This article originally appeared in the 8.2.12 issue of Metroland
For the past five years, the New York new music group Bang On A Can’s residency-ending Marathon at Mass Moca has been a personal 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
what I needed. Some important ju-ju was missing.
great enough, with powerful soprano Mehgan 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 her voice and 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, tow-headed boy
soprano, joined her singing into 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 several things didn't work right.
that the raised 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 and music stands in the way and the bird’s eye view from the risers is infinitely superior to looking
So it made
it hard to see who was doing what during, for example, 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. But the percussionists, who were all working overtime, were heard more than seen.
halfway through I realized that the program was strangely straight for a BOAC Marathon. There were no laptops onstage, no newly-invented
instruments, nothing amplified much except for the occasional electric guitar. And no exotic foreign musicians with
unpronounceable names rocking out on strange indigenous instruments with
unpronounceable names. There was a total
lack of the silliness and fun, stuff that punctuated past Marathons. The whole 6 hours was disappointingly
redolent of new music orthodoxy.
Not that it
wasn’t a great and wonderfully played show, honoring the composer Steve Reich, who was hanging out all day around the soundboard in his trademark khaki work
clothes. The show just lacked the wonder and
joy of the other Marathons. And those
occasional leaps into the strange and funny and flippant serves an important
purpose—they give the brain an opportunity to decompress and rejuvenate after
trying to process the typically demanding and challenging works. An hour of this stuff can be rough. Six hours can be devastating.
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! D'oh! 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.
Jeebus. Already counting the days until