July 13. 2000

Sound and fury of "Ballet mécanique'

By Allan Ulrich

INTO EVERY festival of oddball music, a genuine provocateur must inevitably fall. George Antheil, one of this year's more colorful musical centenarians, didn't waft to the ground like a feather Sunday evening in Davies Symphony Hall; he crash-landed on the stage with a deafening roar that rings in the ear still.

The San Francisco Symphony's tribute to the self-styled "Bad Boy of Music" (coproduced by the Other Minds contemporary music festival) concluded the first weekend of Michael Tilson Thomas' American Mavericks Festival with a performance of Antheil's 1924 "Ballet mécanique," that, thanks to contemporary technology, most closely approximated the composer's wishes. It did not go gently into the good night.

Sixteen Yamaha Disklavier pianos (eight baby grands, eight uprights), all converted into pianolas (synchronized player pianos), shared the stage with two live pianists, nine very busy percussionists and a computer technician who periodically set off an alarm (from a board festooned with seven of them) and tapes of sirens and airplane propellers (three), while Tilson Thomas, listening to a click track, conducted with headphones hugging his ears. Not since the meteor shower that wiped out the dinosaurs have you heard such a racket.

Earlier in the evening, the tribute had featured Antheil's Sonata No. 2 for Violin with Piano and Drums and "A Jazz Symphony," performed at the notorious 1927 Carnegie Hall concert that included the U.S. premiere of "Ballet mécanique." Charles Amirkhanian, executive director of Other Minds and a long-time Antheil scholar, introduced the program. Later, Tilson Thomas added his comments and showed us an autographed photograph from the late Hedy Lamarr, with whom Antheil shared a patent for a radar jamming device, the technology for which adumbrated the contemporary cell phone; the movie star's recent death ended plans for her participation in this festival.

The Antheil birthday party (July 8 is the actual date) certainly cleared the air. A career that started in Trenton, N.J., continued in Paris during the jazziest moments of the Jazz Age and concluded in Hollywood; scoring Humphrey Bogart movies undoubtedly merits a major survey of this kind. That Antheil, who died in 1959, didn't generate a lot of disciples matters little. That much of what was performed Sunday is of a stature that does not merit repeated hearing mattered less. Antheil's output added up to one of the more glittering panels of the crazy quilt of American music and the sheer enthusiasm of this presentation brought the audience to its feet.

Although originally intended as the accompaniment to a film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, "Ballet mécanique," in sundry versions, rapidly achieved a life of its own. The major influence on Antheil were the dadaists and the futurists, who were so enamored of the machine age they attempted to capture its clamor and mind-numbing rhythmic uniformity in music; Alexander Mossolov's "Iron Foundry," which has been played here, derives from the same movement, but that's a miniature in comparison to Antheil's vast, 27-minute canvas. The Stravinsky of "Les Noces" (the Nijinska ballet was premiered in Paris in 1923) also cast a spell over Antheil.

The problem with "Ballet mécanique" is that it is unplayable, at the composer's tempos, by ordinary player pianos, let alone human hands. Enter Paul D. Lehrman, who prepared the computer program that permitted the piece to be heard on eight synchronized instruments. Sunday's performance, with a camera beamed on one of the mechanical instruments for the benefit of patrons weaned on video, gave no quarter. This version was premiered last fall at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and subsequently recorded by that institution's percussion ensemble. Sunday marked the West Coast premiere.

Some commentators have made a pre-minimalist of Antheil; that's perhaps a mistake. There's nothing even vaguely trance-inducing about "Ballet mécanique"; transitions are abrupt, rhythmic varieties are infinite, the instrumentation is unpredictable and the sudden silences are astonishing. Sometimes, the piece affronts the listener with industrial-strength sound; at other times, it clatters like an cornered rattlesnake. And, somewhere, Antheil approaches the line that demarcates music from noise. To acid rock aficionados, it may seem innocuous; to more sedate folks, it will be a worst nightmare of modern music; don't expect "Ballet mécanique" to turn up on a Thursday subscription matinee in the near future.

"A Jazz Symphony," however, merits a place in the repertoire. Tilson Thomas has already recorded this unsweetened original, 1925, version with the New World Symphony.

Commissioned by Paul Whiteman, the piece offers a panoply of what Americans were listening to in the third decade of the 20th century, switching subjects with the ease, Tilson Thomas suggested, with which one twirls a radio dial. Jazz, pop favorites, salon material and even a quote from Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" suddenly announce themselves and just as peremptorily vanish.

The orchestra, laden with banjos and saxophones, looks like a jazz band. Tilson Thomas and members of the orchestra obligingly changed into summer whites for this performance as if they were the resident aggregation at a warm-weather resort. The trombone riffs, wailing saxes, an inviting solo on muted trumpet by Mark Inouye (formerly of the New World) and pianist Michael Linville's sassy chord sequences contributed to the exhilaration of the experience.

The 1923 sonata (commissioned by poet Ezra Pound for his fiddling mistress) offers the same collage technique in microcosm. Blues, a habanera rhythm and parlor ditties yield to impertinent tone clusters, with the percussionist replacing the piano for the final minutes. Violinist David Abel, pianist Julie Steinberg and percussionist William Winant relished every delectably insouciant moment.

©2000 San Francisco Examiner