Review: MusicNOW

The MusicNOW season is over; long live MusicNOW.  Last night's concert also marked the end of the tenures of composers-in-residence Mark Anthony-Turnage and Osvaldo Golijov, which brought the requisite lamentation from CSO Assn president Deborah Rutter.  Most though, including the composers themselves, I think are ready for a change from this holding pattern--or maybe I'm projecting.

The concert itself was a vast improvement over the last concert, at which Turnage paid homage to Richard Rodney Bennett, his model composer growing up. Yes, I was the one who booed at the last concert.  (See below for more on that.)  This concert, curated by Golijov, brought in John Luther Adams, one of the "Gorillas in the mist" of American composition. Living in Alaska, Adams is "one of the most original musical thinkers" according to Alex Ross.  

Before the concert started, Ms. Rutter and co. talked to Turnage (whose presence there confused even him), Golijov, Adams, and Ward-Bergeman, the other composer on the program.  The introduction felt awkward and obligatory and set an irreverent tone that seemed inappropriate moments later.  It should have simply been Golijov--no introduction needed; we're all friends now--explaining that the concert was a collection of ritual-esque pieces.  He requested that the audience refrain from applause (or booing) until the end so as to maintain the religious calm throughout--"a mass without religion".
The concert started for real with Adams bass drum quartet, called Qilyaun.  The four bass drums were situated with 2 in front, 2 at the rear of the audience.  Minimalist, bordering on simplistic, the piece referenced native Alaskan rituals using drums.  For me, it was a great way to begin the concert, allowing my over-caffeinated brain a chance to simmer down, changing the way I listen and what I listen for.  The piece, though, I think is more of a meditative experience than many are used to, and some audience members felt it droned on for too long.  [Technical note: the balance was off, causing the rear bass drums to be louder than the front.  Balance would have made the spatialization more effective.]
Second on the program was Golijov's own Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind--but only the final part, an interesting choice.  The piece continued the meditative calm, building it to a subdued fury before ending with a soft question mark--expertly but carefully played.
Another piece by Adams followed: For Jim (rising) for brass ensemble.  Adams spoke about the piece beforehand, mentioning a mentor (whose name I misheard).  The piece sounded like a combination of Grisey's Partiels and a piece by James Tenney I heard once at the MAVerick ensemble.  The latter piece, for solo gong, was a 10-minute crescendo followed by a 10-minute decrescendo, allowing partials from the harmonic series to emerge and then fade away.  Adams' piece created a more complex fabric of overtones piling up jaggedly with no clear reference to pulse.  Because of the rhythmic ambiguity, the clear conducting of Stephen Burns caused me to feel a pulse when there wasn't one; a subdued gesture would have been more appropriate.  With eyes closed, I got a better sense of the beautifully amorphous nature of the piece.
The second half of the program kept the same serene calm, uninterrupted by applause, but was less worthy of rapt attention.  Michael Ward-Bergeman's Patagonia was a forgettable moment of film music arranged for the stage.  He played the "hyper-accordion"--an accordion plugged into electronic foot pedals--and was accompanied by a string quartet.  A meandering hyper-accordion introduction led to a benign melody; at some point it ended.  The sound of the accordion was best in its natural state, the pedals achieving only to make it sound cheesy and cliché--at one point like the THX introduction in movie theaters.  Was this piece included because of his friendship and collaboration with Golijov?  The most interesting part of the piece was the string quartet, which was arranged by Golijov.  Someone, a composer who shall remain nameless, said that he just wished the hyper-accordion would "just settle down."  It was funnier in person.
Then another piece by Adams: ...and bells remembered...  Like listening to Feldman, it was protracted periods of time interrupted by chords on vibes or chimes--seemingly random or aleatoric.  I think I was bothered by the timbre, which has become cliché in the years of synthesized bell sounds.  The piece, to me, sounded like a soundtrack to a Nova special about the stars.
Finally, Golijov's Tekyah brought all of the performers on stage to close the program.  I'm sorry to say I have no salient recollections aside from the use of traditional Jewish instruments, shofars, in the finale.  
The overall concert experience was a success; it managed to create for me some sense of religious ritual--sans dogma.  Without applause, each piece was simply a part of the overall flow, making it more difficult to judge each one individually--which was a pleasant change and appropriate for this concert.  [Afterwards, however, I had no problem being more judgmental--obviously.]  For some of us, concerts are somehow part of a religious practice; it would be nice to have similar concerts on a more regular basis and to know what to expect beforehand.
Regarding the previous MusicNOW concert:
The ostensible mission of MusicNOW is to present contemporary works--if not cutting edge, close.  Bennett was once that genre of composer but then became disillusioned with it and turned to more popular styles.  The piece on the last MusicNOW program was simply jazz--post-Ellington, big-band, bordering-on-smooth jazz.  I don't dislike jazz, and there are even some forms of jazz that would be appropriate at MusicNOW (although they would have to bring in the appropriate players--symphonic musicians lack the necessary grit and tattoos).  Bennett's piece, however, regardless of style, was simply inappropriate as concert music and would have been better situated somewhere in the background--of a 1960s movie or cocktail party.  

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Tags: cso, musicnow, review

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