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Krazy Kat, Skyscrapers & Wailing Theremin

Krazy Kat, Skyscrapers & Wailing Theremin
Gil Rose (Kathy Wittman photograph)

An aura of consequence radiated from the stage of Jordan Hall at Friday’s Boston Trendy Orchestra Undertaking concert, introduced beneath the sobriquet “The Roaring Twenties.” There was a premiere, to make certain, and a centennial celebration of one of the first electronic instruments, but Inventive Director Gil Rose’s introduction from the podium nailed it: the revival and, one hopes, renaissance, of a serious American composer whose quality and historic significance have been too long uncared for.

The composer in question is John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), Chicago born and resident, scholar of John Knowles Paine but in addition of Edward Elgar and Bruckner lovers Bernhard Ziehn, and within the early 20th century one of the crucial outstanding “trendy” composers. The scare quotes mirror a serious historic bounce in the perception of “trendy” in American music, as concepts developed in Vienna (expressionism) and Paris (neoclassicism) supplanted the barely sprouting native species. That’s not to say that Carpenter was a parochial naïf—as even his musical enemy Virgil Thomson acknowledged, Carpenter “has been to Paris”—but whereas his method embraced both German and French influences, his esthetic preoccupations diverged significantly from those of most composers of his and the following generations. The two ballet scores BMOP performed, one at each finish of the evening, have been good illustrations of this esthetic.

The exterior circumstances of Carpenter’s life bear, as Rose identified, shocking parallels to those of Charles Ives. Each have been descendants of previous New England households (Carpenter’s given names are a official inheritance). After correct formal training, each males veered away from careers in music and entered enterprise, Ives in insurance and Carpenter in his household’s ship chandlery (the successor to which nonetheless exists). Extra pertinently, both have been interested in the makes use of of vernacular idioms inside the framework of classical music, but whereas Ives advanced his complicated stream-of-consciousness idiom to retrieve reminiscences of a time previous, Carpenter pursued a extra simple investigation into present occasions. Whereas Ives was principally unknown as a composer till after he had ceased composing, Carpenter achieved fame, only to fade from view after World Warfare II. Whereas the neglect of Ives has been significantly alleviated, the neglect of Carpenter needs addressing, which, as Rose said, is a part of the mission of BMOP.

One of the fun information about Carpenter is that he was in all probability the primary American to composer purpose-built ballets (BMInt’s publisher, a New Orleans native, has provide you with data that ballet corporations existed there from the early 19th century, however no proof yet that any US composers created music for them), of which he wrote three. The primary was a 1918 commission from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which that firm by no means carried out (as choreographed by Diaghilev alumnus Adolph Bolm, it premiered in Chicago in 1919), on Oscar Wilde’s story “The Birthday of the Infanta.” The second was BMOP’s opening work, Krazy Kat, a Jazz Pantomime, written in 1921 and premiered in 1922, based mostly on George Herriman’s wildly widespread caricature (a ballet based mostly on the comics being yet one more historic first). The state of affairs, costumes and scenery have been by Herriman himself, and featured the unbelievable love triangle of the hermaphroditic cat, the mouse (s)he loves however who torments “them,” and Offisa Pup, the police canine who loves the cat and tries to shoo off the mouse. In line with Carpenter (and Gershwin) biographer Howard Pollack, “[i]n subtitling Krazy Kat ‘a jazz pantomime,’ Carpenter turned the first composer of concert music to use the word jazz in the title of a composition.” Listeners at this time could be puzzled by this, as there aren’t that many passages in the ballet that might strike present audiences as really jazz-like, aside from one prolonged quantity near the top (a chase scene). However the refined Carpenter did incorporate many rhythmic, melodic and harmonic features of what was then generally known as “candy” (versus “scorching”) jazz in the material of the score. It opens with a pre-curtain shiny flourish and, because the curtain rises on the sleeping Krazy, languid sighs. Rose was both meticulous and energetic in pointing up the glint of Carpenter’s vivid orchestration, with specific commendations because of the brasses and to Philipp Stäudlin’s suave saxophone solos. The tempi have been by no means rushed, however Rose stored every little thing shifting nicely.

