Friday November 2, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Great art or big joke?

Concertgoers can decide for themselves when the Berkshire Symphony opens its season tonight with John Cage’s 4’33". The famous, or infamous, piece consists of precisely four minutes and 33 seconds during which the musician or musicians -- any number can play -- are instructed to play no music.

During three specified movements, the only sounds are those made by the audience -- coughing, tittering, foot-shuffling and the like -- and any other noises that creep in.

Director Ronald Feldman says he’ll have a score and cue in the silent orchestra to open and close the three movements. As for whether the piece is a joke, Feld man is being Cagey.

"I can make it funny or serious," he says. "We’ll see."

The performance is one of five on an eclectic program that starts at 8 in Williams College’s Chapin Hall, the orchestra’s home. The concert celebrates the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth and Chapin’s inauguration.

Two world premieres and a pairing of two other works will follow. In the pair, a 20th-century work by Hindemith is better known than the 19th-century rarity by Weber on which it is partly based.

Cage’s 4’33", which has parallels in visual art -- Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg are frequently mentioned -- has fascinated and outraged audiences since its premiere in 1952. The usual take on it is that it’s 4’33" of silence.

Not so, Cage said. The idea is that ambient sounds constitute a one-of-a-kind music in itself.

"They missed the point," Cage said of the audience reaction at the premiere. "There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."

Other Cage pieces are to be performed on mechanically altered pianos or according to the I Ching, the Chinese book of changes. In a more conventional mode, he produced scores to accompany ballets by Merce Cunningham, his longtime partner. He was also a note mycologist, chess player and writer. He died in 1992.

Tonight’s premieres are Andy Jaffe’s "Every Day Blues" and Robert Kyrâ’s Double Concerto for Flute and Clarinet.

The Jaffe piece is one Williams faculty member’s tribute to another. Jaffe, the director of jazz studies, memorializes Ernest D. Brown, who taught African and African-American music and died in April. The initials of the piece are both Brown’s initials and the notes on which the piece is based.

Jaffe says the piece evokes "the music of the African diaspora that Ernest devoted his life to," including music Brown performed at Williams with the Zambezi Marimba Band. He founded and directed the group.

Kyr, who has composed 12 symphonies and three violin concertos, is on the faculty at the University of Oregon. His concerto was composed to highlight the Berkshire Sym phony’s principal clarinetist and flutist, Susan Martula and Floyd Hebert.

Kyr writes that his double concerto, like many of his other works, is a "musical embodiment" of "the concept of conflict and reconciliation."

The evening’s finale is Hindemith’s "Symphonic Met a morphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber." It will be preceded by one of those themes -- the march from Weber’s incidental music to the Gozzi-Schiller play "Tur andot." (Yes, the same story on which Puccini based his opera "Turandot.")

Feldman looks both backward and forward in the program. He has conducted jazz-based works before with the Berkshire and as former assistant conductor of the Boston Pops. He previously did Kyr’s "Fanfare for a New Dawn" with the Williams ensemble.

The two men met when Kyr was a fellow at Harvard and Feldman directed the Boston-based New England Philhar monic. Feldman recruited Kyr to be composer-in-residence for the philharmonic, "a rarity for a community orchestra," Feldman recalls.

"We premiered two of his symphonies. He instituted a call for scores that brought in over 100 scores from around the world. We sifted through them and performed a number of them. We have been friends ever since."