Music Now 2015: Coda

Louis & Bryce

This year’s Music Now Festival was bigger and better than ever.  I did not make it to everything, nor did I love everything that I heard, but much of what I did hear was spectacular.  On Thursday, Jeffrey Ziggler blew me away.  At the symphony concerts on Friday and Saturday, I heard world premiers of works that I think will be played for years to come.  Personally, I am not so  excited by the The National that I would go out of my way to hear them in front of an orchestra, but I need to step outside of my comfort zone sometimes, and I am thrilled to see their fans at Music Hall, listening to the music I love.

Of course, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Louis Langrée plays with incredible technical virtuosity, beauty, and energy.

Last year, I was happy with the festival, but in truth, I thought the best thing on the two symphony programs was the nearly 100 year old Prokofiev that served as a finale. This year, the symphony concerts ended with an even better known iconoclastic favorite from Varèse, but I think I heard music from living composers was every bit as good.  This festival is rising to a new level. I commend Bryce Dessner, curator of the festival, for building this up over the years, and Louis Langrée for seizing the opportunity to incorporate this into the orchestra season.

Did I tell you how much I liked Caroline Shaw’s sweet “Lo”, or the power the Bjarnason’s giant “Collider”?

Music Now 2015: Saturday 3/14

Daniel Bjarnason  Saturday’s Music Now concert featured the world premiere of “Collider” by the Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason.  Inspired by the the Large Hadron Collider based at the CERN laboratory, this work uses a gigantic orchestra.  It starts in the deep basement, with the low instruments giving a real sense of the huge scale of this machine. This sense of space was maintained throughout, supported by large masses of instruments, enhanced by lightly scored delicate moments.  This music flows in a way that can be easily followed on first hearing, though I am convinced that there are riches here that would reward hearing it again.  I enjoyed hearing this piece immensely: the only disappointment was that it ended so soon.

Janelle Gelfand, in her review of the concert for the Cincinnati Enquirer, said, “It was the kind of well-crafted and imaginative piece that could see life beyond this performance.”  This praise is too faint-hearted.  Though Bjarnason is not nearly as iconoclastic as Varèse, (After all, what icons are left to smash these days?), Collider sat comfortably beside Amériques on this program, and deserves a place along side it in the orchestral repertoire.  I look forward to hearing it again.

The evening began with a pre-concert performance by the innovative quartet SŌ Percussion.  They played  instruments hey had assembled themselves. These seemed to resemble electrified hammer dulcimers, though some of the strings were very low, and the raucous booming bass during the loud passages did not sound at all like the delicate sweet tones of a hammer dulcimer.  These instruments were bowed or struck with various sizes sticks, the smallest of which looked like they might be pencils. Generally, each person played relatively simple part very precisely coordinated with the others, occasionally to build something that resembled a melody, but more often a complex, coherent texture.  The piece moved from one soundscape to another, often with the players changing implements, exploring the sonic possibilities of the instruments that they had created.  At one point, I began wondering whether they would ever let loose, and soon they did.  The raucous sound prompted  a few to leave the hall, but I was delighted.

So Percussion CSOThe SŌ Percussion was also featured on the first piece of the symphony concert: “Man Made”, a concerto for percussion quartet written by David Lang.  This piece has several sections, each with a different ensemble of percussion instruments.  The work begins with the percussionists snapping sticks to make the sound, dropping the broken implements on the floor. Later they moved to pitched instruments.   In the program notes, Lang describes the difficulties in marrying the approach of these inventive percussionists with the traditional orchestra. These problems he solves successfully: sometimes, the full orchestra plays a short note simultaneously, like one giant drum.  Unfortunately, Lang did not supply much inspiration.  SŌ Percussion did much better on their own, unencumbered by the orchestra or David Lang’s clever composition.

Also before the concert, Timo Andres gave a piano recital in the Cobett Tower.  I went upstairs after the SŌ Percussion piece ended, catching the end of a Schubert piece.  I was immediately struck by the beauty of the playing.  Andres followed this with an étude by Steve Reich, which was again very nicely played.  Andres ended with a piece of his own, which I found less engaging.

In the intermission, Lanzendorf played in the lobby.  Their style worked better for this purpose than Mina Tindle the previous night because their music (at least what I heard) is more atmospheric and ambient, with fewer details to get lost in the crowd noise and echo of the lobby.

Trio with CSO  For some in the audience, the main event was after intermission: the set of five songs from the series called “The Planets”, a collaboration by Sufjan Stevens on vocals, Bryce Dessner on guitar, and Nico Muhly on keyboard, accompanied by the orchestra.  I thought it was dull.

