It was a great experience, with several of the composers showing up at the concerts to discuss their work, and with MTT taking the time to place the works in a historical and musical context, explaining why he chose the pieces, and why he thinks they are significant.
I performed in two of the concerts with the Symphony Chorus, attended many of the others, and had a great time. So that I didn't lose the experience, I wrote down my thoughts about each concert, and published those thoughts here in case anybody else is interested.
It also provided amusement the rest of the night as MTT would go to demonstrate some melody, and would have to remember to walk by the piano that was tuned weird :)
MTT decided to do this as audience participation, so he had invited audience members to bring instruments along, and a surprising number of people had. I jumped seats to go sit next to a bunch of other Chorus members, so we were able to goof around musically during the actual performance. It was a pretty neat effect, but kinda difficult to keep going - the piece lasted about 40 minutes, so MTT had encouraged people to just take a break occasionally and listen to what was going on.
The first movement starts off with wild melodies in the main orchestra which cut out suddenly, leaving the lilting sounds of the small group. The main orchestra fades back in, leading into a cello solo. Everything starts to slow down, until a big break, when the choir leaps in singing a hymn, with the line "Watchman, tell us of the night". There's some wacky instrumental stuff going on underneath the choir's straight unison singing. The choir fades out singing "Dost thou see its beauteous ray?" and the last thing in the movement is the "Star of Bethlehem" group playing slower and slower arpeggios.
The second movement is just astonishing. Basically, Ives took _everything_ he could think of and threw it in there. So you've got the strings playing a hymn, for instance, and the brass break in playing a show tune from Broadway. They all jump around, playing dance numbers, popular tunes, back to hymns, anything and everything that could be called music mixed into one big melting pot. I really enjoyed this - I just ended up smiling a lot because it was so fun to hear all these different musical strains mushed together. When I say they're doing different things, I mean it. This movement actually required an auxiliary conductor, who conducted the brass in a different tempo than the main conductor was conducting the strings for a section of the movement.
The third movement was not as memorable to me. It was pretty and a bit slower, but not as wacky. Fourth movement returns to quoting several of the hymns, and ends up with the chorus humming themes from Nearer, and slowly fading out once again leaving the "Star of Bethlehem" group hanging. Neat stuff.
The other cool bit about this concert was a post-concert discussion with MTT, Meredith Monk, Lukas Foss, and Lou Harrison. Just hearing these composers talk about their music and their influences was a lot of fun, even though I was dead tired. And, I mean, where else could you get those people all together, performing their work with a top-notch symphony, and then talking about it afterwards? Too cool.
They brought in the leader of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Jon Faddis, to conduct this concert. At our rehearsal with him, he said "Don't call me a conductor, cuz I ain't. I'm just a performer like you guys." Unfortunately, he wasn't kidding - he really didn't know how to conduct. He's a heckuva trumpet player, but he didn't really know how to coordinate a large group.
The first half featured large orchestral arrangements of Ellington. It was pretty rough, because Faddis was very stiff on the podium. He stood very stiffly, clutching the baton and mechanically beating out measures, without any sort of flair, or cues to the orchestra or anything. He also apparently got lost a few times in the music.
Despite that, it went pretty well. But, by far the best piece of the first half was Taking the A Train, which featured Queen Esther Marrow as the soloist. Let me just say that this woman is amazing. After she sang three notes at the dress rehearsal, it was clear that she had more soul in her little finger than the entire symphony chorus put together. She apparently was discovered by Duke Ellington and her first professional work was soloing in the Sacred Concert premiered in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral in 1965, a role she reprised in this concert. Wow. She rocked.
She was featured in three songs in the first half, two of which didn't show her off very well, because she was buried under the symphony orchestration (and brass players who didn't know how to shut up). But the A Train arrangement was just bass, piano, drums, soloist, and trumpet soloist (Faddis). And that just _sizzled_. She could really let loose, the rhythm section had enough jazz experience to go with her, and when he didn't have to worry about an orchestra, Faddis was great as both a soloist and an accompanist on his trumpet. Wow.
The second half of the concert was a Sacred Concert, written by Ellington. It's sacred music based in jazz rather than classical themes. Several of the movements featured chorus which meant we got to be on stage with these folks. Three great soloists: Queen Esther Marrow, who I raved about above, Priscilla Baskerville, an opera-trained soprano who also could sing this stuff, and Milt Grayson, who had a great James Earl Jones kind of voice, the low growly bass. This went a lot better than the first half, because it was a small jazz band, without the rest of the symphony, so Faddis was more in his element. He didn't handle the chorus very well, which was a bit annoying, because we ended up looking pretty stupid a couple times, but that's life.
