Orchestra 2001 Performs Messiaen and Weill

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last night Orchestra 2001 continued its 19th season with a concert in Lang Concert Hall featuring Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto, Steven Mackey’s recent work No Two Breaths and Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques at Lang Concert Hall.

The Weill concerto, which concluded Orchestra 2001’s first concert back 1988, was given a very fine performance by the orchestra and violinist Geoffrey Michaels. It was composed in 1924 when modernism and atonality were in full swing, but there were already some reactions against the extremes that modernist music had gone to; it was a time when boundaries were being tested, and crossed, and then being retreated from. The piece is thoroughly modern in terms of undermining our expectations of a classical concerto, but it is also a piece of transitions: both of the musical community in general and Weill in particular. In the piece one can hear Weill moving between a modernist style – the program notes mention recognizable similarities with works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Varese – and his later more accessible style influenced by popular music.

The first movement is the most modernist of the three and is also the least interesting. Dissonances abound and the violin often seems to be at odds with the orchestra but on the whole the movement sounds like an amorphous mass of rather dissonant sound without much direction. However the rest of the piece, especially the first third of the second movement before the cadenza, was much lighter in texture and clarity and sounded more convincingly representative of Weill’s personal style. The opening of the second movement featured an interplay between solo violin, double basses, winds, and xylophone that was very funny, witty, and at times ironic. The brief, exciting, and rather classical sounding cadenza showed off the skill of the violinist very nicely. However, he was also often playing accompanying music to the orchestra or to other instruments’ solos: the trumpet, flute, oboe, and percussionist all got important solo figures in the piece.

After intermission the orchestra gave the area premier of Steven Mackey’s No Two Breaths for violin, marimba, and percussion quartet. The piece is inspired by the uniformity and uniqueness of breathing: one always breaths yet no two breaths, although similar, are ever alike. The percussion quartet acted the parts of the breathers providing very interesting and varied impressions of breaths from slow, meditative breathing, to labored breaths and sighs that one might hear just before death, to violent, full breaths associated with shouting or screaming. The majority of the piece is slow and quiet with the violin and marimba providing tranquil, rather unchanging commentary on the breaths.

As with many pieces for large percussion ensemble there are joys associated with seeing the performance and understanding how various sounds are made. With this piece they came in the form of seeing tennis balls dropped on and rolled around on a bass drum. The piece was expertly played by the orchestra and the piece itself was very engaging; just when I thought I understood the rhythm of how it worked in the quiet and relaxing space that it occupied most of the time there would be a loud outburst or something else unexpected from either the percussion quartet or the soloists. It was therefore approachable in its predictability, but also not boring.

The big draw of the concert was Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques, which is a technically virtuosic piece. Much of Messiaen’s music features one or both of the main aspects of his public life: his deep Catholic faith and his love of birdsong. This piece is very much the latter. It also has a part for solo piano, another very common Messiaen feature, which was expertly played by Gilbert Kalish. The piece fluctuates between solo cadenza passages and extremely complex orchestral writing which provides a juxtaposition of several different birdsongs. I personally found the piece less interesting and engaging than some of Messiaen’s other works which had more serious weight – such as Turangalîla-Symphonie whereas Oiseaux Exotiques is a never ending exuberant barrage of birdsong. That being said the piece is still incredibly exciting to hear performed and Orchestra 2001 did a superb job.

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