Irony in Contemporary Performances

Two weekends ago, I attended two concerts: one was the BPO performance at Kleinhans of a work by John Tavener for solo cello and orchestra, Popule Meus, and of Brahms Eines Deutches Requiem; the other was a performance at the Reformation Lutheran Church by Arabesque Winds, originally an Eastman-based woodwind quintet primarily devoted to performing contemporary works.  My experience of each concert was radically different, and I think it was especially marked because I heard them within a few hours of each other.

The first concert had an overtly spiritual theme – not religious, as the program took pains to remind me, but very spiritual.  The Tavener work is very new – the BPO was performing the NY premier.  The piece is a meditation on Micah 6:3: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” (ESV).  While this is explicitly Judeo-Christian in origin, the composer attaches a Universalist interpretation to it – “the wholesale rejection of God by modern man” (complete program notes here) – suggesting that however much man tries to to escape from God, he can’t because his nature is “condemned to the supernatural.”

The Universalist spin is a bit disturbing from the perspective of Christian theology, but the work is quite remarkable (this recalls a question in an earlier post – can we separate the artist and intentions of the composer from the work?).  The voice of God is represented by the cello, which is usually supported by a serene string accompaniment.  Man’s rejection of God is represented by the timpani, which overpowers the cello at various times, becoming increasingly violent as the work progresses.  Yet even at its most violent moments, the piece is never without the cello – its voice continues even when it is overpowered by the timpani, so that the presence of God – or the Absolute – is maintained, if not heard.

Musically speaking, the cello has some strikingly beautiful melodies, and its language is simple, direct and aesthetically appealing.  The work as a whole is evocative, and certainly conveys some truth about the Christian God, however incomplete.  God is rejected by his people, by the world, and he responds by reclaiming and making something lovely out of the messiness of human violence.  Man rejects God again and again, but God endures and is not lessened.  The composer may have intended to suggest that God is unchanged and that man is simply subsumed into the divine – a thought that does not hold a place in Christian theology – but the musical material does respond and change; the cello’s part remains beautiful, but grows in intensity and poignancy, and the timpani’s violence is interwoven with the transcendent cello to suggest a more complete picture of the relationship between the two.

This work was followed by Brahm’s German Requiem, which is a marvelous work.  The program emphasized Brahm’s avoidance of the words  “Jesus” and “Christ” in order to widen the scope of the text.  In spite of this, I was struck by the Scriptures chosen and by their musical expression.  Since a Requiem is sung, the text is actually set in the music (unlike the text of the Tavener).  Brahms may have chosen texts and modified them slightly, but he nevertheless uses Christian themes, drawing on the Beatitudes and the Psalms and Prophets to convey the Lord’s conquering of death so that the dead are blessed.

The moment that most moved me was in the sixth movement, where the choir sings the verses quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55: “Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?” (KJV).  The power and the majesty of the music is awesome in the true sense of that word.  Again, I’m drawn to the truth expressed in an indescribable way in this music.

From this concert, I went almost directly back to Rochester to hear the Arabesque Winds.  Their concert was themed, based on works inspired by birdsong.  In an effort to promote fellow artists, the performers had invited several visual artists to display their work at the back of the room.  While I applaud this effort, I struggled to appreciate the concert as a whole.  The works for solo flute and solo oboe were expressive, especially the latter work: Stolen by Hannah Lash.  In general though, the ensemble pieces were abstract, highly dissonant, an dhad more the character of the absurd and cacophonous side of birdsong rather than the lovely, natural side.  The quality of playing was impressive; the ensemble is extremely precise and rhythmic as well as musical.  But the works were not very accessible, and I struggled to hear them as musical, expressive entities.

Understand me – I am a music theorist, and I can understand and appreciate the abstract.  I can admire and enjoy dissonance.  But there is something ineffable that I always listen for, something that defies description and explanation (which is frustrating, in a way, to someone like me).  Some contemporary and twentieth-century music taps into or expresses this – many works by Bartok, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Schnittke, Berg, and sometimes Schoenberg, Rutter, and even that work by Tavener – but so often contemporary music is absorbed in its own dissonance and absurdity and abstraction that it forgets to express, or it expresses pain and awkwardness and terror with no redemptive qualities.  Not all the pieces in the Arabesque Winds concert could be categorized this way, but several of them struck me as experiments that had forgotten that the sound that reaches the audience matters.

I am afraid this may be a controversial post – let it be said once more that I am not afraid of contemporary music and that I am capable of admiring it.  I also love non-programmatic music and non-“spiritual” music in the explicit sense used above.  But I found a certain irony sitting in a lovely sanctuary bedecked with banners proclaiming Jesus’ name, listening to this artistically played but otherwise jarring and disconcerting performance – especially after sitting in a secular hall in which I had heard both contemporary and Romantic music that had expressed so much more, both musically and extra-musically – not without ugliness, but with a higher purpose.


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