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Contemporary Music Review Print

1969 in World Premiere by Alarm Will Sound Ensemble at Duke University

February 13, 2009 - Durham, NC:

Wow! Like, man… “Music can’t stop a war.” “People need bread, not music.” “Give Peace a chance!” Thanks to Duke Performances, Alarm Will Sound gave a new vision to the concert experience and the brought back the 1960s in vivid and alarming detail.

The work, 1969, is not a play, not an opera, not a recital – perhaps a “happening” is the best word. Few, if any, in the audience knew what to expect. Electronic music filled the Reynolds Industries Theatre in the Bryan Center at Duke University for half an hour before the 8:00 p.m. starting time. The 20-odd performers (a string quintet, a woodwind quintet, a brass trio, a keyboard-player, a couple of percussionists, and two very fine actors) appeared a few minutes later, led by conductor and Artistic Director Alan Pierson.

John Lennon (1940-80), the Beatle, meets Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), the leading proponent of avant-garde music, electronic, and aleatoric (controlled random) music. Each is influenced by the other, and eventually they decide to meet to discuss a joint concert. The fateful day is set, February 9 (“Revolution 9”), 1969, – but a snow storm has paralyzed New York City and the meeting never occurs.

The dimly lit stage is filled with an array of instruments, music stands, microphones, and speakers, as well as chairs for the performers. In front of Karlheinz Stockhausen, played by actor Robert Stanton (soon to appear in the Broadway production of Schiller’s Mary Stewart), in an illuminated circle of light, is an Lp turntable. Similarly situated in front of John Lennon (Jon Patrick Walker) is an old reel-to-reel tape player. Both actors remain in character throughout the event – Stanton with a marvelous hint of a German accent, and Walker with a Liverpudlian accent and a very fine singing voice, to boot!

Intermingling songs, orchestrations, film clips (projected on the huge screen that filled the back of the stage), lighting effects, gunshots, and great acting, the evening was a kaleidoscope of the music and politics of the mid-to-late 1960s. We heard music of the Beatles, Berio, Bernstein (the three Bs), and Stockhausen, as well as “Two Virgins,” by the group’s bassist, Miles Brown, and an excerpt from Oh Calcutta.

Leonard Bernstein paid to bail out the Berrigan brothers, anti-war activist-priests and draft card burners. His Mass (1971), parts of which we heard, was written to commemorate the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It is an out-spoken anti-war protest, honoring not only the assassinated president but also JFK’s brother, Bobby, and Martin Luther King, both murdered in 1968.
Luciano Berio (1925-2003) is an Italian composer who frequently combined parts and snippets by many composers to impel a political slant to his compositions. One of his best known works, excerpts of which are part of 1969, is the work dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, Sinfonia. The second movement, “O King,” is based on words by the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.

Maestro Pierson, who conducts with a precise and clear flat-handed gesture reminiscent of Pierre Boulez, in appearance more resembles Gustav Mahler, both in profile and physique. His ensemble is among the best-rehearsed and versatile I’ve ever encountered. The bassoonist (Michael Harley) acts and speaks the part of Bernstein, and concertmaster Courtney Orlando sings many of the songs Berio wrote for his stunning soprano wife, Kathy Berberian (“Michelle II” was to die for). And almost every musician assumed at least a couple of roles, spoken, sung, or simply played.

There was a constant feeling of anticipation and heightened attention – any detail might be a pivot on which a whole plot could swing. Even intermission was charged: “Are they even coming back?” Attend this event wherever it runs – bring along the doubters and skeptics, the skate-boarders and punks – this is so new, so exciting, so refreshing. But beware – it can and will inflame passions! Alarm Will Sound rocks!