this is much less heavily edited than my usual writing. it’s also the first time i’ve tried writing about a non-classical show.
Those unfamiliar with Bang On a Can All-Stars would not have been able to tell what they were about to hear from the cornucopia of instruments strewn around the stage of Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel on February 28. A cello and bass lay on their sides, an electric guitar sat on a stand, and a playground of percussion occupied more space than your average New York studio apartment. Is the All-Stars really a “contemporary classical” (those dreaded two words) group? Is it a rock band? Will guitarist Mark Stewart ever lose his long mane of formerly red, now grey, hair? After over 20 years, these questions remain unanswered.
One certainty: Bang on a Can All-Stars is a group of musicians with an electrifying stage presence. They have a self-possessed but rarely complacent vibe about them, confidently skipping through time signatures and harmonies, always conveying the joy they take in sharing their bright, colorful music with their audience.
The group has gone through numerous personnel changes (only Stewart and bassist Robert Black remain of the original lineup), performed countless concerts, premiered bucketfuls of new works, and even transformed into cartoon characters for an appearance on PBS’s Arthur. Their brand of post-minimalism sometimes seems as set in stone as sonata form, but just as there are very good sonatas, there is very good post-minimalism.
Review by Zoë Madonna
I’ve been thinking a lot about snow lately. It’s hard not to, these days. Ever since my final semester at Oberlin started, the campus has been buried in the stuff. The wind just begins to blow the trees bare or the temperature pushes just high enough for the snow to start melting, but then the clouds gather again and yet another new blanket falls.
The Formalist Quartet – Mark Menzies, violin/viola; Andrew Tholl, violin; Andrew McIntosh, violin/viola; Ashley Walters, cello – performed February 4 in Oberlin College’s Warner Concert Hall, with fresh, cold powder blowing outside.
From the outside, the music the ensemble performs might all look similar – a white haze of loud pops and jarring rasps with the occasional smirk of tonality thrown in for good measure. Once you take a walk through it, or dip your fingers in ungloved, or throw yourself in backwards with your arms spread out, then you will begin to see how many textures it has to offer. No microscope needed.
Written as an assignment in early December
It was late November, and 21-year-old composer Tian Yoon Teh was feeling the Ohio cold. She
unwrapped herself from multiple layers, including a marshmallow-esque blue
jacket and many scarves, before she sat down, grinning wide.
first annual freshman composers’ concert is not usually an event people feel
they missed out on should they not attend. It’s lengthy, it’s typically at a
busy time, and each piece must be for one instrument. Recently, the new class
presented works for violin, guitar, cello, and bells, among other things –
another year, another first module.
No one expected to be plunged into
another plane of existence, but Tian took us there. Last on the long program,
she performed Manifested Silence, her
work for “human body“ incorporating vocalization, movement, and body
percussion. The house lights dimmed. Dressed in a simple white tank top and
black leggings, she crouched with her back to the audience, arms raised and
pointed at the ceiling, exploring the reaches of her voice as she slowly turned
around. Just as she faced us full on, something snapped and she fell to
the ground over and over again, letting the sound of her own body’s impact echo
through the room. Her clear, sweet voice was in constant flux, from prayer-like
chants to guttural drags to high yelps and all the spaces in between. Though it
was the longest work on the program, it seemed to be over in a flash. It was
raw, original, and self-aware on a level rarely breached in the work of veteran
composers, let alone first year undergraduates.
Tian shook her head when asked how
her work is so far advanced from those of her fellow first years, chalking it
up to more time on the earth and therefore more time to study. (She attended a
local college in her native Malaysia for composition and voice before starting
at Oberlin; she continues to sing here as a member of Collegium Musicum.) “I have taught, and took a gap
year to work as an admin in a music school, and I was also involved in theater
productions,” she explained. “As for why I came here, there aren’t many places
that offer a college as well as a conservatory. I was looking for music within
a university and I only found that in the USA. Everything else is straight to
The professional track’s loss is Oberlin’s gain. Tian defines
herself as a “jack of all trades and a master of jack,” but the thought she
puts into her compositions and performances shows otherwise. Her previous
projects include a solo recital about seven facades of a person, the last of
those being “the emptiness and nothingness that allows creation to happen.”
And she has some big plans. “I do believe that when we get
different people and talents together, something can work out. We’re fighting
against TV, which is multi-stimulus,” she said. “I’m looking into a project
revolving around veils and voices, especially those that aren’t always heard.
Veils would be incorporated through dance, through art – veils can be concrete
but also abstract, the covers under which everyone hides. I see that sometimes
a composer’s role can be to provide the platform, the canvas and outline to bring
different people together.”
As personal influences, she cites Mongol, Tibetan, and
Chinese music, and Sanskrit chants. “I am by no means a representation of the
tribes themselves, or the culture, or where they come from. It’s a
re-contextualization,” she said. “I take penmanship: I don’t take ownership of
“Ideally, I would sit down and
compose at the same time every day,” she said when asked about her work
process. “But I am not the only one at work here, and I rely on the messages of
what I tune into in my environment to know where to go and what to manifest.
Sometimes an idea will come and I’ll just drop everything and follow it.” She
laughed. “Last time that happened I staged an hour and a half show in two
months. I’m not sure I want to do that again.”
Tian’s next creation will be
performed at Oberlin on December 13th.
