Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Thrills and Chills From Major Contemporary Composers at the Miller Theatre

If you could see the world premiere of a major new John Zorn suite for free, would you make the shlep up to 116th St.? A whole lot of people did that last week to watch pianist Steven Gosling navigate the thorny harmonies, Messiaenic poignancy and vast dynamic expanse of the composer’s 18 Studies from the Later Sketchbooks of JMW Turner.

For obvious reasons, Turner’s sketches aren’t exhibited frequently since they rarely if ever hint at the epic proportions of his oil paintings. Zorn’s suite matched the raw, translucent essence of those works while occasionally reaching for epic grandeur as well. There were innumerable moments where it gave Gosling a real workout, yet its central themes were strikingly straightforward:.

An enigmatically clustering lefthand motif and variations, plaintive belltones that strongly evoked Messiaen and Mompou, and grittily intricate caterpillar-tractor interweave contrasted with moments of pure freakout. It wasn’t clear whether that was simply Gosling blooping and blipping on his own, or whether Zorn had actually bothered to write all that down.

Considering how rigorous and sometimes abrasive Zorn’s work is, he doesn’t get enough credit for his sense of humor, and this piece had some devastatingly funny moments. The first was a simple, repetitive chord with a descending and then rising bass, a cliche that’s been used ad nauseum over the years by singer-songwriters and emos. Zorn employed it as a stepping-off point for some increasingly sardonic riffage. The second was a surreal, hammering, chattering series of close harmonies, a crowd of twistoids who wouldn’t shut up and grew increasingly sinister.

Those moments weren’t even the most difficult ones. Gosling faced the greatest challenges of the evening with Zorn’s long sequence of righthand suspended chords where the inner notes shifted around like a three-card monte dealer on meth, and managed to pull them off with stunningly clear articulation. The incessant stylistic shifts, between quasi Second Viennese School acidity, moodily opaque minimalism and crazed, hyperactive kitten-on-the-keys moments weren’t easy to shift between either, but Gosling made it all seem contiguous, no easy feat.

The Miller Theatre has long been one of Manhattan’s focal points for some of the most interesting and invigorating developments in new music. Director Melissa Smey, who described herself this particular night as the “president of the John Zorn fan club,” was hip to both Missy Mazzoli and Anna Thorvaldsdottir before they were all the rage, but she also brings in plenty of longstanding pillars of the avant garde for her ongoing “composer portrait” series. The next one, on Sept 25 at 8 PM features Anthony Braxton music played by the Jack Quartet and indie classical chamber group Either/Or. You can get in for $20, at least as of today.

September 20, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Halloween Thrills and Chills from the American Modern Ensemble

At Merkin Concert Hall Thursday night, American Modern Ensemble director and virtuoso percussionist Robert Paterson explained to the sold-out crowd that the show had been eight years in the making. And he made it worth everyone’s while. It might or might not have been a rather brazen attempt to upstage works by George Crumb and David Del Tredici with a trio of his own compositions, but that was the ultimate result. Whatever the intention, it made for a great night of music.

The ensemble began as a sextet and by the time they hit the intermission, they’d grown to a nineteen-piece chamber orchestra, heavy on the percussion as you would expect from a composer like Paterson. He’s one of the most cinematic around: it’s a shock that his work hasn’t appeared in more films than it has. He credited both other composers on the bill as being major influences, and while there were echoes of Crumb’s flitting, ghostly motives as well as Del Tredici’s edgy, carnivalesque tunefulness throughout these works, there was as much ghoulish narrative, comparable with Bernard Herrmann – or Danny Elfman on steroids. Which made sense, this being a Halloween show.

The first number, Hell’s Kitchen, included everything AND a kitchen sink (ripped from its frame and hanging over the marimba). Methodically and with not a little gleeful intensity, the group made their way through a chuffing steam-train theme, a lively chase scene and horror-stricken tritones punctuated by brief moments of relatively less unease. Paterson’s second work, Closet Full of Demons, was more of a longform horror theme and variations, veering between cartoonish drollery and moments of sheer terrror. The concluding work, Ghost Theater took the wry ghoul-humor to a logical conclusion, sort of a 21st century update on Raymond Scott.

Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (from his Makrokosmos IIII suite) had a creepy aspect, and a nocturnal one, but also a big, agitated twin-piano cadenza from Blair McMillen and Stephen Gosling early on, not to mention plenty of anticipated autoharp-like figures emanating from inside the piano as the two went under their respective lids to brush the strings. The two percussionists, Paterson and Matt Ward, really got a workout, shifting in a split second between many, many objects, building vivid contrasts between murk and momentary, marionettish motives. As the piece went on, there were persistent references to dreamy Asian-tinged folk themes – and also occasionally maddeningly weird, awkward, seemingly random vocal shouts and mumbles that under different circumstances might have cleared the room. A work with so many other interesting things going on deserves to have those parts discreetly omitted.

Del Tredici’s Dracula came across as the kind of piece that would have been staged at Tonic ten years ago, part Vera Beren avant garde horror tableau, part nimbly macabre theme and variations. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy sang the daylights out of it when presented with a few opportunities to do that. Otherwise, she was relegated to narration, which was luridly fun as the story took shape but quickly became a distraction from what is in every sense of the word a fantastic piece of music. Echoes of Roaring 20s swing, disquieting circus rock and Weimar cabaret juxtaposed with the clenched-teeth intensity from the winds, brass, percussion and strings – violist Jessica Meyer and cellist Dave Eggar getting some of the juiciest parts. Looking back, you could see the twistedly funny ending coming a mile away.

This was it for 2014 for this group, other than a couple of characteristically eclectic trio performances led by Gosling coming up at 5 PM on December 5 and 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art balcony bar. But 2015 promises to be especially ambitious for an already ambitious ensemble: a weeklong festival of new music from American composers staged at a reputedly amazing new complex in Danbury, Connecticut, in late summer, and the creation of a fullsize American Modern Ensemble symphony orchestra.

November 1, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment