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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 29, 1999. All rights reserved.

George Antheil’s Fresh Air

Born in Trenton in 1900, composer George Antheil’s

star was always a fickle one. That composer Carlton Wilkinson and

conductor and percussion specialist Daniel Spalding both find


living in Trenton today, in the twilight of the 20th century, is


a boon for the city’s long-neglected native son. The notorious


Boy" of early 20th-century music has never had it so good in his

home town.

The combined resources and enthusiasm of the pair — and their

friends, colleagues, and family — will yield another George


Festival, the biggest and most ambitious to date, presented by Trenton

Avant Garde. The concert takes place in the scintillating silver


of Trenton’s War Memorial — a 1929 Art Deco confection where


would doubtless feel right at home — on Sunday, October 3, at

7:30 p.m.

The name is pronounced ANN-tile, and the program, performed by the

Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, directed by Spalding, aims

to offer an overview of the neglected Trenton prodigy’s work.


the program is Antheil’s rarely performed "Ballet Mecanique,"

together with his "Symphony for Five Instruments" (1923),

"Serenade for Strings" (1948), and "Concerto for Chamber

Orchestra" (1932).

"I don’t know why I do this. But I do do it," says Wilkinson,

a founder of Trenton Avant Garde who has been presenting George


birthday concerts almost annually since 1993. "There’s just


about being a composer in Trenton — being one of one, it seemed

for years. Finding out that there was this composer before me who

wrestled with same issues — about how to make music, how to become

known — was important. And he made some wonderful mistakes."

Spalding moved to his home in West Trenton in the late 1980s to take

the directorship of the Trenton State College orchestra, a post he

held for five years. In 1991 he founded the Philadelphia Virtuosi,

a chamber string orchestra named for the urbane regional music center.

He is married to Gabriela Imreh, a Rumanian-born concert pianist.

Spalding’s first encounter with the music of Antheil

took place years back and was a bit like love at first sight. "I

found a recording when I was still in college," says Spalding,

who majored in percussion at Northwestern, Class of 1974. "I read

on the jacket that it was scored for percussion. It intrigued me right

away that there was this enormous percussion ensemble, and that the

piece was written so early in the century. This was a pioneering


Antheil composed "Ballet Mecanique" while he was living in

Paris, a brash young prodigy who had already dropped out of the


touring circuit. It was written to accompany artist Ferdinand Leger’s

experimental film of the same name; but the two were never


and performed together. Scored for percussion orchestra, the work

called for sirens, airplane propellers, a ringing telephone, and


pianos used for percussive effect.

"`Ballet Mecanique’ was considered among the most revolutionary

music of the day, alongside that of Varese and Stravinsky," says

Wilkinson. "With its emphasis on collage form, stark mechanical

rhythms, and relentless violence, it has remained influential,


young composers of each new generation with its wild creativity and

its fresh approach to structural issues."

Antheil’s first version, composed in 1924, employed four player


It was only performed once before being almost immediately revised

by Antheil for a combination of instruments that included 16 pianolas,

drums, xylophones, a tam-tam, electric bells, and three airplane


of varying sizes. This version has never been performed. A third


was created in 1926, was orchestrated for 10 pianos, as well as


electric bells, airplane propellers, a siren, and a lone pianola.

This was the version performed in Paris and in New York’s Carnegie

Hall in 1927.

In 1953, after establishing himself in Hollywood as a composer for

movies, Antheil revised his "Ballet Mecanique" once again

for four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellers,

timpani, glockenspiel, and assorted percussion instruments. This will

be the version performed by Spalding and the Philadelphia Virtuosi

Chamber Orchestra.

The obvious question for Spalding, and one that he is well-prepared

to answer, is how does a propeller sound?

"Here are the instructions right from Antheil," he says.


airplane propellers are not actual ones, only the sound of


Antheil offers instructions for two solutions, the first, a tape

loop soundtrack. The second solution: two motors or electric fans

are set upon a board, and leather pieces are attached to blades. A

board in inserted as the fans turn, producing the sound of high and

low airplane engines. The idea was to invoke thoroughly modern


travel; the noise, the ubiquitous 20th-century turbine engine.

At the 1927 Carnegie Hall performance of "Ballet

Mecanique," in which Spalding notes Aaron Copland was one of

the pianists, propeller fans were brought out for dramatic effect,

but blew all over the audience, furthering angering the hall full

of disgruntled listeners. Condemned by New York critics and his public

as a charlatan, Antheil emerged from his Carnegie debut with his


in a shambles.

Spalding’s Philadelphia Virtuosi is comprised primarily of strings,

with wind players added according to the demands of repertory.


of the key elements is that we don’t want to specialize in any


music," says Spalding. "This would be too inhibiting, and

not interesting enough." The group’s repertoire and recordings

include Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and the baroque.

"In terms of repertory, this is the most ambitious instrumentation

we’ve ever done," Spalding says, adding that the performance will

feature 11 percussionists, four pianists, a wind octet, and string

orchestra. The ensemble, which has released two CDs, will record a

CD of Antheil works at the War Memorial during the week following

the concert, to be released next year on the Naxos label.

Spalding says that by delving into Antheil’s biography and


and listening to as much as his music as possible, "a few things

stand out for me. When he was young, he was bursting with creative

energy. but I think he has a touch of arrogance about him too. He

felt from the beginning that he was destined to become one of


great composers, and a leader of the avant garde. But he just never

seemed to recover from the Carnegie Hall concert, and the American

musical establishment never seemed to take him seriously again."

Born in a house on Second Street in Trenton in 1900, Antheil’s father

owned a shoe store. A music prodigy, he studied composition with


Bloch. Following a successful European concert tour in 1920, he left

the concert-pianist circuit and moved into an apartment above Sylvia

Beach’s bookstore in Paris where his friends included James Joyce,

Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Man Ray.

Antheil had a prodigious and diverse musical talent. He wrote over

300 compositions, including symphonies, chamber works, film music,

and operas. Over the years, his musical style underwent a


becoming more conservative.

Antheil’s 1927 Carnegie Hall concert that included the American


of "Ballet Mecanique" effectively destroyed his reputation

among American critics. He returned to Europe, working successfully

in Berlin in a style that progressed from modernism to neo-classicism,

until the advent of the war years.

Antheil composed six symphonies, the first of which was performed

by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1922. He also composed five ballets,

including "Capital of the World" for Martha Graham.

In 1936 he moved to California where he found steady work composing

movie scores that included "The Plainsman" by Cecil B. De

Mille, and John Huston’s "In a Lonely Place." Opera was a

significant component of Antheil’s output. These include


a big success at its 1930 Frankfurt debut, "Volpone" (1953),

and "The Wish" (1955).

"`Ballet mecanique’ is the most forward-looking composition that

he ever wrote and his most famous one," says Spalding. "From

that moment on, he became more and more conservative in his writing.

But he always had this flair for making each piece special."

— Nicole Plett

George Antheil Festival, Trenton Avant Garde, War

Memorial Ballroom, Trenton, 609-984-8400. The Philadelphia Virtuosi

Chamber Orchestra, directed by Daniel Spalding, performs Antheil’s

"Ballet Mecanique" and other works. $10 to $25. Sunday,

October 3, 7:30 p.m.

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