Look, I'm almost famous.
Look, I'm almost famous.
For whatever reason, it was a rough day at work, and I needed a little something tonight to take the edge off. Happily, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra provided just what the doctor ordered, in the form of three savory rounds of various vintages at Carnegie Hall tonight.
First round was Peter Maxwell Davies's An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a wry, spicy concert piece that depicts precisely what its title suggests: a windy opening, a genteel greeting, a folk dance that builds over the course of a night's revelry, then fragments into boozy lurches. In the end, the celebrants stagger out into a glorious dawn; a Highland bagpiper who marches in from behind the throng can't fail to win applause. I was frankly amazed by this conductorless ensemble's ability to keep so wild a score stitched tight -- I might have wished for a tad more tonal plushness, but not a wee dram more rhythmic acuity.
Second round was James MacMillan's Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, that rare percussion concerto in which mere flash is not the chief aim. Orchestral accompaniment based on religious plainchant imbues the work with a powerfully somber air, animated by the bracing rhythms of early Stravinsky and the metallic shimmer of not-quite early John Adams, circa The Chairman Dances and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Still, the piece hardly stints on bravura, which Evelyn Glennie, its commissioner, supplied in abundance. She raced from gongs and vibraphone at stage left to a batterie of toms, bongos, congas and kick drum at stage right, stopping in between for a quasi-melodic interlude on woodblocks and cowbells. As a formerly active percussionist, I was often awestruck; Glennie's industry is beautiful to behold, her face telegraphing some moves while seemingly registering surprise at others. Her technique is somehow both florid and economical -- it would take a PowerPoint-aided lecture to illustrate just how. A middle section made strong use of her lyrical touch on marimba, playing lines with which she occasionally sang along quietly. A boisterous final stretch culminated in a brilliantly conceived and executed conclusion, during which orchestral players pinged on tiny chimes hung from their music stands while Glennie mounted a towering scaffold upstage to toll a busy ostinato on tubular bells. A lengthy, surprisingly uninterrupted stretch of resonant silence was followed by a boisterous ovation, punctuated by both mannered bravos and rock-concert hoots.
After a break to regain some bit of composure, the third round arrived: Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, his "Scottish." Famously inspired by a visit to the British isles in 1829, the piece wasn't finished until 1842, by which time pictorial memory had perhaps been augmented by the picturesque literature of Walter Scott. Mendelssohn's storm-rocked first movement seemingly presages the turbulent swells of Wagner's Flying Dutchman overture. The second is a playful dance, the third a stately evocation of chivalrous fanfare; the finale seems to conjoin the concluding movements of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Orpheus provided a well conceived, lively account of the work. If some of the finer contours blurred just a bit, that's probably to be expected in the waning moments of so heady an evening.
The program notes, I must say, added rather a lot to the overall experience. Interviews with Maxwell Davies, Glennie and Orpheus bassist Donald Palma (the last of which pertained to Mendelssohn) lent a personal dimension to each item on the bill. An additional essay in which spirits connoisseur Ray Deter, proprietor of East Village drinking hole d.b.a., offered a suggested Scotch whisky to accompany each piece was definitely a provocative touch -- although I must leave it to other audience members (Mr. Oteri?) to confirm the accuracy of Deter's suggestions. In a rather clever cross-marketing notion, one might pop into d.b.a. through April 8 and order a flight of the recommended accompaniments at a discount by presenting tonight's concert program. (Carnegie Hall understandably required Orpheus to abstain from mentioning specific labels in Deter's essay as it appeared in the evening's program, but all is revealed in the version to which I linked, on the ensemble's website.)
The romance of Robert and Clara Schumann -- the furtive courtship, the blissful early years, the tragic ending -- have always suggested the stuff of dramatic theater. Tonight, in a sense, it became just that, when the New Victory Theater hosted a performance of Twin Spirits, a semi-staged reading of passages from the Schumanns' love letters and diaries, with musical interludes. Conceived by writer-director John Caird, who has staged drama and opera but is probably best known for his productions of Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby with Trevor Nunn, the show was presented this evening as a one-night-only benefit for the valiant charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
My primary interest in attending Twin Spirits was musical, since it provided an opportunity to hear singers Thomas Meglioranza and Lisa Saffer (the latter replacing the originally announced Barbara Bonney), violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and pianists Jeremy Denk and Natasha Paremski all at once. The fine actor Jonathan Pryce narrated the show. But more titillating to several coworkers to whom I mentioned the show were tonight's Robert and Clara: respectively, rock star Sting and his wife, actor-producer Trudie Styler.
The simple, elegant single set, by veteran stage and television designer Howard Clausen, placed Sting and Styler at the front of the platform, in elegantly upholstered vintage chairs. The singers were seated similarly, Meglioranza to Sting's right, Saffer to Styler's left. Two grand pianos were angled behind the singers, with the keyboardists facing in -- Denk behind Meglioranza and Paremski behind Styler. Continuing the male-female opposition, Bell sat in the curve of Denk's piano, while Weilerstein was placed on a platform against Paremski's instrument. Pryce was seated upstage, at a point bordered by the pianos' ends. Tall floral arrangements and a chandelier completed the set. Howell Binkley's sensitive lighting design directed attention to featured performers in turn, and subtly extended the overall mood.
The show -- a taut 90 minutes with no intermission -- alternated between words and music in a seamless flow; while the Schumanns' compositions played a supportive role, they were generally treated respectfully, rather than merely as ornamentation. Moreover, the musical selections, presented mostly if not entirely in chronological progression, unfailingly echoed the mood of the letters or diary entries they followed. The "Preambule" from Carnaval, neatly arranged by Martin Ward for two pianos, violin and cello, served as an opening fanfare, following which Denk and Paremski alternated in selections from Kinderszenen. When the infatuated Robert and Clara, held apart by her domineering father, agreed via post to conjoin on some spiritual plane by performing Chopin's Variations on "Là ci darem la mano" at a prearranged time, Denk and Paremski followed with a playful rendition of that work.
