Last night at the Town Hall looked like date night. Lots of couples, on the older side, which was logical since Ludovico Einaudi was playing. The Italian composer/keyboardist’s cinematic new album In a Time Lapse is a dark but lullingly hypnotic, minimalistic orchestral suite inspired by the nature writing of Henry David Thoreau. Playing piano, Einaudi and his excellent twelve-piece ensemble – a string section with a couple of members who doubled on acoustic guitar, bass or percussion, plus two percussionists, a second keyboardist who frequently added boomy, almost subsonic bass via a syndrum patch, and an onstage mixing engineer whom Einaudi credits as being part of the band – brought the album to life with unexpected vigor and an often haunting intensity.
The concert began with the slow, reverberating beat of a gong, the house lights all the way down, the stage in darkness except for the lights on the music stands, the string section opening with a slow, pulsing, nocturnal theme. About two hours later, the show ended with a delirious audience clapalong on what could be termed a minimalist art-rock dancefloor vamp. This was definitely not foreshadowed, either by the latest album, or by anything that preceded it on the bill – but the crowd responded with a lusty standing ovation.
The show followed a slow upward trajectory interrupted by two unexpectedly fiery, clenched-teeth interludes, the orchestra going full steam and absolutely explosive on the second one. Einaudi’s brilliance is in how he shifts moods, sometimes drastically, with very subtle melodic changes. The influence of Philip Glass was evident from the first notes; Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch soundtracks also came to mind. Einaudi’s orchestration is packed with neat textural touches like having one of the percussionists harmonize with the piano using a mbira, or by rubbing the inside of a steel pan for a lingering, keening sustain. From moody, dusky late summer apprehension – the date night part of the show, which went on for quite a while – the strings finally rose with an agitatedly shivery isnistence. From there they backed away while Einaudi took his time working back into the shadows, the orchestra again rising with a vintage ELO swirl as one of the cellists added wispy overtones run through a reverb patch for extra ghostliness. This would recur to even more potently eerie effect late rin the show. For his part, Einaudi rigs his piano with several reverb effects, from an fast echo similar to what U2’s The Edge uses on his guitar, to a subtle tremolo, to a practically never-ending sustain.
From there Einaudi went into a solo interlude and latched onto a theme that reminded of [what is that awful, cloying 1986 album by the Cure that all the indie bands rip off?], and wouldn’t let it go. Was he setting up a contrast? Actually, yes, but there wasn’t enough substance in the tune – a simple, seemingly random series of rigthhand variations around a central note – to make anything interesting out of it. He finally let it go, and the music rose mightily, to an anthemic romp that evoked breezy mid-70s ELO and then a theme that reminded a lot of the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. By this point, it was a rock show. Pretty cool, considering how raptly and carefully the group had been playing for most of the night. Einaudi brought back the menace with a rippling, chromatically spiky vamp that he finally took over the top with a gleeful glissando: gotcha! Einaudi’s current US tour continues, winding up in San Francisco in early June, then he’s on the road in Europe this summer.