After Krazy Kat came two items geared to the other major focus of the live performance, the 100th anniversary of Léon Theremin’s (né Lev Sergeyevich Termen) eponymous instrument. Theremin (1896-1993), educated as a cellist, was a prodigious inventor in acoustical electronics whose providers to the Soviet Union included inventing a burglar alarm and, more importantly, a spying system that enabled the NKVD/KGB to listen in on the American ambassador for years. While he spent considerable time within the US selling his instrument and unsuccessfully courting one in every of its earliest adopters, the previous violinist Clara Rockmore, he was not properly, as the program essay claims, an “émigré,” as his return to the united states in 1938 was in all probability not a KGB kidnapping however a hasty retreat after operating into financial difficulties. The primary composer to put in writing a work for theremin and orchestra was Joseph Moiseyevich Schillinger (1895-1943), a real émigré, and a revered and influential instructor whose students included George Gershwin, Henry Cowell, Earle Brown, Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke), and Lawrence (Lee) Berk, who included Schillinger’s pedagogy into the founding curriculum of what’s now Berklee School of Music. Schillinger’s First Airphonic Suite dates from 1929 and premiered with Theremin as soloist. On Friday that service came at the fascinatingly gesticulating fingers of Carolina Eyck, a German-Sorbian (Lusatian) virtuoso and writer of the only complete theremin technique.

Schillinger’s brief suite is a single motion in 4 sections, the primary of which is a prelude that, however for the theremin, comes throughout as quite old-school westernized Russian. Eyck impressed as much with dynamic expression (left hand positioning) as with the dexterity of pitch, and in both conveyed the swooning vocalise register that’s the instrument’s hallmark. The occasions crept into the piece in subsequent sections, with the finale a really proto-Hollywoodish swash of jazzy big-band noise. Profound music it isn’t, but in laying the inspiration for the instrument’s subsequent improvement it was a higher success than, say, the Arpeggione sonata.

Dalit Warshaw (Kathy Wittman photograph)

The primary half ended with the premiere we promised you above, a theremin concerto by New York based mostly Israeli born composer Dalit Warshaw, who is herself a outstanding theremin participant (she has performed on it beforehand with BMOP, although Eyck was the soloist for this premiere) who studied as a young person with the aforementioned Clara Rockmore, and in addition piano with Rockmore’s sister Nadia Reisenberg. Her concerto, entitled Sirens, is in three actions, the primary two of that are primarily tone poems, and the primary and third of which code their melodic content material to the names of this interlocking forged of characters (plus herself). The first, “Clara’s Violin,” opens ominously low, where the theremin ranges from a bassoony growl by means of a cello-like singing register, and the melodic nodules emerge. A snarly second part develops these materials and supplies an inexpensive range for virtuosity and speedy swoops. Once again, Eyck labored wonders with dynamic expression. There’s a fantastic passage on this movement with the theremin in its low vary towards smooth violin harmonics. There’s even something of a cadenza, which highlighted each the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument, the former being within the chameleonic coloration of timbres and scope for portamento, the latter being the flip aspect of that, the problem of clearly articulated notice separations.

The second motion, referred to as “Ulysses,” whence comes the overall concerto title, takes off, per the composer’s observe, from Kafka’s aperçu that the creepiest factor concerning the Sirens was the attraction they created once they stopped singing. The orchestra, taking the position of Odysseus’s sailors, groans and begs for extra, and pursues the more ardently when the theremin’s Sirens (properly, Siren, it being a single-line instrument) let up. After the theremin’s strains get longer, and a climactic passage ends with a swoop to silence, there is a great clamor, and then a gradual fade. In fact, we found the structural parts of this motion (and, certainly, a lot of the concerto) a bit arduous to parse, and consequently seeming quite arbitrary. The ultimate motion is a fugue, and with a fugue you all the time know the place you’re going, proper? Properly, it being a violation of the Music Coherence Prevention Act of 1965 to do something straightforwardly, this one is a bit fractured, with its fragmented subject bounced between instruments and choirs, and as an alternative of 1 countersubject, this one has a number of (utilizing, as famous earlier, motifs created from individuals’s names by some algorithm the composer didn’t disclose). Nonetheless, it’s a perky affair, with many percussive gewgaws, together with, oddly, a slide whistle that appears to be mocking the theremin (how many other concertos are you able to identify that undermine the solo instrument’s dignity?). Talking of the putative solo instrument, we found it getting misplaced in the thicket until proper close to the top, where it emerges, solely to fade to black.

