Concert(s) Review: John Zorn All-Star Orchestra (9/25/2013) and Chamber Music Marathon (9/26/2013)

EDITED VERSION: This is an edited version of the original review after I received a take-down notice from someone named Charlotte at the Miller Theatre threatening to have me thrown out of the Game Pieces concert if I did not comply with their requests. I am not allowed to have so much as a cell phone pic from the Miller, so this post and the upcoming review of Game Pieces the next night will be completely free of anything but text. After that we will hopefully resume normal service, assuming I don’t get any more take-down notices from anyone else…

I’m sorry I took so long to re-post it, but I got the take-down notice shortly before heading out to dinner and the concert on Friday, and then on Saturday I spent eleven hours at the Metropolitan Museum for the epic all-day marathon there. All free time since then has been used for eating, sleeping, and digesting new music experiences.

On Wednesday and Thursday this week, it was time for a massive dose of John Zorn’s classical music, at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Wednesday night was the “All-Star Orchestra” and Thursday was billed as a chamber music marathon. Between the two nights we heard no less than seventeen of Zorn’s classical pieces, including many I’d never heard before and a few premieres that had never been performed before. It was a pretty special occasion for us devoted Zorn fans. I have met three people so far this week that have traveled to New York from another country just to see these Zorn@60 concerts, so it is really wonderful of Mr. Zorn to give us so much bang for the buck with these incredible marathon concerts. Some of the New Yorkers I’ve talked to are a bit blasé about it because he plays here a lot, but for those of us who can only come to NYC for special occasions, this has been an unparalleled week of music so far.

There was so much music and so much variety that I can’t possibly write about all of it, so I’ll have to pick and choose some favorites. My absolutely far-and-away favorite from Wednesday night was Kol Nidre. It was the first piece of Zorn’s that I ever heard performed live, at the 92nd Street Y back in 2006 (IIRC). That performance was a ~15-piece string orchestra conducted by Zorn himself, and it was the most intense piece of music I’d ever seen. I was very much looking forward to seeing it again with a large string ensemble. This time he had a BIG orchestra… I couldn’t even begin to count the musicians on stage, but the program listed over 50 string players. The sound was powerful, and they used that power to the fullest with sudden and intense swells in volume. David Fulmer did an excellent job conducting. I had goosebumps up and down my arms a few times because it was so emotionally arresting. I feel like having a little lie-down just thinking about that piece.

(“Kol Nidre” video removed per request of the Miller Theatre)

On the next night, my favorite pieces were all pieces which were new to me. I’d only heard four or five of the thirteen chamber music pieces before, and some of the new ones were just brilliant. I asked my friends after the show which pieces they liked the best and there were three that really stood out to a lot of us. One of these was Missa Sine Voces, performed by the Talea ensemble with piano, harp, vibes, chimes, and percussion. The harp/vibes/chimes combination brings an awful lot of “sweet and pretty” to the table, so it’s not really surprising that it was a beautiful piece. Of course, it’s still a Zorn piece, so it wasn’t THAT sweet and pretty – it was very interesting. I’ve been a total sucker for Zorn’s work on vibes, chimes, bells, percussion etc. lately, so I guess it’s not a surprise that I liked this one.

(“Missa Sine Voces” video removed per request of the Miller Theatre)

Another exceptionally beautiful piece was Madrigals, written for six female vocalists (Lisa Bielawa; Sarah Brailey; Abigail Fischer; Mellissa Hughes; Jane Sheldon; and Kirsten Sollek). I hadn’t heard this performed before, as it is quite a new piece, and I really liked it. There was a great variety of vocal sounds being made, from repetitive percussion noises to straight-up gorgeous harmonies. I think it might be my favorite of all the Zorn pieces for female vocals that I’ve heard.

(Excerpt of “Madrigals” video removed per request of the Miller Theatre)

I was wondering, after seeing this and several other Zorn vocal groups recently, if Zorn would consider doing pieces like these for male vocal groups (or a mixed group, or dueling groups, or…). I think that would be an interesting contrast, and I tend to heavily prefer male voices over female voices, so I would probably enjoy a piece like that.

Another real standout was Maldoror, a companion piece to Illuminations, which I’d seen a year or two ago at the Miller Theater at another classical event featuring Zorn’s works. I thought the newer piece was the superior one – Zorn referred to it as a “ballad,” and while I’m not sure I’d go that far, it was certainly more laid back than Illuminations. The idea behind these pieces is that the piano part is fully written out by the composer and the drum and bass are fully improvised. Sort of a jazz piano trio hijacked by a classical composer. Zorn said he was hoping to write several of these pieces so they could go to Europe and tour jazz clubs (I’m unclear if that was a joke or not, you never really know with him!).

(“Maldoror” video removed per request of the Miller Theatre)

Aside from those favorites, almost every piece was very good, very interesting, or (usually) both. I was also interested to see how many young musicians Zorn had enlisted; he seems to be going out of his way to write for younger players and ensembles, which I think is a great thing to do. (He does the same thing at his record label, Tzadik, keeping an open mind and an open ear for brand new, young musicians making great music.) There were a couple of performers that I wasn’t terribly familiar with before last night that I will be keeping an eye out for now (e.g., cellist Jay Campbell).

Check back soon for more reviews! And if I ever finish uploading it to Youtube I will have a bonus chamber music piece posted on the Concert Manic Facebook page soon. (Edit: I removed the bonus video from this show in hopes of avoiding the Miller Theatre’s ninja assassin squad coming after me. But if you look on that page you can see some photos from the Metropolitan Museum Zorn@60 day.)

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