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Sounds in the Service of Music

New York
Veterans Room, Park Avenue Armory
10/15/2019 -  
John Zorn: Jumalattaret – Encomia – Pandora’s Box
Barbara Hannigan (Soprano), Sae Hashimoto (Vibraphone), Stephen Gosling (Piano), JACK Quartet: Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman (violin), John Pickford Richards (viola), Jay Campbell (cello)

Veterans Room, Park Avenue Armory

Super diva Barbara Hannigan, accompanied by Stephen Gosling and the JACK Quartet with Sae Hashimoto on vibraphone, performed the music of John Zorn in the Veterans Room of the Park Avenue Armory. Hannigan selected this room, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany among others, because she wanted the audience to have an intimate experience. The room’s décor is a gorgeous mix of styles and textures, much like the music to be performed. The stained glass dazzles, but the music is even brighter and more complex.

Hannigan sweeps in wearing a long emerald green dress decorated by earrings and a necklace which dangles a small solo diamond. Her daring performance of Jumalattaret would be even juicier in articulation than her take at its US premiere in Ojai last June.

Jumalattaret was completed in 2012, but had never been performed. Although Zorn did not know Hannigan as he composed, the work feels like it is written for her. Based on Elias Lonnrot’s telling of Finnish myth and folklore, four goddesses are presented between a prelude and postlude. While the work can veer toward the barnyard, with cackles, coos, clucks and wonderful breath, it is often wrenchingly lovely. Even the air we hear emitted as Hannigan grabs an “h” in the back of her throat has a musical character.

This is Zorn’s trick. He is committed to making music sound like music no matter where his compositional journey takes him. In Jumalattaret, he has the Finnish language for starters. Its sounds are not Nordic, but rather Uralic. Its fifteen grammar cases offer up unfamiliar sounds.

As Hannigan warms up in the prelude, her arms are set in motion. Her physical presence is unmistakable as she sings of the goddesses, magical, feathered, and etched on rock. She expresses the wish to remain an airy virgin! Yet Hannigan will free the goddesses in the final moments of the cycle. Hannigan’s methods in digging deep are suggestively illustrated in this clip. Her hands gracefully explore all her body parts in an effort to release the right sound.

Accompanied by Stephen Gosling, who regularly performs Zorn’s work on the piano, this mythic adventure captures us in its shifting textures and rhythms. Gosling reports enjoying the performance challenge. While the singer does not look to the pianist, he attends her sounds. The back and forth between the two instruments takes us deep and high, sometimes in unison and sometimes widely separated. Breath, sound and spirit are in the service of over-arching themes.

Zorn and Gosling reviewed his performance of Encomia, five small pieces titled “Speculum,” “Penumbra,” “Streta,” “Occupation” and “Arborescence.” Zorn, the evening’s informal host, has announced five small pieces as something composers often write. A member of the audience calls out, “Who are you?” Zorn laughs, “Just the composer.” Schoenberg did write five small pieces exploring dodecaphony. Stravinsky wrote five small pieces as educational tools for his children. Zorn’s are complex, exposing the pianist to insuperable challenges which Gosling always meets with technical aplomb and charm. He seems to relish climbing the Mount Chimborazo’s Zorn composes. No question that Zorn forgets that even the best pianist has only two hands. Yet sound palettes are even extended by opening the keyboard for plucking and drumming.

Zorn’s thought experiments for string quartet and vibraphone was performed by the JACK Quartet with Sao Hashimoto on the vibraphone. Contrasts between the harsher side of stringed instruments and the lovely bells of the vibraphone were just in the right proportion. The sensitivity of the composer’s ears is revealed yet again in his ability to go deep into the dark side and ugliness of sound and leave us, no matter what the proportional relationship is, with a feeling that we have been given the gift of pleasure.

Hannigan has caught the world’s attention with her interpretation of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Zorn explains that he too admires the composer. Pandora’s Box suggests Lulu. It erupts in torment and fury, like Lulu. It can be whispery quiet and then burst into rage. Its leaps and shrieks suit Hannigan perfectly. Her Lulu can be heard in concert form in Cleveland next spring.

Park Avenue Armory gives great joy to those who are able to hear Hannigan sing in New York.

Susan Hall



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