Chamber Music Society finds beauty among the thorns in contemporary program
No single performer with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had more work cut out for him in the society’s season opener than pianist Michael Brown. The young keyboardist was onstage for four of the six pieces presented at New York’s Kaplan Penthouse on Thursday night, and all complex, demanding compositions, many in the category of 12-tone music.
So it was a relief, and an exhilaration, to see and hear Brown ably run a gantlet of modern classical taskmasters, in order: George Perle, Jonathan Harvey, Andrew Norman and Friedrich Cerha.
There was no breezing through the program. As Brown and oboist James Austin Smith took their bows following one of the pieces — Norman’s labyrinthine, five-part Garden of Follies (2006) — they smiled with both pleasure and gratitude that they had survived it.
Brown, Smith and five other musicians succeeded in bringing all these imposing works off of sheet music that must look like a mashup of equations and scribbles, and fully to life for an audience.
The CMS dedicated two of the evening’s six segments to Perle’s work in a concert marking the centennial birthday year of the late composer and scholar. The author of the acclaimed Serial Composition and Atonality (six editions and counting since publication in 1962), Perle won both a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant in his lifetime, and counted Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein as friends.
Brown opened the program as a soloist, performing three of Perle’s Six Celebratory Inventions for Piano (1981-1995). These were birthday greetings to friends and mentors, composed in Perle’s signature style — a tuneful dissonance he dubbed “12-tone tonality”
In this table-setting trio of short pieces, quick turns of traditional harmony and melody nestled inside of chromatic runs and bursts, requiring light and heavy touches in a cheerfully relentless alternation that Brown handled deftly.
He and flutist Sooyun Kim followed with Harvey’s Nataraja (1983), which, as its name suggests, radiated more Eastern tonal coloring, while still fitting with a celebration of the Perle aesthetic and its consideration of music’s mathematical, spatial and physical properties.
If Brown and Kim (on flute and piccolo) were a more compatible duo playing Harvey than Brown and Smith playing Norman, that was on the composers. Nataraja is a more concise and purposeful work than Norman’s sprawling Garden — the latter adorned with New Age-y subtitles like “Crossed Paths” and “Regarding Crystals.”
With Five Pieces for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (2000), by Friedrich Cerha, Brown partnered with Jose Franch-Ballester on woodwind and Nicholas Canellakis as the evening’s only string player.
Up the block on Thursday night, the Metropolitian Opera was performing Alban Berg’s Lulu, a 12-tone tour de force completed by Cerha after Berg’s death. At Kaplan Penthouse, Cerha’s Five Pieces was getting impassioned treatment, and putting Brown, Franch-Ballester and Canellakis through intense paces in a challenging, almost a-harmonical work.
For all of the discordant, difficult music on offer, two pieces stood out for their haunting and lyrical harmonic beauty: Perle’s Quintet No. 4 for Flute, Oboe, Clarient, Bassoon, and Horn (1984) and the New York premiere of Paul Lansky’s The Long and Short of It (2015), a CMS co-commission featuring the same instrumental lineup as the Perle Quintet.
With Lansky himself in attendance, the performances of his and Perle’s thrived with the help of what was essentially a stellar rhythm section — Marc Goldberg on bassoon and Eric Reed on horn, anchoring the low end and setting the pace, but also joining their counterparts on harmonizing lines that rose like gentle updrafts.
Lansky joined the musicians onstage after The Long and The Short of It for a well-deserved bow, basking in the audience’s appreciation of a piece that went time-tripping from the glories of Mozart and Bach to the patterning and repetition of Philip Glass.
Even as dissonant music retains a reputation for being unapproachable, it’s worth noting how normalized it has become in contemporary culture, particularly in film and television, which are replete with atmospheric scoring nowadays that relies as much on disharmony and sounds instead of notes. Perle may be more “popular,” based on the spread of his ideas if not his name, than we know.