Dumitrescu/Avram – Radical Amateurism (part 2)

Tuesday 1 December 2009

(Continued from Part 1)

I have to admit I’m not crazy about the music of Iancu Dumitrescu, Horaţiu Rădulescu, or any of the other Romanian spectralist composers (and I’m sure someone will berate me for lumping those two names together in the same movement). It all has a general tendency towards the shrill and self-important. But a lot of people think it’s Very Important and love it very much, and who am I to doubt them? The week of Spectrum XXI concerts brought together local musicians, the Hyperion Ensemble from Romania and the Talea Ensemble from New York, all extremely capable musicians. That’s part of what makes the amateurism of the whole enterprise almost endearing.

Some of the amateurism was pardonable. The first thing you saw when approaching a Spectrum XXI concert was a bunch of musicians huddled around a rental van with Romanian plates smoking like chimneys (Ana-Maria Avram borrowed my friend’s lighter, and never gave it back). Then there was the trombonist at the final concert, taking snapshots of the audience with his digital camera after the show. And between each piece. And during the music, when he didn’t have anything to do.

Other aspects were less so: the first ten minutes of the first concert was spent messing around with the lighting. Trying to set an appropriate mood, Dumitrescu and a couple of other musicians eventually managed to turn out all the lights in the hall, before turning them all on again, one by one. The fears raised by the large number of world premieres announced in the programme were largely founded. Across the concert series it seemed that the strongest pieces were usually the oldest ones. Works like Dumitrescu’s percussion trio Multiples (VII) from 1972 displayed a unique and innovative approach to sonority, compositional method and structure. Many, but not all, of the new pieces sounded like little more than undifferentiated dabbling with a particular instrumental effect, with a focus on timbre at the expense of all other considerations.

These weaknesses were most obvious in Dumitrescu’s world premiere Sound Sculpture (II) for solo piano. Prefaced with a short talk by Avram explaining how difficult the piece is to play, it sounded uncannily like the fabled Three Discontinuous Movements by Rose Bob, as performed at its world premiere by Madame Berthe Trépat (Gold Medal, Grenoble): a long, tedious series of unconnected chords and clusters separated by elaborate pedalling gambits to filter the piano’s resonant overtones.

The notorious false starts were present and correct. The ensemble would begin, only to be halted by an aggrieved Dumitrescu a minute later, then try again. This behaviour wasn’t limited to his own music. His disrupted Avram’s world premiere of Telesma VII for percussion and electronics because he wasn’t happy with the sound mix, and wasted several minutes of everyone’s time futzing around with the faders, producing various distorted noises until he was satisfied.

The world premiere of Dumitrescu’s Infinity (II) for bass clarinet and ensemble lasted right up to the entrance of the bass clarinet itself, whereupon Dumitrescu broke off from conducting to engage clarinettist Tim Hodgkinson in a brief but vehement argument on stage, before storming out past the audience announcing that the performance was cancelled. The expression on the ring-in cellist’s face was priceless. A little while later Dumitrescu returned, then excused himself again to pace the courtyard for a few minutes more, finally coming back inside to conduct the next item on the programme.

At one point between pieces he gave an impassioned speech to the audience about the importance of creating new forms of expression, and that despite their limited funding he and his fellow musicians were forging the music of the future. This is the most pernicious aspect of Dumitrescu’s amateurism: the confusion of isolation with supremacy. Judging from the music and the attitude on display, his increasing exposure to the world has only entrenched his insularity within a growing circle of acolytes. Such insularity leaves an artist vulnerable to their greatest weaknesses, to which Dumitrescu is evidently succumbing and which he must address, unless he is content to remain nothing more than the figurehead of his own cult.