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Wacky ‘Il Distratto’ Sets the Tone

Ours is not an age when we find much mirth in the distracted mind, what with Alzheimer’s and scary forms of dementia so familiar. No serious composer today is likely, for instance, to have the fun Haydn did in his 60th symphony, known as “Il Distratto” and based upon the incidental music he had written for a farce about an absent-minded man.

So when the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra selected Haydn’s wacky symphony to serve as curtain-raiser Friday night at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater for the first performance of a new and different kind of concerto by Stephen Scott, it offered strange comparisons between the Age of Enlightenment and our own millennial times.

We may enjoy Haydn introducing disorder into the tidy procedures of 18th century musical thinking, but we often ask our contemporaries to provide solace in the concert hall from the confusing disorder of modern society.

The inventiveness in Haydn’s symphony is in just how far off-base he can take his musical argument and still stay within acceptable Classical-period bounds. In “Il Distratto,” he wanders into weird key areas; he throws in fanfares where you would least expect them; he extracts folk tunes from disparate cultures; and he even seems to forget what symphony he is in at one point.

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The most remarkable moment in the score, however, comes when the violins retune their G strings, producing an agreeably wacky wrenching noise.

That noise isn’t all that different from some of the effects at which Scott arrives in his Music for Bowed Piano and Chamber Orchestra, but with entirely different means and meaning. Scott, who operates out of Colorado College, has developed a way of making music that no else seems to have thought of. He has made it his trademark.

Scott’s invention is both simple and surprising. He employs an ensemble--the 10 members of the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble on this occasion--to draw various bows (not of the variety used to play a violin but a few strands of nylon) under the strings of a piano. This sometimes produces the luminous and airy drones one might expect, but it also can create an electronic aura, or mimic the timbres of woodwind instruments.

There is a certain comforting pleasure to be derived from observing such mysterious sound being achieved through direct and understandable means, and Scott remains careful to keep the content of his music within the comfort zone as well. The concerto is tonal and agreeable, spiced now and then with lively techniques from Minimalism and African drumming.

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But this is also Scott’s first attempt to employ the bowed piano with traditional instruments, and that seems to have made him all the more cautious. The three movement, nearly half-hour score is conventional, and neither the blending of warm-bath bowed piano sonorities with winds and strings, nor the occasional contrasts, were particularly striking.

One intermission discussion revolved around whether the score, and especially the slow central movement, was more reminiscent of music for old film noir or a ‘40s cinematic melodrama.

Matthias Bamert, the conductor for the evening, seemed to take everything in stride. In the Haydn and the Scott, that meant a kind of stodgy coherence (of more benefit to the new than to the old).

But after intermission, when he turned to safe and sane Schubert--his Fifth Symphony, which is Schubert at his least distracted and most conventional--the performance was full of confidence, sparkling playing and wit. Soon after writing this symphony, Schubert would enter into his own personal dementia, out of which came some of the most inspired if weird music ever, but that is a different story.

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