Oberlin College’s Kulas Recital Hall can be a dangerous place on a November Sunday afternoon. The lights are dim, the seats are on the cushy side, and the heat just a shade too warm: in other words, a perfect environment for a nap. This, however, was not the case when historical performance ensemble REBEL came to town on the 23rd with their program of 17th and 18th century works. From the first note to the last, the hall was wholly awake.
The ensemble took only an instant to breathe after each movement before joyfully launching into the next one, continually conveying spontaneity without noticeable rough edges. They immediately found the groove of each piece, starting and finishing phrases in perfect time without any trace of stuffiness or stiffness. Endings of movements were also quick and vivacious, eschewing the deep curtseys so common in the codas of Baroque performance. Despite the number of works on the program, the concert lasted only an hour.
Communication within the ensemble was uncannily excellent. Violinists Jorg-Michael Schwarz and Karen Marie Marmer were in sync and in tune, even through the most impossibly frenetic, high runs of Biagio Marini’s Sonata sopra la Monica, Op. 8. Violoncellist John Moran’s back was to harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, but during the wild Allemanda of Corelli’s Sonata, Op. 4, No. 8,they may as well have melded minds.
The ensemble played together on all the pieces except for a performance of Domenico Gabrielli’s Sonate a Violoncello solo from Moran and Shin. Moran’s slow and soft sections flowed, bending the written rhythms without veering into faux-Romantic rubato territory. In faster, louder sections, the sound balance tipped in favor of the harpsichord, and the cello sounded slightly pushed.
Overall, the repertoire choices and performance style favored light and sprightly over heavy and slow. The lightning-fast transition from the second movement Vivace to the third movement Presto of Telemann’s Sonate Corellisante V was a surging rush of masterfully controlled energy. Only in William Boyce’s Sonata V in D did the group’s performance veer towards generic and polite, and the cookie-cutter piece was just as much at fault for that.
Vivaldi’s Sonata Op. 1, 12 ‘La Follia’ starts out as a simple thread of a tune and turns into a bright gem, catching the light in a different way by the moment – a slow waltz, a lively dance, a mad dash. In the home stretch, Marmer and Schwarz traded the melody back and forth so smoothly and seamlessly that the two moving bows on stage were the only indication there were two players instead of one. The program tied up with a winkingly melodramatic, drawn-out final note, and the faces of musicians and audience alike broke into the kind of exuberant smiles more often seen on a returning roller coaster than in Kulas Recital Hall.
I went to go see a bunch of historical performance tricksters give a mini-concert tonight. They didn’t give out programs, and whether or not they announced what they were about to play was a toss-up throughout. I was writing blind impressions down, and looking at them now, it seems those raw thoughts untethered to a composer’s name, a country, or anything are going to be pretty helpful nevertheless (or perhaps because of?) But we’ll see about that after I write something.
The Calder Quartet is a restless bunch. Formed at the University of Southern California, it regularly commissions new works and seeks out new venues for performance and outreach. The repertoire for their November 18concert in Oberlin Conservatory’s small Kulas Recital Hall was surprisingly conservative for a Calder concert, consisting of two Brahms quintets with two Oberlin professors.
No matter the size of the hall or feeling of the music, the Calders play vehemently, pushing the capabilities of the score. Their style of sharp attacks and angular phrases well suited the aggressive first movement of the String Quintet No. 2. Cellist Eric Byers’s opening solo in particular sounded pleasingly caffeinated without tearing out of the time signature. However, the ensemble took the same approach to the slow second movement, which created unsettling disconnects between the phrases and the musicians. This was especially noticeable when the melody was passed back and forth across the stage between first violinist Benjamin Jacobson and violist Jonathan Moerschel. The third movement’s seams were smoother, and the fourth movement was energetic and fun with a delightful helping of bravado on top.
Oberlin viola professor Michael Strauss was a fine addition to the ensemble for that piece. He blended with the Calder musicians so effortlessly that I, having not seen the ensemble up close before, mistook Moerschel for the guest.
The front row of the small hall filled up with Oberlin clarinet students at intermission, all eager to see their teacher, Richard Hawkins, perform the Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. The opening bars were once again too aggressive for the reflective piece. But from the moment Hawkins joined in, a calming color mixed into the sound, as if flowing out of the bell of the brown clarinet. Hawkins’s gentle, melancholy tone and smooth phrasing arcs guided the strings down Brahms’s path, from which they strayed not too often.
Those who say that no instrument can ever be more evocative than the human voice have probably never heard Hawkins play. His interpretation of the second movement was heartbreakingly human in a way words are insufficient to describe. The string players reflected and intensified the clarinet’s expressions, finally seeming to learn that serenity does not necessarily equate to complacence.
There was nothing that wouldn’t have felt like an afterthought after that second movement, but the last two movements were pleasant afterthoughts, with some more fluid dialogues between first violin and clarinet. In keeping with the second movement’s atmosphere, the unexpectedly loud string chord at the finale rested firmly on the ground, unlike the usual Calder style of launching such sudden moves into the air with a bright zing.
The Calders are a prominent presence in the current movement for progressivism and relevance in classical music, and they take pride in their energetic performances. However, constant harsh phrases and growling strings are not passports to relevance. Considering how they responded and connected with Hawkins, perhaps they just needed a little reminder that sometimes it’s okay to be sweetly sad, especially if you’re a German Romantic.