Making lists of the best of whatever is an arbitrary pursuit, but it doesn’t follow that the act is without meaning. Obviously no writer is in a position to have seen everything that happens in a given year, not even in their own hometown. But by reading and comparing a number of lists, particularly those from writers whose tastes and prejudices are familiar or well explained, a reader still can get some sense of a year’s zeitgeist… what it had to offer, and where it might have fallen short.
I’ll confess from the start that I missed many noteworthy events, either for lack of time or, yes, lack of access (cough Met Traviatacough). But the following list of 10 – okay, really 11 – events represents an excellent snapshot of how and where I spent 2018, and why.
Because of my professional connection I’ve omitted National Sawdust presentations, some of which were celebrated in this previous list. Since I was paid to attend and lecture at Shanghai New Music Week in September, I’ve also left out that intense, illuminating experience… save to say that based on what I heard from a representative handful of Chinese student composers, the future is in sure hands. Likewise, the Ojai Music Festival, which hired me for a second year to co-host its live webcasts in June, I deemed out of bounds. Since almost everything that remained took place in New York City, I omitted the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Fluxconcert,”an audacious yet audience-friendly event that (minor reservations notwithstanding) proved well worth the time, distance, and frequent flier miles I spent in its pursuit.
Finally, I was forced to leave out two of the year’s most personally meaningful events: a performance of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit organized by Doug Perkins at the Caramoor Festival in July, and an account of Michael Pisaro’s A wave and waves assembled by Greg Stuart with the International Contemporary Ensemble for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, in August. These I omitted because I performed in both, making music in public for the first time in more than 20 years. I was, and remain, unutterably grateful to have had those opportunities.
Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental The Kitchen; February 3 Mannes Orchestra Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; November 20
Neatly framing 2018 were two extraordinary acts of restoration—one might say resurrection, were one inclined to embrace the enthusiastic fervor that has accompanied a widespread and deserved rediscovery of Julius Eastman, a queer black radical artist well ahead of his time. In February, during the extensive and rightly lauded series That Which Is Fundamental (which originated in Philadelphia in 2017, and came to the Kitchen in expanded form), the trombonist, bandleader, and composer Christopher McIntyre oversaw the return of Trumpet, an early ensemble piece that McIntyre had transcribed using an archival recording and two pages from the original score. And in November, the composer and musicologist Luciano Chessa conducted a polished, committed Mannes Orchestra in the world-premiere account of Eastman’s Symphony No. 2, a fantastically scored aural chronicle of love, loss, and regret, newly edited by Chessa—and thoughtfully showcased among substantial pieces by Sarah Kirkland Snider and Einojuhani Rautavaara.
Dante Boon 167 Spring Street; February 17
Chamber music the way it was meant to be experienced: in an intimate setting, among a gathering of deeply attentive listeners. Boon, a Dutch pianist and composer of sterling technique and boundless sensitivity, offered a splendid recital at the cozy Spring Street loft of fellow composer Daniel Goode—and yes, it was open to the public. The program, ideally suited to the snowy night outside, included the premiere of substantial new works by Wandelweiser composers Antoine Beuger and Anastassis Philippakopoulos, thoughtfully prefaced with pieces by John Cage, Eva-Maria Houben, André Cormier, and Michael Vincent Waller. (Yuko Zama, an insightful journalist and record producer, recounted the evening in great detail on her blog.)
Vision Festival: Celebrating Dave Burrell Roulette; May 23
Kicking off the 23rd edition of the Vision Festival, the pianist, composer, and bandleader Dave Burrell was celebrated with a full evening of disparate settings. The lineup included both elders of comparable standing, like drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Kidd Jordan, and contemporary firebrands like saxophonists Darius Jones and James Brandon Lewis. But the high point unquestionably was Burrell reuniting with an old friend and colleague, the saxophonist Archie Shepp, relaxed and magisterial in a sublime set buoyed by the blue-chip rhythm section of bassist William Parker (the festival’s co-organizer) and percussionist Hamid Drake.
thingNY + Varispeed: Musical Voices Around a Table Roulette; May 30
Two mercurial music-theater ensembles that combined memorably in years past for a moveable transformation of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives reunited in a program featuring a pair of striking text-heavy works: Maledetto, by the sorely overlooked composer Kenneth Gaburo, and Passover, by the paradoxically celebrated yet underrated multidisciplinary artist Rick Burkhardt. Both presentations were vivid and appealing; Burkhardt’s piece was also deeply moving. (You can read an expertly detailed account by George Grella at New York Classical Review.)
Time:Spans 2018 DiMenna Center for Classical Music; August 14-18 Across five reasonably priced evenings, this second-annual offering from the Earle Brown Music Foundation Charitable Trust showcased composers presented all too rarely elsewhere, played with expertise, commitment, and loving care by locals (Talea Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, Yarn/Wire, JACK Quartet) and distinguished visitors (Quatuor Bozzini, SWR Experimentalstudio Freiburg). From the recondite elegance of Cassandra Miller and Linda Catlin Smith, as played by the Bozzinis, to the voluptuous exuberance Talea brought out in pieces by Oscar Bettison and Felipe Lara, the festival spanned a wide range of styles and moods. Two more highlights involved pieces by Alex Mincek: one a persuasive magnum opus played by Yarn/Wire; the other a powerful instance of a familiar creator venturing into alien modes of expression with Alarm Will Sound.
