REVIEW: MusicNow and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra—success with an asterisk

Collaboration brought changes to the festival

CINCINNATI—By now, it’s as inevitable as it is cliche´: An independent music festival becomes wildly popular, some moneyed interests bankroll the growth, and a wave of commercialism overwhelms whatever makes the festival cool in the first place.

Every spring since 2006, Bryce Dessner’s MusicNow Festival has introduced Cincinnatians to all kinds of artists and music that don’t find snug footing in any fan-friendly genre. From anecdotes I’ve heard from those who’ve attended in previous years (I lived elsewhere until last summer), MusicNow carried a loose, inspirational air. People took seats inside Memorial Hall on a first-come basis and musicians surprised audiences with unscheduled sets and jam-like performances.

Insiders with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra took keen notice in the happenings next door. The interest certainly wasn’t out of place. A number of MusicNow artists—Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and Kronos Quartet, most notably—need no introduction to classical audiences. A series of talks and the hiring of Louis Langree´ as music director formalized the merger: MusicNow 2014, for this first time, fell under the CSO’s umbrella.

The CSO’s adoption of MusicNow didn’t portend anything as dramatic as, say, the impact on SXSW of eight so-called “super sponsors.” Indeed, there were some obvious upsides. But the collaboration brought inevitable changes that couldn’t help but affect the atmosphere and the artistic offerings.

The festival, trimmed to two nights from as many as five in previous years, would move from Memorial Hall into Music Hall. Music for full orchestra, previously outside the festival’s financial scope, would now happen. By wrapping the festival into its “Boundless” subscription series, the orchestra would entice scores of subscribers who never ventured into Memorial Hall for previous versions of the festival.

The orchestra and Dessner, best known, along with his twin brother, Aaron, as guitarists for the rock band The National, collaborated to import as much of MusicNow’s charm and spirit as they could into the new festival.

Custom, illuminated artwork hung from the rafters of the lobby. Each night featured different programming, and each opened with solo artists and small ensembles you could just as easily find in the lineup for Cincinnati’s MidPoint Music Fest. One of them, the retro-radical Louisville folk artist Will Oldham—many of his fans know him as Bonnie “Prince” Billy—likely ushered in the first four-letter word ever sung on the Music Hall stage.

Of the two nights, both artistically and atmospherically, the second was considerably more interesting and successful. Only on the second night did producers put the lobby to musical use, first through the captivating, Bjork-like music of evening-opening New York solo artist Olga Bell, then at intermission with a brief jam by the Dessner brothers and drummer Bryan Devendorf of The National.

Pairing Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” with Jonny Greenwood’s “48 Responses to Polymorphia” to open Saturday’s main event was all the more brilliant for how Langree´ introduced each piece. After explaining the interpretive challenge of the music, Langree´ showed the audience poster-sized pages of the score, then handed them into the front rows to pore over and pass around as the conductor and musicians did their best to realize the composers’ unconventional notations. In Greenwood’s piece—the opening page of the score was nothing more than a page-wide oak leaf with veins running up and down.

“When I first saw it, I thought ‘How can I conduct that?’” Langree´ told the audience.

Here, Langree´ shined as an interpreter, allowing his musicians to find their own way around the score, then pulling the reins taut for a synchronous note or gesture. In Greenwood’s piece, long-held notes descend and dive-bomb onto one another as others soar behind them. Near the end, the string players dropped their bows and picked up sword-like bean pods, first running them across the strings, then striking the strings as percussion instruments before raising and shaking them as rattles with a closing crescendo. Lighting designer Meagan Metcalf bathed the stage’s backdrop in abstracted reds, peaches and blues, but it was best to experience both “Polymorphia” pieces with eyes closed.

New York City composer David Lang’s new “Mountain,” commissioned by the orchestra for the festival’s second night, is as hypnotic as you would expect from well-crafted minimalism, but also far more bold and engaging. Coupled notes and their echoes mutate over 10 minutes, with slicing strings, horns and winds marking the briefest of evolutionary steps. The piece deserves a place in the broader orchestral repertoire.

I can’t say the same for Muhly’s “Pleasure Ground,” a sung poem set to music, which the orchestra premiered as part of Friday’s program. Despite the composer’s extensive program notes—he also participated in a pre-concert talk Friday—the music came across more as a moody, droning soundtrack to the

libretto than as a distinctive piece unto itself. Perhaps I might have received it differently had it been aired by, say, a chamber opera rather than a symphonic presentation. In any setting, the verse—sung in baritone and inspired by the landscape architecture of Frederick Law Olmsted—is too flat and esoteric to sit through again.

Bryce Dessner’s “St. Carolyn by the Sea,” came across as uneven and uncertain. The Dessner brothers perform with the full orchestra, sitting where you’d normally see the principal and associate principal cellists. Their amplified Fender guitars worked best when delivering counter-punching notes against the backdrop of trilling strings, but were incongruous when joining the roiling mezzo-forte.

“Murder Ballades,” the other Dessner work performed at MusicNow, highlighted Friday’s program. It’s a string of music, written for the deft ensemble Eighth Blackbird, recalling 19th century folk songs spinning stories of murders of the day. Dessner communicates melancholy through the disjointed, swaying voices of violin and cello, uncertainty through syncopated runs of piccolo, violin and marimba and spiritual fortitude through the 16th-note call-response of violin and marimba.

In sheer virtuosity, none of the “now” pieces in this MusicNow Festival—meaning, newer works by living composers—challenged the musicians as did the older, full-bodied evening-closing pieces on each program, Scriabin’s Fourth Symphony on Friday and Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite” on Saturday. These works, rousing as they are, wouldn’t have fit the MusicNow model before its adoption by the CSO.

There was also an uneasy formality to the entire weekend. At moments, you could feel the audience wanting to applaud between movements—they did that once during Eighth Blackbird’s performance—but classical decorum and, once, the upraised arm of Langree´ discouraged them from doing so.

For the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, MusicNow was a success by almost any measure. Attendance was strong though far from full. It brought new music and collaborations to audiences and helped underscore Langree´’s pedigree as an artist of today. But for the festival, itself—and especially for audiences spoiled by the eight previous incarnations of MusicNow—only time will tell whether Dessner can retain its independent spirit.

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