Category Archives: New York City Opera

The Masada Marathon at City Opera (Better-Late-Than-Never Comments)

My son, 22 and a senior in college, was visiting me last week.  He reads my blog, bless him, likes classical music even if he’s not a big fan, and has been very interested in my adventures exploring alternative presentation of classical music, new music that blends classical elements with, for example, indie-rock elements, etc.  So he was quite excited to come with me to hear the Jack Quartet at [le] poisson rouge and Bobby Previte, So Percussion, et al on the closing Ecstatic Music Festival concert.

But these were both pretty hard-listening, new-music concerts.  Neither had the steady beat, accessible-harmony, singer/songwriter-who’s-worked-out-with-a-classical-composition-teacher-trainer flavor I’ve been telling him about. So when it came to the Wednesday March 30 John Zorn Masada Marathon concert, scheduled to last about 3.5 hours, presented by the New York City Opera, we watched the video below so he could decide.

That’s the kind of experimental, raucous music that he’d gotten enough of the previous night.  So after we’d made dinner, he stayed in my apartment with his sister (19, a sophomore in college here in NY).  They watched stuff on Netflix, fell asleep, probably vented about their parents to each other . . . you know, had a great brother/sister bonding time.

I, on the other hand, really wanted to experience this event, even though the dad in me wanted to hang out with my kids.  It was exactly the sort of unusual event (in this case, progressive, experimental, and non-classical musicians who rarely if ever perform in traditional “uptown” concert halls presented by a major opera company at Lincoln Center) I’ve come to New York for a semester to participate in.

(I chose that word purposefully. Even when we “only” listen, we are participating.  Imagine a marathon concert in an an opera house with no audience or ushers or stage hands.  Everyone participates in the musicking in one form or another.)

And when I saw that Erik Friedlander, one of my favorite improvising cellists, was performing, there was no way I could miss it.  (He was fabulous in ensembles and his solo set, which included the most amazing pizzicato playing I’ve ever seen/heard.) Twelve sets, with a huge number of performers (see this link for details; Erik and Uri Caine did solo sets), playing music from the 316 tunes composed in 2004 that make up Zorn’s The Book of Angels. Zorn, of course, has a huge following, and so do many of the performers.  So who knows how many others turned up for a particular segment, as I did.  The audience went nuts for everyone.  If there was a favorite, it was the second-half-opening Secret Chiefs 3, a rock band.

My son would have enjoyed this concert, since in the diversity of it all there was a lot of straight-ahead jazz and rock.  This was the eclectic concert with music he would have liked, an innovative-yet-accessible presentation in a traditional venue.  Oh, well!  The whole thing, which ended up lasting four hours or so, was quite an experience.  Some of it crazy, chaotic and experimental.  Jazz, rock, contemporary classical–an incredible array of styles.

The Book of Angels is the second book of Zorn’s Masada music, tunes/charts (rather than fully notated compositions if I understand correctly) that were born in his desire “to create something positive in the Jewish tradition something that maybe takes the idea of Jewish music into the 21st century the way jazz developed from the teens and 1920s into the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s and on…” (source, via Wikipedia.) There was a lot of arrangement by performers as well as improvisation; Zorn, in colorful cargo pants, played sax and led/conducted some of the groups, sitting in a chair making hand gestures.

I’m here in NY witnessing and thinking about innovation and creativity in programming, performance, presentation, and marketing.  The New York City Opera scores big on innovation and creativity, presenting this extravaganza of downtown music.  How exciting to see it, and some of the rather strangely-dressed patrons, who looked more East Village than Upper West Side, in this elegant setting. City Opera is also running Monodramas, three one-act, one-soprano operas, which include Zorn’s La Machine de l’être as well as works by Schoenberg and Feldman. Soon they’ll be presenting the premiere of Stephen Schwartz‘s  Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Schwartz is the wildly popular composer of Broadway hits from Godspell to Wicked), which I assume will be quite different.

The question is how big is the turnout for this non-traditional stuff, and how much does that matter, short or long-term?  While there were some empty seats at the Masada Marathon, the place seemed pretty full.  I’ve heard the opening of Monodramas was nearly sold out, but this hasn’t been the case for subsequent performances, despite excellent reviews from the Times, the Post, and the New Yorker.  Does everything have to do huge business to be worthwhile?  Certainly not.  The mission of an arts organization isn’t to sell as many tickets as possible for every event.  And both the Masada Marathon and Monodramas must be collectively drawing in new-music types who wouldn’t usually go to a Lincoln Center performance and may now decide to try out, say, some Donitzetti.

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