29 January 2013

Birtwistle weekend in Berkeley

Cal Performances had a lot going on this last Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, and though I was tempted by the Joffrey Ballet down in Zellerbach Hall I ended up at two mostly-modern music concerts up at Hertz. Both of them featured works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, whose music I had previously only heard on CD.

The Eco Ensemble, conducted by David Milnes, played Saturday night. I felt some trepidation as I saw many students filling up the seats, having vivid and unpleasant memories of the weird rude audience at the first Eco Ensemble concert, but this time, at least from where I sat (I slipped into the front row right before the concert started), the audience was attentive and appreciative. The Ecos ambled out and there seemed to be some mix-up or mishap with the set-up, since there was some low-key discussion back and forth and one of the players turned to us and suggested we talk among ourselves. They got it straightened out shortly whatever it was and launched into Birtwistle's Secret Theatre. It's a rich, dense, fun thirty or so minutes. About five wind instruments stood off to the right and jetted and fluted about above the thick, slower flow of the strings. At times I was reminded of some great slow river-beast crawling forward while the bright birds swooped above and around. Layering seems to be a major technique for Birtwistle, in ways that are easier to appreciate during a live performance as opposed to a recording.

After the intermission came a showing of Jean Epstein's 1928 French silent film La Chute de la Maison Usher, with a new score by Ivan Fedele (who came up afterwards to take a bow). The film is pretty artsy and weird and wonderful, as befits both experimental silent films and anything based on Poe, who has always been admired by the French (sometimes more than he was in his own country). Oddly and amusingly, though the very brief English synopsis at the beginning of the movie referred, as in Poe's original story, to Roderick Usher and his sister, the film changed her into his wife; according to the program, this was to avoid the overtones of incest, which I thought were kind of the point. (In fact I wonder if one reason Debussy was drawn to this story for his unfinished opera was because of such hidden links to Wagner's Ring: incest, complications of love, betrayal, and degeneration, followed by a cataclysmic finale.) The intertitles were in the original French. It would have been helpful to have a print with English subtitles as well; I got the gist of each title, but sometimes there were too many words and too little time. But that's a small matter.

I'm pretty sure Epstein took a very good look at Murnau's Nosferatu before making this film; there was a similar eerie carriage ride to a haunted destination, with the local villagers reluctant to go anywhere near; waving bare tree branches scraping like fingers across the gray skies; a soft ghostly grayness playing between the light and shade. There are abrupt transitions and unsettling cuts in the editing and sudden close-ups of hands or faces and pale candles dripping down low. Fedele's music is moody and circular and fits the film very well. Oddly there was less overt drama in this score for what is after all an intensely dramatic plot than in the Birtwistle piece, the theatricality of whose secret theater was very evident.

I was back up at Hertz on Sunday afternoon for pianist Nicolas Hodges. It was a recital of high virtuosity, but it's a virtuosity of a deeper dazzle than the flash and fireworks usually associated with the term. Though he is now bearded and therefore looking a little more Bohemian than the last time I saw him, he is still completely no-nonsense in his presentation: he strides out quickly, sits down and starts playing immediately, without swaying or rocking or humming or any kind of drama outside of the music he's making. He started off with Debussy's Etudes, Book 1, starting from the simple exercises with the amusing dissonant note insisting on inserting itself and then shimmering and dazzling through to the end. That was followed by Elliot Carter's tuneful Two Thoughts About the Piano, like a clear river.There was extremely enthusiastic applause from the audience when he finished and when Hodges came out for the third bow he extended his arms to each side to still the clapping and told us that that was the first time he had played Carter's music since his death late last year, making it the first time he couldn't call the composer up to the stage, so he asked us to give a round of applause "for Elliott." We obliged. I love it when artists do generous things like that. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Rolando Villazon because after he sang Dichterliebe at Cal several years ago he picked up the score and gestured to it, directing the applause towards Schumann.

After the intermission Hodges played Busoni's Giga, Bolero e Variazione, Study after Mozart, from An Die Jugend, Book III. It's based on a little dance tune from Nozze di Figaro. This twentieth-century spin on an older form led suitably up to the west coast premiere of Birtwistle's Gigue Machine (which was co-commissioned by Cal Performances and Carnegie Hall). As with the Secret Theatre, a bright, sharp set of high notes dart above a deeper, smoother, steadier base. The piece starts slowly with sort of a stuttering note and rapidly grows in complexity only to die back down and then start up again before dying back down for the final time. A lot of simultaneous motion is packed into a relatively short time (between ten and fifteen minutes). It actually sounded more organic than machine-like to me. I hope I'll get to hear more live Birtwistle soon. Debussy book-ended the recital, with Etudes, Book II following the Birtwistle. It was an excellent Sunday afternoon.

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