Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review: International Contemporary Ensemble performs George Lewis's "Soundlines"

Peep: Shick and Lewis trying to explain the meaning of music
in half an hour, in terms that a middle schooler could understand

WHO: International Contemporary Ensemble; Vimbayi Kaziboni, conductor; Steven Schick, percussion and orator
WHAT: GEORGE LEWIS Soundlines; P. Multitudinis
WHERE: Skirball Center for the Performing Arts @ NYU
WHEN: October 18, 2019 at 7:30pm

One of my friends told me I should drop everything to see this concert. By the time he finished telling me why, my tickets were already bought. I'm easily swayed.

The first amazing thing about this concert was the sheer density of objects and individuals onstage. In addition to the large Skirball stage, a large vertical platform stood front and center -- the kind of platform off of which I flung (and broke) a bow in my freshman year of high school while playing in the orchestra for Pippin. (That was my second broken bow that year. I broke the first by literally sitting on it during an orchestra rehearsal. I was a clumsy child.)

Spilling out of the pitch-black underbelly of said raised platform was a smattering of unusual percussion instruments -- drums, various shakers and rainsticks and whatnot. The conductor sat in the partially-lowered orchestra pit, visible to both those on the platform and on the stage. Basically, I'm trying to say that the setup was weird.

Within the first few measures of Soundlines, two LED panels lit up the dark underside of the platform, revealing the rest of the percussion setup surrounding a blank-faced Steven Schick.

Schick proceeded to tell the tale of an artistic mission upon which he embarked a few years ago: a daring seven-hundred-mile walk from San Diego to San Francisco. George Lewis designates his musical setting of Schick's memoir as a melodrama, but Schick's performance was anything but hyperdramatic. His face remained largely neutral through the piece, one of the more impressive feats of solo performance I've seen in the last year.

Lewis used the vast percussion set to emphasize Schick's oration syllable-for-syllable -- that was where the melodrama of this piece came from. The instrumental accents did not always match the syllable stress of the speech. That was part of the fun. Schick took it all in stride. His body was one, and the hands that operated the mallets were one with the mouth that narrated.

The rest of the ensemble snuck onstage at the end of the piece, and they seamlessly transitioned into P. Multitudinis, more a soundscape than a piece with distinct melody and harmony. The musicians were divided into distinct instrumental groups -- a wind quintet atop the platform, a string quartet stage right, a pianist stage left, a couple of hodgepodge ensembles in the side balconies. Each group had some discrete number of musical modules to play; it wasn't clear exactly how they decided when to switch, but from what I could tell motion was predicated on finger-numbers and Macarena-like hand signals. Conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni kept things moving by slinking around between groups, checking in as a waiter does on a table of guests. Amusing, and who am I to argue with results?

And the best thing about it all was the speech that George Lewis gave afterwards. He was very, very happy. And for me, that enhances the experience so very much. Satisfied composer + satisfied audience = satisfied critic.

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