New York Philharmonic David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; September 25
With The Force of Things, Ashley Fure’s haunting, lacerating “opera for objects” (included on my “10 Memorable Musical Events” list for 2017), resonating anew in my mind’s eye and ear thanks to a Mostly Mozart Festival revival in August, I wondered what to expect from Filament, the new work Fure was commissioned to write not just to start the New York Philharmonic season, but also to proclaim Jaap van Zweden’s arrival as music director. Whatever I might have imagined was eclipsed by what transpired: an elemental miasma of sound, three deft improvisers (Rebekah Heller, Brandon Lopez, and Nate Wooley), and a choreographed vocal ensemble (Constellation Chor) that infused the darkly luminous piece with an powerfully personal human resonance.
Missy Mazzoli: Proving Up Miller Theatre; September 26
Reconfirming Missy Mazzoli’s elite status among America’s most promising operatic creators – and reconfirming as well the potency of her collaboration with the similarly gifted and versatile librettist Royce Vavrek – this lean, hungry third opera was a riveting experience in an economical staging transplanted from Opera Omaha. Despite its historic setting, this moral fable about the American Dream and its sometimes terrible cost – and about the consuming hunger of masculine need, as well – felt uncomfortably timely. Mazzoli’s parched, glassy score ideally suited the opera’s eerie obsessiveness and fenced-in doom, qualities conveyed expertly by singers and players alike.
Henning Christiansen: Freedom Is Around the Corner 55 Walker Street; October 18 & 26
Mounted by the increasingly ambitious nomadic curators of Blank Forms with substantial support from European cultural agencies, this first-ever U.S. institutional survey of works by the Fluxus-allied Danish composer and visual artist Henning Christiansen was filled with surprises—even for admirers who have followed closely a swelling canon of recorded works. Christiansen’s early formal compositions were played expertly by a local pick-up ensemble drilled by English cellist Lucy Railton and Australian composer-performer James Rushford, and the brilliant English new-music group Apartment House offered a compelling account of Dejiigt vejr I dag, n’est-ce pas Ibsen, Christiansen’s enigmatic chamber opera. And in an especially enterprising gambit, contemporary composer-performers and sound artists were invited to create new works in response to Christiansen pieces; I missed what reportedly was a sublime affair by Áine O’Dwyer and Graham Lambkin, but was happily spellbound as Stine Janvin used the Danish term hygge as a springboard for a playful ASMR fantasia.
Tyshawn Sorey The Kitchen; October 21-23
Composer, percussionist, and bandleader Tyshawn Sorey stretched well past the already far-flung limits of what we’ve come to know and expect in his music, presenting three wildly disparate projects over as many consecutive evenings. To start, Sorey fused elemental ritual with modernist rigor in a free-floating duet with the staggering pianist Marilyn Crispell. Next came a Mahler-length sequence of seven original compositions redolent of late ’60s Blue Note at its headiest, if that oeuvre were kaleidoscopically shattered and reassembled into fresh new visions, performed by a nimble, responsive sextet. The final night brought intense improvisations, heavy grooves, and Afro-futurist dreamscapes, courtesy of a space-faring unit comprising HPrizm, Val-Inc., Graham Haynes, and Brandon Ross. Little across the three nights sounded much like anything Sorey had presented previously, yet somehow all of it sounded like Sorey.
William Kentridge: The Head & the Load Park Avenue Armory; December 4
An extravagant theatrical treatment of a shameful, painful episode, this opera (for what else could you call it?) by artist and director William Kentridge, composer Philip Miller, and co-composer/music director Thuthuka Sibisi examines the history and fates of the nearly two million Africans injured or killed while serving as porters and carriers to British, French, and German military forces active on the continent during World War I. Both the content and its staging represented Kentridge’s collage techniques writ large: African songs mashed up with European classical works and salon fare; texts from a variety of sources, translated into a multiplicity of dialects; still images and animations splashed across towering screens, blurring what was real and what was replica; and, tellingly, Kurt Schwitters’s fantastically nonsensical Ur-Sonate representing the Berlin conference that carved up Africa. The cast was uniformly extraordinary, not least the members of Brooklyn orchestra the Knights, all of whom played onstage, and some of whom acted with genuine presence. If the show was simply too big to take in at a glance, that only served to amplify the enormity of the historic trespass Kentridge and his collaborators evoked.
Steve Smith is director of publications for National Sawdust and editor of National Sawdust Log. He previously worked as a freelance contributor to The New York Times, and as a staff writer and editor for the Boston Globe and Time Out New York. www.nightafternight.com
Peter Margasak reports on doings at the 2019 Borealis festival, an annual event in Bergen, Norway, that nurtures and showcases experimental music while also examining its social dimensions and implications.
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This week in "On the Record," Turning Jewels into Water transforms bewitching rhythms into a drum beat of protest, resistance, and hope. Plus, dozens of listings for new and upcoming releases.
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Preview 'La Fine del Futuro,' the second album by Simon Hanes and his versatile pop ensemble Tredici Bacci, coming March 8 on NNA Tapes—streaming in its entirety exclusively on National Sawdust Log.
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Brin Solomon reviews a concert by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a foundational force in U.S. music history, celebrating the legacy of the similarly iconic composer-arranger Harry T. Burleigh at Zankel Hall.