Saturday, May 4, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
May 3

Making the case for modern American music.

What a week!”

That was the reaction of the principals involved in the Cleveland Orchestras “California Masterworks” series after the concluding concert on Friday night, an expression of both relief and achievement. By any measure, it had been an enormous amount of work: two full programs of difficult pieces staged during a week the orchestra maintained its regular schedule at Severance, including a concerto requiring a string quartet instead of the traditional soloist. And that was before five harpsichords and a cloud of noise started blasting away in the atrium.

The results more than justified the effort. Focusing on domestic composers working on the West Coast in the 20th century, the most European of American orchestras made a strong case for the significance of their sonic innovations, and their influence in shaping modern music worldwide.

By virtue of his work with the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Symphony, John Adams may be the best-known of those composers. His Shaker Loops (1978) was originally written for seven strings. In a later arrangement for full string orchestra, the minimalist effects shimmer even more brightly, starting with a great humming like bees hovering and building to a pulsating intensity. Extending compositional techniques pioneered by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Adams opened up the dynamics to create what he called an “epiphany of physical and spiritual transcendence.”

Conductor James Feddeck put an electric charge in the music, building the volume and density in fine gradations that reached a vibrating pitch so penetrating it had visceral impact. The middle movements were light and delicately textured, seeming to float over exotic landscapes before segueing to a pounding finish of contrasting and complementary lines. Other than a few moments when the orchestra slipped back into a conventional sound, it was a riveting performance.

As NewMusicBox Senior Editor Frank Oteri noted in his opening remarks, James Tenney’s Clang (1972) is one long note (E) put through a series of mesmerizing harmonic variations. This marked the first time the piece had been performed outside of California, and it was expertly done. The waxing and waning harmonics melted into each other, creating a seamless sound from front to back, at times very much like taped music being played backwards. (Which is a compliment – the Beatles, among others, used that technique to great effect.)

And who would have thought that heaving groans from the low strings could sound so musical? They added to the inexorable feel of the piece, as it grew from carefully crafted tones with fine edges to cosmic proportions.

For Terry Riley’s concerto The Sands, the orchestra was joined by the Calder Quartet, a group that specializes in contemporary and crossover music and has studied with Riley. In contrast to the composer’s minimalist works, The Sands, written the night the U.S. launched the Gulf War in 1990, is a descriptive narrative piece that portrays a military invasion and its aftermath, laced with Mideastern motifs that gradually coalesce into what Riley describes as “a celebration of singing and dancing on this mysterious planet.”

While the music is compelling, ranging from dread to lyrical repose, it is interesting mostly for Riley’s unconventional use of a string quartet in place of a soloist. Even the traditional roles are upended, with the orchestra often following the quartet’s lead, or carrying on a conversation with the group. The Calder players were sharp and showed virtuoso skills in their solo lines, adding poignancy to the gentler passages and infusing the late melodies with optimism and vitality. Feddeck kept the flow smooth while weaving a colorful mix of references and atmospherics into the piece.

For an encore, the museum staged John Cage’s HPSCHD in the atrium. A multimedia work that combines random scores for seven harpsichords (five in this performance) playing simultaneously with taped random noise and abstract visual projections, HPSCHD was a perfect fit for the space – detailed enough to merit close attention near the stage, expansive enough to provide ambient accompaniment to a party crowd drinking and socializing. It was a bold programming move that worked beautifully, far and away the most successful music event in the atrium to date.

Do we really have to wait another two years for a collaboration between the orchestra and the art museum? Let's hope not. As good as they are independently, the two institutions working together can produce more than the sum of their parts – breathtaking work that informs, entertains and inspires.

For more on the Calder Quartet:

For more on Shaker Loops:

For more on Terry Riley:

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

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