A song apiece by Robert and Clara illuminated their swelling romance: Meglioranza and Denk offered a meltingly lovely rendition of Robert's "Stille Tränen," which Saffer and Paremski countered with Clara's radiant "Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen." The singers were brought together in Robert's duet "Er und Sie," midway through which they met at center stage; a gentle touch, a meaningful glance, and they parted, as had Robert and Clara. Her burgeoning fame as a soloist and composer were depicted with an arrangement of the Andante from her Piano Concerto (played by Paremski and Weilerstein), his melancholy struggle by the second of his Op. 94 Romances (Bell and Denk).
Robert and Clara's union, finally effected in 1840, was celebrated with a performance by Meglioranza and Saffer of the Mozart duet on which Chopin's elaboration was based. Robert's subsequent happy fecundity found expression in four selections from Dichterliebe ("Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne," "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh'," "Ich will meine Seele tauchen" and "Ich grolle nicht"), lovingly and excitingly sung by Meglioranza, with Denk a superlatively alert accompanist.
This, we know, was not to last. Haunted by the early deaths of Mozart and Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin, Robert Schumann soon began to slide into his own slow deterioration. Clara's heartbreaking "Sie liebten sich beide" spoke to the couple's growing alienation, during a time in which not only was she bearing and rearing the couple's eight children, but was also the chief (nearly sole) breadwinner through her performances. Estrangement continued even as Robert's handsome young protégé, Johannes Brahms, became an extended family member; here, Saffer and Paremski appropriated another number from Dichterliebe, "Ich hab' im traum geweinet."
A failed suicide attempt and two-and-a-half years of institutionalization left Robert scarcely able to communicate; the futility of his attempts was conveyed by his "Stille Liebe," given an utterly haunting performance by Meglioranza and Denk. Despite the watchful care of Clara and Brahms, Robert Schumann died alone in asylum, set here to the "Traumerei" from Kinderszenen affectingly played by Bell, Weilerstein, Denk and Paremski, during which Sting rose and left the stage. The narrative noted that Clara rebuffed a later romantic overture from the devoted Brahms. (This may depart somewhat from reality: Jan Swafford, if I recall accurately his enormously informed and engaging Brahms biography, suggested a more challenging scenario, in which an emotionally stunted Brahms was actually provided with an opening, only to prove unable to act upon his youthful impulses.) Here, the notion of a love lasting beyond the grave was preserved; Sting came forward to lay a hand on his wife's shoulder as Meglioranza and Saffer sang Robert's "Frage," and the evening ended heroically as Bell, Weilerstein and Denk played the dashing finale of his Piano Trio in D minor.
That this combination of musicians would provide a worthy experience had never been in doubt, but if I'd experienced any misgivings in the casting of Sting and Styler as Robert and Clara, they were swiftly put to rest. Not a thespian noted for subtlety, Sting delivered Robert Schumann's lines with abundant wit and genuine affection, while refraining from overplaying the composer's mental decline; Styler enacted Clara's fastidiousness and tenderness in equal measure, with real sympathy. In the end, the casting of a celebrity couple well known for public displays of affection proved entirely suitable.
Still, I would argue that Twin Spirits hardly requires such star power to convey the drama of its subject. The romance of Robert and Clara Schumann, as depicted here, is a tale that packs as much relevance and potency as many a more famous fictional tale -- a fact proven by the laughter and sighs of tonight's audience, which I did not take to be a classical-music crowd in the main.
In fact, I'm not convinced that this production is best suited to a mainstream theater crowd at all. What struck me most is that Twin Spirits might very well prove a solid-gold offering for a regional chamber-music society looking to expand its appeal beyond a core subscriber base. The fact that this particular production was animated by top-notch musicians was not lost on me, but --and I promise that I mean this as high praise -- given its bare-bones set and a scenario that deals in sensations far more universal than the milieu of two long-dead German artists, I see no reason why Twin Spirits couldn't be massively successful if performed by local musicians, with Robert and Clara read by morning-television personalities or the like.
Moreover -- praise again, please note -- this is a show that would surely intoxicate many a high schooler predisposed by the likes of Romeo and Juliet. I'd love to see someone try it.
[Update: Thomas Meglioranza, who really ought to be resting up since he's got a devilish recital coming up next Wednesday, has posted about last night's show on his blog. And Jeremy Denk's musings have just appeared here.]
Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime II (Rhino)
Robert Schumann - Piano Trio in D minor - Jacques Thibaud, Pablo Casals and Alfred Cortot (Naxos)
Peter Maxwell Davies - An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Peter Maxwell Davies (Collins Classics)
James MacMillan - Veni, Veni, Emmanuel - Colin Currie, Ulster Orchestra / Takuo Yuasa (Naxos)
Felix Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 3 in A minor, "Scottish" - London Symphony Orchestra / Peter Maag (Decca)
At least somewhat in keeping with last night's encounter with VisionIntoArt, a collective populated by former and current Juilliard students, I spent Sunday immersed in music written by student composers. The main lure of this afternoon's "NYU First Performance" event at New York University's Eisner and Lubin Hall -- a spare, elegant concert space in the university's imposing Kimmel Center on Washington Square South -- was the fact that the featured ensemble was that brilliant British new-music institution, the Arditti Quartet. And I'd be lying if I didn't confess that the foremost lure of the concert was the American premiere of French composer Pascal Dusapin's String Quartet No. 5.
Still, spending some serious time with the music of student composers is a notion I'd fancied for some time, even going so far as to plot a potential Time Out New York feature on the subject. Unsurprisingly, Alex Ross got there first in a New Yorker piece, which basically put paid to that idea. (Since Alex did his typically masterful job, I can't say that I have any real regrets.)
