Los Angeles Music Review: MID-CENTURY MODERN (Jacaranda Music: Adam Tendler & Cage / Christopher Taylor & Messiaen)

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by Daniel S. G. Wood on February 26, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Jacaranda’s understated but superb concert series continued last Saturday with a marathon solo piano event featuring John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946-48) and Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (1944), played by Adam Tendler and Christopher Taylor respectively.

Pianist Christopher TaylorThe Messiaen is objectively longer and arguably more difficult than the Cage, but Tendler’s task extended to “preparing” the piano as well—this means precisely sticking screws, bolts, and washers in between the piano strings (Tendler describes the process wonderfully for Terz Magazin).  Cage distills a signature sound not only by virtue of the effect itself but by simply composing well for the hybrid instrument (believe it or not, John Cage could actually compose). Tendler’s love for the piece is obvious; not only did he perform the hour-long piece from memory but his focus was consistent throughout. Taylor managed the herculean feat of actually reciting Messiaen’s two hour opus, though he was visibly labored by the end and made a few mistakes (I don’t blame him at all).

Pianist Adam TendlerThe pieces make an interesting pair.  Both reference Hindu music and both certainly fall into the lineage of great keyboard cycles, right next to Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, et al.  Both entertain a particular mysticism–Cage’s under the trappings of Indian Philosophy, and Messiaen’s as an ecstatic Catholic devotion (Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus roughly translates to “Twenty Impressions of the Baby Jesus”).  In the case of the Cage, this amounts to changing the normal piano sound into a kind of groovy Hindu percussion Foley board and, while Messiaen left the piano unprepared, Vingt Regards features unique exoticisms of its own, ranging from a transcribed bird call to impressions of Talmudic oboes and tam-tams.

John Cage at the piano in 1947Mostly though, both are true solo piano pieces, despite each one’s extra-musical associations. While couched in a beautiful hybrid sound, Sonatas and Interludes evokes a new world precisely because of Cage’s respect to which he treats the original instrument.  Tendler is a terrific pianist, delivering the tala-like pieces with grace.

Taylor played on all cylinders as well.  Vingt Regards contributes perhaps twenty of the hardest pieces to the repertoire, and playing them back to back is no mean feat.  Each piece is as demanding as the next and they all feature every pianistic device, from huge extended chords to digital flickering runs.  At times this means sheer din (a euphoric one, but din nonetheless), but most of the piece is pleasingly graspable.  Often Messiaen just dresses up standard gorgeous harmony beyond recognition, but the foundation of tonality here keeps the audience anchored.

Mid-Century Modern by Jacaranda Music - POSTER.

This is the kind of accessibility that eludes most new music.  The Cage and Messiaen were landmark pieces at their premieres, and are still considered avant-garde by the piano establishment, yet by no means do they alienate listeners.  Instead their newness is evolutionary and inclusive, much to the musical world’s pleasure.

Olivier Messiaenphotos courtesy of Jacaranda

Mid-Century Modern,
music by John Cage and Olivier Messiaen

Adam Tendler & Christopher Taylor, pianists
presented by Jacaranda Music
First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica
1220 Second Street
played on February 22, 2014
for future events, call (213) 483-0216
or visit www.jacarandamusic.org

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