On October 11 I attended the first concert of the contemporary-music group “Alarm Will Sound” in its residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Met has a splendid small auditorium which is perfectly sized for a “sinfonietta” group like “Alarm Will Sound,” which is smaller than a chamber orchestra but larger than a chamber music ensemble.
AWS Music Director Alan Pierson explained in the program note that the group will be using its four-concert series to explore various site-specific programs, including an event at the Museum’s Temple of Dendur. But for this first concert, the only one that is being presented in the traditional auditorium space, they decided to explore the concept of The Permanent Collection. In a museum such as the Met, the permanent collection consists of the artwork that the Museum owns outright, a portion of which is on continuous display. This is supplemented by items on long-term loan from their owners, or the short-term loans that are the basis for special shows and exhibitions. Pierson said that the group decided to “stand back and wonder what might go into the ensemble’s permanent collection.” For a symphony orchestra, the concept of the “standard repertory” would fulfill this function – the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc. – but for a flexibly-sized ensemble like AWS, most of the repertory specifically created for such a group is relatively recent. The rest of the concert series will focus on recent music, but for this concert they decided to retrospective: over the four composers on the program, only one is now living, and the living composer’s piece is two decades old. So this concert could be seen as a mini-survey of the history of repertory for a “sinfonietta” size group.
They began with Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which Pierson identified as possible the first piece written for a sinfonietta-type group. Wagner wrote it as a birthday present for his wife coinciding with the birth of his first child, named Siegfried, and arranged it for an ensemble of five string players and a handful of wind soloists who would gather on the stairs of his house to serenade his wife awake with music that began gently in the strings. The piece is made up largely of thematic material from the composer’s operatic cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen, and it might even be seen as the 19th century equivalent of a movie trailer, giving audiences some highlights of what they would hear if they decided to attend these operas. This piece, dating from 1870, is far outside AWS’s normal repertory and style of music, and it took them some time to “play into” the piece and achieve a level of comfort with the style. I thought the opening bars for strings alone felt a bit unsettled, but soon they were in a groove. I still prefer to hear this with a larger body of strings, as those luscious harmonies of the introduction sounded a bit threadbare as played by a string quintet, and the winds tended to outbalance the small group of string players.
Following was a piece conceived for a modern sinfonietta, Thomas Ades’ “Living Toys.” I have the recording that EMI issued for the composer’s debut as a recorded composer, back in the 1990s, and it is a splendid workout for the ensemble. Hearing it live for the first time was a rewarding experience as well. One can understand why Ades quickly became a leading composer among the younger generation in the U.K., as he has a rich musical imagination and knows how to use the instruments effectively in solos and combinations. The performance was assured and lively.
The program indicated that next would be two of the Ragtime Dances from a set of several such pieces by Charles Ives, but Pierson announced that instead they would use the two dances as prologue and epilogue to the other piece on the program Gyorgy Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto (1969-70). The Ives pieces, from the period around the beginning of the 20th century, are his typical mash-up of popular music of the period, patriotic tunes, hymns, and dissonant racket, and it is all good fun. (I doubt Ives intended these pieces to be taken as anything other than pure entertainment.) The musicians seemed quite happy whacking away at these, and they brought smiles throughout the audience.
Finally, the Ligeti, a “major statement” in the permanent collection of sinfonietta repertory. There is an interesting unifying factor in the program here, for filmmaker Stanley Kubrick selected music by Ligeti for the soundtrack of his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ades has put a reference to that movie — “H.A.L.’s Death” – at the center of his “Living Toys.” But the Ligeti piece also served well as the substantive heart of the second half of the program, and once again this was music that is solidly in the comfort zone of the AWS players, resulting in a splendid performance. But I did think that the second of the Ives ragtime pieces made a better ending to the concert – serving almost in the nature of an encore!
The next concert in this series will be on Saturday, November 16, when they will present music by Steve Reich, including compositions written for AWS, which has collaborated with the composer on important projects in the past, and, during their student days, made their first commercial recording entirely of music by Reich. Details are available on the Museum’s website.