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December 2007

November 2007

Rite Of 175th St.


The first time I met Simon Rattle was on a snowy January night in 2003, in the backstage area of the Musikverein in Vienna, where he had just conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in one of their subscription concerts. He was then still in his first season as Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic, but had already received significant press for his groundbreaking Zukunft@BPhil education program, which I've written about previously. After some welcome chat in English, I told him that I admired what he was trying to do, and wished him Godspeed in his ambitious agenda.

"We're having fun," he said, with a glint in his eye.

Dsc00975Little did I know that less than two weeks later, he and the BPO would be performing The Rite of Spring at a former warehouse in industrial Berlin, with 250 underprivileged teenagers from around the city, dancing to primitive but intricate choreography by Royston Maldoom. The project, which was documented in the 2004 film Rhythm Is It!, was an enormous success and a powerful statement of Rattle's bold new intentions for the world's greatest orchestra. (There, I said it.)

"Without doubt," Rattle said, "it was one of the most memorable and emotional evenings that we have had, one that seems to have had a powerful resonance for our relation to the whole city."

Dsc00954When Catherine Milliken, the director of Zukunft@BPhil, was informed of Carnegie Hall's invitation to revive The Rite of Spring at Washington Heights' United Palace Theater, she decided to enhance the original project with an extension into song. Working with some 80 students from four Harlem high schools, her team developed Songs: Ritual Rhythms, a new choral work inspired by Rite, with a socially-positive, often humorous text that encouraged them to speak out and stand up for themselves.Dsc00946 In addition to a chorus of sixty, 20 student percussionists worked with the formidable BPO timpanist Rainer Seegers, who strutted and danced around the stage with various tam tams, tambourines, rattles and other implements. Other BPO participants included oboist Jonathan Kelly, Franz Schindlbeck - who played Stravinsky on Thursday and was seen here behind a  drum kit (playing hip hop!) - and Edicson Ruiz, the 22-year old double bass phenom from Venezuela. Many other members of the orchestra - including Rattle and concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa - watched from the first row, instruments in hand.Dsc00955

After intermission, Rattle came onstage to speak about Rite, offering some background for the numerous audience  members who were likely hearing this music for the first time. He told us it was written in 1913, prophesying the onset of World War I, with its chaotic rhythms and violent sonorities. He pointed out how it was left to the women and the young - in particular a young virgin who dances herself to death - to save a world that is falling apart at the hands of men.Dsc00982

"Now, if that sounds like what's going on these days..." he said, to explosive laughter and cheers.

Dsc00988In Rhythm Is It!, Royston Maldoom says he sees a performance of Rite as nothing less than, "the enactment of a ritual to ensure the future." Maldoom believes resolutely in the power of dance to change people's lives, and over the past 30 years has developed numerous dance projects with everyone from prison inmates, to adults with learning disabilities, to Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. (Maldoom himself was brought up in lower-class London.) He has been here since September, working with 100 students of various ages from five Harlem schools; you can read some of their reflections here.

Dsc00991The hard work clearly paid off, with the kids putting on a riveting performance of truly complex movement. For his part, Rattle delivered an electrifying performance with the Philharmonic, which I was lucky enough to hear from the third row (making up for Friday night's seating fiasco.) After several curtain calls with the creators and organizers, Rattle took his own bows with the kids, clearly relishing the moment. Not everyday you see a world-class conductor surrounded onstage by a bunch of inner city kids...

Dsc01007Dsc01014The dance project has now become an annual event in Berlin, with the next one happening in February, to Heiner Goebbels 1994 composition Surrogate Cities. From the few locals I met who were deeply and sincerely appreciative of the BPO bringing this monumental event here, one can only hope there are more projects in our future as well. (Alan Gilbert: take heed.)

P.S. This trailer to Rhythm Is It! gives you a good taste of what this was all about. 


Continue reading "Rite Of 175th St." »

Gallery Music

Dsc00876Chelsea was full of gallery hoppers yesterday afternoon, but visitors to the Chelsea Art Museum on 22nd street were treated not just to some provocative paintings, but to an exceptional performance by violinist Steven Zynszajn and friends in the latest installment of his Lautreamont Concerts. Having the abstract paintings of French painter Jean Miotte as a backdrop was a bit of a shock at first, but soon felt like an appropriate analog to the wide-ranging program, which included two Schubert impromptus (played by Steven Graff), Bartok's Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, and the Ravel String Quartet.

Dsc00882The idea of having concerts in a gallery space isn't new: Reich and Glass had most of their music premiered in SoHo galleries or, in Reich's case, at the Whitney, and the Tenri Cultural Institute and Gallerie Icosahedron have regular new music events. The acoustics aren't always ideal - Zynszajn admitted to me that the sound was a bit bright, and he had a hard time hearing the other performers - but I'll take that over stuffy Weill anyday. Especially if they serve cocktails before or after (hint).

The next Lautremont concert will be on Dec. 8, with chamber works by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Pärt. Tickets are $15 and include museum admission.



Not Worth It

Dsc05233 In New York, we are fortunate to have the best musicians in the world - classical, pop, electronic, whatever - come visit on a regular basis. Sometimes, it's easy to take this privilege for granted, especially when it comes to a great and historic ensemble like the Berlin Philharmonic, which comes here almost every year. Which, I'll admit, might be part of the reason why I feel I didn't get my money's worth last night at Carnegie Hall.

Dsc05239To start with, I paid $102 for a Dress Circle ticket, which ended up being behind a pillar that partially blocked the right side of the stage. Sorry, but for that kind of money, I don't care who's on stage: I expect clean sight lines. Second, the program was even shorter than I expected: Kurtág's Stele, the only work on the first half, lasted all of 14 minutes. Sure, it was a solid performance of an interesting, challenging work, but would it really have killed them to play something a little longer, or even - shockers - a second piece before intermission? If any other orchestra tried to pull that, people would say they felt ripped off. Well...

