Tri-Centric Orchestra Commissioning Series at Roulette

Kurt Gottschalk BY

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The Tri-Centric Orchestra
Tri-Centric Orchestra Commissioning Series
Brooklyn, NY
Sept. 24-25, 2013

Addressing the audience at Roulette on Sept. 24, halfway through the first of two nights of the Tri-Centric Presenting Series, trumpeter and foundation executive director Taylor Ho Bynum acknowledged the influence of Artistic Director and spiritual godfather Anthony Braxton.

"Anthony Braxton often brings up the idea of scale," he said. "He wants to work solo, he wants to do orchestral work, he wants to do operas, he wants to do string quartets."

Such could be taken as the model for the two nights at as well, which included four works for large ensembles (including the premiere performance of Braxton's 1973 Composition No. 27), an electroacoustic trio led by Steve Lehman and an ambitious staging of a horn quartet by Chris Jonas.

The first night opened with Questions of Transfiguration an expansive work by Bynum played by a 27-piece orchestra with 10 vocalists and led by Bynum and two other conductors. Bynum isn't one to shy away from lush harmonies, whether in the vernacular of big band jazz or 19th Century classicism, and here he staged a full house of it: a string ensemble, another of wind and brass and a vocal choir laid on top of one another as if by chance. There was good bit of jazz in the horns (reasonable, perhaps, since that's Ho Bynum's family), a cinematic sensibility to the strings and an unmistakeable operatic angle in the voices with decelerated passages where the lines would be blurred. There was a strong through logic (if multi-linear) but at the same time the piece felt as if it could have starte or stopped at any point.

The big ensemble (which included among its ranks violinist Jason Kao Hwang, violist Jessica Pavone, tubist Jay Rozen, bassist Carl Testa, cellist Tomas Ulrich, trumpeter Nate Wooley and vocalists Kyoko Kitamura, Anne Rhodes and Kamala Sankaram) became a more unified front for Mark Taylor's It's Not Like He's Never Been There Before which laid a rhythmic foundation under orchestration reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and sometimes incongruous layers, at length wandering toward dissonant passages and bold unison lines.

Ingrid Laubrock's Vogelfrei had the vocalists hissing and whispering, circling the floor and balcony, and strings descending on the lower level, all cutting a slow to the stage. A bed of ethereal tones supported quick melody lines and isolated notes leaping from the mix. The piece worked as a massive incline, volume, tempo and density building to full throttle with surprising vocal and percussion interjections. It was a fast ride full of hills and swerves but was surprisingly cohesive, ultimately collapsing into a single viola trill.

The second set began with what was surely the most anticipated of the six pieces on the program, Braxton's Composition No. 27, the first time it has been performed in the 40 years since he wrote it. And it was amazing to hear how immediately apparent his syntax was, even against the passage of time. Brisk, staccato lines fluttered over a sustained tones. A brief doubling of phrases was incised into a succession of undulations. It was centered but the center kept shifting, neither particle nor wave. And even with the egalitarian anarchist bent of his music, the phraseology remains strikingly Braxton. Where there may have been murikiness at some other points during the night, every second of the Braxton was imbued with intention. The music broke down frequently and only momentarily, soloists (of a sort) gave no indication as to where the music would go next—and of course it didn't matter because the thread was continuous, culminating in a few succinct group phrases.

Night two brought two smaller but no less ambitious projects to the stage. Chris Jonas's GARDEN II: House put four horns (Jonas on soprano sax, Chris DiMeglio on trumpet and Dan Blacksburg and Chris McIntyre on trombone) inside three scrim walls, leaving them partially obscured from the audience and allowing video to be projected in front of them, behind them and onto them all at once. The video was generally abstract, often out of focus human figures, the music reminiscent of his old New York band The Sun Spits Cherries or a sort of cold-brewed New Orleans brass band. As the music became more animated, so did the projections, jumping between screens and flowing across the width of the theater in a fascinating abstract synchronization. Saxophonist Steve Lehman played from his Mise en Abîme set of compositions with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and James Hurt on piano, all three also employing electronics and indeed there was a certain dissonance in seeing all three working their laptops with acoustic instruments in their hands. But there were sections of acoustic playing always well, including a fired up duo by Finlayson and Hurt and an angular solo by Lehman that closed the set.

There have been many pleasant surprises with the resurrection of Braxton's Tri-Centric Foundationd over the last three years—the renewed interest in his music, the wealth of recordings made available and the fact that what money they have raised has been put where the institutional mouth is. The promise to support the work of younger composers, too, has been happily upheld with the ongoing commissioning series, showing again that art prospers when it's supported moreso than when its left on the vine of the free market economy.

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