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Charles Rosen - With Overtones of Modernity

"French-American Contemporary Music Festival" is the title of the two-concert series at La Maison Française that ended today, June 11th, with a concert of the music of Dusapin at 5 pm. With Ionarts' known penchant for all things French and many things contemporary, no one could have reasonably expected us to stay away from an event that presented Elliot Carter and Pierre Boulez piano sonatas alongside Debussy's Sonate pour violon et piano and Eye in the Sky, a work by the composer/performer Robert Dick.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, New Music at La Maison Française (DCist, June 11)

Tim Page, A French-American Specialty of the House (Washington Post, June 13)
The pianist Marc Ponthus spoke a few words about the Boulez (the score of which was spread out in front of the stage, for all to see) and the connections to Debussy whom he credited with being the first to make conscious use of overtones, as part of a "sound awareness" that, like a picture that moves outside its frame, makes the listener aware of the "natural extension of sound." He did all that in effortful English, but it had its charm. Out comes Charles Rosen (flectamus genua), bubbling away in French about Carter, his teacher Nadia Boulanger, and a few other things, leaving the non-French speaking (or -hearing) ears rather behind. After Mr. Rosen had his French credits duly established, Marc Ponthus reminded him gently that it might just be better to speak in English, after all - and Rosen duly repeated everything. Already, the concert was accumulating high marks for 'character'. After these introductions, amusing and enlightening in equal, if moderate, measure, Messrs. Ponthus and Schulte played the Debussy sonata. Rolf Schulte, who looks rather distinct, and not just on account of holding the bow some 4+ inches away from the frog, elicited two very different worlds of sound from his instrument. One - in the lower registers mostly - that buzzed away with vibrancy and one that was high, distant, otherworldly. A small tone, lightning fast trills and a few microtonal deviations from the conventional score gave the sonata a whole new, truly more modern, feel. The beautiful piano part - quicksilver on the outside, an epicenter of calm on the inside - is easily as exciting as the virtuosic violin part and Marc Ponthus was a most amiable exponent of it.

Bravo - and Elliot Carter next. The Piano Sonata was supposed to be next, but first Charles Rosen was on his knees, fixing an obstinate piano stool. After wrestling with the seat for a while, the first chord came crashing down and Carter got started. The piano sonata is - so Rosen - Carter's first truly interesting work, and apart from being interesting (very much so, by the way!) it is also an appealing, very (or reasonably - depending on your preferences) accessible work. Should anyone have thought that the 'silent notes', played for the purpose of eliciting overtones, are more theoretical ballyhoo than musical additions to a work, hearing them emanate audibly from the Bösendorfer would have put an end to such ideas. Rainbow- or star-like, these notes would rise out of the surrounding sounds and stand in the auditorium for a while. Between movement no. 1 (Maestoso) and no. 2 (Andante), Charles Rosen, who had intermittently sunk five inches with his piano stool, was back on his knees, grumbling and adjusting. No harm done to his compelling performance, though. His playing was formidable and in his tackling of that bear of a work, there was nothing dry or scholarly.

available at Amazon
E.Carter, Piano Sonata et al.,
Charles Rosen

available at Amazon
P.Boulez, Piano Sonatas 1-3,
DG 20/21

Many pianists find it relatively easy to see and hear merit in Boulez's first piano sonata, some go on strike when it comes to the second (I've heard it pronounced an "insult to pianists" - although hearing Pollini play it, that's difficult to believe). Fewer yet really get into the third, a 'work in progress' of five movements with only two of those formants published and Boulez-approved for performance. I recently wrote on a recording of the Boulez sonatas, but the third sonata on record can only be a snapshot of the day's whim of the performer. Semi-aleatory or random with restrictions, this Mallarmé-inspired work (un coup de dés n'abolira le hasard - a throw of the dice does not abolish chance) sounds different every time you hear it. (That assumes that even the less-than-casual listener could remember much from one rare performance to the next.) Constructed of 'points' (pointilist, sparse sections of music written in green) and 'blocks' (denser parts, in red ink) as a labyrinth, the performer can chose how to proceed from block to block, in accordance with arrows that connect them in various ways.

There is no point in disingenuously gushing about the work. Listening to it may flatter us as particularly sophisticated or avant-garde or having 'special tastes' - but how much more than an intellectual exercise this music is, I cannot really say. It isn't ugly to my ears (though it might be, to many) and, as I like to say, it cleanses your musical palate. You take the note clusters, key-twinkles, "points," and "blocks" with casual attentiveness and applaud in the manner that makes you most closely appear how you wish to be perceived by your fellow audience-members:
loud and wildly enthusiastic if you are the self-declared connoisseur of the weird and wonderful, a consummate lover of the absurd and champion of high-end intellectualism; polite and pleasantly amused if you didn't dislike it, but don't care if you are not seen as having understood it; not at all if you wish to flaunt your metaphysical or musico-philosophical differences with the very idea of such a piece... or if you simply thought: "What the &$*#?"

Visually, the sonata has undoubted appeal in live performance. Seeing the huge (15 X 25 inch?) sheets with their red and green chunks of music and the performers arranging them around is a sight to behold. Marc Ponthus's enthusiasm for the work or his ability were never in question - indeed, he seemed to feel more at home in the Boulez than he did in the Debussy.

Robert Dick, who performed his own Eye in the Sky for open-hole alto flute (the instrument looks like the bastard child of a flute, a cane, and an old kitchen sink faucet), introduced it as based on a Sci-Fi novel by Philip K. Dick. It is supposed to explore what it might feel like, to be on an extraordinary long interstellar journey. Take Space Odyssey 2001 and turn it into a work for solo (open-hole, alto) flute and you might approximate the idea. Eye in the Sky is an eerily evocative work, and the sounds Mr. Dick gets out of the instrument are astounding. Metallic murmurs and breathy squeaks evoke emptiness, nothingness. Fortunately it didn't last nearly as long as an "extraordinary long interstellar journey" and could therefore pass as curiously evocative, most interesting, and highly enjoyable. The audience on this very, very unique evening (earlier they had started impromptu applause to call the abnormally late performers onto the stage) behaved as well as I have not encountered before. Sure, the auditorium of the Maison Française was not even half full, but to stay absolutely silent during two such, erm..., "different" pieces as the Boulez and Dick was most extraordinary and commendable. Robert Dick's work, in particular, found some enthusiastic followers who shot out a few hollers and gave him a standing ovation. The consequent vino and meet & greet was the pleasant affair it always is with events at the Maison Française.

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