A few days ago my good friend Sebastian Vera, who is an outstanding trombonist and member of the Guidonian Hand, emailed me recounting his experiences at the NYPhil's recent all-Varèse concert. In particular, he was struck by conductor Alan Gilbert's program note, and felt it played a big role in the concert's success. Here's a quote from the email.
I love it because he does such a wonderful and succinct job of describing to this audience, who a good number of them most likely had never heard Varèse, let alone enjoyed him, how to appreciate this music. I feel like in these short paragraphs he really disarmed the reader quite well to have an open mind without offending them or speaking from the ivory tower or even overloading them with too much information. The best part of the whole night for me was the fact that after the final piece Ameriques was played(which they played incredibly), it was honestly one of the most enthusiastic audience responses I have ever seen at the Phil.
In the program note Gilbert, instead of providing historical background or analysis, explains in simple terms what makes the music exciting to him, and invites the audience to experience Varèse’s music in the same way he does. Take the following quote, for example, in which he explains that it's OK to simply hear and react to the music - no history or theory lesson required. In fact, that's what the composer wants!
Here's the full program note.
In eschewing the elements that comfortably provide a way for audiences to grasp the music they are hearing,Varèse allows us to not worry about grasping it at all. Instead, he delivers an exploration of rhythm and timbre, which the human ear and even the nervous system process without the mind having to play the role of a mediator. This results in a more basic, more visceral experience, one that seizes listeners in a way that directly affects their emotions.
It is rare that either a performer or a listener gets to immerse him – or herself in the music and mind of Varèse, who has been described as one of the great musical innovators of the 20th century. But unlike the others who are also identified as such,Varèse hasn’t become a central part of the repertoire the way that Stravinsky has, and doesn’t even make the frequent “guest appearances” that Schoenberg does. I think this is because of these three colossal figures, Varèse was the one who most completely broke with tradition. Stravinsky made waves with works like The Rite of Spring and Les Noces,but then retreated to Neoclassicism. Schoenberg threw out the rules of tonality, only to replace them with a more structured, more stringent set of compositional rules. In fact, Varèse’s music—composed only about 30 years after the death of Brahms and just over 10 after the death of Mahler—disregards the traditional primacy of melody, in many cases even discarding the usual sense of pitch. Varèse coined the term “organized sound” to replace the word “music,” and when you hear us perform Ionisation tonight you will know why.
Talking about this sounds very esoteric, very intellectual, but that is not the effect in performance. In eschewing the elements that comfortably provide a way for audiences to grasp the music they are hearing,Varèse allows us to not worry about grasping it at all. Instead, he delivers an exploration of rhythm and timbre, which the human ear and even the nervous system process without the mind having to play the role of a mediator. This results in a more basic, more visceral experience, one that seizes listeners in a way that directly affects their emotions. Is there any piece that is more spectacularly orgiastic than Amériques? What Varèse achieves with the same acoustic instruments that Mozart uses—albeit with a few new ones, such as sirens, thrown in—is truly astounding.
I ask you to throw out your preconceptions on how to listen to music, just as Varèse discarded the previous approach to composing. You’ll find that, for all his revolution against established musical methods, what Varèse delivers is pure fun. - Alan Gilbert