This was my first live encounter with this quartet in more than a decade, so I was genuinely surprised to note just how young an ensemble violinist Irvine Arditti is fielding these days. Violist Ralf Ehlers, who joined the group in 2003, can now claim seniority over everyone but the leader; he's in his mid-30s. Second violinist Ashot Sarkissjan, 29, signed on in June 2005; cellist Lucas Fels, who is in his early 40s, joined the quartet in December.
The first half of the program featured the six student pieces, all of them relatively succinct. Alexander Ness's Motion Painting, his second quartet, opened with a series of Webern- or Kurtág-like microludes, which soon broke into a more sustained, lyrical sweep. Swirling dance patterns lept from player to player, and a sweetly undulating melody closed the work. In a program note, Ness mentioned having been influenced by the music he'd heard during a period of study in India, which made it all the more surprising and welcome that nothing in the piece spoke derivatively of that experience. Jenny Olivia Johnson's little lotte let her mind remember, based on a theme from -- of all places -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, was a perky abstraction animated by tiny percussive shakers and dry pizzicato notes, culminating in a final stretch that sounded something like a chance meeting on a composing desk of a popcorn popper and a tea kettle.
Matthew Quayle's Sweet Insanity squared lush melodicism, bluesy walking-bass figures and agitated 12-tone incursions with a Shostakovich-like intensity. A Clean Kill, by Sophocles Papavasilopoulos (who has previously composed for formats ranging from opera to Gameboy), opened with a clatter of pizzicato plucks like metronomes set at different tempi, resolved into a roughly tonal development, and closed as a squeaking flock of bats. A rich modal tunefulness introduced Jesse Sklar's Quartet #2, followed by an ambiguous transition that led to an overtly Coplandesque prairie-twilight finale filled with the stately sighs and yawns of Billy the Kid. The last of the student works, Felipe Lara's Corde Vocale, stuck me as the piece most likely to gain entry into the Arditti repertoire: an introductory stretch of stabbing thrusts, stitched together with the most tenuous of sonic threads, gave rise to a series of tonal chords made all the more startling by context. A transition of sine-wave stillness led to an agitated conclusion. The horsehair-ripping physicality of Lara's piece announced a bold, distinctive voice, presented with stylistic confidence and technical assurance.
After intermission came the promised Dusapin premiere. While I count Dusapin among my favorite contemporary orchestral composers, I hadn't heard much of his previous chamber music. According to his program note, he has a serious bent for the idiom; hearing his fifth effort, it was clear that his enthusiasm is matched by a genuine knack. Dusapin's String Quartet No. 5 was inspired by the Samuel Beckett novel Mercier and Camier, a work the composer claims to have "quoted" in numerous previous pieces. Here, the novel's peculiar, free-floating dialogue was evoked by a similarly unrooted idiom, a time-loosed expanse broken up by chatty instrumental asides. The piece opened with gently rocking lines plucked on viola and cello, over which the first violin sounded out a keening soliloquy abruptly questioned by the second violin. Melodies and harmonies bled and smudged at their borders; a more frantic middle section resolved into a cloud of hushed whispers. British composer James Clarke's String Quartet, the 2003 Arditti commission that closed the concert, was more like a perpetual-motion torture machine, a 10-minute tarantella interesting mainly for the boozy lurches and heaves with which it was punctuated. It was probably great fun for the performers.
Uptown at Merkin Concert Hall tonight, Columbia Composers presented recent pieces by five Columbia University graduate students. Purl, by Katharine Soper, was an animated duologue for Erin Lesser, who hissed, spit and sang on standard and alto flutes, and Gregory Beyer, who deftly partnered her on vibraphone, crotales, congas, bongos and wood blocks. James Fei's Septet -- for paired alto saxophones, trumpets and basses set in mirror configuration on either side of a baritone saxophone -- was the only strictly 12-tone composition I encountered today; unsurprisingly, it was also the most dated piece, sounding quaint in a certain way, but rather lacking in expressive power. (This was surprising from a creator whose work in other areas -- in analog electronics, and certainly on saxophone alongside Anthony Braxton, has been so consistently forward-looking.) Katharina Rosenberger's Bild 3A, a movement from her Fünf Bilder für Oktett (scored for string trio, bass, trombone, alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute), opened with jarring smacks from three slapsticks wielded by ensemble members. The piece crackled like dry kindling catching fire, elusive melodic flurries depicting fitful flames.
After the break came Alexandre Lunsqui's p-Orbital, a brilliantly dizzying sonic construction that called upon rattling plastic bags, blown wine bottles, a berimbau played virtually any way but in its traditional manner, a slide whistle that conjured Messiaen's Ondes Martenot and two players depositing dry beans into plastic receptacles (the more manic of whom turned out to be Lunsqui himself). If the methodology described seems contrived, the results were anything but; Lunsqui's piece drew knowingly upon Stravinsky, Ligeti, Carl Stalling and John Zorn, and the ends achieved through his arcane conventions were in the end completely convincing. The closing work, Oscar Bianchi's formal, refined Primordia Rerum, demanded of soprano Daisy Press the extended techniques of Cathy Berberian and Joan La Barbara. She delivered with utter security alongside a quintet that throbbed, pulsed and stabbed; still, this well-wrought piece seemed slightly anticlimactic in the aftermath of Lunsqui's giddy din.
All told, this was a busy day of listening and cogitation -- but more important, it was a terrifically happy day, thanks to the generous efforts of the composers and players involved. (Cellist Claire Bryant, whose agile Dee Dee Ramone impersonation was noted during last night's VisionIntoArt performance, earned extra credit for flexibility of technique and exacting dedication to the cause with her performances in most of the Columbia Composers pieces tonight.) For years now, the media has been filled with articles about the rapidly impending "Death of Classical Music." Given this weekend's evidence, I am more energized than ever to suggest -- maybe even proclaim -- that precisely the opposite is the case. Contemporary classical music may not currently occupy the position of centrality it once claimed within the day-to-day experience of intellectually active, artistically attuned people -- and yes, that is something to regret, if not necessarily a cause for alarm or even surprise. But these composers and musicians proved that worthy music is still being written and played right now. If, as Kris Kristofferson suggested, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose," then these performances fairly shouted that nothin' left to lose is as potent a call for stylistic freedom as any.
Gaetano Donizetti - Don Pasquale - Beverly Sills, Alfredo Kraus, Alan Titus, Donald Gramm, London Symphony Orchestra / Sarah Caldwell (EMI Classics)
Pascal Dusapin - Watt*; Galim**; Celo*** - Alain Trudel*, Juliette Hurel**, Sonia Wieder-Atherton***, Orchestre National de Montpellier / Pascal Rophé (Naïve)
Every now and then, I encounter a performance so dense with sensory information and so utterly unlike anything I'd previously experienced that, as a writer, I'm left struggling to conceive of a way in which I might describe what I've seen and heard in a way that does justice to its scope and impact. It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, I wonder how to do my job in the event -- and maybe even just what that job is, if I'm feeling so challenged to distill my impressions into something legible and useful.
That was my experience this evening at the Chelsea Art Museum, where the multidisciplinary performance-art organization VisionIntoArt presented the second of two current performances of a work-in-progress, Sounds. Inspired by Wassily Kandinsky's 1912 book of the same name, which juxtaposed 38 poems with 56 woodcuts in an exploration of crossdisciplinary aesthetic connections, the roughly 90-minute presentation wedded the work of three composers -- Nico Muhly, Paola Prestini and Milica Paranosic -- to contributions by actors, a performing poet, a choreographer, a filmmaker, an animator-photographer and a historian. A lighting designer and a sound designer should also be included in that list, so extensive and necessary was their participation this evening.
Muhly's Winter Sounds, which opened the evening, proved a handy appetizer, a readily digestible morsel before the two heavier courses that followed. A short piece for two violins, viola, clarinet and percussion, all amplified, the gently lyrical work was suffused with a sort of plainspoken luminescence that I'd admired in the handful of his works I'd previously heard. Surrounded by relative decorum, Nadia Sirota's viola sang and throbbed with the same sort of passion she'd previously brought to a performance I heard last year of Muhly's Keep in Touch, a weirdly wonderful score that also features the prerecorded voice of sanctified alt-pop androgyne Antony. That piece is included on Muhly's forthcoming debut CD, Speaks Volumes (on the Icelandic label Bedroom Community), which ought to be on everyone's shopping list. Placid photographic images projected concurrently were less than ideally visible from where I was sitting.
Prestini's Hymn of Love in Scarlet and Blue and Paranosic's Root -- both long, substantial pieces run together without pause -- were far more difficult to parse, though this had nothing at all to do with the music either composer presented. Speaking in gross generalities, Prestini's music shared some common ground with Muhly's: a penchant for long, limpid tones and shimmering percussion; a straightforward melodicism sometimes augmented with electronic resonance (one early section might have been performed in a cistern); a happy adaptation of minimalism's more sensual effects, served in smaller doses. Paranosic's piece leaned toward more electronic textures and sharper rhythmic contours. And if Steve Reich, Philip Glass and even Brian Eno are canonical for Muhly and Prestini, Paranosic seems just as happy to induct the Residents and the Ramones into her pantheon; ritualistic drumming and Balkan dance also found their way into her music.
But to discuss a VisionIntoArt presentation in terms of its musical content alone is to miss the point; in fact, the relative directness of the compositional idioms employed stood in stark contrast to the near cacophony that resulted from the interaction of music with image, motion and language. Nor were these elements assembled in any conventionally narrative sense; this was more a theater of spectacle and sensation.
Opening with prerecorded bird song and watery swooshes, Prestini's piece afforded -- inspired? -- both ritualistic poses wrapped in lengths of scarlet cloth, and the handsomely musical, near toasting cadences of poet Roger Bonair-Agard. Singer Haleh Abghari contributed to the musical ensemble while slapping paint-daubed fingers against the stretch of paper she knelt upon. The intoxicating profusion of seemingly unrelated impressions, as well as Prestini's wedding of disparate styles, reminded me of nothing so much as the similarly disorienting scores assembled by Simon Fisher Turner for Derek Jarman's later films, such as The Garden and Blue. Late in the piece, percussionist Pablo Rieppi played a vibraphone solo to electronic accompaniment, while the rest of the performers cleared the rose-petal strewn floor and exited.
As the lights went down, a childlike song sounded out from a back room; a chunk of Rieppi's massive kit was moved out to center stage, where he kicked off an undulatory beat. This, I surmised, was the segue to Paranosic's Root. The ensemble, all singing, processed back out to the stage area, where Rieppi's drumming took on the ebb and flow of a grandstanding hard-rock drum solo. Cellist Claire T. Bryant strapped on a bass guitar, actor Holter Graham picked up an electric guitar, and suddenly, the entire ensemble -- Prestini and Paranosic included -- pogoed wildly to a genuine punk-rock blurt. It was as surprising a moment as any I've ever seen during an ostensibly high-art presentation, and one that could only have been pulled off by a composer for whom punk rock was a fact of life, as opposed to a sensation borrowed on the cheap.
Stately processionals and tribal passages followed, interspersed with masterfully composed electronic intermezzos. My head spun. Where was the storyline, the road map? Near the end, a long skein of red cloth reappeared. The performers whistled and twittered, recalling the recorded birdsong with which Prestini's piece had opened. Intentional or not, this did provide some sense of continuity and closure.
