Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cleveland Orchestra: Bartok thoughts

Four thoughts -- more than tweets and less than essays -- about this weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra Concert (Hokusawa, “Woven Dreams”; Bartok, Piano Concerto #2 and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta).
  • "Woven Dreams" delved into the motion that is at the heart of all music -- vibration -- from its first long held note. But that motion seemed always held in a state of non-motion, suspended. To be sure, there were fast passage-work and percussive articulations (the bells and gongs, especially) that implied the beginnings and ends of motifs and episodes: that is, there were some of the standard motion-forms of classical music. But overall, the music subordinated speed, change, variation, and difference, and privileged stillness. "Woven Dreams" -- the unsubstantial motion of dreams spun into thread, dyed, stretched, warped and wefted to a fabric of shimmering

  • Bartok's Piano Concerto, by contrast, was a display of motion: notes move up and down the scale to form motifs; motifs move through changes in modality and key to form variations; instruments and sections of the orchestra change their function as they imitate each other, moving from accompanying others to taking on the lead voice; colors change, appearing and disappearing. Always the music was in motion, revealing either in the moment or in hindsight that it had somewhere to go and a path by which to get there. 
  • The first movement of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, was a fugue played by the strings, drawing us again and again into a strange cone of sound created by the layering of a peculiar motif that moved constantly and yet seemed to go nowhere. The string sections were distributed around the center of the orchestra (piano, celeste, not yet playing) so that the usual five-part sonic geography (2 violin sections, viola, cello, bass) became far more complex. When the violas played, it would be sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. The effect was like hearing Bach sung by one of those great choirs in which the members of each section mingle with singers from each other section, so that a tenor entrance, for example, is not located in one corner of the stage, but interwoven amongst all the other lines of music.
  • Listening to Bartok is like hearing the excesses of late Romanticism (Tchaikovsky? Mahler?) turned upside down: the tunes still come in and out; the piece still has a beginning, a middle, a climax, an ending; the music still seems to evoke a world outside itself -- a hero, maybe, or a forest; and yet -- all that, which Romanticism perfected, is now cast into a new mold of modernism. Excess of passion has become other kinds of excess: of thought? of structure? of color?

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