For the past five years, the New York new-music collective Bang On A Can’s residency-ending marathon has been a blissfest, a highlight of my summer, the one thing I block out as soon as it’s announced and won’t miss unless there’s a damn serious act of God happening. I needed it bad this year and didn’t get it. Some important ju-ju was missing.
It started great enough, with powerful soprano Megan Ihnen singing into the guts of a miked grand piano at the top of George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. The effect of the resonating strings over the top of the small percussion-heavy ensemble was—as it was supposed to be—surreal and beautiful. And things kicked up a notch at the end when Christopher Howard, a young, towheaded boy soprano, joined her at the piano. The piece was marred only by a persistent and annoying low hum that permeated the room and was quite noticeable on the quieter works throughout the day. This was one of the things that was wrong.
Another was that the stadium seating was missing; instead the seats were laid out on the flat floor. This made watching the 16 pieces, by 16 different ensembles, a lot less enjoyable—there were inevitably heads in the way and the bird’s-eye view is infinitely superior to looking up. So it made it hard to see who was doing what, for example, during Lou Harrison’s Violin Concerto, a work for violin and five percussionists. Every one, that is, but the great Todd Reynolds, who does what he does, which is to play brilliant, heroic violin, full of grace and bravado.
About halfway through I realized that the program was strangely straight for a BOAC marathon. There were no laptops, no newly-invented instruments, nothing amplified much except for the occasional guitar. And no exotic foreign musicians with unpronounceable names playing strange indigenous instruments with unpronounceable names. There was a total lack of the silliness and fun that punctuated past marathons. The whole six hours was disappointingly redolent of new-music orthodoxy.
Not that it wasn’t a great, varied, and wonderfully played show, honoring the great composer Steve Reich, who was hanging out in his trademark khaki work clothes. It just lacked the wonder and joy of the other marathons. And those occasional leaps into the strange and funny and flippant serve an important purpose—they give the brain an opportunity to decompress and rejuvenate after trying to process the often demanding and challenging works. An hour of this stuff can be rough. Six hours can be devastating.
Asking around, I learned that BOAC regulars Mark Stewart and Evan Ziporyn had other commitments and couldn’t make this year’s marathon. Ziporyn usually supplies the exotica and Stewart is the pied piper into the realm of play. Then, the Eastern European musicians that turned up turned out to be classically trained string players. There was no conscious effort to ramp down the program, I was told, it just sort of happened. Oh, and the floor seating was done to accommodate Wilco, who were arriving the next day.
Thank you, Jeebus. Already counting the days until next year.