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Chamber Orchestra Review Print

Music, Ecology, and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra

April 26, 2009 - Raleigh, NC:

Those present at the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra's concert were reminded that conductor Randolph Foy, his players, and those who plan the season's musical offerings are always looking for a novel way in which to present a sizable body of music. This program, entitled, "Earth Matters II — Earth, Nature, Environment, Ecology," was no exception. In it, Foy and his players offered music closely related to ecological issues which are on the minds of audience members everywhere.

As he does at every concert, Foy introduced each piece with a bit of background information about it and had the orchestra play short snippets of music illustrating the basic musical content and unusual compositional eccentricities the audience would hear when the whole work was played. Take the first number, for instance — Charles Ives' "The New River," a musical realization of his poem by the same name. Foy's brief explanation of the poet-composer's short work reminded the audience that it was first a song — perhaps the first environmental song — before Ives reshaped it into an instrumental piece, filled with bits of American song and his own brand of mostly dissonant harmony, that creates an expression of sadness at seeing the beauty of the pastoral world around him destroyed by the roar of heavy machinery and the blare of popular tunes.

Foy's intelligent, sensitive explanation of English composer Frederick Delius' appreciation of the natural world and its translation into very nostalgic music also prepared his listeners to respond to what they heard, Delius' Two Short Pieces for Orchestra are made up of "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring" and "Summer Night on the River," both of which are very restful and contemplative. In his basically conservative compositional style, Delius evokes in the first piece a picture of the spring world with its quiet, peaceful sounds that are finally enlivened by the persistent sound of the cuckoo. The second piece is a mostly static, impressionistic painting of a time when day has faded and there is little activity to see or hear but the sounds of the falling night.

The most surprising work in the first half of this concert was Jean-Fery Rebel's Les Elements (1737), a suite of brief dance pieces in which the composer shows his strong interest in nature by portraying musically the elements of earth, air, wind, water, and fire and the chaotic time when all these elements were without form or individuality. In introducing Rebel's suite, Foy had the orchestra play the first chord — an eighteenth-century tone cluster — of the overture, "Le Chaos," thus allowing the audience to understand that musicians in any era could find in music the means to express disorder of any kind. "Le Chaos," with its occasional harmonic oddities led to several very listenable dances, each depicting with grace one of the several elements of nature and showing that even in the eighteenth century, many people, including composers and dancers, were interested in the environment.

The second half of the concert featured music of the twentieth century, with its lack of the harmonies and phrase structures most of the audience was accustomed to hearing. These pieces are just as reflective of their composers' deep philosophical involvement with the environment as was the music played earlier. In his brief comments to the audience about Terry Riley's famous "In C" as well as in his commentary in the program notes, Foy made it clear that although Riley's music is not deeply involved with a portrayal of nature, for it does depend on process, as does our environment. The process in Riley's work is not difficult to hear: its fifty-three musical cells all seem to move about a constant pulse on the piano. The listeners quickly became involved in this "process music," listening intently to the movement of the cells and always being aware of the piano's unrelenting pulse.

John Cage's The Seasons, as Foy explained to the audience, is a series of preludes reflecting the passing of the year. The program notes explained that Cage developed a philosophy drawn from the Indians' understanding of the seasons. To express this philosophy in music, Cage, who was not a harmonist, used in these preludes a series of pitches that no audience could relate to any harmonic patterns. However, his pitches and sounds are clearly heard as dissonant sets of notes occasionally interrupted by clearly-articulated thirds, definitely surprising to the listeners' ears and creating much musical interest. From the beginning to the end of this series of preludes, the audience's attention was held totally captive by the interweaving of the pitches Cage put together, so listeners soon forgot the traditional phrases and harmonic constructions everyone is accustomed to hear.

Perhaps Cage's music is, like Riley's, a kind of "process music." Whatever label one may put on it, the music of both composers excited the audience and held their attention. The orchestra rose to the occasion, performing the music of Cage and Riley with skill and obvious enjoyment.