Tuesday, November 25, 2014

American Composers Orchestra - Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere - 11/21/14

Conductor: George Manahan
A. J. McAffrey: Motormouth
Ian Williams: Clear Image
Theo Bleckmann: My Brightest Garment
Loren Loiacono: Stalks, Hounds
Meredith Monk: Night

After happily becoming acquainted with new choral music in Brooklyn on Thursday night, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Friday night, in Zankel's intimate underground space this time, to become acquainted with more new choral and instrumental music courtesy of the American Composers Orchestra. The only orchestra in the world uncompromisingly dedicated to American composers and their works, the ACO took the opportunity of artistic multitasker extraordinaire Meredith Monk reaching 50 years of non-stop ground-breaking creativity this year - and incidentally her 72nd birthday the day before - to throw a party of sorts showcasing some already much buzzed-about American composers of the new generation.

To get things going in a positive mood, the concert opened with A. J. McAffrey's "Motormouth", a restless 15-minute piece that seemed to take off in every possible direction and put itself through a wide range of moods in doing so, just like the composer's four-year-old son eagerly repeating the same joke over and over again with numerous variations. It left us all exhausted, but exhilarated.
We cooled off by listening to Ian Williams' electro-rock "Clear image", whose intriguing goal was to explore the differences between a multi-track recording and live music. The result was a jumpy, and not always particularly pleasing to the ear, pseudo-conversation between an annoyingly dysfunctioning R2-D2 and a standard instrumental orchestra that at times bothered to respond. Nothing much seemed to come out of this tedious exercise, or I completely missed it.
Coming up next, Theo Bleckmann's "My Brightest Garment" was a somewhat playful song about death seen as a magician's ultimate disappearing act. Simple but impactful, it started nice and sweet before growing into a wild ball of spiky energy. It was a decidedly cool little musical piece, and it would have been cooler without the lyrics or the electronics.
After realizing that the pretty sounds she had heard as a child when playing a Barbie's Dream House-based computer game essentially came from Ravel's lavish Daphnis et Chloé, Loren Loiacono set out to use the same concept for her own "Stalks, Hounds". Opening with a harp and woodwinds flourish similar to Ravel's, her composition steadily evolved into something completely different, but still intrinsically attractive.
The four youngsters above may have strived and occasionally succeeded in coming up with more or less satisfying works, but at the end of the day, Meredith Monk's "Night", performed by a distinguished vocal ensemble, including composer-turned-baritone Theo Bleckman, and the full orchestra, categorically proved that she could easily out-compose them all. Originally written in 1996 and revised in 2005, the immediately engaging, vaguely mystical work was clever without being flashy, adventurous without being inaccessible, unique without being self-centered. It endlessly created exciting relationships between voices and instruments, engaged in small sound experiments that were brilliantly illuminating at best and interestingly odd at worse, and effectively demonstrated how appealing bold contemporary music can be. Long live Meredith Monk!

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