As much as I had been anticipating this gig, I was worried I wouldn't actually be able to make it, and that if I did make it, that I'd be in no shape to enjoy it. I had been up all night preparing for a Secret Society rehearsal on Thursday afternoon, and on top of the sleep deprivation, I had a nasty cold and wasn't sure I'd make it through the rehearsal, let alone make it to the gig up at Columbia. But I knew I'd regret it if I missed this chance to hear one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, performed live. Especially since I'd already missed two prior chances to hear the work, once in Montreal with Marc-André Hamelin, and once in Boston with Stepehen Drury. So I'd be damned if I was going to miss Marilyn Nonken's version, too. Plus, there was a new work by Rzewski, Bring Them Home! for two pianos and percussion, which I really wanted to hear. So, very much against my body's wishes and best interests, I made the trek up to the Miller Theatre.
The evening began at 7 PM with a chat between Rzewski and Kyle Gann. At first I was worried Gann would have trouble drawing Rzewski out -- Gann began by noting that it was Charles Ives's birthday, and Rzewski, who is not a fan, probably didn't give a damn. Rzewski replied drily "I'm sure it's someone's birthday" but added nothing more. Gann then asked about "the elephant in the room" (gesturing to the two pianos and menagerie of percussion instruments behind them), asking if Bring Them Home! bore any relation to Bartók's Music For Two Pianos And Percussion. "No, no relation." Gann seemed a little stymied at this point: "Really? Even though it could be performed on the same concert as… " trailing off.
However, Rzewski soon perked up when given the chance to talk about the 17th-century Irish song, Siuil, a Run, which serves as the source material for Bring Them Home! He talked about the various sets of lyrics the song has had in different political contexts -- it was "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" during the American Revolution, and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" in the Civil War -- and he linked it to the Shays Rebellion and the Society of the Cincinatti. [Rzewski's skeptical look at American history ought to earn him a place of honor next to Howard Zinn in David Horowitz's odious discoverthenetwork.org, and if Rzewski ever gets the Pulitzer he deserves, I expect the same wingnuts who were all frothed up about Harold Pinter's long-overdue Nobel to resume howling on cue.]
The discussion really picked up steam from there, and Rzewski talked about a fascinating range of topics including political music, media consolidation, live vs. recorded music, amateur music-making, the evils of publishing (he counseled young composers to shun traditional publishers and make their scores available for free on the internet), and French pop-folk artist Manu Chao (Rzewski is a fan). When Gann presented him with a statement he made years ago expressing skepticism for the more alienating products of serial composition, Rzewski replied simply, "I don't think it's a good idea to alienate the audience," as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.
On to the performances -- Bring Them Home! opened dramatically, with body percussion, hand claps, thumping the closed piano lids, and foot-stomping from Ursula Oppens and Marilyn Nonken (the latter was wearing thigh-high leather spike-heeled boots -- all the better to stomp with, my dear) before introducing any pitched material. The piece was actually much more spare and ethereal than I expected -- you see two pianos and all of that mallet percussion, and you expect a certain amount of density -- but there were many interludes where each of the four players played unaccompanied. And the playing in the ensemble passages was just first-rate -- everyone was perfectly locked in, there was no fighting over tempos or phrasing, and the tricky transitions went like clockwork. I enjoyed the piece very much -- it doesn't have the fireworks of the other piece on the program, but it's an enthralling, introspective work that I look forward to hearing again.
On to the main event: Nonken's performance of the marathon set of variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Sergio Ortega's recording of his song (from a live concert in Buenos Aires in 1975) was played before the performance began -- a nice touch borrowed from the Steven Drury recording. Nonken seemed a little tentative during the initial statement of the theme -- it's got to be nerve-wracking performing in front of the composer, especially when the composer is a first-rate pianist in his own right. But once the first variation was underway, Nonken seemed to relax into the piece, and her playing quickly had me hooked. Her version isn't as aggressively virtuosic as Hamelin's recording, nor as intimate as Drury's, nor as unabashedly romantic as Rzewski's own recording, but it is the most rhythmically compelling version I've heard, which makes it my favorite. The People United has, among other things, a lot of really great grooves in it (I'm sure Rzewski would wince at the term), and Nonken doesn't rob them of their momentum by indulging in too much swimmy rubato -- instead, she plays them the way, say, Keith Jarrett might play them, and the piece really takes on a different personality when the ostinato-fueled sections are played with a more regular pulse. Nonken kept the energy flowing constantly throughout the hour-long piece, and her propulsive playing really helped bring out the piece's dramatic arc.
As I mentioned before, the piece includes an optional improvised cadenza, and for this performance, Nonken -- presumably not an improviser herself -- asked Ethan Iverson to write her one. Here are Ethan's notes on his cadenza from the concert program:
The score gives the pianist the option to play a five-minute improvisation just before the final reprise of the theme. As a confirmed Rzewski fanatic and someone who has known the Chilean tune since an adolescent crush on Charlie Haden's album The Ballad of the Fallen, I was delighted to be asked to create a cadenza. Since I am unaccustomed to writing out detailed piano music, I decided to write a "lead sheet," which formed the basis of an improvisation I played into the Finale music program via a keyboard controller. The finished score is a heavily edited version of this improvised performance. It utilizes the same kind of pianistic effects (chromatic flurries above the theme, left arm clusters) that I use as a performer in The Bad Plus. The first left hand entrances imitate the very beginning of Rzewski's own cadenza from his Nonesuch box.
That actually gives a very good idea of how it sounded. It was clearly and definitively in Iverson's "Bad Plus" voice -- which was admittedly a little jarring at first, but ultimately very effective. I especially liked his harmonically inventive treatment of the theme's rising chromatic interlude. My only real criticism is that the phrasing in places seemed too squarely symmetrical, especially for something that is supposed to sound quasi-improvised. I know Iverson is a very structured player, but I would have liked him to have thrown a few more wrenches into the works. However, the main thing the cadenza needs to do is to take us from the final, encapsulatory variation into the closing restatement of the theme, and Iverson's cadenza made that transition with elegance and panache. Apparently, Ethan's starting his own personal web page soon, and he will be making the cadenza available there. Fans of his playing will definitely want to check it out. (Rzewski literally took his hat off to Iverson at the end of the concert, which ought to be all the endorsement you need.)
So, yes, I'm very glad I dragged my sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, hacking and wheezing body uptown for the gig. (Luckily for the people around me, I managed to stifle the hacking and wheezing during the performance.) It turned out to be one of the best concerts I've been to in quite some time. But I still have that damn cold. You know what they say about the curative powers of music? Total bullshit.
PS NY Times review here.