Glimpsed In Clear Light Of Glass, New Rzewski Proves A Thicket Of Bits

Bang on a Can held its summer festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a re-purposed mill in the Berkshires. Two days of concerts included the world premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Amoramoro.’ (Photo: Zoran Orlić)

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Housed in a re-purposed 19th-century factory mill, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is an exciting center for making and displaying provocative visual and performing art. With wood or brick galleries, high and low ceilings, old and new building materials, and indoor and outdoor performing arts venues, MASS MoCA embraces music, sculpture, dance, film, painting, photography, theater, and unclassifiable boundary-crossing works. Plus children’s classes. The lobby desk hands out a four-level map, needed each year as things grow and change.

The most recent event was “LOUD,” MASS MoCA’s annual two-day Bang on a Can festival July 30-31 of respected as well as unknown recent music, tributes (including to the late Louis Andriessen), and attendant discussions. The culmination of a month of study, it was highlighted by Kronos Quartet programs on both days, concluding with the Bang on a Can All-Stars in Autodreamographical Tales, Terry Riley’s 1996 hour-long dream log. The video below has an excerpt:

For Lisa Moore’s piano recital July 30, with its world premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s Amoramaro, written for Moore’s birthday before the composer died in June, the event space’s folding chairs were filled, as were the tall side staircase and upstairs railing seats. Listeners were close but masked.

Before describing my discomfort with Amoramaro, look here for a video of the concert’s opening work, Mad Rush by Philip Glass (1979, performed by the composer in 2015). Mad Rush is about the same length as the Rzewski, but I could listen to it all day long, as a breathing aid. It’s easy. It swims, rushes, and stops, and works for what it is.

Lisa Moore performed the Rzewski premiere. (Will McLaughlin)

Neither the Glass nor the new work has much to do with Rzewski’s seductive “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” or his giant, thrilling The People United Will Never Be Defeated. Igor Levit, an avid Rzewski admirer, has said that the pioneering pianist-composer, who played Boulez and Stockhausen, “was a mixture of Marx, Tolstoy and Obi-Wan Kenobi” and that Rzewski thought the greatest music of the 20th century was Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Who knew?

But the new piece rang no bells here. Amoramaro, whose title mixes love and Moore, was commissioned by her husband, the composer Martin Bresnick, for her birthday. In his spoken introduction, Bresnick portrayed Rzewski as pressing him to figure out how to write this, or what to write next.  

And that’s what it sounded like. The modernist work, with episodic chords and single notes, had no home. I really wanted to like it but got stuck in a thicket of plinks, plunks, and tune fragments. At the end, the pianist smacked the keyboard with an open hand, as if Rzewski were frustrated with the way the piece was going. It’s good Moore plays so wonderfully, because she won’t find many others to take this piece around. Hope it improves on rehearing.

Between Glass and Rzewski was Seven Etudes by Don Byron. He is a jazz clarinetist and composer, but these attractive, varied studies encompassed a response to Picasso’s Guernica and also a 1920s Palm Court Trio-type waltz. One study called for the pianist to sing while the audience clapped a devious little rhythm.

Before listeners drifted off across a sweet starry gallery (an eyeful of soft-yellow bulbs on the ceiling) and went on to dinner, art, and more concerts, Moore performed some Bresnick works, starting with one called Ishi’s Song, a pentatonic indigenous piece that she sang. In a sense, it brought the shape of the program back to the simplicity and triads of the Glass piece. Nice touch.