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Lyon, Lang, Shapey, Foss, Copland, and more

August 5, 2010

Eric Lyon

Blog visitors appear to be coming here for Eric Lyon, so here’s a review of a chamber orchestra work of his, Splatter. You have to dig down a few paragraphs, but I think I captured the spirit of Lyon’s work. A few months after writing this review, I was studying the Tippett Piano Concerto, and what do you know? There’s a duet for timpani and celesta there, but Tippett’s sincerity and atmospheric use of the instruments is completely different from Lyon’s hilarious juxtaposition (reminiscent of the trombone/contrabass duet in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, where the trombone blows away the contrabass). Will someone–ICE, London Sinfonietta, Boston Modern Orchestra Project–please record Splatter?

This review originally ran in the La Jolla Light Nov. 28, 1991, with the completely unintriguing headline of “Seriousness and satire make for a satisfying musical month.”

I’d like to share with you a bit of the musical cornucopia I enjoyed over the last two weeks. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’ll skip over the bad parts and give praise where it is due.

On Nov. 8 I attended a performance by Les Ballets Africains, a company of more than 30 dancers and musicians from Guinea sponsored by the San Diego Foundation for Performing Arts. The exoticism of the music, dances, and costumes was fascinating enough; in combination with both the dancers’ and the musicians’ unflagging energy, the evening was tremendously stimulating. This was some of the most exuberant dancing I’ve seen all year. And how often do you get to see more than 30 people loudly playing percussion instruments in complex, interlocking patterns?

Lukas Foss made his first appearance with the San Diego Symphony that weekend as well. On Saturday, Nov. 9, he conducted his own Fanfare for Orchestra; it was not the sort of jubilant, up-tempo piece one might infer from the title. Rather, it consisted of long melodic lines in the strings punctuated by raucous staccato bursts from the piano, percussion, winds, and brass. Foss’s long string melodies spun out effortlessly; he came of age at a time when it seemed that just about every big American composer was striving to successfully compose what Copland called “the long line.” Fanfare struck me as earnest, unpretentious, and effective.

A performance of Copland’s Third Symphony followed; written in 1946, when the idea of the “Great American Symphony” was in the air, this piece is one of the best contenders for the title. Copland’s non-balletic scores have been unjustly neglected in American concert halls; it was refreshing to hear live a work I had only know before from a single recording (Copland’s own with the London Philharmonic). While there were technical glitches (most noticeably faulty intonation among the first violins during their highest passagework), the proper emotions and drama were there; it was a stirring performance of a noble piece.

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, I heard three exceptional pieces expertly performed by SONOR at UCSD. Two of these works were by young composers, David Lang (b. 1957) and Eric Lyon (b. 1962), and both of them were marked by an immediate, aggressive physicality coupled with a wry (perhaps even cynical) detachment in the manipulation of their frequently dark and violent musical materials.

Lang’s Dance/Drop was written for baritone saxophone, bassoon (both amplified), piano, synthesizer, and percussion. The first movement was dominated by harshly repeated chords, accompanied by loud, repetitious percussion writing (for brake drum and thunder sheet, kick drum, tomtoms); the harmonic/melodic rhythm, despite the driving pulses, was sneakily unpredictable. The second movement was characterized by a long, quasi-modal melody played by the bari sax, bassoon, and synthesizer; a brooding texture was created by simultaneously overlapping adjacent notes in this slow melody with these instrument. Dance/Drop is sinister, but with a hip attitude—there’s a real sense of fun, even of burlesque, to the work.

Lyon’s Splatter, the audience favorite of the night, has a sense of fun as well, but at the expense of self-righteous avant-garde music written since 1940. Scored for a small orchestra of 23 players (solidly conducted by John Fonville), Splatter mercilessly skewers those composer who write uncompromisingly difficult pieces (for both performers and listeners) by accurately pastiching such music; Splatter subverts the listener’s expectation by either abandoning this material and moving off to something completely different, by pushing the material to ludicrous extremes (such as—I kid you not—a duet for timpani and celesta), or by treating this complex material as just another chunk of music in a sampler to be audaciously looped or played back at inappropriate moments. Splatter is inspired devilment which roguishly insults music that many of Lyon’s UCSD colleagues aspire to compose; it is sheer genius on Lyon’s part that his lunatic musical rhetoric is so convincing. Eric Lyon is at the crest (along with David Lang) of a new wave of American music that is the most innovative, refreshing movement to come along since Minimalism.

While Lang’s and Lyon’s works may have caused all the hubbub at this SONOR concert, a stinging performance of Ralph Shapey’s De Profundis showed that some of the old-timers could be just as violent and abrasive as these young punks. De Profundis, a contrabass concerto written for Bertam Turetzky in 1960 (and who brilliantly performed this intesnse work, with John Fonville conducting), was unrelenting in its angst, a hyper-Expressionistic lament from “out of the depths.” Let’s hope that this marked the beginning of more performances of Shapey’s distinctively powerful music in San Diego.

On Nov. 15 Yoav Talmi led the San Diego Symphony in a crisp, tightly-performed rendition of Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 15 with soloist Peter Frankl. Frankl interpreted Mozart in a Romantic vein, bringing a somewhat heavier tone than we expect in a Mozart concerto to his playing, augmented with a good helping of rubato. However, it was ultimately a persuasive performance.

Talmi then conducted Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony from memory. The orchestra sounded superb; the different sections were flawlessly coordinated in their playing, and the entire orchestra was extremely responsive to Talmi’s phrasing and dynamic shaping. Peronsally, I find this symphony a puzzle; but for audience members who love Bruckner, this was unquestionably a performance to cherish.

Maria Bachmann

On Saturday, Nov. 16, violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff presented a recital at Sherwood Auditorium. Their performance of Beethoven’s C minor Sonata was beyond reproach, and their rendition of Brahms’s D minor Sonata was equally compelling. Bachmann is clearly a musician with a great future ahead of her, and her dedication to chamber music is heartening, as is her dedication to contemporary composers. The two presented the local premiere of Clockwork by Sebastian Currier (b. 1959), a handsome piece with its stylistic feet firmly planted in the middle of the contemporary American compositional mainstream.

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