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Posts by Anuj Bhutani

Meredith Monk and the Bang on a Can All-Stars present an unforgettable evening at The Ford with MEMORY GAME

photo credit: Anuj Bhutani

On a perfectly mild LA night, the stage at the Ford is bathed in blue light and awaiting the entrance of the legendary Meredith Monk and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. The All-Stars enter and, without any pause, launch into the first song of MEMORY GAME, Meredith Monk’s 2020 album featuring her vocal ensemble as well as the All-Stars, with arrangements by Bang on a Can founders Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang, as well as veteran All-Star member Ken Thomson and Monk herself with Allison Sniffin (Monk Vocal Ensemble member). Like most of the pieces to follow, “Spaceship” (arrangement by Gordon) begins with gently repetitive ostinati by Thomson and pianist/keyboardist Vicky Chow. The way the ensemble blends and trades their ostinati is beautifully characteristic of Gordon’s orchestration style, and reminds this writer of his “Gene Takes a Drink” (also written for the All-Stars) at more than one moment.

As thunderous applause breaks out, Monk, dressed in all red, enters the stage with her vocal ensemble (Theo Bleckmann, Allison Sniffin, and Katie Geissinger). She introduces the next set of songs from her 1983 sci-fi opera “The Games,” which she wrote in West Berlin while hearing missiles firing overhead just before the Olympics. Monk explains the piece is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the survivors are either on a spaceship or possibly another planet, and have rituals to remember “Earth culture.” As the piece is about “the aesthetics of fascism”, this post-apocalyptic society also features a leader who seems like a rockstar but is actually a dictator (portrayed by Theo Bleckmann on stage).

This becomes perfectly clear during The Gamemaster’s Song, during which Bleckmann’s character slowly descends deeper into caricature through increasingly comic choreography over carnival-esque instrumentals. Bleckmann’s portrayal is so convincing it becomes easy to forget for a large portion of the piece that this character is a dictator, until three-quarters of the way through when Bleckmann slowly introduces a degree of audible menace into the otherwise cartoonish vocalizations meant to lure unsuspecting citizens of this surviving society.

“Migration” follows with a stark change of mood, introduced by the vocal ensemble and Chow in firmly minor territory and wordless “wahs,” before Arlen Hlusko renders a beautiful cello melody that makes the melancholy feeling complete. Eventually, Bleckmann speaks about pre-apocalyptic Earth and those who lived there, comparing those humans to these in a new society. As a testament to the inevitable displacement of peoples due to fascism/dictatorships, “Migration” is deeply effective and is both the most somber and the most moving piece on the program.

The rest of the Games set is no less stunningly executed by this group of legendary musicians in variable ensemble configurations, before Allison Sniffin and Vicky Chow deliver a sort of nonsense aria for voice and electric piano; this is “Waltz in 5s” from “The Politics of Quiet” (arr. Sniffin and Monk). “Waltz” is the second most somber piece next to Migration, and though wordless, Sniffin’s soaring and rich voice fills the air with nostalgia. Before “Tokyo Cha Cha” from Turtle Dreams Cabaret (arr. Sniffin), Monk explains this song was written after her first trip to Japan, during which she expected to be deeply inspired by
the ancient Japanese culture she always loved, but instead found herself fascinated by the techno-futuristic culture of Tokyo. The song slowly builds from just “s-s-s-ch-ch-ch-“ vocalizations by the vocal ensemble to unapologetically fun grooves carried by the entire ensemble, complete with shakers, relaxed guitar by veteran All-Star Mark Stewart, vocalists chanting “let’s cha-cha, you happy, let’s cha-cha, all happy…” and fittingly adorable choreography. At this point, it becomes hard to believe Monk is 80 years old, as she sings and moves with such passion and ease around the stage.

“Totentanz” from Impermanence (arr. Lang) is only the second piece that allows the vocalists to take a break, as the All-Stars delve into the rock groove-oriented and syncopated arrangement by Lang featuring Stewart playing a rock kick drum as well as guitar. The last official piece on the bill (and album) is “Double Fiesta” from Acts from Under and Above and immediately begins with an incredible show of vocal fireworks from Monk as she leaps from register to register with acrobatic precision on a myriad of syllables one could believe were improvised, if they weren’t also the same on album recording. By the end of the song, after Monk has told us a story about meeting “a very nice girl”, the band is rocking out while the entire vocal ensemble slowly enters the stage and starts dancing; it is near impossible to not have a smile plastered on your face (assuming you haven’t already audibly laughed multiple times).

As the first in a series of encores, Monk offers “Panda Chant” with the entire ensemble standing in a line, singing, stepping in rhythm, and clapping, which the audience absolutely goes wild for. She then proceeds to the hilarious “Education of the Girlchild” in which she very convincingly adopts an old crone voice to portray an old woman bargaining with death and boasting about still having her “pens, mind, money under the bed, telephone, allergies…” among other things. The final encore consisted of a true Monk solo called “Insect Descending”, which she wrote while in New Mexico during the 70s. As if the audience wasn’t astonished enough already by the seemingly inexhaustible catalog of vocal sounds Monk has access to, “Insect Descending” really does sound just like what it’s called, and proved to be a hilarious and succinct treat to this tight 75-minute program that left the audience uplifted and energetic; an experience we won’t soon forget.

MEMORY GAME is both a look back at a pivotal point in Meredith Monk’s storied career, and a richly layered portrait of how vocal music—under the guidance of an indefatigable master—can play with our expectations in poignant and compelling ways. For this journey, Monk and her ever-versatile vocal group join forces with Bang on a Can All-Stars, whose “lean, emphatic, and muscular execution suits the precision of Monk’s writing perfectly” (The Wire).

