Category Archives: Tully Scope

Two Nights, Two Sensational Quartets

Two incredible, and incredibly different, young string quartets–the St. Lawrence and Brooklyn Rider–in two days.  How good can it get?

The St. Lawrence String Quartet played Zankel Hall Tuesday night March 8.  Razor-sharp ensemble, extremely well worked-out interpretations of Haydn (Op. 20 No. 4), John Adams (String Quartet, composed for the group), and Schubert (the great G major, D. 887).  “Its mission is to present music to the audience in vivid color, with pronounced communication and teamwork, and with great respect for the composer,” says the group’s biography in the program book, and I couldn’t put it better myself.  The playing was so alive, so full of energy.  It’s the epitome of a traditional, acoustic classical ensemble, performing with such commitment and interest that I thought to myself that there can’t help but be a future for this music and this sort of ensemble.  Absolutely riveting.

Here they are, playing a minuet from a different Haydn quartet:

My dad once pointed out to me that a really good string quartet can produce as much or more tension and excitement and meaning as the largest symphony orchestra.  That insight kept recurring to me as the evening progressed.

Great to see the violinists swap first-chair roles for the halves of the concert.  This is happening more and more, and while it doesn’t work for every group, I like it, especially the egalitarian symbolism of it.  Concerts, whether we realize it or not, create and reinforce social relationships, as Christopher Small has pointed out. The evaporation of the first/second chair distinction appeals to me. Also interesting was the dressy-casual diversity of the men’s dress: one violinist in black shirt and slacks, the other with a suit but no tie, and the cellist with a lavender shirt and big bow tie.

I hadn’t been to Zankel for several years.  It’s one of my favorite places to attend a concert in New York: great acoustics in a visually attractive space.

The next day, Wednesday March 9, I’d gone with my daughter to a theater matinee and, feeling a bit tired, was tempted to stay home.  But the Tully Scope concert with Kayhan Kalhor playing the kamancheh with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider sounded too fascinating, and too relevant to my sabbatical mission of experiencing the musical love children of mated genres, to miss.

It was sensational.  “I’ve been to a lot of concerts in New York,” a fellow string professor on sabbatical told me afterwords. “This was the best.”  “It was incredible,” said a new acquaintance in the music business.  Huge, cheering, standing ovation at the end of both the concert and even the encore.

Brooklyn Rider, like the St. Lawrence, is a fabulous young string quartet, but towards the other end of the spectrum.  Amplified with pickup mics for the entire concert, the violinists and violist standing, the cellist on a platform, they play with technical assurance, musicality, imagination, and on-fire energy.  After a terrific performance of Giovanni Sollima‘s Federico II from Viaggio in Italia (2000), they presented the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Suite for String Quartet from Bent (1997).

Brooklyn Rider playing a different Glass piece:

So how do you end up doing a world premiere 14 years after the music was composed?  The music started as part of the score for the film version of Bent, a powerful play dealing with themes of love, oppression, and torture, in this case the horrifying treatment gay men at the hands of the Nazis.  The Emerson Quartet is heard in the movie’s soundtrack, but this was its first concert performance.

I saw Bent in its searingly moving 1979-1980 Broadway production featuring Richard Gere and David Dukes.  As a young man struggling to coming to terms with my own sexuality, it made a huge impact on me.  Although I haven’t seen the film version (which I recall receiving mixed reviews), knowing what it was composed for gave it a special, deep relevance for me.

Then the melding of musical worlds began.  Brooklyn Rider frequently performs as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.  And so does Kayhan Kalhor, an amazingly skilled and sensitive performer on the kamancheh, described in the program as a “Persian spiked fiddle.” An improviser (of course, since improvisation is integral to virtually every music except Western classical) and composer, he brought a quietly deep and wise presence that complimented the youthful enthusiasm of the quartet as well as bassist Shawn Conley and percussionist Shane Shanahan.

