Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Special Cursive Preview - Ben Weber's Romance in a Cynical Age

I'm pleased as punch to remind the world that Cursive, my modern chamber group specializing in performing the kind of unknown modern music that gets featured on this blog, has a new program, Imagist Alchemy, coming up this Thursday, October 6, at 7:30 pm at Kenyon Hall, West Seattle's greatest old-timey theater.  The program will feature works for different combinations of voice, flute, viola and cello by mid-century American composers inspired by the Imagist poetry movement of the first half of the 20th century.  The composers include the likes of David Diamond, Adolph Weiss, Paul Pisk and Ben Weber, and Re-Composing is finally going to put the spotlight on these forgotten (some more than others) composers in the days leading up to Imagist Alchemy's big show.  Our Cursive previews are ending today with one of the most appropriate composers for this blog since its inception, Ben Weber (1916-1979).

Hailing from St. Louis, Weber accomplished the curious feat of establishing a position of success and acclaim for himself during the American classical boom years of the 1940's and '50's while not experiencing any of the public adoration that contemporaries like Bernstein, Piston and Schuman got.  Weber was largely self-taught, and while that can sometimes reap popular benefit (such as with the popularly eccentric Paul Creston) his inspiration came from more dodecaphonic climbs.  Weber was one of the first composer to write 12-tone music in America, breaking that new ground with Wallingford Riegger in the late '30's, but rather than adopt the Second Viennese School's attitudes and ascetic aesthetics Weber decided to use dodecaphonic music in a more Romantic Way.  For example, take his ravishing Violin Concerto:

This certainly isn't tonality but it sure ain't Webern, either.  Ben Weber understood how serialism could be used as a tool first rather than a philosophy, as merely a way to keep the composer honest in his atonal dealings and to avoid too cozy familiarities.  And there are cozy familiarities here, too, but primarily in tone and passion.  There's an enormous sweep to this piece, with thick, resonant chords and classically successful orchestration, and the violin part is one of the great Tall Dark Strangers of the rep.  I'm of the mind that trained musicians can "sing" through anything as long as the composer writes likes they want them to, and this is expressed gorgeously by this performance by violinist Oliver Colbentson with the Nurmberger Symphoniker under the direction of Werner Heider, another composer who might drift to these blogly shores.  I'm always impressed with composers who can accentuate tension and release atonally and Weber is one of the best I've seen from America at that.  A more placid example of his language is his brief pedagogical piano piece New Adventure, played here by some guy*:

This little number was published by Theodore Presser as part of the Masters of Our Day series in the '50's, edited by Isadore Freed and Lazare Saminsky (two more guys who are bound to appear on these blogs).  While his piano works, such as this one, are largely as neglected as anything else he's written, one piece has become his best candidate for longevity: the Fantasia (Variaitons), op. 25.  Written for the great William Masselos, the Fantasia is arguably his most representative statement for the instrument, showcasing not only his prowess with dodecaphonic composition but also his sense of melody and emotional power.  It was recorded brilliantly by Stephen Hough in the late '90's for an album that also featured Copland's Piano Variations, Corigliano's Etude Fantasy and Tsontakis's Ghost Variations (a hell of a program, to be sure).  That CD also marked the last time a Weber piece was commercially recorded, and searching on YouTube reveals that it might be the last time it was performed for posterity, either.  The good news is that a number of excellent pianists have taken a crack at it, such as Christopher Czaja Sager in this 1972 performance:

That recording is a bit scratchy but it's all there - confident, exciting piano writing, wild yet refined variation and a glorious clash of tonal memories and atonal virtuosity.  If it was the only Weber piece to get played again in the future I wouldn't be too sore about it, and thankfully it's still in print through Sheet Music Plus - oh, wait.  More tangible good news is that many of his pieces remain in print, including dozens through the ever-essential ACA (such as his one ballet, The Pool of Darkness, another piece that begs to be performed by Cursive), and all the published ones can be got through Interlibrary Loan and copied.  It's through libraries that I got his Four Songs for voice and cello, a work featured on Imagist Alchemy.  Combining the poetry of Ezra Pound, a man at the forefront of Imagism and who famously cheerleaded for classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, with ancient Latin and Sanskrit poetry, including one by Emperor Hadrian himself.  The concert isn't coming a moment too soon, either, as this year, one that is three quarters over already, is the Centenary of Weber's birth, though sadly I haven't heard of any other groups taking charge and performing some of his many worthy compositions.  The last time there was an all-Weber program was likely this retrospective concert on the 20th anniversary of his death, one that featured his works for the combination of flute, cello and celesta, one so cool I wish I'd thought of it first.  That concert featured tribute works by Milton Babbitt, Ned Rorem (who performed the piece himself) and Lou Harrison, and all around sounded like a lovely time.  Hopefully Cursive's performance Thursday night will add a little notch more to Weber's performance pole, and there's always more room for a lyric serialist in the future.


*I should have "Some Guy" as a title on my business cards.

No comments:

Post a Comment