8:00pm. Thursday Aug 31, 2023 at The Ford LA (2580 Cahuenga Blvd E, Los Angeles, CA 90068)

The Revolution Will Not be Televised: T@MS presents an evening of ‘canceled’ string orchestra pieces

photo: Sydney Krantz and Brightwork newmusic

It’s a little after 8pm at Monk Space, where the final and sold-out show of this year’s Tuesdays at Monk Space (T@MS) is about to take place. The orchestra heads from the back of the narrow hall to the blue-lit stage, single-file, through the center of the packed crowd, trying not to hit anyone with their instruments. Anthony Parnther greets an audience of “a lot of familiar faces” brimming with anticipation as he explains in a rich baritone that the pieces to be played on tonight’s concert were all ones he had previously agreed to conduct elsewhere, but for some reason or another (“politics or something else”) were canceled. The title for the evening’s concert is already starting to reveal its relevance.

Carlos Simon’s “Elegy: A Cry From the Grave” is the first piece on the program, and is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown; three names that ring out with a lot of impact since the events of the summer of 2020 and the BLM movement. Parnther introduces the piece with all the gravitas one would expect given the subject matter, but also lets the audience know that the piece is more “optimistic in tone” than one might expect. Indeed, between the lush, romantic melodies; exuberant outbursts from the cellos on top of violin tremolos, and dramatic swells that suddenly become silence, Elegy does seem to suggest a sort of peace as it lands on its final major chord after several quasi-Romantic harmonic shifts.

Perhaps one of the most delightful moments of the evening happened when Parnther introduced the second piece, Leilehua Lanzilotti’s “with eyes the color of time,” for which she was named a Finalist in the Pulitzer Prize competition last year. To Parnther’s surprise, Lanzilotti was present in the audience, which was even more special because this was apparently only the second group ever to perform the piece live. Lanzilotti explained that each movement of the piece is named after a work of art that used to be in the now-closed Contemporary Art Museum of Honolulu, where she would run around as child because their apartment was too small. As each movement played, a picture of the corresponding artwork was projected overhead. For this writer who has known Lanzilotti virtually for several years, and has adored this piece ever since finding the score-follower video, this really was the perfect way to experience the piece live for the first time. The viola’s sul pont. long tones and 4-3 suspensions that open the piece made the entire room suddenly feel enchanted, as if the entire audience was holding their breath. Over the next six movements, Parnther and the orchestra adeptly execute the wild variety of string colors
that is so emblematic of Lanzilotti’s music, from scratching sounds and pitches so faint the audience almost wondered if they were real, to full on sul pont bariolage by the violins that get disrupted by the cellos violently throwing their bows against the strings, and (spoiler alert!) the percussion and vocal hums that are sure to catch an audience at a string orchestra concert off-guard. After all, she’s somewhat of an authority on wild sounds. A long line of fans waits to greet Lanzilotti (including yours truly), many telling her how deeply the piece affected them as we break for intermission.

After intermission, Parnther’s own work (from which the evening’s title was taken) throws politics back in to focus. He explains “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” takes its name from the 1971 poem by Gil Scott-Heron, and both the poem and tonight’s namesake are addressing the state of affairs in the country at the time; namely, that we are currently watching a slide into fascism take place in the US. Amidst the recent smattering of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, both this work and the evening’s theme as a whole suddenly take on a painful poignance. Thankfully, Parnther offers us another moment of levity with effortless charisma before introducing Dwight Trible, the narrator joining the orchestra for this piece. As a mellow percussion beat takes hold, the strings enter with frantic glissandi, before Trible begins powerfully narrating over angular pizzicato and vocal “ch-“ sounds from the orchestra. Suddenly, the entire orchestra builds to a frenzy as Trible booms “will NOT be televised” repeatedly, before stopping on a dime, and then a final growl from Trible: “The revolution will be LIVE!”. The audience appears to agree as they uproariously applaud.

The final piece is an arrangement of Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony in C Minor” by Barshai. Unusual in that of the five movements, three are “Largo”, the Chamber Symphony, as Parnther explains, was written by Shostakovich for string quartet in 3 days while living in Dresden, Germany in 1960 and is dedicated to victims of fascism and war. He explains that this piece contains several allusions to previous works, and asks the first violinist (Alyssa Park) to play Shostakovich’s name motif for the audience “D-Eb-C-B” or “Dssch” in German. The name motive does indeed permeate most of the piece quite audibly, opening the first movement before Park’s haunting, highly chromatic violin solo over the rest of the orchestra suspended on one note. The second movement begins furiously with wild runs and repeated, screeching downbows that recall Hermann’s score for Psycho and is the first real head-banger of the evening. In the following movements, the orchestra moves seamlessly through off-kilter waltzes (2 nd mvmt), violently repeated chords in bursts of 3 (4 th mvmt), before Park begins the 5 th movement with
another solo answered by the low strings. The cellos eventually circle back to the name motive, which begins to disintegrate, and the ensemble seems to evaporate on its last D-Eb half-step. A tremendous accomplishment for Parnther, this entire roster of string players, and a triumphant season finale for T@MS, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised will also not be forgotten anytime soon by those who were lucky enough to witness it.

Conductor, Music Director, and Bassoonist Anthony Parnther curates an evening at T@MS for conducted string orchestra featuring music inspired by courage, strength, and resistance to oppression.

8:00pm. Tuesday Jun 26, 2023