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?
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).
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.
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
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
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.
and the seemingly impossible happened. Not
a single mobile went off.