Hotel Elefant serves up an of-the-moment musical feast

Sat Oct 13, 2018 at 12:19 pm
Hotel Elefant performed Friday night at xxx.

Hotel Elefant performed Friday night at Shapeshifer Lab.

Every new music ensemble struggles within the niche culture they inhabit. So it was good to see one of the least well known in New York attract a substantial and appreciative audience to their performance Friday night at Shapeshifter Lab.

Hotel Elefant should by all rights draw a crowd; they’re not only good, they are of the moment in playing music only by living composers. And, as executive director Patrick Castillo explained from the stage, they are dedicated to bringing music to listeners by setting a pay-what-you-can admission price. What that modest cost delivered Friday was a compact, mostly strong concert of music by Annika Socolofsky, Leaha Maria Villarreal (artistic director and co-founder of the group), Philip Glass, and Chaya Czernowin.

Flutist Katie Cox played Socolofsky’s succinct, energetic solo work Bulgarious. This was a two-fisted piece that set up the listener by opening with a quiet, melancholy minor-key melody, then surprised with overblown harmonics and polyphonic vocalizing. The knockout blow came via Balkan style rhythms and recursive phrases, which Cox leaned into, playing with driving accents.

The concert was to have seen the premiere of Villarreal’s Crossing The Rubicon, but the composer herself explained that the performance was not ready. And so her 2014 Never Not was rotated in and conducted by guest artist David Bloom. This was, unfortunately, a twofold disappointment in that Never Not was unsatisfying, both in terms of the work itself and a performance that lacked some confidence and commitment.

Never Not is for an ensemble with voice and sits in an ambivalent netherworld between orchestrated song as soundtrack from a larger, unseen context, and indie-classical style contemporary music. But it’s insufficiently either; mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney’s melisma and percussionist Josh Perry’s drum playing sounded awkward against the careful, coloristic instrumentation. One thought that the music would display itself better in different company.

A quartet from the ensemble—violinists Andie Tanning Springer and Patti Kilroy, violist Beth Meyers, and cellist Caleb van der Swaagh—played Glass’s String Quartet No. 5. Together, the four made a warm, grainy sound, and layered a smooth flow on top of what are often chugging rhythms.

Glass’s quartets have a strong romantic pull to them, but the Elefant group hewed closer to the composer’s urban, glass-steel-and-concrete minimalism, letting the inherent beauty of the music come through without exaggeration. There was an impressive amount of care, feeling, and energy in the performance. There was also a precarious moment in section V, where the ensemble’s wayward intonation on the fast, up-and-down runs produced a sour, unnerving feeling, but they recovered with confidence and precision.

Czernowin forms her compositions primarily with timbres placed in the flow of time like architectural components—their accumulation culminates in an evocative alteration of the normal sense of space and time. A case in point was the combination of long tones in the bass clarinet combined with scraped drum head and piano strings that opened Ayre: Towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust, and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of, again conducted by Bloom. The title evokes a dystopian, post-apocalyptic setting in which the industrial sounds that came out of the ensemble made perfect sense.

For a while, those sounds did not seem to be building toward the self-enclosing alternate dimension that was the music’s goal. Then a bit past halfway, Cox played a brief solo on the bass flute, and that world magically appeared. An invisible penumbra cocooned musicians and audiences alike and all got to live, briefly, in Czernowin’s uniquely beautiful world.

Hotel Elefant premieres a new song cycle by Kirsten Volness December 1, time and place TBA.

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