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Comments from ACO’s December 7, 1997 concert at Carnegie Hall

Robert Ashley: When Famous Last Words Fail You (World Premiere, ACO Commission)Composer Robert Ashley

Without a doubt, Robert Ashley’s When Famous Last Words Fail You, which received its world premiere performance, was the most controversial piece on the program, eliciting the widest gamut of opinions. The piece featured baritone Thomas Buckner and a chorus of Joan LaBarbara, Jacqueline Humbert, and Sam Ashley. The text, written by Ashley, concerns a jazz musician who has invented the “immortality salve” which allows the user to live forever. The orchestral parts of When Famous Last Words Fail You consisted entirely of one pitch: A.

Many in the audience felt When Famous Last Words Fail You was experimental and some found it surprising that Ashley, a composer better known for his work with electronics and music theater rather than orchestral forces, was included on the program. Some thought When Famous Last Words Fail You was the most effective work on the program, others felt it was "a waste of time." A sampling of the comments we received:

"I'm impressed it was programmed... 
the most interesting piece I've heard at Carnegie Hall...
It's like the best modern novel--it is challenging to the genre
as it attempts to redesign it--good work!"
"Ashley's piece was Genius! The text was bold and apocalyptic. 
Ashley's use of musical-theatre style commentary was most experimental."
"I am surprised that anyone would consider the one-tone Ashley piece music!"
"a whole intricate piece on one note!"
"the Ashley would have been OK had there been some notes besides A to play."
"The Ashley was most effective because of its experimental, 
theatrical, poetical, cynical character!"
"The words were great! Also the semi-staged manner of its performance."
"I slept during Ashley's 'declamation with backing of orchestra.' 
It was tiresome, bombastic and anitquated."
"When Famous Last Words Fail You was weird and zany. 
I liked it for being a rousingly demented poetry reading."
"The musicians are superfluous and the text pompously meaningless."
"Downtown has traveled uptown for When Famous Last Words Fail You."
"Ashley's piece reminded me of Capitals, Capitals by Virgil Thomson 
(texts by Gertrude Stein), which is rarely performed."
"irreverent, poetic vernacular--a weaving of jazz, rap and prison poetry"
"Is the Ashley a musical composition or a poetic monologue?"

One audience member suggested renaming When Famous Last Words Fail You "The Endless Drone." Here are some other alternate title suggestions from the audience:

"A 437, 438, 439, 440, 441, 442, 443"
"Orchestral Rap"
"'The Age of Stupidity on A' after V. Nabakov"
"Prophetic Revelations"
"Four Singers in Search of a Tune"
"When All the Rest of the 11 Notes Fail Him"
"Science at the End of Time"
"Much Ado About Nothing"
"The Agit-Prop Revue"
"Flake or Fake?"

Sebastian Currier: Microsymph (World Premiere, ACO Commission)

Sebastian Currier's Microsymph, also commissioned by ACO, received its world premiere on December 7. The composer described the piece as "a five movement symphony squeezed into ten minutes. A frantically paced, restless, quick-changing kaleidoscope." The work included a "minute waltz" and what the composer calls a "60 billion nanosecond scherzo." Many in the audience picked up on the composer's novel play on symphonic traditions, form and orchestration, and on the composer's compression of time and sense of fun, citing Microsymph as the most effective piece on the program:

"Microsymph was chock full of ideas, concise and to the point. 
Excellent orchestration."
"The Currier Microsymph was the most effective of the new pieces. 
It is what serious concert music too seldom is not: fun and effervescent."
"Microsymph is a really short, incisive well orchestrated piece. 
With short attention spans these days, it's like a wake-up call."
"Microsymph kept my attention and interest throughout... 
Delightful! An exciting combination of sounds."
"Recognizable musical passages in a cleverly timed package."
"The whimsical percussion"
"Short Symphonies are as good as long ones."
"I loved Currier's Microsymph--creative, musical, fun."

One listener suggested renaming Microsymph "Sinfonietta." ("Microsymph sounds like software"). Another called it, "The Little Symphony That Could." One creative dissenter suggested "Macrobore." Here are a few more suggested titles:

"Grand Canyon Symphony"
"Danse Microphonic"
"It's Not All Pink on the Inside"
"Star Searching"
"Classical Symphony"

Lou Harrison: Symphony on G (New York Premiere)Lou Harrison and Dennis Russell Davies

Many commented that Lou Harrison's Symphony on G sounded the most "traditional" of the works on the program. Certainly the fact that this is an early work of Harrison's bears this out. Curiously though, it was written based on Schoenberg's 12-tone technique, which has--in the minds of many casual listeners--been synonymous with the avant-garde. Among the comments:

"It is fascinating how dated twelve-tone music has become. 
What saves the piece is Harrison's willingness to push
beyond the limitations of Schoenberg's aesthetic.
The lyrical sections sound like muted Korngold effusions."
"fully accessible"
"repetitive, clearly identified measures."
"The range and depth of Lou Harrison's 1948 
Symphony on G was the biggest surprise in the concert."
"How elegant Lou Harrison's Symphony sounds 
and how different from his more recent works."
"I like his Asian-influenced pieces and am discovering yet more!
"I was surprised how vital the Harrison Symphony was--not like his later work"
"still sounds very current although it is definitely of its time"
"I was surprised that so magnificent a work is receiving 
its New York premiere 30 years late."

A few listeners commented in particular on the effectiveness of the Symphony on G's finale:

"it tied the whole piece together."
"Most effective was the clarinet playing 
and the total ensemble playing in the finale."
"the man knows music!"
"delightful and rich"

And not to be left out, a few creative listeners suggested that Harrison's Scherzo movement be re-christened "Dance of the Feisty Felines." Others suggested:

"The Sound of Mathematics"
"Symphony on an American Mountaineer"
"Totally Tonal"
"Symphonic Expressions"

Betsy Jolas: Frauenleben for Viola & Orchestra (U.S. Premiere)

Kim Kashkashian was the soloist in the first American performance by this French/American composer, who is a former student of Messiaen's. Several listeners commented on what they perceived as a conservative streak in Ms. Jolas' music:

"Betsy's piece sounded traditional in its debt 
to the serialist establishment of the mid-century."
"Except for the use of a viola, it sounded very 
'business as usual' modern music."
"Frauenleben was like the music of the 3 'B's"
"The biggest surprise in the concert was Ms. Jolas' old-hat twelve-tonism."
On the other hand one member of the audience felt that 
"Frauenleben was experimental--it changed texture alot."

And one concertgoer, who clearly knows the repertoire of viola jokes commented that the Frauenleben showed that "The viola is not as bad as it sounds." Another called the piece "Nine Witty Ideas for a Viola Concerto," while a third suggested the music sounded like "Dull Songs for Viola & Orchestra (performed well)."

Last But Not Least...

Several style-conscious subscribers couldn't refrain from commenting on how effective music director Dennis Russell Davies' new hair style was. Over the summer, maestro Davies lost his trademark ponytail. We hadn't thought of including a survey question on hair... maybe for the next concert.

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