Grand Band’s Simeon Ten Holt Tribute Is a Big Hit
Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt died this past November, leaving an avid cult following and a career that was sadly still going pretty much full steam. His vibrant and utterly original body of work came to wholeheartedly embrace improvisation, grappled with the 12-tone system and ultimately rejected it in favor of a blend of minimalism and good oldfashioned tunesmithing. For a prominent member of the late 20th century avant garde, ten Holt could be mighty catchy. Last night at the Poisson Rouge, all-star six-piano ensemble Grand Band paid homage to this maverick with a lushly starlit, seamlessly rippling performance of ten Holt’s best-known work, Canto Ostinato. This epic has echoes of the subtly shifting loops of Philip Glass and the insistent, bell-like tones of Louis Andriessen but also an unexpectedly comfortable, transparent neoromanticism a la Gabriel Faure.
As bandleader David Friend took care to mention before the roughly hourlong performance, ten Holt wrote the work for keyboards, not specifically for the piano. If somehow it had been possible to maneuver six grand pianos (as the ensemble played this past summer at Bang on a Can) into the downstairs space, the impressively big crowd who’d come out to see this terse yet lavish masterpiece would have had a hard time squeezing themselves in. Like many of Glass’ early works, this piece allows for variously sized ensembles and leaves the duration and positioning of a minutely intricate series of interludes up to the individual players. Although dreamy, hypnotically twinkling passages recurred again and again throughout the performance, they were always cut off before they could become tiresome.
There was a great deal of interplay involved, lots of friendly nods and “take it away”‘ moments between Friend and Vicky Chow, Paul Kerekes, Blair McMillen, Lisa Moore and Isabelle O’Connell. Moore kicked it off with a mechanical, loopy phrase that must have been murder to play precisely after about a minute, and ended it on a surprise note. While there were dynamic swells and ebbs, for the most part the work took on a nocturnal atmosphere: moments where the entire crew was playing were far outnumbered by passages carried by three or four of the fullsize electric pianos the group chose to employ for this particular concert.
Casually and methodically, the piece grew more elaborate, moving from a basis of two-chord, then three- and four-chord vamps and then finally a fullscale overture that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Robert Schumann songbook (having heard Evelyn Ulex play Schumann the previous night might have colored that observation). Eerie close harmonies (ten Holt LOVED tritones) encroached, serrated the melody and then receded. Witty ragtime allusions (like the lick that Elton John worked to death in Honky Cat) and variations on a repetitive motif that reminded of All Along the Watchtower entered and then departed. As the piece wound its way out, the individual players’ precision and perfect, Bach-like tempo never wavered. A performance this good deserves an encore: let’s hope this fascinating and unique band gets the chance to stage it again.
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