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February 15, 2012

Mobtown Modern rings in John Cage centennial with pianist Adam Tendler

If they gave medals for musical bravery, dexterity and perseverance, Adam Tendler would earn them all.

This intrepid pianist mastered the technically, intellectually and emotionally daunting Sonatas and Interludes by John Cage for prepared piano and has performed them -- by memory -- all over the country.

On Tuesday night at the 2640 Space, Tendler repeated this feat before a sizable audience of mostly young people who apparently did not have Valentine's Day dates -- or thought this concert would be a great way to spend one. The event was presented by Mobtown Modern to salute the 2012 Cage centennial.

Chances to hear anything by Cage are few around here, a paucity not likely to change very much during his anniversary year. Except in the case of Mobtown Modern, which has also scheduled a performance of Cage's "Musicircus," a multi-ensemble sonic experience, in May. 

It is well worth being reminded of the composer's revolutionary impact, which went far beyond "4:33," the still-radical exploration of silence and ambient noise. Throughout his life, Cage challenged everything, and pretty much embraced everything, too, if it could be put to an aesthetic use.

No one has ever taken a broader view of what constitutes music. You might say he un-caged music (you would be greeted with groans, but you could say it).

My only live encounter with him was a concert he gave in Miami that consisted of ..

a single sound-producing object -- a gourd, which Cage rubbed and tapped for more than an hour. It was crazy, mostly riveting, sometimes boring. It ended up making its own strange sense.

Some folks might have a similar reaction to the Sonatas and Interludes, written in the mid-1940s. They are certainly off in their own little world, starting with the "prepared" element -- screws and bolts are placed in between or on the strings to turn the instrument's familiar sonic personality into something quite different. (Cage gives specific details on these preparations.) 

The changes give these pieces amazing colors, suggestive at times of percussion, exotic bells, even synthesizers. But beyond that aural novelty, Cage creates something that is at once oddly familiar -- there are at least semi-clear structures reflecting centuries'-old traditions, for example -- and wonderfully unconventional, unexpected.

The music takes on an Eastern flavor at times, but Western romantic flourishes pop up as well (the 12th Sonata turns positively Mussorgsky-like). There is a lot of softness and slow motion, and a lot of gentle treble activity as well, making the occasional explosions all the more effective. Motives are frequently reiterated with a chant-like focus, foreshadowing minimalism. There is something mystical about these works.

Because of the difficulty of preparing a piano (Tendler told Tuesday's audience that it usually takes him between 90 minutes and two hours -- and mere minutes to de-prepare them), these scores don't get brought out every day. And because of all that preparation, you might as well play all of them -- about 70 minutes' worth. The full dose can turn hypnotic, as happened on this occasion.

Tendler's identification with the material could be keenly felt throughout. He has managed to get behind and underneath the notes, considering them from ever angle. His technical command impressed, as did his memorization faculty. But what registered most was the very personal nature of the performance, the sense of a pianist living inside the music and making poetic sense of it all. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


As two of those who brought up the average age of the audience, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the show. Cages' works, moreso than most composers, need to be heard and seen. Mr. Tendler played beautifully and the room was just about the perfect size. Thanks go out to Mobtown Modern for the chance to see such great music.

I'm glad I was not the only one pushing up the demographic a little bit. Thanks for the comments. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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