Review: New Music Concerts Entertains

New Music Concerts’ 2013-2014 season got underway last night at the Betty Oliphant Theatre with a genuinely entertaining night of music by Morton Feldman, John Cage, Stefan Wolpe, and Anton Webern.

For those who don’t know (and I myself didn’t until a few months ago), Edgard Varèse, Wolpe, Cage, and Feldman were members of the Eighth Street Artists Club of Abstract Expressionist Painters (Varèse and Cage were both visual artists as well as composers ). The 1950’s was a time when the arts flourished in New York, and these men were at the forefront of it, both as composers and as artists and being members of this club brought them into contact with intellectuals, artists, and all other manner of people.

Wolpe had been a student of Webern’s in Germany for a number of years, but had to flee in 1933 when Hitler seized power. Feldman was Wolpe’s student, and so you can see the line of musical tradition that both Wolpe and Feldman were a part of and that Webern helped create. Upon Wolpe’s return to Europe he gave a series of lectures on changing musical styles in the United States that had a profound impact upon musical development in Europe; Particularly in the area of stylistic integration and the opening up of the imagination of European composers and musicians to ideas not belonging solely to the Western art tradition.

This concert was a tribute to that period of time from the 1930’s to the 1960’s when the music of these men changed the face of music itself. The threat of a program such as this is that it would repel audiences due to the complex nature of the music. Twelve-tone music, serial music, and mid-1900’s ‘avant-garde’ music have a bad reputation among  the general public as being incredibly inaccessible, hard to listen to, and really not that fun. However what I heard last night was a successful attempt at making this music really entertaining in a way that would have the potential to attract greater audiences. I don’t want to say too much about the music and the structure and nature of the music itself, since it is old enough to have been raked over with a fine-tooth comb already, however I will speak generally about the concert and what I enjoyed.

The highlight of the night was without a doubt Wolpe’s Chamber Piece No. 1 (1964). Originally commissioned by The Koussevitsky Music Foundation and performed at the Library of Congress, this piece was filled with instrumental colour and was a great reminder of how entertaining Wolpe’s music can be. The combination of jazz inspired moments on the trumpet, with interplay between the winds and the violin, and the number of ideas all deriving from a single original thought was a delight to listen to. Credit too is due to Robert Aitken and the musicians for successfully pulling off a no doubt challenging piece.

On the other end of the spectrum was Feldman’s Structures for String Quartet (1951), and John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50), both of which were much calmer, longer, and flatter than the Wolpe. These pieces too were played with a great amount of delicacy, as they require, and the string players delivered mesmerizing music with an equally mesmerizing performance.

Webern’s Konzert, Op. 24 (1931-1934) was played twice, once at the beginning of the concert, and again in the second half. I enjoyed the piece far more the second time, though that may be because one time is not enough to take in everything that a Webern piece has to offer.

This was an enjoyable concert, and a truly great way to kick off a promising new year with NMC. I’m looking forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.

– Paolo Griffin