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Date: Sat, 12 Dec 1998 01:22:56 EST
Sender: British Classical Music Discussion List <>
From: Neil McKelvie <>
Subject: Sorabji concert in New York

As promised, here are my impressions of this event...

First of all, having the hall at least 3/4 filled for such music was a surprise to me, at least. Evidently, Sorabji can attract people from a fair distance. Alistair Hinton came all the way from England! Chris Berg mentioned a few of the well-known musicians in the audience, but left out Marc-André Hamelin, perhaps overlooked because he was sitting along with me in the left side seats (right as seen from the stage).

Chris Berg himself is tall with a shaven head, dressed in black shirt and trousers, a uniform observed on a few others in the audience. He is one tremendous pianist (also a composer, and an actor as well, I am told). He played the first piece on the program(me), the Interlude middle section from Sorabji's Prelude, Interlude, and Fugue (1922). This was a very attractive piece, I thought, free of any harsh or violent episodes, and sensitively played.

We then heard Sorabji's first Piano Quintet of 1920. This had Chris Berg as pianist, with Marshall Coid and Lilit Gampel, violins, David Cerutti, viola, and Christine Gummere, cello. It seems there had been two previous attempts to perform this piece, which were abandoned. It seems that it is one thing for a dedicated virtuoso pianist or organist to learn a Sorabji work, but quite another question to perform chamber music. Evidently it took something like eighty rehearsals.....(The second Sorabji Quintet has two movements and 432 pages, running an estimated four hours. Mr Berg thinks that this one may take rather longer to prepare !!)

I could not follow music of such complexity, in spite of the helpful program notes provided by Mr Berg. Clearly, there is fascinating organization, but this work demands to be heard along with the score. As for the actual sounds, there were many striking sonorities. Fortunately, the whole concert was taped and will in due course appear on Altarus CD's. I'd suggest serious consideration to the idea of making available for combined purchase both the CD's and the scores, as I suspect that most of those who would purchase the first would be sufficiently competent musically to appreciate the second. As for the performance itself, don't ask me to say if there were any wrong notes! All the players get my admiration for undertaking such a task, which needed musicianship of a high order.

The real surprise for me was the next item - three Sorabji songs...the Trois Fetes Galantes de Verlaine (1919?) Felicity La Fortune and Chris Berg made these sound gorgeous. Again, I'd like to follow these from the music, to comprehend the piano part in particular. These deserve comparison with for example Debussy's settings of French poetry.

We then heard Sorabji's Sonata no. 2, with a young Eastman student, Tellef Johnson. This was incredibly difficult music to play - and to follow. I'd compare much of this score to a Jackson Pollock painting - splatters of notes seemingly at random; vibrant color; tremendous energy and passion. (the climax is labelled, we were told, "cataclysmique".) Other passages were rather like Scriabin. Again, I'd need a score to comprehend this music. (One audience member, who apparently expected something like Indian Ragas, complained to the panel discussion afterwards that his insides were jangling from all of this....) As far as Mr Johnson's performance, it was it seems just about note perfect - a tremendous achievement. (Someone in the audience - not I ! - shouted "Encore !", provoking laughter, for Mr Johnson was clearly just a little exhausted from his valiant effort.)

We heard last a "guest appearance" by Michael Habermann, playing the second (1933) of Sorabji's two elaborations on the Chopin Minute Waltz op. 64 no. 1. (The first was published in the volume of Minute Waltz transcriptions from Music Treasure Publications). This one is even more difficult, it seems. Mr Habermann made it sound really attractive musically. Perhaps he had more appealing material to work with, but the contrast between Habermann and Johnson was that Habermann was playing from memory, and therefore with much more expression, so that the tremendous difficulties went by almost unnoticeably .

Tellef Johnson clearly has a career to look forward to. Whether he will prove to have something to say musically, in the standard repertory as well as less well-known works of transcendent difficulty, is something we can hope to hear in future. As for Michael Habermann, the question can well be, since he can play like this, how come he is not world-famous? Possibly the answer is in appearance (scholarly) and stage presence. Anyway, I promptly purchased his CD of Sorabji (containing both Gulistan and Djami among other pieces.) (ELAN CD 82264)

There was a lively discussion afterwards, chaired by Bruce Posner, with Alistair Hinton (it was nice to meet him again), Kenneth Derus, Michael Habermann, Tellef Johnson, and Christopher Berg. The audience member previously mentioned got up and said in effect that the music was awful and the panel was talking a lot of pretentious nonsense. This produced smiles from two of the panel members, which I thought were not warranted. Some very talented musicians have put in a great deal of their time to performing Sorabji's music. However, not everything is as musically compelling as the best of his compositions, and - as I pointed out - it would take someone with the ear of a Mozart to follow the logic of such complex music by listening to it for the first time. (There was a touching and amusing story of a 95-year-old Sorabji in the nursing home, playing his music on an upright piano with an audience of totally bewildered other old people.)

Sibelius said that HE thought it was pretentious snobbery for people to applaud the later music of Arnold Schoenberg, since he would be considered by most people to have a good musical ear and understanding, certainly as compared to the general musical public, yet it was only after careful study of the score that he could see what the composer was driving at. Last Sunday night's audience had many in it who had heard, studied, or played Sorabji's music before. For others.....

Neil McKelvie

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