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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
So Percussion: Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, Carnegie Hall (Zankel Hall), New York City, 25.3.2010 (JE)
Steve Reich: Drumming Part I (1970-1971)
Dan Trueman: neither Anvil nor Pulley for Laptop-Percussion Quartet with Turntable (2009-10, New York Premiere)
Another wallflower (from Long Ago)
120b (or, What is your Metronome Thinking?)
A Cow Call (please oh Please Come Home!)
Feedback (in Which a Famous Bach Prelude becomes Ill-Tempered)
Hang Dog Springar (a Slow Dance)
Steven Mackey: It Is Time (2010, World Premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Chamber Music America) Video and staging by Mark DeChiazza.
Scheduled to begin late in the evening (presumably in response to recent complaints that amplified performances in Zankel Hall rumble up into Stern Auditorium) and certain to end well into the slumber of the typical Carnegie Hall subscriber, this astonishing concert obligingly and reassuringly told, what was for this audience, a bedtime story. The program—an excerpt from Steve Reich’s canonical work for percussion followed by two new works for percussion (mostly) and various electronics—was a heartening tale of emergent technology and new music patronage.
But technology and patronage did not readily come to mind as the shrewdly self-effacing and virtuosic quartet So Percussion exposed the ferocity and grace of Drumming’s first movement. Their refined performance allowed rhythmic “phasing”— on four pairs of tuned bongos—to sound thrilling and fresh, especially the implied counterpoint and harmony that echoed throughout the hall. By the end of their performance, though, So’s precision evoked not only Mr. Reich’s study in Ghana, but his earlier use of magnetic tape recording to discover “phasing” as a process for It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out. The stirring ovation prompted thoughts about Mr. Reich’s long journey, years spent apart from conservatories and university music departments once in thrall to serial technique and sterile electronic investigations. His work has also been absent from prominent concert halls, which compelled him to play with his own ensemble in out-of-the-way venues, and to rely on private patrons such as Betty Freeman.
However, things have changed, as Dan Trueman’s remarkable neither Anvil nor Pulley showed. Mr. Trueman, a professor of music at Princeton University—once a redoubt for the composer-as-specialist, namely Milton Babbitt, and now a department that New Yorker music critic Alex Ross calls “a happening place” led by “broad-minded elders”—uses the technological and financial resources of his institutional patron for communicative aims. Moreover, neither Anvil nor Pulley demonstrates how an ethos of research and teaching may serve a composer’s creative process, in Mr. Trueman’s case, as co-founder of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and a close collaborator of So during their university residencies. All this seems to have culminated in Mr. Trueman’s transportive new piece, which is set into motion by what sounds like a scratchy old vinyl record (actually a doctored recording of the composer playing the Hardanger fiddle). The five movements, articulated by the periodic return of recordings, blend acoustic and innovative electronic sounds produced in unexpected and fascinating ways to pull apart, turn, and magnify the feeling of the fiddle tunes. This did not sound anything like a set of variations; it was like being unsettled by déjà vu, a kaleidoscopic sorting out of memories from dreams and fantasies.
The program concluded with the world premiere of It Is Time by Steven Mackey, also a professor at Princeton University and a composer perhaps best known for exhilarating musical admixtures like Eating Greens, which incorporates the delivery of a pizza into an orchestral work. But in compositions like Ars Moriendi, Dreamhouse, and Beautiful Passing, an unconfined aquifer of experience nourishes Mr. Mackey’s aesthetic sensibility with a deepening grasp of human vanity and fragility. This is evident in It Is Time, which began with a metronome activated as the members of So squeezed around small wood blocks, looking at first like a strangely compressed staging of Drumming. The increasingly intricate music scoffs at the perception of time, a disposition amplified by Mark DeChiazza’s stark film projecting successive images—a metronome, a dripping faucet, utility lines—that mock the perception of scale. The So musicians played brilliantly on a widely divergent array of instruments (they also used time-keeping devices, mechanical toys, and a Newton’s cradle) on which each member was featured in turn. But a trenchant lyricism cut across the ambiguity of times and scales, and Mr. Mackey, a transcendent craftsman, used bowed saw, microtonally tuned steel drum, and marimba to smooth this work into an abstract memento mori.
Amidst thunderous applause Messrs. Trueman, Mackey, and DeChiazza opted not to exit through a side door, climb a hidden staircase, and emerge safely on the platform for their bows—each leapt directly onto the stage. Mr. Mackey’s running leap took the gold.