Henry Brant is on my conscience. Nimble, animated, instantly lovable in his sunglasses and engineer’s cap, this 91-year-old sprite talks about his music, and talks and talks. He is, let’s face it, cute, and the crowd eats him up; it disturbs me that I cannot be of their number.
He has his act down pat, and loosed it twice on adoring audiences during last week’s “Building Music” celebrations: once at the Green Umbrella concert at Disney, when his Verticals Ascending was played, and again at the Getty Center to bring on a whole evening of his music. The act consists of a zigzag journey through history, wherein precedent for his compositional style – the notion of spreading performers in and around the available space – is to be found in the famous 40-part Spem in Alium motet by Thomas Tallis and the spot in Don Giovanni where Mozart sets three dance bands playing against one another in different meters. Does it matter that in both cases the different parts are performing the same harmonies and, therefore, filling in the same texture? Not to Henry it doesn’t.
“Spatial music,” he calls the hundreds of pieces he has composed since the ’50s. At Disney, it pleased him to seize upon the spatial temptations of opposite sides of the stage (a horizontal setting for a piece about verticals – the Watts Towers – but never mind); at Getty, the stage, balcony and several spots among the seats; in a sports arena at St. Paul on a recent recording, choirs, orchestras, bagpipe bands and jazz bands, etc. (One thing to realize is that nothing, but nothing, of Brant’s music works on a recording; all you hear is the bad music reduced by one dimension. You have to be there, with perhaps a trombone in the row behind you blasting into your ear.) I found the music at the Getty concert consistently awful: run-of-the-mill dissonance with no real stylistic identity, its interest not at all heightened by the tricky placement of instruments. The worst of it by far – its dullness a matter of physical pain – was an aimless string quartet (the third of a set of four, the composer warns us), with two cellos onstage, a viola across the aisle to my left, a violinist upstairs: an exact denial, in other words, of why string quartets had been invented.
All this took place, mind you, in the week when the Philharmonic and its massed forces delivered the ultimate testimonial to space, and to the rightness of its need for a new concert hall, and to the splendor of the one it has been given. I have no proof that the dimensions of the Berlioz Requiem formed the template for Frank Gehry’s architectural designs for this hall of everybody’s dreams. This, however, I am willing to bet: When Esa-Pekka Salonen turned on his podium to cue in the forces spread across the upper reaches of Disney Hall to “scatter the trumpet’s awesome sound across the graves of the land,” a blind person could have sketched the outlines of Gehry’s masterpiece from that gorgeous blast of authentic, archetypal, spatial music.
That moment is, of course, the most famous of all in this extraordinary work, and it remains brightest in my memories
of the few live performances I’ve heard. There were other details in Salonen’s performance that I’ve never heard so beautifully shaped, in person or on disc: the horrifying brass intrusions into the Lacrymosa; the sense of vast space – three flutes, eight trombones, nothing in between – in the Hostias; the ethereal clangor of 10 (!) pairs of cymbals, pianissimo, behind Eric Cutler’s eloquent Sanctus. From the evidence of this sovereign
performance, and the concerts earlier this season, it’s clear that among Salonen’s exceptional abilities is a remarkable regard for the richness of the Berlioz sound and, more than that, the subtlety and occasional pitfalls in dealing with his textures. Berlioz’s music – complex, inward, secretive but bathed in its own kind of magnificence – has always needed its champions. To the small but distinguished list – Thomas Beecham, Charles Münch, Colin Davis – Salonen has become a worthy addition.
Surrounding Brant’s Verticals Ascending, last week’s Green Umbrella, the last of the season, was all about building-inspired music, with Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum (a cold-hearted, meticulously inscribed love note to Venice’s Basilica of San Marco) a last-minute addition. Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel was the program’s one masterpiece; it ended the evening in a radiant flush of near silence. If ever a piece of music achieved the crossing-over to capture the sense of a physical space, this sublime creation surely does. In its 30 minutes (for Feldman, a mere sneeze), a wordless chorus touches on small points of vocal tone, a vibraphone and celesta deliver distant plinks over distant thunder from the timpani, and a solo viola fashions a fragment of melody – all to conjure, with amazing exactitude, the intense experience of being in the namesake small building in Houston.
Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique began the program, a tape piece from 1958 created for Le Corbusier’s Phillips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair and pretty much an antique of proto-electronic bloops and bleeps. In an elementary way, the sweeping lines of the piece do seem to mirror the shape of the building. Varèse was fascinated by the potential of the new media, and was deeply into experimentation at the time of his death; one can only speculate. At a later concert last week, Iannis Xenakis’ Metastaseis provided an interesting contrast. This too was music composed under Le Corbusier’s influence; Xenakis, both composer and architect, planned the orchestral work so that the visual aspect of the score influenced the
design of the same Brussels building for which Varèse would later compose.
About Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wing, which had its first performance in a one-time-only concert last Saturday, I will have more to say later; the Philharmonic has granted the rare indulgence of a repeat performance this weekend, the season’s final program. The work’s title comes from sailing; its hero is Frank Gehry, his idealistic and creative dreams, his passion for sailing and for designing beautiful concert halls. The setting is oceanic; the words of Gehry, straight or processed, mingle with wordless siren songs sung (wonderfully) by sopranos – Jamie Chamberlin and Hila Plitmann – who wander through the hall. This all seems to float on a billowing orchestra that laps up against Debussy now and then and even crackles with a few Sibelian icicles – without ever once sounding like anything but what it is: exhilarating new and original music by a consummate master of his orchestra and its surroundings. I can’t wait to hear it again.