We Fly High, No Lie, You Know This…BONIN’! Post-Classical Ensemble with David Taylor, October 1, 2009
If you are a solo bass trombonist making your way in the classical world, your repertoire will consist exclusively of transcriptions and new music, because no one is going to dig up the long-lost Beethoven trombone sonata. David Taylor, who plies this trade, has made it artistically rewarding by bringing real depth of imagination in his transcriptions and being lucky in finding simpatico composers. He amply demonstrated both of his advantages in one of the Post-Classical Ensemble’s “Encounters” on Thursday night at the Harman Center.
One of Taylor’s transcription specialties (suggested to him by the P-CE’s artistic director, Joseph Horowitz) is songs from late in Franz Schubert’s life, apparently the more wracked with pain, the better. In the first half of Thursday’s Encounter, the P-CE presented the baritone William Sharp singing three Taylor-transcribed tunes, “Der Doppelganger,” “Die Nebensonnen,” and “Der Leiermann,” thus recognizing that audiences need to know the original in order to understand how Taylor’s transcriptions create additional facets of meaning.
Sharp’s able performances, with accompaniment by pianist Seth Knopp, did justice to Schubert’s depth of emotion, but Taylor’s “Der Doppelganger” gasped and brayed where Sharp had essayed a continuous line, giving it a more visceral desperation. A pickup orchestra led by the P-CE’s music director Angel Gil-Ordonez played the accompaniment, transformed by Taylor into something more angular and less direct, heightening the alienation. (The plethora of winds balanced against a just a few strings in Taylor’s transcription recalled Schoenberg’s chamber arrangements of works for orchestra — just strange enough to achieve new insight.)
Taylor actually did not work the bone in his “Die Nebensonnen” (“The Mock Suns”), instead singing a free English translation in a flickering voice amplified by a microphone, eschewing clear enunciation and occasionally lapsing into pure vowel sounds. The voice came from a place of both shadows and hard, unblinking sun, and Taylor made it central over another spiky arrangement. For “Der Leiermann” (“The Organ-Grinder”), Taylor transferred the piano part to an accordion, sensitively pumped Thursday by Zoltan Racz, and the accompaniment’s open chords felt even bleaker as Racz sustained them longer than the piano could. Taylor combined another free English translation, here dropping a few lines, with trombone outbursts and pleas, again intensifying an already forbiddingly intense gasp of a song.
As fascinating as Taylor’s Schubert songs are, an entire program of that would have had the audience slitting their wrists by evening’s end. Fortunately, the second half featured Taylor in the much different music of his good friend Daniel Schnyder.
Schnyder’s concerto for bass trombone and orchestra bustles with activity, violin lines skating over complex rhythms, winds chirping along, all of it more vivid on Thursday due to the bright, transparent quality Gil-Ordonez drew from the orchestra. Taylor and Schnyder also perform jazz together in various combos, with Schnyder on the sax, so it sounded completely natural in the concerto’s first movement when melodies in Schnyder’s concerto for bass trombone and orchestra suddenly took on a jazz arc. When the orchestra stopped to allow brief solos, Taylor made them sound improvisational, yet integrated them into the musical structure. The second movement used a Sufi rhythm from Syria called sama’l thaqil, which made Schnyder’s more gentle music pulse like waves lapping at a shore, as Taylor got to show off the crooning side of his instrument. When Schnyder overlaid a Cuban son rhythm atop the earlier beat, the music pulsed more intensely, yet the meditative mood was sustained. Schnyder broke the spell with a great gust of big-bandish activity from the orchestra, Taylor coming over the top with equally furious melodic activity, sweeping to a whoop of a finish.
In the concerto and in the Latin-flavored “roTor” (not my capitalization scheme), Schnyder showed he can assimilate influences without becoming a slave to them, as his rhythmic and genre borrowings enhanced what seems to be a natural gift for writing really fun music — a gift that should be encouraged all the more when many composers lard orchestral works with over-the-top lavish instrumentation and bottomless self-seriousness.
From Schubert’s psychological turmoil to the sheer playfulness of his encore duets with Schnyder, the encounter with Taylor and his trombone always sparked interest. Chalk up another victory for the always-enterprising spirit of the P-CE, which, with its programming and orchestral support, gave Taylor the most congenial stage possible on which to shine.
SO I LEFT SOMETHING OUT
The P-CE orchestra, pickup as always, also played under Gil-Ordonez the Mahler transcription of the second movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet and three numbers from Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale.” Sharp also sang “Der Tod und das Madchen,” the song on which Schubert based said string quartet movement. All the performances were fine, and showed how the ideas of transcription (in the first half) and jazz plus classical (in the second half) have been taken up by other composers, but they did not seem central to the Encounter, and I don’t think the reader misses anything from me not spending another 50 words to get that info in there. Or does the reader? You tell me! I’m obviously not completely convinced that I’m right, since I’m writing this.
I also skipped the post-concert Q&A with Taylor and Schnyder, even though in my last review I talked about how interesting these can sometimes be. The difference was that I had to go to work the next morning. ‘Cause bloggin’ don’t pay no billz.
The rap song to which the title of this post refers can be found here. Warning: It is extremely offensive.