Bearthoven, a trio comprising Karl Larson on piano, Pat Swoboda on bass, and Matt Evans on percussion, has made commissioning new music a central part of its collective mission. Since coming together in 2013, the three musicians have championed a variety of new pieces, by composers both up-and-coming and established. On February 27 at Le Poisson Rouge, they presented their third annual “New Works” concert, which brought still more new commissions. The evening featured an opening set by Popebama, an eccentric New York-based duo and two premieres, by composer and saxophonist Shelley Washington and Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon.
Popebama, comprising Erin Rogers on saxophone and Dennis Sullivan on percussion, began the evening with a rowdy world premiere and two further eccentric works; while their style didn’t necessarily align with my personal taste, their execution was spot-on. Showdown, collaboratively composed by the duo’s members, was a jolting rush of chopped-up melodies, with recordings of over-enthusiastic baseball announcers interjected between bouts of frenzied music. The performers faced each other as if in a duel, pressing buttons and pushing levers to play the different recordings as chuckles bounced around the audience. Their playing was decidedly in-sync, and they communicated the emotions of each piece with enthusiasm.
A world premiere by Shelley Washington, Uniforms, opened Bearthoven’s portion of the concert. The four-movement piece tied Washington’s personal experiences to a broader exploration of the ways in which our clothes define our perceptions of ourselves and others. The first movement, titled “Inheritance,” was powerful and free, blending the strictness of repetition with the raucous energy of a rousing beat enhanced by Bearthoven’s engaged performance. An explosive rock jam burst out as Washington’s recorded voice played. She regularly incorporates poetry into her musical work; here, she told of the complexities of inheritance—on a small scale, inheriting trinkets from family, and on a large scale, inheriting inter-generational trauma.
Each movement reflected upon the ways textiles have played major roles in her life. “New Group/Denim/BPH/GLF” paid homage to her denim-wearing, punk-loving days in the basement of Bushwick Public House. “Sunrise Colors” celebrated the sun’s crisp vibrancy; “Silk” recognized the importance of being transparent and open, of caring for oneself.
“New Group/Denim/BPH/GLF” opened with bustling piano, bombastic drums, and a pummeling bass chord, emulating the weightiness of denim through heavy repetitions, and made mesmerizing by the ensemble’s dynamism. With “Sunrise Colors,” the music exuded radiance, as Larson’s peppy piano playing highlighted the lightly fragmented melodies. “Silk” completed the piece with resignation, featuring an airy melody.
While the performance was moving, and Washington’s deeply personal sentiments seeped through the music, printed program notes might have helped audience members better comprehend the meaning behind the music
After a quick pause for stage reconfiguration, Bearthoven played the New York premiere of Michael Gordon’s Mixed Tulips, a hyper-speed, note-laden new work in Gordon’s usual idiosyncratic, noisy fashion. Introduced in Columbus, OH, on February 19, the piece was an animated burst built on gradually shifting repetitions and a feverish energy. Its blistering stream of notes were layered over an oscillating pulse, syncopated bass, and complex drum patterns.
Bearthoven expertly kept up the demanding pace. Evans’s deft shifts between rhythms drove the piece forward, as the electrifying harmonies gradually descended into a virtuosic piano solo. At one point, the performers broke out into a seemingly spontaneous noise-rock interlude, smiles on their faces as they created a frenetic cacophony.
The piece ascended towards climax: each abrupt shift in narrative edged nearer to a pinnacle, eventually breaking into a unison that powered right to the ending with vigor.
Vanessa Ague is a violinist, avid concertgoer, and music blogger at theroadtosound.com, and the development and research associate at National Sawdust. She was a 2019 Bang on a Can Media Fellow, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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