The unpredictable sounds of an American Wolff in Dundalk

The composer Christian Wolff, of the New York School, was central to a memorable night in Louth

John Cage was happy to write in a letter of recommendation that Christian Wolff (above) ‘is not known as a student of mine for the reason that I learned more from him than he from me’

John Cage was happy to write in a letter of recommendation that Christian Wolff (above) ‘is not known as a student of mine for the reason that I learned more from him than he from me’

 

Heineken may not be brewed in Dundalk, but one of its most famous advertising slogans – about refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach – has more of a musical connection than just the fact that the voice-overs were done by the great Victor Borge.

The Louth Contemporary Music Society, which operates in Dundalk and Drogheda, regularly reaches out (on disc as well as in concert and through commissions) to composers and performers who don’t otherwise get much of a look-in in Ireland.

The LCMS was behind Marino Formenti’s innovative piano recital, Kurtág’s Ghosts, at last month’s Drogheda Arts Festival. Its latest project was to bring US composer Christian Wolff to the Green Church in Dundalk for a portrait concert last Saturday.

Wolff, who turned 81 in March, is the sole surviving member of the New York School, whose leading members were John Cage and Morton Feldman. Wolff, who was largely self-taught as a composer, earned a living as an academic in the field of classics before he became a professor of music. He may be the least well-known member of the New York School. Although he did have some early tuition from Cage, the latter was happy to write in a letter of recommendation that Wolff “is not known as a student of mine for the reason that I learned more from him than he from me”.

Wolff is one of those composers who likes to redraw the intersection between composition and performance, to empower performers by transferring to them a range of decisions that have traditionally been taken by composers. At the same time, he likes to make them dependent on each other in ways that are unpredictable from performance to performance.

It’s an idealistic undertaking, and many of Wolff’s scores define the process through which the musical material will be reached, rather than the material itself. What the performers are given to work with may be a set of instructions and directions, but not in the sense of a map.

Wolff’s world is one in which things that seem to be the same may not actually be the same at all. Step away from music for a moment and take the matter of travelling at 40 miles per hour. Do it in a jet taking off on a runway, on a bicycle going down a steep hill, in a high-powered luxury car, or in second gear in a small-engined car, and you will have very different experiences.

Composers have exploited the ways in which the same can be made different for centuries. There’s the technique of hocketing, in which alternate notes of a melodic line are swapped between voices. Try it with a friend on something as simple as Three Blind Mice to see how radical the change can be.

Louis Andriessen’s 1976 Hoketus makes the technique the whole point of a substantial piece. Tchaikovsky used it in the finale of his Pathétique symphony, hocketing the opening theme between first and second violins on its first appearance and giving it unbroken to the first violins on its fortissimo return.

Wolff’s concern is exactly the opposite of Tchaikovsky’s. Tchaikovsky set up a surefire scenario that guaranteed expressive richness the second time around. Wolff sets up scenarios in which, when the performers read each other’s intentions accurately and give and take and converge, surprising glows light up the music with a kind of magic. If those special moments don’t arise, the music can be dull and flat.

For Saturday’s concert, LCMS brought together the composer himself (on piano), cellist Rohan de Saram and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky. The programme was not fully disclosed in advance, different to what was given on the printed programme, and not fully divulged through soft-spoken announcements that were hard and sometimes impossible to decipher.

However, the performances of the ensemble pieces, the new Occasion (Trio VII), For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964), and Exercise 13 (1973-74) all had their jewel-like glows. The standouts among the solo pieces were de Saram’s performance of Cello Song Variations (Hallelujah, I’m a bum) (1978), representing a political strand in Wolff’s work, and Schulkowsky’s of Exercise 32 (2011-12). It was a mostly low-key evening, but a memorable one.

 

Close to Kazakhstan

At the opposite end of the scale was the closing concert of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season. Alan Buribayev, whose term as principal conductor has been extended for another 12 months, proudly opened the concert with a work from his native Kazakhstan.

The 1944 opera Abai, a collaborative composition by Akhmet Zhubanov and Latif Hamidi, is a work especially close to Buribayev’s heart. It is his country’s national opera, he has successfully conducted it in Paris and in Meiningen, and performed the Kazakh Folk Dances from it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Zhubanov is his maternal great- grandfather.

These short, colourful, folk-inspired pieces gave an unusual and zesty introduction to a very Russian-sounding account of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, and a very romantic – if not always sharp – performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

 

Cold comfort Cinders

The Lismore Music Festival has had more than its share of weather issues over the years. On Saturday, when I was in Dundalk, it was rain. On Sunday, when I caught up with Gerald Stollwitzer’s production of Rossini’s La cenerentola, it was the cold.

Still, there was wit and warmth aplenty in the production, with Irish mezzo soprano Carolyn Dobbin appealing in the title role; Puerto Rican tenor Javier Abreu an engaging Ramiro; Irish sopranos Norah King and Sandra Oman a flouncing, pouting pair of ugly sisters; and American bass-baritone Damon Nestor Ploumis an energetic Don Magnifico. Marco Zambelli and the players of his small ensemble also triumphed over the cold.

 

Piano winner

Only once in the history of the Dublin International Piano Competition, in 2003, has artistic director John O’Conor announced that the jury’s choice of winner was unanimous. There was no such announcement last week, when 19-year-old Nathalie Milstein took the top prize for her performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, making her the first female to win the competition.

I thought that Alexander Beyer (in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto) and Caterina Grewe (in Tchaikovsky’s First) were more solid on the night, and found Alexander Bernstein unduly four-square in Rachmaninov’s Third. The jury placed Bernstein second, Beyer third and Grewe fourth. Jason Stoll, the sole semi-finalist to choose the most interesting of this year’s test pieces (Donnacha Dennehy’s North Wall), was not rewarded for his efforts.

The prize for the best performance of one of the commissioned works went to Bernstein, for his performance of Gráinne Mulvey’s Interference Patterns. Seán Rooney took the bundle of prizes that went to the highest-placed Irish competitor.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com
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