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BSO premieres an eclectic new piece from John Cage



Directed by Seiji Ozawa.

With Anne-Sophie Mutter.

World premiere of work by John Cage.

Works by Stravinsky and Debussy.

Saturday, April 8, Symphony Hall.


THE BSO'S CURRENT PROGRAM opened with 1O1, [note upper-case 'O'] a John Cage piece which premiered Thursday night. Cage's more famous (or notorious) pieces often consist of such events as silence or randomly generated sounds, but 1O1 conforms somewhat more to traditional concepts of music even though it has no score and each of the 101 parts contains only vague directions. On each part was printed a commentary from Cage, which was reproduced in the program notes. One excerpt runs "Thoreau said, `The best form of government is no government at all... ' A performance of music can be a metaphor for society. In this music there is no conductor. There is no score." Indeed, conductor Seiji Ozawa stepped off the stage as the twelve-minute piece began. Surprisingly, the result worked. Of course, there was no harmony or melody in the traditional sense -- interest was kept by the interplay of different performers and instruments, including Indonesian bamboo rattles and a resined nylon string rubbing against a string in the piano on stage. It is difficult to explain why one would enjoy such a piece, but my best guess is that one would enjoy it as one enjoys the native sounds of the countryside or the city. Unfortunately, the piece received only polite applause, although Cage (who is in town giving the Norton lecture series at Harvard) received warmer applause when he came on stage to take a bow.

The soloist for Stravinsky's Violin Concerto was Anne-Sophie Mutter, a young and obviously talented performer, but the piece and large orchestra were not well suited to display her talents. "Stravinsky mistrusted virtuosos," the program notes state, and as one might expect, his violin concerto does not resemble the virtuoistic flash of the famous romantic concertos. In addition, the heavily scored horns constantly overpowered Mutter, making her difficult to hear at times. Overall, the symphony's performance was excellent. The concerto itself is an underperformed Stravinsky delight, although it would be better suited to a small chamber orchestra or even a chamber ensemble.

The two Debussy pieces were a disappointment. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, based on a poem by Mallarm'e, is exciting music, but the performance sounded as if it were intended for a cocktail party. The tempi were slow to the point of lethargy, and the playing, although accurate, seemed mechanical. The one exceptional performance was that of Doriot Anthony Dwyer. His flute solo introduction was superb; it had an almost jazzy rubato feel that enticed the listener into the piece. At the end of the concert he received a well-deserved standing ovation. The performance of La Mer, while adequate, was also unexceptional.

The BSO is a very fine orchestra, but with concert tickets ranging from $16 to $42.50, one expects exceptional performances and not the rote treatment accorded the Debussy works. The MIT symphony's performance of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun last fall, while not as technically perfect as the BSO's, was as enjoyable and more exciting. Cage's 1O1 is something to experience, especially for Cage fans. There is only one more performance of the program -- tonight at 8:00 -- but if you want to save your money and you subscribe to Cage's philosophy/concept of art, at least experience one of Cage's current lectures at Harvard.