NEGLECTED SPANISH COMPOSER REVIVED AT SOUNDS
OF THE TIMES
By Lawrence Budmen
Sometimes major creative artists get lost in the arc of history. That appears to have been the case with the Catalan composer Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970). Gerhard studied with the great Spanish composer Enrique Granados and the renowned pedagogue Felipe Pedrell. During the 1920's in Vienna he studied with Arnold Schoenberg and briefly became part of that composer's circle - advocates of the twelve tone technique. After the victory of the Fascist Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Gerhard moved to England where he devoted much of his time to teaching and research at Cambridge. Caught between the conflicting influences of Romanticism, Nationalism, and Modernism, Gerhard's music was rarely performed. (For many cultural reasons England was less hospital to artistic refugees than the United States or even the Soviet Union. The composer Berthold Goldschmidt and the composer-conductor Karl Rankl suffered similar neglect during their long British exile.) Yet Gerhard was a uniquely original creative genius who spoke in his own musical language. Late in life Gerhard had a festive "Indian summer" under the sponsorship of William Glock, the all powerful music czar of the BBC. (During this period he wrote the score for the ground breaking British film "This Sporting Life" directed by Lindsay Anderson.) After Glock left the broadcasting network, however, Gerhard's music was again largely neglected. Despite enthusiastic promotion (in recent years) by conductors Mathias Bammert and Edmon Colomer, opportunities to hear this composer's music are exceedingly rare. Gerhard's Suite from the ballet "Pandora" was the piece-de-resistance on the New World Symphony's first "Sounds of the Times" concert ("An International Mix") on December 4 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach. The result was a musical revelation.
"Pandora" was composed in 1943 for the German choreographer Kurt Jooss, who was also in exile. (Jooss was noted for his socially conscious modern ballets. His best known work was the anti-war satire "The Green Table.") The score for "Pandora" is a stylistic synthesis of De Falla, Samuel Barber, and Igor Stravinsky (in his neo-classical phase). Gerhard uses Catalan folk music - often with tellingly powerful effect. Vivacious Spanish rhythms alternate with bleak, atonal writing. His moving transformation of the Dies Irae runs through the score like a sinister leitmotif. Jagged, angular rhythms suggest modernist influences (in a similar manner to Prokofiev and Shostakovich's embrace of Constructivist artistic principles). Bursts of orchestral color in Impressionistic hues surprise and astound the listener! The somber hymn in the concluding "Death and the Mothers" forms an ambiguous conclusion to a neglected masterwork. The British contemporary music specialist Stefan Asbury conducted the New World musicians in a lucid, colorfully evocative performance of this rare gem. (This past summer Asbury led an acclaimed production of Benjamin Britten's opera "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts). Gerhard was indeed a master!
Luciano Berio's "Requies" (Requiem) for Chamber Orchestra is dedicated to the memory of the composer's first wife and creative muse - the soprano Cathy Berberian. The score is a quiet, subtle meditation on death and loss. A mesmerizing musical stasis permeates this deeply felt work. The distant sound of a high trumpet melds with musical flickers in the strings and winds. Asbury and his players brought fervent emotion to this highly personal memorial. A moving work by a seminal 20th century master in a wonderful performance!
The opening theme of Arnold Schoenberg's "Chamber Symphony No.2," Opus 38 comes as a shock to the listener. The thematic material of the Adagio - a beautiful, romantic melody for clarinet and strings - could have come right out of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde." The Con fuoco movement is a barely disguised Viennese waltz with sudden bursts of orchestral energy. All of this from the father of atonality! Composed between 1906 and 1939, this complex orchestral work is a real curio in the Schoenberg oeuvre. Asbury and the New World Symphony gave the work an intense, often virtuosic performance.
In the company of such 20th century masters, the music of the British composer Mark Anthony Turnage (1960- ) emerged as less than stimulating. "Dispelling the Fears" is a 1995 work for two trumpets and large orchestra. In a filmed conversation between composer and conductor (recorded via Internet2 with Asbury in Miami Beach and Turnage in Amsterdam), Turnage revealed that the heavily muted trumpet effect he employs in the piece was a tribute to jazz great Miles Davis. Yet this pivotal moment fails to register because the muted trumpet is not amplified. Too much of the score is incoherent and discursive and lacks the genius of Davis. Trumpeters Justin Bartels and Adam Luftman produced dazzling instrumental effects and handled the piercingly high writing with suave assurance.
The "Sounds of the Times" series is indeed unique. Only the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Green Umbrella" series offers a similar opportunity for an in-depth exploration of cutting edge contemporary music. The opportunity to hear a rare masterwork by Roberto Gerhard (in a magical performance) turned this concert into a bona fide event!