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S & H International Concert Review

Composer Portrait: Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City, December 5, 2003 (BH)

Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum (1977-78)

Silbury Air (1977)

Theseus Game for large ensemble with 2 conductors (United States premiere) (2002)

Alarm Will Sound

Alan Pierson, conductor

Music In Action

Christine Myers, conductor


On an icy, blizzard-ridden night in Manhattan, Alarm Will Sound considerably raised the temperature inside Miller Theatre with a fiery tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle, whose throbbing rhythms seem ideally suited for the group’s energy. Its kinetically engaging conductor, Alan Pierson, led the first two scores from memory, with precise, clearly articulated downbeats that could serve as a model for aspiring conductors.

Carmen arcadiae (the title a tribute to Paul Klee) is formed from "six mechanisms which are juxtaposed many times without any form of transition," and like much of Birtwistle’s music, explores carefully conceived rhythmic patterns that rub up against each other in nervous marriages. If Klee is the muse, the piece might be viewed as his painting, "The Twittering Machine," gone utterly out of control. As the work’s ruthless momentum kicked into high gear, the musicians seemed almost delighted in the effect, playing with the work’s jostling chunks of sound.

Contrary to its pastoral-sounding title, Silbury Air seems more like a menacing nightmare. The title refers to Silbury Hill, a mysterious, prehistoric five-acre mound in Wiltshire, and the music displays a similar sober, inscrutable quality. After a softly oscillating beginning, the ritualistic mood begins to set in, with constantly shifting tempi making an uneasy, ever-changing landscape. The piece ends with four stark harp chords, here played with stinging authority by Bridget Kibbey.

The word "labyrinth" is often used in describing Birtwistle’s work, and it’s an apt one. Just as if one were lost in a real-life maze, it’s difficult to perceive the whole of Theseus Game after a single hearing, but its craft and deception are compelling. Even though it was written twenty-five years after the two works on first half of the program, it seems to be engulfed by rhythms that eventually overtake the persons presenting it.

Here the musicians were aligned in rows, creating a block directly facing the audience (think Greek chorus), with the two conductors at far right and far left, and two music stands at center stage. The players of the main ensemble follow each of the two conductors, as indicated in their score.

The intriguing conceit is that individual musicians emerge to carry the melodic line (Theseus’ thread), and in this case, periodically walked up to the front for their solo turns. The spirited Alarm Will Sound musicians were augmented by a dedicated, talented crew of players from Music In Action, a program of the Manhattan School of Music. If nothing else -- and the evening had much more to offer -- it was simply heartening to see music of such complexity tackled with such confidence and aplomb by young performers. Kudos to their conductor, Christine Myers, who collaborated with Pierson in making the 35-minute work hang together. For all the dire comments on the state of classical music, evenings like this one made me feel optimistic and enthusiastic about the possibility of another virtuoso display of Birtwistle in say, another hundred years or so.

This forward-thinking group probably discourages singling out musicians, but in this performance I can’t help but mention violinist Courtney Orlando, Jacqueline Leclair on oboe, and the enthusiastic percussionists Payton MacDonald, Jason Treuting and Lawson White. Seth Brodsky’s imaginative program notes included an 1862 depiction of Theseus and the Minotaur by John Williams Waterhouse, Birtwistle’s diagram of the "pulse labyrinth" used in Silbury Air, and an interview with the composer structured as a kind of parallel universe to the performance, mirroring his gorgeous structures.

Bruce Hodges



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