Throughout the evening, I found myself reflexively trying to discern underlying themes and narrative threads; as you've likely surmised, that hasn't quite happened yet. Still, to fault the performance would be a mistake, because in the end, I don't think VisionIntoArt is especially interested in sticking to any traditional rulebook. I might have done better to take my cue from the Kandinsky quote at the top of the program:
Beware of pure reason in art, and do not try to "understand" art by following the dangerous path of logic.
And in the end, if what I saw did indeed defy logical convention, it was certainly no less absorbing and provocative for that refusal.
I should add that the performance seemed to be at least somewhat constricted by the physical confines within which it was presented, a squared-off patch of floor surrounded on three sides by audience and on the fourth by the video screen, with massive columns reinforcing those boundaries. Certainly, that was true for the more overtly athletic choreography, which sometimes came across as affected leaps. Still, the performers gave their all to the work, with a fearless conviction that did much to carry the observer along in its bold sweep. Prestini stated early on that the final version of Sounds will be staged at the Whitney Museum in April 2007; I look forward to continued updates along the way.
Afterward, I headed over to the Stone, John Zorn's tiny arts laboratory on the Lower East Side, to catch the second set by composer-performer Robin Holcomb. A major player during the downtown ferment of the '80s, she and her husband, fellow keyboardist-composer Wayne Horvitz, moved to Seattle long ago, and don't visit as much as we might like. Holcomb, too, is an artist hard to categorize. Early on, she was a composer of knottily complex scores mostly played by jazz groups big and small. But her later albums, on the Elektra Musician and Nonesuch labels, offered a range of utterance that stretched from Stephen Foster, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland to Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. Holcomb's performance tonight was billed as "Larks, They Crazy," named for a now-impossibly rare 1989 album. I used to have a cassette dub of this record that I can no longer locate, and once recklessly chased a CD copy up to $65 on eBay before ceding the battle. (If I get another chance to bid, I won't give in so easily.)
Uttering scarcely a word to the audience, Holcomb led her band through most of the charts from that record, wholly original concoctions equally brushed by an avant-garde jazz vocabulary and a rootsy songfulness. Holcomb would revisit a few of these pieces on subsequent records, which moved ever further into a sort of Americana singer-songwriter vein -- albeit one ever stippled by a melancholy twilight. Stripped of the twanging guitars, vintage organ and gospel-like backing vocals with which it was adorned on 1992's Rockabye, "The Natural World" reclaimed its original starkness, drawing greater attention to Holcomb's tremulous vocals.
Reed players Marty Ehrlich and Doug Wieselman and bassist-tuba player Dave Hofstra -- all among New York's most versatile musicians -- reprised their original roles in this ensemble. The fly in the ointment was drummer Kenny Wollesen, whose pulse was far more variable than Bobby Previte's had been on the original album. At times, Wollesen completely abandoned timekeeping, instead prodding the music forward with variations of timbre and density not so far removed from those characteristic of Paul Motian. Holcomb closed her set with an arrangement of the traditional song "Buttermilk Hill," a melody that sings out freely in the tones of tobacco and cotton, indentured labor and armed conflict that underline so much of her recent work.
Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio - Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Walter Berry, Gottlob Frick, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus / Otto Klemperer (EMI Classics)
Wayne Horvitz/Butch Morris/Robert Previte - Todos Santos (Sound Aspects)
Simon Fisher Turner - The Garden (Mute)
The remarkable Sarah Caldwell -- opera director, conductor and visionary founder of the Opera Company of Boston -- died of natural causes on Thursday, at the age of 82. Tony Tommasini's fine New York Times obit is currently plastered on the splash page of the paper's web site, a nice touch.
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Among the many things that New York City Opera has proved it can do rather well, comedy ranks high on the list. The company has a real knack for finding fresh, talented performers with genuine stage presence -- star-level singers and aspirants alike -- capable of projecting good humor to the back rows of the cavernous New York State Theater. We've seen this recently in Handel productions like Alcina and Xerxes, as well as the Love Boat-style shenanigans of Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims -- to say nothing of the company's Gilbert & Sullivan revivals, nor Broadway revivals such as its current take on The Most Happy Fella. And we saw it again tonight in the New York City premiere of Mark Adamo's Lysistrata, the newly arrived final commission of impresario David Gockley's historic Houston Grand Opera regime.
From Aristophanes, Adamo snagged a title, a premise of sexual embargo as a means to end to an unpopular war, a couple of characters, and three scenes. The rest he concocted from whole cloth, in the process creating an plot in which that original battle of the sexes is swiftly overshadowed by a deeper thread: the battle of personal desire versus civic duty. Adamo fleshed out the masculine side of the equation, giving his military men plausible motivation for their eternal bellicosity: serving the homeland, protecting the women. The central relationship in Lysistrata is that between Lysia, a mostly invented female character, and her lover, the Athenian general Nico, who Lysia hopes to tempt out of the army and into the sack.
Adamo's almost unceasingly funny first act doesn't stint on lowbrow humor. Dusty envoys hack and fart; the wives of the opposing army sing in an Elmer Fudd-derived dialect; the scoring under a reference to, errm, underendowed males is accented by a tiny ping on glockenspiel. (Most of the gags in Lysistrata, it's probably fair to say, are underlined by cute orchestration.) Characters often break the fourth wall, selling punchlines straight to the audience in a manner familiar in musical theater, if rare in the opera house. Bawdy wordplay is everywhere in evidence -- "She suffers from unplucked flax," for example.
Equally humorous, if less blatant, is the way Adamo recycles his themes in pointedly different circumstances: The music he provides for Lysia as she checks off her tools of seduction is the same that he gives to the two opposing armies as they confirm their battle readiness. Nico's lascivious bedroom serenade turns up again later as well, but uttered by a different character under vastly different circumstances.
Despite an opening chorus sung by outrageously priapic soldiers, the second act darkens considerably; forced abstinence, it's clear, has taken its toll. (That's not to suggest that The Funny disintegrates, especially for opera partisans who get it when the spear-wielding Spartan wives repeatedly bellow, "Ho-jo-to-jo!") Just as Lysia's resolve wavers almost fatally, a chorus of Athenian and Spartan women offers a wrenching chorus tallying the cost of war in purely human terms. "I am not my own," Lysia sings in the evening's show-stopping aria, at last truly comprehending the cost of personal denial in service of the greater good. Yet even as peace is grudgingly announced and lovers reunited, belligerence exacts still more loss; this leads to a deus ex machina intervention and an ensemble conclusion out of Mozart or Verdi.
City Opera made a pretty much unimpeachable case for Lysistrata, populating it with bright primary performers including the bold, bewitching Emily Pulley as Lysia and the ardent Chad Shelton as Nico. Myrna Paris's Kleonike was ideally strident and sympathetic in equal measure; Jennifer Rivera stole scenes and tugged heart strings as Myrrhine, and Victoria Livengood was a fearless Lampito. The supporting cast was uniformly aware and savvy, with Amanda Borst (Xanthe), Jennifer Roderer (Sappho) and -- as always -- Jennifer Tiller (Alecto/Dika) commanding serious attention. George Manahan and his orchestra did well by Adamo's ingenious score, which constantly alternated between glinting spareness and succulent gush. Michael Kahn's direction served the plot happily, if occasionally obscuring this or that voice by positioning of bodies; so, too, did Derek McLane's economical set, which made creative use of a relatively simple, rotating cubical structure at center stage. Murrell Horton's costumes ranged from curiously raggy (at the opening) to seriously slutty (in an altogether appropriate way, I promise).
If I have any reservation, it's simply that by the closing stretch, the characters seem to have endured far too much for a divine push of the Cosmic Reset Button to make everything right. True, as the oft-hymned Ares and Aphrodite arrive to proclaim, the battle -- between the sexes as well as between sovereign nations -- is potentially never-ending, and only its participants can see fit to learn from mistakes and call a truce. But having suffered as much as they had by the conclusion, Lysia and Nico -- not to mention Myrrhine and her freshly resurrected Kinesias -- seemed to deserve something more than platitudes for all their woes. (Then again, Richard Strauss probably would have killed them all and turned them into constellations or something.)
I quibble. It was hard to come away from tonight's premiere without a sense of renewed faith in the possibility that contemporary opera can deal with both the baggage of genre history and the demands of a contemporary audience. Adamo, in only his second big-stage piece, neatly proves that it can be done -- and with a show that's genuinely entertaining, to boot. In one of the several interviews I read prior to the premiere, Adamo refers to the setting claimed by a modern adaptation of Aristophanes's The Frogs, by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim -- "The time is now; the place is ancient Greece." And so it was with Lysistrata. In spite of its antique milieu, I haven't seen any other new opera recently -- not An American Tragedy, not Doctor Atomic -- that felt more wholly present than this one.
Prince - 3121 (Universal)
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Bowery Poetry Club, 01.20.06, and CBGB, 11.02.05 (MP3 downloads from DJA's blog)
Miles Davis - Pangaea (Columbia)
Loads of online chatter has erupted since Miles Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month. While the honor itself strikes me as a painfully dubious bid for credibility on the part of the Hall monitors, the discussion it kicked up has by-and-large been lively and valuable. This is especially true of a debate that's been politely raging between The Bad Plus and Darcy James Argue on their respective blogs. The reason I bring this up is to draw your attention to Argue's brilliantly executed Monday morning post, one of the best essays I've ever encountered on Miles's electric music -- and it's illustrated with musical examples, to boot. Bravo.
Posted at 01:56 PM | Permalink
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While my manic nocturnal ramblings of late may have suggested otherwise, I've actually been battling rather fiercely with some kind of nasty bronchial bug over the past week-and-a-half or so. It knocked me out of commission today, but the good news is that when I finally saw my doctor this afternoon, she suggested that I've already all but beaten it. Tonight, then, is a mandatory evening of over-the-counter medication and rest. But that's as good an excuse as any to post some follow-up thoughts on recent (and not-so-recent) blurts.
+ Jason Guthartz, who maintains an astonishingly comprehensive catalog of Anthony Braxton's compositions and recordings among the various resources he provides at his web site, Restructures, dropped me a line this afternoon to clarify a statement I made near the end of my initial post from the Iridium run. Jason had a conversation with Braxton, in which the composer clarified that he is most likely finished writing Ghost Trance Music pieces, but that does not mean the music will now be summarily abandoned. (Indeed, Braxton has ended the work at Composition No. 360, but the Iridium dates closed with Composition No. 358.) Furthermore, the "move into electronics and video" I mentioned is not intended as an end in itself, but rather as a navigational refinement for participants in future GTM performances. And far from hanging up his horns -- which, mind you, I never genuinely expected for a moment -- Braxton is reportedly looking forward to taking up his flutes and clarinets again, having temporarily set them aside for lack of practice time. (I've requested permission from Jason to post his detailed, informative message in its entirety, so that may well be coming soon.)
Ben Ratliff's respectful, informed but ultimately mixed New York Times review of Saturday night, which I did not attend, is here.
+ Novelist Robin Slick, whose drummer son Eric was one of the outstanding young School of Rock All-Stars that performed alongside John Wetton at the Knitting Factory and elsewhere during the past week (about which I posted here), has posted two colorful essays (here and here) on her own blog, In Her Own Write. These afford views from behind the scenes as well as at the front of the stage; nice color photos, too. Thank you for the kind words and fun posts, Robin. I'm also grateful to Sid Smith -- whose book, In the Court of King Crimson, is the definitive document of the band's history -- for posting a link to my essay at DGM Live, which has brought a steady trickle of fellow Crim fans to my doorstep.
+ The latest Django Bates CD, You Live and Learn...(apparently) (Lost Marble) -- which I ordered immediately after reading Ethan Iverson's terrific article at Do the Math -- turned up in the mail today. Based on a single spin, I'm thoroughly enchanted by this dizzying, mostly song-based album, which features charming vocals by Josefine Lindstrand and Bates himself. The music, of course, is sheer Django sophistication and puckish humor. Yet curiously, most likely due to the smooth singing and whimsical lyrics, it also kind of put me in mind of Canterbury jazz-rock -- Hatfield and the North, especially. Go figure.
+ The first major posthumous release by British improvising guitarist Derek Bailey -- whose Christmas-morning passing I noted at length in late December -- has just arrived, courtesy of John Zorn's always enterprising Tzadik label. The Moat Recordings compiles the entire contents of a December 1998 London recording session by the Joseph Holbrooke Trio: Bailey, bassist Gavin Bryars and percussionist Tony Oxley. In the late '60s, this trio had been at the forefront of the then-developing European free improvisation movement; sadly, its original activities were almost entirely undocumented, save for a short EP issued by Bailey's Incus label, Joseph Holbrooke '65, which includes only a 10-minute exploration of John Coltrane's "Miles' Mode" (which is in actuality an Eric Dolphy composition, "Red Planet"). The trio reunited in October 1998 for a concert in Cologne, part of an Oxley retrospective; a recording of that show, titled Joseph Holbrooke '98, was issued by Incus concurrently with the aforementioned EP.
So pleased were the participants with their reunion that in December of 1998, the three musicians agreed to record a new studio project at London's Moat Studios, a preferred Bailey venue. The project was instigated by California record producer/concert organizer Gary Todd, who had previously attempted to reassemble Joseph Holbrooke for a Los Angeles concert in 1995. That event had been cancelled when both Bailey and Bryars had fallen ill -- Oxley actually honored the booking alongside guitarist Fred Frith, which in itself would be well worth hearing. But clearly, the concept stuck. Todd had planned to issue a 2-CD set compiled from the Moat sessions on his Organ of Corti label, but suffered a tragic accident that left him permanently hospitalized. Tom Recchion, who has continued to look after Todd's Cortical Foundation affairs, shepherded the project through to fruition, and Zorn happily jumped at the chance to issue the recordings.
The newly issued set is designed and packaged to Tzadik's typically lavish standard, and includes a detailed essay written by Bryars prior to Bailey's death, as well as a brief postscript penned the day after the guitarist's passing. A short note by Bailey himself, from 1999, is also included. But it's the music that matters most, and the performances that fill these two discs are extraordinary. Bailey was playing at a remarkably high level in 1998, and Oxley, then as ever, brought out the best in him. Perhaps most amazing is Bryars's contribution, given that he had abandoned free improvisation decades past in favor of his burgeoning career as a composer (Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic, both early works, remain his most widely known pieces). His warm, solid bass provides the center of gravity around which Bailey and Oxley spin, clatter and whirl.
The Moat Recordings, by the way, is said to be the first in a potential series of releases. That's an exciting prospect, but I'm just happy to have this session in my hands and ears at last.
Django Bates - You Live and Learn...(apparently) (Lost Marble)
Anthony Braxton - Sextet (Victoriaville) 2005 (Victo)
Joseph Holbrooke Trio - The Moat Recordings (Tzadik)
Back at the Iridium tonight for the final set of Anthony Braxton's Manhattan residency with his 12(+1)tet, Composition No. 358 filled the room with the sounds of surprise. During the course of an extended run by just about any band, you might anticipate a sense of routine to creep in by the end. Not so in this case; in fact, of the three sets I heard this weekend, this one was perhaps the most consistently unpredictable.
A lemon-frosting sweet-tart fundamental pulsation, sustained longer than those of the previous pieces I'd heard, elicited scorching solos by the leader, first on sopranino saxophone, then on alto. A lovely trio of sopranino and soprano saxophones was backed by plucked violin and bass strings, clattering metal percussion from Taylor Ho Bynum and Reut Regev, and Jay Rozen's buzzing pie-plate prepared tuba. An eruption from Bynum's muted trumpet and Nicole Mitchell's voice led to a busy viola solo by Jessica Pavone, chorused and contradicted by Sara Schoenbeck's bassoon and Mitchell's flute. Braxton, saxophonist James Fei and bassist Carl Testa reasserted the pulse, fought off by piercing stabs from Bynum and saxophonists Andrew Raffo Dewar and Steve Lehman...
And suddenly: The burbling activity ceased, bringing on a magical, time-suspended interlude painted by long tones on bass flute, shenai, conch shell and overblown reeds, over which Braxton blew a lyrical alto soliloquy. After what felt like ages, multiple rhythm streams sprouted simultaneously, while Pavone and guitarist Mary Halvorson carried on a scratchy long-distance conversation in the background. Bynum's cornet danced with Mitchell's piccolo; Aaron Siegel's snare drum described one march, while Rozen and Regev offered another...
And suddenly: Everything fell silent, save for a graceful dance by violin, flute and bassoon. Eventually, Lehman grew impatient with the unchallenged beauty, defacing its surface with his multiphonic snarl. Testa restored the pulse under an agitated alto solo by Braxton and an exuberant vocal outburst by Mitchell. As the ensemble piled on once more, Mitchell alternated between voice and flute...
