Looking at Morton Feldman, one hardly would have guessed that this irrepressible, self-described “New York Jew” created some of the most mystical and subtle music ever composed. Yet since his death, in 1987, it has become ever more apparent that his late works are among the most individual, distinctive and influential of the second half of the 20th century — even if recognition and reverence for his achievements are still more widespread in Europe than in the United States.
And so it makes sense that Europeans — the 89-musician Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava of the Czech Republic — have arrived to perform the very first all-Morton Feldman orchestral concert ever presented in the United States, at Alice Tully Hall on November 5 in New York City, the composer’s hometown. A significant part of the backing for this concert of Feldman’s music comes from the town of Ostrava and also from the Czech Republic. To ensure the quality and detail of the performance, the orchestra committed to an almost unheard-of 18 days of rehearsals. The driving force behind this program, and the entire seven-program “Beyond [John] Cage” festival of which this concert is a major highlight, is the 70-year-old Prague-born-and-educated conductor/composer Petr Kotik, grandson of a Theresienstadt survivor who was also a conductor. In trying to convey the importance of music in the Czech republic, Kotik told me that the entire country has the same population as New York City (where he currently lives and directs the S.E.M. Ensemble), “yet it has five major orchestras and another eight to 10 professional orchestras.”
Kotik said he’d gotten to know Feldman personally when both were teaching at SUNY Buffalo, but he had already been a fan from his youth in Prague. “What a joy to encounter music which had nothing to do with all the crap one heard from morning to night!” he said. “Even though there is no one I’ve ever met who was more consumed with desire for money and success than Feldman was, there is not one note of music he ever wrote with any thought of money or success.”
There have been New York premieres of several noteworthy works recently, including major new violin concertos by Harrison Birtwhistle and James McMillan. But easily the most interesting was the grand finale of Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope Festival on March 18: Heiner Goebbels’s “Songs of Wars I Have Seen,” which uses passages from the remarkable book of the same name by Gertrude Stein. Despite being not only Jewish and American but also a lesbian and a modernist, Stein managed to survive Vichy-era France without too much privation, and the book is essentially a distillation of her diary from that period.
Goebbels (of no relation to the infamous Nazi Minister of Propaganda) is a German composer of substance and subtlety who creates rarified, difficult-to-categorize, large-scale works that embrace or even cross over into other art forms, and which often marshal a distinctive army of collaborators. To call Goebbels’s music eclectic is to state the obvious, but it is also misleading. He believes there are no new sounds to be discovered, and his compositions combine or reference a wide range of sources without being derivative.