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Ecstatic Music Festival 2014: Timo Andres, Gabriel Kahane, Ted Hearne, Becca Stevens, and Nathan Koci

by Robert Leeper

Timo Andres

Photo credit: Michael Wilson

Storytelling among friends: that was the impression given during Wednesday night's Ecstatic Music Festival performance, where the Merkin Concert Hall stage was a gathering of old friends and collaborators who wanted to play some new music that they had written. Timo Andres—whose new song cycle, Work Songs, was the impetus for the gathering—Gabriel Kahane, Ted Hearne, Becca Steven, and Nathan Koci each brought their unique charms to create a musical quilt in celebration of their circle of friendship.

The reserved approach to the evening could have done with another uptempo number or two, but the relaxing atmosphere added to the storytelling effect apparent in most of the pieces. Each whisper or shout had a supporting role to the stories being told, and was wrapped up in the warm, if often subdued, sounds behind them.  

Gabriel Kahane kicked off the evening with three songs from forthcoming album, The Ambassador, as well as a fan favorite in "Where Are the Arms." Kahane took inspiration from various iconic buildings—still standing or not—and famous addresses for this album, seeking to commemorate their stories and legacies through song. The album's titular song, a ballad dedicated to the hotel in Los Angeles where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, packed a particularly potent emotional punch, with the chorus refrain evoking the harrowing day, "the Ambassador is bleeding out, they're going to let her die."

Ted Hearne brought a jazz-tinged swagger to his second two songs, and preceded them with the wordless "Crib Dweller," a languorous study in slowly shifting harmonies that seemed to hover before falling powerfully to earth. Nathan Koci's otherworldly accordion created sinewy lines that rose and fell with an almost electronic sound when played in its highest registers.

The first song of the evening to be written specifically for the evening's ensemble was the last song of Becca Stevens' group pf compositions, "A Contribution to Statistics." The crisp vocal lines traded between Stevens, Kahane, and Hearne would wind around each other, overlapping for moments at a time, arranged with wondrous nuance and detail.

The return from intermission brought the main act in the form of Timo Andres' Work Songs, an idiosyncratic musing on what it means to be a working artist, built upon texts from Herman Melville and Woody Guthrie, amongst others. Though the writing seemed slightly restrained in its harmonic and timbral boldness, the beguiling indie-classical prowess of the performers and a singular sense of instrumentation more than made up for any timorous writing on the composer's part.

Many of the movements were compelling, with passages of rich, pulsing harmony sliding in and out of focus against fidgety bursts and Koci's spidery accordion playing. Each movement added to what came before as a summation of advice, complaint, support, and, occasionally, solutions to all who inhabit a modern artistic workplace

The Broadway-style shout chorus that began and ended the final movement,"New Years Rulin's"—Woody Guthrie's simple list of good advice—put an uproarious cap on an otherwise low-key evening. With wide multipart harmonies sung in a rich, full-bodied tone, the slow start to the night was put far behind as the group put forth a joyous chorus.