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April 2012

ETHEL Album Release Party at Joe's Pub

by Caleb Easterly   


The string quartet ETHEL has made a splash in chamber-music circles and the classical music world at large, becoming known for performances that stray from the common formula, while presenting new works with unparalled energy. 

Their album release party last Tuesday at the newly renovated Joe's Pub was a blast. Pieces from their new album, Heavy, are varied and fresh. They began with a lively piece by Julia Wolfe (present at the performance), Early That Summer, leaping into the driving sixteenth notes with a vivacity I've never seen in a string ensemble. Cellist Dorothy Lawson described ETHEL as a "band," and with amplified instruments and their forceful stage presence, they gleefully threatened to cross over into rock territory. 

The festive atmosphere instantly disappated, however, as violist Ralph Ferris described the story behind David Lang's lovely piece, Wed: A friend of Lang's was dying of terminal cancer and decided to get married on her deathbead. The members of the group displayed extraordinary sensitivity to the material, with a lush bed of chords laying beneath a lone yearning note in the high register of the violin, intoned several times throughout the short piece. Eventually, all voices dropped out save that violin note, fading into the bare and fleeting distance. 

Their new album is fantastic, featuring several works from the past two decades that were not heard at the concert—most notably Don Byron's 4 Thoughts on Marvin Gaye, the album's only concession to a "traditional" four-movement quartet work. Also fascinating is the packaging, a cardboard sleeve the size of a 7" single with a cover design that could suit a hard rock band; a new kind of album from a new kind of string quartet. 

The concert finished with some guest stars: composer and violist Kenji Bunch, and one of the founding members of ETHEL, Mary Rowell. They finished with Bunch's own String Circle No. 1, a rollicking jig-like work, and No Nickel Blues, by John King. As the players traded improvised solos around in No Nickel Blues over a finger-plucked jazz-bass figure on the cello, they proved that ETHEL—and the modern string quartet—is not something to be taken lightly. 

Bang on a Can 25th Anniversary Concert at Alice Tully Hall

Bang on a Can 2012.4.28
In 1993, Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's Ehrenkranz Artistic Director, called up the offices of Bang on a Can with an unusual proposition: to see if they might be interested in hosting their next Bang on a Can Marathon at Alice Tully Hall. "We wondered if the person answering the phone had gotten the message right," BOAC founders Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang said. 

By then, the annual Bang on a Can Marathon was already a well-established institution of the downtown art scene, inclusive not only of the post-minimalist music of its three composer-founders, but everything from jazz, to rock, to electronic music. Still, the move uptown was seen as a bit of a risk for both parties concerned: for Lincoln Center, it could mean alienating longtime subscribers; for Bang on a Can, assimilation into the mainstream.

Fortunately, both parties emerged unscathed, and even though the Marathon itself has long since migrated back downtown (all the way downtown, to the World Financial Center Winter Garden), Bang on a Can is now an established uptown presence, regularly throwing shows at both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, not to mention the annual People's Commissioning Fund Concert at Merkin Concert Hall, as well as mainstream concert halls all around the world.

To celebrate their first 25 years, Bang on a Can returned to the scene of the crime Saturday night, with an extended concert at Alice Tully featuring three of their best-known associated ensembles. First up was Gamelan Galak Tika, performing Evan Ziporyn's Tire Fire (1994), written for Balinese gamelan, electric guitars and keyboard. After starting out in stark contrast, the Western guitars and Eastern gamelan gradually begin to play off of each other, eventually giving way to "shared grooves," as Ziporyn put it.

Bang on a Can Asphalt Orchestra 12.4.28
Up next was Asphalt Orchestra, the 12-piece punk marching band best known for their pop-up outdoor shows on Lincoln Center Plaza and elsewhere. Bringing the show indoors, they played new arrangements of works by Frank Zappa and Japanese composer Tatsuya Yoshida (who joined on drum kit), constantly circling around the Alice Tully stage as if it were some high-school halftime show. It was one part Varèse, one part Balkan Brass Band - and all a lot of loud, wild fun.

Closing out the night were the Bang on a Can All-Stars, now in their 20th year as BOAC's global ambassadors for this music. The All-Stars could have taken the easy way out by performing a retrospective of their "hits" over the past 25 years, but as Julia, Michael and David explained in comments from the stage, they wanted to do something new for the occasion. Field Recordings (2012) commissioned nine composers to take archival audio and video and combine it with their own music, inspired by the folk music recordings collected by Bartok and Lomax, or the sampling of today's hip-hop artists.

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Manhattan School of Music Presents Corigliano's 'The Ghosts of Versailles'

by Michael Cirigliano II

Manhattan School of Music, Ghosts of Versailles, Borden Auditorium
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

Despite an expensive and acclaimed première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles has received very little attention over the past 20 years. Peter Gelb had high hopes of mounting a revival once again in 2010, only to be hampered by the woes of 2008’s economic crisis. Because of the large forces involved, it was surprising to hear that the Manhattan School of Music’s opera program would be launching a three-performance run of the opera at its small and underwhelming Borden Auditorium.

Low expectations, however, only helped to raise enjoyment levels as the MSM program displayed a wealth of vocal and design talent. Because of the venue’s constraints, MSM presented John David Earnest’s chamber-orchestra reduction (created with Corigliano’s recommendation), which helped to fit most of the orchestra in the cramped pit and removed the on-stage orchestra used in the Met’s original production—also aiding the singers in their projection over the otherwise thick and ethereal score.

Continue reading "Manhattan School of Music Presents Corigliano's 'The Ghosts of Versailles'" »