Composer From Hell

MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE LOOKS like a bloke and composes like a diabolical horde. He first invaded our awareness at Ojai in 2000 with Blood on the Floor, 70 minutes of exquisitely controlled mayhem. The title came from one of Francis Bacon’s lurid canvases; if ever sight and sound smashed against each other in the formation of a single sensual exercise, this was it – among the crickets and woodpeckers of Ojai in the midst of a wholesale Brit invasion masterminded by Sir Simon Rattle, or at home, where the recording is my favorite means of drowning out my neighbor’s dog.

Blood on the Floor was begun in 1993; Your Rockaby, which the Philharmonic performed under Sir Andrew Davis two weekends ago, came just before. Its title is from Samuel Beckett, a monologue by an ancient crone rocking herself to death. The two works are linked, in a sense; they both demand feats of super- (or maybe sub-) human virtuosity from a saxophone soloist – a frenzied soprano sax in Rockaby, several sizes in Blood. Britain’s Martin Robertson, who fulfills those demands, was at Ojai in 2000, was here for Your Rockaby and has recorded both works on Decca-Argo.

There is an explosiveness in Turnage’s music that seems to come from a constant sense of collision and not very much assimilation. Jazz plays an important role, but it’s a clean, driving, up-to-date kind of jazz that doesn’t want much to do with traditional sources. The edges between this new jazz – which sounds improvised at times but may, for all I know, be completely written out – and the other stuff (quite a lot of Hans Werner Henze and the marvelous, rational textures of the Better Brits like Oliver Knussen) are left raw and gritty. The connections with Francis Bacon are clear and vivid. I remember my first contact with Bacon’s work; I couldn’t get past the suspicion that someone was screaming at me. I learned to like it, but it took time and effort. I think Turnage is a powerful and important composer. Looking at that plain Midlands face, you first want to think about Yorkshire pudding. Then the music comes on.

Turnage and Thomas Adès have a place among the aforementioned Better Brits. Gustav Holst, whose The Planets shared the program with the Turnage, does not. He survives on that one piece, whose sustaining force gets an inexplicable boost from a tenuous connection with Trekkie and Jedi freaks, and from the concert promoters who invent nonexistent connections between the light-show effects of those movies and the mashed-potato turgidity of Holst’s music. Okay, the Holst gets a hearing now and then; that does no harm. The performance under Davis was just okay, even if you could notice a spot of cold brown gravy over the potatoes now and then. At the end – some of my letter writers insist that I say – many in the audience stood and cheered. There is one work by Holst that I truly admire, a half-hour choral piece called The Hymn of Jesus, one of those minglings of old modalities and late-romantic resonances – as also in Vaughan Williams, some of the better William Walton and the weak-tea but somehow lovable Gerald Finzi. Alas, no recording of the Holst exists, at least in my latest catalog. Forty performances of The Planets; not one of The Hymn of Jesus.

AT LAST WEEK’S GREEN UMBRELLA at Zipper Hall, there were more bundles from Britain. Thomas Adès’ Cardiac Arrest rescued the flag but hardly saved the day – four jolly minutes of reworking a piece by Madness, a British ska/pop group: delightful, but too soon over. (These Brits with their titles!)

I try to listen to Judith Weir’s music without remembering a night at the Santa Fe Opera House that belongs beside my most painful memories, dental or otherwise: an insanely wrong-headed offering called A Night at the Chinese Opera, performed during one of Santa Fe’s famous monsoons before they had filled in the roof. Thread!, which laid claim to 20 minutes in Zipper’s drier confines, was more on the same dam fool level: a musical setting, for small orchestra and narrator, of nothing less than the Bayeux tapestry – the narrator reading off the historical account of the Norman Conquest stitched to the top of the tapestry, the orchestra illustrating the events shown below in a bland, Silly Symphony style that seemed intent on reducing that noble artwork to rubble and ridicule. In my job I hear good music, I hear bad music.
I don’t often hear music that is embarrassing – not while

I still
have the strength to make it to the

exit doors. This piece was simply embarrassing; I blush to think that Ms. Weir and I are in the same line of work.

James MacMillan conducted, and gave over the rest of the concert to his own piece, called Parthenogenesis – this the same week that the anti-cloning bill cleared the House of Representatives. Yes, that’s what this piece is, I think, about: a dramatic dissertation concerning reincarnation, virgin birth and fallen angels, all set to 50 or so minutes of a blankness so featureless that I actually came to feel it as a vacuum. MacMillan is popular; his music can be fun when Evelyn Glennie is on hand to beat out the rhythms. If his piece, and that of his Scots compatriot Judith Weir, were an attempt at reconciliation with the Colonies, make mine oatmeal.

At Mark Robson’s Piano Spheres recital at Zipper Hall the week before, there was the rare chance to hear all 12 of Claude Debussy’s Etudes, his last music for piano and almost his last work in any medium. It was an extraordinary experience, an encounter with the aging, ailing Debussy, a still-living mind in a wasting body, bequeathing a view over the realm of melody, harmony and resonance comparable to the great, philosophical late works of Bach – The Art of the Fugue and, even more, The Musical Offering. They are also, of course, explorations into piano technique comparable – as Debussy admitted – to the Chopin Etudes, but these are bigger works altogether. They are less often heard than Debussy’s earlier works with the colorful titles; I don’t remember ever hearing the whole set at once. But they are better that way, because they do feed off one another. Robson’s performance was, as usual, immaculate, wise and loving; he has become one of our most valuable local artists.

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