Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dr. Who at the Pulitzer

On Wednesday evening Merry and I set out for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in the teeth of a threating thunderstorm to hear a New Music concert in that wonderful space. The Pulitzer was created especially to exhibit contemporary art but the current exhibit is a selection of old masters. The unique twist is that the art is hung without exhibition lighting. The Pulitzer has lots of natural light so the effect is eerie, somewhat like seeing the art in a contemporary cathedral. The overall effect is one of profound dislocation. See for yourself at

The Pulitzer has a contemporary chamber concert series designed by David Robertson, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony. Robertson is a devotee of contemporary classical music and programs it often for the Symphony. We wanted to attend this concert because it featured Andrew Russo, the talented young Syracuse pianist I know from my work with the Society for New Music.

There is no other art space like the Pulitzer. It's built entirely of polished concrete with soaring open spaces as well as wonderful quiet corners. The main hall is two stories high ending in a set of steps leading to a lower level. The far end of this space, now three stories tall, is dominated by Blue Black by Ellsworth Kelly. As we sat down on clear plastic folding chairs near the top of the steps Blue Black set the mood by echoing the early evening near darkness with the impending storm.

About 100 people arrived. At the bottom of the steps was a grand piano, a tangle of computer equipment and about six guys dressed entirely in black wandering around with no obvious purpose. Six loud speakers ringed the space. When the well-dressed patrons of the series took the front row of reserved seats we knew the concert was about to begin.

Matthias Waschek, director of the museum, and Robertson appeared at the base of the steps. Dr. Waschek talked for a few minutes about how the old masters in the exhibit represented the tension between an emerging technology (oil painting) and an old technology (egg tempura painting). He claimed the artist's task is to find a way to preserve what is best of the old while adapting what is best of the new. Maestro Robertson explained he chose Pluton, the piece of the evening, because it represents how the older technology of the piano was preserved and transformed by electronics. This entire introduction seemed unnecessary and strained to me, but it did demonstrate just how silly serious people can be when trying to justify their entertainment.

Robertson introduced world-famous electronic music composer, Philippe Manoury. Manoury is a small, unprepossessing Frenchman with shoulder length wild white hair. He explained that all of the sounds in the piece would be produced and modulated by the performer at the piano, but would then be manipulated by the computer to produce an improvisational interaction unique to each performance. I instantly liked him.

Andrew Russo came on stage without introduction and sat down at the piano. Pluton was composed in 1988 making it a pretty early piece of electronica. Unfortunately, it shows its age. The music is utterly atonal, loud and difficult to listen to as it lacks any obvious rhythmic or melodic structure. The five movements with titles that suggest theme and development are utterly indistinguishable. In the midst of all this sound and fury Russo's piano technique was incredible. He put on his usual virtuoso show, but after ten minutes I longed for it all to end.

When trapped in circumstances like this I often close my eyes and try to imagine what movie would have this music as its score. At once I saw Dr. Who [] emerge from his Tardus and sweep around the room accompanied by electronic squeaks and whooshes. His archenemies the Daliks armed with toy pianos assault him from every angle. Their tinkling shots bounce off his hat, coat and long scarf and scatter everywhere. The music gets louder and more dissonant as the battle rages, then . . .

I couldn't keep going. There was no sequence to the sounds or the progressions. It fell back in a rain of academically driven technical experiments with no obvious regard for the sensibility of the listeners. I started counting page turns and hoped it would end soon. Finally, after about 50 minutes the lights dimmed, Russo rose from the piano, but even then the computer was not finished. Finally, and mercifully, it died.

Believe it or not, a question and answer period followed. It was respectful and fairly short.

I went back stage to briefly talk to Andy Russo. I'm not sure he really remembered me, but he greeted me warmly. He agreed the piece showed its age. I asked him how he got the call to do this concert and he noted he is perhaps the only person who has rehearsed this piece enough to perform it in concert. He came to St. Louis at Robertson's invitation and was headed back to Syracuse the next morning.

On later reflection I realize I had enjoyed the experience, if not the music.

1 comment:

  1. Excellently presentation of the Pros & Cons of this exhibit.