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JOHN CAGE UNCAGED: Cage in his American Context
Schuman, Cage, Cowell. Antheil, Ives, Copland, Cage
Philip Mead (piano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Lawrence Foster, Anthony Legge. Barbican Hall, Friday, January 16th, 2004 (CC)

This year’s BBC SO January Weekend featured the music of John Cage, and its inaugural event was titled ‘Çage in his American Context’. It included a performance of the work Cage is probably most (in)famous for - 4’33 - as the grand finale, a piece which certainly has a visceral effect in a large concert hall. But what did the Radio Three listeners make of it, I wonder?

The concert opened with William Schuman’s New England Triptych of 1956. It dates from the period between that composer’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies. Each movement is based on a hymn-tune by 18th-century New England composer William Billings (‘Be glad then, America’; ‘When Jesus wept’; Çhester’). The well-contrasted trio of movements made for a most effective appetiser (nothing hard to swallow here). Lawrence Foster’s no-nonsense conducting reflected the efficiency of the BBC SO’s account (the wind playing in the slow ‘When Jesus wept’ was particularly memorable).

A piece by Cage preceded a Cowell London Premiere. Cage’s The Seasons (1947 - his first work for orchestra) is divided into nine sections, each season having a prelude, plus a final repetition of the opening. The glacial, frozen quality of the winterish sections with decidedly post-Webernian associations, the lyric nature of sunnier Summer (lyric not being a description perhaps often associated with Cage) all went hand-in-hand with some obvious dance references (it was, after all, commissioned by New York’s The Ballet Society) to make a most enjoyable experience. It made the perfect partner for Cowell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1928). As with the Schuman, the three movements each had a title (‘Polyharmony’; ‘Tone Cluster’; ‘Counter Rhythm’). But in contrast, here was cutting-edge modern music. Philip Mead was the excellent and valiant soliost who negotiated the forearm cluster glissanadi and the virtuoso, often percussive cadenzas. The slow movement brought with it tremendous beauty (and some perhaps surprisingly romantic filmic gestures). The ovation for Mead was fully deserved.

Much reduced forces were needed for George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony (1925). This was great fun, a meeting of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale and Ivesian trickery that was simply delicious and which made the perfect contrast to Ives’ Central Park in the Dark (1906). Anthony Legge (second conductor) stood amongst the orchestra to direct the manic middle section of the latter while Foster kept a firm hand on the shifting cushion of strings. It remains a remarkable work (for its time or for any other).

In the pre-concert discussion, Gavin Bryars had identified Copland’s El Salón México (1932-36) as the odd man out. Well, certainly the BBC SO seemed at home with it anyway (and the performance included some truly superb trumpet playing). On a personal level, no matter what virtuosity the orchestra threw at me, what I felt most was a growing excitement about the prospect of the final piece on the programme, 4’33.

We were told that Lawrence Foster used chance operations to determine the duration of each of the three movements. Foster just held his stick still for each movement. From the first, there was a remarkable feeling of collective tension and concentration. Any whispering, Cage would have surely seen as part of the performance, but what emerged in the final analysis was a surprisingly powerful collective experience, somewhat akin (when audience concentration was at its height) to a mass meditation.

Oh, and the seemingly impossible happened. Not a single mobile went off.

Colin Clarke



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