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All-Stars sizzle; Dresher fizzles

July 11, 2010

This was an assignment for the San Diego Union-Tribune, published March 1, 1995. Rather than allow me to do separate reviews of each concert (which would have permitted me to discuss all the works on each program), my editor at the U-T wanted me to consolidate both concerts into one review, which forced me to focus on the most review-worthy works for each show and drop the others. As it turned out, these 2 events were the most noteworthy performances of the Festival (along with red fish blue fish’s performance of Drumming by Steve Reich). Everything else dissolved in a blur of high modernist works.

The appearance of BOAC All-Stars and the Paul Dresher Ensemble was very controversial at UCSD.  Sources told me that Roger Reynolds vowed to composition students that the UCSD Music Dept. would never present an ensemble like BOAC All-Stars again. This was the first time Paul Dresher had returned to the UCSD Music Dept. (he had done a production of Slow Fire courtesy of the Theater Dept. before this–but heavens forfend the Music Dept. present an opera with tunes you could dance to). I was told this review hurt him deeply, which didn’t make me happy, as I like Paul Dresher (the few times I’ve met him) and his music; in the years since, his ensemble has reached its potential for exploring music for electroacoustic instruments, but in this early concert of theirs, the gap between intent and realization was still apparent.

For comparison, check out Kyle Gann’s write-up of the Festival in the Village Voice, March 21, 1995, p. 74.

True to its title, the Emerging Voices Festival at UCSD brought two young, prominent groups to Mandeville Auditorium this weekend: the Paul Dresher Ensemble played Friday night; the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Saturday evening.

Both acts perform repertory influenced by rock and jazz. Both seek to redefine chamber musk through electronic amplification. But there the similarities end.

The Paul Dresher Ensemble was terribly disappointing. Most of the repertory was boring and displayed an unimaginative use of the ensemble’s instrumentation (violin, bassoon/clarinet, two electronic percussionists, piano/electronic keyboards and Dresher himself on keyboards and electric guitar).

The Bang On A Can All-Stars, by contrast, were the high point of the festival thus far. Their selections were strong and thoughtfully composed for the group (Evan Ziporyn, clarinets/saxes; Mark Stewart, electric guitar; Maya Beiser, cello; Lisa Moore, piano; Robert Black, contrabass/electric bass; and Steven Schick, percussion). In addition, the solo and ensemble performances were beyond reproach.

New York’s Bang On A Can Festival embraces a wide range of contemporary musical styles, but the All-Stars promoted one particular aesthetic. The works written for them displayed a steady pulse, a fundamental underlying tonality and a conscious attempt to synthesize popular music and 20th-century compositional techniques.

While many pieces heard on the Emerging Voices Festival could have been written 20 to 30 years ago, the All-Stars’ selections were unmistakably stamped by the present time and culture.

David Lang’s Press Release rapidly jumped between the high and low registers of the bass clarinet to create the illusion of two melodic entities. Audacious in its unrelenting exploration of this virtuosic compositional device, Press Release was a humorous piece shamelessly displaying Lang’s fondness for James Brown. Ziporyn gave the work a witty, persuasive reading.

In Horses of Instruction, Steve Martland threw an unending stream of eighth notes with tricky, shifting accents at the All-Stars, who negotiated this treacherous music with unswerving ferocity.

Nick Didkovsky worked with automatic composition software to produce the nine movements of Amalia’s Secret. Unlike the program’s other ensemble works, Amalia’s Secret had moments of extreme quiet and introspection. Much less obsessive than the other offerings, it was a curious assortment of odd textures and melodies that veered off on unexpected tangents, at times fascinating, at other times perplexing.

Judging from her recorded works, Julia Wolfe is much closer to mainstream musical thought than her colleagues on this program. But in Lick, she rocked with the best of them, showing a few tricks with her displaced rhythms and stabbing chords. Balances seemed unclear during tutti sections, but more than any composer that evening, Wolfe captured the brusque vitality of rock ‘n roll and transformed it into something ear-opening.

The Paul Dresher Ensemble had a more sophisticated electronic set-up than the All-Stars. But the arrangements (five of the nine pieces were transcriptions) revealed a lack of ingenuity. What’s the point of arranging a piano or percussion part to sound like sampled piano or percussion (as Dresher did in Double Ikat)? It simply makes the electronic instruments bad imitations of acoustic instruments.

Of the three works commissioned for the ensemble, only Bun-Ching Lam’s Qin 2000 displayed a combination of compositional chops and orchestral flair. Qin 2000 begins with unamplified acoustic instruments, written in a sparse, dissonant vein, and gradually becomes a bona fide rock orgy, which then subsides into a melancholy duet between a sampled Chinese string instrument and a violin processed to sound forlornly distant and thin.

Carl Stone, known primarily for his electronic music, used a computer to process an 18th-century piece in Ruen Pair. These results were converted into a score for live players, and while there were some intriguing moments, the unchanging textures quickly became monotonous. Dresher’s Din of Iniquity displayed a sure sense of orchestration, opening with long, sustained guitar notes, and concluding with a gratifying, rock-inspired guitar solo. But the form of the piece was clunky, the transitions unconvincing, and the drive to the final climax improperly paced.

One came away from Dresher’s concert brooding over the tremendous gap between the ensemble’s potential for exploring new territory and its dismal failure to realize this goal. Happily, one left the Bang On A Can All-Stars invigorated by the positive vision of an innovative chamber ensemble and a vital, original style of composition.

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