Last weekend my mom, Hiro, and I drove to Monterey to see the fourth concert of Monterey Symphony's "Sound Waves" series, a concert which included And God Created Great Whales by Alan Havhaness, Symphony No. 9 by Shostakovich, and Tan Dun's Water Concerto. Water Concerto was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 1998 specifically to showcase their principal percussionist, Chris Lamb. I took a private lesson from Chris in January on brush technique and feedback on my piece, Radiddlepa, and came away a big fan. We were excited about the show.
I wound up loving Chris' performance but not loving the music.
We arrived 45 minutes early to catch most of the pre-concert lecture by guest conductor, Jung-Ho Pak. It didn't do much for me. Going into the lecture, I had only a vague recollection of one such pre-concert lecture (by Peter Susskind?) that traced the composition through history and made it feel like, "decades of struggle have brought us to this piece tonight!" In this case, Pak's introduction felt like Cliffs Notes; succinct and honoring but losing the artistry. He pointed out things to listen for and his enthusiasm for the works was clear. But it felt superficial and didn't help me much. Others seemed pleased. A woman I chatted with after the lecture said, "Pak has guts... I've never seen anyone show clips of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic right before they perform!"
And God Created Great Whales was first. Pak introduced the piece with a condensed version of his pre-concert talk. It was largely unnecessary for me. I liked the piece's intro and the out-of-time twiddling that the strings do many times throughout the piece (think: last lines of a electric guitar solo with fast fingerwork, but with everyone playing at different times and tempos). The work's main pentatonic melody, however, felt cloying to me, especially alongside the recorded whale sounds. The sappiness was amplified by video projection accompanying some parts of the piece. As a home video the shots of whales were grand and impressive but in this context they offered no artistic stance of their own. With a full orchestra playing in front of the projection I found myself wishing they lived up to BBC Planet Earth quality, an impossible standard. Instead they could have been more quirky. Using only close-ups of the whale's rough, mottled skin, or only shots that catch the whale's shadows beaming through the water would have broken the comparison to Planet Earth and offered a unique take on the subject. Additionally, I liked some of the horn parts, the double-basses whale-style glissandos, and most of the darker moments of the song, but otherwise I wasn't moved by this.
Pak next introduced and interviewed an oceanographer from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. In a series of prepared questions and answers oceanographer John Ryan explained the threat of ocean noise to wildlife. I appreciate that this addition to the performance likely came from a discussion by the conductor and the symphony directors about how to tie the music to local nature and to current concerns over the environment. This is exactly what orchestras need to be doing to keep classical music relevant. Unfortunately, this ended at good intentions. After a throrough explanation that in addition to sea-level rise, warming, and chemical pollution, sea life faces additional threat from acoustic pollution, Ryan was given the question, "So what can we do about it?" The answer was something along the lines of, "We need stakeholders to recognize the problem and take steps to reduce... blah blah." What?! Here is an audience of rich white people, the biggest contributors to sea-level rise, warming, chemical pollution, and now audio pollution, and you're asking us to "be more aware"?! I was offended. It was pandering to a rich audience and out of touch with reality.
My trust in Pak was eroding.
The next piece was Oceana, a (new?) composition by Stella Sung, also to video. This video was worse still, going back and forth between "the ocean is beautiful" and "trash is horrible". The piece was big and cinematic, making the whole thing feel cliche.
In the next emcee, Pak had a Chinese-speaking member of the orchestra join him to demonstrate the four pitches of the Chinese language (not specifying whether it was Mandarin or Cantonese). In the subsequent music demonstrations it was unclear to me these four pitches were a major influence in the work. Is this really what we should be discussing before Water Concerto? Doesn't everyone here know about the four pitches of Chinese?! The emcee again felt out of touch.
Finally we arrived at Water Concerto by Tan Dun. Water Concerto features three percussionists creating sounds with water by dripping, splashing, and striking it with objects. The piece opens with three waterphones and Chris Lamb entered from the back of the audience. That kind of theatricality can be cheesy but the ethereal sounds of waterphone were enhanced by the three-dimensionality. The effect worked. The waterphones sounded especially good alongside the basses and I enjoyed the smooth transition from this section into the next "splashing" section. Plastic pipes (pitched by length, I assume) were then struck into the water's surface. I liked the sound but the rhythm was too regular/simple and the part didn't seem to fit into the orchestra sound. This was a recurring problem of the piece for me. A tam-tam cymbal partially submerged in water and struck with a rubber mallet was nice but difficult to hear until the orchestra dropped out. This transition was very effective. The remaining bath-like drips plus the partially submerged cymbal, plus drags of the rubber mallet against the plastic bowl was beautiful. The cellos joined the cymbal until the cymbal was replaced by four cowbells, also partially submerged. I liked these tones a lot but wanted more... more groove perhaps? More variety? I'm not sure. Upturned wooden bowls floating on water were my favorite fixture of the piece, largely because Chris' playing felt more free. At that moment I realized my recent fascination with Miyamoto is Black Enough (we saw them two days prior) might be intruding. Instead of the orchestral "voice", where everyone is committed to achieving the composer's vision, I'm probably craving the musician's voice; Chris doing his impressive thing. Obviously, that's not quite what the orchestral setting is about. A long, clear plastic tube with about 30 glass beads served as a shaker and allowed Chris to make his way around the orchestra to the back to play vibes (I think... I couldn't see them from my vantage point). This was another theatrical effect that worked. I liked the snare-like sound of all the string players slapping their fingerboards and there was a moment near the end of the piece that I wrote in my notes, "water fits the orchestra!" The piece ends with the middle percussionist dramatically raising a collander above the water reservoire such that a steady stream of water cascades down. It was fantastic. Is an even bigger collander possible? Should the other two percussionists do the same?
After an intermission, and another unnecessary emcee, the orchestra played Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. I didn't love the first movement (Allegro) but liked everything else. I'm amazed by how smoothly an orchestra can move a melody amongst the various instrument groups. I spent much of my time enjoying that single effect.
I came away from the concert excited to have seen new techniques and heard things I loved, and also feeling like if I had better notation and capturing skills, I might be able to write music that I like better. I'm embarassed to type this because I'm nowhere near the level of these composers, but my recent successes writing music on tour have me on a roll, and I'm trying to ride this confidence train. Compared to October in Yokohama with Andy Akiho where the thought of writing for orchestra seemed impossible, I can imagine one day being able to write for water and strings, and love it.