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A Hauntingly Thrilling Performance by One of the World’s Foremost Composer-Performers

Saturday night in Manhattan, the ultimate place to be for music was at Merkin Concert Hall, where one of the world’s most distinctively brilliant composer-performers, Missy Mazzoli, put on a spellbinding show. Even better, the concert was recorded and will air and stream at a future date on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live on WNYC..

The famous press quote about Mazzoli is that she’s New York’s Mozart, but her work has much more in common with Bartok, with a bristling, sometimes stark, sometimes downright harrowing interweave.

Mazzoli is a band person. Watching her elegant, terse phrasing on a concert grand piano, from a comfortable auditorium seat, was in many ways 180 degrees from seeing her do the same thing on her trusty Nord Electro at the kind of dodgy Williamsburg industrial spaces where her art-rock group Victrola used to play over a decade ago. They would soon change their name to Victoire, put out a great album….and then Mazzoli would go on to a fearsome career as a composer of darkly historical new opera, among other things.

She set a tone of persistent, pensive unease with her dynamic opening number, A Thousand Tongues, ranging from dusky horizontality to moments of gritty insistence and occasional white-knuckle franticness. Again, Mazzoli was abetted by the mixer – she has a vast library of samples, and employs them orchestrally – as well as by her longtime Victoire bandmate, violinist Olivia De Prato. The two made a mini-suite out of Tooth and Nail, Vespers for Violin and Orrizonte, shifting from broodingly sparse interludes, to starry stillness and more creepily kinetic phrasing, De Prato expertly enhancing the enigmatic haze with her ghostly harmonics, microtonally swooping accents and occasional slashing flurry of notes. Mazzoli wound up the set with the viscerally aching, persistent modal gloom of A Song for Mick Kelly, De Prato adding textures from a wintry whisper to a rather savage coda.

This concert was part of the ongoing mostly-monthly Ecstatic Music series at Merkin Concert Hall. The next one, scheduled for April 2 at 7:30 PM with Canadian instrumentalists Bell Orchestre and Metropolis Ensemble; has been cancelled.

Colin Stetson Hauntingly Reinvents an Iconic Eulogy For the Victims of Genocide

What’s more Halloweenish than the arguably most evil event in human history? Friday night at the World Financial Center, saxophonist Colin Stetson led a twelve-piece jazz orchestra through his inventive, intensely immersive original arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s third Symphony, better known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” The Polish composer dedicated it to victims of the Holocaust and World War II; the 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw remains one of the very last classical recordings to sell a million copies worldwide.

Stetson pointedly remarked before the show that he’d remained true Gorecki’s original melodies, beyond extending or sustaining certain climactic passages, “Amplified for these times.” That ominousness rang especially true right from the start. The main themes are a solemn processional and a round of sorts, both of which rose to several mighty crescendos that were far louder than anything Gorecki ever could have imagined.

Spinning his axes – first a rumbling contrabass clarinet, then his signature bass sax and finally an alto – through a pedalboard along with his looming vocalese, Stetson anchored the dense sonic cloud. Bolstering the low end on multi-saxes and clarinets were Matt Bauder (of darkly brilliant, psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things) and Dan Bennett, along with cellist Rebecca Foon and synth players Justin Walter and Shahzad Ismaily. Violinists Amanda Lo and Caleb Burhans were charged with Gorecki’s most ethereal tonalities, while guitarists Grey Mcmurray and Ryan Ferreira got a serious workout, tirelessly chopping at their strings with endless volleys of tremolo-picking. It’s amazing that everybody got through this without breaking strings.

The addition of Greg Fox on drums resulted in an unexpected, sometimes Shostakovian satirical feel, adding a twisted faux-vaudevillian edge to a section of the second movement. Stetson’s sister Megan ably took charge of the Upshaw role with her dramatic but nuanced arioso vocal stylings. After the smoke had risen and fallen and risen again across the battlefield, the air finally cleared, an apt return to the stillness and meditative quality of the original score, matching the guarded optimism of the ending as much as the group had channeled the grief and muted anguish of the rest of the work. One suspects the composer – who toiled under a repressive Iron Curtain regime for much of his life – would have approved.

You’ll be able to hear this when the performance airs on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live on WNYC, most likely early in November.

Julia Wolfe’s Rage Against the Machine

John Schaefer was onto something when he picked a Carnegie Hall performance of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer by the Bang on a Can All-Stars as his favorite concert of the year a few years back. Then again, that wasn’t such a difficult choice for the WNYC host. To say that it doesn’t get performed enough simply means that we need more stagings of this eclectic and intense choral/instrumental suite by the Bang on a Can avant garde institution’s house band. It was a rare treat to see the group play it last night at the World Financial Center. If you missed it, you’ll be able to hear the concert in the weeks to come on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC, along with the show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 7:30 PM here, a new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (better known as the Exorcist Theme) played by guitarist Grey McMurray with the Wordless Music Orchestra.

Wolfe’s music can be harrowing, but it can also be playful and fun: this piece is both, but more the former than the latter. As usual with her work, context and subtext are everything. This one mashes up the lyrics from a grand total of over 200 versions of the folk song John Henry, the tale of the man with the hammer in his hand who went up against the steam drill. Droll Americana riffs were sprinkled throughout the sometimes austere, sometimes lush, insistently and sometimes cruelly rhythmic work. Singers Molly Quinn, Emily Eagen and Katie Geissinger opened it, developing a hypnotically rapturous theme with the anxiously enveloping quality of a renaissance motet. Then percussionist David Cossin introduced the anvil beat which would serve as antagonist to the resilience and persistence of the echo-fueled vocals and shifting, Louis Andriessen-ish, percussive melodies of the rest of the piece.

Wolfe grew up steeped in Americana, and as she explained before the show, her first stringed instrument was the dulcimer. Guitarist Mark Stewart played some of that, and also the banjo, hammered on his body along with clarinetist Ken Thomson and ended up supplying percussion for a long interlude by stomping out a clog dance rhythm with his boots. Much as that was comic relief, it also viscerally voiced the angst of the man-versus-machine theme. A hauntingly murky, resonant segment about midway through built by bassist Robert Black and cellist Ashley Bathgate drove home the point that John Henry did not survive the duel. Take that forward into the present, then do the math.

Pianist Vicky Chow supplied dulcimer-like plucking inside the piano when she wasn’t hammering out an endless anvil choir on the keys, while Cossin switched between drumkit (heavy on the toms), vibraphone and boomy low timpani. Quinn’s crystalline soprano soared over the meticulous rhythms of the other two singers’ mantralike volleys of lyrics, phrases and syllables, which they repeated ad infinitum, sometimes comedically, sometimes to raise the menace level. Anyone wondering what this was all about needed only to watch how Bathgate was reacting: when things got funny, she couldn’t resist a big grin, but when things got intense, she’d be all business. The original folk song theme finally appeared as a stark coda right before the swirling atmospherics of the conclusion, which turned out to be part gospel, part Arvo Part. Bookmark the Q2 homepage if you want to experience all this for yourself at a yet-to-be-determined date.