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Odd Couples

It’s the kind of thing we used to bitch about in school. We’d sit around, soaking in our green youth, and complain about how concerts stink. How the whole experience of modern concerts is boring and dated, and how when New Music, usually saddled with electronics and amplification and complex percussion setups, is infused in this creaking old structure the result is often mind-numbingly dull: 12 minutes of setup for a 6 minute piece. The lights come up, and another setup, for another piece. And there’s usually more people onstage than in the audience. No wonder no one goes to these things. I try not to at least.

Oh, you know, we tried to put our efforts into bravely re-making the concert experience, with inter-arts collaborative projects and staged concerts featuring music and dance and theater and film, and they often were fantastic, and truly inspiring. But these were one-off events. They took months of planning, we all chipped in, the school funded it, it happened, everyone loved it, and we all dispursed into the world, where presenting similar paradigm-shifting concert experiences isn’t exactly the easiest way to get work.

But Thursday night the chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound gave us an idea of how this kind of thing could actually go in The Real World. Their Carnegie Hall debut, in the gorgeous one-season-old Zankel Hall downstairs was a spectacular example of forward-thinking concert programming. I have a soft spot for these guys, of course, having contributed 2 arrangements for their excellent CD, Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound performs Aphex Twin, and I consider myself a friend of the ensemble. My lack of partiality aside—the evening was triumph of programming: 9 eclectic pieces, tossed together, but with the solid theme of continuity in relationships between various pairs of the representative composers. Add in that each piece is staged within an inch of its life, and sounded out expertly, and you’ve got yourself a serious show.

It’s hard to describe just how classy AWS managed to come across in this endeavor. The usual result of attempts to “stretch” the concert experience out of the particular Piece, Pause, Piece, Pause box we currently suffer through often come off as forced and, well, sophomoric … and well, overly theatrical (adjective used pejoratively I’m afraid, with apologies to Theater-Designing Better Half). Artistic Director and Conductor Alan Pierson and Staging Director Nigel Maister deserve the credit for designing every transitional effort to be more clever than the last, and every visual element never once bouncing over-the-top.

I generally despise blow-by-blow non-review reviews, but this concert was so very much not what one thinks of when you say “concert” that I can’t resist describing what happened. They opened with a Frank Zappa medley of sorts, Dog Breath Variations followed immediately by Uncle Meat. The AWS musicians wandered on stage, as their parts were needed (it’s an old trick, but it still works … Corigliano’s Promenade Overture comes to mind as the supreme example), music impressively memorized, while images and text that can only be described as Live Program Notes are projected on the screen behind the ensemble. Funky pics of Zappa, quotes, dates, and some fantastically-expert PowerPoint skills float around up there while AWS blares through the Zappas — it all could go very very wrong very very easily, and yet, the visual elements are somehow so subtle and periodic (the image changed maybe only every minute or 2) that so far it all works out.

No stage entrance necessary for John Cage’s 0’00″ — it began before the last chord of the Zappa died out in the hall. One of the infamous performance/chance pieces, the instructions are simply to go do a “disciplined action”, with “maximum amplification”. I know this because the projections told me so, and so the ensemble started setting up the next piece, only with quite deliberate gestures, repetitions, random movement elements, and floor mics picking up every stand scratch, instrument drop, and footfall. Brilliant. It was the Cage, but it was setup for the next piece.

As mentioned above, the program’s theme was of composer continuums—one composer related to another, by studies, by social aspects, or simply by reverence. The first connection started with the third piece by Ghanian musician and composer Bernard Woma, expert of the gyil, a xylophone of sorts. Derek Bermel, composer of the last piece on the half, studied gyil with Woma, and as the piece (Gyil Mambo, expertly arranged by David Rogers) progressed the projections provide quotes and anecdotes from Derek, pretty much about how simply awesome Woma is.

