20th Century classics that rock our world

Out with the old, in with the new! Ars Musica, the music festival that boldly goes where others fear to tread (i.e. modern and contemporary classical music) celebrates it’s 30th year. Out of a very busy birthday programme we have lifted three pieces you cannot miss – whether you’re a diehard avant-garde junkie or a newbie to the new music scene.

On Steve Reich's Different Trains

Steve Reich – Different Trains (1988)

As a child, composer Steve Reich used to take trains to travel between his mother and his father, who had separated. Later, he realised that had he, a Jew, been in Europe instead of the United States at that exact same time, he might have been traveling on a very different train… His quartet ‘Different trains’ combines live string instruments with recorded sounds of trains and testimonies of Holocaust survivors or people who lived through the build-up to the war, the war years, and the aftermath. Their words are cut up and looped so that they really mix with the music. Written in 1988 and created by the Kronos Quartet, it quickly became one of the best loved and most moving contemporary works in the repertoire.

The Kronos Quartet return to Reich’s piece during their concerts that includes works by Glass, Riley and Coltrane on 13 November.

A Valentine Out of Season (1944)

John Cage – A Valentine Out Of Season (1944)

The title of this piece refers to the separation from his wife Xenia, and it was composed – like so many of Cage’s works for ‘prepared piano’ – for a dance piece by legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage is credited as the invented of the ‘prepared piano’, which involves the placing of objects (‘preparations’) between the strings of the piano - in Cage’s case usually screws and bolts - to change the sounds into more percussive or bell-like sounds. Cage loved the fact that it placed “ in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra”.

Rising star Xenia Pestova Bennett runs the gamut from aggressive to meditative in a recital on 20 November that has the music of John Cage at the heart of it.

Symphonic Cinema Firebird

Igor Stravinsky - The Firebird (1910)

Rachmaninov declared his 27-year old colleague a ‘genius’ when he heard this music, the first full length ballet Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev and his famous Ballets Russes. The 1910 critics and audiences were equally enthusiastic, and the piece was hailed as the perfect symbiosis of movement, imagery, and music. The Firebird flew on its own too, in concert halls all over the world, in the suite versions Stravinsky wrote (mainly because the killer contract he signed with Diaghilev meant he could not earn money from the original score). The story of the ballet involves 1 prince, 13 princesses, a giant egg, and lots of magic. What’s not to like?

Discover Stravinsky’s masterpiece in an impressive to and fro between orchestra and movie screen with Lucas Van Woerkum’s cinematic update on 22 November.

See also