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Mr. Barry’s Apotheosis of Lapidary Kitsch

New York
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard School
10/03/2017 -  
John Woolrich: The Devil in the Clock – After the Clock (First performances outside the United Kingdom)
Gerald Barry: Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions (New York Premiere)
Raminta Serksnytė: Almond Blossoms (United States Premiere)
Akira Nishimura: Chamber Symphony No. 1 (Western Hemisphere Premiere)

New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs (Musical Director and Conductor)

J. Sachs (© Juilliard School)

“For years, I had no idea there was anything but good music. As it was music, I assumed it was good. Most of my isolated Irish boyhood was spent in an altered state, every piece I happened on was a new beginning...those early years of not-knowing were the best.”
Gerald Barry, introductory notes to Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions.

With his usual unassuming manner, Joel Sachs gave a program of ambitious premieres last night, with four different chamber ensemble made of Juilliard students, and an attitude that this was the simplest music in the world. Nothing seems to challenge either him or his musicians, though–obviously–the works themselves had variegated qualities.

(What did Croce say? That only mediocre art is always at its best.)

To me, the first and last works were head and shoulders above the rest. But we come to them later.

The opening two pieces by British composer John Woolrich, were, if not dodecaphonic, at least atonal–and “a-emotional” at this first hearing. They were morose, the lines were like old telephone-receiver wires, dangling, curved in among themselves, almost impossible to extricate. His Devil in the Clock was dank and mysterious. His following After the Clock he calls “a black and raucous capriccio”. It was written for the London Sinfonietta, whose conductor, David Atherton, would have been overjoyed with its knotty schemata. It was written by a composer who obviously knows every tittle and dot of musical theory, but I didn’t get it.

It was not difficult to “get” Raminta Serksnytė’s Almond Blossoms, based on three paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. In fact, the Lithuanian composer, was a superb tone-painter here. Perhaps First Rays in the Early Spring was too Daphnis-like. But what else do you do with such a title? The next The Feeling of the Last Spring To Have Come and Almond Blossoms were both clever, both gave off the most subtle colors (a guitar replacing first violin), and nobody could regret the Stravinsky Shrovetide Fair opening of the last movement.

But now we come to what I consider the most exceptional music of the evening.

First, the marvelous Akira Nishimura’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. Any time I hear the music of Mr. Nishimura, I feel blessed. His piano work,Ten Etudes hides the most magical measures. His Sonata II: Trance Medium was equally mystical–without trying to be clever at all.

And now with his Chamber Symphony, he modestly declares it to have “the qualities of a ritual.” No, to any who have experienced Japanese–or far more likely–Korean shamanistic rituals, this work has the color, the strange octave passages, the impenetrable sounds which verge on movie-style Oriental gongs but actually possess the shadowy sounds of ghostly reflections.

Mr. Sachs might have felt a deep affinity for this work, having spent considerable time in Mongolia, one of the touchstone areas for shamanistic rituals. Mr. Nishimura never touched on the classical austere Shinto rituals here. Just as his Sonata was more tantalizing than Tantric (though actually both), this Chamber Symphony flashed the auras of eternally countryside shaman chords while giving a technical circular finesse from first to last chord.

My favorite work, though, was Gerald Barry’s Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions. Which did not refer to Morton Feldman, but the little London music store from whence young Irish lad Barry mail-bought his music.

And as the quotes above this story show, he learned to love, adore, revere every boring exercise, ersatz march, crazy image (The Dog Barks, the Caravan Moves On). The result of these eight movements is simply utterly impossible to describe.

Yes, the jokes were on the threshold of Mozart’s Musical Joke (not the catastrophic ending, but the dumb cliches in between). Satie would have loved it (the finale was explained as The Innermost Secret of Debussy cooking pork chops for Satie). And while the music structure was based on childish essays, the complexities were overwhelming.

One thinks of Jie Fang playing a piano solo in Home Thoughts: a plinky-plunky tune played at breakneck speed each single note a minor second. One gets the dissonant “dog bark” followed by more weird music. Or the horrible Clementi-style simple exercise in the opening Martial Steps.

Actually, each of the eight movements had the masterful basis of taking a kitschy style and changing it before our ears into a rendition both funny and profound. Not exactly changing the mood, but masquerading jejune styles, keeping the feckless originals and allowing us to peer through to another mood, another character.

I loved it, smiled and would have laughed out loud. But the audience took it very seriously indeed, so perhaps Mr. Barry’s work was as sobring as the preceding Devil in the Clock.

It wasn’t. Mr. Barry gathered up antediluvian permanent planets and with sleight-of-hand gave us new fungible universes, and the result was a manic mélange of both.

Harry Rolnick



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