Thursday, April 22, 2010

All Varèse?

I could not resist the temptation to read Ivan Hewett's account of Varèse 360, a series of three concerts at the Southbank Centre in London presenting the complete works of Edgard Varèse. I was particularly fascinated to discover that this was the second "outing" of such a "festival," the first having been given a year ago in Amsterdam. Independent of Hewett's critical observations, I found myself wondering if this was yet another piece of evidence to support the premise that our own reactionary tastes will always keep us behind Europe when it comes to "thinking out of the box," as the innovation evangelists like to put it. Varèse, after all, not only excelled in "thinking out of the box" but also seemed to aspire to blowing up the box after leaving it.

Reviewing my records both here and on, I see that I have had only one substantive occasion to deal with a concert performance of Varèse's music; but that turned out to be an excellent data point. It was the BluePrint Project concert given this past February at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; and the program was conceived with Varèse as the "framing" composer. The evening began with "Density 21.5" and concluded with "Déserts;" and I think it is fair to say that these two works very much set the context for the experience of listening to the other compositions on the program. However, this supports my skepticism over this idea of a complete-works event. We can now begin to apply the longue durée thinking of the Annalistes to the history of music in the twentieth century; and, from that point of view, we need to think about Varèse not only in terms of the music he composed but also in terms of whom he influenced, perhaps the most interesting section of the Wikipedia entry created for this composer. This season, for example, that influence may have been most evident in the performance Henri Dutilleux' "Métaboles" when Semyon Bychkov visited the San Francisco Symphony (although, by way of a disclaimer, I should mention that Dutilleux' name does not appear in that Wikipedia entry).

Thus, I would suggest that taking such a two-pronged approach to Varèse might deal with what Hewett felt was the biggest problem with the idea of a complete-works festival:

Small but perfectly formed, the complete life's work of that great musical visionary Edgar Varèse sits comfortably inside just three concerts. But would one want to hear those three concerts back to back? Though the music has a visionary splendour and literally cosmic ambition - Varèse wanted to write music for mankind's future, when he would be roaming among the stars - its vocabulary of brazen fanfares and thunderous polyrhythms can seem correspondingly small. The air becomes thin at such altitudes.

One could imagine a series of concerts in which selected Varèse compositions would be performed alongside works that show his influence. For example one would have the opportunity to listen to John Cage's "First Construction (In Metal)" in the context of a performance of "Ionisation;" and one could conceivably apply the same strategy to most (if not all) of the other works in the Varèse canon. This would probably require more than three concerts, but the air would not be quite as thin because there would be greater breadth in the listening experiences. Would this not be an excellent opportunity for one of the American performing arts institutions to demonstrate that we can keep up with the Europeans?

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