Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Garden of Sonic Recapitulation

Sometime in the early nineties, renowned landscape architect Charles Jencks began what would become his most famous project - the "Garden of Cosmic Speculation" (above, in his private park in Dumfries, Scotland), an attempt to embed in landscape the theories of late-twentieth century math and physics. It was an intriguing challenge: how to emulate the great gardens of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, which not only reflected but actually promulgated the thought of their day (see Stoppard's Arcadia for a witty, perhaps Jencks-inspired contemplation of this theme)? The architect was also enough of a critic to persuasively insist that this was hardly some academic in-joke; instead, he saw the garden as a response to the vacuum at the heart of current arts practice - he was attempting to produce a park devoted to our last theology, and only consensus: our ongoing investigation of the cosmos.

And on the surface, Jencks met with resounding success - his ever-evolving fantasy has become a minor tourist attraction, even though it's open only one day a year ("Black Hole Terrace," above). And no wonder: its thirty acres do distill something of the calmly bizarre romance of chaos and complexity; this is pastoral imbued not with the sylvan, nor the sublime, but instead the strange - or rather, the strangeness that lurks within the pastoral (nature, after all, is built of fractals). Still, it must be said that Jencks sometimes stumbles into mere illustration, as in his chinoiserie bridges devoted to quarks, and whether or not his garden is actually organized according to the theories he holds dear remains a subject of some debate.

Cambridge-based composer Michael Gandolfi is faced with something of the same conundrum in his own Garden of Cosmic Speculation, a kind of companion suite to Jencks's fantasia, which this weekend was given a partial local premiere (four of its eleven movements) by the BSO, under the baton of Robert Spano (an avid support of the composer's work). Gandolfi seems to want his piece to serve as both a walking tour of the Garden (you can choose whatever parts you want to "visit" in performance), and also as a musical embodiment of it - his "Fractal Terrace," for example, "grows" by busily filling in its melodic line with tinier variations of itself (you can hear it here - a fractal "leaf" above left).

Still, all the smarts in the world can't quite make up for a lack of original spark, and Gandolfi's "garden" doesn't so much speculate as recapitulate the work of other composers. Each movement offered a different, pleasing pastiche - a light splicing of Glass and Carter, a sweetened Ligeti, a gentler Stravinsky - but somehow Gandolfi's own voice never came clear. The problem was only underlined by the amusing "Universal Cascade" (its corresponding Jencks landscape is below), which opened with a bang almost as loud as the Big One, and then, while drifting through a Ligeti-derived vacuum, encountered various musical paradigms like passing nebulae (the piece ended with a blast of sci-fi cacophony). The movement, like all of Gandolfi's Garden, was lively and witty - but where was the Gandolfi part?

Still, Garden got the most focused performance of the evening's program, which seemed to pop from one aesthetic state to another like an errant subatomic particle. Spano followed Garden with Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani, a piece with which it has few affinities, I'd say, aside from the fact that they're both somewhat abstract curiosities. It was my first exposure to the Concerto, although I'm generally a huge fan of Poulenc's gorgeous textures, and was intrigued by the unusual juxtaposition of organ, timpani, and strings. Alas, much of the writing for organ (this was Poulenc's first composition for the instrument) sounded like something the Phantom of the Opera might dream up for a Mass, and the thoughtful-but-clinical approach of organist Simon Preston didn't help matters. Perhaps sensing Preston's isolation, Spano coordinated little in the way of call-and-response between his separate players - although the piece did catch fire in the overlay of strings and organ, when Poulenc conjured a severe vision of ecstasy through simple harmonic means (essentially dense configurations of major chords).

Spano's last choice for the program, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique, was another surprise: this warhorse is usually a guilty pleasure, but in this ascetic program it felt like an especially creamy dessert. After the precision of Garden, and in its disconnected ways, the Poulenc, the conductor unexpectedly stumbled in the famously melodramatic first movement: his tempi shifted willfully, and the orchestra's sound, though appropriately grand, felt fuzzy and out of sync. Things got better in the ensuing waltz/scherzo, and better still in the propulsive third-movement march; Spano seemed at his best when driving a single mode home, and the orchestra responded with passion - so much so that the audience burst into applause at the climax, all thoughts gone of the concluding Adagio. But then it was the exciting high point, after all, in what had been an uneven musical landscape.

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