Halloween Thrills and Chills from the American Modern Ensemble

by delarue

At Merkin Concert Hall last night, American Modern Ensemble director and virtuoso percussionist Robert Paterson explained to the sold-out crowd that the show had been eight years in the making. And he made it worth everyone’s while. It might or might not have been a rather brazen attempt to upstage works by George Crumb and David Del Tredici with a trio of his own compositions, but that was the ultimate result. Whatever the intention, it made for a great night of music.

The ensemble began as a sextet and by the time they hit the intermission, they’d grown to a nineteen-piece chamber orchestra, heavy on the percussion as you would expect from a composer like Paterson. He’s one of the most cinematic around: it’s a shock that his work hasn’t appeared in more films than it has. He credited both other composers on the bill as being major influences, and while there were echoes of Crumb’s flitting, ghostly motives as well as Del Tredici’s edgy, carnivalesque tunefulness throughout these works, there was as much ghoulish narrative, comparable with Bernard Herrmann – or Danny Elfman on steroids. Which made sense, this being a Halloween show.

The first number, Hell’s Kitchen, included everything AND a kitchen sink (ripped from its frame and hanging over the marimba). Methodically and with not a little gleeful intensity, the group made their way through a chuffing steam-train theme, a lively chase scene and horror-stricken tritones punctuated by brief moments of relatively less unease. Paterson’s second work, Closet Full of Demons, was more of a longform horror theme and variations, veering between cartoonish drollery and moments of sheer terrror. The concluding work, Ghost Theater took the wry ghoul-humor to a logical conclusion, sort of a 21st century update on Raymond Scott.

Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (from his Makrokosmos IIII suite) had a creepy aspect, and a nocturnal one, but also a big, agitated twin-piano cadenza from Blair McMillen and Stephen Gosling early on, not to mention plenty of anticipated autoharp-like figures emanating from inside the piano as the two went under their respective lids to brush the strings. The two percussionists, Paterson and Matt Ward, really got a workout, shifting in a split second between many, many objects, building vivid contrasts between murk and momentary, marionettish motives. As the piece went on, there were persistent references to dreamy Asian-tinged folk themes – and also occasionally maddeningly weird, awkward, seemingly random vocal shouts and mumbles that under different circumstances might have cleared the room. A work with so many other interesting things going on deserves to have those parts discreetly omitted.

Del Tredici’s Dracula came across as the kind of piece that would have been staged at Tonic ten years ago, part Vera Beren avant garde horror tableau, part nimbly macabre theme and variations. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy sang the daylights out of it when presented with a few opportunities to do that. Otherwise, she was relegated to narration, which was luridly fun as the story took shape but quickly became a distraction from what is in every sense of the word a fantastic piece of music. Echoes of Roaring 20s swing, disquieting circus rock and Weimar cabaret juxtaposed with the clenched-teeth intensity from the winds, brass, percussion and strings – violist Jessica Meyer and cellist Dave Eggar getting some of the juiciest parts. Looking back, you could see the twistedly funny ending coming a mile away.

This was it for 2014 for this group, other than a couple of characteristically eclectic trio performances led by Gosling coming up at 5 PM on December 5 and 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art balcony bar. But 2015 promises to be especially ambitious for an already ambitious ensemble: a weeklong festival of new music from American composers staged at a reputedly amazing new complex in Danbury, Connecticut, in late summer, and the creation of a fullsize American Modern Ensemble symphony orchestra.