Thursday, November 11, 2010

Found in Translations

Xenakis's Oresteia, McDuffie's Seasons:
an Embarrassment of Autumn Riches

Iannis Xenakis

by Joseph Mailander

The extraordinary reader and critic George Steiner once found translation to be the fount of real artistic presence. In his long book on the art of translation, After Babel, Steiner termed "interanimation" the process in which "two presences, two formal structures, two bodies of utterance assume a dimension, an energy of meaning far beyond that which either could generate in isolation or in mere sequence." What this means is vital to the work of art that reappears as a separate and yet dependent work, say the Moncrieff translation of Proust, or Verdi's retinkerings of Shakespeare.

In the embarrassment of riches that is the Los Angeles music scene throughout the autumn, two very different organizations presented works last weekend that exemplified Steiner's 1975 thesis to a tee.

CalArts one-time production of Iannis Xenakis's "opera" Oresteia--we only call it an "opera" because there aren't better words for choreographed oratorios in which action transpires more by choral movements and gyrations than by conventional acting--received its west coast premiere Sunday night. It quickly became for its appreciative audience an astonishing exemplar of the kind of dimensions and energies that Steiner hoped artworks that echo other artworks to realize. Based on Aeschylus's immortal cycle of plays in which the troubles of the House of Atreus ultimately serve to lay the foundations of Athenian justice, the plays exhaust every possible dimension of treachery before culminating in the hope of a better day.

For the artist bringing all this together, conductor Mark Menzies, merely where to position himself within the pomo amphitheater known as the Wild Beast--a new venue on campus, designed by now venerable firm Hodgetts & Fung, who were on hand for this performance--was as key an issue as tempo and musicianship. Menzies took stage down left, the musicians scattered within the nebulous soundshell, and singers, men's and women's and even childrens' choruses came and went via stage doors and staircases and sidewalks as though in a madcap Frayn play. And all were ultimately upstaged by a culminating rush by the children into the darkness of the audience to distribute noisemaking pendants with which the audience itself could make their own music to celebrate the bestowing of justice to the world.

Xenakis's orchestration, heavy on percussion redolent of one of his teachers, Messaien, and especially his singers' solos are often insistently jarring, but these only contributed to the spirit of the emotionally jarring Aeschylus cycle. Most intransigently schizo in this score is the way a baritone is required to alternate between falsetto, baritone, and some points in between to give voice to different personages in the cycle, male, female, god and Fury, and execute these in the libretto's ancient Greek to boot. This is not mere mimicry, it is a deliberate conflation of many characters in order to compress the drama into an optimal musical excitement. Paul Berkolds handled this hot-and-cold assignment with forensic rectitude, and was rewarded by the audience perhaps more than any other performers.

It may dishonor the otherwise heroic program a little to complain about the program notes, which were parenthetical to the proceedings at best, but these were uniquely bizarre even for a Cal Arts production, and something should be said. (Many, many organizations contributed much to the one-time production, all were honored ad nauseum before the performance, and it would have been nice to have included a writer somewhere along the line). While the roles of some singers in Xenakis's only dramatic musical work are confusing and conflated enough to those unfamiliar with Aeschylus, the notes only added another opaque layer.

Nonetheless, while most had no idea where anyone was in the program, the engaging oddities, such as men's and women's choruses arguing with each other across the infield, made for the kind of evening that one could experience as a satisfying Gestalt as well as climactic Greek narrative theater.

From the abstruse to the familiar: in the more recent part of his musical life, Robert McDuffie has seen similarities between Vivaldi and Philip Glass: "The chugging ostinatos and the pleasant melodies up top, the repetition, maybe not the formulaic repitition that Glass has become famous for, but I certainly do see a lot of similarities." Those similarities were availed to an abundantly appreciative Disney Hall audience last night, as McDuffie led the Venice Baroque Orchestra in a program devoted to Vivaldi's Four Seasons and a new Glass interpretation of Vivaldi's well-known masterpiece, called Violin Concerto No. 2, "The American Four Seasons."

McDuffie, an imposing yet cagey figure onstage, who moves with his instrument as though following the steps for a medium-tempo foxtrot, first led the chamber orchestra in a fantastic, fully-squeezed Vivaldi, bending some of the familiar notes into more lyrical, warmer Seasons at a country romp. The work itself rushes stunningly well through the concert hall and benefits from the Disney Hall's quixotic but string-friendly acoustics (this may be one of the best suited works for this hall). McDuffie's ensemble brought smooth precision to the performance and, happily, I heard none of the bow-on-strings crash landings that can accompany the furious up-tempo parts of the piece when played by overenthusiastic chamber orchestras.

Robert McDuffie

The Glass work, orchestrated much like the Vivaldi, is still recognizably Glass; there is an electric keyboard rather than a harpsichord, but it is a polite one, and the signature Glass ostinatos linked the cryptic episodes as a promenade from seasons in the sun through love in a cold climate--and if you couldn't tell which was which, that was the point. Glass only samples Glass, ulitmately; he may be nodding to the Vivaldi in mood and in meaning, but has no interest in what it is to make music sound like a cliched lark of a season. No, he rather likes to make music sound like the anomalous hot Santa Ana in November or the unfortunate day in spring when a late frost surprises a blooming apricot.

All in all, Xenakis, Vivaldi and Glass made for a memorable stretch, a supremely interanimate autumn compressed into a single SoCal weekend. Hurray for those who feel such real, intriguing presences, and especially for those who bring them to us.

1 comment:

Rodney Punt said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reviews. I am grateful you took on the imponderables of Xenakis, a daunting task which you fearlessly handled, and I am now better informed for having read your takeaway from it. Vivaldi and Glass - the two were made for each other, each other, each other.......