Terry Riley at Federal Hall: Avant Garde Icon at the Top of His Game
Staging Friday night’s Terry Riley concert in the round at Federal Hall on Wall Street was a brilliant idea, making full use of the space’s majestically enveloping natural reverb. An eclectic program featuring choral, guitar, chamber and piano works drew equally on the minimalism that Riley is best known for along with elements of the baroque, jazz, blues and plenty of lively improvisation. As a portrait of where the composer is right now and where he’s been, it made a strong case for the argument that Riley might be the most influential composer associated with the avant garde, ever.
A string quartet including violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Jenny Choi, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the peripatetic Ljova Zhurbin on viola joined with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City for the lush swells and ebbs of Riley’s new work Another Secret eQuation, making their way methodically from jaunty, lighthearted swoops to a close harmony-fueled lushness that was considerably more pensive. Riley’s son Gyan followed with a solo classical guitar piece, shifting from fragmented baroque motives to a bit of a fugue, then teaming with electric violinist Tracy Silverman for a canon of sorts that cleverly cached microtones in the violin melody.
Riley’s own work at the piano, predictably, drew the most applause of the night. Riding the pedal, he slowly and measuredly built elegant permutations on simple, three or four-note phrases that morphed, sometimes completely unexpectedly, from Philip Glass-like circularity to passages steeped in the blues, gospel, a couple of graceful swing jazz interludes and some glimmering neoromantic balladry. His son and then Silverman joined him, trading bars and riffs with a steely grin. Riley’s music is so exacting and so economical that it’s a tight fit: only a similar precision will do, but the junior players onstage were up to the old lion’s challenge.
John Zorn joined the festivities for the evening’s most adrenalizing and thematically varied number, adding his signature noir resonance on alto sax before pushing the music toward hard bop as Riley anchored it with a stately lefthand. The pianist wound up the night with what appeared to be a mostly improvised piece, imbuing it with an apt wee hours feel, moving nonchalantly from a contemplative bluesiness to something of a jazz ballad where for the second time he threw in a brief quote from In C, his legendary 1964 composition that inspired seemingly every keyboard-driven European art-rock band from the 70s. Stylistic puddlejumping has seldom seemed so effortless or natural; then again, Riley has been doing this for a long time.