My daughter, a student at NYU, met me for supper at my place in 90s on the Upper West Side. She’s a vegan, so even in New York finding a place that suits her (and my generally carnivorous tastes) isn’t the easiest thing in the world. And sometimes a man wants to cook for his daughter. So we walked down to Barzini’s, the 24-hour grocery a few blocks away, got tofu and vegetables, and had what we needed. Some sautéed tofu and steamed Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and orange peppers later, we were on our way to Lincoln Center.
I was excited to show her the striking glass lobby of Alice Tully Hall, with its irreverent angles, high ceiling, and the dance studio jutting out overhead from the Juilliard Building. And that’s the point, quite clearly, to create a space that you’re excited to show someone, especially a young someone, in these times when attracting young audiences is so important. “Wait till you see the lobby,” I’d promised her. “It’s amazing.” She loved it as much as I’d hoped she would. And who wouldn’t? Take a look:
We were attending a concert by Les Percussions de Strasbourg, part of the Tully Scope series, an experiment in a new, self-described “mash up” approach to programming and marketing. I’m fascinated by it, of course, including the energetic, hip way the venue is portrayed in the video trailer on the site.
You’ll have to follow the series link above to see that video. I tried for almost half an hour to find a way to embed it below, couldn’t get the embed code to work with WordPress, and Tully hasn’t put the video on YouTube, which would be a really good idea if you want to do some viral marketing. And I wonder if the driving music and siren featured in much of the video have anything to do with the actual programming–it’s interesting, but perhaps more than a bit ironic, to be promoting a music series with music not part of it. An implied “Tully Scope Theme” [instrumental] that doesn’t have anything to do with actual Tully Scope music?
Be that as it may, the place itself is fantastic. We picked up our tickets and found ourselves in the middle of the sixth row, facing an enormous array of percussion instruments, the front row marimbas. What a sight! And just the stage walls themselves are striking–I don’t know what the dimples on the back wall are actually called (you can’t make them out in the photo below, which does give a good view of the interior), but she loved them, and I like them two.
We’d had to take a somewhat winding route to reach our seats, maneuvering around one of the four platforms set up in the hall for members of Les Percussions de Strasbourg. It gave a bit of excitement, just as the heavy presence of uniformed security guards did within the hall. (Was there a threat? Was the a fear the audience might climb up on these mini-stages?)
It was Les Percussions’ second concert in a row as part of the Tully Scope festival. This evening was devoted to two major works by the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), Pléïades (named for a star group in the Taurus contellation) and Persephassa (for Persephone, mythic queen of the underworld).
The six percussionists remained on the main stage for Pléïades (1979). The four-movement piece that was so often loud, unrelenting, and nearly disorienting in its rhythmic complexity and lack of clear pulse (I’m just describing, not complaining) that as it progressed I began to think that if the government really wants to torture Bradley Manning into revealing whatever they want him to reveal, they should just chain him up in the front row and hire the group to play this piece over and over. I was ready to yell “I confess!” myself when it finished.
Paul Schiavo’s excellent program notes [PDF] suggest that at least one passage in the piece is similar to work Steve Reich was doing at the same time, but (before reading that) I was commenting to my daughter how much I had found myself longing for the steady pulses (even when they are unaligned) of a Reich composition. There seems to be a performance of Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicans nearly every week in New York, while Xenakis works, in their brilliant, ground-breaking complexity, are performed infrequently. There’s something about steady beats, even when underlying complex polyrhythms, that seem to have universal appeal.
On first hearing, Pléïades seemed disjointed and I found the performance aurally and intellectually confusing. Some, perhaps much of it, may have had to do with the acoustics of where we were sitting. That close, it was incredibly loud and sounds distorted and blurred together. At least where we were sitting, the hall seemed to small for the piece. It wasn’t our experience only; the woman in front of me in line for an intermission drink–evidently we both needed alcohol after the first half–felt the same way. A bit of Johnny Walker Black later, I asked a group of three student-age guys where they were sitting and how the sound was for them; towards the back, they reported, the sound had dispersed well.
So the first half’s Pléïades was an intense experience, and I embraced, if not exactly welcomed, the feelings of anxiety it triggered in me.
The second half’s Persephassa?
I loved every second of. Two players on stage, the other four on the platforms in the hall. Surround sound–fantastic! Musicians have been arraying forces in different parts of a space since at least the late 1500s when the Gabriellis did it at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, and it’s a great an idea now as it was then. The sound was still brutally loud at times, but the timbres always distinguishable. The way ideas traveled from one performer to another, dancing about the space, was amazing. I’m in New York on sabbatical and going to concerts like this is part of my research. “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to be here!” I thought to myself. It’s an extraordinary piece.
Les Percussions de Strausbourg is an extraordinary ensembles, too. The coordination and non-verbal communication between them was inspiring–teamwork at its best, showing what human beings are capable of at their best. During the first half, nearly always one of the members was conducting, sometimes with just one arm (while playing with the other), and players were literally running from part of the stage to another. In the second, with the six players stationed far from each other in the hall, I was often reminded of a great quarterback throwing a long pass to a spot where a receiver almost magically arrives at just the right moment. It would have been great to watch even with the sound off.
A Tully Scope program comes with a coupon for a free glass of sparking wine or water, and the Tully lobby becomes a big party. Fabulous idea. My daughter and I had a great conversation with a guy we met from Massachusetts, and it was genuinely enjoyable to remain in that beautiful space. Last month at his CMA First Tuesday talk, Adrian Ellis mentioned the need to create “sticky” venues–places that are visually attractive, that have bars and restaurants. Where you go to be in the place as much as to come for the event. With Tully Scope, Alice Tully Hall is off to a good start.