Uri Caine and the Cleveland Orch. come to Oberlin
Pianist and composer Uri Caine is one of an increasing number of musicians who are not reluctant to cross traditional musical boundaries. Rather than attempting to segregate his career along genre lines, he has spent the past decade integrating many disparate influences- Schumann, Wagner, Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock are random examples. What he is attempting to do is extremely difficult. At his most successful moments he synthesizes a messy blend of musical material that doesn’t dilute the original sources but actually highlights their presence and individuality through moments of radical juxtaposition. In his least successful moments he neglects the power of pastiche and simply waters down his influences.
Caine’s February 27 concert in Finney Chapel represented both of these paradigms. The program, brilliant in its conception, included a complete concert by the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Most conducting, Caine as soloist, followed by a full set by Caine’s jazz trio. The centerpiece of the evening was Caine’s ambitious adaptation of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for orchestra and piano, which received an understandably mixed response from the audience. Caine orchestrated the original Beethoven piano score in a 19th century style and constructed a new piano part primarily through improvisation.
His playing mixed Beethovian piano material with several 20th century styles — including post-bop, tango and boogie-woogie — but the results were not as stimulating as one might have hoped they would be. It was extremely difficult to sustain interest through 55 minutes of Caine’s orchestral score, and Welser-Most’s orchestra was completely unsympathetic to the improvised piano material. It is unclear why Caine chose to make the orchestral part so bland and only his own improvisation experimental, but the result sounded like a talented and goofy pianist playing along with a Beethoven record. This combination has a lot of potential if the pianist is willing to fully extend his capabilities, but can sound quite lame if the pianist — like Caine in this concert — doesn’t shoot for the moon. This piece succeeded in pleasing no one; it disappointed adventurous listeners who wanted Caine to subvert and destroy the banal orchestral material and it offended the sensibilities of Conservatory purists who rejected the idea of boogie-woogie Beethoven. The end result belonged in a Pops concert, which was unfortunate because the piece exposes a lot of territory to be explored.
Caine is the perfect candidate to incorporate jazz and improvisation into the groundwork laid by composers like Alfred Schnittke; hopefully he will continue along this path, as his next effort will undoubtedly be stronger than this one.
Conversely, Caine hit a home run with his jazz set later that evening, which succeeded in all the ways that the Beethoven failed. The Philadelphia native came to the table with Thelonious Monk, Anthony Braxton, Wayne Shorter, Louis Armstrong, and Cecil Taylor in his back pocket. To boot, he was able to configure that material in ways that he could never do with the orchestra.
There are a lot of challenges in Uri Caine’s music, both for the listener and for Caine himself. Hopefully he will continue to confront these challenges and inspire audiences to struggle along with him.