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Lincoln Center Festival: Bang on a Can All-Stars with Gong Linna and Ornette Coleman's Chamber Music

CLOUD_SBP4072Photo: Stephanie Berger

The 22nd edition of the Lincoln Center Festival kicked off last week, bringing it's usual surfeit of starry theater and ballet companies to the various houses of the Lincoln Center campus left otherwise vacant for the summer. Amidst these, there were a pair of musical offerings that straddled the worlds of jazz, contemporary classical, and world music. 

On Friday, I went to the John Jay Theater to see the Bang on a Can All Stars perform with Chinese vocalist Gong Linna, who's become something of a sensation in her home country for her charismatic stage presence and acrobatic singing. They met while the All-Stars were touring China a few years ago and, after after BOAC founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon sat down with Gong and her husband, composer Lao Luo, (a.k.a. Robert Zollitsch) they came up with the 12 part song cycle Cloud River Mountain. Collaboration is nothing new for the Bang on a Can trio - previous efforts include The Carbon Copy Building (1999), Lost Objects (2001), and Shelter (2005) - but it was Lao who was instrumental in integrating the unique harmonies and rhythms of Chinese music.

The songs were sung in a mix of English and Mandarin, with lyrics drawn mostly from the mythological poetry of Qu Yuan, written during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). It was difficult to follow without supertitles or any kind of house lighting to read the translations in the program, but Gong's theatrical performance - matched by her flamboyant costumes - was captivating in its own way. As for the music, it ranged from Julia's "Into the Clouds", which raged with Patti Smith-like intensity, to Michael's persistent, heavy-handed "River", to David's quiet, haunting "Girl With Mountain." For an encore, Gong performed the wild, frenetic folk song "Tan Te", which first catapulted her to stardom.

Meanwhile, David, Julia, Michael and the All Stars have all decamped to North Adams, where they'll be ensconced at Mass MoCA for the next three weeks at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival, culminating in the annual Summer Marathon on August 6 with guest composer Louis Andriessen. Details available on their website. More pics here.

DSC01484Most people know Ornette Coleman as a pioneer in the world of free jazz and one of the great sax players of the last century. But, over a career that spanned six decades, Coleman, who passed away in 2015, also composed a significant amount of "classical" music, including violin fantasies, string quartets, and an epic concerto for saxophone and orchestra, 1972's Skies of America. Coleman said he was motivated by the prospect of getting his music out of basement clubs and into concert halls such as Town Hall, which he rented for the occasion in 1962. 

On Sunday afternoon, Lincoln Center Festival's week-long celebration of Coleman's music, dubbed "Tomorrow is the Question," culminated with a program of his chamber music at the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse with Ensemble Signal. Violinist Olivia de Prato reminded us that Coleman was himself a decent fiddler with his 1986 solo work, Trinity. The wind quintet Forms and Sounds (1967) sounded like something Stravinsky might have written, while In Honor of NASA and the Planetary Soloists (1986) mixed strings with a North African-sounding oboe (played by Jacqueline LeClair). 

During a changeover, Brad Lubman, Ensemble Signal's director, spoke about how Coleman's through-composed works actually offered the same degree of freedom as his improvised music, due to his lack of dynamic markings. He also emphasized Ornette's sui generis perspsective as a composer. "You may think you hear other composers in his music," Lubman said, "but that's only because all music comes from the same source."

The program ended with Coleman's The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin (1984), a pocket concerto for trumpet (another Coleman instrument) and a chamber orchestra that included a drum kit and upright bass. Seneca Black's trumpet pierced through the intimate space, occasionally overpowering the swelling strings and humming timpani. Building to an ecstatic, furious crescendo, I felt like I was witnessing something tribal, neither jazz nor classical. It was something on another level, which felt like it needed its own context. To be continued. 

More pics on the photo page.