Thursday, May 22, 2014

Winged Victory

There's an exciting new development in my Hoya plant in the form of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.  Nature imitates art:

Latoya's sixth and seventh leaves can be seen sprouting toward the right side of the picture in something of a V.

My Hoya's parent plant has the decidedly more exciting development of blossoms, but replicas of ancient sculpture will do for now.

Friday, May 16, 2014

TAY-huh-LEEM (a concert review)

Last night, my friend Mark treated me to a concert at Columbia University's Miller Theater.  The concert, which closed out the venue's 25th anniversary season, was third of three in their Bach, Revisited series in which a composer is invited to curate an evening of music, pairing a Bach work with one of their own.  Steve Reich was the illustrious guest last night, and the program featured Bach's fourth cantana, Christ lag in Todes Banden, and Reich's Tehillim.

I've known and loved Tehillim since my college days, when I would use it to drown out the noise in my dorm before going to sleep (minimalism is generally good for that).  The concert put an end to 15 years of speculation as to how the title of the piece is pronounced.  I'd settled on teh-HEE-lum (like "tequila" with a 'h' instead of the q and an /m/ at the end), but Reich removed all doubt when he referred to it as TAY-huh-LEEM.  It will be an adjustment for me, but I never really said it out loud much anyway.

The performing group was Ensemble Signal, which was excellent, and a little funky.  I say "a little" funky because while most of the ensemble was dressed in standard concert black, two of the female singers styled themselves so as to ensure that they were the center of attention (at least during the Bach).  If I attempt to describe their styles I will inevitably sound like a dweeb, so let me just say their hairstyles were edgy and one of them was wearing turquoise eye shadow.

The Bach was beautiful and immaculately performed.  Each verse (of seven) ended with a "hallelujah" text, which provided some connection to the Reich piece later (although the likeness that Reich highlighted in his pre-intermission discussion was the practice of doubling a vocal line with an instrument).  I'd never heard the piece before (or any of the cantatas, that I recall).  I really loved it and I'll be checking out more cantatas (when I have the time).

There was a brief moment of humor/frustration when Steve Reich took the stage for his talk, owing to technical difficulties.  First the director of the theater spoke, and then Reich came out and started speaking but the volume was very low.  I could tell that his voice was being amplified, but he just didn't seem to be speaking loudly enough into the mike.  After trading mikes with a few other people on stage to no avail, the conductor finally gestured that he should move the mike closer to his mouth, and that solved the problem much to the audience's delight and relief.

Whereas the Bach was scored for six strings players, an organ, and four singers, Tehillim added winds and percussion, and consumed the entire stage.  The singers were pushed to the back where you could still see them, but center of attention shifted from them to the physical center of the stage where, a few minutes into the piece, a percussionist rose from his seat and began playing the maracas.  Yes, the maracas were the star of the second half of this program.  The maracas played steady sixteenth (or possibly even thirty-second) notes for most of the first and I think all of the second movements.  He sat out the third movement (rather, he played a different instrument) but was back for the fourth.  I'm afraid I'm not really conveying how impressive this was.  Imagine shaking maracas just about as fast as you can for a solid fifteen minutes, holding that tempo and dynamic for the entire time.  You couldn't do it.  Your arms would fall off or you'd go insane.

I don't want this review to get much longer, so I'll close by saying what an exhilarating experience it was to witness Tehillim live in concert.  A performance of this piece is an amazing feat, considering its rhythmic difficulty alone.  I tried to watch the conductor to get a sense of the meter but I just couldn't keep up.  The singers sing in a round for part of the first movement, but even watching from my seat I still couldn't isolate their voices.  It was amazing, as probably everyone else in the room can agree with the possible exception of one woodwind player who sat there with her arms folded across her chest, alternating between scowling and nodding off.

Steve Reich. Photo credit: Jeffrey Herman, found here.