Thursday, August 02, 2012


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.

            It started 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.

            Another was 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 up. 

            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.

            About 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.

            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!  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.

            Thank you, Jeebus.  Already counting the days until next year.


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