Gelders Orkest’s Crowd-Pleasing Guide to Minimalism Was Unsure About How to Please the Crowd

NetherlandsNetherlands Riley, Richter, Glass, Pärt, Rautavaara, Reich, Ludwig-Leone, AdamsLavinia Meijer (harp), Het Gelders Orkest / Bas Wiegers (conductor), Musis Parkzaal, Arnhem. 18.1.2019. (SS)

Bas Wiegers & Lavinia Meijer
(c) Het Gelders Orkest/René Knoop

Terry RileyIn C
Max Richter — ‘Winter’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Recomposed
Philip GlassMetamorphosis 2
Arvo PärtCantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Einojuhani Rautavaara — ‘Swans Migrating’, third movement from Cantus Arcticus
Steve ReichClapping Music
Ellis Ludwig-LeoneShadowy Figures (world premiere)
John AdamsThe Chairman Dances – Foxtrot for Orchestra

Of the concerts I have attended that have pandering to the audience as their main goal, this one easily lands in the top five. Look at the works above: the musical programming equivalent of a policy that a centrist politician insists is universally popular because their hand-picked focus group liked it. And yet this prompts only so much annoyance. Orchestras that never give the Beethoven symphonies a rest and don’t care that they sound so stale are a more widespread problem for classical music than those which occasionally play Max Richter. The famous works on this program have become over-exposed in different contexts than the concert hall, such as commercial classical radio and high school music appreciation classes.

This concert actually took on a flavour of both those domains, with pedagogical commentary between nearly every piece by conductor Bas Wiegers or harp soloist Lavinia Meijer, but within an environment that was at pains to be relaxed, like the switch-on-and-bliss-out programs of commercial classical radio. The musicians of the Gelders Orkest were dressed casually, stage lighting was set to a trippy shade of blue, and the first piece, Terry Riley’s In C, even began before the hall opened.

Aside from anything else, this was a sneaky way of paying lip service to the composer’s guidance on the average duration of the piece, which Riley specifies as anything between 45 and 90 minutes. After nearly 20 minutes of playtime while people were milling around in the aisles, the lights dimmed and there was a 10 to 15 minute ‘performance’ in the conventional sense, so assuming that the musicians began playing 5 minutes before the doors opened, the performance had a decent length. But more interesting was the moment of dramatization this brought to Riley’s processes. It was very much a performance of two halves, with the processes in each remaining relatively static, but the switchover wasn’t wasted. A gradual crescendo from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte as the stage lights went up sounds mild-mannered, but this raising of the fourth wall came across as a gentle negotiation of consent with the audience, and it was good to see the musicians exploit its theatrical potential at the same time.

‘Winter’ from Max Richter’s ‘recomposition’ of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had a similar reticence, but channelled less effectively. The slow movement’s string harmonics are the clearest indication that Richter once studied with Berio, and to put his arrangement in an alternative light the musicians could have leaned more into the dissonances here. At the same time some (self-)conscious ‘artifying’ of the work went on, with playing that seemed almost primly determined to uphold standards of restraint and refinement more appropriate to, say, the late Beethoven string quartets. It is a bit late, nearly seven years after the release of his Four Seasons Recomposed album, to pretend Max Richter is something he isn’t. And what exactly is the strategy behind programming this crossover stuff at all, if the underlying conviction is that it isn’t quite respectable enough for the concert hall?

Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis 2 turned out to be music composed for The Hours, arranged and performed here by Lavinia Meijer. If you saw this movie you will remember the music because it was so oppressively scored. The arrangement for solo harp lifted all the suffocating weight of the film’s symphonic version and unlike the Richter, the playing was uninhibited and open. Meijer clearly likes Glass’s music and sees no shame in it, and if it is to be performed in a concert hall this seems a much less awkward way to do it.

Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten sounded fuzzy and flat, not at all like the raw, threnodic versions played on commercial classical radio but not exactly an improvement either. The final work on the program, The Chairman Dances, came off even worse: John Adams’s study for Nixon in China was listless and dreary. Bas Wiegers at least clicked when conducting the audience. For Clapping Music he split the hall down the middle and coached the audience in Steve Reich’s basic rhythm using the names of fruits. Helpfully, the Dutch ‘banaan’ only has two syllables.

When American composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone was breathlessly introduced as the ‘assistant of the assistant of Philip Glass’, I couldn’t help but think of the musicologist Chris Hailey writing of the Second Viennese School that it concocted a dynasty and its own right of succession out of thin air. The connection came about through Meijer, who got to know him in Canada, and now six years later he has a world premiere being performed by the European symphony orchestra where Meijer is artist-in-residence. We hear a lot about how important it is for aspiring composers nowadays to build up a network and a community, but this shows how that can pay off. ‘Assistant of the assistant’ refers unsurprisingly to Nico Muhly, and that’s the style Ludwig-Leone’s short orchestral piece, Shadowy Figures, was very reminiscent of. Like the music Muhly wrote to bring the Internet to life in Two Boys, the glossy writing in Shadowy Figures sounds like an Apple Store looks; not the kind of thing I need to hear all the time, but at least it sounds like it was written towards the end of the twenty-first century’s second decade. Ludwig-Leone also has the skill to make the most of a big orchestra without overdoing it.

The best performance was of ‘Swans Migrating’ from Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, which combines the landscapes of Sibelius with the Steigerungen of Bruckner. The orchestra’s brass sounded mellow and golden in the long crescendo, which Wiegers handled well, with the sound growing not only in volume but also depth. Too bad that in a concert of short works this final movement had to suffice.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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