MUSIC REVIEW : Subotnick Premiere at Philharmonic

Share via

Except for those who sleep, concert-going is not a passive activity.

Audience members attend musical events bringing different levels of preparation and anticipation, but most of them listen actively; the more closely one pays attention, the greater the rewards.

The reward at the end of Morton Subotnick’s “The Key to Songs”--a rewrite of a mixed instrumental/electronic chamber piece the American composer created for the Aspen Festival in 1985--in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Thursday night seemed to be confusion.

A busy but not hyperactive piece, really quite innocuous in terms of sound assault, loudness or atonality, “Key to Songs” employs what seems to be a lot of sophisticated electronic gadgetry to produce apprehensible, but hardly simplistic, music that moves along more or less interestingly for 24 minutes, then stops abruptly.


For one listener, caught up in trying to decipher the aural scenario, that stop came as a rude surprise: Most of what one had heard up to that point seemed like a prelude, or wind-up, to something else. Whatever that might have been--eventually--never materialized.

The cast of musical characters in the piece includes two solo pianos whose sounds are altered before or during performance, as well as a large orchestra, in this case, the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller.

Subotnick seldom uses the entire orchestra at the same moment. Much of the musical activity proceeds, one compositional section at a time, as played by one instrumental section, often in unison. This lack of density creates a sense of airiness, an expectation that something heavier will come along.

It never does. Instead, a tangible Oriental ambiance--bolstered by atmospheric percussion, Eastern scales and unharmonized melodies--creates an aura of Zen concentration.

For some, this experience became undeniably pleasant, if suspiciously uneventful. When it suddenly stopped, apparently without warning, the audience in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion acted confused. Inconclusion disorients.

Ursula Oppens and Alan Feinberg were the busy and efficient soloists at two MIDI-controlled grand pianos. The orchestra played gamely under Miller’s relaxed guidance. Incidentally, this new version of the piece was commissioned by Betty Freeman for the L.A. Philharmonic.

The rest of the evening, devoted to Kodaly’s “Dances From Galanta” and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, proved smooth and steadily low voltage. In the case of the Hungarian composer’s cherishable folk suite, that is acceptable. For Tchaikovsky, it is not.


Energy, passion, drive and propulsion are necessary ingredients to any authentic performance of the F-minor Symphony. For most of the first three movements, those qualities simply did not appear. What one heard was a run-through of a familiar work. Near the end of the Scherzo, the energy level rose, and there was clear sailing to the end. Finalmente.