Different Angles, Different Times, One Work

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Piet Mondrian, 1921.

Museums of contemporary art are sparsely populated areas. I remember visiting the Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo in Rome several years ago. I showed up on a workday in the morning, and I had the museum all for myself. I was alone. Walking through the expositions felt like walking through a cathedral. Silence all around me. A surreal solemnity. Strange artifacts stared at me and I stared back without understanding what I saw. Some works triggered a meditative moment, others made me just shake my head.

Listening to Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra made me feel something similar. Silence penetrated by occasional sounds. Strange notes and harmonies. The solemnity of pacing through an empty cathedral. At moments I feel lost, at others I stand in awe before the composer’s astonishing ideas. It is a true piece of art, but it needs to be contemplated in a calm atmosphere, from different angles, at different times. Only then will it reveal some of its meanings. Does that sound metaphysical? Contemporary art is metaphysical.

The concerto was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. It was first performed at the festival on August 19, 1988 by the pianist Krystian Zimerman and the Austrian Radio Orchestra under the direction of the composer. Lutoslawski dedicated the piece to Zimerman. One year later, it was recorded by Zimerman and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Simon Rattle. In the liner notes accompanying the recording, Klaus Oehl says that hearing in 1960 John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra on the Polish radio proved to be a seminal experience for Lutoslawski. “Those few minutes were to change my life decisively […] While listening to it, I suddenly realized that I could compose music differently from that of my past.”

Picking up Cage’s idea of music that operates using random processes, Lutoslawski first developed his own compositional principle of ad libitum playing, says Oehl. The composer fully put to use the process he calls “limited aleatoricism” in his second symphony, written between 1965 and 1967. In the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra he drew on the ideas that he had first sketched out more than fifty years earlier.

The concerto is cast in four movements played without a pause. Witold Maliszewski, Lutoslawski’s teacher and an expert on musical forms, would have characterized them as “introductory”, “transitory”, “responding” and “concluding”. They can be delineated by their tempo:

1. Dotted Quarter Note = 110 – Quarter Note ” 70
2. Presto – Poco meno mosso – Lento
3. Eighth Note ca. 85 – Largo
4. Quarter Note = 84 – Presto

Andrew Clements, music critic of “The Guardian” is of the opinion that the concerto ranks alongside Gyorgy Ligeti’s “utterly different concerto as the most important for piano and orchestra since [Bela] Bartok.” Enjoy the meditation.

© Charles Thibo

“To Compose is to Freeze Life in Moments of Crisis”

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Nebula. © Charles Thibo

A cry. Human? Animal? Hard to say. An eruption of strings, strident, loud, insistent, dramatic. Good morning and welcome to the sound world of Wolfgang Rihm.  In 1977 the German composer wrote a piece called “Music for three stringed instruments”. He was 25 years old at the time, a precocious avant-garde composer who would become one of the most important contemporary composer for classical music. By now the piece has become almost a classic of contemporary music. Rihm witnessed a performance in 2015 in Berlin by the violinist Ilya Gringolts, the viol player James Boyd and the cellist Nicolas Altstaedt. “You transformed my dots on paper into music”, he said afterwards. The biggest compliment ever.

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Defiance and Rebellion at the Concert Hall

What do you feel? © Charles Thibo

Arnold Schönberg himself considered the work as a turning-point not in his career, but in his conception of music. It was the beginning of new era, the emancipation from the Austro-German Romantic tradition and its musical language. Schönberg’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Major (op. 7) respects the formal layout inherited from Brahms – four movements – and also the “structural cogency and clarity” of Brahms’ chamber music, as Oliver Neighbour, Paul Griffiths and George Perle write in their reference work “The New Grove – Second Viennese School”. What is new, the authors note, is the fact that Schönberg casts the work as a pure work of expressivity, held together rather by a line of thought, an emotional consecutiveness, than by a set of formal laws.

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Discovering Strange and Beautiful Galaxies

Outside time. © Charles Thibo

William Duckworth (b Morgantown, NC, Jan 13, 1943; d West New York, NJ, Sept 13, 2012 American composer. He participated in the 1988 Darmstadt Composition Forum and was the featured composer at the 1995 Ferrara Festival. Duckworth is best-known for his piano work “Time Curve Preludes” (1978), a composition considered by many to mark the beginning of postminimalism in music. So far for Oxford Music Online, which I shamelessly quote to start this post for lack of a better idea. Of course I could have started with the Labèque twin sisters, who share the responsibility for this post with the author (me!), but I have done that already in an earlier post about Philipp Glass.

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