Satisfying Kotik, Interesting Ligeti, Subversive Cage and a Sprinkling from Young Composers

Kotik, Mincek, Ligeti, Francesconi, Chen, Cage: Daan Vandewalle (piano), Hana Kotkova (violin), Joseph Kubera (piano), The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, Ostravská Banda, Peter Kotik (conductor), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 13.04.2011 (GG)

Petr Kotik: In Four Parts 3, 6, & 11 (For John Cage)
Alex Mincek: Pendulum #7
György Ligeti: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Luca Francesconi: Riti Neurali
Carolyn Chen: Wilder Shores of Love
John Cage: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

While the intertwining threads of this concert were the piano and John Cage, the central focus was truly on Petr Kotik. As a flutist, conductor and composer, he consistently creates and performs some of the strongest, most fascinating and satisfying concerts in the modernist/experimental tradition of Western Classical music. His hallmarks are the combination of substantial ideas, taste and a rigorous, intelligent musicality that combines precision with involving expression. This particular concert brought together two ensembles he founded with music for which he is a long-standing, passionate and important advocate, sprinkled with attractive pieces from young composers.

Ligeti’s Concerto had been heard the previous month in this same city, under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen and in the hands of the formidable Marino Formenti, as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Hungarian Echoes” festival. It was natural to compare the two performances, and only mildly surprising that, under Kotik and Vandewalle, the music is clearer, makes more sense, breathes with more musicality and humor, and is simply even more interesting and enjoyable. (The Philharmonic’s reputation makes it more of a known, expected quantity, while the S.E.M./Ostravská simply don’t have the same number of performing and recording opportunities to impress their own exceptional quality into a permanent place in the listener’s mind.) Conductor and pianist share a light touch and a sharp focus, and throughout the piece, from the densest passages to the strange, haunting, microtonal ocarina chords, they revealed the continuous line in Ligeti’s thinking, his intention to stretch the concerto idea to its breaking point.

Cage’s Concerto, with Kubera at the piano, was played with even greater musical skill. In fact, the performance was almost subversive. The piece is built around two of his main concerns; measuring the flow of music through timed intervals, rather than beats and bars, and structuring the work to go against the intentional, expressive grain of classical music. So, as Kotik stood in front of the ensemble like a human clock, the musicians made their own choices as to what part and amount of notated music they played. We are not supposed to hear a personal viewpoint, a dramatic narrative, an antagonistic or homophonic, “heroic” relationship between the musicians and “soloist,” but the combined forces played their parts with such extraordinary skill, such fluid phrasing, that the notes and gestures, and their combinations, came out as deeply expressive – mysteriously so, and also quite beautiful. It’s an odd but important moment in history we’ve reached when musicians are both so skilled and understanding that Cage’s music might become impossible to play “correctly.”

The remaining works showed a creative turning away from these two deconstructions of form; they consciously built specific things. Francesconi’s piece, with Kotkova at the front, is a concerto in the old-fashioned sense and one in the style of Neo-Neo-Romanticism that conveys a powerful, abrading sense of emotion with rich doses of dissonance, and a sense of gestural freedom that comes out of both jazz and Cage. The music is intensely active and, with these musicians, always coherent, with broad, dramatic highpoints. It’s a gripping piece. Mincek and Chen showed a similar sensibility via different, personal idioms. Pendulum #7 is a representation of that object, the music swinging back and forth between two points, but doing so with a variety of colors and, most interestingly and effectively, with a complex rhythmic sense. Mincek’s pendulum is frequently interrupted between its dual zeniths, held still and in suspense for periods that range from tiny to breathlessly long. The sharp colors that the composer added on the alto sax were especially appealing. Chen’s piece, although it has the flow of containing a natural ending that the composer misses, extending the work past a culminating point of interest, is a gorgeous exercise in how Debussy’s colors and textures can be translated through a more complex set of timbres, harmonies and rhythms. Its strong parts were perhaps the most impressive moments of the concert.

That honor, though, should go to Kotik’s composition, which opened the evening. The paucity of recordings of his music in no way reflects his achievement as a composer, which is considerable. In Four Parts exemplified his qualities of a rigorously focused concept, and the sense that the results were achieved both through experimentation and intuition. The music sounds as if he laid out a thorough plan and then found that, when his ideas exploded past it, he went where they took him. The three percussionists begin by trading off rolls, combining accelerando and crescendo, then diminuendo and decelerando, the music breathing in and out like a giant. The piece moves into stretches of solos with accompaniment, the music coming out of both Cage and Ionisation, but wholly personal, then concludes in a long section that is quiet, haunting and lovely at first, then builds into loudness and even chaos. It has a sense of voices both crying for liberty and raging against the dying of the light. It is a mysterious, marvelous, thought-provoking work.

George Grella