New Palais Royale Orchestra / Maurice Peress

George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique

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The 1927 concert of George Antheil's music at Carnegie Hall, hyped by the New York press to a degree that seems unimaginable today ("Ballet Mécanique to Din Ears of New York -- Makes Boiler Factory Seem as Quiet as Rural Churchyard"), was something of a fiasco. The audience responded to the airplane propellers in Ballet mécanique by throwing paper airplanes in the hall, and critic Deems Taylor famously hoisted a white flag on the end of a walking stick. Yet both Copland and Virgil Thomson considered Antheil a genius, and the memory of the concert never quite went away. Antheil made a new version of Ballet mécanique in the 1950s, losing the player piano parts and some of the electric bells, but keeping the airplane propellers and siren. Even the 1927 concert had backed off on some of the work's original specifications, which called for 16 player pianos. That version finally received its "world premiere" in 1999 in a computer realization at the University of Massachusetts, but the way was paved for it by the re-creation of the entire 1927 concert in 1990 by conductor Maurice Peress and his New Palais Royale Orchestra & Percussion Ensemble. That recording unfortunately disappeared with the demise of the MusicMasters label, and the Nimbus label has done a service by reissuing it. Several things may strike the listener familiar with the later Ballet mécanique. That work itself is an altogether noisier, bigger, and more effective thing than the 1950s revision, and you wonder whether the work might have failed at its premiere simply because it was imperfectly realized. Antheil condensed the music in the later version, and the climax of Roll Three, with all the pianos joining in with the siren and percussion, will make you jump out of your seat here. The rest of the music is also worth a revival, and now that several of the pieces have shown up on recordings multiple times it's time for concert performers to follow suit. A Jazz Symphony, of 1925, was originally composed for a planned-but-never-realized Second Experiment in Modern Music concert involving jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman, intended as a successor to the event that gave the world Rhapsody in Blue. Antheil clearly had Gershwin in mind with his jazz symphony and even includes a solo piano in the orchestration, but the work sounds nothing like Rhapsody in Blue, or any other work of the period, for that matter. It's sort of a constructivist treatment of jazz, with bits of jazz rhythm jammed together and sticking out from one another, and a pairing on a concert bill with Rhapsody in Blue would be a natural. Even rarer are Antheil's Second Sonata for violin, piano, and drum, which seems to indicate a greater influence from the music of Charles Ives than has generally been recognized during this period, and the somewhat Bartókian String Quartet No. 1. A superb effort all the way around, highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the 1920s American scene.

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