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Arthur Berger: Words For Music, Perhaps

Berger / River / Bmop / Rose
Release Date: 07/09/2013 
Label:  Bmop/Sound   Catalog #: 1031   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Arthur Berger
Conductor:  Gil Rose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERGER Words for Music, Perhaps 1. Chamber Music for 13 Players. Septet. Diptych: Collage I and Collage II. Collage III Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gill Rose, cond; 1 Krista River (mez) BMOP/SOUND Read more (56:24 Text and Translation)

As a graduate student I remember Arthur Berger’s music being described in the halls as “white-note Webern.” In fact, as Rodney Lister’s notes clarify for me, it was Milton Babbitt, who, in a 1950 article, described the music as “diatonic Webern,” a moniker that apparently stuck the same way to Berger as the notorious “Who Cares If You Listen?” stuck to Babbitt (incidentally not that composer’s title).

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. Berger (1912–2003) was a fixture of the Boston new music scene, teaching at Brandeis and New England Conservatory. He was one of the major composer-critics of mid-20th-century American music. He created an extremely personal and supple blend between the aesthetics of Stravinskian neoclassicism and Viennese serialism, perhaps the most perfect of that rarified genre. As such, he’s at the very least an important part of the history of American concert music.

This release helps to identify Berger’s strengths, and yes, weaknesses. On the one hand, it gives us a selection of pieces from various periods of the composer’s creative life, but not the one most frequently evoked for his historical profile, i.e. the works from the early 1950s that used limited “quasi-tonal” sets to create a sound that was like the Boston neoclassicism dominant at the time, but closely tied to serial practice. (There’s a performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) of Ideas of Order , a defining work of this period, not on its own label but on New World 80605-2.)

Instead, we have: Words for Music, Perhaps (1940, rev. 1987), a setting of three Yeats poems that has the consonant but rigorous sound of pre-1950s Elliott Carter vocal music; the 1956 Chamber Music for 13 Players, which is a true serial work; the 1966 Septet; and the Collages (I and II, 1990 rev. 1995; and III, 1992 rev. 1994), which are unique specimens of a composer revisiting his music late in life.

The Yeats settings for voice with flute, clarinet, and cello are elegant, precise, and whimsical. They suggest a sensibility that would remain throughout Berger’s creative life, though soon rendered more economical and Modernist. Chamber Music for 13 Players is for me the star attraction of the program. It is not “white-note serialism”; one hears all 12 chromatic tones throughout quite consistently. But the piece has a quicksilver wit that causes it to dance throughout, despite a dissonant veneer that might be off-putting to some. It does not sound overly cerebral or theoretical. Rarely has a composer of such seemingly austere music made a celesta so key a player in the iconic sound of the ensemble, and the second, concluding movement works itself in a frenzy that remains “Apollonian” in its refusal to crash and burn.

The Septet is more severe in tone, and uses repeated “frozen” tones in particular registers. It moves ever closer to the sound of late Stravinsky. The Collages from the 1990s are something else again. By this point Berger had foresworn further new works, but he revisited older pieces (in these cases the 1984 Woodwind Quintet and the 1976 Composition for Piano Four Hands). The result is not a revision, but a “recomposition.” Taking as a model paintings using collage technique by Robert Motherwell (the composer had a knack of knowing lots of people of consequence in different fields), Berger cut, pasted, reorchestrated, and rewrote earlier music. I find the result a little pale. For me it has neither the urgency nor the playfulness of the earlier works on this program. But it does have elegance, and Collage III, with its sequence of nine short instrumental miniatures, has that ragged but polished, aphoristic quality Edward Said identified in his classic text on artists’ “late style.”

In short, I think this release allows us to confront a composer who was very influential “behind the scenes” for decades, and has a body of work well worth exploring in depth, so that we can ultimately cull what is truly worthy of preservation and useful to future generations of musicians. Also, the performances, that for this sort of music can sometimes be dry, are instead over the top in their abandon and delight in the intricacies of the works.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Words for Music, Perhaps by Arthur Berger
Conductor:  Gil Rose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Septet for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano by Arthur Berger
Conductor:  Gil Rose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1965-1966; USA 
Chamber Music for 13 Players by Arthur Berger
Conductor:  Gil Rose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956; USA 
Diptych: Collage 1 and Collage 2 by Arthur Berger
Conductor:  Gil Rose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Collage 3 by Arthur Berger
Conductor:  Gil Rose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Modern Orchestra Project

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