“June in Buffalo, Morty?”
That was how John Cage chided his old friend Morton Feldman and junior partner in musical revolution at the very first major seminar of the very first June in Buffalo 40 years ago.
It was, as Feldman’s teasing senior revolutionary put it, a bit pretentious, eh what?
Not so, it turns out. It was typically Feldman – minimalist and matter of fact – a UB music festival in June to feature the music and pedagogy of great living composers. Those first two festivals were stunners – Feldman, Cage, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown altogether, a convocation of what looked at the time like the whole School of John Cage.
Sunday afternoon, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the UB Music School collaborated on the final concert of the 40th anniversary season of June in Buffalo. Featured were two works by the festival’s most important figures – “On Time and the Instrumental Factor,” a short work by the festival’s inventor, Morton Feldman, and “Six Poems from Neruda’s ‘Alturas’ ” by David Felder. the UB faculty composer who rescued June in Buffalo from five years of silence in 1985, transformed it and has led it since.
Felder minces no words about his differences of outlook with the wildly witty and challenging revolutionary who invented June in Buffalo. “He did not believe that young composers deserved to be presented in the way I was presenting them. He thought they should sit at the feet of the geniuses and catch any pearl that might fall from their lips.”
The diametrically opposite differences in their approaches to June in Buffalo were reflected in Sunday afternoon’s BPO program – a short Feldman piece difficult for listeners to engage in its intentional lack of expressive content, drama, narrative, all the things that provide lifelines for concertgoers exposed to the new.
Felder’s “Six Poems from Neruda’s ‘Alturas’ ” was twice as long and bursting with virtuosic use of the language of academic modernism – sudden crescendos, fortes, fortissimos, drum thwacks, dramatic and rhythmic movement.
Neither piece was especially well-played by the orchestra under associate conductor Stefan Sanders, but it must be said that this is not only very difficult music, it is very difficult to rehearse adequately. In the case of Feldman’s piece, especially, it would be unlikely to find professional symphony orchestra musicians sufficiently passionate about it to rehearse it the necessary way for an optimal performance. As Felder explained in his verbal program notes to Feldman, the piece is typical of his work in that it owed more to abstract painting than to other musicians. One sympathizes with an orchestral musician trying to be the equivalent of a brushstroke or a daub of paint on an abstract canvas.
Infinitely more conventional in instrumental virtuosity, Felder’s “Six Poems from Neruda’s ‘Alturas’ ” still had ragged phrase beginnings and endings, not to mention moments where one might have wished the intonation had been convincingly on the side of the angels rather than maneuvering around demons. Felder’s is, to be sure, an impressive piece, as you might expect from a piece inspired by great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s visit to the miraculous architecture of Macchu Picchu.
Feldman, as always, was a much thornier figure. Since he created June in Buffalo, he has become an entirely different figure in modern music – far from a junior figure to Cage in musical revolution but, in fact, specifically challenging to musicians in a way Cage isn’t. If Cage, as a writer, is probably the greatest transcendalist in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, Feldman is an assault on music’s very assumptions, as for instance, when he asks “Is music an art form? Or has it always been show biz based on a small attention span?”
His time in Buffalo is where he wrote pieces that challenged that attention span. What we heard on Sunday barely engaged us at all. It was a great symbolic event, rather than a musical one.