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Recognizing Our Own

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THE MUSIC OF GEORGE PERLE

at the DePaul University Concert Hall

June 1

ARLEEN AUGER AND NED ROREM

at Orchestra Hall

June 3

George Perle is probably the most significant composer ever to come out of Chicago. More important composers may have lived or worked here--Prokofiev even lived in Chicago for a time--but Perle developed his own distinctive voice as a composer right here, and the city was crucial to his development. Chicago is sometimes slow to recognize its own, however. The Chicago Symphony is conspicuously ignoring Perle in its centenary commissions, and much of the rest of the music community is paying homage to Leo Sowerby, a third-rate Chicago composer who has been dead more than 20 years. It fell to Perle's alma mater, DePaul University, to recognize him with a two=day celebration on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Perle, who grew up on a farm in northern Indiana, came to DePaul on a scholarship during the Depression. As a composition student, he wrestled with the same problem composers have been wrestling with ever since Wagner and Debussy so chromaticized Western music that traditional tonality no longer seemed an adequate means of expression: the problem of musical language.

Composers from the Renaissance to the Romantic eras, for all of their obvious stylistic differences, had the same diatonic major and minor systems of tonality to work within. The music of the late 19th century became more and more liberal in breaking the constraints of these traditional keys, and much of the really innovative music from that time can be analyzed only in terms of "pitch centers," or the gravitational pull of a particular pitch, not a set key. It was only natural that the system broke down completely, a process that can be seen across the career of Arnold Schoenberg. His early works are clearly within the sound world of Wagner and late Romanticism (Gurrelieder being the most famous example); his middle works have broken the system toward his own distinctive brand of atonality (Erwartung and Pierrot lunaire); and the process culminates in his complete democratization of all 12 pitches (rather than the usual eight notes of a major or minor scale) in his own 12-tone system, with which he and his disciples--notably Alban Berg and Anton Webern--are associated.

Perle happened on that system when he discovered the piano score to Berg's Lyric Suite for String Quartet at DePaul. He immediately realized the potential in that score for a new system of musical language, one that would be as integral to organizing the chromatic scale as the major-minor system had been to organizing the diatonic scale. Perle's quick acceptance of serialism blinded him to the fact that the Viennese 12-tone composers were constructing "rows" of 12 pitches in a fixed order that had to be used in sequence throughout a given work. Since he misunderstood this process from the very beginning, his own music went off in an entirely different direction. That direction he would later call "12-tone tonality," his own distinctive musical language, which was as much influenced by the symmetrical organization processes of composers such as Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Scriabin as by any of the serialists.

Perle's 12-tone music, unlike that of the Viennese serialists, is quite accessible--which may help explain the continuing popularity of Perle's music while standard serialism has almost completely faded away. (Schoenberg's best-known and most-often-performed pieces were composed before he developed the 12-tone system.) Today's composers, almost all of whom were trained as or became serialists, have largely abandoned serialism; even once-staunch defenders of the movement, such as Pierre Boulez, have moved completely away from it and see it as a historical dead-end.

The concert of Perle's music given by DePaul faculty members and students began with a sprightly short commission from 1987 called New Fanfares, which was conceived as an opening work for a program. Performed by the DePaul Brass Ensemble under the direction of Edward Kocher, it nicely spotlighted the high quality of student brass playing in Chicago, even if color was put ahead of contrast--though perhaps that was appropriate, given the nature of the music. The work is a "popular" Perle piece, and it's short enough that it was immediately encored.

I was not familiar with either Perle's Sonata a Cinque or his Serenade no. 1 for Viola and Chamber Ensemble, so it is difficult to comment on the significance of these works or their performance level. The Sonata a Cinque was so marred by balance problems that the scope of its texture could not be fully discerned; the bass trombone was too loud and the piano almost inaudible at times (the lid should have been open, as it was later for the concertino). The work has a calm character that was nicely realized by the mostly faculty ensemble of violin, cello, clarinet, bass trombone, and piano, though there was little in the way of dynamic contrast. The most interesting section of the piece--"Chorales and Diversions"--sets a very low clarinet against a muted bass trombone in contrary motion, answered by the piano and pizzicato strings, which then turn to short lyrical phrases.

The serenade was performed by violist Rami Solomonow and a student wind ensemble of eight players, along with bass and drums. The winds were quite good and able to tackle this piece pretty convincingly, though the viola was usually drowned out. The soloist's double-stopped cadenza was nicely done, particularly set against the extremes of a low clarinet and high flute. The piece is from 1960 (not 1975, as the sparse program indicated) and, though Perle denies this was conscious, is heavily jazz inspired, particularly in its clever yet subtle section featuring walking bass, ride cymbal, and muted trumpet set against the viola. There was little overall architecture apparent in the piece; knowing Perle's careful attention to such matters makes me wonder if conductor Donald DeRoche simply wasn't transmitting this strongly enough.

