The (More Than) Full Varèse: Completed Works and Others
By Allan Kozinn, The New York Times
Originally published July 21, 2010; full text and original article visible here.
“Lincoln Center has taken the idiosyncratic view in recent years that because classical music is the center’s main business, the Lincoln Center Festival should mostly steer clear of it. Last summer the festival’s classical programming was a single duo-piano recital. So it was heartening to see the music of Edgard Varèse given a prominent berth this year.
Pulling together a handful of groups — the International Contemporary Ensemble, So Percussion and Musica Sacra, conducted by Steven Schick at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, and the New York Philharmonic and the Oratorio Society of New York, led by Alan Gilbert at Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday — the festival did this iconoclastic French-born American composer proud.
All of Varèse’s works were presented in appropriately rambunctious performances. The survey was actually more than complete: included, along with classics like “Déserts” (1954), “Ionisation” (1929-31) and “Amériques” (1918-21, revised 1929) were four scores that Varèse left unfinished or in various states of disrepair, performed in the completions written by the composer (and Varèse student) Chou Wen-chung. Two were slight (the circusy “Dance for Burgess,” composed for a failed musical starring Burgess Meredith in 1949, and “Tuning Up,” a fantasy on an orchestra’s tuning ritual (written for the film “Carnegie Hall” in 1947, but not used), and two were substantial (the vocal works, “Étude pour Espace,” from 1947, and “Nocturnal,” from 1961). But any would make a welcome addition to the canon.
Varèse has long been a name to conjure with in new-music circles, and elsewhere too: the rock musician and composer Frank Zappa consistently cited him among his influences and published a touchingly naïve but enthusiastic essay, “Edgard Varèse: The Idol of My Youth,” about his early encounters with his music, and an attempt to meet Varèse himself. The brassy pop band Chicago admired him too, saying that Varèse expanded the group’s ideas about what was possible, and opening its fifth album with a song called “A Hit by Varèse.”
Classical players see Varèse as a fountainhead of experimental modernism — an early advocate for the notion that percussion can be a central, motivating force in music, and an early dabbler in electronic sound, sometimes (as in “Déserts”) combined with acoustic instruments. That said, Varèse’s involvement with electronic music can be overstated. He produced only one purely electronic work, the “Poème Électronique” (1958), though it is so beautifully constructed you can only wish he had continued. (That work opened the Monday evening program.)
Varèse’s music turns up on a handful of programs every season and occasionally in an ambitious retrospective. (Speculum Musicae offered a superb overview at the Miller Theater, in 2000.) But until this week’s celebration the full scope of his achievement has been most easily examined on recordings, not least those made by Pierre Boulez with several ensembles over the years.
Both of Lincoln Center’s programs were packed, and perhaps the title of its series — “Varèse: (R)evolution” — offered a reason. As gimmicky as that parenthetical R may seem, the crucial point it (and the performances) made was that as explosive and timbrally exotic as Varèse’s music can be, its structures are actually comfortingly traditional.
But one difference between Varèse and other modernists (and particularly Serialists) is that when Varèse’s music is not being assertively noisy it is built of shapely, smoothly flowing melodies rather than the angularity that characterizes so much contemporary music. Yes, these are wildly dissonant works. The Philharmonic’s energetic but surprisingly supple performances of “Amériques” and “Arcana” (1925-7, revised 1960) and the International Contemporary Ensemble’s vigorous account of the pounding, brass-heavy “Hyperprism” (1923) reveled in Varèse’s thick clouds of sound. But perhaps audiences tolerate dissonance so long as a work offers melody and structure, and those were elements Varèse never abandoned.
The performances were consistently polished and solid, but several stood out. Anu Komsi, a Finnish soprano, brought an expressive warmth to the early “Grand Sommeil Noir” (1906) and two of Mr. Chou’s completions, the intricate “Étude pour Espace” and “Nocturnal,” with its velvety vocal line offset by almost whispered Sprechstimme. Alan Held, a bass-baritone, produced exactly the right sepulchral tone for “Ecuatorial” (1934), an imaginative, quasiritualistic work based on Mayan writings, and using a pair of Theremins.
Mr. Schick, who more typically wields percussion mallets than a baton, but who is part of the growing list of percussionists-turned-conductors, oversaw skillfully balanced performances of those works and the pointillistic, partly electronic “Déserts.” And Claire Chase, the International Contemporary Ensemble flutist (and founder) gave an animated, sharply articulated account of the solo flute work, “Density 21.5” (1936).
You might have thought Mr. Schick and company could not be topped, but then Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic turned up to show — as it did in Ligeti’s “Grande Macabre” a few weeks ago — what this orchestra can do when it steps away from the 19th-century canon. The rumble, roar and magnificent intricacy of “Ionisation” and “Octandre” (1923) were thrilling for their drive and textural changeability. But the real highlight was “Amériques,” usually a barnstormer — or, really, a tornado that hurls a barn across a field — but here offered as a subtle essay in the distance between brutal volume and gentle delicacy.”