Thursday, April 04, 2019

2019 First Quarter Report: Concerts

An unpredictable schedule this year meant that every concert I've seen except one has been in the realm of contemporary classical music. But within that, much variety - read on!

No Filler At The Miller I was speaking with Melissa Smey, Executive Director of the Miller Theatre, and she was relating the challenge they're going to have capping off their 30th anniversary next season. A challenge because their programming has been so strong in 2018-19 that it's hard to know how they can top it in 2019-20! From the Du Yun Composer Portrait I saw last November to the three shows I've been to so far this year, they are hitting all the marks - and there's still more to come.

On February 21st, I took in the Wang Lu Composer Portrait, giving me another opportunity to hear Urban Inventory, last performed in New York back in 2016 by Third Sound, who also recorded it on Wang Lu's stunning 2018 debut album. Here, the International Contemporary Ensemble worked their magic on the piece, also playing the witty Childhood Amnesia (2017) and Siren Song (2008), which found Stravinsky barreling into a Chinese opera house and causing quite a commotion. There was also A-PPA-Aratus, a world premiere played by Yarn/Wire and a stunning addition to their repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists. I hope they record this spectacular 21st century poéme mecanique very soon.
Yarn/Wire performing A-PPA-Aratus
Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre
A week later I was back to see Third Sound themselves, making their Miller debut at one of the theatre's innovative Pop-Up concerts. These are the free shows where the audience sits on the stage and enjoys free beer along with the music. They also usually last just about an hour, so Third Sound, founded in 2015 by composer Patrick Castillo with violinist Karen Kim, cellist Michael Nicolas, pianist Orion Weiss, flautist Sooyun Kim and clarinetist Romie de Langlois, programmed a set that had enough variety to show what they can do while also keeping it concise.

Ingrid Arauco’s Fantasy Quartet was a perfect opener - sparkling, astringent and colorful, it gave many opportunities for the musicians to shine. Next was Music For Four composed by the group’s founder, Patrick Castillo, and inspired by watching his young son at play. It was a piece infused with warmth and joy, making equally canny use of repetition and surprise. Finally, in keeping with their mission to embrace to whole sweep of chamber music, they stormed through Webern’s imaginative reduction of Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie, Op. 9. All of the work’s angst and artfulness was brilliantly exposed by their passionate playing, earning them an enthusiastic ovation. I think they'll be asked back.

My last visit to the Miller was just this past Thursday, when they presented a Composer Portrait of Tyshawn Sorey to a buzzing and packed house. The excitement was more than justified by what followed as were treated to an embarrassment of riches in two sets of music presented seamlessly, without applause or space between works. This was similar to the first half of the Du Yun concert and if anyone else is putting on shows like this I’d love to know about it. Special note should be made of Isabella Byrd's lighting, which helped immeasurable with all the transitions and lent a sense of atmosphere and occasion.

One theme of the night was how to pay homage to your mentors while speaking in your own voice. The first piece, In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams (2018), paid tribute to the founder of the AACM with a meditation for violin (Jennifer Curtis) and celesta (Cory Smythe). It was a gorgeous combination of sonorities that both quieted and engaged the mind. Sorey’s lyrical gifts were much in evidence as they would be later in the night. The next piece, Ornations (2014) provided a welcome and witty shock to the system as flautist Clair Chase faced off with clarinetist Joshua Rubin. The word “puckish” may be overused when it comes to Chase, but as she danced opposite Rubin, who was anchored in place by his contrabass clarinet, it was impossible not to think of Shakespeare’s sprite. The music matched the mood resulting in tremendous fun that was not without an edge of aggression. The JACK Quartet closed the first half with the NY premiere of Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, a work requiring tremendous concentration as they passed around sustained notes creating an unbroken canvas of sound. I look forward to hearing it again so I can just let it happen without wondering what would happen next. 

Claire Chase faces off with Joshua Rubin in Ornations
Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theater
After a brief intermission, Sorey and Chase sat down for an illuminating discussion that amplified some of the material in Lara Pellegrinelli’s superb program notes, chiefly the distinction between hybridity and mobility. Sorey sees the former as a tired trope about "jazz" musicians writing "classical music," "crossing over," etc. Instead of a hybrid composer, he sees himself as a mobile one, able to do what he wants with whatever instrumentation he wants in whatever setting he chooses. Amen. They also reminisced about their first meeting, about a decade ago, a tribute to the tight relationship between composer and musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. That connection would come in handy in the world premiere presented in the second half of the concert, but first we heard For Harold Budd (2012), a gleaming trio for piano, flute and vibraphone that had Smythe and Chase working with percussionist Levy Lorenzo. It really was beautiful, with some of Budd's painterly qualities, but the brushstrokes were all Sorey's. 

