Opening Act: Little Lights
The group describes themselves: “Dreampop soundscapes, lush guitar washes, and vintage beats accompany softly sung melodies”.
Bryce Dessner: St. Carolyn by the Sea (featuring Bryce and Aaron Dessner on electric guitar)
Dessner wrote the Murder Ballades for the eighth blackbird, and the piece has entered their regular repertoire. At this point, the group has a lot of music to choose from, so the work’s frequent presence on their programs says much more about its quality than anything I can say here. The pieces have also been choreographed by Justin Peck, and I think they would work well with dancers. Based on Appalachian tunes, the work has diatonic harmonies, and, except for the slow sections, strong rhythms.
St. Carolyn by the Sea is a landscape that “features” electric guitars, which meant they were put in the front of the orchestra. Though the guitars were occasionally prominent, this is not a concerto. These electronic instruments were simply added to the orchestra, the way a saxophone was in some works written 100 years ago.
I enjoyed hearing Dessner’s music. I find his “classical” music much more engaging than anything I have heard (which I confess is not much) from the band he plays in. His style is might be described post-minimalist, and you can hear the rock influence.
Nico Muhly: Pleasure Ground (featuring baritone Nathan Wyatt)
I was introduced to the music of Nico Muhly at the MusicNow festival two years ago, when the eighth blackbird premiered Double Speak. That concert featured many devotees of Phillip Glass in addition to Muhly. However, Muhly’s music stood out: in a concert filled with pieces that were too long for my taste, Muhly’s, though no shorter by the clock, ended too soon for the amount of material he had. I wanted to hear more.
Of the composers in the festival, I thought Muhly’s orchestral writing was the most intriguing. Unfortunately, it was also a setting of a text. With almost no instrumental support for the vocal melody, the combination of complex harmonies and colorful orchestration overwhelmed the soloist. Nathan Wyatt’s voice was large enough for the hall, and in those few passages where the orchestra was quiet, he seemed expressive. But much of the melody was simply lost, and the text was completely unintelligible. (Earth to Nico: Give the poor baritone a mike! John Adams does this with success.)
The first night ended with the Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4, opus 54, entitled Poem of Ecstasy. The orchestra handled this showpiece from the end of the Romantic Era with the expansive, expressive playing that the composer envisioned.
This is perhaps the time to mention the use of lights during the performance. The backdrop was lit, with changing colors according to the mood of the piece. I don’t think I noticed when they were first being manipulated, though during the Scriabin, it became increasingly obvious. For the final, gigantic C chord, they pulled out all the stops, bringing the lights suddenly way down and then filling the entire hall with light as the chord opened up. For some pieces, I would have found such an approach annoying, but for Scriabin, especially in this work, over the top is the entirely appropriate. I heard nothing but delight from anyone with this use of the lights.