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Masterly Musical Surrealism

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/22/2020 -  
“Radically Playful”
Missy Mazzoli: Ecstatic Science
William Bolcom: Incineratorag – Graceful Ghost Rag – The Poltergeist (arranged for Decoda by Anna Elashvili, Nathan D. Schram, Hamilton Berry) (New York Premiere)
Steven Mackey: Indigenous Instruments
Brad Balliett: Ice Princess (Suite from an Imaginary Ballet)
Bohuslav Martinů: La Revue de cuisine, H. 161

Decoda: Catherine Gregory (Flute), Moran Katz (Clarinet), Brad Balliett (Bassoon), Paul Murphy (Trumpet), Anna Elashvili, Adelya Nartadjieva (Violins), Nathan Schram (Viola), Hamilton Berry (Cello), Michael Mizrahi (Piano)

P. Murphy, H. Berry, A. Elashvili, C. Gregory, B. Balliett,
M. Mizrahi (© Samuel A. Dog)

The artist is always searching for the meaning of life, his own and that of mankind, searching for truth. A system of uncertainty has entered our daily life... and the artist has only one means of expressing this, by music.
Bohuslav Martinů

Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy...
Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler

Weather-people this week warned against driving in North Dakota or South Dakota. Happily, they ignored New York’s Decoda, which heedlessly drove through a program of jazzy, funky, raggy and “folk music from a culture that doesn’t exist.”

The latter was a quote from Stephen Mackey for his Indigenous Instruments, one of four living composers offering works which were, according to the title, “Radically Playful.”

Playful, perhaps, in terms of the scholarly Games People Play, for nothing was childish in these works. They were complex, inventive, and socked us not in our emotions but in our analytic brain-cells.

A century ago, this concert would have included Milhaud, Ibert, Poulenc, Krenek, Antheil, and Martinů, the last included here–with music which could have been written by any of the live composers.

Decoda’s virtuosi, in diverse consorts–including a violin tuned 13 notes below its original–has been around for nine years. I’ve heard the soloists in various concerts, but this was the first time I’d heard them in a single concert. One would be loathe to describe a “Decoda Character”, save that their executions reflected the challenges of the notes. Which were frankly without end. And happily, program notes by the performers, with details, nuances and insights.

We began with Ecstatic Science by the admirable Missy Mazzoli. It is literally impossible to characterize a composer who tries to create “a different world with each piece.” With this, though, she showed that nothing in the tangles of music escapes her. Initially, this was an antiphonal work, the strings–sounding at times like a wheezing concertina–against the twittering flute, clarinet and trumpet.

Then Ms. Mazzoli played her themes like a surrealistic architect, juxtaposing, enlarging, placing one on another, until I personally was wrapped up in the labyrinth. Was this a musical game? No, she had created a painting of puzzles, a kind of Hieronymus Bosch city of sounds.

The following three works were William Bolcom piano rags, arranged by three of the Decoda artists. Bolcom is one of those jolly inventive genius a latter-day Scott Joplin, and the sextet of winds and strings were arranged with a Ibert-ish joy. And wonderfully inappropriate jazz riffs by cellist Hamilton Berry.

Steven Mackey’s movement headings said it all; “Swinging, crisp, rhythmic”, “Floating as if improvised”, “Mesmerizing, strange, dark, funky”. Mr. Mackeys’s inspirations are well reputed, and his quintet, including a highly percussive piano by Michael Mizrahi, gave 17 minutes reaching out to jazz and funk, but mainly weaving strains together seamlessly.

M. Mazzoli/B. Balliett (© Courtesy of the artist/Samuel A. Dog)

These were three pieces of collages and mobiles, all iridescent. My two favorites came after the intermission, starting with bassoonist Brad Balliett’s Ice Princess.

Forget the Disney-ish title. Mr. Balliett, using Pulcinella’s Pergolesi as an inspiration, created a brilliant twelve minutes around the music of Rameau. Unlike his contemporaries, Rameau was a gamester at heart, painting pictures of birds and Native Americans, and countless other pictures. Mr. Balliett took this music, his own music, and some personal pranks (pianist Mizrahi using his feet to play the piano), for a jubilant paean to the French Baroque, to technical genius, and to musical discombobulation, all at once.

One can’t say enough about Bohuslav Martinů. His life had its ups and downs, his music could be powerful, epic, miniature, with the glistening of bijoux or the thunder of ancient religions. But, unlike the equally fecund Villa-Lobos, Martinů’s notes always had some kind of merit.

In his “kitchen battle”, out of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (not Lewis Carroll), he simply let American dance-music have its own way. With charleston, with a tango (sounding very much like a parody of Ravel’s Boléro) and the outlandish juxtapositions which defined all the evening’s sparkling notes necessary for surviving our haphazard universe.

Harry Rolnick



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