I found this article interesting from a number of perspectives. First, the reviewer has a theater background, and later branched into opera (and thusly music criticism), and I think that this comes out in his writing. Second, it comes from the normally unimpeachable Guardian UK, and is quite brief. Third, the names of iconic pieces are...iconic.

Also, the Northern Sinfonia is in Newcastle, UK.

Figure 1: Figure 1 is unrelated, yet delicious.

The Northern Sinfonia began its 50th-anniversary season with...

With something cool and memorable, I hope.

a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies,

Wow, really. Came up with that in a brainstorming session, no doubt.

and now concludes it by compressing the 20th century into a week.

Mm, mm-hm. Better than not at all, for sure, but that hundred years of stuff certainly merits less total concert time than Beethoven symphonies, which are starved for attention.

Dreams and Ceremonies,...

This title reflects the survey of 20th century music? It could easily be a festival of Romantic music. Well, shit, or Baroque music, for that matter.

Dreams and Ceremonies, which surveys the period 1906-2006, is the kind of wildly ambitious scheme at which music director Thomas Zehetmair excels.

Good, good. Although programming music that was, more or less, recently composed should hardly count as a scheme. Was jamming all of the 20th century into a week the ambitious scheme, or stretching it out to fill a week's worth of concerts?

Still, nothing seems to frighten audiences away faster than 20th-century music.

And nothing, absolutely nothing, is more awesome than taking a sentence in your three-paragraph write-up to remind people that they don't, won't, can't, and shouldn't like it. For fuck's sake, can we cut that out?

The second concert began with an apologetic plea for those present to huddle closer towards the front.

Ha ha! It's funny because they paid money to go to a concert of unlistenable avant-garde crap! Hilarious. What a bunch of maroons.

Bah. What about it, then?

A pleasing performance of Dumbarton Oaks...

Figure 2: The gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, Georgetown

A pleasing performance of Dumbarton Oaks proves Stravinsky's backward glances towards the baroque are no more intimidating than a Brandenburg Concerto;

This is a bizarre, if evocative, construction. Stravinsky's potentially intimidating (?) "glances"

Figure 3: A glance from Stravinsky. Are you intimidated? I dunno, I think I could take him.

...are tempered somehow, since...he's glancing at Bach's Brandenburgs (on which the piece was based)? Are the Brandenburg Concertos often held up as an example of non-intimidating music? Or the Baroque as a whole? This characterization confuses me. However, this performance "proves" (!) that his glances are actually quite harmless.

...the same can hardly be said for Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time,

Figure 4: Olivier Messiaen writing down what birds say.

which is among the most harrowing experiences you can have in a concert hall.

I'd be lying if I said that the Quartet is a fancy-free, happy-go-lucky piece of fluff, but it's hardly the most gruesome stuff out there. It also seems to me that things other than music can be experienced in a concert hall.

Figure 5: Ruins of a concert hall in Weisbaden, Germany after WWII.

The original audience was the composer's fellow detainees in a German PoW camp, and the gravid tempos of the 50-minute piece almost defy the musicians to maintain a pulse.

So...it had some "pacing problems," to borrow some theater-jargon?

The highlight is the plaintive aria for unaccompanied clarinet, here breathtakingly executed by Christopher Richards.

Fine. But the best is yet to come.

John Cage's notorious 4'3"...

D'oh! I had to look twice to make sure. This is of course not correct. Which happens; it does. It's a bit of a major blunder considering the uniqueness of the title, and the piece, which is (arguably, of course) Cage's most iconic work, and possibly deserves some hyperbolic title like Most Important Piece of the Last 100 Years. Arguably. But still.

And so:

John Cage's notorious 4'3" was given additional drama by plunging the auditorium into darkness.

Probably not the first time, but a decent enough idea nonetheless.

Pianist Kate Thompson refused to be put off by an outbreak of giggles among the audience.

One would hope that's the least of things she was prepared to endure.

But though the random, ambient sound is supposed to be the point,

It is?!

...it's still reminiscent of the silent observance before football matches, where you're hoping some idiot won't spoil it before the ref blows his whistle.

Ooh, yeah...or, you know, get the name wrong.

Figure 6: Pianist David Tudor performing Cage's 4'33".


Danny Liss said...

Perhaps she just was using the HIP approach of a brisker tempo, thus shaving 30 seconds off the piece?

Empiricus said...

No. I take "darkness" as a pejorative. Too many negative connotations for my taste. Coupled with "random" and "ref" and "soccer" (I like soccer, but still) and "plunging"--it just doesn't make me think: "Wow. You know things!"

Also, "defy the musicians to maintain a pulse," I think, misses the point, too.

And @ Danny: I think she was being "hep"--just a little more archaic, justifying an ironic sense of duration.

Nice (read: unfortunate) find SA.

Sator Arepo said...

Good one Danny! And you're not far off. Why? I'm glad you asked.

Circa 1950, the earth's population was about 2.5 billion, or almost 4.5 billion fewer people than circa now.

Now, if you average out the body masses of the people calculating for distribution of centripetal force about the earth's equator, the increased mass and therefore speed of the rotation of the planet has accelerated exactly enough to slow time down by exactly the duration of 30 seconds per 4'33" that approximate the flow of time during which the piece was composed.

Or it was a typo nobody noticed.

Anonymous said...

I forget the performance notes (which is probably appropriate). Can't 4'33" be performed in 4'3"? Besides, 4'3" is a better piece as the three movements have a more emotive impact in this duration.

Sator Arepo said...


Don't be silly. The duration of the movements is specified in the score. Besides, IIRC it's the amount of time it takes light to get from the moon to the earth, or something metric like that.

Hah! A pun!

Anonymous said...

Cage is a fraud. From the notes:

"However, the work may be performed by any instrumentalist(s) and the movements may last any lengths of time."


So, as I said, I like 4' 3" better!

Gustav said...

I've always found Alphonse Allais's Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man a far superior piece.

Sator Arepo said...

Ha! Bonus points to Gustav for naming one of several pre-Cage "silent" pieces of one or another stripe.