Live Log 2023: Written For Talea

The Written For Talea series was launched in 2016 to present works commissioned by the Talea Ensemble in world premiere performances. On Tuesday night at The DiMenna Center, the latest entry in the series brought new works by Louis Karchin, Tyshawn Sorey, and Anthony Cheung to life in a spectacular display of the group's flexibility and deep engagement. 

The evening began with Louis Karchin's Tribute To The Angels (2020), a two-movement work that incorporated excerpts from a cycle of poems by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) called Trilogy. Joined by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, nearly the full complement of musicians was used for this substantial piece, including Karen Kim, violin, Hannah Levinson, viola, Christopher Gross, cello, Barry J. Crawford, flute, Marianne Gythfeldt, clarinet, Wilden Dannenberg, horn, Sae Hashimoto, percussion, and Stephen Gosling, piano.

Jennifer Zetlan (center) and the Talea Ensemble performing Louis Karchin

Karchin deployed this varied group to explore a crystalline high modernism, with strains of Americana and a theatrical bent. If I hadn't read that he studied at Tanglewood in the early 70s, I might have suspected it! The sparkling sections created a sense of what I can sincerely call magic, like the best film scores can do, lending a warmth to the tightly composed sounds. Zetlan was fully committed to the vocal component, unleashing enough power that I wondered if the angels of the title were of the avenging kind. But that was only appropriate considering H.D. poetry incorporated her personal experience of the Blitz in London during World War II.

H.D. used a poet's gaze to contrast the Blitz with great battles of history and myth ("Never in Rome, so many martyrs fell; not in Jerusalem, never in Thebes, so many stood and watched chariot-wheels turning, saw with their very eyes, the battles of the Titans...") and watching Zetlan's eyes and the way she bit off a phrase or two before extending a hand to advance the score on her tablet only further made it seem as if she was fully in character for the piece. 

All the players were predictably excellent, but Hashimoto, also a member of Yarn/Wire, especially impressed with her deft, balletic approach to the complex percussion part, which added a great deal of color to the piece. Overall, Karchin's scoring dazzled with its nearly symphonic grasp of each instrument’s potential and a willingness to create new sounds through their synthesis. Conductor James Baker was as engaged as all the musicians, leading them with rhythmic precision and colorful movements. Even while while working in a tradition of setting poetry to chamber music, Karchin has brought a new work into the world that extends that tradition firmly into our present day.

The second piece was Sorey's For Wayne Shorter (In Memoriam) (2023), which is in a tradition of its own. When I saw the Tak Ensemble at Lincoln Center last year, they presented a premiere of Sorey's time-suspending For Jaimie Branch, an elegy for a marvelous jazz musician gone too soon. Wayne Shorter lived a far longer life, but still left a hole with his passing earlier this month so it felt like a privilege to hear Sorey's piece at its first performance. The ensemble was slightly reduced, but now also included Greg Chudzik on bass, an addition that would prove critical.

Chris Gross (cello), James Baker (conductor), and Greg Chudzik (bass) performing Tyshawn Sorey

For Wayne Shorter proceeded almost as a series of exhalations, with the ensemble broken up into small cells, like huddled mourners seeking answers to the unanswerable. As in the piece for Branch, time got suspended but then it was…MARKED by Chudzik's down-tuned bass playing a four-note figure. Each time he played it, it felt like nothing more than finality. But then he would play it again, showing that he could go on, as must we all even in the face of immeasurable loss. Sorey's complete avoidance of cliché made the work all the more powerful and felt like a rich opportunity to confront the loss of Shorter while reflecting on his immense contributions to music.

After the Sorey piece, there was a pause in the evening to welcome Fred Lerdahl, the Fritz Reiner Professor Emeritus of Music at Columbia University, who presented Baker with the Alice M. Ditson Fund's Conductor's Award, which recognized his commitment to presenting contemporary American music. This evening's performance could not have made a better argument for giving him this well-deserved honor!

Fred Lerdahl presenting the Ditson Conducting Award to James Baker

The last piece was Cheung's Clocks For Seeing (2023), with the title coming from Roland Barthes' gem of a book, Camera Lucida. In a passage referenced by Cheung, Barthes notes "For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches - and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood." Cheung astutely heard the music in Barthes' thoughts and created a marvel of a piece in response.

Stephen Gosling dividing his attention between electronic and acoustic keyboards in Anthony Cheung's piece

For this piece, Gosling added an electronic keyboard, set upon his grand piano and controlled by a laptop. The sounds crafted by it were recognizable as piano sounds, but just a bit off, adding new layers to the sound world. This blended perfectly with the swoops and glides of the strings and fragmented notes played by the flute and clarinet, giving the impression of a wavering architecture, a building reflected in a shimmering pond, with solid lines turned to brushstrokes. But Clocks For Seeing was also, perhaps not surprisingly, the most rhythmic of the pieces with the first half rising to the level of a groove even, and not without swagger. A bold mosaic arose in the air, with plucked cellos, double-stopped flute, and the keyboards interlocking and coming to a thrilling head. Then a gradual diffusion, but so subtly done, and so carefully modulated by the musicians, that it could only end as it did: with all the players making a dry sound, a little bit of white noise not unlike a breath. A truly stunning end to a stellar night of music.

Anthony Cheung and Tyshawn Sorey

Note: Full disclosure - I'm the board president of Talea, which in no way influences how I feel about their important role in the musical firmament of our times and the sheer brilliance of their work. The exact opposite, in fact!

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