Music Review

Hearing the din of history

By Ellen Pfeiffer, Globe Correspondent

LOWELL—You would have thought that George Antheil's "Ballet mecanique" was a mega-hit rock group considering how many warm-up acts preceded its world premiere performance Thursday night. Not only were there five other works on the first half of the concert, but Paul Lehrman, the programmer and producer, offered 20 minutes of introductory remarks and slide projections. Only then, after shamelessly teasing the audience by withholding gratification until 10:20 p.m., did the 16 Yamaha Disklaviers and 12 human performers commence with Antheil's infernal racket.

Mind you, this was not the first time anybody has ever heard any of this music. Reduced forces have been used in performances off and on again since the work's composition in 1924. Thursday's performance, however, was the world premiere of the original "unplayable" version of the "Ballet pour Instruments mécaniques et Percussion." Composed as a Dadaist film score, the ballet called for 16 player pianos, airplane propellers, eletric bells, siren, two pianos played by humans, three xylophones, four bass drums, and a gong. Antheil immediately had to scrap plans to perform this version because of the impossibility of synchronizing the player pianos in an era before computers.

Lehrman, a bassoonist, composer, and computer whiz, was asked by music publisher G. Schirmer to put the piece into a performing version using digitalized sequencing technology. Through the wonders of MIDI musical interface, he was able to coordinate all those piano parts and realize them Thursday night on the computerized Yamaha Disklaviers.

He was assisted by the heroic UMass-Lowell Percussion Ensemble, undaunted conductor Jeffrey Fischer, and pianists Juanita Tsu and John McDonald.

How did it sound? Warned to wear our earplugs (individually wrapped plugs were handed out at the door), and prepared for a tremendous din, one found the piece a bit tame, even tedious. Most people didn't even need the earplugs.

The principal impression it left was of relentless, pounding ostinatos: repeated rhythmic motifs struck furiously by human hands and machines. Occasionally one heard a hint of music hall ditty or a pentatonic riff that suggested Debussy. But the purpose here seemed mainly to annoy and enrage—which this piece certainly did at performances in the 20s. What's more, the full complement of 16 mechanical pianos seemed unnecessary since they shared only four parts and seemed to provide mostly dynamic ballast.

Far more aurally gratifying and witty were some of the pieces on the first half that also made use of the computerized pianos and Lowell's crack percussion ensemble. Amadeo Roldàn's Ritmica Nos. 5 and 6 (1930) are among the first works written for percussion ensemble. They were full of wonderful timbral effects both delicate and savage, and were of far greater, more varied rhythmic interest than the Antheil. Their foundation in Cuban folk dance was never far from the surface.

Similarly, Richard Grayson's three works for computerized piano and synthesized instruments were funny, refreshing, and fascinating. "Shoot the Piano Player" featured multiple, unmanned pianos playing distilled saloon music ever more frantically until pistol shots rang out. "Mr. 528" offered six electronic keyboards engaged in mad glissandi. "Fantasy on Broadway Boogie Woogie" was a musical representation of the dots, grids, and squares of Mondrian's famous painting. (There was also a visual realiztion as the colorful score was projected on a screen.)

In addition, there were fascinating pieces for the player pianos by those great iconoclasts John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Conlon Nancarrow. Even Lehrman got into the act with a player piano transcription of the Saltarello finale from Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony.

However pale it might seem to us today, it may be that Antheil's notorious "Ballet mecanique" made all of these later composers possible.

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