Words and images: Steve Smith
Additional images courtesy
of the presenters
Making lists of the best of whatever is an arbitrary pursuit, but it doesn’t follow that the act is without meaning.
I wrote those words a year ago, opening my preface for a “Best of 2018” [sic] list, and they still hold true now. No writer will have seen everything of significance that took place during any given year; therefore, it stands to reason that any one writer can claim any specific show they saw was more significant, powerful, or meaningful than some other show hailed by other critics… or, increasingly, witnessed by none.
Still, at the end of every year I continue to feel compelled to cite and salute the events that resonated most for me, the performances and performers whose work registered most acutely and resoundingly. The list could have been much longer, but I find the tidy tradition of a Top 10 useful and appealing. The items included herein are listed not in order of importance or preference, but strictly chronologically. Ideally, you’ll read this list along with a bunch of further lists from a diverse cross-section of writers; in the end, you’ll perhaps be able to extrapolate something enlightening about the shape and tone of the year just ended.
Because of my professional connection I’ve omitted National Sawdust presentations. Since I was paid to conduct a pre-concert interview during the latest iteration of Density 2036, the watershed program mounted by flutist Claire Chase at the Kitchen in March, I felt compelled to refrain from including that event in my list—though honestly, the Sarah Hennies piece Reservoir 2: Intrusion easily numbered among the most powerful performances I encountered in 2019. (Rest assured, you’ll still see Hennies cited here, and elsewhere.)
The Ojai Music Festival, which hired me for a third year to co-host its live webcasts in June, also was out of bounds, by necessity—not least because I was fortunate to participate as a performer in a celebratory account of Terry Riley’s In C alongside the festival music director Barbara Hannigan, the percussionist and conductor Steven Schick, and the exiting artistic director Thomas Morris. Quite properly, the relative merits of that performance were subject to debate and criticism online. But it was an honor to have participated—especially in a state of physical impairment that at that time had yet to be treated.
Seductive and disquieting in equal measure, this chamber opera by composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins – presented during the 2019 PROTOTYPE festival – grappled with sexual assault and trauma imaginatively and unflinchingly, leaving just enough unresolved to assure long contemplation. The performances were brilliant, the production resourceful and clever—and rightly, the work earned a Pulitzer.
Witnessed (by me, at least) the very next night, this riveting music-theater piece by composer Philip Venables was another PROTOTYPE highlight. Adapted from playwright Sarah Kane’s final work and created in collaboration with director Ted Huffman, the piece dealt starkly with issues concerning mental illness and modern medicine; in New York, the new-music ensemble Contemporaneous did its edgy score justice.
At some premieres, you’re inspired by the bold vision of a presenting organization; at some premieres you’re impressed with an artist’s audacious imagination and skill. Attending Fire in my mouth – an oratorio that evoked the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, created by composer Julia Wolfe and presented by the New York Philharmonic with vocal ensemble The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, conducted by Jaap van Zweden – you felt both of those impressions. But you also were reminded of music’s power of music to bear witness, in a way that cut straight to the soul.
The performers who previously had been entrusted with bringing to life Robert Ashley’s final completed opera, the autobiographical Crash – vocalists Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons, plus music director Tom Hamilton – reunited to resurrect a watershed Ashley work from 1985, with illuminating and deeply moving results. (View it for yourself here.)
Given how many concerts JACK Quartet performs in a year, and how broad a range of composers and idioms this invaluable group embraces, how on earth did Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman, John Pickford Richards, and Jay Campbell find the time not only to master Elliott Carter’s five string quartets, but also to internalize these disparate, treacherously difficult pieces sufficiently to make them feel natural and inviting? This was a marvel—the kind you feel privileged to witness.
This intimate concert featuring the violinist Pala Garcia, the violist Hannah Levinson, and the cellist John Popham, presented in a cozy Chinatown art gallery just slightly off the beaten path, allowed the composer Daniel Fox to showcase a terrific new piece, Viola and Cello, contextualized alongside like-minded works by Catherine Lamb and Suzanne Farrin. The highlight, though, was a beautifully re-conceived version of Alvin Lucier’s sublime Lovesong, in which Garcia tread a slow, attentive arc around Popham, their instruments conjoined with a resonating wire. (Watch video from the concert here.)
A standout event even in the context of this year’s vastly expanded, explosively ambitious Time Spans festival, I call america…: Sandy Speaks found the mercurial composer, saxophonist, poet, and media artist Matana Roberts fusing members of the International Contemporary Ensemble with fellow improvisers Geng/King Vision Ultra, Roberto C. Lange, Jaimie Branch, Matt Lavelle, and Maria Grand in a potently fiery remembrance of Sandra Bland.
Performing for a capacity crowd in the Armory’s relatively intimate Board of Officers Room, the brilliant Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan presented the New York premiere of John Zorn’s otherworldly Jumalattaret, partnered by pianist Stephen Gosling—who had offered his own substantial Zorn premiere just a month earlier. Further Zorn works, performed with vibraphonist Sae Hashimoto and JACK Quartet, resulted in a captivating highlight of a banner year for Zorn, which also included a week-long Village Vanguard run with his jaw-dropping New Masada Quartet two weeks later.
Nate Wooley’s For/With festival has been a memorable event each year since its inception, both as a generator for idiosyncratic new trumpet pieces and as a showcase for the enduring potency of collaborative creation. Here, Wooley unveiled new pieces by Eva-Maria Houben and Sarah Hennies—the latter of which, Monologue, transformed from a near-slapstick demonstration of a trumpet’s literal deconstruction to a vivid, heart-breaking ritual encompassing alienation, corporeal unease, and a glimmer of hard-won hope. A week later Wooley would scale new peaks of expressive grandeur with Seven Storey Mountain VI, but the intimacy and vulnerability he brought to Monologue were singular.
Having started the year strongly moved by innovative new productions mounted by PROTOTYPE, it felt poetic, somehow, to end the year with a creation that might be viewed as a prototype for the kind of penetrating psychological studies that populate the upstart festival. William Kentridge, a media artist and director who warrants the term visionary, transplanted Alban Berg’s anguished opera to World War I, making its violence and squalor all the more acute. His overwhelming production was matched with brilliant performances from the cast – notably, Peter Mattei in the title role and Elza van den Heever as the doomed Marie – and orchestra. The result was a textbook demonstration of what the Met can achieve, when it fires on all cylinders at once.
Steve Smith is director of publications at National Sawdust, and editor and lead writer for National Sawdust Log. He contributes regularly to The New Yorker, previously worked as a freelance reviewer for The New York Times, and was an editor at the Boston Globe and Time Out New York.
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