Still a lot of fun, and the one time Queen Esther launched into a call and response with the audience was a great experience ("Let me hear you say, Amen Amen!"). Faddis, with showman's instincts, urged the chorus to our feets to start clapping and singing Amen amen with her, and the whole symphony hall started clapping and singing too. It was excellent, despite me being so white that I had a hard time singing "Amen, Amen" in rhythm while maintaining clapping. D'oh.
In particular, their American gamelan was way nifty. The gamelan, as most of you know, is a Balinese or Indonesian set of percussion instruments, that look like xylophones, often involving bamboo construction. Harrison heard a gamelan orchestra in the 1930's and thought they were way cool, but had no way of obtaining access to a set. So he made his own. The little xylophones were constructed out of conduit pipes cut to appropriate lengths and screwed into 2x4 frames painted red. The big ones have suspended slabs of aluminum hung over resonators constructed out of #10 cans glued together (2 for a high note, 4 or 5 for a low note). Very cool stuff.
Harrison himself was at the concert, and spoke a few words about each piece before they were performed. He seemed like a great guy that really enjoyed being surrounded by music, and was unfailingly polite to the many people that came up to him and said hi.
Harrison apparently spent some time as a dance accompanist, and a lot of his work is overtly influenced by dances. The second movement of his Third Symphony, which was performed this evening, consists of three dances, a reel in honor of an Irish friend, a waltz, and an estampie, which is a peasant dance, featuring lots of stamp like percussion (it's from the same root as stampede apparently).
The symphony was very pleasant - as I noted before, it's very melodic which is unusual and pleasant in a modern composer.
The highlight of the evening was the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan though. This is a series of dance movements, including an Air, a Chaconne, another Estampie, etc. The violin soloist was Chee-Yun, a young woman from Korea. She was outstanding. She, like Lauren Flanigan, throws her entire body into the music, and this music was perfect for that kind of presence. The songs themselves were pretty simple, with shimmering rhythms and patterns being played by the percussionists on the Gamelan, with the melody of the violin cutting through it all. And Chee-Yun did a great job - if you get a chance to see her, I don't think you'll be disappointed.
The finale of the program was the Organ Concerto with Percussion Orchestra. This involved several home-made instruments again, including wooden drums (i.e. plywood boxes, suspended from above), bells made by cutting the bottoms off of compressed-air canisters (the big industrial kind), and pots and pans suspended. Also included piano, celeste, chimes and vibraphone as a bridge between the unpitched percussion and the pitched organ. The percussion part was excellent I thought, and the organ playing was good, but the overall effect wasn't as synergistic as one might have hoped. Still a neat piece though.
And it all ended up happily with a standing ovation given to Lou Harrison with the spotlight on him at the end of the concert.
Some of The Mouse's Tale was entertaining musically, as Del Tredici imitated Lewis Carroll's gimmick of making the text look like a tail weaving down the page. Del Tredici gave his music a similar look on the page, by passing 2 note phrases from part to part, and having been warned to look for that by the program notes, it was cool to see notes ripple back and forth between sections.
Again, credit for that should probably go to Ursula Oppens, the pianist. She was outstanding, pounding the piano with both forearms as necessary, and then quickly shifting to her hands to play a quick melodic line. The orchestration was also excellent, including several playful bits in Counter Rhythm with the piano and symphony bouncing notes back and forth. Fun piece.
Reich is apparently among the first minimalist composers. Music for 18 Musicians is his best-known work, and one that I had not heard before this concert. It was fantastic, both as an auditory and a visual experience. Once it started, the sound did not let up for an hour, as it created almost a trance-like state, with pianos and xylophones and marimbas providing a continuous musical background to music provided by four sopranos, a violin, cello, and 2 clarinets, not to mention patterns beat out on the various percussion instruments.
The piece has no conductor, so it uses the vibraphone to signal musical shifts between mini-movements. It was dramatic to watch as one of the musicians would stop what he was doing, walk over to the vibraphone, pick up the mallets, and after judging the current time, play a sequence of four or five notes, and as they hit the last note, the other musicians would shift to the new musical pattern.
Lots of other neat visual stuff. Because the various percussion players were needed to do several tasks, they would often switch off. Especially on the tiring stuff like the player who was banging out the beat on the marimba, continuously hitting the same pair of notes over and over again. Another player would walk over, pick up a spare set of mallets, move his mallets directly over the current player, and take over without missing a beat. This happened many times throughout the piece, but it was neat to see the seamless transition each time.
