Caught the second of two nights of the Wordless Music Series's first orchestral show at St. Paul the Apostle, headlined by the US premiere of Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver -- parts of which you may already be familiar with via the sountrack to There Will Be Blood. (Have not yet seen, want to very much.) Also on the program -- John Adams's Christian Zeal and Activity -- gamers will recognize this one from the Modern Age of Civ IV -- and Gavin Bryars's The Sinking of the Titanic.
In Allan Kozinn's piece in the NYT on Wordless Music, series founder Ronen Givony expresses some surprise that the major US orchestras were not falling over themselves to program the BBC Orchestra-commissioned Greenwood work:
So I wrote to Radiohead’s management, thinking: ‘I’m just some kid in New York with this little threadbare series. Surely Esa-Pekka Salonen and 10 other conductors and orchestras already have this in the pipeline.’ But I got an e-mail back the same day, saying, ‘No, you’re actually the first person who’s asked me about this.’ ”
I'm actually quite happy to see that the first stateside performance went to the "Wordless Music Orchestra," a superb group handpicked by Caleb Burhans and conducted by Brad Lubman. The band includes many of Caleb's Alarm Will Sound cohorts and other NYC new music specialists, most of them in their 20's and 30's -- and almost all of them Radiohead fans, I'd wager. Isn't this scenario infinitely better than the professional-but-indifferent reception (at best) or ritualized hazing (far more likely) Greenwood would have gotten from a "real" orchestra? This was one of those rare concerts of recent orchestral works where you got the sense that the players actually had some personal investment in the music. I wish this happened more frequently.
As for the pieces, I thought the Bryars was brilliant -- maybe not A Man in a Room Gambling brilliant, but The Sinking of the Titanic more than rewarded my patience by making me think differently about harmony -- as its languid progressions began to blur and seep into each other, I realized that "progression" isn't even the right word. I mean, the harmonies are mostly consonant and "tonal," I guess, but without much sense of direction. Plus, the recorded and percussive sound elements were beautifully and organically integrated into the piece (love the bells and chains at the beginning). Also, the lighting design was outstanding. More of this, please.
By contrast, Christian Zeal and Activity is almost Wagnerian in its directionality, with one suspension pulling you inexorably towards the next one in the chain. It's very pretty, but not nearly as interesting as the Bryars, and the abrupt insertion of prerecorded sound (a revival preacher's sermon) was too loud and too intrusive. And then there's that "down home" 1-5-1-5 pizz bass line, out of nowhere? Not my favorite John Adams work, I'm afraid.
In what would no doubt seem like a surprising and ironic twist -- that is, if you were an old-school classical purist so cloistered you'd never heard a Radiohead record -- the piece by the "rock star" was by far the densest, most chromatic, most challenging work on the program. Greenwood wrote 32 individual string parts, full of microtonal glisses, wide vibrato, and shimmering clusters. Johnny name-checks Penderecki's Threnody in the program notes, but mostly it came off like Ligeti in his most overtly Debussy-influenced moments -- a kind of Modernist hyper-impressionism, thick but still light and wispy.
This was fine as far as it goes, very sonorous and well-crafted -- but there were two moments in particular that really stood out: one about midway through when more familiar harmonies started to take shape below the cloud cover, and another nearer to the end, when the pizzicato strings began to generate a sense of urgency. Both felt more like Greenwood's own voice than the rest of the stuff. And both could have lasted much longer and been developed more fully -- the recap at the end came far too early and stopped the piece dead in its tracks.
Tickets to this event were provided by the Wordless Music Series.