Gorgeous, Dark Minimalism for Strings, and Free Beer
Last night at the first of the Miller Theatre’s relatively impromptu “pop-up concerts” on this season’s calendar, a program titled Minimalism’s Evolution, Ensemble Signal violinist Courtney Orlando and cellist Lauren Radnofsky played what was essentially karaoke. Much as it’s always more entertaining when all the music at a concert is live, considering how fantastic this particular bill was, the substitution of a laptop for a full ensemble was easy to overlook. Playing to any kind of backing track, whether a fullscale recording or just a simple click, can be maddeningly difficult to do with any degree of soul if the pulse of the music is as mechanically hypnotic as it was throughout much of this set. But both musicians were seamless to the point where it was occasionally difficult to figure out what was actually being played and what was already in the can.
The show opened on an auspiciously apprehensive note with Michael Gordon’s Light is Calling, from 2001, with its uneasy push-pull of creepy bell-like electronics and pensive cello melody. Radnofsky carried it with an airy sostenuto ornamented with judicious applications of vibrato, holding steady and terse as the reverbtoned keyb loop gained presence, the cello finally breaking free in a gently triumphant crescendo.
The duo then joined forces for a series of vignettes from Philip Glass’ In the Summer House, the disarmingly simple, haunting suite that launched a thousand suspense movie soundtracks. What is in this summer house, anyway? A guy with an axe lurking just around the corner, it would seem: through trancey loops of minor arpeggios, neoromantic angst hitched to Bach rhythm and circularity, it was a stalker movie for the ears, the two string players alternating an austere contrast with snakily intertwining harmonies and subtle polyrhythms.
Much of the crowd had come out to hear the US premiere of Donnacha Dennehy’s Overstrung, an enveloping, echoey 2010 work for violin and electronics that looped Orlando’s phrases and spun them back into the mix for extra hypnotic effect. She then played a series from Louis Andriessen’s Xenia, a 2005 work for solo violin, whose bracing tonalities grew grittier as the piece went along, the sound engineer slowly adding distortion to the mix until it was almost as if Orlando was wailing on an electric guitar. Radnofsky closed the show on much the same note as she started with Gordon’s only slightly less distantly menacing 1992 tone poem Industry.
The concept of having the audience right up there onstage with the musicians is terrifically successful: the intimacy level was high without being uncomfortable. One question persists, though: was the Columbia community aware that there was free beer and wine at this concert? Is Columbia one of the schools that still has fraternities? Ordinarily, on a college campus, wherever there’s free alcohol, there are usually hundreds and hundreds of people! Next time around, four simple words will be more than enough: free beer, Miller Theatre.
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