Orchestra 2001 considers Bali (1st review)
What Boulez could learn from the BalineseTOM PURDOM
I don’t like Pierre Boulez. I got chided for this bias the last time I reviewed an Orchestra 2001 concert, but I’m afraid I just don’t like the way his music sounds. Orchestra 2001 opened its latest program with Boulez’s Derive 1, and I didn’t like its hard, metallic sound any more than I liked the Anthemes 2 that the same ensemble played at its last concert.
Contrast that with the sound of the Balinese gamelan ensemble featured in the second half of the Orchestra 2001 concert. The 23 musicians in the gamelan are all percussionists. They hit small gongs. They strike xylophones with small metal hammers. But the results of these efforts sound silvery and lacy.
The concert spotlighted Balinese music as well as Western music that’s influenced by Balinese music. Many Western composers have been fascinated by the gamelan, most notably Messaien, who evoked the sound of the gamelan in his massive Turangalila symphony and several other works.
Twilight and hummingbirds
The piece that followed the Boulez could boast an especially direct tie to Bali. Gerald Levinson was actually in Bali when he started working on Black Magic/White Magic in 1981.
Black Magic/White Magic sets 11 short poems by Levinson’s wife, Nanine Valen. The poems were written before Levinson’s encounter with Bali, but they deal with subjects— like twilight and the hummingbird— that could have been chosen by a Balinese poet.
Levinson set the poems for mezzo-soprano, flute, oboe, two clarinets, violin, cello, piano and percussion—a modified version of the “Pierrot ensemble” that Schoenberg invented for his influential 1912 Pierrot Lunaire. Three of the musicians play multiple instruments, so the tone colors include alto flute, piccolo, English horn and bass clarinet.
Levinson injects so much instrumental variety into the piece that it’s tempting to listen to it just for the orchestration. His instrumental effects include a harp-like piano part, a piccolo that suggests the wheeling of a bird, and a lazy interlude for clarinet, oboe and alto flute in a section entitled The Tropics.
But the piece’s real virtue is the way it blends its instrumental color with the vocal part. Mezzo Freda Herseth can create a straightforward vocal line that merges seamlessly with Levinson’s instrumental kaleidoscope, but she can also execute the special techniques, like sudden vocal leaps, that new music specialists must master.
Gods in the temple
The program’s second half introduced the Gamelan Samara Santi of Swarthmore College. The Swarthmore gamelan draws its musicians from the Swarthmore College community, but its instruments were created by a leading Balinese instrument maker and musician. Its co-director is another noted Balinese musician, I Nyoman Suadin.
The gamelan ensemble played three Balinese pieces. The first included a rolling tune that ran through the shimmering textures created by 23 musicians who managed to keep together with only the beat of a drum to guide them.
The second was a Hindu-Balinese temple dance welcoming the gods to the temple, with eight dancers from Delaware’s Indonesian Cultural Club performing sinuous Balinese dances. The third evoked the flight of the cranes, with five sections distinguished by distinctive rhythms and surprising shifts in tone color.
The gamelan is essentially an outdoor percussion ensemble. It sounded louder in the Ethical Society’s close confines than it would have in its natural environment. The primary drum would have sounded less prominent outdoors. But even indoors it never sounded bangy or metallic. The Swarthmore musicians struck their instruments with the sensitivity that good Western percussionists apply to the standard Western percussion arsenal.
For the finale, the gamelan’s co-director, composer Thomas Whitman, acceded to a request from Orchestra 2001’s director, James Freeman, and created a piece for gamelan and the Western ensemble employed in Levinson’s piece.
Whitman’s Inside/Outside opens with a role reversal: The Westerners play a gamelan theme and the gamelan plays a lyrical Western melody. The two groups then engage in a dialogue in which they trade fragments from the two traditions. At one marvelous moment near the end, they play together in perfect harmony, a 1912 Western ensemble and a traditional Balinese community band creating a surge of 19th-Century romanticism.
Inside/Outside closed the evening with a conclusion that felt like a happy arrival at the end of a journey through exotic and sometimes rough terrain.♦