The Moderns Are Here Again

by Barry Drogin

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February 8, 1983

A year or so back, one of the respected contemporary music reviewers at The Village Voice wrote a rave-to-end-all-raves about a soprano/composer from Europe whose flamboyant vocal techniques and styles were declared a must-hear for anyone who cared about good music. Her name was Diamanda Galas, and her appearance at the second Meet the Moderns concert guaranteed a good-sized audience of followers, curiosity seekers, and concert regulars who anticipated an exciting evening. Surprise of surprises, the night's big event was not Ms. Galas's performance but the world premiere of Randolph Coleman's The Crowns of Nineveh, which may very well overshadow the entire concert season as the musical event of the year.

Mr. Coleman's piece is hard to describe because it is extremely powerful and affecting, both emotionally draining and uplifting, producing a transcendent concert experience that occurs very rarely (BAM chances upon one per year: last year it was the Ithaca College Chorus [an un-conducted choreographed performance of Schoenberg's a cappella "Friede Auf Erden"]; the year before, the entire Music + Film concert). Mr. Coleman knew exactly how to use his 26-piece chamber orchestra, and his use of tuned gongs and a huge bass clarinet were far from gratuitous --- you could not imagine it any other way. One strange aspect of the piece was that musicians were told to discard their used parts onto the stage at various moments, cluttering the floor and disorienting the audience in an oddly effective way. With its unabashed use of primitive pulsing and environmental sustains, Mr. Coleman seems to have staked out his own unique claim in a musical territory discovered by Ligeti and Penderecki.

The first section of Arthur Paxton's Blood Lines was an enjoyable game that tried to answer the musical question, "What is a French horn doing in a woodwind quintet?" At the end, the horn player leaves the quintet to join three muted brass players in the back of the stage. The second section was less successful because its thesis that the clarinet, rather than the oboe, does not belong with the brass is a sonic mistake obvious to anyone who has ever heard a band.

Two Japanese works on the program were failed efforts, the first a disjointed display of fancy instrumental techniques, the other an unstructured mood piece with a vague musical language.

This leaves the night's curiosity, Diamanda Galas, whose music was devoid of any real content beyond a gut level sense of structure and an overblown theatricality that showed off her torturous screeches and blabbering like an alienating freak show. Given someone else's music, Ms. Galas might be a powerful interpreter, but on her own she flounders like the musical "performance artists" who, like their musically illiterate followers, are unconcerned with the history of music because they simply do not understand it.

The evening's planned "encore," a small salute to Eubie Blake to celebrate his 100th birthday, acted as a good-humored send-up of Ms. Galas's dramatic histrionics --- a touch of comedy can always puncture a weak over-serious balloon. Happy birthday, Eubie!

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Last Updated: April 26, 2009