Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

High Energy and World Premieres from the American Composers Orchestra

American Composers Orchestra honcho Michael Geller has gone on record as saying that producing good concerts isn’t the organization’s main focus: they’re more of a vehicle for new composers to develop fungible, orchestra-ready repertoire. That’s a hefty agenda, but along the way the ACO manages to put out albums and play concerts that are often spectacularly entertaining, not just because of the diversity of the composers whose work they thrash into shape. Carnegie Hall last night was a launching pad for some of that: two world premieres, an American premiere and a familiar crowd-pleaser from an earlier era conducted robustly by guest Jose Serebrier.

Narong Prangcharoen’s The Migration of Lost Souls, inspired by the temple bell music of his native Thailand opened the show dramatically and intensely, essentially a suspenseful, serialistic tone poem punctuated by breathless, often terrorized bursts of agitation. Sepulchral washes of airy strings built to bustling, rapidfire cascades, often utilizing the entire orchestra but also making vivid use of the xylophone to mimic the lickety-split phrasing of northern Thai mor lan music. The carnival of souls finally found peace at the end in the gamelan-like resonance of bells and a boomy bass gong.

Milica Paranosic’s The Tiger’s Wife: Prologue, utilizing texts from the popular Tea Obreht novel, went for similar dramatics with mixed results. It’s a powerful and vivid piece of music, a diptych of sorts, beginning with a tense, niftily orchestrated, suspensefully rhythmic tone poem and ending with a blazing, gypsy-tinged overture. Unfortunately, an inspired performance by the orchestra threatened to be subsumed in a deluge of bells and whistles. Singer Lori Cotler delivered the lyrics with an aptly biting edge, but a lot of that got lost in a tumble of south Indian takadimi drum language. It’s a device she employs with spectacular dexterity and not a little wit in a radically different context, as part of the playful Takadimi Duo. But all the diggity-doo was as out of place here as rosewater on a burek – or in more prosaic terms, like ketchup on ice cream. There were also electronics, which added nothing: Cotler’s vocals were strong, and the orchestra was going full force. Meanwhile, a high-definition vacation video of sorts played on a screen overhead and proved far less interesting than the orchestra. Was this an attempt to connect with a youtube generation that ostensibly can’t relate to anything without visuals? In terms the youtube generation knows well: epic fail.

Some of Charles Ives’ work was paradigm-shifting; his Symphony No. 3 wasn’t. But this performance was hardly boring, the orchestra taking a briskly energetic, sometimes even romping journey through its often folksy “Camp Meeting” cinematics. The boisterous, rhythmic energy wound up with the American premiere of the conductor’s Flute Concerto with Tango. Its tango rhythm is syncopated bracingly in the beginning – it’s missing the heavy, defining third beat – so a recognizable tango per se doesn’t appear until the concluding movement. Along the way, flutist Sharon Bezaly negotiated thicket after thicket of knotty, lickety-split rivulets and a long, taqsim-like, mostly solo interlude on alto flute, all the way through to a dancing coda.

Not only do the ACO premiere their composers’ works, they also workshop them live, which can be a treat to witness for serious listeners and students of the style. The next one is at Mannes College Auditorium on the upper west side on Nov 13 at 2 PM.

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October 27, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Transcendent Song Cycles by Phil Kline at BAM

Thursday night at BAM’s Next Wave Festival was one of those magical evenings that sends you spilling out into the street afterward, every synapse invigorated, glad to be alive. It was the world premiere of Phil Kline’s lush new arrangement of his iconic Zippo Songs, plus an intoxicatingly enveloping new cycle, Out Cold, played and sung luminously by ACME with crooner Theo Bleckmann at the absolute top of his evocative game. The new Fisher Space black-box theatre was either sold out or close to it. The final performance is tonight, and it isn’t sold out as of this writing (early affernoon). If transcendence is what you’re looking for, get over to BAM by 7 or so. The show starts at 7:30; the space is not on Lafayette Avenue but on that short street that runs perpendicular to it up to the Atlantic Avenue mall.

The program began with three Rumsfeld Songs, three quotes from “the comic evil spirit, if there ever was one,” to quote Kline’s program notes. The dark levity started with the famous pseudo-ontological one about “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” set to a deadpan, mechanically circular tune that gave Bleckmann a platform for just a tinge of Teutonic grandiosity, making for cruelly delicious satire. The second song was a march, the third more restrained, leaving the Iraq war villain’s long-winded, disingenuous disavowal of mass murder to linger. They made a good setup for the Zippo Songs, Kline’s musical setting of aphorisms and poems inscribed on cigarette lighters by American combatants during the Vietnam War.

These songs hadn’t been staged in New York in eight years. The sparseness of the originals played up the cruel irony, bitterness and sheer horror of the soldiers’ words; the new arrangements turned out to be far more rich and sweeping than expected, yet without subsuming any of the lyrical content. The genius of Kline’s craft is simplicity: like his great influence Charles Ives, he pushes the envelope, but he knows a catchy motif when he hears it. Hide a hook in a haystack, turn Kline loose, and he will find it. Which is why the new charts worked as well as they did; ironically, the richer the orchestration, the more memorable the melodies became. Pianist Timothy Andres and vibraphonist Chris Thompson got the choicest intervals, as Kline’s tensely straightforward, gleaming phrases reached the top of their arcs, over pillowy, sustained, shifting sheets held aloft by violinists Caleb Burhans, Ben Russell and Keats Dieffenbach, yMusic violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, oboeist Michelle Farah, bassist Logan Coale and flutist Alex Sopp. As with the original versions, the music does not disavow the darkness of the lyrics, instead providing a distantly apprehensive backdrop.

The airiest of these, appropriately enough, was the first one, voicing the soldiers whose goal it was to stay high all the time. The most haunting was the warily pulsing fourth in the series: “If I had a farm in Vietnam and a home in hell, I’d sell my farm and go home,” Bleckmann intoned. The most pensive, atmospheric segment was the most disillusioned: “We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” Emma Griffin’s stage direction had Bleckmann nonchalantly changing costumes and assuming roles to go with them: somehow he was able to hold a perfectly unmodulated, resonant legato through a quick series of pushups and situps that would have had most people panting.

The trippy bossa beat of that song foreshadowed what was to come with Out Cold. Taking his cue from Schubert’s Kafka-esque Winterreise suite as well as the ethereal 1950s “suicide song” collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, Kline brought the broodingly hypnotic lushness up several notches and so did the ensemble and singer. Beginning with a low, raspy wash of strings and throat-singing and ending on a wistful, aptly elegaic note, these were torch songs for a new generation, blending the best of several previous decades’ worth. The bossa nova pulse returned memorably a couple of times, fueled by suspenseful woodblock, vibes and piano; the suite reached a high-point, volumewise with its most rocking number, Million Dollar Bill, noir Orbison chamber pop taken to understated heights of angst, tinkly David Lynch piano contrasting with the blue velvet wash underneath.

Bleckmann shuffled between tables in a darkened bar – One for My Baby in 3D – drinking from random half-empty glassses in A Final Toast, its insistent low strings reminding of Julia Wolfe in a particular intense mood. Where’s the Rest of Me, a creepily dreamy waltz, was followed by the slightly vaudevillian The Season Is Over, which grew dark fast and made a potent segue with To the Night, its noir lustre punctuated by uneasy close harmonies from the ensemble. In its own elegant way, the suite is as evocative a portrayal of loneliness and alienation as Joy Division. Kline has been writing eclectic, relevant music since the 80s; once again, he’s embraced a new genre and made it indelibly his own.

October 27, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment