Profiling Matrix Music Collaborators
Remember how you bought a bunch of Yahoo! stock at $13 per share when they went public in April of 1996, and how by January of 2000 those shares peaked at $475 per share, making you fabulously wealthy, which is why you now have so much time to spend reading our humble little website? Wait, you didn’t do that? Yeah, me neither. It’s hard to get in on the ground floor of a good thing, which is part of why I’m excited to have lucked into discovering the Matrix Music Collaborators. In truth, I went to their March 1st concert at the Tenri institute more out of professional obligation than anything else, but what I found there was a dynamite group of young musicians who are muscling their way into the New York music scene with surprising speed. The March 1st concert was the first of a three concert mini-series, and I also went to the third concert, on March 6th at the Nabi Gallery. Here’s what I found.
Pianist and artistic director/mastermind Sheryl Lee founded the group last year, and they put on one concert. On the strength of that performance, and through some combination of booking prowess and raw ambition they put together a full season of concerts for this year—seven regular concerts, plus a residency at the Abrons Arts Center in late April, and a trip to Hong Kong in late June. The core group of musicians are young—mid 20s to early 30s—and talented, and many of them are old friends from Yale School of Music, Juilliard, and the Aspen Music Festival. The instrumentation of that core roster is somewhat nonstandard (piano, three violinists, three cellists, oboe, clarinet, flute, french horn, and bassoon) but true to their “Collaborators” name they bring in a wide variety of guest artists to fill out the necessary instrumentation—if my calculations are correct they had eight guest artist performers participating at various points in the recent three-concert series. The repertoire skews heavily toward contemporary and 20th century music in a wide range of styles, although they also program some traditional classical works, such as the Beethoven E-flat Septet, which served as the second half of the March 2nd concert. The venues chosen for the two concerts I attended reveal a dedication to alternative spaces—both were held in art galleries, and the March 6th concert followed a gallery opening. Capitalizing on the opening resulted in an impressive turnout considering the all-contemporary program and the fact that it was Matrix’s 6th concert ever; the 32 chairs were full, and there were around 20 more people standing in the back and around the walls.
As if she weren’t already busy enough with Matrix, Sheryl Lee has recently been appointed curator of a new concert series at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. The details are still being worked out, but the plan is to present two or three concerts per month from September to May, and Sheryl tells me that “the programming will be very diverse, cutting-edge, experimental and as radical as possible.”
Of course none of this matters unless the music and the performances are good, and they were. Here is a quick rundown of the two concerts I attended.
The program started with On the Wings of Mercury by Caleb Burhans—a duet for oboe and viola, with the viola part played by the composer. A lovely and elegant Postminimalist piece. Burhans, who in addition to composing also plays with Alarm Will Sound, is right up my alley, and I’ll be looking into more of his work. Following this was a lovely Villa-Lobos duet for flute and bassoon. The end of the first half was probably the most fun part of the program—Matrix joined the growing ranks of classical ensembles to play arrangements of Radiohead songs with cellist Paul Wiancko’s arrangement of Paranoid Android for four cellos. An excellent and very idiomatic arrangement of a piece well suited to the treatment. The second half of the program was dedicated to Haiku Settings by Nolan Stoltz. It’s actually four different pieces, each associated with a different season, totaling at around 50 minutes of music. While the music is all solid, I’m not convinced that playing them all together is really the best presentation–while the structure of each piece worked internally, I didn’t feel that the large scale structure supported thinking of them as a complete unit. That said, the music itself was good, especially the Summer movement, which was a very impressive and athletic string quartet, reminiscent of Bartok.
Karen Siegel began this concert with a presentation of her piece Leora Courting Rivers, a setting of a poem by Erica Wright for an eight-member chamber group. The piece was a bit too high-modernist for my taste, and I thought that having the members of the ensemble trade off speaking lines of the text in sprechstimme was a mistake, but the harmonic language was very effective, with a lot of well controlled cluster-sound and beautifully constructed coloristic effects. Paul Wiancko’s Hip Hop Cello Concerto No. 1 followed. “Crossover” music generally gets a bad rap (no pun intended), but it’s only deserved when the crossover results in a watering down of the different traditions. This piece is a terrific example of how when the composer understands both the hip hop and classical traditions and can write music that is simultaneously idiomatic to both styles, the result is surprising, fun, fresh, and even innovative. You may recall that Wiancko was also the arranger of the Radiohead tune from the previous concert—his grasp of this hybrid area is clearly much stronger than most. My initial impession of Philip Glass’s Wichita Vortext Sutra (for piano and a recitation of the Allan Ginsburg poem of the same name) was that while the poem is great Glass had sort of phoned it in with the piano part; but in fairness the piano part is merely underscoring for the poem, and together they are quite effective. The technical challenge of the piece is the synchronization, and pianist Sheryl Lee and actor Terry O’Reilly made it seem effortless. There was no detectable rushing or slowing to stay in sync, and yet they had their timings down to the syllable. Samson Young rounded out the program with Roxy.New York, for strings and tape with video. The first three movements didn’t do it for me—too much noisy noodling without an obvious point—but when the fifth movement started all that changed. Giant square-wave chords blared out of the loudspeakers, providing harmonic context for the noisy string parts, and then in the 6th movement the square-waves switched to a jaunty groove. It was epic, and dark, and fun. I found out afterwards that Young had transcribed the Megaman theme, and that the 5th movement featured that theme slowed way down, and in the 6th it was back up to the original tempo.
The performances at both concerts were uniformly excellent—passionate, precise, and musical. And this was in most cases far from easy repertoire, but during the moments of musical simplicity (I’m thinking especially of sections of the Villa-Lobos and the Glass) the musicality came through clearly. Last week I advised you to keep an eye on Lost Dog; I’m afraid that this week we have to add another group to that watchlist.