Per Alex Ross (who heard about it from Lev Zhurbin), I urge you to take a moment to see and hear the new Honda Civic commercial that's soon to be storming up the charts in the UK. Composer Steve Sidwell was given the task of creating the sounds of -- and, presumably, expressing the excitement of -- driving the new Civic, using only a choir. This he does, by pulling Ligeti and Oliveros from his toolbelt. Kyle Gann provides a link to this site, which has all the pertinent details. But while you're on the Honda site, be sure to check out the behind-the-scenes footage of the choir casting, rehearsals and recording sessions. You can even download the commercial and rehearsal via podcast -- how meta is that? Dunno whether it'll sell any cars, but were I in the market for one, I'd practically sign on the dotted line for this effort alone.
The Met Orchestra pumped nouvelle cuisine of an earlier vintage this afternoon at Carnegie Hall: "Monsters of Modernism," circa the 19-teens. Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin Suite made for a whale of an opener. First, allow me an aside: Justin Davidson's take on conductorial micromanagement touches on one of two reasons why I passed on the Berlin Philharmonic's latest Carnegie residency -- especially Rattle's odd view of the Mahler 4, which Tony Tommasini admired in performance rather more than I did the conductor's CBSO recording. (The other reason was that, despite this orchestra's excellence, the repertoire they brought to town this time just didn't call out to me -- Thomas Adès's Asyla aside.)
The reason I bring this up is because I found myself constantly noticing details in Levine's performance that don't normally call attention to themselves -- the dark warmth of the violas, for instance. The mysterious harp figure looming behind the double reeds during the second seduction attempt. The penetrating tartness of the trombones as the titular Mandarin pursues the seductress. Even so, picking up on those details didn't distract unduly from the narrative flow of Bartok's score. The orchestra purred sexily and roared bestially; the plot was served, and you practically didn't need a scorecard.
Inevitably, a handful of concertgoers fled at the mere notion of hearing Schoenberg. Their loss. The ageless Anja Silja gave as penetrating a performance of that composer's daunting psychodrama Erwartung as one could ever wish to hear, by turns shrinking and raging. Admittedly, on occasion Silja was drowned by an orchestra at full roar. But for the most part, the ensemble was on its best behavior. (As in the last time I caught the Met players outside the pit, English horn player Pedro Diaz once again caught my attention, as he wrapped his plangent tone around Silja's plaintive "Wie lieb, wie lieb ich dich gehabt hab'..." in the fourth scene.)
Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring closed the concert. If I thought Levine might have taken too lax a tempo in this scene or that, he proved me wrong each time, ratcheting up the intensity in a subsequent passage. Everything was kept in balance; the end result was once again as fine a performance as one might hope for. The bass drummer's theatrical lunge at the end of Part One was a nice touch -- and demonstrated visibly the verve these musicians brought to bear throughout the afternoon. This was orchestral playing to die for, and the audience exploded accordingly.
The late shift found string quartet Ethel presenting three pieces by John King at the Lower East Side nightclub Tonic. This was my first taste of Ethel since Cornelius Dufallo replaced departed violinist Todd Reynolds, and I was curious as to how the group's chemistry might have changed. (I'm tempted to ponder an Arditti trying to find a place in the Kronos, but Dufallo's transition isn't quite that extreme.)
Dufallo, a remarkable player formerly of the Flux Quartet, definitely holds his own musically. But Ethel is a charismatic bunch, and Dufallo doesn't yet project himself physically onstage the way his bandmates do. In time, he likely will, to judge by his playing tonight. King's music is deeply rooted in the blues, and requires players who can sound as if they're making it up as they go along; Dufallo held his own alongside violinist Mary Rowell's boozy slurs, violist Ralph Farris's succulent refrains and cellist Dorothy Lawson's earthy walking-bass lines.
Lightning Slide was written for the Kronos Quartet and sounded like it, all furioso bowing, bleary slides and solo spotlights. The rich Round Sunrise opened with Lawson's riffing cello underpinning glossy sustained chords; the second section had each musician play out in turn over a riff built of jumpy syncopation and rapid sextuplets. Ethel closed with four sections of King's AllSteel -- those the composer sketched, portentiously or not, on September 10, 2001. Lawson's boisterous lead in section three (the second played), supported by muted chords and pizzicato shouts, for some reason reminded me of "Jack the Bear," Duke Ellington's feature for bassist Jimmy Blanton; section seven (the fourth played) romped on a backbeat that sounded a bit like Beethoven's Grosse Fuge with the needle stuck in the groove.
Missing, however, were some of the qualities that originally defined Ethel. Promised improvisations with King on laptop didn't happen; what's more, the multimedia theatricality that so charged the atmosphere at this quartet's Kitchen concerts a few years back was absent. And honestly, King's attractive compositions for string quartet are of a piece stylistically; a concert of nothing but, no matter how finely executed, was bound to sound samey in the end. (You could say the same of a concert featuring nothing but Mozart quartets, so don't read that as criticism.) On the other hand, it augurs well for the all-King CD in the making; consider tonight an open rehearsal, then, and assume that when Ethel inaugurates this year's "Free for All at Town Hall" season on May 14, she'll be dressed to kill.
Hazmat Modine - Bahamut (Geckophonic)
Los Horoscopos de Durango - Antes Muertas que Sencillas (Disa)
Bela Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle - Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, London Symphony Orchestra/István Kertész (Decca)
Grateful Dead - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL, July 9, 1995 (Archive.org stream)