The second season of the Wordless Music Series kicked off last Friday while I was down in Austin, but I was fortunate to catch the series' first-ever Brooklyn show last night, at the previously-unknown Brooklyn Masonic Temple in Fort Greene. The hall, which seems perfectly preserved from the early 20th Century, holds around 800, and was packed for last night's concert, headlined by rising stars Beirut.
But the hallmark of these concerts has always been a mix of contemporary classical with sounds from the indie rock scene, and so the first half was devoted to a performance of Osvaldo Golijov's The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, about a 13th century rabbi who had hallucinatory, Kabbalistic visions. The work was performed by an ensemble of undergraduates from Bard College calling themselves Fifth Veil, comprised of string quartet with clarinet. The kids tackled the challenging music with serious skill, eliciting a raucous reaction from the crowd, one they were clearly taken aback by. Clearly, there's some fun stuff happening up at the Fisher Center these days...
Beirut followed after a 20 minute intermission, which normally would have felt excessive were it not for the understandably complex setup eight musicians require, many of whom play a minimum of three instruments. They include: Perrin Cloutier (cello and accordion), Jason Poranski (guitar/mandolin/ukulele), Nick Petree (drums), Kristin Ferebee (violin), Paul Collins (organ/piano/ tambourine/ukulele), Jon Natchez (baritone sax/mandolin/glockenspiel), and Kelly Pratt (trumpet/euphonium). Beirut is part of a swiftly-growing retro-trend towards exotic, orchestral rock, executed with acoustic, occasionally arcane instruments. (Arcade Fire being a notable example.)
But a band is only as good as it's lead singer, and 21-year old Zach Condon - who, in addition to writing all the band's music, plays ukelele, fugelhorn, and occasionally piano - is nothing short of brilliant. Most remarkably, he possesses a uniquely plaintive, wavering voice that soared above the near-cacophony surrounding him and sent the crowd to rapture. It took all of three songs for the seated audience to leap to their feat and rush the stage, as if it were a Bowery show. The band responded with an electric set, which more than one person said was one of the best they've seen.
Give props to series curator Ronen Givony for his programming foresight: I can't imagine a better complement to Golijov's Klezmer-inflected music that the Balkan noisescape of Beirut. (Givony announced from the stage that the concert was being filmed for indie music site Pitchfork, and will also be streamed on the WNYC website.)
If you missed last night's show, Beirut will be playing a second Wordless Music concert on Monday night, at the Society for Ethical Culture near Lincoln Center, supported by electric cellist Colleen, as well as acoustic music by Chopin, Scriabin, Bartok and others. Tickets $25 at the door or online.