Lucy Dhegrae and Alice Teyssier in Ashley Fure’s ‘The Force of Things’
Photograph: Marina Levatskaya, courtesy of Peak Performances at Montclair State University

Best of 2017: 10 Memorable Musical Events

Let’s state the obvious right away: No reviewer (not even Mark Swed!) can see absolutely everything there is to be seen in a given performing-arts season; I won’t pretend to have come close. What follows here isn’t meant to be read as “The Ten Best Events of 2017.” Rather, these are the performances and works I witnessed that resounded most indelibly for me.

Because of personal connections, I’ve disqualified National Sawdust presentations (some of which were celebrated in this previous list), as well as two more events that otherwise would have made this list: the life-altering Ojai Music Festival steered by Vijay Iyer in June, for which I was employed as a webcast host, and which Iyer and I discussed at length for National Sawdust Log, here; and the life-affirming concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts on Oct. 6, a show I played a key role in organizing… read Hank Shteamer’s mighty account of that show here.

Robert Ashley: Dust
Ernst C. Stiefel Concert Hall, The New School; Feb. 2
Reviewing this revelatory collegiate revival of one of Robert Ashley’s greatest works, I wrote, “repeatability is fundamental to canonicity; Ashley’s operas deserve to live on, but in order to do so, they have to be re-envisioned to accommodate new performers and, in a sense, new perspectives.…The student performers tasked with inhabiting the vocal roles had their work cut out for them. Try to imagine being Mario Diaz-Moresco, who took up Ashley’s own central role (‘I Live in the Park’), or Julia Meadows, tasked with portraying ‘Lucille’ under the watch of the original Lucille, Joan La Barbara, who served as the musical director for this revival. And each of the performers featured in Thursday’s premiere (two of whom cede their spots to other performers in repeat performances) handled their duties artfully and affectingly.” You can read the complete review here.

Kate Soper: Ipsa Dixit
Dixon Place; Feb. 4
“Adapting texts by Aristotle (repeatedly), Sophocles, Plato, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, Lydia Davis, Jenny Holzer, and more, Soper presents a variable treatise on art and its available meanings, one as clever and sly as it is erudite and provocative. But instantly, the musical conversation – and as often as not it’s exactly that, given Soper’s demands on her instrumental accomplices to verbalize, to engage in theatrics, to deliver lines outright – suggests some nuances she clearly intended, along with others she likely could not have foreseen entirely.” Kate Soper remains a school of thought and composition unto herself, and Ipsa Dixit – a work for which Soper was named a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music – is a tour de force of brainy screwball comedy. My complete review is here.

Dave Douglas: Metamorphosis
Appel Room, Jazz at Lincoln Center; March 3
“[Y]ou instantly knew this would be no risk-averse affair. Alongside Douglas in the front line were trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and saxophonist Oliver Lake, each an iconic bandleader who hailed from one of the formidable regional collectives that fomented stylistic revolutions during the late ’60s: Smith in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Lake in St. Louis’s Black Artists Group (BAG). The other players – guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, and percussionists Andrew Cyrille and Susie Ibarra – offered similarly substantial credentials. Together, the band represented a veritable constellation of key players spanning generations and inclinations.” Appearing in New York City’s stronghold of jazz fundamentalism, Douglas mustered a mighty crew that lived up to its potential in full. The rest of my review is here.

S.E.M. Ensemble
Bohemian National Hall; April 27
While attending this particular concert by the unsinkable Petr Kotik and his long-serving ensemble, one thought struck me repeatedly: This is what it must have been like to witness one of those epic concerts of yore organized by Mozart or Beethoven, white-hot with inspiration and, no doubt, slick with more than a little perspiration. “I wondered why these same works weren’t being championed elsewhere. Why couldn’t Trio Things, a substantial quasi-improvised piano trio by [Muhal Richard] Abrams, fit neatly into a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center bill? Why wouldn’t [Christian] Wolff’s noble Five Songs suit the New York Philharmonic? The answer resides in Kotik’s courage of his convictions, as well as his faith in the audience he has built steadfastly, which here filled a sizable hall on a rainy night.” My complete appreciation of this concert, and of Kotik’s work in general, is here.

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; June 3

Presented as one of Alan Gilbert’s farewell programs at the end of his tenure as New York Philharmonic music director, this account of Wagner’s Ring Cycle prelude was, simply stated, superb: beautifully cast, efficiently choreographed, and compellingly paced and played. Still, it was hard to avoid feeling melancholy, given the circumstances: This noble, searing Rheingold was the latest proof of the enormity of New York’s loss at Gilbert’s departure.

