Zorn marathon serves up an exhilarating feast at Miller Theater

Fri Sep 27, 2013 at 4:19 pm
A four-hour concert of John Zorn's chamber music was presented Thursday night at the Miller Theater as part of the "Zorn@60" events.

A four-hour concert of John Zorn’s chamber music was presented Thursday night at the Miller Theater as part of the “Zorn@60” events.

John Zorn began his career as an important avant-garde musician, and from there has made a remarkable journey to becoming one of the most accomplished contemporary classical composers of his generation. The proof, it if was ever needed, was the marathon concert of his chamber music at Miller Theatre Thursday night, part of the extensive New York celebrations for his 60th birthday, collectively called “Zorn@60.”

Nearly four hours of music can be exhausting, especially music as intense and packed with detail as Zorn’s, but the overall effect was actually stimulating, and even exhilarating. The thirteen works on the program were just a sampling of his prodigious output, but the concentration on music of the last three years (two pieces were from the early 2000’s, one from 2007) show how his craft has developed. This is music that is easy to admire technically, and deeply involving aesthetically.

In a word, it’s virtuosic, for both composer and performers. His mind thinks virtuosic thoughts, he’s developed virtuosic craft and cultivated long-standing relationships with virtuosic musicians who relish playing his pieces.

Zorn himself is a tremendous saxophonist and his mind is clearly packed full of an astonishing breadth of fascinating ideas. This comes out in his playing and composing. While the style of the two can be vastly different — jazz, improvisation and hard core through his horn; tonal, dissonant and atonal classical language on paper — the values are the same. Zorn expresses dense musical information with complete clarity and exact duration.

The world premieres—Hexentarot, for violin, cello and piano; Maldoror for piano, bass and drums; and The Steppenwolf for solo clarinet are demanding and thrilling works that offered some of the best music of the evening. Hexentarot was joined with Occam’s Razor for cello and piano as pieces that developed nuggets of ideas, like a glissando or a compressed half-step interval, into tremendously complex and lightning quick structures via canons.

Illuminations for piano, bass and drums, Maldoror and Ceremonial Magic for violin and drums shared the same brilliant technique that Zorn described from the stage in his role of irreverent master of ceremonies: fully notated music for the piano or violin with improvised accompaniment from bass and drums. He stated that this came from his love for the Third Stream experiments of Gunther Schuller and other musicians, but the results were far superior to anything that school produced. The piano trios especially matched Cecil Taylor’s Feel Trio for immediacy, responsiveness and intensity, and the notated music is amazingly exciting and expressive.

It helps to have musicians like pianist Stephen Gosling, violinist Chris Otto, cellist Jay Campbell, bass player Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen, who are all tremendous players. The same with clarinetist Joshua Rubin, who also paired with Campbell MacDonald for the bass clarinet duo Sortilège. That and Steppenwolf are fiendish works that call for quick and extended jumps into the altissimo register, and that alternate aggression and repose. All the virtuosic music demonstrated one of Zorn’s sounds, the sensation that the music is so expressive as to be freely improvised yet contained within rigorous structures and exacting craft that keep it incisive.

His other key sound is utter transparency of events and ideas. He has turned himself into a master orchestrator in the obvious sense of getting the most out of his instruments as well as the subtle and more important sense of putting together multiple parts while maintaining complete clarity in his ensembles. The Talea Ensemble came together in different configurations to play his pellucid and often seductive scores Missa Sine Voces (a U.S. premiere), Orphée, the New York premiere of The Temptations of St. Anthony, which he described as a mini-piano concerto, and Bateau Ivre. These pieces were attractive for their simple and assured tonality.

With more musicians, Zorn likes to take a long musical line and pass it in segments through many different instruments, often ending with the punctation mark of a percussion hit. Bateau Ivre is one of his finest compositions, an enthralling set of subtle and extended variations on a quasi-modal theme. In all his music, he ignores the standard separation of foreground and background for a through-composed sense of constant dialogue, action and reaction.

The only lesser work on the program was his Madrigals for six female voices, composed this year. In the context of his other work, the music is surprisingly four-square, with prevalent on-the-beat rhythms, expected harmonies and phrases that fit neatly into bars. Coming just before intermission at the two hour mark, the piece was a letdown. His vocal writing does not share the same craft as his instrumental pieces, but considering his progress as a composer, it’s likely just a matter of time before Zorn’s a cappella works are equally brilliant.

“Zorn@60” continues 8 p.m. tonight at Miller Theatre with Game Pieces. Saturday, Zorn’s music will be played throughout the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (free with museum admission). zornat60.com.

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