Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

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September 21, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Couple Bars’ Worth of Sunday’s Bang on a Can Marathon

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon promised to be one of the best ever, in terms of sheer talent if not ambience. Lately this sprawling festival has lacked the freewheeling, anarchic spirit of earlier years, but the performers on the bill just get better and better. The deck is typically stacked with the biggest name acts playing later, this year’s being a criminally good list of performers: Ars Nova Copenhagen playing one composer after another, pipa innovator Wu Man, Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ensemble Victoire, the astonishing string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Tortoise and of course the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But the afternoon’s acts were just as good. To those who might rail against the boomy acoustics and sterile ambience of the World Financial Center Winter Garden, it’s at least a lot easier to negotiate than some of the other spaces BOAC has used.

Cognoscenti who were there at the opening bell raved about Andy Akiho’s psychedelic piece, Alloy, played by the Foundry Steel Pan Ensemble. BOAC co-founder Michael Gordon’s Trance, played by the jazz orchestra SIGNAL, went on for almost an hour. Some said for too long, but to these ears the tension of the band in lockstep with a series of looped vocal fragments and drum machine served well to illustrate a struggle for freedom. They went up, then down, running the same phrase much as the loop they kept in step with, finally crescendoing as the loop faded and disappeared, the band adding a sense of triumph while maintaining the tense, metronomic feel of the first 45 minutes or so. It was very redemptive: man vs. machine, man finally winning out.

Guitar quartet DITHER, augmented by seven ringers on a mix of Fenders and Gibsons did one of Eric km Clark’s deprivation pieces, each guitarist given earplugs and headphones so as to deliberately throw off their timing (doesn’t work: we’re used to bad monitor mixes, being unable to hear a thing onstage, feeling for the drums and playing what’s in our fingers!). Echoes swirling around underneath the big skylight, the effect was akin to a church organ piece, maybe something especially weird from the Jehan Alain songbook with a lot of echo. It ended cold with a single guitarist tossing off a playfully tongue-in-cheek, random metal phrase.

The Todd Reynolds Quartet followed with Meredith Monk’s lone string quartet, Stringsongs, in four bracingly captivating sections. The first, Cliff Light was a hypnotically polyrhythmic, astringent dance, introducing a stillness at the end that carried over to the second part, Tendrils, austere and plaintive but growing warmer and prettier, brief phrases flowing in and out of the arrangement, often repeating. Part three, Obsidian was more dawn than darkness; Phantom Strings, the final segment was practically a live loop, its circular motifs growing more insistent and percussive, the group seizing every dynamic inch the score would allow them.

The daylight hours’ highlight was, of course, Bill Frisell. The preeminent jazz guitarist of our time turned in a characteristically thoughtful, deliberately paced, absolutely brilliantly constructed series of three solo pieces, the first one of his typical western themes spiced with harmonics and drenched in reverb, a welcoming, friendly, comfortable way to ease into what would quickly become more difficult terrain. The clouds came in quickly with his second instrumental, eerie and minimalistically noir. Finally, Frisell hit his distortion pedal and upped the ante, bending and twisting the notes, adding glissandos and hitting his loop pedal in places where he’d found one that would resonate beneath the methodically Gilmouresque menace. One of those loops made a sturdy underpinning for a brief segue into a bright, optimistic, latin-tinged theme that quickly morphed into a common 4-chord soul motif and it was then that Frisell pulled out a little shimmery vibrato to wind it up on a warmly optimistic note.

One of the maddening things about Bang on a Can is that somebody like Frisell will give you chills, and then the next act will leave you scowling and wondering why anyone on earth thinks they belong onstage. This time the culprits were Your Bad Self playing a trio of Ted Hearne compositions, the first a straight-up noir rock ballad in 6/8, the singer setting off a crazy, screaming crescendo on the second verse that lingered after they’d brought it down again. Too bad the best he could do was scream, because he was off-key and positively lame on the next two numbers, a fractured, frantic musette with a jazzy trumpet fanfare and a moodier tune. This is what happens when classically trained people who don’t know rock but think they do anyway try to incorporate it in their music. Or maybe they do, but they don’t know soul from affectation, at least when it comes to vocals. At least the band was good. After that, the UK’s Smith Quartet launched into a Kevin Volans piece with which they’re supposedly associated – too bad, because it didn’t leave a mark. Then it was time to go uptown. But all that was a small price to pay for a free set by Frisell, not to mention the early afternoon’s program.

Only one complaint: where were the kids? Most of the crowd was older than the performers. New music is for young people! Maybe because we don’t have money, we don’t get invited these days? For those missing out on the evening’s festivities, Feast of Music was there to provide some insight.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments