The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute
The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.
The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.
Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.
The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.
“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.
It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.
Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.
The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.
Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.
What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.
The Kepler Quartet – violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Stignitz, violist Brek Renzelman and cellist Karl Lavine – first joined forces to play some of the most amazing, extraordinary music you probably have never heard: the string quartets of microtonal composer Ben Johnston. It’s full of some of the most otherworldly riffs and hooks you’ll ever hum to yourself. The now-nonagenarian American composer should be vastly better known than he is, someone who was decades ahead of his time when he wrote his first string quarter in 1959. Few other composers use microtones – the intervals between the notes in a particular scale – as tunefully, and memorably, and impactfully as Johnston. The work of Per Norgard comes to mind, but Johnston is even more adventurous. A better comparison would be a similarly cutting-edge composer in a completely different idiom, the extraordinary “post-chromodal” jazz saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh.
The ensemble have recently released a three-quartet album comprising Johnston’s Quartets Nos. 6-8, completing the group’s epic cycle of the composer’s ten quartets. The entire project is an astonishing achievement. It’s one thing for a string player to get the western scale into muscle memory on a particular instrument; those who play Middle Eastern or Asian music, or jazz, have the additional challenge of halftones and quartertones, and blue notes. Johnston’s music requires a vast spectrum of variations per pitch, and the quartet have mastered all of them – and the meticulousness of these recordings bears that out.
Not all of these pieces are strictly microtonal: Johnston’s earliest work here draws on the Second Viennese School, and the playful spaciousness of John Cage, but with more dense, disquieting close harmonies. He also has a thing for English folk themes and Gershwin, both influences you would hardly expect to hear in this context. Johnston’s music can be as ethereal as it is rhythmic and balletesque: jaunty waltzes juxtapose with airy, horizontal interludes. He has a penchant for labeling sections as “impetuous,” “nervous, diving” or “vigorous, defiant” and then making good on those themes. Another of his favorite tropes is to diverge very slowly and almost imperceptibly from traditional western harmony, as he does most vividly in String Quartet No. 9, building an atmosphere that becomes grotesque and sometimes downright macabre. The ensemble tackles all of this with expertise, and verve, and gusto: they are clearly having a ball with this stuff, especially when his sense of humor is going full force.
Each of the string quartets here is worth hearing: the two pieces de resistance here are No. 5, from 1979, and No.10, from 1995. The former slices and dices an allusive Scottish folk-tinged ballad theme. Pitches and their doppler doppelgangers go further and further outside, taking on the ambered quality of a brass section. Flurries of pizzicato alternate with calmer gestures that remind of Gershwin more than, say, Beethoven, up to an intense, menacing coda and then a very subtly twisted cello-fueled outro.
The latter is a real stunner, with an ending that’s just the opposite of all the foreshadowing Johnston goes through – it’s far too good to give away here. Otherwise, it’s packed with neat touches: hints of medieval folk tunings, a lustrously dirgey canon, latin-tinged counterpoint, a long, thorny tumble through thickets of pizzicato and an ending that quietly packs more of a wallop than the loudest, most horror-stricken segments here, of which there are many.
Of the quartets on the new album, No. 6 is the most enigmatic, most statically hypnotic and least dynamic – and hardest to pin down – of the lot. A circling, Reichian, hypnotic sense gives way to starkly swaying unease and then a final segment with some ominous narration: “Your way begins on the other side,” Johnston intones. No. 7 opens with a shivery menace, shifting to an extremely devious, dizzyingly waltzing, pizzicato palindrome, then a series of variations, Johnston’s tonalities expanding with characteristic delicacy and a matching, offcenter menace.
No. 8 moves from a twisted minuet to a woundedly steady, canonical march and a scherzo that hardly seems funny, with a hazily swaying conclusion that shifts with somberly cello-fueled counterpoint to an austere, still outro. Much of this can be found on New World Records’ album page.
The cycle also includes dynamic performances of String Quartet No. 1, in a Schoenbergian vein; the stark, sobering, angst-ridden No. 2, a quantum leap in Johnston’s work and otherwise, No. 9, which warps elements of folk, Stravinsky and the neo-baroque; the brief No. 3, balancing spacious horizontality and more jaunty melody; and the windswept, stunningly echoey, harrowingly challenging No. 4. It’s safe to say that its own elegant way, there won’t be anything this wild or individualistic released in 2016, quite possibly for the rest of this decade.
Per Norgard is iconic in his native Denmark, and deserves a global audience. The lucky crowd at Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue Friday night got to witness the Momenta Quartet turn in a purposefully flickering, often sepulchral, genuinely transcendent performance of string quartets, a suite of miniatures and a chilling violin/cello duet.
Norgard’s music is minimalist in the sense that everything counts for something, and that his melodies tend to be spare and follow a careful, meticulous path. But there’s a great deal going on, much of it rhythmic: constantly shifting meters, persistent wave motion and all sorts of oceanic and water imagery, unsurprising for someone from an archipelago nation. An unease on the brink of terror often lurks in the background, or in the distance. On the rare occasion that it takes centerstage – as in the coda of the duo suite Tjampuan, inspired by Balinese mysticism and waterways and performed with a hushed intensity by violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – the result can be spine-tingling, whichever way you want to imagine that.
There’s also a mathematical precision that sometimes brings to mind Steve Reich, but with vastly less playfulness and more foreboding. The awestruck terror of Messiaen’s most dramatic works also figures into the picture, if from a somewhat greater distance, as it did during the surreallistic time-warp of Norgard’s String Quartet No. 10. A contrast between calm if not exactly cheery harvest imagery, seemingly loaded with subtext, and a contemplation of time out of mind, it offered violist Stephanie Griffin a rare opportunity – at this concert at least – to vent, if only guardedly. There was no lack of cruel irony in how vexing such a concept can be to mere mortals, and Norgard seized on that.
His String Quartet No.3 – Three Miniatures, dating from 1959, juxtaposed brief, swinging, occasionally carnivalesque allusions with a dirge theme. Likewise, Playground, the suite of brief, flitting pieces, brought to mind a more mathematical, modernist take on Bartok’s Mikrokosmos etudes. The Quartet got to bring the most dynamism to the String Quartet No. 8- Night Descending Like Smoke, a World War I-themed piece based on a Norgard chamber opera, offering an offhandedly savage look at karmic payback to warmongers and their sympathizers. It’s characteristic of the relevance of Norgard’s repertoire, which really ought to be performed with this kind of meticulous attention far more often in this city.
One such performance to look forward to will be on July 29 at 8 PM when pianist Jacob Rhodebeck plays Norgard works at Mise-En Place, 678 Hart. St. in Bushwick. The other is by the Momenta Quartet June 23, with a delicious homemade vegetarian dinner at 6, show at 8 featuring Norgard’s String Quartet No. 3, Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi La Nuit and Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 135 on the fourth floor of 67 Metropolitan Ave. (Wythe/Kent) in Williamsburg. Sugg. don. is $20, BYOB, sharable food/drink are highly encouraged!
Saturday night at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the West Village, Cantori New York sang an often harrowing, riveting program of powerful, socially relevant US and New York premieres. Director Mark Shapiro conducted the ensemble with a spring-loaded intensity and a beaming sense of accomplishment, mirrored by the group smiling back at him. This ensemble is obviously having the time of their lives pushing the envelope.
In the same vein as Pablo Casals stumbling on the Bach Cello Suites in a junk shop, Shapiro had discovered the distinctive and often mesmerizing work of Italian composer Bruno Bettinelli while browsing randomly in a music store. Bettinelli’s work is virtually unknown in this country and almost as obscure elsewhere. When Shapiro contacted the composer’s onetime publisher in anticipation of conducting the American premiere of Bettinelli’s Three New Madrigals, they had no idea who he was: “Good luck with that,,” was the response, more or less.
Which is astonishing. Shapiro and Bettinelli would eventually become friends, and shortly before he died, the composer sent the conductor copies of his entire body of work. The triptych being debuted raised the question of how many other intricately and imaginatively arranged works might be kicking around in Shapiro’s vaults. The performance began with Parole in Cerchio (Words in the Round), a retelling of a simple six-word Petrarch poem, in this case beginning and ending with love. Raptly hymnal, replete with of echo effects and reshaped syllables, its tricky counterpart balanced by a wave motion of sorts, it was a showcase for the group’s rhythmic cohesion.
By contrast, Lo Struzzo (The Ostrich), a jovial and ultimately triumphant piece, had a sea chantey-type exuberance that stopped short of buffoonery, with some unanticipatedly eerie chromatics that the group marched up and down the scale about midway through. Shapiro described the final work, Convien Al Secol Nostro (Being Part of Our Century) as a lament for a troubled era, a vividly distant medieval mirror for our own. Building tension with striking contrasts between bass voices and high sopranos, it was awash in uneasy close harmonies and a maze of counterrythms. And no easy answers.
Another US premiere, Latvian composer Maija Einfelde‘s At the Edge of the Earth traced the Prometheus saga in twelve dynamic segments. Looking about as comfortable with the Latvian text as any group of Americans could be, the ensemble made their way methodically through minimalistically pulsing, tightly wound harmonies, jarring melodic adjacencies and a very subtle and intricate game of telephone where notes would be handed off from voice to voice. They took all this through an unexpectedly lilting folk song, a dirgey Slavic work song of sorts and finally a decidedly unresolved ending. The abyss, for this particular Prometheus, is a deep and frigid place.
The program reached a peak with the New York premire of Frank Ferko‘s La Remontee Des Cendres (Rising from the Ashes), utilizing chillingly graphic, tormented, anguished segments from Tahar Ben Jalloun‘s First Gulf War-era epic poem. Told from the point of view of several Iraqi war survivors and victims, it has a shattering eloquence. An eight-piece brass-and-string ensemble anchored by Frank Cassara’s almost subsonic, distantly thunderous bass drum and Kris Saebo’s ominous downtuned bass carried Ferko’s terse, cruelly fatalistic foreshadowing in between the choir’s somber passages. A muted sense of horror was everywhere, in the same vein as Shostakovich’s most harrowing works (String Quartet No. 8 comes to mind). Countertenor Siman Chung and soprano Halley Gilbert added knifes-edge intensity on the high end, up to a couple of horror-stricken, explosive crescendos, a hint at something approximating a peaceful ending, a jaggedly leaping march and eventually a decay into defeated atmospherics whose effect lingered long past a series of standing ovations. Like the Bettinelli piece, it’s a shock that this hasn’t been performed here before.
Cantori New York’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 14 at St. Luke in the Fields featuring Dame Ethel Smith’s rarely performed 1930 cult favorite cantata The Prison. And on March 16,at 7 PM under the direction of conductor K. Scott Warren, the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola join with soprano Tami Petty for Ferko’s intense Stabat Mater for unaccompanied mixed chorus and soprano solo; plus harpist Victoria Drake joins the choir for the New York premiere of William Culverhouse’s Requiem, at St. Ignatius Church, Park Ave. and 84th St.; cover is $25.
For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.
Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.
Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.
Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.
One of Minnesota-based all-male choir Cantus‘ signature traits is theme programs. As one concertgoer put it, they can get a lot wilder than they were Sunday at Lincoln Center. Then again, this program was part of the spiritually-themed White Light Festival, continuing here through November 11. There are plenty of groups who mine the standard Renaissance repertoire, some who specialize in rediscovering treasures from that era, but Cantus are just as likely to juxtapose the ancient with the most current and make it all flow together seamlessly, and in that respect this was a characteristic performance.
They began with a precise, pulsing, even bouncy take of a twelfth century Perotinus piece, then a more traditional, somberly contemplative one by Josquin Des Prez. With its intricately echoing counterpoint, Randall Tompson’s 1940 Alleluia made a good segue, especially when the group hit an unexpectedly celebratory peak right before the end. In a way, it brought the early part of the concert full circle.
Jumping ahead sixty years to a lush, ambered take of Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled Lux Aurumque, they followed that with a bucolic 1942 nocturne by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven. Negotiating the tricky metrics, sudden dynamic shifts and otherworldly close harmonies of a diptych by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was no easy task, but the group made it look almost easy. In a choir, the individuals on the low and the top end always end up standing out, and this group was no exception, basses Chris Foss and Samuel Green paired against tenors Paul John Rudoi, Shahzore Shah, Aaron Humble and Blake Morgan. But the midrange benefited especially from the efforts of tenor Zachary Colby and baritone Matthew Goinz; Matthew Tintes, in particular, showed off an unexpectedly far-reaching range for a baritone.
From there they moved through brief works celebrating the comfort of home, or home country, via works by Sibelius, Dvorak, Janacek and Kodaly – the latter being the Hungarian national song, more or less, awash in a warmly consonant harmony that hardly seemed possible, from someone with such a thorny repertoire. It was music to get lost in. The group closed on a much more acerbic note, maybe as to draw the crowd out of their dream state, with a 2006 diptych by Edie Hill and encored by going deep into the 19th century hymnal. Cantus’ current tour continues onward: the next stop along the way is November 13 at 7 PM at Central Christian Center, 5th & Virginia in Joplin, Missouri.
It took a lot of nerve for the Jewish Museum to stage their first collaboration with the Bang on a Can folks. That the Bang on a Can folks – New York’s most entrenched avant garde franchise – could deliver a program that required as much nerve to sit through as this one did testifies to their ongoing vitality. The bill last night – designed to dovetail with the Museum’s current minimalist-themed sculpture exhibits – was as electrifying as it was exasperating.
Both of those qualities were intentional, and in tune with the compositions on the program. The duo of guitarists James Moore and Taylor Levine, from the reliably exciting Dither guitar quartet, opened with David Lang’s Warmth [dude: get to know Title Case lest you someday wind up in the E.E. Cummings category], a series of subtly interwoven circular riffs which Moore attributed to Lang as being “really sad stadium rock, two guitars doing their best to play together and failing miserably.” As a subtle parody of dramatic gestures, it made a point, even if that point could have been made in somewhat less time than it took.
They followed with a selection of early John Zorn extended-technique guitar etudes that were more challenging to hear than they were to play. Those dated from the late 70s, in the days when Zorn might have been found blowing bubbles through his alto sax into a bucket of water in the basement of King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut (now Niagara Bar on Avenue A; you can google it). By contrast, Michael Gordon’s City Walk, the lone instrumental piece from an opera the Bang on a Can triumvirate (Gordon, Lang and Julia Wolfe) did back in the 90s with iconic New York cartoonist Ben Katchor, worked a tirelessly counterrhythmic, counterintuitive, minimalistic pulse, the guitarists joined by Bang on a Can Allstars‘ David Cossin on percussion (was that a car muffler, and then vibraphone?) and Vicky Chow on piano.
Moore switched to bass, but played it through a more trebly Fender DeVille guitar amp, for a take of Philip Glass’ even more hypnotic, subtly shapeshifting Music in Fifths, true to Cossin’s description as being “quite epic and really fun to do.” They wound up the show with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, a defiantly hammering 1975 piece that a larger Bang on a Can contingent had performed a couple of weeks previously at this year’s Marathon at the World Financial Center. That performance left any kind of resolution open: would the drilling, industrialist rhythm, absent harmony or melody, be triumphant, or a failed revolution? The answer wasn’t clear. Stripping it down to just bass, guitar, percussion and Chow’s electric piano – a cruelly difficult arrangement that she often wound up playing on the sides of her hands, chopping her way up the scale – they circled and circled and finally found what looked like a victory. The audience – a surprisingly diverse demographic – gave them the win. The next Bang on a Can event here is on November 6 featuring iconic progressive jazz composer and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.
This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. Yesterday’s 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.
The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.
Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.
Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.
Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices, incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.
Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful, wordless jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.
Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius Eastman. Jace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.
These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.
After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?
Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.
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.