This week The Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Museum of Art, two iconic cultural brands in the city, collaborated on a two-concert series at the museum of music by composers who based their careers in California. The orchestra’s assistant conductor, James Feddeck, conducted the concerts in the museum’s intimate Gartner Auditorium. The first concert featured rare works by Henry Cowell, Dane Rudhyar and Lou Harrison. The second concert, scheduled for Friday 3 May, features music by John Adams (his Shaker Loops), James Tenney and Terry Riley. The series also included lectures by Case Western Reserve University art history professor Henry Adams on California art, with the intriguing titles “The Quest for Nirvana and the Birth of Modern Art” and “The Funkiness of California Art in the 20th Century”.

Henry Cowell © Sidney Cowell
Henry Cowell
© Sidney Cowell

Henry Cowell (1897–1965) is now remembered mostly for his use in his piano compositions of the forearm “tone cluster” technique. But especially in his early career he wrote a number of chamber and symphonic works that explored atonality, polytonality, and rhythmic ideas that presage the complexities later developed by Elliott Carter. Cowell’s four-movement Sinfonietta (1928), his earliest symphonic work, would appear to have been influenced by the music of the Second Viennese School composers that he heard during his tours of Europe in the early 1920s. Passage of the Sinfonietta reflect the soundworld of Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6, and Wozzeck, in the dissonant but long and achingly lyrical melodies. Cowell’s music is polyphonic, with increasing musical tension as the polyphonic texture becomes ever more complex. There are moments of release as the textures thin. The work’s third movement is “monodic”, a sinuous Adagio played by the strings in unison or octaves. Feddeck led a performance that was more than just getting through the notes; the orchestra was infused with a late Romantic lyricism despite the dissonance.

Dane Rudhyar’s five-movement suite Out of Darkness (1982) received its world première at this concert. Rudhyar (1895–1985) was born in Paris, but lived most of his life in California and was a noted writer on astrology as well as a composer. Rudhyar’s style is dissonant, with thick textures and fragmentary development. There are constant changes from one bit of musical material to another. Out of Darkness uses a full orchestra, including percussion. The sounds themselves were often quite striking, but the music didn’t have anything to bind it together. At times it sounded suitable as the score for a film noir. A program note by the composer’s widow, Leyla Hill, indicated that the piece “deals with emergence out of transformative difficulty or trial, and into light or transmutation”. The philosophy may be more interesting than the music here, but it ends on a particularly mellow and tuneful note. Despite the best efforts of conductor and players, this was the least convincing piece on the program.

The best was saved for last, Lou Harrison’s radiant Suite for Violin with String Orchestra with Stephen Rose (Cleveland Orchestra principal second violin) as the soloist. It was originally composed in 1974 as Suite for Violin and American Gamelan and later transcribed for the more practical ensemble of strings, two harps, piano and celesta. The gamelan style is still present in the transcription through the keyboards and harps, and also with numerous pizzicato string passages and rapping on the bodies of the lower string instruments, but the texture is much smoother with the strings than solely the gamelan percussion, and the soloist is often engulfed in the ensemble texture. At the end of each movement, James Feddeck let the sounds from piano, celesta and harps “ring” and die out before signaling the end of the movement.

Stephen Rose handled the considerable difficulties of the solo part confidently. The first movement solo has an extended passage of double-stop “drone” in the lower note while the melody is in the upper voice of the solo. At the end of the movement, it moves higher and softer, ultimately to the highest part of the violin range with a pianissimo ending. The third movement, “Air”, is the most gamelan-like of the set, with a delicate ringing texture and a lovely violin melody above. The last movement is in the classic form of the chaconne, with a repeated bass line with musical development occurring above. The soloist develops minimalistic phrases in an increasingly swirling and ecstatic crescendo. This was the highlight of the concert.

Although Gartner Auditorium was not sold out, there was a respectable and enthusiastic crowd. It was a program of intellectually challenging music carried off successfully by Feddeck and orchestra. Let’s have more!

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