And suddenly: The big band dropped out, allowing a gossamer passage for violin, flute and bassoon that was soon challenged by bullying brass and guitar. As Pavone, Mitchell and Schoenbeck settled into a basic GTM pulse, Bynum signalled for an incursion by himself and Fei; when the trio abruptly ceased its statement, Bynum immediately called off his intended countermove. Braxton jumped in with a scabarous unaccompanied sopranino solo, which elicited the first mid-performance round of appaluse I'd witnessed.
New parterships were still being forged during the home stretch: Lehman turned around to chat with Regev, while Schoenbeck found a hole through which she could link up with Halvorson. Brittle fanfares sounded out, ringing in the silences that followed. As the final grains of sand fell through the hourglass at mid-stage, Braxton signalled a unison conclusion, then ended the set as ever by hurriedly calling off a list of the performers' names, then dashing from the stage.
But tonight, unlike Thursday and Friday, the lusty ovation that followed the set actually brought Braxton back out to the stage, where he visibly -- and movingly -- exulted in the overwhelming feats that he and his colleagues had achieved. I can only hope that someone captured this image for posterity. The band shared handshakes and hugs, and with that, this momentous engagement became history.
Wrapping up: In the comments field of my first Braxton post from Thursday night, ACD requested a definition of Ghost Trance Music. J.K Brogan jumped in to recommend James Fei's liner notes to the Leo recording of Composition No. 247, which can be found here. Franz Fuchs, keeper of the Braxton list on Yahoo Groups, then suggested the liner notes to the GTM releases on the Braxton House label, links to which can be found here. Since Franz specifically cited Bill Shoemaker's excellent essay for Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995, this seems like a good opportunity to call attention to Shoemaker's fine online music journal, Point of Departure. The latest issue includes that same Braxton essay, here. Shoemaker's note, in turn, quotes a Graham Lock essay found in the 1995 Braxton festschrift, Mixtery, a passage compelling enough to quote in full:
Since coming into academia, I came to understand very early that I would have to build an alternative system to help me, because in academia you're constantly talking about your music and that's dangerous. You're constantly talking about the science of the music in a two-dimensional way. So I started to move the ray of focus in my model into the poetic logics, as a way to not know what I'm doing. Because I'm not interested in a music that's two-dimensional, that I can talk about as being the "it" of the music. By that I'm saying that I want the undefined component of my music to be on an equal par with the defined component.
Braxton's very first Ghost Trance Music performances in New York City took place in 1995 at the Knitting Factory, where earlier this evening I'd done my level best to hear a performance by Matt Haimovitz. This always interesting cellist's efforts to take chamber music to places in which it's normally not heard have been brave and admirable. Sometimes, though, those places fight back, and so it was tonight. Haimovitz's program, the first in a three-concert series under the collective title "Goulash," mixed solo compositions and cello-quartet arrangements of music by Bartók, Ligeti and Machover (parts of which included Haimovitz's protégés, Ucello), Turkish music performed by members of the excellent Montreal-based group Constantinople, electronic transitions by turntablist-laptopper DJ Olive, and collective improvisations.
The concept was fascinating, its execution sophisticated and charming. Unfortunately, Haimovitz's performance, which took place in the Knitting Factory's mid-level Tap Bar, was badgered and even drowned out by a rock show happening simultaneously downstairs in the Knitting Factory's Old Office. I hung in there for nearly an hour, but eventually packed up and left, tired of trying to listen to serious artists playing under intolerable conditions. Life's too short -- and there was still time to catch Braxton, who was being treated far better at a midtown venue that makes no pretense of sophisticate chic whatsoever.
Mind you, in no way do I fault Haimovitz, save perhaps for buying into a widespread naïveté that continues to afford the Knitting Factory some modicum of hipster caché. The current club that bears the name has virtually nothing to do with the legendary dive on Houston Street, and hasn't for a long time -- certainly since founder Michael Dorf turned over its management to other hands in 2003, and arguably since it originally relocated to Tribeca in 1994, an expensive move that pretty much forced the club to fill its multiple stages at all times.
That's not to say that great things didn't happen at the new space, at least initially -- including a November 1995 Braxton festival that included the local premiere of his Ghost Trance Music, one set of which is immortalized on the final entry in the playlist below. But I vividly remember a struggle identical to the one that took place tonight happening back in December 1996, when Tim Berne's unamplified Bloodcount, playing in the now-defunct Alterknit Theater -- precisely the same physical space now occupied by the Tap Bar stage -- was overwhelmed by the Pat Metheny/Derek Bailey bloodbath going on at the same time in the Main Space upstairs.
Since anyone who knows me personally also knows that I was employed as the Knitting Factory's publicist for the first half of 1997 -- a fraught period that, despite having ended poorly, nonetheless remains one of the most-cherished experiences of my life -- this complaint could easily be viewed as lingering bad blood. I can only offer my assurance that this is not the case. My sole issue tonight was one of seeing a vital artist's best efforts utterly sabotaged by the conditions under which he and his colleagues were forced to work.
The way I see it is this: Unless you are playing in a loudly amplified rock band -- and please remember that I reported positively of having heard two such groups in separate strata of this same venue only yesterday -- you're better off plying your trade elsewhere. Haimovitz's concert, or at least as much of it as I actually heard, would have been a surefire winner at Joe's Pub, Makor or any number of other venues. Here, it was just another sacrifice offered up to the still-hungry and eminently marketable legend of a storied New York City venue that no longer exists in any meaningful sense.
Eric Whitacre - Cloudburst - Polyphony / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Sentieri Selvaggi - AC/DC (Cantaloupe Music)
Louis Andriessen - Writing to Vermeer - De Nederlandse Opera, Schönberg Ensemble and Asko Ensemble / Reinbert de Leeuw (Nonesuch, to be released April 11)
Anthony Braxton - Ninetet (Yoshi's) 1997, Vol. 3 (Leo)
Anthony Braxton - Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995 (Braxton House)
Anthony Braxton - Ensemble (New York) 1995 (Braxton House)