It’s funny how our own personal preferences can make it so difficult to review concerts objectively. Take Monday night’s American Composer’s Orchestra concert, at Zankel Hall in New York – all seven pieces were good, often impressive, sometimes subtle and complex. But the things I want to rave about were not, I suspect, the things that most of the audience would have raved about when they got home.

Min Xiao-Fen’s Blue Pipa, for voice and the lute-like Chinese instrument named in the title, opened the concert effectively. Min performed the piece herself in a pool of light on an otherwise dark stage, and the combined vocal acrobatics and impressively virtuosic pipa playing made for a lovely and exciting piece. One audience member told me during intermission that it could have gone on for another five minutes and still been exciting.

Tania León’s Indigena combined the Cuban carnival music of her youth with quasi-tonal modernism in her trademark style. Her great skill lies in making this marriage organic—not so much seamless as deeply integrated, and never condescending to either tradition.

Speaking of integrative skill, Harold Meltzer’s Virginal performed the same feat with Renaissance stylings in a similarly modernist, quasi-tonal context. The contrapuntal music felt deliberate and rigorous in the same way that a 17th century fugue or an early 20th century serialist piece does.

But for all their virtues, and in spite of how well the audience liked them, none of the first three pieces excited me in the way that two sections of Vijay Iyer’s Interventions did. Perhaps a third of the way in, the orchestra drops out and Iyer, who was playing the largely improvised piano part, lets loose with a set of rippling riffs while pre-processed drum and hi-hat loops bounce back and forth in the speakers. I’m not convinced that the section really fit with the rest of the piece, but I have difficulty really minding. The piece’s long, static denouement was, for me, the heart of the piece. Most of the orchestra starts snapping their fingers in a steady slow rhythm, while the piano and strings give a long, droning, steady chord. It’s funny at first—you expect them to break into “boy, boy, crazy boy”–but as it continues the snaps reclaim their independence and provide an unusual sounding grid while the percussionist plays a slow pattern on a suspended cymbal. The cymbal patter sounds regular, but out of sync with the snaps, but if it was truly regular I couldn’t figure out the pattern. The overall effect was gorgeous and entrancing, and I didn’t want it to stop.

After intermission, Andrew McKenna Lee played his solo guitar piece Arabescata, which weaves together rock and classical language. It worked very well as a compliment to Blue Pipa from the first half—again sometimes pretty and sometimes impressively virtuosic. Kurt Rohde’s White Boy/Man Invisible was the least memorable segment of the concert for me, but as I recall the audience response was one of the most enthusiastic of the evening.

Rounding out the theme of integration of different musics, Steven Mackey played guitar for his Deal, a concerto of sorts for electric guitar and orchestra. Much of the first half of the piece didn’t engage me, although Mackey did a remarkably skillful job of combining the guitar with the orchestra in an organic way. As with Vijay Iyer’s piece, however, the final sections made the whole concert worthwhile. Most of the orchestra drops out, and Mackey sets up some looping grooves with his effects pedals against, surprisingly enough, recordings of what sounded to me like chickens, playing slowly evolving chords and countermelodies over it, building gradually over several minutes. By the time the orchestra came back, I was sold, but again it was some of the least spectacular music that did it. Maybe I just like the wrong things.

3 Responses to “ACO at Zankel”
  1. Trevor Hunter says:

    Welcome to the Internet, home of anonymous bashing.

    For what its worth I thought that was the best of the 3 ACO concerts Ive seen since I moved to NY. I thought Vijay’s piece had two great moments (the piano part that Galen mentioned and the ending), and was definitely worth hearing. I would love to hear any future orchestral projects of his, where Im sure he’ll hone his skills even further. Some other pieces weren’t as interesting to me, but all were worthy of being featured on a concert, something I feel that is proved by the divided opinions about every piece on the program.

  2. post ugly says:

    Yes, it’s all about personal preference I suppose. Personally, I was quite offended by Min Xia-Fen’s piece. I was bored out of my mind and really hated everything about it: the singing, the lighting, the Miles quotes. Horrible.

    I felt the same way (although it made me less angry) about McKenna’s: this kind of piece has nothing to do here: it sounded like a very gifted 16 year-old in his dorm room. Nice, but completely forgettable.

    Leon’s: definitely not one of her best pieces. Doesn’t gel.

    Iyer’s: a complete snoozer, horrible, of no interest whatever, way too long. A waste of a commission, and a total waste of my time, as far as I’m concerned. Not to mention the balance trouble with the sound system, and the finger snapping section: one of the most embarrassing moments I’ve ever witnessed in concert: no one together for something like 24 bars. Nice ending indeed, but what about the 15 minutes wasted before that?

    Mackey, who is a composer I really really like: I thought this piece was way way too long for what it had to say although there were many nice moments, especially the end.

    The Meltzer, that’s quite a good piece, but what horrible performance.

    And my favorite was by far Rohde’s. Engaging rhythmically, harmonically. It grabbed me right away, and hardly let go. Although the cadenza was about a third too long (right after the pizz) and the energy had a really hard time coming back for about 4 minutes. I also liked the end quite a bit.

  3. Eric says:

    I thought the Iyer and Mackey were great. There were wonderful moments in the Leon piece and I though Lee’s guitar piece was awesome; I usually don’t like new solo guitar pieces what Arabescata was a nice surprise.

    Meltzer’s piece was decent but it wasn’t my kind of thing. Blue Pipa was interesting and fun to a certain extent.

    I’m with you on the Rohde piece however. I nearly fell asleep and the girl next to be said it was like torture listening to it. I’m not sure why it was received to enthusiastically…maybe it’s because he played the solo part himself. I just felt it was too bland throughout.