“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
— 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Morton Feldman: Violin and Orchestra

Feldman Violin and Orchestra coverMorton Feldman
Violin and Orchestra
Carolin Widmann, violin
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emilio Pomàrico
ECM New Series 2283

In 1979, the year Morton Feldman composed Violin and Orchestra, he was just starting to write the works of extreme length that characterized the rest of his composing career. Pieces of ninety minutes or more, like his first string quartet from that same year of 1979, became commonplace, with even longer compositions, like the five-hour For Philip Guston (1984) and the six-hour Quartet No. 2 (1983), soon to follow. The last, and longest, of his series of pieces for solo instrument and orchestra with simple descriptive titles – Piano and Orchestra, Oboe and Orchestra, and so on – Violin and Orchestra encompasses over 1,500 bars of music and takes nearly an hour to perform.

Much more diverse, even fast-changing, than those later Feldman works – with their open spaces and long-ringing chords – Violin and Orchestra still maintains throughout its duration an almost entirely quiet dynamic, and slow tempo. Alex Ross’s characterization of Feldman’s music as “glacially slow and snowily soft” generally applies here. The piece develops but slowly, and seems almost static at times. Color, not structure, was Feldman’s obsession. The ear is entranced by the constantly-shifting textures. While the music is harmonically dissonant, the textures are so evocative and carefully chosen and weighed that the effect is quite lovely, mysterious and ethereal. By Feldman’s standard, the orchestra is huge: four of each woodwind, a large brass section, two harps, two pianos, and four percussionists. But they’re usually heard in small ensembles, and rarely massed together.

The solo violin is muted throughout the work, and the performer is seated within the orchestra, not in front of it in the usual manner. Its contribution, dominated by spare notes, arpeggios, and glissandi, isn’t elaborate or virtuosic, but it is demanding in terms of concentration and precision of pitch and color. The interaction between the violin and orchestra is rarely what we would normally think of as concerto-like – there is no sense of contest, nor even a melody line and accompaniment in the normal sense.

The tolling piano over timpani rolls, followed by other restrained percussion, heard early on in the work recur in a more aggressive form about four minutes from the end of the piece. Just before the twenty-one minute mark, the music fades to inaudibility, followed by a brief passage of more ominous, not-quite-scherzo-like material. A marvelous moment occurs around thirty-two minutes in, when the orchestral strings engage in glissandi that sound like the distant blowing of wind (or, interpreted more ominously, distant sirens). But it is soon interrupted by the vaguely jazzy tapping of wood blocks and other tuned percussion. Seven or eight minutes later, the music dwindles to a few isolated chords, separated by several seconds of silence. Spiraling arpeggios toward the end devolve into simple repeated notes from the violin for the work’s enigmatic conclusion.

There are some repeating motifs – glissandi from the violin, short repeated chords from the woodwind choir, rumblings from the timpani and the lower part of the piano, a step-wise series of descending chords from the violin and orchestra, repeating pulsations from lower-pitched instruments that evoke some kind of funeral procession (including one extended passage of this sort during much of the concluding three minutes of the work). But, if there is an overarching form, it isn’t apparent to the average listener, which means that the music is consistently surprising. Some of the dissonant sustained chords puts one in mind of Gyorgy Ligeti’s early orchestral works like Lontano and Atmosphères. Because much of the music is so quiet, the louder outbursts sound almost apocalyptic. But those moments are always brief, and the music immediately calms.

Violin and Orchestra was first performed on April 12, 1984 in Frankfurt, with that great specialist in contemporary music, Paul Zukovsky, as soloist (the work is also dedicated to him), and Cristóbal Hallfter conducting the Hessian Radio Orchestra. But it is hard to imagine that performance surpassing the current recording. Carolin Widmann brings delicacy, poetry, and precision to the solo part, and the Orchestra under Pomarico’s direction is equally refined. For a listener wanting to become familiar with Feldman’s evocative music, Violin and Orchestra, especially in this meticulous recording, is not a bad place to start.

