String Orchestra of Brooklyn wraps season with trumpets and an ode to “Florida man”

Sun Jun 09, 2019 at 12:26 pm
Theo Beckmann (right) performed the world premiere of "Florida Man" by Phil Kline (left) Saturday night with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn.

Theo Beckmann (right) performed the world premiere of “Florida Man” by Phil Kline (left) Saturday night with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn.

The terrific ensemble, the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, concluded their current season at Roulette Saturday night with a concert that delivered two world premieres and a piece from a composer desperately in need of wider recognition.

The program was Gregory Spears’ Concerto for Two Trumpets and Strings, Florida Man, a new collaboration from composer Phil Kline and vocalist Theo Bleckmann (both premieres), and a performance of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerilla.

Spears’ music has consistently shown he values beauty, in the sense of sonic richness and the fulfillment of consonant harmonies, and the concerto was built on those qualities. The four movements alternated tempos (slow-fast-slow-fast) and tonalities (minor-major-minor-major), concurrently. The two soloists were Brandon Ridenour, who commissioned the piece through the BMI Foundation and Concert Artists Guild, and Andy Kozar.

The strongest impression came from the slow, minor key movements. There was a sense of care, writing that had the two trumpeters matching not only each other’s intonation but fitting that perfectly into sustained chords in the orchestra, conducted by Eli Spindel. During such stretches in the first and third movements, the concentration of the musicians was clear as they worked together to build gorgeous chords that mixed the orchestra’s grain with the bright delicacy of the trumpets.

The sheer sound of the SOB and the trumpeters was a pleasure, and Ridenour and Kozar played with great precision and balancing of tone and dynamics.

The fast, major key movements didn’t have the same satisfaction. With them, the concerto gave a strong impression that Spears was fond of minor keys while dutiful about major ones, and in the finale, which was primarily a series of descending major scales, the music had more a sense of an obligation to finish than real purpose.

Kline and Bleckmann have already collaborated on the imaginary Sinatra of Out Cold and Zippo Songs, a real masterpiece of contemporary classical music. The two share not only high artistry but a taste for the art song that puts an emphasis on song, rather than art, eschewing  literary poetry for vernacular language and sentiments.

And what better source than “Florida man,” that court buffoon of the American scene? Of Kline’s four songs in the piece, three of them were built from news story headlines about Florida man’s escapades (the other song, the first in the set, was a delicate, ballad-like arrangement by Kline of Iggy and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”).

There was some kind of alchemy in the mix of Bleckmann’s utterly clear, lovely voice—much of the material made use of his superb falsetto—and the plain, weird language of the words. “Search and Destroy,” in particular, had an uncanny, haunting effect. In Kline’s original songs, lines like “Florida man shot by dog,” “Florida man tasered after naked marriage proposal goes so wrong,” “Waffles and WiFi,” and “Drive baked, get busted” were often hilarious but also tender and human.

Florida Man is real art offering real songs. Kline’s basic and elegant foundation—tonal harmonies and harmonic/melodic/rhythmic combinations that hit the pop-song sweet-spot where a phrases descends onto a downbeat—opened up many layers of meaning, all of them pointing toward tragedy. Yet at the end one felt great empathy toward Florida man. The last line of the final song began “Florida woman who caught husband cheating takes dump on floor / what was I / what was I.” Caught in Kline’s lovely trap, the sensitive listener already filled in the heartache before Bleckmann sang it; “supposed to do?”

Gay Guerilla is the least provocative title the late Eastman used in a series of pieces that mine racist (and other) slurs to mock their power and that of the bigots who used them. It is also one of a series of pieces that showed Eastman’s original approach to minimalism—there is pulse and repetition, and also an organic and quasi-open process of development. 

Part of that was his compositional idea of using previous material as the roots for new musical ideas within the same piece, a kind of minimalism as variation, and part was his own intuition about music. 

Eastman was an immensely talented performer, with a classic recording of Peter Maxwell Davie’s Eight Songs for a Mad King to his credit, and jazz and popular music were integrated into his life. As a composer, he was something of a classical version of Charles Mingus, working out music in notation but also using oral tradition to train his performers.

Beyond the tragedy of his death at 49 from a combination of drug addiction and likely mental illness, a substantial amount of his work was lost for a time when he was evicted from his New York City apartment. The ongoing gradual revival of his work has depended on people who knew him personally and his work. That includes composer Mary Jane Leach, especially, as well as performers who learned from Eastman and can pass on the “how,” pianist Adam Tendler’s word for the music’s specific performing requirements.

Tendler guided the SOB in preparing Gay Guerilla directly from Eastman’s manuscript. Usually presented with four pianos, Eastman was heard in recorded remarks played before Saturday’s performance saying it could played any group of similar melodic instruments, and this was probably the first done by a string ensemble.

Hopefully there will be more. The means of production, bow attacking string, made for a forward flow and an inexorable rising shape that built up to a thrilling and moving experience. After the extended, delicate introduction that starts with a single pitch, the music develops into an explosive, Beethovenian interpolation of the Luther hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and something that had been abstract became personal and powerful. As Eastman could be heard saying, he titled the piece “In hopes I might be called on” to fight for gay liberation, and Gay Guerilla did strike a resounding blow.


One Response to “String Orchestra of Brooklyn wraps season with trumpets and an ode to “Florida man””

  1. Posted Jun 10, 2019 at 9:16 pm by Tom Rowan

    Excellent concert. Glad I was there. The pieces were beautifully done. Each telling a very compelling story. BSO is great!

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