This year the MusicNOW Festival made a major step up: to Music Hall with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
I found that I had too much to say to fit conveniently into one post, so I have broken this up into several parts. To summarize quickly: I liked it, a lot. Come next year and hear for yourself!
The festival started in 2006, in the basement of the Contemporary Arts Center. I thought they presented an interesting, eclectic collection of performers. I was familiar with some from the classical scene, but I had no idea what to expect from such groups as The Books, though it turned out that they my kids (in their 20s at the time) knew them well. I particularly remember Kyaw Kyaw Naing, a Burmese drummer, improvising delicately on the piano.
Later years the festival moved to Memorial Hall, where I heard world renowned groups such as the Kronos Quartet and eighth blackbird. The festival has always presented an eclectic mixture, with folk and rock groups along side more classically oriented new music. I thought the Music Hall venue might cramp the style of the festival a bit. However, the second concert opened with a set by a folk singer, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who came out by himself with his guitar. They also managed to fit in some “opening acts” concurrent with the Classical Conversations held in the Corbett Tower: a local group, the Little Lights, played before the first concert, and Olga Bell played in the lobby before the second. Thus, the eclectic character of the festival was maintained, despite the weight and formality of giant hall.
What the MusicNOW festival had to offer the symphony orchestra was obvious to anyone who attended both: the audience for one was largely young and scruffy, the other, old and stodgy. I am sure that the orchestra’s administrators were pleased with what they saw on the the two nights of these concerts: large crowds, full of young adults, many apparently at Music Hall for the first time.
Both concerts ended with masters from the early 20th century, Scriabin and Prokofiev respectively. This anchored the new music in context of the classical tradition. For the people less familiar with classical music, these works were well chosen to display the power and brilliance of the gigantic orchestra, while they gave the more traditional members of the audience something to look forward to.
If you are looking for today’s young heirs to the tradition of Prokofiev and Scriabin, you are most likely to find them working with the music that speaks to their peers, not confined to the dusty bins of a university. This year’s festival featured two such composers. Bryce Dessner, also the festival organizer, is guitarist for a successful “alternative” rock band, The National, touring Europe this summer with a newly released album high on the charts. Johnny Greenwood is one of the main creative forces in Radiohead, one of the most innovative English rock bands in the last 20 years. These young composers were put on a bill beside leading composers of the older generation, and, in my opinion, their music held up well in comparison.