Forget Yourself

“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
– Henry Miller, quoted by Julia Cameron in The Right to Write


My accomplishments of the last couple of days:

* Created a new design for this blog
* Did some note taking for two new blog entries, on Morton Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra and on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks
* Completed three books: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and (for the third time) Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
* Started on another of the Great Courses, Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition
* Watched the film Watermark (2013, directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky)
* Visited the gym and worked out for an hour, for the first time in four months, after doing an hour of yoga the previous day
* Started meditating again using the Headspace app
* Attended a service at the Reno Buddhist Center

Sunday Salon 1-11-15

Time: 7:30 a.m., right after a surprising morning run. Nursing a sore shoulder/neck, I thought I’d take a day off to recuperate. But I spontaneously changed my mind this morning and put in a couple of miles. This gives me the opportunity to feel complacent and superior all day long!

Place: At my main home computer.

Listening: Right now, most of my music listening has to be dedicated to the writing of program notes for the Reno Chamber Orchestra and Reno Philharmonic, one of my tasks in life. One set of RCO notes is due this week, and a concert’s worth each of RCO and RPO notes the following week. Every now and again the orchestras program pieces that I’ve already written about, thus saving me some effort. But no such luck this time. Today’s listening and writing will feature two Antonín Dvořák compositions, the Te Deum, which I’ve never heard before, and the Symphony No. 8, which I love love love. Once I get out of program note mode, I’m considering adding a weekly playlist to the blog to highlight the good music I come across.

Reading: As threatened last week, I decided to take up Richard Powers’s novel Orfeo. I’m only about a third of the way through, but am so far finding it an unusually fascinating combination of road novel, bildungsroman, and meditation on both music and life in a time of terrorism. It sounds like an unlikely mix, but so far I’m quite engrossed. Powers’s descriptions of musical works like Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time are powerful. Also in the reading mix are Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown, and Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby.

Viewing: Only two films made their way to my eyeballs this week – both of them very recent films, a departure for this classic film viewer. The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-Wai’s latest film. Most, or at least much, of the critical attention for this movie seems to dwell on the fight scenes. While they’re admittedly done in a very stylish manner, they don’t seem that different from similar scenes in numerous other films I’ve seen (although many who are more knowledgeable than I have remarked on how innovative they are in depicting several styles of martial arts). I was drawn to the more meditative moments in the film, which are many, and recall the director’s films like In the Mood for Love, of which I’m a huge fan. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhang Ziyi are always extremely attractive stars, too. Speaking of attractive stars, Scarlett Johansson was the centerpiece of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which I watched last night. Having read a bit about it, I was expecting it to be strange. But it proved to be even more strange and inscrutable than I’d figured. However, I like inscrutable, and found the movie’s tone admirably creepy and disturbing, and the lack of exposition (or much of any dialogue) most appealing. I can’t help but think that the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and, much to my surprise, my much-loved Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul were influences on the film’s imagery, pacing, and approach to narrative.

Blogging: I’ve managed to follow through on my New Year’s resolution and get 2015 off to a decent start in the blogging realm. Along with two worthy quotations, this week I posted a brief feature on the excellent photographer Fan Ho, whose work is on display at the Modernbook Gallery in San Francisco through the end of this month.

Pondering: While I have been keeping up a regular exercise schedule and, even through the holidays, eating pretty well, I had gone many weeks without seeing any weight loss. Apparently this is routine, as the body gets used to a new state of being. Suddenly, however, this has changed, and I’m down four pounds in the last two weeks. Perhaps the breakthrough I’ve been waiting (weighting?) for has finally arrived.

Anticipating: Tomorrow I am tentatively planning to meet, for the first time in person, someone with whom I’ve been exchanging emails for several weeks. An increasingly common phenomenon anymore, it’s as though you know this person rather well on one level, and not at all on another. You’re meeting both a familiar friend and a stranger, and it’s impossible to know what to anticipate. I hope she will like me, and I her.

Gratuitous Manatee News: Through the fine magazine American Archaeology, I’ve recently learned that the oldest manatee in the world currently resides in Florida. Snooty is 66 years old, was apparently the first manatee ever born in captivity, weighs half a ton, corresponds on a regular basis with students (with some help from the South Florida Museum staff), and enjoys kale, bok choy, and broccoli. He even has his own webcam! Read more about Snooty here, and see the Snooty Cam here. (Photo from Kobee Manatee)