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Review: New World Symphony's daring John Cage fest

Envisioned by Michael Tilson Thomas, a weekend of concerts underscores the importance — and personality — of Cage's orchestral music.

February 15, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Michael Tilson Thomas conducts 'The Seasons' in the New World Symphony's John Cage festival.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts 'The Seasons' in the New World… (Rui Dias-Aidos )

MIAMI BEACH — On the last page of an expensively printed and eloquently annotated program book for a groundbreaking John Cage festival last weekend by Miami's New World Symphony was a quote from the president of the Knight Foundation, the festival's largest sponsor. "The first time I heard John Cage's music," Alberto Ibargüen wrote, "I realized anything was possible."

Maybe so, beginning with the surprise of finding such a remarkable statement about music from the president of a major foundation. That is not to say that the transformative powers of Cage's innovative music were such that they could convert a resort overrun by carousing snowbirds fleeing the Northeast's blizzard into a city-wide scene for considering music's, not to mention life's, pressing issues. But an opportunity for "Making the Right Choices," as the festival was called, did present itself.

The idea came from Michael Tilson Thomas, and it was subversive on several fronts. The conductor founded the New World Symphony here a quarter century ago with the idealistic vision that the nation's most promising young musicians could use a year or two of maturing and mind opening to prepare for the pressures of a symphonic career. In the process he turned it into the best orchestra in Florida.

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Although rarely the case, exposure to Cage could be logically seen as part of the education of an American musician. The composer questioned every aspect of what music is and what it means. His most radical works make wildly unconventional demands on performers that can serve as a kind of disciplined yogic stretch for loosening the aesthetic joints of rigidly trained young orchestra players.

Even so, presenting a three-day Cage festival, with marathon concerts, as the centerpiece of the New World's 25th anniversary season was a daring act. It meant not just Cagean exposure but downright immersion for musicians who spent weeks in preparation and had some of their basic musical premises challenged in the process. For audiences, the New World Center, Frank Gehry's innovative multimedia concert hall that opened here in 2011, became what Tilson Thomas described as a John Cage theme park.

Images were projected on the large curved "sails" that surround the stage. Videos showed dancers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which Cage helped form. There were blow-ups of Cage's graphic musical notation and of visual artworks and scenes of Cage's Los Angeles in the '30s — the corner of Hollywood and Vine, the Brown Derby restaurant. A clip from an old television commercial for Heinz, "the proud pickle," seemed to go a bit far, but Cage's sense of humor was honored.

More radically still, Tilson Thomas — who like Cage grew up in L.A. — was willing to challenge some of the basic Cagean lore. Cage is celebrated, and condemned, for the extreme degree of liberty found in his music. Tilson Thomas reminded us that the essence of Cagean sonic anarchy is not akin to tipsy partying on South Beach but that sober responsibility is the essence of freedom.

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Whether in his conventionally composed earlier pieces or the later ones that relied on chance procedures to make room for the unexpected, Cage made considered compositional choices. Tilson Thomas' theme, though, was that no matter how far out things get in Cage's scores, his music has a recognizably "gestural, haunting, exotic, wistful" personality.

In the end, though, this festival will be remembered for one thing. It did what no other of the hundreds of international Cage celebrations did this centennial year. It made a case, and an incredibly strong one, for the value of Cage's orchestral music.

On Friday night, as part of a multifaceted four-hour concert, Tilson Thomas conducted an almost Tchaikovskian nuanced performance of the neglected early Cage ballet score "The Seasons." A conducting fellow, Joshua Gersen, also gave striking point and character to excerpts from the even more neglected "Sixteen Dances," which included selections from various Cunningham dances that were compellingly performed by students from the New World School of the Arts.

Saturday night's revelation was a lushly nuanced performance of "Cheap Imitation," in which an endless melody moves unpredictably around the orchestra, which was not conducted. The players' task was to internalize the piece and to listen intently, and they produced a seductive beauty in the process.

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On Sunday night, "Dance 4/Orchestras," which had its premiere at the Cabrillo Festival in 1982 and has almost never been heard from since, was revealed to be a masterpiece of minimalism. Thick clusters of chords ricochet around four orchestras, three offstage, in mesmerizingly irregular rhythms.

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