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A little modern music

Barbican Hall
05/21/1999 -  
Erik Satie Sept toutes petites danses pour Le Piège de Méduse
George Antheil Ballet mécanique -- Version for two player-pianos, six pianos and eleven percussionists
Igor Stravinsky Les noces

Valdine Anderson (soprano), Ann Taylor (mezz-soprano), Nigel Robson (tenor), Omar Ebrahim (baritone)
Ensemble Modern, Peter Rundel (conductor)

This delightful concert, in the Barbican Great Performers series, presented the euphoric face of modern music from the early part of this century, when the future seemed briefly to have arrived and to be full of wonderful toys and excitement. Ensemble Modern gave a terrific performance under Peter Rundel (from Friedrichshafen, home of the Zeppelin and the meshed gearbox). They found both the artificial, automatic aspects of the music that alienate its listeners and the dance forms and moods that invite their physical participation.

Satie's Le Piège de Méduse, written in 1913, is a comically absurd lyrical drama. The dances are performed between scenes by Jonas, a giant mechanical monkey, who is required among other things to scratch himself with a potato. The dances, in traditional forms, all carry their conventions slightly too far, but the effect is one of a child gleefully testing the possibilities of a game she has learnt rather than of a soulless machine. The small ensemble, consisting of clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, bass and percussion, made the music charming, and playfully detached at the same time.

Ballet mécanique was conceived in 1923 by George Antheil (from Trenton, New Jersey, alleged home of everything bad about industrial modernity, and not far from the home of Campbell's tomato soup and Walt Whitman) as the sound track of an abstract animated film, for sixteen synchronized player pianos. Technology couldn't get sixteen player pianos and a film to start at once, so Antheil rescored it for two player pianos and a number of humans playing regular instruments, and separated it from the film. (This performance is the first to reflect this scoring exactly. The first performance in 1925 used only one player piano.)

The result is a slightly monstrous but beautiful percussive dance that overloads the listener with sound and creates hypnotic suspense through assymetric periods of silence which seem to represent the machine slowly breaking down. Rundel and Ensemble Modern produced ravishing sounds, especially in the percussion, in a totally engaging performance.

Stravinsky's Les noces could in other hands be folkloric national music, unrelated to the century in which it was written. It is the simple enactment of the formal and informal rituals of a Russian village wedding, the replaiting of the bride's hair, the mothers' mourning for their lost children, the rude jokes and religious blessings, the making of the marriage bed and the final departure of the couple. Although the text assigns roles to the solo parts (the bride and groom, their parents and the bridesmaids and friends), there are only four solo singers and the chorus, and the work is more like a symphonic poem for voices than music theatre.

As with Ballet mécanique, it underwent a process of industrial-like redesign based on the constraints of its production. Stravinsky initially planned it as the second part of an orchestral trilogy, to follow the brutal, close-to-nature ritual of The rite of spring with a more human and civilized one in a village context. (Varèse's urban, artificial Amériques could have been the third part.) It developed into a brilliant, poetic mosaic of voices accompanied by four pianos and percussion. The strange, percussive instrumental textural highlights the artificial quality of the reworked tradition idioms, like acrylic yarn in bright synthetic colours used to make traditional woven fabric.

The overall effect is not quite human, but more directly moving than much of Stravinsky's reinvented traditional and classical compositions. There is a sense of play and community which is both full of life and automatic. The BBC Singers had all the notes in the right places, but somehow didn't have the impetus to get this over. But the soloists, particularly Valdine Anderson, had the right bravura. Nigel Robson performed like an ingenious clockwork Russian uncle.

The audience could have complained that there was only an hour and twenty minutes of music in this concert. But of course, everything is smaller in this modern age. And it was perfectly engineered and great fun.

H.E. Elsom



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