Sunday, November 30, 2008

sunday catch up: past present music

I realize I promised last Sunday to give you a review of Present Music's "Thanksgiving" performance.

Clearly, that's been a big FAIL. But, I will try and make some amends.

Keep in mind that this was my first experience with Present Music. Also, unlike other performing arts groups that I've mentioned in this blog (the Milwaukee Rep, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and the late Milwaukee Shakespeare), there aren't multiple performances to encourage someone to go see -- Present Music is an event.

While I've been meaning to check out one of these events for most of my young professionalhood, I was finally motivated to go because Present Music is an adopted non-profit of my former FUEL Milwaukee team, Leisure & Culture.

Present Music's mission is to "engage artists and the audience in imaginative and provocative experiences with new music through ensemble performance, commissioning, and education." Part of the "experience" of PM is the venue in which the concert is held. In last Sunday's case it was in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, which is conveniently located directly across the street from my apartment.

There were many similarities between the Cathedral and the Present Music performance, which likely was a factor in selecting the venue. In both, one can see modern interpretations of traditional themes.

In the case of the Cathedral it is the gigantic modern crucifix that is the centerpiece of the church. The sculpture was installed during the controversial remodeling a few years ago. My Lutheran friend that I was with remarked on how grisly the imagery in Catholic churches can be. I've been in a lot of Catholic churches and I think this crucifix takes the scary cake. If I were a small child, I'd actually probably have nightmares from it. Jesus is a skeletal specter, with overtones of a Holocaust victim, pinned to a sharp stake-like cross, encircled by an overexaggerated crown of thorns. I found a blurry image on the web, but this truly doesn't do it justice:
The sculpture makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and that's one of the reasons I prefer not to attend church there (on the rare occasions when I do go to Mass). However, from a theological perspective, it should make me uncomfortable. Obviously Christ's death for our sins is central to the Catholic (and general Christian) faith and it's not supposed to be a pretty thing (that's the Resurrection part). This modern interpretation of the crucifix hits the Catholic guilt nail (sorry, pun intended) on the head and makes you feel really personally horrible about Jesus' sacrifice.

At any rate, the rest of the Cathedral truly is gorgeous and provided the perfect setting for the Present Music performance, which as I mentioned combined the modern and the traditional as well. Like the Cathedral, there were parts of the performance that made me uncomfortable, and parts that I truly enjoyed.

The "Thanksgiving" theme was demonstrated by selections based on musical traditions from Christian, Jewish and Native American cultures and beliefs.

The opening and two closing pieces were traditional Native American songs performed by the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group. It was pretty incredible to hear so many drummers, dancers and singers in the acoustics of the Cathedral. The second to last number, "Friendship Dance," was interesting as several audience members participated in a dance circle around the interior of the church.

Movements from the piece "Mass in Gregorian Chant" by Henry Brant helped transition the concert from one selection to the next. This was an all-flute piece performed by about 20 or so flutists spread throughout the church. I quite enjoyed these movements, especially in regard to their spatial exploration.

The first piece in the "meat" of the program was "Glory to God for This Transient Life" by John Tavener. As the piece progressed, the vocalists in the Milwaukee Children's Choir began a procession around the church, slowly exiting so their disembodied voices floated in from the attached atrium. The effect was very stunning and I liked this selection a lot.

Back to the "uncomfortable," the next piece, "Meditation on a Bach Chorale" by Sofia Gubaidulina, did not do it for me at all. My untrained ears focused on how it provided a matching horror soundtrack for the crucifix statue, but I can certainly respect the mathematical composition of its cacophony.

The palette-cleansing "Fugue in E flat Major 'St. Anne'" by the aforemeditated Johann Sebastian Bach certainly put the Cathedral's pipe organ to work. I don't know how anyone could not enjoy hearing such a majestic piece in a holy building. Massive church organs are one of the manmade smoke and mirrors that convince me of divinity (don't worry, nature convinces me of that much more, but I definitely appreciate some of that grandiose church stuff too).

Following Intermission came Sanctus by Jan Sandstrom performed by the Milwaukee Choral Artists. This was a pleasant choral piece that didn't really sway me one way or the other. It's been quite awhile since I heard a straight up choral piece, so I did enjoy it.

Next was "Pathways to Security" by Henry Brant. I initially liked this piece, as it featured baritone Kurt Ollmann meandering throughout the church while singing his parts, then echoed by the musicians and choral artists. As a listener, I appreciated the audio-spatial effects of the performers in motion. However, honestly, as shallow as this is going to sound, the piece was WAY too long for me. I think perhaps because it was a synthetic language, the repetitiveness just started grating on me after awhile. I definitely can handle longer symphonies, but this selection in full just wasn't my style.

Closing out the set, before the return of the Native American drummers, was a short piece, "Al Shlosha D'varim" by Allan Naplan. The Hebrew chorus was printed in the program for the audience to accompany the choirs on. I did appreciate the choral arrangement here as well, and you must also appreciate the translation of the chorus: "The world is established upon three things: truth, law, and peace."

Clearly I had a mixed reaction overall, but again, I think that's what Modern Art is all about. I do like to be challenged by art and I will likely attend a future performance of Present Music. It's nice to be reminded that there's plenty of musical art still being created, and even if I don't thoroughly enjoy it, I can definitely appreciate it more than musical crap.


Interested in catching an upcoming Present Music performance? You actually DO have two opportunities to catch the next one:

"Close Up"
Friday, January 9th or Saturday, January 10th
7:30 p.m. both nights
Milwaukee Youth Arts Center

I will be on the other side of world at that time, but maybe I'll catch you at the next one!

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