This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
It is easy to be consumed by the present -- frequently defined by dwindling audiences and funding crises -- but perhaps throwing caution to the wind and leaping far into the future is part of the solution. The NOI players focused on more recent composers, physical motion, and improvisation with a dash of mixed media and theatrical elements. While none of these ideas are particularly cutting-edge in theory, when put together, the concert that ensued was truly like nothing I had ever seen, and more along the lines of musical theater. It didn’t always come together, but the ideas and energy behind it were remarkable.
The program opened with the first movement of Charles Ives’s first string quartet (“From the Salvation Army”). The cellist sat alone in the middle of a dark stage, dramatically lit by a single spotlight -- it was pure theater! The piece began and the rest of the musicians entered the stage -- free of music, stands, or chairs. Their bodies moved with the music (while they played), choreographed in collaboration with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. The wonderful thing was that the choreography illuminated the musicians’ interpretation of the music. And though the playing certainly wasn’t polished, one didn’t care because the phrases swelled together in an organic way that seemed to stem from the musicians’ motion. This piece and the Allegro from Leoš Janáček’s chamber work Mladi (Youth) were the most illuminating in terms of this connection between music and movement. It was chamber music in motion.
Other works included String Quartet No. 4 (an homage to Carlo Gesualdo) by Matthias Pintscher, which was preceded by the literal shadow of a choir singing Sospirava Il Mio Core by Gesualdo. In an effort to bring greater engagement and knowledge to the audience, one of the performers said a few words about the connections between the two works. The concert closed with the sonically gorgeous Souvenir by the New York Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg. This work, for 18-piece orchestra, was illuminated by colored light changes and a large, projected digital score.
Perhaps the most admirable part of the evening was an attempted improvisation with eleven players, in which they cycled in and out, so that only a few were playing at a time. In an age when improvisation has largely left the sensibilities of classical musicians, except for early music specialists and a few others, these young players did their best to bring it back. The problem is that unseasoned improvisers tend to stay within a comfortable range that, in this case, consisted of very little in the way of key or tone change.
Each piece was like a skit, choreographed with movement, lighting changes, spoken word, and singing. In a way, this concert was a return to a time when classical music was popular music; when concerts were more of a happening or to-do; when the lines between music, entertainment, and theater were more blurry; and when the rules of audience etiquette were less fine-tuned and more laissez-faire. Most importantly, it was classical music, and it was fun.