The Dallas Symphony’s Remix Series of chamber-sized concerts is intended to attract a new, younger, hipper audience. Food and cocktails are served and the program is short, presented without intermission. It’s not clear what is meant by “remix,” which implies changing or processing the original material into something different.
Nothing was remixed on Friday evening at the Dallas City Performance Hall. Au contraire, two chamber-sized works were presented in their original formation.
In fact, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite was decidedly not remixed. It was presented in the original 13-player version as opposed to hearing it remixed into a full orchestration. This is music for a ballet that Copland composed in 1944 for Martha Graham’s company and his arguably his most well-known and frequently performed composition, but only in the full orchestra version.
The second piece on the program was John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music, a repetitive minimalist work that dates from 1982. It wasn’t remixed either, but was presented in its original form (not that there is any other arrangement).
The program was conducted by Case Scaglione, associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He did a first-rate job on both pieces.
Right from the atmospheric opening, the harmonic and rhythmic language of Copland’s ballet is the quintessential example of what we have come to think of as the “American sound.” Its harmonic language is vaguely tonal, more modal perhaps. At the time of its composition (1944), the battle between atonal experimental modernism (Pierre Boulez), neo-classicalism (Stravinsky) and neo-Romanticism (Samuel Barber) was in full hot-under-the-collar rage in the 1940’s.
Copland struck a middle ground. He used open pentatonic harmonies, neither major nor minor, the gentle application of chord structures as expanded by jazz musicians and lots of parallel motion. His music sounded as vast and vacant as a western horizon. It is tonal enough to please general audiences but fresh enough to placate the tut-tutting modernists. Using a real folk tune for the rather pedestrian set of variations that closes the ballet, “Simple Gifts,” put an American stamp on it as surely as European composers have done for generations by mining their own folk music as inspiration.
All these qualities of Copland’s wondrous score came to mind while listening to this sensitive performance. It also pointed out a conundrum. Like other composers with a unique voice, such as Debussy, no one else could follow in Copland’s footsteps without sounding, well, like Copland. Appalachian Spring was a musical cul-de-sac rather than a new path to be followed. But what a glorious one!
Scaglione got a crystal clear performance out of the DSO players. The audience was acutely aware of the limited number of players, and not just because it’s more common to hear the full orchestral version. In this performance, there was so much sonic negative space between the instrumental lines that it made the listener aware of the vacant nature of Copland’s otherwise unimaginative orchestration. It was quite remarkable to hear it in such stark relief.
This effect was due, in part, to Scaglione’s careful conducting but also due to the excellence of the 13 players. Fewer players means that every one of them has to be top notch. Lesser players can hide in a full symphony. With such a limited group, intonation and technical purity is critical or the effect can be ruined, sounding more like a calliope than a chamber orchestra. Not so here. The combination of superb instrumentalists and a precise conductor worked together to deliver a pristine, but still warm and nicely shaped, performance.
After that, John Adams’ noisy piece presented as complete an opposite as one could imagine. It is written for two pianos, winds, brass, extensive percussion and three amplified female voices singing, textless, on “ooh” and “ah.”
Minimalism uses repetitive patterns that often shift and with layers being overlaid in a complex musical pile. Minimalism’s impact is far reaching and composers still use its basic tenets (such as Kevin Puts). Its main claim to fame is that it was a pathway out of the atonal forest in which we had wandered for decades by rediscovering new things to say with a triad. For that, we can all be grateful.
Grand Pianola Music is a piece that is more talked about than performed. We mostly know the piece from recordings, since it is not performed much—if at all anymore. Thus, it was a valuable, if not entirely pleasant, experience to finally hear it live.
Adams’ music chugs along for its sound and effect alone, without any deeper meaning or narrative. Its only goal is to build to a chattering and shattering crescendo, only to retreat and start again with a different pattern. In its pure form, such music has a hypnotic quality to it. But it is impossible to be hypnotized during Adam’s sonic onslaught.
The DSO players did a fine job with the complexities and Scaglione kept everything moving along. It was obvious that the players were counting like mad to keep track of where they were in the hundreds of repeated measures. But Adams’ effects were indeed interesting and the DSO players turned in a fine performance.
But after a while it became clear that it’s a one-trick pony, leaving the listener to tire of it long before it is actually finished.