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MMD > Archives > April 2000 > 2000.04.02 > 07Prev  Next

Review: "Ballet Mecanique" at Carnegie Hall
By Gabe Della Fave

What a great pleasure it was to have been in New York City's Carnegie
Hall once again!  The architecture is simple and functional (though it
is more than 100 years old) and the acoustics of the Hall do in fact
sound perfect.

There was a lecture before the concert, featuring a question and answer
session with new composer Jennifer Higdon, Paul Lehrman, and others.
People in the audience were speaking at normal volume and I could fully
understand all of them even though the Hall is fairly large, with 2,800
seats.  I was sitting in the orchestra and forth tier, since the Hall
was only 3/4 full.  I did this in order to listen to the sound in
various parts of the Hall.  During the concert, the tone and clarity
of the orchestral portions were amazing and wonderful.  I shudder when
I think that we nearly lost the Hall in the 1950s to an office
building.  Thanks to people such as Isaac Stern, the Hall remains with
us today, has been beautifully restored, and is much used in its
original form as Classical music concert venue.

This afternoon I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall.  This event
consisted of the American Composers Orchestra performing four works:
Jennifer Higdon - Fanfare Ritmico (the New York Premiere of this work);
George Antheil - Ballet mecanique (the work so famous for using player
pianos), Aaron Copland - Short Symphony, and Roger Sessions - Symphony
No. 3.  This concert is a part of the "20th Century Snapshots" series
of concerts occurring over three seasons.  The series seems to consist
of several pieces which have "mechanical" and classical or jazz themes,
and the period covered is from 1927 through 1931.

The Higdon work was strong and forceful, with very aggressive
percussion and strong but varying rhythms.  The work had a mechanical
theme, in that it was about focusing on one clock ticking, and then
more clocks, and more, etc., until it was a symphony of our
civilization.  The composer said that the recent Y2K "crisis" inspired
this work.  Ms. Higdon received several bravoes but no standing

Copland's work had absolutely no percussion, except the Steinway
concert grand piano which was only lightly used.  The work tried to be
aggressive and atonal but was only slightly so.  It was more a case of
Aaron Copland's moving music (which I enjoy) given an atonal bent.
An orchestral piece without any percussion was unusual.  This work was
very well received.

The Sessions piece started with music that sounded like Debussy
or Ravel with an atonal bent, but quickly descended into something
I couldn't understand and didn't care for.  Not much applause after
this work, just the polite minimum, although the musicians were

First on the Program, but last for this review, was the first Carnegie
Hall "original" performance of George Antheil's "Ballet mecanique" in
73 years.  This was supposed to be according to his "original
intention" with 16 synchronized player pianos.  There weren't 16 player
pianos, rather there were only 8 of them, along with 2 spinet pianos,
4 bass drums, 4 xylophones, and various other live percussion

The only non-acoustic sound effect appeared to be the airplane
propellers -- and the Clavinovas.  All other effects seemed to be
played with acoustical instruments, including a tim-tam, siren, and
various bells and buzzers.

The 8 "player pianos" were shiny Yamaha Clavinova grand-style digital
MIDI pianos.  I do not consider them to be real pianos, as in
acoustical pianos.  Also, these were not pneumatic player pianos (which
I think have a far greater depth and range of musical ability).  Still,
I tried to keep an open mind.

I have to say I was disappointed in the musical performance.  I feel
that I did not hear 8 synchronized player pianos as was advertised.
I have three main reasons for this opinion.  First, only partial piano
scales were used, thereby reducing the number of pianos being used if
we consider these as 88-note instruments.  As I result, I expected
something louder than what I heard.

Second, the pianos seemed to be synchronized with each other (and only
to a degree), but the individual pianos rolled what should have been
staccato chords.  This was a major flaw in the performance and made the
work sound very muddy and unclear -- even in Carnegie Hall.  As a result
of the "softness" of the Clavinovas, the live musicians had to play
more softly than one would expect in order to not "drown out" the
Clavinovas.  This was another major flaw.  The general reaction of
the audience near me was "that was all?" or "I thought it would be

There were no dynamics among the Clavinovas.  Every section and
passage had exactly the same volume of sound, and left one wondering
why dynamics were not used.  The live musicians did use dynamics to a
degree, but in order to "agree" with the Clavinovas, they "held back."
In the middle of the interpretation of the work, I said to myself,
"These are not factory noises and this is not the aggressive, driving
Ballet mecanique that I know."

I was sad to have to say this.  I honestly didn't care for the
performance and would give it a bad rating overall.  I am not alone.
There was only mild applause after the work, no bravoes, and no
standing ovation.

I have to also say that the musicians did the best they could and
they were excellent.  During the orchestral pieces, when there were
no Clavinovas on stage, the musicians were truly outstanding and
flawlessly played exceedingly difficult works of fine music.

I can only compare this New York interpretation of Ballet mecanique
to other versions I have heard; particularly the three roll series by
Artcraft Music Rolls as played on my own 1925 Super-Simplex Lexington
(built at the Hallet, Davis, & Co. factory).  This player piano has
a completely rebuilt player action and a brand new piano action.
In effect, it is a "new" pneumatic player piano and is one of the more
musical designs and better performing versions of this instrument.
I use this instrument a great deal and therefore I believe I am fairly
familiar with the capabilities of the instrument and pneumatic player
pianos in general.

I have also played this roll series many times on my Pianola, and I can
safely say that my humble 88-note player piano does a far better
musical job of interpretation than those digital Clavinovas in Carnegie
Hall could ever even begin to hope to do.

In closing, the Ballet mecanique performance was dull and boring.  It
was only interesting in so far as watching how the musicians attempted
to "play around" the Clavinovas.  The Higdon and Copland works were
interesting and enjoyable.  The Sessions work was rather dull and I
could not understand its intention.  The acoustics of Carnegie Hall
are indeed perfect and should not be missed.

Gabe Della Fave
South Amboy, New Jersey, USA

(Message sent Mon 3 Apr 2000, 00:45:49 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Ballet, Carnegie, Hall, Mecanique, Review

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