"Where was I the day/ I finally found my place?
When was it that place/ Became home?
What hand, what open arms/ Welcomed who I was
What part of me/ Burst open like a song?"
- Nathaniel Bellowes, "Here"
These are interesting times for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the 154-year old institution all but left for dead three seasons ago. Their new artistic director, Alan Pierson, has committed to new and innovative programming, something he's become well-known for as the leader the of contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound. And, their new managing director, Richard Dare - a successful financier from San Francisco with zero experience running an arts organization - has big, bold ideas for reinventing the Brooklyn Phil, both from an artistic and financial perspective.
But, it's going to be an uphill battle. In 2008, the Brooklyn Phil abandoned their longtime home at BAM, and now find themselves performing at various available spaces around the borough: a movie theater in Brighton Beach, a street fair in Bed-Stuy, chamber music concerts in the Brooklyn Library and Brooklyn Museum. Pierson's spin on this is that they are reaching out to all parts of Brooklyn, in order to give each of these far flung places a sense that this is "their orchestra." Unfortunately, it isn't entirely clear whether or not any of these disparate neighborhoods actually want them there.
The latest of these took place last weekend at Roulette, which has certainly been pushing the limits of its shoebox space this season. The concert, dubbed "Brooklyn Village," wasn't really a concert at all but a multi-media presentation (co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects) filled with projections, amplified sounds, actors in the audience, and lots of other extramusical elements. Pierson's conceit (on which he collaborated with Royce Vavrek), was to present a 200-year history of music in Brooklyn: from Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony (which the Brooklyn Phil played at their debut concert in 1857) to contemporary works by ersatz Brooklyn composers such as David T. Little and Sarah Kirkland Snider (both of whom live in New Jersey.) Pierson, who introduced the concert in white tie and tails, has a soft spot for showmanship, often with mixed results: his recent Alarm Will Sound shows have had all sorts of movement-based antics thrown into them, which end up distracting from the music, rather than complementing it.
Then again, maybe all of these distractions were there for a reason. The Brooklyn Phil's reading of the "Eroica"s scherzo was shaky at best, the horns failing badly. The prelude from Copland's Symphony No. 1 lacked necessary punch. And, works by indie pop artists Matthew Whelan (Skeleton$) and an excerpt from Sufjan Stevens' The B.Q.E. sounded pretty schmaltzy.
Far better was the premiere of Kirkland Snider's Here, performed by the excellent Brooklyn Youth Chorus, centered around themes of making an unfamiliar place your home - a familiar feeling for all of us transplant Brooklynites. And, Little's dark, searching song cycle Am I Born (also a premiere), stole the show, thanks in no small part to his Newspeak compatriot Melissa Hughes, who is shaping up to be the Dawn Upshaw of her generation, with her clear, articulate phrasing and compelling emotion.
After this fussy, all-over-the-place concert, part of me wishes that Pierson would just bear down and focus on the contemporary programming that is his - and the Brooklyn Phil's - bread-and-butter, without all of the histrionics. After all, it's a big borough, and there are a lot of ears to fill - they can leave the eye candy to someone else.