The avant-garde quality of Feldman feels new again at Bargemusic

Sat Jul 31, 2021 at 12:22 pm
Violinist Jesse Mills and pianist Rieko Aizawa performed Morton Feldman’s For John Cage Friday night at Bargemusic.

Those of a certain age with good memories will recall hot summer-night concerts in the garden at the Museum of Modern Art, where young musicians would play avant-garde classics like John Cage’s string quartets and Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? The setting and the choice of these two avatars of the New York School of composers—and of 20th century music—made Cage and Feldman, like a solo saxophonist in Central Park, one of the real and deep sounds of summer in the city.

Friday night at Bargemusic, concertgoers had the same kind of experience, just as profound and memorable, as violinist Jesse Mills and pianist Rieko Aizawa played Feldman’s For John Cage. The pair had a superb blended sound and played the music together with a precision and musicality that, along with the circumstances of the concert, produced a many-layered experience. This was as beautiful as Feldman’s music can be played.

For John Cage is part of Feldman’s long stretch as a composer firmly in the Western classical tradition. His voice remains singular and contemporary, but he wrote chamber music that is at the modern apex of the tradition, and though at its sharpest point, is still within the boundaries, not ahead of them.

Mills and Aizawa laid this out with an ease and focus that is explained by both technical mastery and conceptual understanding. They played the piece like it was a Beethoven violin sonata—with a clear long line through the piece to the end, like it was a logical large-scale journey through time, rather than a chain of interesting but discrete ideas. Beethoven is part of a common practice and, even played or heard for the first time, one of his sonatas will have enough formal familiarity that one can anticipate where it will go. Feldman is not like that, but Mills and Aizawa played For John Cage like he is—every moment sounded like it was preparing the next.

The other fundamental virtues of chamber music were there in their performance, especially the exceptional coordination between the two, and the responsiveness when the music came together with simultaneous material, or when Feldman has one instrument finish a phrase the other started. Phrasing was the key—the two played every single attack and short line with the idea of a beginning, middle, and end.

There were so many wonderful details: subtle but clear changes in dynamics, absolute clarity and precision in each rhythmic statement and variation. Mills’ sound production was full of variety and richness. Playing through the mute, he was at times silvery or throating, whispering or singing. Aizawa had a marvelous range of touch, sometimes quick and sharply delineated, other times slow and cottony.

This was beautiful in and of itself and also essential in realizing Feldman’s ideas. The slight variations in rhythm, phasing, and dynamics from one measure to the next were clear and meaningful, and what made the performance so exceptional was how supple it all felt, and how each moment was part of a larger whole that always hovered in the background. 

The way Feldman’s music sits in the now while quilting together a broad and deep fabric is one of the special things about his place in history. Many performances deliver the fascinating now; this was the rare one that always had the whole 75-minute world in view the entire time. Feldman can be as inevitable as Beethoven, and Mills and Aizawa made him so.

There were maybe ten people in attendance, and it was impossible to fathom how this could be the case. Feldman is never going to be as popular as Mozart or Beethoven, but he has an important historic and active presence in New York City concert life with a devoted following among listeners and musicians. 

In a way, though For John Cage dates from 1982, Friday’s event felt like the past transmuted to the present: a kind of ‘50s era concert when Feldman was among the hardcore of the avant-garde, drawing tiny crowds of aficionados and the curious. It felt like it might have been like this hearing the work when it was a premiere—with just the avid in attendance, urgently wishing the music had wider exposure.

Reiko Aizawa plays Feldman, Cage, Augusta Read Thomas, and Mozart, 6 p.m. Saturday at Bargemusic.

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