Bang on a Can All-Stars, Avery Fisher Hall, New York – review

The Big Event in and around Lincoln Center these days is a series labelled “NY Phil Biennial”. It covers 21 presentations, all presumably adventurous, challenging and cutting-edge, in just 11 days. The company blurb promises “a musical playground of the here and now”. Whoopee.

According to Alan Gilbert, ever-enterprising maestro of the Philharmonic, “the word biennial evokes ambitious visual-art presentations from Venice to Miami to Manhattan’s East Side, and, in fact, our goal is the same – to offer audiences a snapshot of the state of today’s music.” The simple agenda: “New and exciting music from around the world.”

Under the puffy circumstances, one approached the concert on Friday with ample optimism, compromised by a trace of scepticism. Unfortunately, the scepticism proved warranted.

The programme listed an unmatched pair of New York premieres: Julia Wolfe’s minimalistic Anthracite Fields, written this year, and Steven Mackey’s quasi-neo-romantic Dreamhouse, written in 2003. Wolfe’s 65-minute opus featured the brilliant iconoclastic ensemble known as Bang on a Can All-Stars. Mackey’s 45-minute extravaganza employed an exotically expanded hyper-gushing Philharmonic. Before long, both efforts, though well performed, became a bit tiring, not to say tiresome.

Anthracite Fields, adorned with vivid video, sympathetically examines the plight of Pennsylvania coal-miners during the early 20th century. The score rumbles, mumbles and drones serenely until violent percussive clashes disturb the calm. At first hypnotic, the piece ultimately turns soporific. Julian Wachner conducted faithfully. The Canners, dominated by magic percussionist David Cossin, banged splendidly. The Trinity Wall Street choir did what it could.

Dreamhouse re- and deconstructs old Americana clichés with knowing nods to virtually everything from Baroque piety to Mahlerian indulgence to jazz syncopation to rock riot. The superthick fabric remains mired in raucous bombast. Mackey’s trademark electric guitars get lost in the onslaught, amplification notwithstanding. Jayce Ogren conducted with aplomb. Rinde Eckert – seasoned falsettist plus regular tenor, also co-librettist – sang as if a masterpiece were at stake, deftly seconded by the Synergy vocal quartet.

The audience in Avery Fisher Hall, capacity 2,738, looked sparse.

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