Contemporary Music / Music

Summer Retrospective: Miranda Cuckson and Conrad Tao at PS21 in Chatham, New York

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Miranda Cuckson (Photo John Rogers) and Conrad Tao (Photo Brantley Guttierrez)
Miranda Cuckson (Photo John Rogers) and Conrad Tao (Photo Brantley Guttierrez)

Grand Statements, Intimate Forces: the return of live concerts
a Review of two concerts at PS 21, Chatham NY

Miranda Cuckson, solo violin, August 28, 2020

Conrad Tao, solo piano, September 4, 2020

Miranda Cuckson and Conrad Tao held the stage at PS 21 on two successive Friday nights as part of a series of mostly contemporary music concerts at the semi-open stage in Chatham NY, on August 28 and September 4. Both performers captivated their audiences with superb focus and transcendent technique, conveying a fierce commitment to contemporary repertory that gained force by virtue of the context of the pandemic. Played to masked listeners seated in a distanced pattern, the intense performances knitted musician, audience, and composers together into a powerful matrix of expressive power and imaginative adventure.

Cuckson’s program (Friday, August 28) meaningfully juxtaposed J. S. Bach’s Sonata no. 2 for solo violin with works by Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, and Mario Davidovsky. The gap of 250 plus years between the Bach and its companions seemed irrelevant, owing to Bach’s concentration of materials in space and their extension in time, both of which felt contemporary in the context of the music of his later colleagues, who almost seemed to have consciously chosen to respond to the challenges he set forth (and very probably did: anyone composing for solo violin cannot avoid a background awareness of Bach’s examples). Especially in the extended fugue which concludes the work, Bach and Cuckson were intent on going far beyond any expectations based the trajectory of the initially stated material. Indeed, transcending expectations could be taken as a theme for both concerts.

Alone among the contemporaries, Carter’s tribute to Aaron Copland seemed epigrammatic and understated both in gesture and structure, seeming to be over almost before it began. Atypically for Carter, the gestural dialogue felt restrained, perhaps reflecting Carter’s estimate of Copland’s balanced temperament, inherited from their common mentor Nadia Boulanger. A sense of restraint was felt in a different way in Boulez’s Anthème I; while we expect stylistic challenges and adventures from this colossus of modernity, what we got seemed surprisingly retrospective, while in no way failing to display the freedom of imagination and resourcefulness of technique characteristic of the composer. Two elements made for surprising familiarity: a clear central pitch, D, and a recursive structure clearly related to the rondo. In Boulez’s later manner, and in contrast to the spiky pointillism of works such as le marteau sans maître, Anthème I flowed in decorative figures and flourishes, almost like the foliage in a Watteau painting but full of subtle dramatic surprises. Cuckson’s elegant bow arm was called upon to render a spectrum of encounters between horsehair and strings, from fluid melismatic writing to spiccato and cross-string techniques, all connected by an graceful and subtle forward lyrical pressure. This was Boulez as a light-fingered magician, pulling elegant rabbits out of his beret.

The capstone of the program, wisely repositioned to conclude it, was Davidovsky’s Synchronism no. 9, a work that has become a modern classic and challenge for up and coming violinists with which to prove their chops. I heard and reviewed Curtis Macomber’s masterful rendition at the Bard Copland Festival in 2004 (Davidovsky had studied with Copland at Tanglewood); at that time Macomber had walked on-stage, and began playing into the empty spaces of Sosnoff Auditorium which transitioned from providing resonance for the acoustic sound waves at the very beginning to offering electronically enhanced resonance and then on to expansion and lively dialogue with the live performer. The impact was stunningly dramatic.

At PS 21, the acoustics of the open-sided shed along with Cuckson’s more subtle (or less muscular) approach provided a different experience, as if the violin were the living concertmaster of an electronic ensemble, one voice out of many in Davidovsky’s interplanetary chamber ensemble. The overall effect was no less thrilling, nor did it evince any less mastery of the instrument and the formidable performing challenges of fitting together with the electronic track, both in its demands on intonation (the violin has to adjust to the equal-tempered tuning of the synthesized pitches) and timing (the solo violin sections that are constructed to sound improvisatory have to fit into narrowly defined time-frames). Cuckson was able to fit seamlessly into the demands of the electronics while sounding like she was in complete command of them. In a work that one might imagine seeming similar from one performance to another, Cuckson was able to shed significantly new light. The bookends of Bach and Davidovsky threw into relief the contrasting roles of the violin: from multiple voices concentrated within the instrument to an instrumental voice stimulating a multitude of external, responsive voices.

Conrad Tao’s program consisted of one programmed work and one encore. Each carried forward the theme of “out of the one, many.” Tao is one of the contemporary masters of the massive modern piano classic, Frederic Rzewski’s 1975 Thirty-six Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” the Chilean protest song that has been taken up by political demonstrations around the world. (It has been recorded by twelve different pianists including the composer.) This work has been compared to Bach’s Goldberg Variations owing to its sprawling structure which follows a rigorous formal pattern. In Bach’s cases, it is ten groups of three variations each, beginning and ending with the “theme” (Aria). For Rzewski, it is six groups of six variations, also framed by the theme. Each work constitutes a kind of technical-stylistic encyclopedia of musical forms and languages. For Rzewski, the obviously tonal theme (D minor) is subject to an almost unlimited number of processes that transform it, including both tonal and atonal ones, that echo many of the developments in piano music of the 20th century; along with Bach and Beethoven, the names of Charles Ives and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen come readily to mind. To elements of extended techniques (such as whistling and banging on the piano lid) Tao adds improvisation to his performance, thereby evoking both Henry Cowell and John Cage. Overall, Tao approaches this work not only with his characteristic transcendent technique, but also with the fertile and active imagination of a composer; he has embraced this work as his own. (Early in the pandemic, Tao broadcast a performance of this work from his apartment on Zoom; unfortunately it was cut short by a technical glitch.) 

The expressive profile projected was not only a musical tour-de-force, but (presumably true to the composer’s intention) a powerful expression of protest, originally against Pinochet’s repressive dictatorship, but with multiple resonances in this era of divisive politics, institutional decline, Black Lives Matter, and COVID-19. Tao’s rendition of this potentially bleak scenario is leavened by the vitality and creativity of his performance, protest rendered transcendent by a vision of unlimited possibility and potential, a vision of human multiplicity as a rowdy, sometimes cacophonous, but ultimately harmonious set of shared ideals. 

Tao concluded with his own arrangement of an arrangement: György Kurtág’s version of the opening Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata 106, “Actus Tragicus,” also known as Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, an early funeral cantata scored originally for recorders, viols, bass and organ. Kurtag had arranged it for his two-piano team of himself and his wife, and Tao boiled it down to a single piano, although it sounded as if he were playing parts originally assigned to all four hands. This piece shows Bach at his most gorgeously lyrical, performing a solemn but emotional ritual with poise and deliberation. After the bedazzlement of Rzewski, it came as an “Amen” of quiet reflection that sent us into a night-time of stars and cricket-song. Tao’s performance was in enough demand that additional performances had to be scheduled; Zoom is great, but it is no substitute for actually being there.

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