Dsc05242 At least it allowed me to sneak downstairs and snag what I thought was a great seat on the left hand side of the orchestra, one that would have cost twice what mine had. Unfortunately, less than two minutes into the start of Mahler's 10th - a symphony grounded in silence and extremely quiet playing - the elderly, overweight man next to me began a marathon of wheezing, coughing and labored breathing that continued unabated for the next 80 minutes. Immediately, I regretted not having filled my pockets with free Ricola from the lobby to hand to this unfortunate slob. (On Tuesday, Rattle apparently let the cough-happy audience have it after the first movement of Mahler's 9th: “This is music created from silence and returning to it, " he said. "Please help us create this magic.”)

Dsc05244 What I did manage to hear through all that noise, though, was sublime. Mahler died while working on this symphony, and only managed to orchestrate the first and part of the third movement. The rest was "finished" by British composer Deryck Cooke in 1964, with the blessing of Mahler's widow, Alma. While there are definitely some awkward bits that Mahler probably would have smoothed out if he'd been around, most of the music is perfectly valid, encompassing themes from all of Mahler's previous work while charting new, often terrifying territory. Rattle, who has been performing this Cooke edition for almost two decades, conducted from memory, with an intensity that steadily increased throughout the performance. And the playing of the Philharmonic was alternatively lighthearted, brooding, forceful, and subdued - in other words, everything it needed to be. What struck me most of all was the intense attack of the strings, working their bows like pistons.

Dsc05246 By the prolonged final movement, Rattle was conducting as if in a trance, the music having completely taken over his movements. At one point, a percussionist left the stage in order to play a bass drum in the wings. Through the open door, Rattle signalled him with an outstretched fist; the sound came forth like death waiting in his tomb. After a brief return to lightness, the trumpets let out a piercing shriek more horrifying than anything I've ever heard. The music then faded out slowly and peacefully as the death struggle finally ceased. Rapturous applause followed, but appropriately, no encore.

Dsc05260The BPO has one final performance before they depart: The Rite of Spring Project tomorrow afternoon at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights. And, with tickets priced at only $15, I can pretty much guarantee you'll get your money's worth - provided you're willing to make the trek uptown.


"The (Berlin Philharmonic's) standard of playing at all times, whether it'll be in a Primary school classroom or in the Philharmonie, is absolutely fantastic. And when you go off into a classroom and play something from Stravinsky, then those standards disappear in terms of absolute performance." - Richard McNicol, former director of Zukunft@BPhil

Dsc00809In 2003, I had the good fortune to visit with Richard McNicol and Denise Mellion on the balcony of the Philharmonie in Berlin, where we discussed the bold new education program Simon Rattle had hired them to start, Zukunft@BPhil. ("Zukunft" means "future" in German.) They told me that part of Rattle's charge was to take music into underprivileged parts of the city, where residents seldom had the chance to hear music of any kind, much less by one of the world's great orchestras.

Dsc00817 Six years into the highly successful program, the BPO has brought Zukunft@BPhil to NYC, under the auspices of Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute and the Berlin In Lights festival. All this week, members of the orchestra have been playing free concerts in small venues around the city, such as the Chinatown Salvation Army, the Harlem Children's Zone, and the Miccio Youth Center PAL in Brooklyn. Tonight, they came to the University Settlement: a 120-year old Lower East Side institution that provides education and outreach programs to low-income members of the community.Dsc00827

This year, University Settlement has introduced The Performance Project: a performance series in intimate Speyer Hall that includes music, dance, theater, and performance art. But, as series curator Alison Fleminger said in her opening remarks, tonight's appearance by the BPO was truly something special. There were only 75 open seats, many taken by families with young children, and the musicians - who all wore black pants and Polos with the Berliner Philharmoniker logo in gold - were almost in our lap.

Dsc00834They performed Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat: an hour-long work with narration that tells a fairly dark fable about a soldier who sells his violin to the Devil in exchange for a book that allows him to amass material wealth, but at the expense of his personal happiness. Brit Stanley Dodds, one of the BPO's second violins, was a wonderful narrator, delivering the text with wit and charisma, often playing as he spoke. The rest of the players - especially clarinetist Wenzel Fuchs and trumpeter Tamas Valenczei - tossed off Stravinsky's complex harmonies without coming close to breaking a sweat.

Dsc00840But, this wasn't about showcasing the BPO's chops so much as it was about exposing youngsters and other locals to music they probably had not heard before. Seated in the front row were several small children, all of whom seemed as delighted as their parents by what they heard (save for one cranky four year old whose mother had to take him outside when he started a tantrum.)

Dsc00869But the highlight of the evening came after most of the audience and musicians had left. About half-a-dozen kids - none older than four - spontaneously converged on the percussion kit and started banging on the drums with various sticks and mallets. BPO Percussionist Franz Schindlbeck took it all in stride, calmly packing up his high hats and tam-tams while the kDsc00872ids whaled away on the bass drum. Eventually, he approached the kids, took one of the soft mallets, and showed them how to play pianissimo. Schindlbeck didn't speak: he just played softly while holding his finger up to his lips, and the kids soon followed suit. Fortunately, there were German cameras there to document the whole thing; expect to see it in some future documentary.



Dsc00874This weekend, Zukunft@BPhil heads up to Washington Heights for two performances of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at the United Palace Theater on 175th and Broadway, featuring the full BPO and a cast of over 100 NYC public school students, dancing to choreography by Royston Muldoon. This was one of the projects from the very first season of Zukunft, and by all accounts has been the most successful to date. Tickets are $15, with festival seating. If you've got the time, I assure you it'll be well worth the trip uptown.