Autoschediasms (2019), a Miller Theatre commission followed. It was scored for "Creative Chamber Orchestra," an ensemble seemingly entirely flexible as the program listed seven musicians to which was then added one more - plus the four members of the JACK. This piece builds on an idea from Butch Morris about "conducted improvisations" that had Sorey leading the group with a series of very specific hand gestures as well as instructions written on a small whiteboard. The players were well-drilled, moving from section to section without hesitating, and the sounds were consistently engaging. My western brain was seeking crescendos, the kind of tension and release we're so conditioned for, but what I heard was more of a continuous tapestry. The effect was a little like listening to a radical remix of a song you never heard before and I'm curious how different it will sound the next time it's performed.
Tyshawn Sorey (right) conducts ICE in Autoschediasms
Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre
As Autoschediasms was fading out, Chase came to the front of the stage with her flute and Sorey stepped off the podium and sat down at a conventional drum kit so they could play Bertha's Lair (2016), a piece that's become a bit of a signature for the duo. Here came the release, the crescendos and so much more as I was witness to some of the greatest drumming I've ever heard, in the same class as Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Leon Parker. But Sorey went further, nearly into a kind of performance art, as he removed a ride cymbal, put it on the floor tom for some intriguing effects - and then stacked it on the other ride cymbal and kept going from there. This was all while Chase was making an action painting in platinum, playing a piccolo flute and an enormous contrabass flute in addition to her standard concert model. It was the perfect ending to a night that earned Sorey and his collaborators a standing ovation and had the audience buzzing once again.

Tales Of Talea Even if I wasn't a board member, I would try to get to as many shows by the estimable Talea Ensemble as possible. This season they have not only been presenting wonderful music, but have made big strides in opening up important conversations about the role of music in our lives, how music works, and what it means to be part of the "new music" community. Much of those discussions happen at their iNSIDE Out series at The Flea Theater, and the one I attended on February 24th was a perfect example. Called Side By Side, the afternoon began with music for duos, kicked off by Vasko Dukovski (clarinet) and Chris Gross (cello) playing Iannis Xenakis' thorny Charisma (1971), which portrayed the instruments as isolated individuals pursuing their own paths. Catherine Lamb's In Passing / PARALLEL (2008), played by the violins of Emilie-Anne Gendron and Anna Kridler, was more of a joint effort - and a bit of an endurance test - as they passed long lines in a continuous tone that somehow created tension. Hearing them follow it up with some choice Bach, with its dance rhythms and folk melodies, threw everything we had already heard into stark relief. 
Performers & Panel at The Flea Theater
After a brief intermission, we reconvened for a very engaging panel discussion featuring Gross, Marcos Balter, Lauren Ishida, Eun Lee and Victoria Chea - and the audience. As these things are wont to do, perhaps more questions were raised than were answered, but we all left with a lot to think about, including my own musings about how Talea’s identity as a premiere presenter of European avant-garde composers meshed with the need for inclusivity on both sides of the concert stage. 

The next time I caught up with Talea, they were kicking off a residency at The Stone, John Zorn's performance space at The New School. There, we were also treated to more spare sounds, mostly solo works played by Adrian Morejon (bassoon) and Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet). A link to the Flea concert was a piece by Eun Lee, a brief and action-packed world premiere called Yun (2018) for solo bassoon and played with real flair by Morejon. He also gave first performances of Edward Jacobs' Concentre (2014), filled with a sense of spontaneity, and Triplum (2014) by Filippo Santoro. The last was a trio, with two prerecorded bassoons played off an iPhone, which kept Morejon on his toes in a rhythmic, angular and witty piece. 

Gythfeldt also thrilled in Mikel Kuehn's signature piece Rite of Passage (2014), which had every last sound made by her bass clarinet picked up and manipulated and played back along with her live instrument - fantastic! She also gave a flawless performance of George Aperghis's Simulacre (1991-95) and then joined Morejon for the bouncy groove of Black (2018) by Mark Mellits. If you’re starting to feel FOMO - and you should be - I will point you to Gythfeldt’s marvelous 2018 collection, Only Human, which includes the Kuehn and other intriguing music. 

You can also trigger my own fear of missing out by attending Talea’s Tenth Anniversary celebration on April 20th. I can’t go, but it promises to be a memorable night revisiting many pieces from Talea's past and also presenting the world premiere of Hans Thomalla's Harmoniemusik 1 (2019) and the U.S. premiere of Framing... (2018) by Georg Friedrich Haas.