Perle won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his Wind Quintet IV, a form that he has a particular affinity for and that has become a unique personal vehicle for his musical expression. (The complete wind quintets are available on a single disc, all brilliantly performed by the Dorian Wind Quintet, a magnificent introduction to Perle's music.) A first-rate ensemble that included CSO principal clarinetist Larry Combs and flutist Mary Stolper (both faculty members at DePaul) gave the piece a revealing and upbeat performance--well balanced and well executed, with convincing tempi, exquisite phrasing, and lots of beautifully controlled dynamic contrasts.

The Concertino for Piano, Winds and Timpani--a Paul Fromm commission that was given its world premiere here by Ralph Shapey and the Contemporary Chamber Players in 1978--has become widely known through many performances and a powerful recording by pianist Richard Goode. It owes much in conception and form to the famous Stravinsky Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, yet bears Perle's own creative stamp. CSO pianist and DePaul keyboard coordinator Mary Sauer favored a more lyrical and legato approach than the common percussive performances. Her approach may have been more musical, but it was often more heavy-handed. The student ensemble--also conducted by DeRoche--was the weakest of the evening. They were probably suffering from fatigue at that point, and they were in way over their heads. There was little tang to their playing, and the bassoons started to sound like sick dogs, so inconsistent was their pitch and intonation.

Last Sunday afternoon, in what was certainly one of the most unusual pairings of the year, soprano Arleen Auger gave a debut recital with composer Ned Rorem (both former Chicagoans) as her accompanist to close out the Merrill Lynch Great Performers Series. The American-born Auger is not a household name in the States because she built her career in Europe; she only began one here in the last decade. That's a pity, for she is one of the great sopranos of our day, and our loss was certainly Europe's gain. (Auger is a product of the ridiculous but still too often true dictum that an American-born singer must prove him or herself in Europe before being accepted in the States.)

I knew her voice from a recording here and there, but recordings could not have prepared me for its beauty. The recital, in which she was at the top of her form, is one of the most memorable heard here in some time.

The program began with six Mahler songs from various stages in his career--including two songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and settings by Ruckert and Leander--that were given the kind of artistry that these fragile songs deserve but so rarely receive. "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?" ("Who thought up this song?") was delivered in an almost breathless fashion, with great poignancy and beautifully focused vocal sound. The amazing thing about Auger is that she can soar more gracefully in the upper ranges than most coloraturas, yet she has a full, dark-colored lower range as well. Register shifts are seamless, and complex runs and trills hold no problems for her extraordinary technique. Her ability to evoke both the musical and textual meaning of these Mahler songs was positively spellbinding. (What a treat it will be to hear her sing the Mahler Fourth Symphony this weekend with Klaus Tennstedt and the Chicago Symphony. I cannot imagine a better pair of collaborators for this monumental work. If you can't make this concert, Auger will be back in August for a Ravinia recital with Misha Dichter.)

Rorem sensitively followed Auger's lead and did a credible job, though it would have been far more interesting if Auger had had an accompanist who was an artistic equal. Auger brought fire to these songs; Rorem's interpretations tended toward the wimpy side and needed more blood.

The rest of the first half of the program was given over to French songs, Ravel's Five Popular Greek Melodies and four Debussy songs with texts by Bourget, Verlaine, and Mallarme. It was immediately apparent that Auger's French was not at the same level as her German (she sings German as if she had been born there), nor was Rorem able to evoke the needed French color for these works. Even so, these were special performances, thanks to Auger's gorgeous timbre--even at the softest dynamic levels. Seldom has so much sheer beautiful vocal sound been heard in these works.

The main reason for pairing Auger and Rorem was that they could perform his songs, to which the entire second half of the program was given over. I have never been a big Rorem fan for the simple reason that his songs are basically decorated texts, not art songs in the classic sense. They are musically frivolous and usually not very lyrical or vocally interesting. I must say that I came away with a better opinion of some of them as a result of hearing Auger and Rorem make convincing cases for them.

Many of these songs were as silly and pointless as ever, but deeper meanings did emerge in a handful of them, notably "The Silver Swan," with its interesting harmonic structure and the arch shape to its vocal range, and the opening of The Nantucket Songs, where the singer begins a cappella and the accompaniment pours in rather slowly and gently. "Thoughts of a Young Girl," which was completely a cappella, gloriously showed off Auger's vocal flexibility. Her sustained final notes in "Fear of Death" and "Ferry Me Across the Water" were exquisitely executed, starting on absolutely pure pitch and ending with an ever so slight vibrato. How many singers can even hear such subtleties of pitch, let alone flawlessly execute them? This was extraordinary singing. My only complaint was that sometimes her diction was not as sharp as it could have been, as she sometimes let her vowels predominate to emphasize her remarkable timbre.

Perhaps the most effective Rorem songs were the two encores, both early songs about 40 years old now: "Alleluia" and "Early in the Morning," which has a nice Romantic lilt to it that was effectively communicated by Auger.

It isn't always or even usually true that a composer can perform his own music convincingly, but Rorem did a stylish job as an accompanist and was obviously having the time of his life working with such a gifted singer. One certainly had the sense that these performances were about as definitive as we're likely to hear. In fact, it's entirely possible that the performances were better than the songs themselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johanna I. Sturm.

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