By now I realized that because of these projections, I haven’t yet needed to glance down at my program at all, and it occurs to me that this was perhaps the idea. And what an excellent idea that is—to create a concert experience which does everything in it’s power to keep your eyes glued to the stage at all times. Who would go to a play or a musical or a dance only to spend half the time looking down at their lap? And yet this is most everyone’s standard concert music experience…

European modernist Wolfgang Rihm wrote the evening’s commissioned work, entitled Will Sound — a well-crafted and expertly-orchestrated piece, providing no surprises at all. It’s exactly the sort of spiky and expressionist gestures I expect to hear from Rihm, whose star is very high indeed in Europe (less so in the States). AWS sold the piece like superstars, and the various photos and quotes about Rihm and his music (by no less than John Adams, whose music ended the concert … another composer-connection-continuum) helped make what could have been an excrutiating 6 minutes for many in the hall into a fun and likely eye-opening piece. To see Adams’ words describe Rihm’s music as “painting in expressionist brushstrokes” float in front of you as the music is happening … well, you begin to actually hear that, whether you’d like to or not. It certainly helps matters. Playing the final punchline, the last projected image was Rihm’s own quote—from a letter (or more likely, an e-mail) to AWS, all carefully timed to the final seconds of the piece: “I am excited to write for your crazy ensemble. —Wolfgang Rihm”. As a final rim-shot, the quote was fonted in Old German Script.

Bermel’s piece Three Rivers, which polished off the first half, is an excellent piece of work. Eclectic in its influences, the piece is water-tight, hefty, and fun. In another stroke of brilliance, the piece was slightly re-scored, so that at the end director Nigel Maister could block-out bringing in the rest of the AWS players. The result for the final moments of the piece: an alternation between ear-blisteringly loud, hairy chords, and crazy-fast improvisational passages on mallets and piano, where the rest of AWS, meandering onstage, joined in on the tuttis (memorized). The result worked really well for the piece, and served the extra purpose of getting the entire band onstage for the bows.

The funkiness continued in the opening of the second half with the Varèse Intégrales (simply one of The Great Pieces), performed in the round and all over the space, back forth, up, and down, and with Pierson conducting from what appeared to be the exact center seat of the hall, where he had positioned himself at intermission. Antiphony and surround-sound works really quite well for Varèse, and some might leave it at that, but Maisters took the next step and staged the whole piece with players running up and down the aisles, entering and exiting, and just generally moving about the space. Meanwhile, Maister projected pics of Varèse (once even slightly animated) and cheeky quotes from Zappa (a self-proclaimed Varèse freak) on the back screen, and so Intégrales was quite the sensory-rich show.

Imagine yourself the director of this evening, and now you’ve got yourself a staging problem: Your conductor is now stuck in the middle of the auditorium, in the middle seat, at the end of the piece. How do you get him, and the rest of the players, in position and set up for the next piece? By performing another Cage chance piece, of course— this time Variations III, for which the score is described as consisting “simply of a series of transparencies with markings on them, which are then dropped onto a blank sheet of paper by potential performers, who interpret the resulting marks whichever way they desire.” Pierson was the comic star here, standing and sitting, half-sitting, standing again, asking neighbors loudly if he might borrow a program, repeatedly, in various volumes, and in gibberish. Eventually he moved his way backstage, occasionally reading from the program and entertaining the whole way, as AWS musicians crawled along the stage, repeatedly bowed, and generally moved their setup into position, all while hilariously nonplussed Union Stage Workers plugged amps in around them.

John Cale, a protege of sorts of Cage (and the continuum collects another dot) but most importantly an original member of The Velvet Underground, wrote a score to the 1963 experimental film by Andy Warhol, Kiss, in the ’90s, and it’s a gem. Arranged by AWS member Dennis DeSantis and played live with bits of the film projected on the ubiquitous backstage-screen (I can’t even begin to imagine the licensing involved in this), the result was spectacularly beautiful, and oddly moving. The Warhol is intense and raw—a series of close-up scenes of passionate kisses, fierce and breathtaking. Men and women, men and men, women and women … visual fare so Downtown I had to remind myself I was sitting in the basement of Carnegie and not somewhere in Tribeca. The Cale score was gorgeous … evocative, propulsive in rhythm, and colorful with double reeds, electric guitar, and amplified strings and voices.

AWS finished off with two electronica arrangements: listed last on the program was ensemble violinist Caleb Burhans’ arrangement of “Coast”, from Hoodoo Zephyr, the fascinating 1993 all-synthesizer album by John Adams, and the inevitable encore was the first track off the aforementioned Aphex Twin “Acoustica” CD, Cock/Ver 10, arranged by AWS cellist and composer Stefan Freund. Both are perfect examples of AWS’s crossover efforts—but all genre pigeon-holing aside, these suckers just work for the ensemble, and are a whole heck of a lot of fun to listen to. In fact these two pieces represent exactly what Alarm Will Sound is successfully pushing into the concert hall: a wide swath of style and source, creatively presented, and superbly executed.

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