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Review: John Cage's 'Thirty Pieces' has U.S. debut in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Symphony, the nation's second-oldest orchestra (after the New York Philharmonic), will celebrate its 135th anniversary next year. It is, in its ninth season under David Robertson, a happy and increasingly important orchestra in a golden age.

By happy I mean that Wednesday night, in a sight not likely to be seen elsewhere in the classical music world, the SLSO's fit, 55-year-old music director from Malibu joyfully jogged from one end of a gallery at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts to the other. He had two young conductors in tow. He picked up two more young conductors and led them all in a victory run back across the gallery to gather for their bows after the U.S. premiere of John Cage's "Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras."

An audience of about 200 — as many patrons as could possibly be squeezed in the long, narrow space where Robertson curates and conducts a wildly popular new music series with his orchestra — stood and cheered these five grinning maestros who looked like they had just gotten the gold medal in the relay conducting competition of the Classical Music Olympics.

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But what really made the orchestral "Rocky" moment historic is that Cage's "Thirty Pieces" had easily been the most significant American orchestral work never played in America. The neglect is so implausible, especially after the centennial Cage glut in 2012, that Robertson told the audience he was astonished to learn when he programmed the 30-minute score that it had been overlooked for 33 years.

Cage's piece was commissioned for a new music festival in Metz, France, despite the fact that he had given up on orchestras after his U.S. Bicentennial commission, "Apartment House 1776" and "Renga" (two works played simultaneously), was not taken seriously. The composer believed that Pierre Boulez sabotaged the New York Philharmonic performance and later that Zubin Mehta let the Los Angeles Philharmonic get away with murder.

But Cage got new inspiration a few years later after beginning "On the Surface," a series of ethereal etchings, in 1980. He had made vague markings on white canvas by using intricately designed templates and then transferred the technique to orchestral writing, finding an equivalent way of working with time that he had with space. Again he used templates, punching chance-determined holes in them to locate notes on staff paper.

This resulted is the invention of time brackets, in which the exact timing of short passages (sometimes single notes) are left up to the players or conductor within in narrow constraints. Everyone in the orchestra is equal and asked to take individual responsibility.

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Making sure that there would be no place for the musicians to hide, Cage divided the orchestra into five ensembles placed in a pentagon shape around the audience. He then wrote 30 different short (most about a minute) pieces for each orchestra.

Hearing "Thirty Pieces" is like being in a jungle in the middle of night. The space feels acoustically alive with individual musical events, quiet or loud, sudden or sustained through ostinatos that help create a vague sense of orchestras communicating with one another. We don't know what any of the notes mean, of course, just as we don't know what all those animals in the jungle are up to. But we do know that they are up to something.

Robertson, who was one of the conductors for the German premiere in Cologne of "Thirty Pieces" in 1987, took an unusual approach. The Pulitzer's Tadao Ando-designed building doesn't have gallery space for 80 musicians, so the audience faced either one ensemble at one end of a rectangular space, with the other three around corners or overhead. All were audible (the acoustics are outstanding), but the orchestra you faced became foreground, the rest background. Robertson, who conducted one orchestra, also maintained the overall control of the other four assistants.

This worked mainly because the performance was a dream. Robertson gets Cage in a special way, one in which he honors the composer's radical philosophical intent and yet brings tremendous character to everything he touches. Apparently Cage was especially pleased by a rehearsal of "Thirty Pieces" in Cologne in which Robertson, determined to loosen up German musicians, explained that a wild bleating time bracket should have the startling effect of an exhibitionist suddenly opening his coat and exposing himself.

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"Thirty Pieces" in the Pulitzer was that real. It didn't startle, the overall mood is too meditative for that. But the aliveness, the presence, the sense that everything in life is worth paying attention to, came through inspiringly.

Robertson played "Thirty Pieces" twice, with Brett Dean's recent viola "Sketches for Siegbert" played by the Australian composer in between.

For the second "Thirty Pieces," some orchestras changed places. The experiences were different but familiar. It was a second night in the jungle. You still didn't know what would happen. Nor did you want to.

All of this made the victory run afterward ultimately seem like the conductors were running out of the jungle to excitedly share the news of what they had experienced.

"Thirty Pieces" changed music. Cage came to call the time brackets "anarchic harmony" and based all the music of his last decade on it. Countless composers ever since have followed suit.

St. Louis lost the last World Series. But it won, Wednesday, a big one.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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