“This is the concert I came to New York to hear,” I realized Saturday night, as I was reveling in delight at the GALA NYC (“Global Art, Local Audience”) event at the Brooklyn Lyceum. (If you’re new here, I’m in NY researching, among other things, developments in alternative presentation of “classical” music.)
In a big, attractive space (the building started out as a bathhouse–no, not that kind of bathhouse), with big windows and lots of exposed brick, cellist Mike Block assembles a weekly cast of musicians and performance artists from various genres into a fabulous mix that, based on my one visit so far, allows performers to interact and exchange ideas without watering down or sacrificing their individual integrity.
Hideaki Aomori (saxophonist who plays frequently with Sufjan Stevens), Hu Jianbing (Chinese folk musician who is a master of the Sheng, a mouth organ), the Enso [String] Quartet, Shane Shanahan (world percussion), and CXC StreetstyleContermorary Dance joined Block on Saturday May 14 in a diverse (0bviously) and, more importantly, engaging program. Block, Jianbing, and Shanahan have all participated in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. That spirit of musical dialogue pervaded the evening.
I’d gotten there about 7:40 PM for the 8:00 PM show. Terrific location–same block as a subway (R) stop. Somehow I hadn’t managed to eat dinner, so I was relieved when told that “the group before” had run over and doors would open at 8:00 PM. There were a couple of delis across the street, and I grabbed a salad.
Back at the cavernous Lyceum, I was directed upstairs to the big second-floor room (which gets used for basketball games as well as performances. Once seated, I found myself writing in my notebook, “cool space!” Wonderful room, wine for sale (and coffee and snacks downstairs in the café). Folding chairs arranged in semi-circles, with the performing space set up in front of the windows.
Not a huge crowd–maybe 50 or 60? But I’m sure the audience will grow as the series continues–it’s that good. The only challenge will be visual, especially when there’s dance–the performance area isn’t raised.
Mike Block, in jeans and a plaid shirt, gave a friendly, informal welcome to the audience, apologizing for the late start (which seemed almost unnecessary; I don’t think I’ve been to any “alternative venue” event in NY that started on time). The show was being broadcast live on UStream (you can watch future shows here; wish they were archived).
From the rear came almost magically elongated, drone-like sounds. They turned out to be from a large frame drum, on which Shane Shanahan was slowly rubbing a finger. He made his way to the front, stopping by a small child for a moment so the boy could look at the drum. Rhythmic gestures stared, and Shane began overtone singing (don’t ask me to explain). Then Mike picked up his cello and added initially floating, ethereal, and scratchy sounds which led into a solo cadenza-like section, initially folky and playful, then more like blues. Shane picked up a dumbeck, and Mike began playing a energetic rhythmic groove, from a chart (turned out the open sections had been improvised) that eventually included ricochet strokes and tapping on the cello.
So the evening went. Original music. Improvisations. The Enso Quartet playing movements from Erwin Schulhoff‘s fabulous Five Pieces for String Quartet (Schulhoff was killed by the Nazis and his music, suppressed in his lifetime, is finally being discovered and embraced). A wonderful Shen solo from Hu Jianbing. All sorts of combinations. The two CXC dancers (Carmela Torchia and Chris Shalik Mathis) frequently joining in with their unique combination of moves from various traditions, including break dancing (on the floor, which would have been hard for most of the audience to see). As a grand finale, a cover of the YouTube hit, Rebecca Black’s Friday, with all the performers (Mike singing, getting the audience to join in).
And why was it the “concert I came to New York to hear”? Great, alternative location–not a stuffy concert hall. Top performers from a wide range of traditions. Interaction that really worked and didn’t seem to sacrifice anything. A successful mashup of genres. Remixing (including a Bach Courante) that really worked. Integration of music and dance. A warm, informal atmosphere. An engaging host (Mike), who speaks well, infomrally, and not too much (hard to pull off). Audience involvement, including volunteers who came up front to supply ideas for an improvisation), and the final singalong. Improvisation integrated with composed music. Seats for everyone, and no minimum food/drink purchase required (unlike, say, LPR, if you sit at a table). Even close to the subway!
Great, inspiring model for me to take back to my students–and share with my readers.
Now the big question is whether this model is something that can be financially viable. This was the second event in a series just getting off the ground. Even if everyone there paid the small admission fee (and there must have been a number of guests besides me, who had a press ticket), there wouldn’t be much money to divide up among the musicians. Hopefully, the audience will grow. (If it does, many will have a tough time seeing the performers, so a stage will need to be set up.)
Well, if I ran a grant agency, I’d be happy to fund this project. It would be great, though, if things like this could be self-sustaining.
Meanwhile, it was just terrific. I’ll be out of town this coming weekend for my son’s college graduation, so I’ll miss the May 21 performance. May 28 is already on my calendar.