Are You Ready to Rock? National Orchestral Institute and Festival’s “New Lights” Chamber Concert, University of Maryland, June 24, 2010
You know what they say: Those who can, do; those who can’t, pay money to watch those who can. Well, we who attended the “New Lights” concert of chamber music in the Kay Theatre of the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Thursday paid nothing to get in, plus we received complimentary toys and rocks to allow us to help perform two chamber works. Though the student musicians attending the National Orchestral Institute and Festival did the bulk of the playing, getting to join in fostered a rare engagement with us normally idle spectators.
The young musicians used the dramatic apparti of the Kay Theatre in Sandovian fashion to heighten the dramatic feel; the curtain rose first on a quartet of double basses, tastefully lit. They played a bristly motivic study called “Soundings” (by Robert Gibson, double bassist and director of U-Md’s School of Music) with appropriate brawn, followed by a transcription of a popular song that they did not name, played with some uncertain intonation but also with a lot of real feeling for the melody. (The concert’s attendees appeared to consist mainly of young NOI sympathizers and elderly folk bussed in from Riderwood; both groups displayed splendid enthusiasm, but the latter group probably had even less of a chance of getting the pop reference than I do.)
Then we civilians got to play in Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge,” inspired by “Pantagruel.” (One of the musicians read the quotation at that link before the performance.) The strings-and-percussion ensemble plays a note-repeating melody in strict unison, except that Rzewski instructs them, “If you get lost, stay lost.” After the melody ends, they begin an improvisation of indefinite length. Meanwhile, however, Rzewski instructs the “nonmusicians” to “make sound, any sound, preferable [sic] very loud,” and we got to do so using whistles, party horns, and other inexpensive, high-volume instruments that the musicians distributed to us before the concert. Here are the ones my concertgoing companion and I snagged:
I had tremendous fun honking away on my horn, shouting “WOO-HAH!!” at the top of my lungs, and whistling tuneless sirens. I also enjoyed sitting still and listening to the chaos around me, as Rzewski’s skeletal instructions proved to be a perfect plan for sonically representing sheep stampeding to their death. The musicians appeared ready to improvise all night, but eventually the audience wore down, and the resulting gradual diminuendo created an unlikely catharsis. (A Riderwood representative a row behind me did not have quite the same reaction, telling her concertgoing companion, “Hopefully, that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” But I think she was a little amused too.)
It was tought to put away the plastic horn, but it would have been inappropriate to tootle through the high harmonics and soft, tense chords of Osvaldo Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk, for string quartet. Violinist Alexander Yin read this description of the piece and then described how he and violinist Erik Malmquist, violist DJ Cheek, and cellist Jason Mooney had approached learning to perform it, trying to find the poetry in what seemed initially like harsh notes on the page. The idea of the talk was great, but Yin rushed through it and stumbled frequently (also, someone should have told him how to pronounce “Terezin”). The performance lacked the coordination and beauty of tone than you’d hear in a really good recording like this one, but it did indeed conjure a tentative poetry from Golijov’s abstract gestures.
“This piece is entirely for you guys,” one of the NOIers said after intermission, and Jon Gibson’s “After ‘Ambient Densities'” asked for no great skill other than the ability to bang two rocks together. In my case, these two:
Specifically, we banged out rocks together a specific number of times during each of eight minute-long intervals. The first minute, we struck ’em 108 times (easier than it sounds), the second 98, and down by irregular intervals to 3 in the final minute. Hilariously, percussionist Karlyn Mason kept time by sweeping her arms to represent the second hand on a watch. The smartasses in the balcony enjoyed pounding 7 times in quick succession during the penultimate minute; other people created their own oddball rhythms, first overshooting the mark in the dense minutes, then cautiously tapping as the piece went on. Together, we did indeed create a shifting, amorphous density of sound in the Kay that, like the Rzewski if not as affectingly, gradually winked out. Plus if you’ve lost the ability to enjoy banging rocks together, you’ve basically lost the ability to enjoy life.
The jazz inflections of Derek Bermel’s “Three Rivers,” for jazz band instrumentation with violin and cello to augment, appeared to lie beyond the current compass of these musicians; they made big, rich noises but couldn’t quite track Bermel’s rhythms or play with that added dose of swagger necessary to sell them. However, keyboarder Tessa Hartle, percussionist Mason on the vibraphone, and Izumi Miyahara on the flute and piccolo had some memorable trio passages of fast notes high in their respective registers, like snow falling on the muddy rivers the rest of the ensemble created.
The NOIers who participated in Thursday’s concert prepared these works, and devised the theatrical means to showcase them, on top of an already demanding schedule in which they played their fourth concert in four weeks on Saturday. Yet the high spirits of the musicians, their committed playing, the care they took with the presentation, and their generosity in giving the audience some time for fun made the concert feel like a gift. It wasn’t the most technically polished concert I’ve ever attended, but its generous spirit will linger in my memory for a long time.
IN WHICH I GET A COMPLIMENT
When we returned from intermission, the female half of the couple sitting to our right told me, “You were very good.” When I demurred by saying that I have always enjoyed making loud noises, she said “You make good loud noises.”
What occasioned this was a little call-and-response I had been doing with someone in the balcony who had a similar instrument. I now consider myself to be a great virtuoso of the cheap plastic horn, and I feel I demolished this individual.