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Mid Summer Modern: Hong Kong New Music Ensemble and Paul Zukofsky July 30, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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July 26th, 2011

Loke Yew Hall, The University of Hong Kong

Igor Stravinsky Septet (1952-53)

Allegro

Passacaglia

Gigue

Milton Babbitt Composition For Four Instruments (1948)

Arnold Schoenberg Suite, Op. 29 (1924-26)

Ouverture [Overture]

Tanzchritte [Dance Steps]

Thema mit Variationen [Theme with variations]

Gigue [Gigue]

Hong Kong New Music Ensemble

Conductor: Paul Zukofsky

As a student of philosophy, I dread formal logic; as a student of literature, I dread structuralism; as a lover of music, I dread serialism. It was therefore with some trepidation that I went to the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble’s concert of 20th century works by Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt and Arnold Schoenberg, the first in the Hell Hot New Music Festival 2011.

As it turned out, the thoughtful programming helped the audience find its way more easily into what might sound “chaotic” to the untrained ear, as one listener put it during the post-concert discussion. Conductor Paul Zukofsky’s advice on learning to appreciate this type of music is to keep an open mind and listen repeatedly.

The New Music Ensemble struck a beautiful and balanced tone in the opening work, Stravinsky’s Septet, completed in 1953, which is chronologically the most recent composition among the three on the programme. Said to be a transition from the composer’s hitherto neo-classical style into serialism in later works, the Septet is charming, short and sweet.

The Allegro is almost in sonata form, with a seven-note theme that appears again and again in different guises. The Passacaglia is dainty and elegant, and the Ensemble’s treatment of the dialogue between clarinet and cello launching the movement highlighted these qualities. The viola opens the Gigue with a confident statement that gradually builds up into an exposition for all the instruments. Mr Zukofsky’s direction kept the instruments in fine balance, with none dominating the work.

The obituary in the New York Times on Milton Babbitt when he passed away early in 2011 described him as “an influential composer, theorist and teacher who wrote music that was intensely rational and for many listeners impenetrably abstruse”. I found his Composition For Four Instruments quaint and interesting. A rather jerky opening on clarinet paved the way for the flute played with a tremolo similar to the purring of a cat, and a succession of near monologues or cadenzas by the individual instruments seldom playing together.

Musicologists have a field day analysing the structure of the work and its exposition of twelve-tone serialism, but it makes quite heavy demands on the listener to “connect the dots”. In the end, stretching the feline analogy, I decided that it could best be likened to four nimble cats jumping up and down vying for the attention of their owner. There is good reason why Babbitt didn’t name the work a “quartet” but simply a “composition for four instruments”. The composer is said to have described it as “applying the pitch operations of the twelve-tone system to non-pitch elements”. Herein, perhaps, lies the problem for the general listener.

The final work in the programme, Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29, chronologically the most ancient of the three, returned to a style, which although quite distinct even from that of contemporaries such as Richard Strauss, remains approachable for the general audience. Without intimate knowledge of the fine structural intricacies of the twelve-tone system, I was fascinated by its vibrancy and almost playfulness. The colour the bass bassoon added to the piece particularly intrigued me.

The Overture: Allegretto, opening with a rapid-fire, urgent theme and an emphatic rhythm, traverses an undulating landscape without a dull moment. Lively dance rhythms continued in the second movement Tanzchritte (Dance Steps). In the third movement, Theme and Variations, the pace slowed somewhat, with the wind instruments and piano being slightly more assertive. Like the Stravinsky Septet, the closing movement is a Gigue, opening with a lively and almost chirpy tune on clarinet, and after a happy saunter, stops rather abruptly in suspense.

Mr Zukofsky’s sensitive touch and the tender harmony of the New Music Ensemble made the evening of modern works a most enjoyable musical experience. They deserve kudos for helping bring such important works to the general public, particularly in the year of the Hong Kong University’s centenary.

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