Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 08, 2005


Live is better. I’d listened to different recordings of Ives’s 3rd Symphony dozens of times over the past 20 years or so but had never heard it live. From the first notes Saturday night at the Seattle Symphony -- chills and tingles. The beauty of the piece, and the sounds of the gorgeous instruments live in the room.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz had a decent way with the tempos and dynamics. A couple rubato “free” passages were a little stiffer than I had enjoyed on the recordings I own, but still, live is better.

This is true even though the violins frequently sounded out of tune to me, out of unison. I had thought so during the “Elegy” by Elliott Carter which opened the concert, but couldn’t trust my ears since I didn’t know the piece. But I’ve listened to the Ives 3rd many times, and the violins often sounded off. I could be wrong.

The point is -- despite prefering the performances on the recordings I own, the experience of hearing the music live -- it was a thrill.

The show’s other highlight was the recital of 4 Ives songs by marvellous tenor Thomas Harper, accompanied by pianist Michelle Chang. Two of the four songs -- “Rough Wind,” a setting a Shelley poem, and “At the River,” an adaptation of a hymn -- blew a hole in my mind and instantly filled it with their beauty. Harper’s mastery of diction and the subtle nuances and details of music-as-it-happens-in-time was equally commanding in the other 2 songs, but the songs themselves didn’t do me as much. But it was a wonder just to hear such an artist sing.

I wrote last night that the concert’s first half didn’t rise above “pretty” for me, and I called Roger Sessions’s serialist pieces for solo cello “corny.” I’m not sure what I meant by corny, or why I said it. Maybe it’s the gulf between the serialists’ self-regard as “the modern” and “the up-to-date,” and the actual nice sounds of the lovely cello timbre and the conservative relationship to pitch. Soloist Walter Gray worked hard and played beautifully. My irritated shrug is at the ideology, not the actual sounds. Sessions wrote the piece in 1966. The music that Partch, Cage, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane had made by that time is what makes serialism, or at least this piece, seem mannered in both senses -- over-filigreed, and polite.
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