Thursday, March 05, 2009

New York, New Music, New Hall

The other night we went to the "New York, New Music, New Hall" program at Alice Tully Hall. The revamped hall has been getting a lot of press lately, having recently re-opened after a major mondo monster renovation that took almost two years. Most of this press has been very positive, though I did read a naysayer regarding the acoustics for large orchestras (I have read only good things about the acoustics for smaller ensembles, and pretty much unanimously favorable reaction to the visual design elements).

Now, I'm no acoustician, but I flatter myself that I have a pretty good ear. My perspective on the 'room sound' thing is that it's largely a matter of opinion, though there are certain things that most everyone agrees on (too echoey is bad; if you can't hear the soft parts it's bad; if the street noise is too audible it's bad). After that it gets a little yitzy - most everyone agrees that some resonance is good, but there can be a lot of debate about how much is the 'right' amount. And, if I may be so bold, I think that when these discussions begin, I think we start to see posturing pretty quickly. My personal priorities in terms of acoustics tend toward the realms of audibility and clarity - I do like some warmth, but I want to be able to hear the distinct instruments and voices without too thick a bassy boom or a whole bunch of mush.

But the bottom line is: the acoustics are there in service of the music. That's what we're going to the hall to hear.

Cory scored us our tickets pretty last minute, so we didn't make it to the free opening performance by the string quartet Ethel in the rather vast lobby, but it looks like it was pretty cool. We had seats in different parts of the auditorium, but thanks to the kindness of a solo traveler, we did end up sitting together. John Schaeffer was the host, providing a bit of chat at the beginning of each act. The first ensemble he presented was Alarm Will Sound.

They were the youngest group of the evening, and while I know we like to avoid cliches I will admit that catchwords like 'hip' and 'energetic' do spring to mind. More importantly, they're really fucking good. Ah, New York: a place where you can put out the word that you want to start a contemporary music ensemble and you end up with a stage full of world class players. Or you can if you're Alan Pierson, anyway. Their first piece was Derek Bermel’s “Three Rivers” which pretty much leapt off the stage and grabbed my attention. If you look for images of Alarm Will Sound on the internets, you'll run across a photo of them playing in front of a projection screen featuring a Frank Zappa aphorism. That seems appropriate, as this piece of Bermel's reminded me of nothing so much as some of Zappa's compositions - ones done by his groups, yes, but more so pieces that groups like Ensemble Modern have performed.

Their second piece, Oscar Bianchi’s “Mezzogiorno,” didn't blow me away as much, but that probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was working hard through much of the piece to stifle a tickle in my throat that was fighting to turn into a cough. That cold still hasn't gone away. It is making me lose my patience. However, I was better off by the time their third piece, Caleb Burhans’s “oh ye of little faith ... (do you know where your children are?),” began - which is a good thing, because it was lush and beautiful.

The Bang on a Can All Stars were up next. Love them - pretty sure I've written about them here before. Oh, that's a sad, small picture of them, but I didn't want to use the old out-of-date promo shot you see everywhere. They opened with Julia Wolfe's "Lick," which was amazing; moved on to David Lang's “Sunray,” which was zippy; gave us the world premier of Michael Gordon's “For Madeleine,” which he wrote for his mother and which was appropriately moving; and wrapped up with Glenn Kotche's “Mobile.” Glenn is the drummer for Wilco, and he joined the Can Bangers to perform his piece on a second drum set (amidst jokes about Little Feat, the Allman Brothers and other 2-drummer combos) - it's not terribly surprising that his piece was the rockinest of the night, and I'm happy to say that it was also a complex and wholly effective composition. Probably wouldn't give much hope to the "Give me A.M. or give me death" crowd of Wilco fans, who are in for more of the "sonic exploration" incarnation of the band if Kotche's work is any indication. After the set, Glenn came out and sat right behind us, which gave Cory some palpitations. Blah, blah, blah. Girls and drummers. Did I mention that the Bang on a Can pianist, Ning Yu, is really cute?

For the last section of the night, John Schaeffer rhapsodized, at some length, about the legendary status of Steve Reich's “Music for 18 Musicians.” It's true - not many contemporary 'art' compositions have such lofty status or are so well known. I've heard "...18 Musicians" bunches of times, but never live.

Gotta tell you, folks, if you ever wanted proof that live music just exists on a whole other, better, plane than the recorded kind, you could have done worse than showing up at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday night. This piece worked so well on so many levels, and gave us things to appreciate that just don't exist in recorded form. Simple things, like being able to see with your own eyes the attention and endurance of the marimba players, and being able to see things that you have to guess at when you're listening to recorded versions (where do the voices end and the instruments begin?) But also some of the more esoteric, harder-to-define things that work 'room sound' fanatics into a lather: the clarity, the subtlety of the dynamics, that (fuck it, I'll just say it) magic that happens when you've got those air molecules wiggling straight from the musicians to your ears.

And that brings me back around to the Hall renovations. The warm appearance of the room (and the improved comfort of the seating) helps in ways that seem at first to be extra-musical, but actually add quite a bit to the experience. And that experience began pretty much as soon as I stepped out of the subway stairs and saw the facade of the building, the interior visible through huge glass wall/windows. I overheard a couple different groups of passersby murmur impressed comments, along the lines of "Wow. That looks really... great." And it looks great from the inside too, and - most importantly of all - it sounds great.

'Twas a good night out.

No comments: