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Friendly American Avant-Garde

Walter Hall
07/28/2015 -  
John Cage: 32 Questions – The Seasons – In a Landscape
Morton Feldman: Two Intermissions
Charles Ives: Violin Sonata No. 4 “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting”
John Zorn: Cat O’ Nine Tails

Pedja Muzijevic (piano), Harumi Rhodes (violin), Afiara String Quartet: Valerie Li, Timothy Kantor (violin), Eric Wong (viola), Adrian Fung (cello)

P. Muzijevic (Courtesy of Toronto Summer Music)

One never knows what to expect of a program billed as “avant-garde”. Just how grating and audience-hostile will it be? This presentation from Toronto’s Summer Music Festival proved disarmingly refreshing on a sultry summer evening.

The performance opened with John Cage’s 32 Questions which is simply what the title states, a list of 32 questions, read out by the evening’s pianist, Pedja Muzijevic. Among the questions are: “What is communication?” This one has an answer: “Beauty”. Also: “Which is more musical - a truck passing by a factory or passing by a music school?” And this: “Are we getting anywhere asking questions?” No comment.

Muzijevic then performed Cage’s piano transcription of his score for a ballet, The Seasons. It was first performed in New York in 1947 with choreography by Merce Cunningham and designs by Isamu Noguchi in what sounds like a quintessential MCM (Mid-Century Modernist) experience. The five brief movements (one for each season, plus a finale that repeats the “Winter” opening) contain phrases that seem to be leading somewhere, but in true Cage fashion, never do.

Between the second and third parts of The Seasons Muzijevic performed Morton Feldman’s Two Intermissions, composed in 1950. Inspired by the music of Anton Webern, they contain sparse, separated notes to be played very softly. As Robert Rival’s program comment states, “all sense of pulse vanishes”. The second Intermission contains chords which make it sound positively luxuriant compared to the first one.

Later in the program Cage’s In a Landscape for solo piano (1948) proved to be an approachable, almost relaxing work, with Debussy-esque ripplings. It fades away with a lengthy, Cagean silence.

Charles Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 4 dates from 1914 and is subtitled “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting”. As Pedja Muzijevic stated, Ives’ whole approach could be described as a “Norman Rockwell world gone terribly wrong”. Each movement contains a reference to a popular 19th-century hymn tune amongst Ives’ accustomed mix of tonal and atonal superimpositions. First, “Tell me the old, old story”; then, in the longer second movement, “Jesus loves me”; and in the final movement, “The beautiful river”. Ives compressed a good deal of contrasting expression in the relatively brief work, as in the second movement there is more than a hint of regret. The third movement goes a bit crazy with a ragtime outburst before it ends with a tiny coda. Violinist Harumi Rhodes gave an alert and charming performance that was a bit overwhelmed by the piano.

The Afiara Quartet, currently in residence at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory, gave a committed and amusing account of John Zorn’s Cat O’ Nine Tails, a 1988 work commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. The work’s subtitle, “Tex Avery Directs the Marquis de Sade”, turned out to be most appropriate, as the 13-minute work contains some 60 rapid-fire fragments that include a bit of Avery’s “Looney Tunes” theme, plus the cellist using his bow as a whip while a violin squeals in pain. Not to mention a cat and dog fight. It left me wanting more.

The audience for this program, just a bit larger than sparse, responded to this surprising program with a good deal of enthusiasm, as did I.

Michael Johnson



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