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The Unexpected Yet Familiar
on March 14, 2013
American composer George Antheil (1900-1959) was a maverick with a flair for the wild. Most of his works were scored in the 1920s, a period of wide exploration in all the arts. Antheil's style is a crazy quilt, a collage, brief quasi quotations of other composer's styles and tunes. There is a method to this madness, there is a higher order to the chaos and nonsense of lower elements.* His music provides excitement of the unexpected yet familiar. In the first piece, Piano Concerto No. 1, we may catch a Firebird flight, a Petrushka somersault, a Debussy impression, a passage of dissonance, a tale of rhythmic chords. One theme quickly follows another, as walking fast along the corridors of a music school's practice rooms, with each student playing a different composition, a different instrument. The playfulness and "monkey-mind" absence of focus takes a turn to a more darker, more tone consistent side in the second piano concerto. At first, it seems united in some statement, but soon we realize that that it is folly; we are fooled by the somberness, the pretense, and the crescendos, to be awakened halfway in the first movement by a romp of symphonic devices and instrumental colors. The second movement has gravity, much ado signifying nothing, and the concerto's final movement is a lively, cheerful staccato. The concerti are followed with A Jazz Symphony of merely 8 minutes! Originally scored for expanded jazz chamber band and reworked in 1955 for a regular symphonic orchestra, the piece opens with a Latin American dance and later incorporates jazz blue notes, 20's style Charleston rhythms, "dirty" trumpets, a hodge-podge of quotes and touches of Chavez, Villa-Lobos, Gershwin, and Milhaud, and concludes with a grand sweeping waltz worthy of an old movie. Whatever music Antheil heard at the time, he funneled and mixed them into this witty work. (It is interesting that music sampling and mixing is a staple of today's popular dance scene.) Five brief solo piano pieces ensue. The jazz feeling continues with Jazz Sonata, a ragtime of sorts; Can-Can, which with concentration you can hear the classic quote sneaking through; Sonatina, a musical doodle; the Third Piano Sonata: Death of Machines, with its pounding keys and chords and mechanical ambiance; and Little Shimmy, in reference to the dance of the 1920's, a quiet and fading tune. Such extraordinary writing demands a virtuosic pianist and Markus Becker meets the challenge. Eiji Oue conducts the NDR Radiophilharmonie for the symphonic works. The 65-minute long album was recorded in 2004 with excellent engineering.
*Image two rows of paintings, three to each row, each painting tilted this way and that. Individually there is disorder but seen from afar, the totality makes artistic sense.