Diamonds shine amid the roughness at Time’s Arrow Festival

Thu Sep 14, 2017 at 11:10 am
Marti Epstein's music was performed Wednesday at the Time's Arrow Festival.

Marti Epstein’s music was performed Wednesday at the Time’s Arrow Festival.

Igor Stravinsky said of Anton Webern, “Doomed to total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference, he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, of whose mines he had a perfect knowledge.”

If there is such a thing as the secret history of 20th century classical music, it is surely found in Webern’s music. One of the triumvirate of atonality—along with Schoenberg and Berg—Webern stood apart by making, in the words of composer Marti Epstein, music “that sounded . . .  like something new.”

Epstein and conductor Julian Wachner were discussing Webern Wednesday afternoon, prior to the second day of Trinity Wall Street’s Time’s Arrow Festival, which across this season and next will present all of his music and a substantial amount of what followed him.

Wednesday’s matinée was thin on Webern—the Konzert für 9 Instruments, Op. 24, and 5 Geistliche Lieder, Op. 15—and generous on those who followed him, including two works from Epstein that bookended the performance. Her music and that from Babbitt, Stockhausen, and Heinz Holliger, showed his legacy flowing down one substantial path of his legacy. As Epstein and Wachner described it, that included the obvious atonality, as well as Webern’s masterful pointillism and klangfarbenmelodie—the diamonds Stravinsky heard—and more subtly the movement away from an audible pulse.

The two Webern performances were inconsistent, the uneven quality presenting an inadequate picture of his achievements and the music’s importance. The playing in the Op. 24 Konzert from members of the NOVUS NY ensemble was surprisingly harsh, and the musicians left barely any of the fundamental, precious space that Webern scrupulously carved. It seemed they could not see the light nor hear the delicate, precise beauty within.

With mezzo Melissa Attebury conducting the ensemble while singing, the Op. 15 songs were more successful. Her singing was graceful, even though the St. Paul’s Chapel acoustics don’t flatter high voices, and the musicians followed her expressive lead. Webern does sound like something new, still, but he was also a fundamentally lyrical composer—Attebury and the musicians got this.

All the remaining performances were impressive. Babbitt’s and Stockhausen’s instrumental ensemble pieces, Composition for Twelve Instruments and the classic Kontra Punkte, were particularly well played. Even with Wachner furiously beating Stockhausen’s complex notated rhythms, the music in each performance floated free of any pulse while remaining clearly and solidly organized. Where the feeling of flow was absent from the Op. 24, in both of these the music glided along, the players sympathetic to the aesthetic and in expressive conversation with each other.

Soprano Charlotte Mundy sang Holliger’s Four miniatures for soprano, oboe d’amore, celesta and harp. This is a superb piece, honoring Webern with its precision, delicacy, and inner space, while in Holliger’s incisive, succinct voice. This was also the piece that, after Webern, made best use of klangfarbenmelodie. Oboist Stuart Breczinski equalled Mundy in expressive lyricism, and the soprano’s legato was effortless and silvery.

Epstein turned out to be the featured composer. A self-described minimalist like Webern, her opening Abraham Lincoln’s Mystic Chords of Mercy was modest and her closing Troubled Queen was the most substantial, and satisfying, contemporary work on the program.

Both shared a sense of melancholy darkness, and the juxtaposition of tonal counterpoint and tightly voiced, dissonant piano chords. Mystic Chords made for a minor overture, but Troubled Queen left a deep impression. A meditation on Jackson Pollock, the music rejected the obvious cognate of energy and dense activity for a slow, still rumination on possible ideas and meanings underneath the surface. Full of beautiful sounds, and expertly played, it held the attention and stimulated the imagination. The form itself, extended and sustained quiet music, followed by an equally quiet, and slow, repeated six note phrase, hinted at Webern’s more radical influence.

That is the story still to come, the enormous effect that Webern had on both John Cage and Morton Feldman and thus the music that has followed them, as with the current Wandelweiser movement. In one of those amazing coincidences in history, Cage and Feldman met at a New York Philharmonic concert in 1950, when both left after hearing Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21. More than his technique, it was Webern’s aesthetic of quiet, spaciousness, and gentle beauty, that set both men on their mature path—a path that one expects Trinity Wall Street to follow next season.

Time’s Arrow Festival concludes 8 p.m. Thursday at Trinity Wall Street. Admission is free. Concerts can be streamed at Music | Trinity Church

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