Previous month:
December 2012
Next month:
February 2013

January 2013


Butch morris ps1To be honest, I can't say I ever fully "got" Lawrence "Butch" Morris, the sui generis jazz maestro who passed away yesterday at the age of 65. Morris was the inventor of "conduction"—a complex series of gestures that purported to indicate not only tempi and dynamics, but also elements of phrasing, key, and pitch, so that no actual score is needed. Aspiring to something between free jazz and contemporary classical, the experiment failed as often as it succeeded, such as the first time I saw him at Barbes in 2008:  

"The whole thing sounded like Ellington on acid: full of bleats and squawks, rising and falling like some kind of sickly accordion. I haven't yet decided if Morris is a charlatan or a mad genius."

Regardless of how well his improvsations worked, Butch was absolutely fearless and unapologetic: qualities to be celebrated in the realm of art, where taking chances always trumps playing it safe. Not to mention, Morris was madly influential to an entire generation of jazz innovators, with everyone from Darcy Argue to Vijay Iyer sending in heartfelt tributes. One thing's for certain, though—that furnace of invention known as the NYC underground burns a bit less brightly tonight.

Butch morris2 ps1 Ben Ratliff's thoughtful Times remembrance here. More here.

New York Polyphony Presents Masses for Uncertain Times

by Michael Cirigliano II

Miller Theater Early Music New York Polyphony St. Mary the Virgin

For their contribution to Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series Saturday night, male vocal quartet New York Polyphony delivered an exceptionally curated program that encompassed both Elizabethan masses and 21st-century reflections on religious subjects. To a packed crowd at Times Square’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ensemble presented works of Byrd and Tallis, as well as their little-known pre-Reformation predecessor, John Plummer. Although the three works provided a comprehensive view to the Tudor-era religious landscape, each composer imbued their mass with a distinctive color that was effortlessly amplified by New York Polyphony’s exceptional sense of style.

Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices progressed from elegant, academic choral writing to lavish and highly ornamented melisma. The ensemble was in control throughout the work, releasing each phrase in perfect unison, and amplifying percussive consonants that resonated throughout the enormous Gothic church. Craig Phillips’ gravely bass provided a rich foundation; a organ-like pedal that supported Steven Caldicott’s rich tenor and Geoffrey Williams’ crystalline countertenor timbres. Caldicott alternated between trumpeting solo material and a variety of warm ensemble colors that interchanged based on the other voices at hand.

Contrasting Byrd’s private utterings was Plummer’s intricate writing in his Missa sine nomine. Although penned for three voices (and the addition of the solo countertenor during two brief plainsong movements), Plummer hardly incorporates all three voices at once—devilishly alternating between vocal pairs in a seamless fashion. Here, Christopher Dylan Herbert was the true standout, with a textured baritone voice that easily projected when paired with the tenor, while pulling back in order to blend peacefully with the bass. Especially when compared to Tallis’ reserved and demure mass writing, Plummer’s work pealed with jubilant fanfares and a brisk sense of pacing.

Rounding out the program were three newer works from Andrew Smith, Gabriel Jackson, as well as the recently deceased Richard Rodney Bennett, whose A Colloquy with God was written for New York Polyphony mere weeks before his death. Using a text of Sir Thomas Browne, Bennett utilized a series of alternating suspensions and vibrant text painting to express the poetry’s robust fight against impending death. Smith and Jackson’s works followed in the same vein, serving as brief utterances that provided momentary respite between each of the English masters’ major works.


American Composers Orchestra at Zankel Hall

American Composers Orchestra, Zankel Hall

Of the four works on last Friday's American Composers Orchestra concert at Zankel Hall—dubiously entitled "Time Travels"—only two had anything to do with time (unless you acknowledge that all music is about time).

Lukas Foss' Time Cycle (1960), the only non-premiere on the bill, has long been a staple for its rich color and surreal, dreamlike quality. The ACO percussion section provided chimes and tick-tocks while soprano Jennifer Zetlan lit fire to the half-English/half-German text. (Foss, a native of Berlin, emmigrated to the U.S. when he was 15.)

Holding its own against Foss' masterpiece was Zhou Long's Bell Dream Towers, inspired by the towers of ancient China from which drums and bells once sounded to keep the time. Zhou, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Madame White Snake, combined contemporary Western writing with the more traditional sounds of his native China, creating a hypnotic, otherworldly soundscape. 

Continue reading "American Composers Orchestra at Zankel Hall" »