Big Ears Festival 2024 Preview

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Big Ears 2017It's been seven long years since I last went to the Big Ears Festival, a combination of Covid shutting things down (2020-21) and my own inertia. But, I'm happily returning for this year's festival, which takes place next week (March 21-24) in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Now in it's 11th edition, the boundary pushing, genre-busting festival has grown significantly since my last visit in 2017 (I also attended in 2015 and 2016), adding several new venues including the 6,500 capacity Knoxville Civic Auditorium. As always, festival producer and founder Ashley Capps applies the same basic formula that he used when he was the chief booker at Bonnaroo: pile together as much interesting, wow-inducing music as you can within a set amount of space and time in order to build a critical mass of energy and excitement. Hopefully without long lines. 

One of the things I simultaneously enjoy/find frustrating about Big Ears is the lack of any kind of genre filter: the schedule doesn't tell you what's jazz, new music, indie, electronica, or whatever. I get it, that's exactly the point: to have folks flit from Laurie Anderson, to Henry Threadgill, to Andre 3000 and find something to enjoy in all of it. Or not. Still, I need some way of organizing the nearly 200 shows that are happening over four days. So, with apologies to Capps and the other festival organizers, I've assembled my own highly-subjective roadmap of the best things happening next week - by genre. Here goes.

Indie

Things kick off on Thursday with Kurt Vile & the Violators and Adrianne Lenker playing back to back at the KCA. Later on, 90's post punk outfit Unwound plays a set at the Mill & Mine. Then there are power women such as Kristin Hersh (Friday) and Beth Orton (Saturday). Sunday brings a duet between Thurston Moore and Led Zepplin's John Paul Jones. Other curiosities include London's Bar Italia, Baltimore's Horse Lords, and Ringdown, Caroline Shaw's irresistible new project with her partner Danni Lee.

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Back Home Again: The NY Philharmonic with Elim Chan and Sol Gabetta

New York Philharmonic with Elim Chan, 3/8/24After spending the past six weeks surveying orchestras from Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Vienna, I felt it was high time I took in a concert by our own NY Philharmonic, which I did last Friday at Geffen Hall. There wasn't much star-wattage on the bill - no-name guest conductor, unfamiliar soloist - but the program seemed interesting: a new work (technically, a new arrangement) by a Native American composer, an obscure 20th century cello concerto, and Scheherazade. If nothing else, it would be a pleasant evening in the new, improved Geffen Hall, with its airport lounge decor and dancing chandeliers. 

I wasn't sure what sort of crowd to expect, but when I arrived I was surprised to see the hall at or near capacity. Some of that might have had to do with the presence of several school groups who seemed to be on their annual NYC field trip, but the bulk of the audience seemed local and enthusiastic. And young. Not exactly sure what the Phil's powers-that-be contrived to attract such an enviable crowd, but hats off. 

Native American culture is having a moment in 2024, and the Phil echoed that with Pisachi by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a composer from the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma. Tate originally wrote Pisachi ("Reveal") for the string quartet Ethel in 2013, and the NY Phil commissioned him to write this arrangement for string orchestra. Inspired by vintage photographs of the Southwest lands of the Hopi and Pueblo tribes, the music began quietly, bringing to mind the sun rising over a desert landscape. Soon, the music gained momentum like a sudden rainstorm, with the end recalling the feverish concluding bars of Ravel's string quartet. Tate, who was present, took the stage for a well-deserved ovation. 

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From Wagner to Verdi: Lise Davidsen at Carnegie Hall and the Met Opera

Lise Davidsen, La Forza del Destino, Met Opera
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The Met's current revival of Verdi's La Forza Del Destino - which will be broadcast live in HD and on the radio this Saturday - has garnered both positive and negative reactions, mostly having to do with Mariusz Treliński's bleak modernist staging, as well as some uneven singing among the cast. But, I was mostly concerned with the collective assessment of soprano Lise Davidsen as Leonora, who is making her stage debut in the role. (She sang a concert version with Norwegian Opera last fall.) Verdict: a mixed bag over the opera's 4 1/2 hour length, but she is unassailable in her solos, particularly the show-stopping Act 4 aria, "Pace, pace, mio Dio." (You can hear the full performance here.)

Frankly, Davidsen can afford some tepid reviews considering the splash she's made since her Met debut five years ago in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Since then, she's wowed New York audiences - including me - with her soaring, impossibly voluminous voice in roles such as Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss' Elektra, and the title role in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. The Times' Zachary Woolfe says of Davidsen: "There are vanishingly few artists in the world (today) singing with such generosity, sensitivity and visceral impact."

Tackling Italian opera for the first time at the Met, Davidsen is boldly stepping outside of her comfort zone, requiring a warmer, more fluid style than the meaty German repertoire in which she excels. And, while she isn't yet on par with the great Verdi divas of yesteryear, Davidsen manages to pack an emotional punch, having spent long hours developing the phrasing and fluid tone this music requires.

“I had to work harder to convince the houses that I could even do Verdi and the Italian repertoire,” Davidsen told the Times recently. “But vocally, I am quite ready.”

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