Thursday, September 26, 2019

Concert Review: A Braxton Spectacular At Miller

“Music is not just that which happens on stage. Music is part of the vibrations that happen between people.” - Anthony Braxton

There likely would have been a sense of occasion - and a packed house - at the Miller Theatre last Wednesday night no matter whose music was being featured. It was the opening concert of their 20th season of Composer Portraits, an event worthy of celebration even in the abstract. But an evening of music by Anthony Braxton is also not as common as it should be so I welcomed the opportunity for immersion. 

A glance at the program and a read through Lara Pellegrinelli's typically incisive and captivating notes promised a well-conceived evening, moving chronologically from 1968’s Composition No. 1 to Composition No. 358 from 2006. Also, with Either/Or and JACK Quartet involved I knew there would be no question about the excellence of the players. But there was much I didn’t know, as when Melissa Smey revealed that after performing the first three pieces in sequence, the final six works would be played simultaneously. Without understanding exactly how that would work, I settled in, alert to whatever may come. 

Richard Carrick, director of Either/Or, assayed the first piece, which was for solo piano. A fragmented shuffle or palimpsest of lyricism and cacophony, with the barest hint of ragtime, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Knowing that Braxton often uses unconventional notation, I kept an eye on Carrick’s iPad Pro to see what the sheet music promised. The boldest gesture there - a giant black X across several bars - was equally bold on the keyboard as Carrick crossed his hands to continue an especially dazzling run. Some of the big block chords spoke to me as exemplars of the frustration Braxton may have felt in 1968, whether with the state of the world or his need to break free of free jazz. In any case, this fully formed piece draws quite a line in the sand as Braxton’s first numbered composition and promised great things ahead. 

Next up was the JACK taking on Composition No. 17 from 1971, which offers much freedom to the players as far as which part is played by each instrument and for how long. With subtle hand gestures from violist John Pickford Richard to keep them on track, three distinct movements emerged encompassing various levels of wooziness, static, and turbulence. Whether it was the JACK’s approach or built in, there was a sense of structure that was at least adjacent to the string quartet literature making for a very satisfying and adventurous piece. 

Either/Or then took the stage, expanded to 11 players with the addition of two of Braxton’s close collaborators, James Fei (saxophone) and Chris McIntyre (trombone). Both of them, especially the latter, had a lot to do in Composition No. 46, which occasionally mingled Boulezian elegance with suspense straight out of a Lalo Schifrin score. As it went on, I found my mind drifting and wondered if the piece wasn’t a bit aimless. This led to thoughts about what it means for music to have an “aim” in the first place. Was such criticism more about me than about Braxton? Was it actually criticism at all, or just acknowledgement? Before I knew it the piece had ended. 

Then, after a brief reset of the stage, came the piece de la resistance, one of those “only at Miller” blockbuster experiences that will have people saying “I was there” for years - and some of them might be lying. Yes, it was THAT incredible. Either/Or, now boasting a seriously tricked out percussionist, and JACK filled nearly the entire stage and sallied forth into the breach to play (deep breath): Compositions No. 17, 18, 40(O), 101, 168, and 358, spanning 35 years of work from 1971 to 2006. My impressions were as follows:
  • Brawny swagger, led by the reeds and brass, mallets on bongos lending a faint whiff of 50’s “exotica.”
  • Furious flute and bassoon jam (maybe No. 168?) with stunning playing by Margaret Lancaster and Sarah Schoenbeck, respectively. Other sounds faded away. 
  • Most of JACK having a great time, gesticulating with bows, pointing at each other’s music stands to stay focused (unclear if this was staged behavior, especially when they began shouting in unison); cellist Jay Campbell looked miserable for a few minutes, like a teenager forced to play poker with his parents, but soon brightened up. Many glissandi, swooping up and down the necks of their instruments.
  • Cubist strains of Gershwin-esque melodies kept seeking air above the clamor, with a glorious lack of success.
  • James Fei taking command once in a while on alto or soprano sax, the collective blend unable to hide his obvious brilliance.
  • Muted trumpet galore, played beautifully by Jonathan Finlayson, but not the cool, airy Miles Davis mute, more like Louis Armstrong 1920's mute, all sharp commentary.
  • Playful, even pranky at times, with echoes of Joseph Byrd's balloon music, or a Pere Ubu song about walking or feet.
  • Occasionally able to zoom in from the totality and pick out an individual work, like Composition No. 101 (1981) for piano and trombone, Carrick and McIntyre synching up beautifully.
  • Bassist James Ilgenfritz and percussionist Russell Greenberg driving things ever onward, with the latter equally facile on the side drum, the vibes, or those delightful bongos. They had me tapping my toes and dancing in my seat a little.
  • Devolved into insect sounds, everyone seemingly on the same page, making dry, rustling noises, eventually going quiet. The end.
The audience caught their collective breath and then issued forth a long ovation. As we stood, a woman to my left asked if I had heard it before. "No one has," I said, nearly crowing. "Well, you were tapping your fingers..." "It had a pulse," I responded, smiling, "and I reacted accordingly." I'm still not sure if she was annoyed or a little bit jealous. On my way out, I shook Miller director Melissa Smey's hand and congratulated her on a spectacular start to the season. Get to this page to find out what the rest of the series looks like and make a plan to be there.

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