Best Concert of the Year?

Boston has had a very good music season since the first of the year. Notably, Andris Nelsons has established himself ever more fully as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After a triumphant concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra in the fall, Nelsons came back with especially strong accounts of three large-scale symphonies: the Shostakovich Eighth in March, and the Bruckner Third and Mahler Ninth in April. All were brilliantly played by the orchestra, which seems to have accommodated itself to Nelsons very well.

At the Musicircus of the John Cage festival at the Sydney Opera House. Photo by Jamie Williams.

Cage in the Can: A John Cage Centenary Festival at the Sydney Opera House with Bang on A Can All-Stars

Who is John Cage? Does it matter? At a certain point music must “speak” for itself, allow the musician to interpret the music and the listener to have the pure experience. It can be useful and interesting to have “background” whether historical or technical, as Mark Stewert gave a little of in his introductory spiels before he played, particularly when that information helps people with the music. But often with Cage’s music so much of the idea is in the concept, in the construction that there’s a risk that the listener thinks they’ve “got it” before a note is played. This, and the strong tendency toward cult worship of Cage, is ironic considering his is so often performer’s music. Cage’s cleverness is often overemphasized, he seems either to be taken too seriously or too facetiously, which threatens to reduce his pieces to one-liners, something he seems to have reliably avoided. His music seems more composed to help people to think on their own about music, any music, without drifting between clichés and received wisdom in a deoxygenated modern world. From sometime in the 19th century, music started to come about which anyone could listen to and appreciate intuitively without any training or “background” except maybe literacy and some emotional intelligence, whereas before the French Revolution a Baroque composer could expect a great deal more technical musical knowledge from the audience. One hopes music can transcend or make a false dichotomy intuition versus intellect (nowadays maybe more a corporate misunderstanding of Carl Jung’s types, anyway the “debate” is sophomoric). John Cage’s music, and other experimentalists’, seems often explained and even appreciated from pure intellect, whether using mathematical or philosophical or religious principles, music you “get” just from the score and it’s always trippy. Music, the thing, whatever it is, you listen to while the musicians interpret and play, in the end “paints” it own background and has to be taken as the thing in itself. Cage’s music is music because it can stand on its own, make its own background even when it comes from nowhere. Mozart’s music came from nowhere and he was no innovator. As far as we know he walked about with music coming to him, the more he wrote the more came, and to ask: where did it come from? how did he think up such music? is like asking how space or time can be infinite, how a four dimensional universe can be expanding, how can we have free will, or what happens after death.

Jessye Norman, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Meredith Monk in John Cage's "Song Books"

American Mavericks at Davies Hall: the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas and Friends Play Cage, Foss, Cowell, and Ruggles

Revolutions, the saying goes, are frequently revisited as farce. If only one knew it at the time! In the ferment of the 1970s, a seeming battle to the death played itself out among advocates of dodecaphonic music and the apostles of deconstructed “happenings.” Both insurgencies would ultimately lose. But the arrogance of the revolutionaries was no different in music from what it would have been in politics. The average listener hoping for Brahms found himself besieged in those days—contemptuously marginalized in either camp—-and marked for replacement. That is always the frightening dimension of revolution: the smugness of the cook breaking eggs for the new omelette—-and the suspicion that you may be one of the eggs.

Omar Sangare: from Dialogue One at Williams to United Solo (usolo) on Forty-Second Street, with an Account of D1 2009 and Jonah Bokaer

Omar Sangare founded the Dialogue One Festival for solo theater in 2007 at Williams College, where he had just assumed a position as Assistant Professor of theater studies. Before that, he had built up a stellar reputation as a writer, poet, singer, and actor in his native Poland, receiving a Ph.D. from the Theater Academy in Warsaw, where he studied with the great film director, Andrzej Wajda, among others. His many talents came together in solo theater, a field in which he is well-known in Central Europe and at international festivals. He was voted Best in Acting by the New York International Fringe Festival in 1997 for his one-man drama, True Theater Critic. The same year Sangare was invited to the Jerzy Grotowski Theater in Wroclaw, Poland, where he won four prizes at the Theater Festival. The monodrama was presented in Poland, Canada, England, Ukraine, Germany, and the United States, where it recently received the Best Performance Award at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.

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