At Juilliard, Focus! 2012 Concludes its Celebration of John Cage

United StatesUnited States Focus! 2012, Sounds Re-imagined: John Cage at 100 (Concert VI): Soloists, New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, New York City, 3.2.2012 (BH)

Katya Gruzglina, soprano
Lilla Heinrich Szász, soprano
Nathaniel LaNasa, prepared piano
Allegra Chapman, piano

All-John Cage

Fourteen (1990) with Litany for the Whale (1980)
The Seasons (1947)
John Cage speaks (selections from Indeterminacy)
Five movements from Sixteen Dances (1950-51)
Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1950-51)
Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) with Aria (1958)

Why doesn’t The Seasons – John Cage’s first ballet score, written for Merce Cunningham – show up on concert programs more often? Perhaps more than any Cage score I’ve ever heard, this one, with a whiff of Debussy, would seem to please all but the most ardent Cage naysayers. Written for a large chamber ensemble, the work’s luxurious, transparent string chords drift by, crest, and disappear, and Joel Sachs and the New Juilliard ensemble gave them a shimmering transparence in this final concert of Focus! 2012 titled Sound Re-imagined: John Cage at 100. I could easily see it programmed (with or without irony) with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, imparting added resonance to both.

The lively first half began with two works performed simultaneously: Fourteen (denoting the number of players) and Litany for the Whale (for two voices). In the latter, Katya Gruzglina and Lilla Heinrich Szász were the two sopranos, whose chant-like tones were slowly engulfed by the slow-moving rhythms of the chamber ensemble (all standing). It would probably sound terrific in a church. On an interesting technical note, the piece requires bowed piano, which as Sachs explained would have been a “logistical nightmare,” so a keyboard was used instead, programmed to replicate the delicate sounds.

As in the first night, Sachs played some of the selections from Indeterminacy, with the composer musing on everything from high society to travel to gathering mushrooms. Sixteen Dances was based on Hindu culture and also choreographed by Cunningham, and here the musicians presented five of the sections, with their icy sounds and frequent silences. Nathaniel LaNasa was the excellent soloist in Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, with the doctored instrument producing delicate timbres ranging from faint overtones to percussive rattling. (If it seemed perhaps slightly too long, it’s no fault of the performers; I am aligned with those who think that not all of Cage’s scores are equally successful.)

The evening closed with a hilarious composite of Concert for Piano and Orchestra – with Allegra Chapman as the soloist – with Ms. Szász returning to add Aria to the mix. While the musicians played, vocalized and deconstructed their instruments – the trombonist here was particularly riveting, blowing through the mouthpiece alone and dropping his mutes – the soprano fleshed out the fiendish difficulties of the vocal part. At one point, a particularly piercing, call-an-ambulance-now-caliber scream ignited a brief wave of laughter in the large, warmly responsive audience – a fitting end to an evening that would have had Cage himself smiling.

Bruce Hodges