After more than half a semester's worth of suffering and torment, the Chorale (elvinborn included) finally performed Stravinsky's Les Noces today, at 4pm.
I did not, after all, bring my kazoo... which was probably for the best. I also did not bring my earplugs... and that was an oversight I sincerely regret.
The first piece performed was Lou Harrison's Mass to St. Anthony, the Kyrie and the Gloria. I knew I was in trouble the moment the piccolo solo began to pierce its way through my eardrums like a cordless drill. The Mass is certainly an impressive work, but it's meant to be jarring -- and it succeeds. The program notes for the concert actually state that Harrison's Agnus Dei is "one of the loveliest tunes [he] ever composed", so I'm tempted to give it a listen sometime. The Kyrie and the Gloria are neither of them lovely. Impressive, yes. Lovely, no. But, hey, this is meant to broaden the mind, right? Right.
The next piece was an instrumental known as the Ballet mechanique, by George Antheil. Without quoting the entire history of this piece to you, it appears to be one of the most hated pieces in musical history. I don't want to state that categorically, and I certainly do not want to go trying to listen to any more of history's famous detested compositions if they are actually worse than this one, but I can at least say this: it well deserves the probable distinction.
There were parts of the ballet that I liked. I enjoyed some of the melodies in the beginning. I enjoyed watching the xylophonists playing off each other. I enjoyed the fact that the composition includes airplane propellers (the original unreworked version includes a siren!). But then the piece... which, bear in mind, is far shorter than the original version... just kept going on and on and on. And considering that it is a brutal, repetitive, difficult piece filled with percussion and dissonance...
By the time it ended, I had a splitting headache.
I think that it was rather clever of the concert organizers to put that piece before Les Noces. Brilliant, almost. By the time the relatively (comparatively) melodic strains of LN greeted the weary ears of the audience, we had been worn down... beaten... discomposed... thoroughly tenderized into fully receptive goo... by the claw end of the hammer that was Ballet mechanique.
A word about Les Noces: one night, while enjoying a bottle of psilocybin-spiked vodka with a friend, Igor Stravinsky (having lost a bet) decided to compose a piece about a wedding. He gave it a French title, a Russian text, and apparently said that the soloists might sing in whatever language they wished (I believe today's performance was in German). The wedding in question is a simple peasant affair, which begins with the bride being decked out in ribbons and bows while being stabbed repeatedly with spiny anteaters by her many virgin sisters. Later, several drunken relatives show up and empty vats of contaminated fish entrails over the wedding guests, which is met with much protestation. The party all descend into food poisoning (amid dancing), as the in-laws go through involuntary gender switching -- as indicated by the bass soloist breaking into the odd falsetto phrases. Still, the plucky couple attempt to complete their nuptials, until a storm of loudly whining locusts tears through and devours everybody's clothing. Several speeches are delivered, and the piece is finished with a group orgy.
At least, that's what I interpreted from the arrangement of the music. Stravinsky may have intended something rather different. I care as much for his opinion as he cares for my tender ears.
All I fully remember of LN is that the soprano's dress was very shiny and entertaining to look at. Also, the tenor hurt me (either he was loud or his mic was turned up too high). The choir had apparently been cowed by the relative horribleness of the music, and as a result, instead of the forceful battering that you hear in typical recordings of LN, what the audience got from the choir were soft, pretty echoes of the soloists. Probably not what was intended. I DON'T CARE. At that point, I was ready to just not be wounded by the music. Moreover, the divisions between the separate movements of the piece were indistinguishable, and the director did not provide ample gaps. As a result, by the time a stopping point was reached, and the audience drooped in our seats thinking, "Oh god, three more movements," we were all delighted into a standing ovation by the fact that the director dismounted the podium to announce that it was OVER and it was time to clap instead!
The standing ovation rather bothered me. What kind of audience have we become, now that we'll quietly sit and (apparently) listen to anything with bland smiles and happy applause? It felt somewhat masochistic; even dystopian. There we were... past the point of true emotional response! As one, the trained seals in the audience rose, clapping our flippers...
At one point in time, Stravinsky's work would induce rioting. Antheil's monstrosity inspired fistfights when it first appeared. Bring back the good old days of rioting in the presence of Stravinsky, that's what I say.
And next time I see that Les Noces is seeing the lit end of a venue, so help me, I AM going to arrange a kazoo contingent to come in and class up the joint.*
* I hereby certify that elvinborn has been informed in advance that this lj entry would be written, and that it is not meant to impugn the talent and hard work of the members of the Chorale in any way. There were many, many truly gifted folks on the stage today, and each and every one of them was forced into committing heinous acts of music upon the audience and upon themselves. I don't blame my fellow victims. I only had to sit through this stuff ONCE.