Previously I have mentioned a piece of music that was important to my own composing, and putting my actions where my lazy-ass blogger ways are, I went out last night to catch a performance of Ensemble ACJW at Zankel Hall. I’m always striving to hear, live, music that is important to me, and this entire concert was a real pleasure above and beyond checking anything off a personal list of experiences.
The Ensemble is an excellent organization. Made up of superb post-graduate musicians, it’s dedicated to developing professional performance skills, presenting programs with an exciting mix of pieces, and to education; all the musicians teach in the New York City public schools. The hall was only half-full, but along with hipsters, music students, a few middle-aged long hairs and me, there were a good number of elementary school kids, eight to ten years old, there in groups and with parents. That was truly great to see, especially considering they where there, in stormy weather, to hear a mix of Antony Holborne, Luciano Berio, Ingram Marshall and Steve Reich. Now, that’s a man’s music.
Holborne opened the program, with five of his dances arranged for a small brass ensemble with percussion. The arrangements were effective and the music almost plays itself. Holborne is not well know, either by audiences or scholars – there’s his music, and not much else. What I know of his work is from an achingly beautiful recording by Jordi Savall. In that record, it’s difficult to find the elision between the pure beauty of the music and the pure beauty of Savall as a musician, but the two men are certainly made for each other. The brass arrangements satisfy in the way of Renaissance music, with antiphony, firm and expected cadences, lilting lines and lively, swinging rhythms.
The piece from Berio, Linnea, was originally a dance commission, and has a consistent pulse that one may not expect from that composer. It also has a sonically beguiling instrumentation of two pianos, vibraphone and marimba. Lots of rich, ringing tones. He starts out with the simplest material, two alternating pitches played by the ensemble, alternates the rhythm a bit, and then we’re off, at a graceful stride, developing variations, interplay, call and response. The piece was new to me a constantly pleasurable and intriguing.
After intermission came the red meat, Marshall’s Fog Tropes and City Life from Reich. It also brought out conductor Alan Pierson to the stage, and a different sense of energy and performance. For the first piece, Pierson placed the two trumpets in the left balcony, the two horns on opposite sides of the stage and the two trombones on the right balcony. This was a very effective complement to the sense of grand space that Marshall’s tape of altered fog horn, and other environmental sounds, creates. The brass hit the ideal balance of blending into the sonic framework and calling out clearly with their material, which is purely musical and harmonic. What I heard was what appears to me to be the central idea of the piece, which is the mystery and beauty of the sounds that surround us in a place, a place that really exists in our imagination. Marshall evokes responses in the listener, and this makes for an enduring work.
(It was also the kind of dialogue that work has with artists, and vice-versa. My own response to Fog Tropes sought to have the instruments create the idea of antiphonal fog horns and their reflections, and in performance I placed them at different points on the stage to create that effect. Marshall himself composed the tape as a separate piece, and added brass at the suggestion of John Adams, and the musicians accompany and respond to the tape. And so, in performance I experience this and the wonderful effect of spacing the musicians around the stage . . . and it goes back and forth, the constant dialogue between composers and the body of work created through history, to which they add, and which other composers hear and respond too . . .)
City Life was dynamic and dynamite. I have heard this piece performed under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas and recordings from Reich’s own group, The Ensemble Moderne and an Italian new music group called Contempoartensemble, and I have never heard it played with such a sense of excitement. Pierson drove this music and had it swinging madly, and the musicians certainly seemed to be relishing the chance to play it. It’s just a bit over 10 years old now, and it’s become a repertory work. Considering the challenges contemporary music faces in simply getting performances, this is gratifying and exciting. It’s a powerhouse piece, it belongs to New York City explicitly – Reich uses sounds he recorded off the streets as an important part of the ensemble – and the kids were digging it.
This was a terrific experience, and I will be going back for more. The flat ticket price for ACJW concerts is a very reasonable $15, and what you get is as good a concert experience you’ll find in New York City.