Another nice visual moment was one portion where a pattern was being beaten out by a player on a marimba. Another player walked over, picked up a set of mallets, and played the same pattern an octave lower next to him, so that their arms were moving in unison together. A third player walked over, and I was trying to figure out where he'd fit in. He picked up a set of mallets, and facing the other two, started playing his interposing pattern upside down between them. He actually had to reach between the other two players arms to hit his notes, and so they all had to be perfectly in sync for it to work. It was cool to watch the very precise choreography they had to do to make the pattern work for three players to be playing the instrument at once. And they kept it up without a mistake for five minutes. Cool stuff.
The overall effect was just stunning as I said. When it ended, I really had no idea how long it had been going on - it could have been five minutes or five hours. And the musicians got a well-deserved standing ovation as everybody leapt to their feet upon the conclusion of the piece. I've got to go find a recording of this piece for myself.
I really liked how Reich used three tenors in the first scene, It could not have been a technical matter, the words uttered by the German ambassador in response to the crash. They sing one round of a melody together, then each one starts it one beat after the next, creating an overlapping effect. Korot made the connection clear, starting off with the words "It could not have been a technical matter" appearing on screen in time with the singing in unison, and then, splitting the words into three lines, with each set appearing when the corresponding singer got there.
I was a bit bemused by the video clips used, which were interviews with various people associated with the crash - they appeared and disappeared so fast that you could barely register them, and I often couldn't figure out what the talking head said.
But the overall coordination was excellent between the conductor wearing headphones, and the video presentation. And I really like the style of Reich's music. It's fun to listen to. I'm not sure that it has any great musical ideas in it, but it's a good time.
After the concert, Reich and Korot stuck around and talked with Michael Tilson-Thomas on stage for a while, as well as taking some questions from the audience. One thing that I look forward to is their plan to release this work as a DVD eventually, once it is completed. The remaining movements will be called Bikini (speaking of the atoll, and the effects of the nuclear bomb testing) and Dolly (the cloned sheep, with meditations on the effect of genetic engineering and how that will affect us). Could be pretty neat stuff, and I'd certainly go see a performance of it :).
The New World Symphony performed this evening. This is a symphony started by Michael Tilson-Thomas in 1987 as a sort of finishing school for aspiring musicians. The dilemma of a symphony-musician-to-be is that most symphonies will not take a musician with no experience, but one can't get that experience without joining a symphony. So, MTT created the New World Symphony in Miami to bridge that gap, taking many of the most talented musicians coming out of school, give them a three-year fellowship where they perform full-time with the system, with extra work on solo and chamber work, as well as advice on how to handle auditions. It seems to have achieved its purpose: 95% of its alumni go on to musical careers, many with major symphonies.
Anyway, it was an interesting experience to look at the stage and see nobody older than 30; the average age of the musicians in the NWS is 24.5, according to one blurb. And they were incredibly good, as might be expected from a symphony which is choosing from among the best college graduates. However, it still felt to me as if there were something lacking. Maybe some level of emotion. It was hard to tell, and it may just have been crankiness on my part.
Or it could possibly be attributed to the conductor. John Adams is one of the most well-known modern composers. However, he didn't really make an impression on me with his conducting, despite conducting his own work. I also wasn't that impressed with his compositions, Shaker Loops and Grand Pianola Music. Grand Pianola Music had some interesting minimalist strains, especially in having the two pianos being slightly out of phase with each other in time, but after having heard Reich's work on Saturday, it didn't really measure up.
The Zappa piece, Dupree's Paradise was interesting, but more for the incongruity of having a Frank Zappa piece being performed at Symphony Hall than anything else.
Study No. 6, by Conlon Nancarrow was, as is common for modern music, more interesting conceptually than it was in performance. Apparently, Nancarrow was very interested in experimenting with polytemporality, having different instruments being in different times altogether. He wrote most of his compositions for player piano, actually, because most musicians were not skilled enough to handle the weirdness of his work. However, given 50 years of modern music, the modern musician can more adroitly handle the funky rhythms inherent in different beats. This piece was adapted from the original, and scored for two pianos, and a wind ensemble. One piano is in a five-beat pattern, one piano in a four-beat pattern, and the wind ensemble plays its lilting melody in a three-beat pattern above both. Interesting conception, like I said, but the actual result wasn't very interesting to me.
I was disappointed with this concert, especially after having seen so many dynamite concerts over the last two weeks. But perhaps my expectations were too high, or I was burnt out from all the concert-going. Overall, the American Mavericks festival has been a blast, and a musical experience unlikely to be matched any time soon, and I feel very fortunate to have been part of it.
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