One of the delights of the evening was discovering what a fine composer and arranger Colin Jacobsen, one of Brooklyn Rider’s violinists, is. Before intermission, the combined forces performed his 2008 Beloved, do not let me be discouraged. It was a beautiful combination of Western and Persian musical elements.  Jacobsen writes in his program note for the piece, “In our ears, Persian music expresses a deep desire to lose oneself in love.”

Beloved, do not let me be discouraged:

Maybe that was what made the evening such a success.  There was an absolute sense of love and joy in music making.  The people I talked to at intermission seemed, like me, to be on a high.  There was a crowd at the CD table.

After intermission, Kalhor did an extended solo improvisation, full of melodic inventiveness and motivic play.  I wish I knew enough about Persian music to be able to describe it.  As a matter of fact, I wish I had a better musical memory in general (or hadn’t forgotten to bring a pen so I couldn’t take notes) and could describe the pieces that followed.  I was enjoying the concert so much, so present in the moment, that I don’t remember that much of the actual music.  This often happens when I (and others) improvise;  you experience the music so fully that the brain’s memory chip gets overridden.  Colin Jacobsen’s Atashgah (2011) followed the improvisation.  He and Nick Cords, the group’s violist, had visited Iran in 2004, where (if I understand correctly) they first met and heard Kalhor play.  This experience inspired him to begin composing and arranging, and this piece is one of the results.  So, too, was the concluding Ascending Bird (2006), an arrangement by Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei of a folk tune Jacobsen and Cords heard in a field recording Aghaei played for them during that seminal trip to Iran.

As I mentioned before, the audience leapt to its feat at the end, and a rousing encore of Brooklesca, evidently a signature tune for the group, with plenty of room for others and improvised solos, received its own standing ovation.

Brooklesca, with just four players (cool video, too):

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Filed under Brooklyn Rider, improvisation, Kayhan Kalhor, Philip Glass, Silk Road Project, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Tully Scope

A Love Child of Stravinsky and Rock at Tully Scope

It turns out the sectional side walls/doors (one side burnished wood, the other black) of the new Alice Tully Hall stage rotate at least ninety degrees. For the March 7 Tully Scope concert featuring Tyondai Braxton and the Wordless Music Orchestra, they were open, parallel to the front of the stage, like theater stage side curtains.  Each piece was lit differently, often with dramatic effect, a different color scheme for each movement–if that’s the right word to use for this post-classical, melded-genres music–of Braxton’s Selections from Central Market (2008), the program’s second half.

The concert hall had become a theater.

A number of us in the audience were quite taken with this aspect of the program in and of itself.  The festival, which celebrates the diversity and range of music in New York (and specifically at Tully), also showcases the striking visual possibilities and flexiblity of the space’s architecture.  A twenty-something New York new-music musician caught my eye during the post-concert free-drink party in the striking glass-enclosed lobby.  “Wow.  It makes you see Tully in a whole new way,” he observed with a happy smile. That’s the kind of buzz you want about a venue if you’re in the business of attracting younger audiences to places like Lincoln Center.

It has finally hit me, what I’m here in New York observing.  It’s musical genres and artistic disciplines intersecting, rolling around with each other.  They’re mating, if you will, the unions producing fascinating offspring. (Genres mating.  Mated genres.  Genre matings.  Can’t decide which phrase works best.)

Monday night’s concert was a case in point. The musical selections were diverse–exemplifying the “shuffle” spirit (for the feature on iPods and other music players that produce random selections, sometimes in a surprisingly delightful order) I’ve commented on before, which underlies the Tully Scope series.  Traditional orchestral instruments were amplified, something usually anathema in the classical world, and combined with electronic guitars and kazoos, etc.  With the altering of the stage and the use of lighting effects, there was an embrace of the overtly theatrical, the visual, so common in pop/rock performance venues, so often proudly ignored in traditional concert halls.

And it was happening in one of the most mainstream classical venues in the world.

The concert (or should I say show?) began with an energetic (and unamplified) performance of John Adams’s three-movement Road Movies (1995) by violinist Yuli Numta and pianist James Johnston.  The seating for the Wordless Music Orchestra was already in place behind them, darkened, with the rear wall lit from the bottom, it seemed, so its “acoustic objects” (which look liked pegs last night) created interesting shadows.

After the first movement, what I’ve been waiting for for so long finally happened.  The audience–many of whom may have been part of Braxton’s non-classical following and thus didn’t know what classical-music culture tells us not to do in a place like Tully, clapped.

Not just a few who don’t know any better and then are intimidated into silence, as so often happens. It was the vast majority (there were some refuseniks) of us.  It was spontaneous and felt natural. Then it happened again after the second movement.  For me, who thinks the classical silence-between-movements ethic is, generally speaking, artificial and stultifying (and knows it is a historical anomaly), it was a delicious moment. The unspoken social contract had changed, at least for an evening.

After the Adams, the orchestra, most of it anyway, took the stage and played Caleb Burhans‘ short and hauntingly beautiful In a Distant Place (2008), without conductor.  And, very impressively, there was still no conductor on the podium as more instruments were added for Louis Andriessen‘s homorhythmic 1975 Workers Union, in which the rhythms are composed but the instruments and pitches unspecified.  It was fifteen or so minutes of extremely well-coordinated, energetic, highly rhythmic, driving and unrelentingly ugly dissonance.  (I probably would have loved playing it; as a listener I found it grating.)

These three pieces, one each by a mentor (Adams), collaborator (Burhans), and inspiration/forerunner (Andriessen, who combined electric guitars and classical instruments decades ago) of Braxton, made up the first half. The second consisted six pieces from Braxton’s Central Market (“Opening Bell,” “Uffe’s Woodshop,” “The Duck and the Butcher,” “Dead Strings,” “Unfurling,” and “Platinum Rows”).  Conventional orchestral instruments, amplified, were combined with electric guitars in   and kazoos in music that combined elements of rock, minimalism, pop, traditional classical, contemporary classical.  You name it, and there was probably at least a touch of it in there.  Burhans conducted, Braxton played in the electric guitar section. The Central Market music was entrancing, entertaining, stimulating.  The first half, while fascinating, except for the Burhans piece, hadn’t really grabbed me musically.  This piece?  Loved it.  Enjoyed it.  Was taken in by it.

Never thought I’d be writing “electric guitar section” while describing a concert presented by a Lincoln Center venue. Times have changed.  For much of the 20th century, the developing and evolving American classical establishment distanced itself from popular idioms, shunning ragtime, jazz, blues, and rock.  The concert music of geniuses like Gershwin was relegated to pops concerts  until recently.  And now the walls are crumbling.  “Serious” and “popular” idioms are finding mates in each other.  Take Braxton.  An electric guitar player, singer, he was founder of the important and successful rock (post-rock, according to Wikipedia, or avant-rock, according to Braxton’s bio in the program notes) band the Battles.  And studied composition at a major conservatory, the Hartt School.  So he’s conversant with an enormous range of idioms, as are his frequent collaborators such as Burhans and Robin Givony, the founder of the Wordless Music concert series.  In her program note, Givony says

This music represents the fruits of a collaboration that began two and a half years ago between Braxton, Burhans, and myself in a Brooklyn rehearsal room, where we listened to a rough cut of  [Central Market's] “Platinum Rows” over lukewarm bodega beer and geeked out over our shared admiration for Stravinsky and [the rock band] Fugazi . . .

Central Market. Mated genres. The love child of Stravinsky and and rock.

And as Tully Scope continues, the walls of the stage rotate, the lighting changes, the music is on shuffle.  I wish I could attend each event.

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Filed under Caleb Burhans, Tully Scope, Tyondai Braxton, Wordless Music Orchestra