Switched On At Areté If any world is a small world, it’s the world of contemporary classical. So I was invited to this New York appearance by Boston’s [Switch~ Ensemble] by Zach Sheets, who used to work with Talea as our development and communications person. Something was in the air on February 28th as I had the choice of about eight concerts, but I decided on this one because it brought me to a venue I’ve never entered to hear pieces by unfamiliar composers. Risk, as Captain Kirk told Bones, is what it’s all about. Areté proved to be a small space arrived at through an arcade in a multi-use building in Williamsburg. The vibe is friendly and scrappy but not disorganized - the concert started right on time as the group launched into the electro-acoustic maelstrom of Adrien Trybucki's Infinite Extension (2017), a world premiere of a piece they commissioned. It was a wonderful introduction to their tight ensemble and excellent taste.

The next piece was Sivan Eldar's sleekly mysterious Tarr (2014), almost a series of notated sighs and whispers - and very beautiful. Third was a surrealistic audio collage by Esaias Järnegard called Songs For Antonin (2017), as in Artaud. It was wacky and gripping in equal measure, with bits of an old radio play mixed in. I don't doubt that Järnegard studied with Pierluigi Billone, as it had some of his absurdist spirit. Switch closed the concert with Timothy McCormack's karst survey, a dark journey indeed, which had T.J. Borden grinding at his cello like a Norwegian black metal guitarist. Overall, the concert showed off Switch to excellent effect - I would keep an eye out for the next time they come to your town.

BOAC Takes Off In PCF I try to never miss the People’s Commissioning Fund concerts by Bang On A Can, where their All-Stars present world and U.S. premieres as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival. There are also usually some classics from their repertoire to fill out the night, which this year included a Glenn Branca work they hadn’t performed for 20 years. The new pieces came first, however, beginning with Henry Threadgill's With Or Without Card, fractured and flamboyant, with a throughline that linked Jimmy Giuffre to Ornette Coleman and gave clarinetist Ken Thomson a lot to chew on. Next was Josué Collado Fregoso's lovely, evanescent Joi de Vivre, which put Mariel Roberts' cello and Robert Black's bass in the foreground. Black also blew some minds in the uncanny notated funk of Trevor Weston's Dig It - it somehow managed to avoid being a "crossover" pastiche. More please. This is where the night's theme of "dance music" truly came into focus, an emphasis that continued in Nicole Lizée's Dancist, a delightfully witty work that was accompanied by her fascinatingly messed up film. I would happily watch - and listen - to it again.
Scenes from the BOAC PCF Concert at Merkin Hall
The highlights of the second half were Annie Gosfield's fabulously imaginative - and furiously complex - The Manufacture Of Tangled Ivory (1993), which pushed pianist Vickie Chow to new heights of synthesizer magnificence, and Branca's Movement Within, a microtonal masterpiece that had Merkin Hall throbbing like the Mudd Club on an average Saturday night in 1980. John Schaefer of New Sounds was on hand to introduce each piece and interview the creators and the discussion with guitarist Mark Stewart and producer Adam Cuthbért about the reclamation of Branca's piece was a gripping tale indeed. Let's just say that recreating Branca's samples, which were stored on Zip Discs, was not a task for the faint of heart. But the All-Stars are a brave bunch and the whooping audience was all too eager to follow them wherever they journeyed. Try to be there in 2020!

Marissa Nadler
Coming Together At MoMA PS1 For the third year in a row, the Museum of Modern Art's Long Island City outpost held an incredible two-day festival called Come Together, created in collaboration with Other Music. Just like the first year, it was filled with a label fair, panel discussions, film screenings and live performances. Of the latter, I was able to see Marissa Nadler, whose 2018 album, For My Crimes, was one of the best folk albums of the year. It was short but intense solo performance, with Nadler creating a web of sound, either fingerpicking on an acoustic or looping a 12-string electric. At the center of it all was her gorgeous voice, which had emotional range enough to cover her dark originals and a cover of Fred Neil's bittersweet Just A Little Bit Of Rain. I was happy to see her earning new fans among the diverse crowd.
Negroclash: Prince Language, Duane Harriott and DJ Lindsey
It was chilly outside when we left the VW Dome, but DJ Duane Harriott was spinning so there was no question about how we were going to warm up. He already had the crowd in a Dionysian frenzy when he was joined by Prince Language and DJ Lindsey for a reunion of their collective Negroclash, which first performed at PS1 almost 20 years ago. Even while dancing, it was impossible not to be stunned at their synchronized routine, with each playing a song (and often manipulating it) before ceding the decks to the next DJ for a sumptuous flow of incredible beats, from disco to funk to electro. It was a high-wire act - and highly musical. They ended the set perfectly, too, with Sylvester's classic (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real, sending us off happy and exhausted into the Queens evening.
Duane Harriott, man at work
And what live music have you enjoyed in 2019?

You may also enjoy:
MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen
Bon Iver's Dance Music
Moment Of Palm
Bang-Up World Premieres

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