winnowed down the excesses of the concluding era into a kind of needle-point distillation of isolated sound essences. Pairing the two composers on the same program gave us contrasting polarities in the "absolute music" tradition.

I am happy to report the musical execution of the concept was very much up to its plan, another triumph for Jacaranda, matching the organizational prowess of its producers, Patrick Scott and Mark Hilt, with the impressive performing strengths of their musical team: the Denali string quartet - Sarah Thornblade and Joel Pargman, violin; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; and Timothy Loo, cello - who were augmented in various musical configurations by cellist John Walz, pianist Gloria Cheng, and violinist Tereza Lucia Stanislav.

The three Bach solo works featured on the program – the Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in C, the “Toccata” from Partita for Keyboard No. 6, and the “Chaconne” from Partita for Violin No. 2 - are each comprehensive essays that wring out all possibilities musical art at the time could explore on their respective instruments. In the context of the program, they stood like temple columns at the beginning, middle and end, casting their majestic shadows on what followed or had come before.

Webern’s six small works (only so in length) formed the middle action of the evening, with their clarity an antipode to Bach’s density. They included Two Pieces for Cello and Piano of 1899, the Piano Quintet of 1907, Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, and Movement for String Trio of 1925, with one solo piece, Variations for Piano, Op 27.

Opening the program and setting a high standard for what was to follow, cellist John Walz infused the Bach suite’s six dance movements with a lilting propulsion and faultless intonation, taking a moment here and there to dwell on some of the more introspective musings in the work.

Gloria Cheng’s keyboard Toccata eschewed the snappy touch so often associated with virtuoso performances of such works. On her modern Steinway grand, she approached the work in the rhapsodic style of a Chopin ballade, exploring its expressive potential with nuanced phrasing and dynamics, and a suave touch of velvet. In Cheng’s masterful interpretation, Bach’s score took on the unruffled tranquility of a moonlit lake with a lot going on beneath the shimmering surface. Her later solo outing in the Webern was a fitting counterpart in its own way to the encyclopedic possibilities for keyboard of the Bach.

The Denali Quartet performed as an ensemble and as individual members with the evening’s soloists in five of the six Webern pieces on the program. As string-quartet longevity goes, the Denali is a young ensemble, individually and as a collective. But youth does not imply callowness. Far from it. They are the gazelles of the quartet world: musical sprinters who are flexible, agile, attentive to each other, with evenly bright instrumental tones, and light enough on their bows to keep up with any athletic demand. Their trademark is precision and fearlessness in tackling anything that comes their way. In short they are perfectly suited for contemporary music, even if much of the public still perceives that pieces written 100 years ago, such as this evening's Webern, are "contemporary."

The first two of the Webern works, still in the late Romantic mode (Loo on cello in both), plumbed the remaining sonorities in that tradition. The latter three gave the various ensemble groupings ample opportunities for their precise execution of the pointillist atonality that was to reenergize harmonic language for the next half century. The cumulative impression these Webern works leave is of flickers of light and darkness in tiny moments of sound and silence. In stark contrast to the exhaustive thoroughness of Bach, the Webern would seem to suggest rather than explain, hint rather than tell - like the wisps of a conversation one only half hears, or the darting images one only sees in peripheral vision.

After a full evening of such intense listening, the Bach Chaconne for solo violin might have seemed a bit much. It is, after all, one of the greatest technical challenges in the repertoire. But Tereza Stanislav's performance exhibited not the slightest evidence of labor. Rather, it invoked the delicacy and effortless precision of fine lacework, every stitch in perfect detail, and yet at one glance its profound master plan fully comprehensible. In an evening of miracles, it was the transfixing moment.

Continuing applause and a standing ovation of the surprisingly large audience acknowledged well deserved appreciation for Stanislav's triumph, and those of her colleagues earlier.

It was instructive on this evening to listen to Bach and Webern in light of our continuing exposure to those later Messiaen compositions. Next up: an ALL Messiaen program on December 6 at the same location. See you there.

Some further musings:

It is a bitter irony that Anton Webern, the bespectacled musical egg-head and political naïf, was shot and killed by an American GI while smoking a cigarette on his front porch one night in 1945, just days after World War II ended. It was a freak accident; the soldier imagined the tiny flame a weapon.

Webern’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, having outlived his two most famous students, the other being Alban Berg, would live a few more years in our neighboring Southern California community of Brentwood. Richard Strauss, the last Romantic, had died in 1949, and, with Schoenberg’s death in 1951, the Austro-German tradition as it had been known in both its progressive and retrograde branches, had lost its last titans and finally died out.

In Webern's death, the vanquished impurity of National Socialism seemed to have reached up from the grave to vanquish a surviving remnant of pre-war artistic purity. Almost as cosmic compensation, however, Olivier Messiaen was to survive his own imprisonment during the war and thrive as a composer for another half century. His interest in new combinations of sonorities - a new kind of absolute music - would take the art of sound in new directions.


Unknown said...

Many years ago when I was studying with Gregor Piatigorsky, Kathleen Lenski and Paul Polivnick and I were contemplating playing the Webern String Trio but we abandoned the idea after twenty minutes of rehearsal, deciding that it was too much of a pain in the ass to work out the counting. I mentioned this to Piatigorsky and his comment was: "To play this piece you must be good jeweler..."

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Rodney Punt said...

Gee, I'm glad this article seems to have legs, as five years after penning it, the last commentator found it of value. We classical music reviewers are more used to our products having short lives.