I had a bad feeling as I sat in Zankel Hall late this afternoon, waiting for the concert by James Levine and his MET Chamber Ensemble to get started. Frankly, it was impossible not to notice the strikingly large number of empty seats. For a while, it seemed that the event might have been better suited to the smaller Weill Recital Hall.
Levine's penchant for programming works by tough, so-called "academic" composers is well known by now, but this particular bill pushed that passion to the limit (at least, until the Babbitt 90th birthday concert coming up at Weill in May). Not only did it bring the New York premiere of Elliott Carter's Dialogues for piano and chamber orchestra, it also included
the first local complete performance of Charles Wuorinen's Dante Trilogy -- chamber-scale versions of the three ballets the composer wrote for Peter Martins and the New York City Ballet. That's a full 66 minutes of Wuorinen (not counting stage resettings) before intermission, with the Carter and Darius Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit to follow.
As it happened, I needn't have worried. Latecomers rushed to take their seats as the lights went down, filling Zankel to somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of its capacity, I'd guesstimate. And the Wuorinen pieces, it turned out, were some of his most crowd-pleasing scores. Not that they pandered in any way -- far from it. But The Mission of Virgil, The Great Procession and The River of Light were all lively, varied and imminently parsable, and the audience awarded each a rousing reception. (Almost unbelievably, I saw only one patron pack up and leave, between the second and third pieces.)
The Mission of Virgil was rescored for two pianos. Howard Watkins and Linda Hall made a feast of the work, dispatching its giddy chases, elegant reveries and stolid marches in a sumptuous feast of ivory sonorities. At times, the piece suggested a combination of Stravinsky's "Infernal Dance of King Katschei," Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" and a boogie-woogie contest, mingling striding rhythms and bluesy chords with surprising outbursts. The two pianists dug into Wuorinen's seven-section score with gusto, if inadvertently punctuating the performance with emphatic page turns.
Even better was The Great Procession, for violin, cello, flute doubling piccolo, clarinet doubling bass clarinet (although here and in The River of Light, different players handled each instrument), piano and two percussionists. This score, too, followed a seven-part layout, with a boisterous refrain recurring four times. That refrain grew more familar with each pass, quickly becoming a recurring gag. All of the players gave knockout performances, but cellist Kari Jane Docter and flutist Stephanie Mortimore deserve special attention, the latter especially for the way she launched the genial waltz that opens "The Griffin," the big central movement. (I'll also state for the record that I can't think of another composer who writes more effectively and excitingly for percussion than Wuorinen -- every time I hear one of his pieces, it makes me wish I was still playing. Gregory Zuber and Duncan Patton were kept hopping all evening.)
If The River of Light suffered slightly by comparison, it was only because the piece offered less sense of narrative flow (even though it, too, was episodic in design). Still, again and again it offered instances of timbral gorgeousness, in particular a luminous passage for harp, celeste and tubular bells. Gracious melodies flitted from player to player like a butterfly lighting on one blossom after another, and the ending was breathtaking.
Wuorinen's brand of modernism may currently be out of favor in new-music circles, but these three scores were apt reminders of why he is unquestionably one of America's great composers. Carter's Dialogues -- a brief but densely packed conversation between brilliant, exacting pianist Nicolas Hodges and the ensemble -- seemed somewhat dry by comparison. Still, it was music worth playing and hearing, and it remains a signal pleasure of this decade to see Carter greeted again and again with towering ovations in the biggest musical establishments. (English horn player Pedro Diaz deserved an ovation of his own for the intimate exchanges between his instrument and the soloist -- allow me to offer one here.)
Just as Levine ended his much-lauded recent Boston Symphony Orchestra feast of American modernism at Isaac Stern Auditorium with a plush, fizzy performance of Gershwin's hyper-caloric Piano Concerto, this afternoon's heavy meal ended with the mango-and-lemon sorbet of Milhaud's Bouef, sweetly singing melodies and affably swinging rhythms tarted up with pungently tart dissonances.
(Warmest regards to my dear Vilaine Fille for the welcome this afternoon. Happy anniversary, and continued thanks for the gorgeous prose.)
Charles Wuorinen - Percussion Symphony - New Jersey Percussion Ensemble/Charles Wuorinen (Nonesuch)
Charles Wuorinen - Time's Encomium; Lepton; New York Notes; Epithalamium - Group for Contemporary Music (Tzadik)
Charles Wuorinen - On Alligators - Group for Contemporary Music/Charles Wuorinen; Fourth String Quartet - Brentano Quartet; Natural Fantasy - Kevin Bowyer; Third Piano Concerto - Garrick Ohlsson, San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt (Tzadik)