Chicago/Varése Addendum – March 3, 2009

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As of  March 3 there have been four performances (with one more to go at Carnegie Hall) of the Varése pieces, each of which has generated an immediate standing ovation and critical acclaim.  John von Rhein of The Chicago Tribune (Feb. 28) said  “. . . every interpretation [of Boulez] breathed conviction from the lean athleticism . . . in Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements” at the beginning to the cataclysmic eruptions of organized sound in Edgard Varése’s “Ionisation” and “Amériques”.  “The excitment kicked up by the Varése works was as much visual as aural.  The shock waves of sound are spread over a huge orchestral apparatus, including a vast array of percussion.”

According to Andrew Patner of the Sun Times (also Feb. 28) “the news of the evening were the gauntlets that the Franco-American Edgard Varése threw down in Greenwich Village on either side of the 1920s . . . . He wanted real explosions. The modern world was defined by machines and the noises they made, and he wanted to make music out of noise.  Varése’s successful compositions in this direction include the mammoth 1918-1921 “Amériques” and the percussion-only “Ionisation” 1929-1931. Astonishingly, these pieces, hits in their time, were not played by the CSO until Boulez programmed them in 1995, when he also recorded them with the orchestra. Hearing them Thursday  . . . the Boulez-CSO match in this repertoire is authoritative.”

[To hear a very interesting 1973 radio interview with Nicholas Slonimsky, the conductor of the 1933 premiere of “Ionisation” in New York, go to  Also in that interview is a the first ’78 RPM recording of “Ionisation” made in 1933 for Columbia Records with Slonimsky conducting and Varése playing in the ensemble.] – BC

Finally, a few inside-the-box comments about the bass drum in percussion Part 4 of “Amériques”.   There is a great passage near the beginning in which the bass drum is instructed to play (forte) with a wire brush in one hand and a regular bass drum beater (mailloche) in the other hand. The composer also directs that the bass drum be tuned very high, and for that reason alone it was worth bringing the cable-tuned bass drum from home.  It can be easily cranked to a high pitch.  But even better, this bass drum has a floating head – ie. no wooden counter hoop – which enables the brush to strike the head at the very edge, directly over the steel shell, to produce a clear, sharp, but resonant high-pitched sound that contrasts nicely with the low full tone produced by the mailloche.   In order to avoid any risk of damaging the calfskin head however, a fiberglass brush was used instead of a metal wire brush.

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