Claude Vivier - disorder, chances and momentary beauty

It is fair to say I am not a huge fan of composer anniversaries, but one such event in 2013 does need highlighting. In these sensitive times I presumably should recount how French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier – seen above - passed away on March 12, 1983. But instead I will use plain English and say he was murdered on that day by a male prostitute who he had invited into his Paris apartment.

At the time of his death Claude Vivier was exploring a new and important world of sound - he was a pupil of Stockhausen but came increasingly under the influence of the French spectralists. However it is unlikely we will see celebratory cuff-links or very much of his music programmed this year. But the good news is there is some, and on May 2 the Philharmonia Orchestra are giving a concert of Vivier’s music comprising two works - Et je reverrai cette ville étrange and Trois airs pour un opera imaginaire. On the podium is the multi-talented and multi-cultural Kwamé Ryan and the presenter is contemporary music authority Paul Griffiths. The event is part of the Philharmonia’s Music for Today series, an admirable scheme which showcases contemporary music in short free concerts. But it does mean the concert is at 6.00pm, and serves as a curtain raiser for the main event at 7.30pm. This is the Philharmonia again, but for this one Jakub Hrůša conducts Scriabin, Shostakovich and Prokofiev’s as part of the Rest is Noise Festival inspired by Alex Ross’ eponymous book.

So all credit to the Philharmonia and the South Bank Centre for programming Claude Vivier. If we take the glass half full approach it is good to be able to hear Vivier, Scriabin, Shostakovich and Prokofiev under one roof in one evening. But my inner half empty glass questions whether one of Vivier’s orchestral compositions – Orion perhaps – could not have been programmed in the main concert instead of the over-exposed Shostakovich. The rigid compartmentalisation of 100% Vivier and 100% 20th century Russians is symptomatic of the trend towards ‘health and safety’ programming – no nasty surprises and no opportunity for serendipity to work its magic. It is a trend we are seeing not just in the concert hall, but also in radio and recording schedules. Themed classical music is hot right now, but is it really ‘health and safety’ programming in disguise?

It is probably unfair and ungrateful to complain about the two Philharmonia concerts specifically, and I hope to be at one of them – no prizes for guessing which. But in her immensely stimulating book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists Kay Larson quotes from one of Cage’s public talks. His words could equally have come from Claude Vivier, and classical music programmers should take note of them – ‘Art should not be different from life, with its accidents and chances and variety and disorder and momentary beauty’.

* More on Claude Vivier and the CD seen above in Pushing the classical envelope.

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