The John Cage Centennial Festival in Washington, which has its final performances and events Monday, has been a fine example of an all-too-rare endeavor: classical music’s answer to the blockbuster museum show. Its approach has been high-church. To Do Homage to a Great Man, in the time-honored manner of classical music concerts everywhere, is not always appropriate to work that is antithetical to any whisper of rote. But this is a quibble in the face of the range of concerts, the caliber of performers, the collaboration between Washington’s leading institutions and the overview of the composer that the festival has given to a notably large and notably enthusiastic public.
The concerts were, literally and figuratively, all over the map. On Friday, American University’s Katzen Center hosted a six-hour series of percussion events in its auditorium and in the museum where AU has mounted a wonderful Cage show. Against the backdrop of Cage’s watercolors and performances of the dance work “Steps” (prints of bare feet on paper or fabric evoking the shapes of past live events), the performers, stationed around the gallery and playing “instruments” — large seed pods, conch shells filled with water — that looked like art objects themselves, allowed the audience direct interaction with the unexpected sounds they were making.
The 1985 work whose three-line title begins “But what about the noise of crumpling paper . . .” succeeded particularly well in breaking down the line between musicians and hearers. Instead of watching a performance, everyone was participating in an event, wandering through the galleries where the performers stood isolated, making their own sounds, answered from another room by a thwack of drum or a snatch of human song.
The meat of the evening, however, consisted of a more structured performance of Cage’s early percussion works, written before the artist had begun experimenting with chance and indeterminacy. Cage’s eye for detail began early; the intricate notational innovations of his later works have precedence in the specificity of “Amores” or the marvelous “Third Construction” (both from 1941), which require a huge but specifically defined range of percussive sounds.
The marquee performers were the Percussion Group Cincinnati, longtime Cage collaborators, joined by the younger and perhaps even more virtuosic group red fish blue fish, founded and led by Steven Schick. Festivals allow great overlaps: On Friday, the Percussion Group Cincinnati performed a movement from “Living Room Music” watched by members of red fish blue fish, who had performed the group at the National Gallery concert on Wednesday. The older group’s reading was more soft-edged, subtle and humorous; the younger group’s insistent, compelling and irresistible.
The dialogues between concerts continued Saturday night, when the veteran Cage performer Margaret Leng Tan performed “Four Walls,” an hour-and-a-half-long work written in 1944 for solo piano and choreography, three days after Irvine Arditti performed another work of about the same length, the “Freeman Etudes,” at the Phillips. Where the Freeman Etudes are the result of intricate processes of chance, detailed to the point of persnicketiness, and written without expressive intent, “Four Walls” is melodically straightforward and repetitive, and it offers a kind of proto-Minimalist take on blunt emotion. This makes it at once easier to get a handle on and in a way more challenging to sit through: One point of commonality with the Freeman Etudes is that both test the limits of endurance.
It got a radiant performance from Tan, an ideal Cage performer who plays with a combination of seriousness and lightness: Every note is resoundingly present, but without pretension. What Tan communicated, both here and in the exquisite “Music for Piano #2” that concluded the evening, was genuine affection, and she finished with an anomalous encore by Milos Raickovich, “Waiting for Cage,” that worked in phrases of the song “Happy Birthday to You,” a contemporary take on cocktail piano music. It was a wonderfully Cagean ending: antic, unexpected, quirky and sounding nothing at all like Cage.
My only sadness about this intense, week-long blast of Cage is that I fear that in this city of museums, this work continues to resonate more with the contemporary art audience, for whom the composer’s language is eminently familiar, than with some music-lovers — those, at least, who have written to express their indignation that so many of us are being taken in by this charlatan. I’m sorry for them: This work may not be your cup of tea, but this festival only reaffirmed how important it is to today’s cultural landscape.