Back to the Future with “Delirious Serialists”

United StatesUnited States Maderna, Nono, and Boulez: Maria Mannisto (alto), Seattle Modern Orchestra, Julia Tai and Jeremy Jolley (conductors), Poncho Hall, Cornish College, Seattle, 8.2.2013 (BJ)

The future of music is not what it used to be. Attending the concert presented by Cornish College in Poncho Hall on Friday evening felt like being caught in a time warp.

Early in the 20th century, the malign influences of Sigmund Freud in psychology and Arnold Schoenberg in music helped to usher in a generation of composers who had the notion that the infliction of pain was a necessary component of any art that could lay claim to serious substance. In the 1950s, when all three works on this program were composed, the aesthetic of what, from today’s vantage point, I am inclined to call the “avant-derrière garde” dominated Western concert music.

The domination was imposed in part by the influence of university music departments in the United States and of high-minded radio stations and specialized music festivals across Europe. To a large degree, however, it may be said that the stylistic norms then prevalent have been superseded by a much freer, more pluralistic range of creative thinking, to the benefit of audiences, and certainly of the health of music as a living art. “Modern,” one might say, is no more a valid term to describe the present-day compositional scene than “authentic” is in the field of old-music performance, or than “originality” was in the general context of musical creation until the romantic 19th century first made a fetish of it.

Happily, the program of “Delirious Serialists” put together by the Seattle Modern Orchestra’s co-artistic directors, Julia Tai and Jeremy Jolley, was savvy enough to include two pieces—Bruno Maderna’s Serenata No. 2 and Luigi Nono’s Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica—that largely transcended the austere aesthetic of their period. They illustrated how much more open the Italian component of the then-modernistic movement was to the admission into its music of lyricism, charm, and—yes!—even beauty than were its counterparts in other countries. The Italian manner typified by those composers was neatly summed up by one commentator, Henri Pousseur, as characterized by “an extraverted good humor, sensual rather than sentimental.”

As its title already suggests, Maderna’s Serenata is essentially entertainment music, and its chamber-orchestra scoring happily exploits gleaming instrumental sonorities and positively playful rhythmic excursions. Maderna was a composer who loved sensual effects—his Continuo is the most luxuriantly sensuous piece of electronic music I have ever heard—as did Nono, whose piece, if somewhat sterner, is also well supplied with luscious moments. These qualities were vividly realized under Julia Tai’s direction, though from a visual point of view her technique, uneconomically and confusingly duplicating the beat with her left hand in the manner Adrian Boult used to describe as “the Grecian vase effect,” could use some simplifying. Still, it is the results that matter in the end, and in this concert they were for the most part impressive, which evidenced careful rehearsal and skillful players.

Instead of Berio, the third member of the 1950s Italian modern triumvirate, the second half of the program gave us French composer Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître, for voice and six instruments, which was hailed by Stravinsky as the most important new work of that period. It comes much closer than the Italian works to the “snap-crackle-pop” idiom typical of ’50s modernism, and for that reason I personally find it much less attractive, but the performance again seemed admirably assured, and alto Maria Mannisto gave a thoroughly alluring account of the vocal part.

From the start of the concert, the actual music immediately gave the lie to the description of serial techniques explained by Tai and Jolley before the performance began. But that, too, is fine: composers are artists—they make rules, but they don’t always follow them. As a result, art, fortunately for the rest of us, elbows system aside.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.