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Other Voices: 'The Most Significant American Orchestral Work Never Played In America'

John Cage

Last week, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra took over the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

That symphony musicians play at the Pulitzer is not news. Ensembles have been bringing new works to the Grand Center neighbor for some time. But this time it was the entire orchestra and the work was a major piece by an American composer that had not be presented in this country before.

Christopher Reilly, gave this preview in Alive:

“'Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras'” will feature the full complement of 82 SLSO musicians at once — a first at the Pulitzer — split into five groups and placed in five different areas of the museum while the audience sits in the main gallery surrounded by the musicians. David Robertson, music director of the SLSO, is no stranger to the work, having been one of five conductors for both the German and Italian premieres. The other conductors joining Robertson in conducting the U.S. premiere are Steven Jarvi, Rei Hotoda, Jerry Hou, and Lee Mills."

Cage is known to challenge listeners -- art speak for putting out unusual material that sounds harsh or unpleasant to ears used to traditional Western sounds. In this documentary posted to YouTube, Cage talks about conquering his dislike of things he thinks are not beautiful.

In the audience last week was Mark Swed, a music critic at the Los Angeles Times who brought his perspective as the author of an upcoming book on Cage. He painted an image of Robertson gathering the four other conductors in a victory lap.

Swed paid homage to the Tadao Ando-designed building and to the symphony: “It is, in its ninth season under David Robertson, a happy and increasingly important orchestra in a golden age.”

"Thirty Pieces," he said, “had easily been the most significant American orchestral work never played in America.”

And its performance in St. Louis was called a triumph. In his review, Swed said that dividing the orchestra into five ensembles “worked mainly because the performance was a dream. Robertson gets Cage in a special way, one in which he honors the composer's radical philosophical intent and yet brings tremendous character to everything he touches."

In her review of the piece, in which she lauded the skill of Robertson and the symphony musicians, Sarah Bryan Miller of the Post-Dispatch said, “It is interesting, in a purely intellectual sense, but there’s nothing to grab on to in any other realm, and it can be physically tiring to try to concentrate on something so patternless for so long.”

Donna Korando started work in journalism at SIU’s Daily Egyptian in 1968. In between Carbondale and St. Louis Public Radio, she taught high school in Manitowoc, Wis., and worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the copy editor and letters editor for the editorial page from 1973-77. As an editorial writer from 1977-87, she covered Illinois and city politics, education, agriculture, family issues and sub-Saharan Africa. When she was editor of the Commentary Page from 1987-2003, the page won several awards from the Association of Opinion Page Editors. From 2003-07, she headed the features copy desk.