The program booklet advised that the performance of both theremin items have been being recorded for final public launch. When that happens one can have a extra studied assessment of Warshaw’s concerto (the Schillinger has been recorded, in fact, and you’ll find some on YouTube). It appeared to us much less like a true concerto and more like a “theremin symphony.” We now have no quibbles with the performance, particularly by Eyck, who takes the instrument far beyond its spooky-noise novelty stereotype with all of the expressivity you anticipate from a live performance instrument performed by a master.

 When one thinks of the sound of the 1920s, particularly in Europe, nothing typifies it—defines it, really—higher than Kurt Weill. Weill is the sound of Weimar Germany, attested by the loving imitation by Kander and Ebb in Cabaret. From his most iconic product of the period, The Threepenny Opera, his second collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, he extracted in 1929 beneath the title Kleine Dreigroschenmusik a set, characteristically for the period set for winds, brass, percussion, piano and a number of other “people” devices (guitar, banjo, accordion). In seven (actually eight) brief actions, it captures all one of the best tunes and their deliciously and maliciously brittle articulation. The comparatively weak performance by BMOP in all probability testified more to Rose’s preoccupation with the other elements of the program. The ensemble’s sound was typically distant and mushy (the admirable clarinetist Gary Gorczyca suffered the dual insult of getting his advantageous solo in “Polly’s Track” coated and of getting his identify misspelled in this system booklet). There have been a number of excessive points, similar to Terry Everson’s muted trumpet and Yoko Hagino’s crisp piano; the penultimate motion, “Cannon Track,” was appropriately explosive.

Carolina Eyck performs theremin (Kathy Wittman photograph)

The top of this fairly lengthy presentation was properly well worth the wait, though. The excessive point of Carpenter’s 1920s output is undoubtedly the ballet Skyscrapers (1926). In Juy 1924 Carpenter met in Paris with Diaghilev, who recommended he write a ballet on an American topic. For sure, after a yr of forwards and backwards with piano scores and orchestration ideas, Diaghilev didn’t produce this ballet, either. It premiered on the Metropolitan Opera (Diaghilev disdained having to accept a European premiere). Vernon Duke thought one other purpose was that Diaghilev didn’t like American well-liked music, and this score had rather a lot that sounded like it.

While at first one thing derived from the Boston police strike of 1919 came to him, Carpenter got here around to a extra basic concept of one thing involving skyscrapers because the totem of American industrial life (and something particularly pricey to the hearts of Chicagoans, who in any case inhabited the town that invented them). He later wrote that the ballet “is just based mostly on the concept on this nation we work exhausting and play arduous.” This encapsulates additionally the perception, perhaps unique to Carpenter among composers who have tried “industrial music,” and maybe due to his place as a participant in American business, that the onerous information of organized industrial life had a flip aspect that no one else was seeing, the creation of organized leisure for the working stiff. From this elementary notion he ultimately created a state of affairs that divided into work/play/work. In the long run, the six-scene ballet reads like a tone poem, each because it’s properly integrated motivically, and since it plays out as a sort of rondo, with the “skyscraper” theme recurring periodically as the employees take into consideration and then bask in amusements in a Coney Island-like setting.

Subsequently, because of the setting, the thought, and Carpenter’s lengthy fascination with strands of what he referred to as “modern common music” (his 1912 violin sonata and 1917 piano concerto both have movements invoking the blues, and of course Krazy Kat used parts of jazz), Skyscrapers created a modernity of its own, with industrial music (Carpenter joked that it proved really exhausting to find a manufacturing unit whistle in F sharp), people parts (banjo, quoted or nearly-quoted hymns and people tunes, e.g. La Cucuracha), widespread music (there are two jaw-dropping moments by which Carpenter penned dead-on imitations of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin), and a mix of national types to attest to the multiplicity of the American urban scene.

Rose and the big orchestra (and refrain, which in Carpenter’s scoring was elective—Diaghilev didn’t prefer it) did themselves proud with their studying of this masterwork. They went full-bore into the sonorities of all the choirs, with out compromising their complicated polyphony; they dug deep into the Broadway sound of the halfway music. There were too many splendid particular person contributors to single out (the call-outs have been for sections), however to hear this piece stay was ear-opening. While Rose has a particular fondness for the theremin, BMOP should actually be recording these Carpenter items, whose historic and musical significance dwarfs that of the other music.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens School and New England Conservatory, and regulation at Harvard. A composer and training lawyer, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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