Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Naive and Sentimental Music

This weekend in New York brought not only humidity, but the respite in air-conditioned musical opportunities (the real perk of summers in NYC is the abundance of this stuff when everywhere else takes the summer off).

Monday night, I caught the International Contemporary Ensemble (even their acronym is pleasing in this heat!) performing a delightful array of John Adams chamber music. Shaker Loops, his breakthrough piece, still holds attention with its crisp energy, pulsing through its harmonic trajectory. While the shimmering fast bits sound perhaps the most characteristic sound, the slow movements really shine with snatches of melody unravelling, always leaving you wanting more. After the more minimal style of Shaker Loops, we got the more pop-infused style of Gnarly Buttons, Adams's clarinet concerto of sorts, making a rather nice bookending of his styles. I really love this piece; the sort of spinning out of lines from a single idea in the first movement and the colorful minimalist Hoedown that really does evoke the clippity-clop plunking rhtyhm and delicate orchestration of the Copland without direct quotation. But the prize for me is the hauntingness of the last movement, inspired in part by his father's battle with Alzheimers, as this plaintive melodic phrase (to which the words "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me" could be set) echoes over a held chord in the piano, with little additions But the even the simplest phrase slips away pretty early, and the music becomes increasingly agitated and aggressive, only to return ever so briefly to the hint of what was lost. After the break, they played Son of Chamber Symphony, a work I didn't know going in, but really enjoyed hearing it in the context of both styles, catching both the hypermelody of the later styles with the first movement and the sort of throwback rhythms and chords of the final movement (inspired by but not rehashing the News aria from Nixon in China).

A different kind of sentimental and naive music came on Saturday night when my lottery luck continued, getting us two front row tickets to West Side Story (aka the greatest Broadway score ever written). It really astonishes me just how amazing that music is. What normally would be a vamp or a throwaway introductory refrain before a song here is just as richly satisfying as the songs themselves. You almost wish it was underscored throughout. The standout was the Dance at the Gym, where the music has aged much better than the 1950s lingo, the brash jazzy chords reined in just enough to match the dancing on stage (oh, what dancing!), but as soon as I settle on that, I want to throw in so many other moments. The blisteringly funny Gee, Officer Krupke. The swooning on the balcony as they sing Tonight. Anita's fire in practically everything. The Somewhere ballet's ravishing simplicity. And going through the score, it's just as impossible to choose a favorite. I'm not even going to try, but I will tell you the moment that comes at the end of One Hand, One Heart, where the two lovers suddenly turn a mixture of shameful and fearful at the mock-wedding they've just conducted is one of the most unforgettably potent I've witnessed on stage to date. Highly recommended.


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