As I’ve mentioned previously this has really been a good year for 20th Century Composition in the Pacific Northwest. The string of great performances continued on with a rare visit of Stephan Drury to Seattle thanks to the Washington Composers Forums Transport Series. What with the Feldman Marathon and Frederic Rzewski’s recent performance, his selection of works from those composers seemed almost a continuation of those events. The concert had been listed on the Chapel’s blog for a while but with just the Rzewski piece listed. As this is such a great piece I had already planned to attend and when with a late update to the listing the Feldman piece was added it was just gravy.  Alas at the same time they also changed the concert start time to 7:30 which means I’d have to leave work early to make it. Compounding this situation was an incredibly rare mid-April snowstorm. Luckily things are a bit slack for me at work this week and I was able to leave early enough that I made it to the show a few minutes before start time. What with the foul weather they ended up starting around 7:45 so it wasn’t quite as tight as I feared.

I: Palais de Mari (c. Morton Felman)
I’m quite familiar with this piece having heard several recordings of it and having seen Ivan Sokolov perform it earlier this year as part of the Seattle Chamber Player’s Feldman Marathon so this would be an interesting comparison. Drury gave us a brief introduction to the piece mainly mentioning that this was Feldman’s final solo piano piece and that like the bulk of his works was instructed to be played softly. He also mentioned that one of Feldman’s primary concerns in his late works was patterns often constructed from repetitions of short segments inspired somewhat by oriental rugs. This is something that is definitely present in Palais de Mari, which prominently features short little arpeggios and broken chords that seem to slowly iterate though a self similar pattern.  Every so often in the piece there is a discordant chord in the lower register which hangs in the air until it mostly fades away. This always makes me think of how in an oriental rug there is always a ldeliberate flaw so as not to be an affront to Allah.

Drury’s performance was very well paced taking around twenty-five minutes to transverse the piece and his touch was light but sure.  I thought that one of those aforementioned chords was out of place at one point toward the end but it is hard to say, as they are irregularly spaced and I wouldn’t claim to know the piece that well.  As promised the dynamics were uniformly soft, though those discordant moments provided a nice contrast.  The excellent acoustics of the chapel allowed even the faintist of sounds to be heard with a crystalline clarity. Ambient sounds would leak in from time to time, though always at an even softer volume, a dopplering siren at one point being particularly nice.  In comparing the two recent performances I’ve witnessed I would say I found Drury’s superior to Sokolovs. Sokolov I thought rushed through the piece a bit, which isn’t all that surprising as it was the last piece of a nearly four hour concert that prominently featured his playing.  While I think that Drury’s performance is excellent I would say that I still prefer my recording of John Tilbury playing it.

Interval SeriesGhost Light Trio (c. Matt Sargent, film by Mike Gibisser)
Apparently part of each of Washington Composers Forum’s Transport series is a short film made to the music of a local composer. This film is shown at the end of intermission before the second half of the concert.  The film we saw tonight was Ghost Light Trio which overall I wasn’t that impressed by.  There seemed to be odd technical difficulties, which as it was just a DVD playing through a projector seemed a bit odd – it could be they were part of the piece, which if so was wholly uninteresting.  The music was made up of three sounds, each heavily processed at times. These sounds were recordings of water, traffic and bells.  The film was two images with dividing line as if there was two projectors. The film began with the sound of surf and corresponding imagery of blurry ocean. The chimes came in, often overlayed and at times quite dense. The imagery was blurred windows, a mostly empty room and water. The music was uniformly ambient with the bells being the most dramatic aspect. It wasn’t very interesting music and the filmmaker seemed to have responded likewise. There was two overwhelmingly loud blasts of sound that came across as a technical error but again its hard to see how that could happen. Additionally there was a bit where it looked like the video signal went down which is certainly possible but as it was just a DVD again seems unlikely. Especially as one of these times half of the video went to a “no input” screen but considering that there wasn’t two inputs seems like it was staged. If so this was visually and conceptually uninteresting and didn’t redeem the overall tepid affair.

II: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (c. Frederic Rzewski)
Shortly after the film, Drury again took the stage and again began with some explanatory remarks. This piece, which is thirty-six variations on the Chilean song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, takes nearly an hour to perform. So Drury explained he wanted to give us a roadmap as it were to the piece.  The organization of the piece is nicely laid out in its Wikipedia page but he explained several features to the structure of the variations that I wasn’t aware of.  The piece is 36 variations which are organized in sets of 6. Each set of 6 is 5 unique variations with the 6th being constructed of the previous 5. This principle continues one level high in that the 6th set of variations is made up of the corresponding sets of the unique variations. That is to say that variation 31 would be made up of variation 1, 7, 13, 20 and 27. Variation 32 would be made up of variation 2, 8, 14, 21 and 28 and so on through variation 35. Variation 36, following the structure, then is made up of the previous 5 which being constructed from the preceding 30 means that it is a microcosm, a reflection of the entire piece.

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a rousing piece based on a catchy theme that one can completely understand being used as a revolutionary anthem. As I walked out from the show I overheard at least three different individuals independently humming the theme.  The variations, as variations do, present this theme in myriad ways, but in classic 20th Century style it deconstructs it further and further to the point that some variations would only be recognizable as derived from it via analysis of the notes themselves. Yet it always maintains the propulsive energy of the piece even in the softer, slower sections.  Drury performed the piece from memory which I found quite impressive. Variations do make aspects of memorization easier, but at the same time their self-similarity can make it easy to get lost. Especially at that great a number of variations over such a length of time.  Having seen Rzewski perform just a couple of months ago I can say that Drury captured his energy and the strength of his attacks quite well. The piece while having a fairly romantic feel to it, does incorporate a variety of extended techniques, including whistling along with his playing and one point slamming the lid down over the keys.  Another part I liked quite a bit was a sequence of vigorous one finger oscillationg playing way up in the upper register. This was done at great force with his hands as fists with just the pointer finger extended hammering at the keys. This created layers of overtones and reverberations that reminded me of nothing so much as the techniques I’d seen used in the Lachenmann performance a couple of weeks back.  In fact the very concept of using a popular melody and exploring, exploiting and deconstructing it in this way was a connection between these two, one that I have to assume Lachenmann is doing after Rzewski.

It was a bravura performance as powerful and as well executed as the recordings I’ve heard of this piece. After pounding out the thirty-six variations Drury delivered on the optional improvisation with a short bit of reference to the them and them of course the rousing reprise. At the conclusion he lept away from the piano and received a well deserved standing ovation at the conclusion.