Quatuor Bozzini
DiMenna Center for Classical Music; Aug. 4
A special occasion, indeed: the music of Swiss composer Jürg Frey, performed by an ensemble that has shown an special knack for his fragile, melancholy idiom. “Frey’s slow, even sequence of chords struck, held, and ended assumes inexplicable qualities of moody incandescence. A single elongated chord that arrives roughly seven minutes in felt like an explosive epiphany; so, too, a grayish chord that rises from inaudibility at the 20-minute point, returns to silence, then tries repeatedly, unsuccessfully, to rise again before the music’s initial mode reasserts itself three minutes later,” I wrote in my National Sawdust Log report (here), which continued, “I cannot imagine a listener being unmoved by this music, particularly when delivered by players capable of rendering its gestures with the unanimity of an accordion’s bellows and the naturalness of human breath.”

International Contemporary Ensemble: How Forests Think
Merkin Concert Hall; Aug. 14
Full disclosure: Lincoln Center contracted me to provide program notes for this Mostly Mozart Festival concert. That being the full extent of my involvement, I have no qualms about celebrating this revelatory program, a Schubert-inspired mix of nature-oriented works: Earth Ears by Pauline Oliveros, Aequilibria by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and How Forests Think by Liza Lim. Intentionally or not, this technically impressive and emotionally engaging concert linked the experimental-music tradition to Romanticism simply by reminding us that no two observers perceive nature in the same way—nor do any three composers translate their impressions in a common tongue.

Ashley Fure: The Force of Things
Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University, NJ; Nov. 4
Simultaneously a conjuration of the unseen natural forces that surround us every day and an urgent cri de cœur concerning climate change and sustainability, this “opera for objects” by composer Ashley Fure (a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist) and her brother, architect Adam Fure, was awe-inspiring in its imaginative ingenuity and gut-wrenching in its underlying implications. The versatile International Contemporary Ensemble served as an ideally committed troupe, equal to all challenges; I especially must commend vocalists Lucy Dhegrae and Alice Teyssier for endowing abstract tones and indistinct syllables with unmistakeable emotional vitality. Afterward, I told Fure I’d felt unable to join the tumultuous ovation… who claps for a eulogy?

Works by Éliane Radigue
Issue Project Room; Oct. 20
Two nights after the pioneering electronic composer Éliane Radigue was honored during the annual Issue Project Room gala, three of her closest colleagues – woodwind player Carol Robinson, harpist Rhodri Davies, and fellow electronic composer Laetitia Sonami – offered authoritative accounts of the mostly acoustic works to which Radigue has devoted herself since 2004. The clear highlight was Occam River XVI, played by Robinson and Davies, but the entire concert was mesmerizing—and how lovely it was to hear the voice of Robert Ashley intoning the text for an earlier Radigue work for synthesizer, “Mila’s Song in the Rain.” (Brian Olewnick offers a more complete account of the evening, here.)

Sarah Hennies: Contralto
Issue Project Room; Nov. 30
As she described in an extensive interview with National Sawdust Log, the composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies juxtaposed video footage of trans women, speaking and singing through vocal exercises meant to enable them to “pass” among the general population, with evocatively awkward, even absurd instrumental gestures in order to make a point: not to demonstrate that it’s impossible for trans women to learn how to pass, but rather that perceptions of what defines a woman among the general public, voice type and all, require alteration. Pointed but never preachy or angry, Contralto works in subtler shades of clear-eyed demonstration and sly humor. I can’t imagine any sensitive observer coming away unimpressed, or unmoved; for me, this and Ashley Fure’s The Force of Things were the two most necessary works of 2017.

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Further reading

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Playlist (Find Your Way Back Home).

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A weekly tally of memorable things National Sawdust Log editor Steve Smith has stuck in his ears, including recordings featuring Rachel Evans, Grant Evans, Morgan Evans-Weiler, Ben McElroy, and The Hands Free.

Stephanie Richards: Musician in Motion

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Stephanie Richards, a trumpeter and composer whose resume includes gigs with Kanye West, David Byrne, Butch Morris, and Asphalt Orchestra, discusses her debut album, 'Fullmoon.'

In Review: Julia Wolfe, Spinning

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Never one to shy away from making a statement, the composer Julia Wolfe evoked women's strength and labor in 'Spinning,' presented by Maya Beiser for Peak Performances May 10-13.