Far from dull was the concert finale: Amériques by Edgard Varèse. This modernist monument from the post World War I era is full of Varèse’s enthusiasm for the vitality of his newly adopted country and his fascination with machines.  I have heard it in concert several times before.  In one performance, the siren was frequently allowed to dominate, transforming the piece into a concerto for annoying siren and orchestra.  Although the siren was certainly prominent in some passages, Langrée is too refined to let it take over.  Under his direction, the orchestra was both well balanced and energetic. It was a thrilling conclusion to this fine concert.

Music Now 2015: Friday 3/13

National Onstage   On Friday, the Music Now festival returned to Music Hall.

The evening began with a small recital in the Corbett Tower featuring works by composers present at the festival and by John Sebastian Bach.  Yuki Numata Resnick played a couple of unaccompanied violin pieces by Bryce Dessner.  I particularly enjoyed the second one, written in the tradition of the Bach preludes: Resnick was able to transcend the busyness of the arpeggios and attain remarkably meditative quality.  This was followed by a Bach Saraband, with double, in which Reshnick she was joined by her husband, who is trumpeter for The National. Nico Muhly joined her on the piano for his “Drones & Violin”, a piece where the instruments trade off being the drone accompaniment.   The concert ended with a piano soloist James McVinnie playing a Bach Partita.

When I looked around, I noticed that the room was packed, with people standing around the back.  It was not the usual bunch of grand parents: the crowd was mostly young.

The orchestra concert began with a CSO premiere of a piece by Edgard Varèse:  “Tuning Up”.  Actually, Varèse never finished this work: it was put together by his pupil and curator Chou Wen-chung from fragmentary notes that were discovered after the composer’s death. Though Varèse is famous for his definition of music as “organized sound”, this particular work shows hardly any sign of organization: it is a complete mess.

Varèse was better represented indirectly, through the influence he had on other works on the concert: “The Infernal Machine” by Christopher Rouse and “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” by John Adams.  These are both orchestral show pieces from well established composers, full of rhythm, energy, and the clashing sounds of the late twentieth century, well chosen to appeal to an audience more at home with rock than with the 19th century classics.  The orchestra gave both pieces thrilling performances.

In between these were two pieces from young composers featured in the festival. “Lachrimae” for string orchestra was written by Bryce Dessner, the festival organizer.  The other work was a world premier commissioned for the festival: “Lo” by Caroline Shaw, for violin and orchestra, with the composer on the violin.

pulitzer-Carolyn Shaw Violin Though there are occasional technical passages for the soloist, “Lo” is not a flashy virtuoso concerto in the Romantic tradition but a lovely orchestra piece with a prominent violin solo.  It features simple tunes, sometimes pared down to a bare scale, while other times with emotionally laden arcs.  The orchestration is colorful.  The harmony is often sweet, without being predictable. There are occasional quotations, references to familiar pieces, but I never found it derivative.  Her style shows the influence of modernistic complexity, but the music has a simple core, which is both easy to follow and emotionally engaging.  She is clearly one to follow in the future.  It is not just me who thinks so: she is the youngest composer to ever be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

The festival seems to want to pack as much music in as possible.  During intermission, Mina Tindle payed in the lobby.  For me intermission at Music Hall is often spent in the lobby enjoying the echo of an enthusiastic crowd in happy conversation.  This time, the crowd was larger and louder than usual.  Adding music to this lovely noise is pointless.  Details, such as the words of a folk singer, what language she might have been singing in, or sometimes even the chord changes, are lost.  Towards the end of the set as the crowd thinned out, I recognized a tune as a folksy variant of a familiar chorale I know as “Ye watchers and ye holy ones”.  Mina Tindle, seems to have a pretty voice, but I cannot tell much about her music from this event.

National at CSOAfter intermission, the concert was taken over by The National, with the orchestra playing accompaniment.  Regardless of what I think of the National, this is largely a waste of a world class orchestra: they added sweet chords and a little background color, but the interest was in the band.  Only on one song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, did I find the orchestra doing anything interesting, and indeed, this was my favorite piece in the set.

In researching the National for this little post, I ran across this: “The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school.”  Whatever the effect on rock, which is, after all, anti-intellectual, it is very healthy for the young, classical composers of today to be engaged so successfully in the vernacular music of their generation.

In our culture, recorded music is often used as backdrop for other activities, and the popular genres are clearly better suited for this purpose than classical music. In this concert setting, I found The National rather boring.  However, I was in the minority. It was obvious that The National had many fans in the audience: they started clapping (meaning “I know this one”) at the instrumental introduction of particular favorites. With both originality and serious musicianship, this band has earned the “ridiculous honor”, as singer Matt Berninger called it, of playing on stage with this world class orchestra.  The proof is in the packed house, an audience that Louis Langrée, director of the CSO, clearly hopes will come back for more.