The centenary of John Cage occurred last year, so last weekend’s tribute, “Making the Right Choices”, by the New World Symphony and its artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, was a bit tardy. Yet for devotees of the composer – and he was a composer of indisputable ability – as well as for those curious about an artistic renegade who placed humdrum noises on an equal footing with musical pitches and who left much of the substance of his compositions to the imagination of performers, the wait was worth it.
Cage, who died in 1992, may not be obvious material for the New World Symphony, an elite training academy for young instrumentalists, but his orchestral music is not negligible and exposure to a composer who, for good or ill, shaped the course of 20th-century music more than any other American is part of their education. Even staunchly traditionally minded listeners will find charm among Cage’s early compositions, such as the Hindu-influenced 1947 ballet The Seasons, an unassuming work with simple tonal motifs. Cheap Imitation (1972), though later, unfolds entirely in an unaccompanied melodic line, often lent exoticism by the celesta. Like The Seasons it was conceived for Merce Cunningham, with whom Cage had a long personal and professional relationship. Here it was imaginatively realised visually by two dancers and by videos of Cunningham himself; for the second of its three movements, the orchestra ceded place to a 1970s video of Cage performing on the piano.
Even before exalting commonplace sounds in works such as the tongue-in-cheek Water Walk (1959), which was famously performed on a television panel show, Cage showed discontent with traditional instruments by writing for percussion alone, as in Living Room Music (1940), a pulsating piece drolly staged here amid apt furniture, and for “prepared” piano. Marc-André Hamelin brought lyrical grace to The Perilous Night (1944) on a piano doctored to sound percussive, almost like a mallet instrument. On an unaltered grand, Hamelin brilliantly played seven of the Etudes Australes (1974-75), an exercise in hyper-avant-garde virtuosity that was tempered by the realisation that their wispy, staccato style made them sound pretty much alike.
Performances took advantage of the technical facilities of the orchestra’s two-year-old, Frank Gehry-designed home, whose 750-seat hall is a miniature version of the architect’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; sometimes lengthy intervals were necessary to prepare the stage for the next piece. The most elaborate performance visually joined Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk and Jessye Norman – sterling singers with strikingly different voice types and techniques – in selections from Song Books (1970). They and others performed in a staged version by Yuval Sharon that, while consistent with Cage’s aesthetic and despite touches of absurdist humour, sometimes lacked direction.
Renga (1975-76), another work that relies heavily on the creativity of performers, was also grandly treated and decked out with additional Cage music but fared better. Television clips from the 1950s, including commercials, sparked interest when the purely musical content might have flagged. Cage, of course, would call it all music.
His ode to silence, 4’33”, wasn’t specifically programmed, but Mikel Rouse’s fascinating film, a collage of dozens of performances of it, was continuously screened. At a symposium, Tilson Thomas acknowledged that future generations might be more likely to encounter Cage’s notated music than his works dependent on performer ingenuity. Performers often speak of the invigorating, even cathartic experience of wrestling with Cage’s enigmatic instructions en route to a satisfactory (to them) end product. But that doesn’t automatically reward the listener. Even notated compositions run the danger of becoming historical curiosities, if they haven’t become that already.