Saturday, May 4, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
May 1

Lavish treatment that modern music seldom gets.

The most striking thing about the first night of California Masterworks was how conventional the music sounded – relatively speaking. Composers Henry Cowell, Dane Rudhyar and Lou Harrison expanded the horizons and possibilities of American music with their forays into new tonal systems and Asian forms and instrumentation. But in the context of their contemporaries and successors, their work sounded less like radical departures than steppingstones to the modern era.

And the polished performance by James Feddeck and the Cleveland Orchestra gave their music a gravitas and dignity it doesn’t often achieve.

Cowell was one of the first composers to stick his hands inside the body of a piano and play the strings rather than the keyboard, laying the groundwork for John Cage’s development of prepared piano, a mainstay in modern music. Cowell’s Sinfonietta (1928) for a chamber ensemble of strings and woodwinds still has a foot in both worlds, employing classical structures to explore new ideas in harmonics. Dissonance is the spine of the piece, and Feddeck handled it so smoothly that even when the strings and woodwinds were playing in different rhythms and keys simultaneously, the sound never became shrill or grating.

His deft direction and the players’ precise articulation opened up space for compelling solo lines by cellist Richard Weiss, and some striking tones. A low-pitched combination of cello, viola and bass (played with a bow) in the third movement sounded electric, like the musicians had suddenly plugged in their instruments. The clarity was also a function of Feddeck’s well-measured tempo, which neatly balanced expression with the technical demands of the piece, and gave it an edge without becoming overheated.

Dane Rudhyar’s Out of the Darkness (1982) was a world premiere, and very likely the best performance this piece will ever get, with lavish care and attention devoted to its many colors, effects and dramatic intensity. Quite unlike the sunny sounds one would expect from California – NewMusicBox Senior Editor Frank Oteri invoked the Beach Boys in his opening remarks on the California scene – Out of the Darkness is just what its name suggests, a landscape of ominous rumblings and anxious undercurrents that build to Wagnerian dimensions. Even with a large ensemble the sound was beautifully transparent, with particularly fine work from Feddeck creating vivid colors in the second movement.

Highly descriptive and deeply distressed, Out of the Darkness sounds cinematic, even quoting Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking Psycho strings at one point. Feddeck’s careful control kept it suspenseful rather than overblown, and he steered a final, unexpectedly warm glow to a gentle finish.

Lou Harison’s Suite for Violin with String Orchestra (1974) was the dominant piece of the first night, essentially a concerto originally written for solo violin and American gamelan, Harrison’s version of Indonesian percussion. Richly inventive, the piece incorporates a range of exotic but accessible sounds into traditional forms, with straightforward melodies offset by bursts of dissonance. Touches like the bass players tapping their instruments for percussive effects add dashes of humor and experimentation.

The solo part presents some serious technical challenges early on, which Stephen Rose handled with aplomb, hitting perfect strings of tiny high notes, even with his left hand crowding the bow. His evocation of changing atmospherics in the “Three Jahlas” was masterful, as was his handling of the unabashedly sentimental final movement, which sounded romantic without becoming cloying.

But it was Feddeck who ultimately made the piece work, with a great feel for the nuances of the music, its shifting moods and dynamics, moments of breathtaking beauty, and the spirit of joy that runs throughout. There were a few spots when the gamelan accompaniment was missed – but not many, as he modulated the orchestra to support the soloist. And once again, his tempo was excellent, setting a pace that made the music sound spirited and spontaneous without losing any of its thoughtfulness.

More than anything, the performance was an impressive demonstration of what 20th-century music can sound like in the hands of a highly skilled ensemble. Too often, works like these are an afterthought on a program, or played at festivals that don’t have the resources to devote serious time and attention to them. In this short series, benefiting from the expertise of a devoted conductor and world-class orchestra, they were a revelation.

For an interesting interview with Lou Harrison:

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

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