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February 2012

Tune-In Music Festival: Phil and Patti Blow Up the Armory

by Angela Sutton

201201-music_festival james ewing 

Photos:  Philip Glass by James Ewing / Patti Smith by Jean Baptiste Mondino

If I told you that a poet, for her composer friend's birthday, offered a tribute performance to another, deceased poet, and that the performance would draw heavily on Buddhism, sex, rabble-rousing, and the Hindu pantheon, you would probably expect the exercise to collpase under its own preciousness. When the poet is Patti Smith and the composer-friend is Philip Glass, however, you get electrifying theater.

The cavernous Park Avenue Armory was the scene for this unusual collaboration Friday night, with floor seating near the stage on a set of threadbare Eastern rugs, creating a Gothic coffeehouse atmosphere. The performers required only a Steinway grand and a few mics, clearing the way for projected photographs of Allen Ginsberg and his associates on a screen behind.

Mr. Glass served primarily as poetry accompanist, taking only one solo feature, an extended piano twiddling titled Etudes #2 and #10.  His music has been labelled "Minimalist", and while this may not be fair to all of his works, it did apply to this offering.  His playing had the prinicpal effect of putting experiences beyond the piano in relief - the obbligato sirens of the FDNY on Lexington, for example, or the fundamental oddness of sitting in a giant room with hundreds of silent people.

The night truly belonged, however, to Patti Smith.  Her voice has lost none of its "Piss Factory"-era, eardrum-grabbing, power.  Her own poetry provided calming punctuation to her full-throated projection of Ginsberg's works, which, in "Wichita Vortex Sutra" and "Magic Psalm", approached shamanic dimensions.  Her own songs, backed up by daughter Jesse Smith and longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, drew the loudest applause, particularly the foot-stomping closer, "People Have the Power", attaining new depth in this era of Occupy Wall Street.

Hilary Hahn and the Pittsburgh Symphony at Lincoln Center

by Chris McGovernHoneck pso

On Sunday afternoon, Manfred Honeck conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orcherstra with violinist Hilary Hahn at Avery Fisher Hall, part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. Composer Steven Stucky's Silent Spring opened the concert, in its New York City debut. Based on the Rachel Carson book of the same name, this tone poem in four sections has many highs and lows, and its brooding introduction is reminiscent of Debussy's La Mer, another ocean-inspired work. Described by Stucky in the program notes as a "death scherzo", the third section (Rivers of Death) was a fever pitch that had me particularly floored by the timpani. 

I've heard Hahn play Prokofiev's Violin Concerto #1 on numerous occasions, and therefore had little doubt that she would find success with this orchestra and conductor, with whom she's performed brilliantly before. Even though I've always felt this concerto was too brief, on this occasion it felt like it had the right length and temperament. Hahn was very much at her best, brilliantly showcasing her distict brand of unwavering passion.

Curiously, the audience applauded after each of the movements: either the crowd was excited, or there were many first-timers, or both. Whether or not it might be considered inappropriate, this performance actually deserved it. After the performance, Hahn was awarded with a standing ovation, and she responded in kind with the Sarabande from Bach's Partita #2 as an encore.

After intermission, the concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's Symphony #5 in E MinorEven though my favorite symphony was always the fourth, this was the first time I'd heard any Tchaikovsky symphony performed live, and all of his loud, brassy glory was there. The 2nd movement was gorgeous throughout, and features both a lovely duet between French horn and clarinet, and a grand outburst of timpani and brass. The 3rd movement ended sharply before going immediately into the thrilling final movement. Again, there was premature applause from the audience - this time at the pause before the coda - but after such exciting performance, it could easily be forgiven.

Audrey Chen/Jeremiah Cymerman + Nate Wooley + Brian Chase

By Caleb Easterly


Friday evening’s performance at Roulette was dominated by youthful manipulations, both analog and digital. Audrey Chen, classically trained in both cello and voice, has been developing a singular personal language as part of her SOLO project.  She uses a haunting blend of cello, voice, and electronics to express the exceedingly intimate and soul-baring - I have seen few performers as purely honest as Chen. Her inspiration comes from a place few musicians access; her voice, sometimes pure, sometimes harsh and metallic, bubbles up from her chest and is released in a throaty uninhibited yodel.

Like her voice, her cello playing is unique and innovative, using harmonics and preparations such as a metal cylinder and a chopstick. True, some of her statements were more successful than others, and the bridges between them halted her momentum - sometimes a welcome opportunity to reclaim your breath, sometimes as an unnecessary pause. She played two pieces - one short, one long - with a discreet use of electronics, often just a glorified click track. This in is contrast to what I have heard of her recorded works, in which electronic effects are far more prominent. Luckily, the colorist effects achieved by her cello and voice were expansive and visceral.

The trio consisting of Jeremiah Cymerman on clarinet, Nate Wooley on trumpet, and Brian Chase on drums used more looping and distorting electronic effects, creating vast landscapes of sound as they pedaled and turned the knobs on their setups. The most exciting performer to watch was Chase, a whirlwind of motion playing with microphones, sticks, brushes, and cymbals on his drums, producing surprisingly little sound. Their music, an abrasive sort of free jazz, never settled, and at times it seemed clumsy and directionless – one could sense that they had not played together for long. Some moments were luminous and successful, but as a whole the performance was inconsistent.

This explains the nature of the crowd, perhaps: small and disconnected from the performers, not knowing when to applaud (especially during the trio’s performance) and barely knowing when the concert was over. The musicians seemed to be in a different world, a glass cage, where their music existed solely for its own sake.  In experimental music, there’s a fine line between the innovative and the needless - and the trio’s performance, regrettably, fell on the wrong side of that balance.