Monday, January 27, 2014

New Amsterdam connection of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra yields a concert of mixed rewards

The pointillistic precision of yMusic  made a good impression in Sunday's concert.
It's a pleasure to note that  Indianapolis was part of a musical coincidence Sunday: On the same night that Roomful of Teeth, an ensemble in which Caroline Shaw sings, was picking up a Grammy Award, Shaw's composition "From Rivers" received its second performance ever at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

"From Rivers"  received its first performance at the opening of the Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis in December. On Sunday, Indianapolis-born vocal soloist Kristin "KO" Newborn joined the Indianapolis Children's Choir, accompanied by Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra associate principal cellist Perry Scott, in a performance keynoting a concert produced by New Amsterdam Records and presented by the ISO (but not featuring the orchestra).

Caroline Shaw, winner of 2013 Pulitzer Prize
Shaw's "From Rivers" contrasts the intensity of the solo voice with the ethereal choral lines. The cello accompaniment is sufficiently adaptive to carry out the  function of anchoring what would otherwise be an a cappella challenge — perhaps to listeners as well as performers. A moderately fast section with a calypso feel relieved the solemnity of the composition's first part. "From Rivers" received a committed, gracefully controlled performance Sunday, led by ICC founder and artistic director Henry Leck.

Guest artist Julianna Barwick opened the program with one of her vocal-loop compositions. They typically lay down a pattern of phrases upon which Barwick sets a vocal line, sometimes undergirded by simple electronic-keyboard chords. What I heard was probably supposed to have strong emotional import, but didn't quite deliver anything engaging to me. Shimmering textures of "white-key" vocal harmony, shifting slowly like a kaleidoscope turned by an arthritic hand, set up in my mind cold, gleaming barriers that struck me as designed to keep the listener at a chilly, uncomfortable distance. I felt like a wanderer stranded in the cold at the foot of a glacier.

Barwick continued to be featured throughout the concert's first half, joined for three short pieces by the wonderfully well-trained ICC. Right before intermission, a Barwick composition called "Crystal Lake" was performed. Before it started, a ghastly blue light suddenly shone upon the children, who were ranged along the stage on risers. It leached vitality from their faces, making them look like pale, dead flowers somehow capable of singing. The effect was most unsettling, and the music offered no relief from that unfortunate impression.

The expert playing of the instrumental sextet yMusic, the ensemble featured in the concert's second half, injected some needed vitality into the program.  The young group — a string trio plus clarinet, flute and trumpet — must enjoy good rapport with composers, as a wide range of their cohorts has contributed to their repertoire.

YMusic opened with the perky pointillism of Son Lux's "Beautiful Mechanical," then really won the audience's hearts with the episodic, stirring "Proven Badlands"  (Annie Clark) before concluding its mini-set with Judd Greenstein's open-air "Clearing, Dawn, Dance." This is a group one would welcome hearing in a full-length concert, perhaps presented by the Ensemble Music Society.

I picked up a more favorable feeling for Barwick's music in the three works that ended the concert, partly because yMusic violinist Robert Moose's arrangements spread her fondness for static sonorities over a wider sound palette. Even so, these culminating pieces required a diminution of yMusic's capabilities, even while they continued to put on display the poise and sensitive preparation of the Indianapolis Children's Choir.





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