Play it again, George: Antheil’s raucous ‘Ballet mécanique’ roars at Blair

AntheilThe audience that streamed into Ingram Hall on Sunday night to hear George Antheil’s seldom-performed Ballet mécanique figured they were in for a-once-in-a-lifetime experience. They were wrong.

Moments after Antheil’s steamroller of a piece for automated grand pianos and percussion ensemble ended, Paul Lehrman, the composer responsible for completing the work’s modern orchestration, held up his right index finger and grinned. Would we like to hear it again? Most of us did, and so we were treated to a-twice-in-a-lifetime experience – a second hearing of Ballet mécanique and the accompanying silent film of the same name.

PaulLehrmanThe thunderous standing ovation that greeted Ballet mécanique on Sunday night at the Blair School of Music couldn’t have been more different from the receptions the music received when it was new. It caused a near riot at its Paris premiere in 1926 – a silent clip that purported to show that historic brawl was screened before Sunday’s performance. The work’s 1927 Carnegie Hall premiere was an unmitigated disaster.

Thanks to late-20th-century digital technology, Sunday’s performance at Blair unfolded with machine-like precision. It was certainly a joy to watch the eight full-size Yamaha Disklaviers perform the score. The keys and pedals of these automated computer-controlled pianos moved on their own at superhuman speeds, as if they were being played by phantom pianists. Conductor Michael Holland and 13 members of Blair’s Vortex percussion ensemble (including two additional pianists) accompanied the Disklaviers, creating a complex tapestry of rhythmically asymmetrical counterpoint.

chaplinAs you’d expect, the music was loud, repetitive and percussive – Antheil seemed to be anticipating the minimalism of Steve Reich at its wildest. The Disklaviers played huge chords, clusters and glissandi while sampled alarm bells, sirens and propeller sounds screamed out of speakers. Vortex’s drums, thunder sheets and pianos piled on additional sonic layers, making Ballet mécanique seem like the Rite of Spring on steroids. Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Dadaist film – a constantly shifting stream of geometric shapes and slyly smiling faces – made the experience seem all the more surreal.

Sunday’s concert included nearly a half-dozen other short percussion pieces that seemed like Ballet mécanique’s descendants. My favorite of these was John Cage and Lou Harrison’s Double Music (1941) for percussion quartet. Cage and Harrison each wrote two of the four parts, and the minutely shifting accents and bright timbre of the bells and gongs created an exotic and prismatically beautiful sound.

Composed in 2010, Brian Blume’s Strands of Time was the newest work on the program. The piece featured just one performer, Liam Underwood, playing a field drum with audio. The drum and electronics seemed to engage each other as if in a conversation. Xylophonist Evan Saddler expertly played the sparkling patterns in Henry Cowell’s Ostinato Pianissimo (1934), while bass clarinetist Jeremy Bolin easily handled the intricate patterns in Nigel Westlake’s Malachite Glass (1990). Another Westlake piece, Moving Air (1989), received one of the evening’s most entertaining performances, with the four percussionists moving theatrically to some of the prerecorded and sampled effects – a sudden whooshing sound prompted the players to seemingly deflate.

Lehrman presented one other piece for his eight Disklaviers, an arrangement of the Saltarello-Presto from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian.” The Disklaviers played this quicksilver piece with a degree of speed and precision that was mind-boggling. With these robotic pianos around, Lang Lang might worry about becoming the next Detroit autoworker.

It’s not clear what Michael Holland and Vortex will do to top this performance next year. Does anyone have Cirque du Soleil’s number?

Photo Credits: George Antheil: Photo courtesy of the estate of George Antheil, The Other Minds Archives and Paul Lehrman: Photo by Evan Kafka. Charlie Chaplin image from Ballet mécanique, filmmakers Léger/Murphy, used by courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.


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