At Juilliard, a Blizzard of John Cage

United StatesUnited States Focus! 2012, Sounds Re-imagined: John Cage at 100: Soloists, Joel Sachs (conductor), Peter Jay Sharp Theater, The Juilliard School, New York City. 27.1.2012 (BH)

All-John Cage

59 ½” for a String Player (1953)
Nocturne for violin and piano (1947)
Living Room Music (1940)
In a Landscape (1948)
Theatre Piece (1960)
“John Cage speaks” (selections from Indeterminacy)
Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2), for 12 radios, 24 players and conductor (1951)
Postcard from Heaven, for harps (1982)
Aria, Aria 2, and Aria 2B, from Song Books, Vol. I (1970) with solos from Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58)

Not to make too big a deal out of it, but Joel Sachs opens with a gratifying statement in his typically erudite program notes for this year’s Focus! Festival, called Sounds Re-imagined: John Cage at 100: “The very fact that The Juilliard School celebrates the centennial of John Cage’s birth with the enthusiastic support of the administration and students testifies to the transformation of Juilliard, its students, and Cage’s reputation in the last three decades.” Given the strong opinions about both the composer and his music, a week of Cage concerts could be considered surprising, but the festival’s opening night turned the Peter Jay Sharp Theater into an exhilarating party.

Aside from some superbly committed performances by Juilliard students (and I heard there were a huge number of requests from musicians to be included this year), what distinguished the week’s first night was the astonishing range of works covered – most from the 1940s and 1950s, with Postcard from Heaven giving a peek into Cage during the 1980s. Here seven harps (Caroline Bembia, Yeon Hwa Chung, Emily Hoile, Ashley Jackson, Gwenllian Llyr, Angelina Savoia and Katherine Siochi) show a busy metropolis of an afterlife, as if heaven were teeming with angels at some celestial cocktail party.

Cage’s philosophical concerns were everywhere to be found, perhaps most obviously in Theatre Piece, in which participants use an array of bottles, plastic cups, bubble wrap, plants, a baseball, a laptop computer, adhesive tape, hand tools and pieces of paper, and combine them with physical activities specified as the performers work out the score (e.g., screaming, walking, jumping, conversation). Sachs emphasizes that the work is not improvised; the musicians decipher Cage’s instructions to create a unique finished version. The eight players (Yuri Boguinia, Michael Bukhman, Zachary Green, Michael Ippolito, Khari Joyner, Michael lee, Jared Miller and Kristen Wojcik) seemed to be having a deadpan blast, parading around the stage and involving the assorted props in sequences that were frequently amusing and never dull.

Even more potent was Living Room Music, in which four percussionists first assembled the set in which they would perform: a free-standing door leading to a small living room with a coffee table in the middle (and a pizza box), and at left, a kitchen dining table. What began as a pizza party with the four players (Charles Rosmarin, Brian Shank, Jeremy Smith and Andrew Stenvall) turned into something else when the guys began tapping an ashtray and a beer bottle in intricate patterns. A move to the kitchen provided the opportunity to bang utensils before returning to the living room, this time with rhythmic body slapping – all very clever (and cleverly staged: as the quartet departed, one chose to exit through the still-standing door, carefully closing it as he left, with a bit of audience laughter in his wake).

Theatrical elements could also be seen in the 24-person “Südwest Juilliard Radio Symphony” and its performance of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2), with pairs of musicians operating twelve radios (one person at the frequency dial, the second controlling the volume), all conducted by Sachs with sober authority. (A droll program note acknowledged “members of the Juilliard community who graciously loaned some of the historically-appropriate instruments [i.e., radios] required for this composition.”) And the concert ended with two singers, Lara Secord-Haid and Davone Tines, offering entertaining takes on Aria, Aria 2, and Aria 2B, from Song Books, Vol. I (1970), performed simultaneously with solos from Concert for Piano and Orchestra, the latter adroitly handled by the New Juilliard Ensemble.

Elsewhere, the program showed some of Cage’s delicate creations such as the exquisite, Debussy-esque In a Landscape, played by Oskar Jezior, and Nocturne for violin and piano (Stefani Collins and Robert Fleitz) with the former in wan, pale strokes set against grand piano arpeggios that seem to be channeling Liberace. Patrick McGuire opened the evening – strikingly – with 59 ½” for a String Player, and during its ephemeral length seemingly every surface of his cello (including the endpin) was mined for its sonic possibilities.

As a sort of palate-cleanser after intermission, Sachs selected four of the 90 stories from Indeterminacy, Cage’s landmark recording from 1959 created with David Tudor. Each of the vignettes – whatever its length – is to be read in sixty seconds. A story with fewer words will have pauses between them to fill the time; one with more words turned into a verbal flood, with the composer’s lightly rhapsodic voice speeding up to cram in every last syllable.

Bruce Hodges