in cooperation with River To River Festival
Missy Mazzoli and Victoire
special guest, Abigail Fischer
Matt Mehlan and Skeletons
Michael Schimmel Center for The Arts at Pace University, NY
Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
Written by Jeremy Shatan
It’s nearly impossible to approach any art with zero preconceptions. If you live in NYC, have even a passing interest in contemporary classical music, and listen to John Schaefer’s Soundcheck, you would certainly be familiar with the name Missy Mazzoli, if not her music. For one thing, once heard it’s hard to forget that name. For another, she’s fairly ubiquitous. Yet, while I knew of her, and knew a little about her, I had somehow avoided hearing much of her work, and what I had heard hadn’t stuck. When I saw she was playing River To River, I knew this was my chance to confront her music once and for all and see what the fuss was all about. So I wiped my hard drive of any notions about her, creating a tabula rasa that was hers to write on, and headed down to the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University with my daughter.
But first we had to deal with Matt Mehlan and Skeletons, who were opening the show. I had never heard of them so I really had no preconceptions, except for those formed by the program notes. According to the hype, these guys had been “touring their potent live show all around,” and had made a “string of bold, beautifully recorded albums.” There was also a quote from Pitchfork (I know, get me a grain of salt) that prepared me for a “global-a-go-go melange of unceasing polyrhythms, Afrobeat guitars, free jazz, and Timbaland’s approach to kitchen-sink percussion.” Sounds fascinating and exciting. I was psyched. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting to hear those sounds.
There was nothing “potent” about a bunch of guys in street-clothes slouching onstage, barely acknowledging the audience, and seemingly sight-reading their way through five pieces that all, except for the last, followed the same compositional structure and ambition. It had the feel of a workshop and that overall impression was not really helped by the half-baked, fractured ballet of Jessica Ray’s dancers. At least the choreography gave us something to look at besides the aggressively casual stage presence of the Skeletons. The tentative applause gave me the idea that I was not the only underwhelmed member of the audience. The last piece, “Hands”, for which Mehlan switched from guitar to piano, showed some promise, with him playing a meditative ostinato for the saxophones, trumpet, guitar and drums to soar and churn over.
I’m not sure if my overall impression of Matt Mehlan and Skeletons would have been different without the program notes but it does make me think that I should be careful about reading them before a concert, and that composers and ensembles should be careful about what they put there.
The program also gave Missy a bit of a hill to climb (“postclassical queen bee,” anyone?) but I was determined to be completely open minded. I needn’t have worried, however. From the moment Mazzoli (pictured right) and her band, Victoire, took the stage and started into “Like A Miracle”, from their excellent 2010 album Cathedral City, I knew we were in good hands. Gorgeous, out of focus urban landscapes from videos by Jennifer Stock formed the perfect background for the shimmering, skittering electronics, searching strings, melodious clarinet and soaring vocals. The second piece was the album’s title track and my grasp of Mazzoli’s work began to coalesce.
Her sound is consistent yet with loads of variety, exploring the effects of keyboards and samples combined with acoustic instruments (double bass, violin and clarinet), but not in any academic way. She is the master of the palette she has created and the results are clearly original, though deeply rooted, and emotionally engaging. After the first two songs, I was ready for more. Mazzoli introduced “A Thousand Tongues” by telling us it was very new and originally performed in a version for cello and electronics at BAM’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival earlier this year. What we were going to hear, however, was a new arrangement for the full band, “remixed” by keyboardist Lorna “Dune” Krier. Her sounds started the piece, and practically not since I flipped Bowie’s Low over to side two have I heard such lush, beautifully arranged and purposeful electronics. It was entrancing, and when joined by the other players, most notably Eleonore Oppenheim‘s stellar work at the high end of the bass’s range, created a mesmerizing sound world it was easy to get lost in. Let’s hope the collaboration between Mazzoli and Krier continues, and for a long time.
When it ended, a voice from the audience said exactly what I was thinking: “That was GOOD!” “Thanks, Dad,” Missy replied as the crowd cracked up. I think it was actually her grandfather who spoke, a reminder that this extraordinary composer is still very young. But the best was yet to come. The next two pieces were world-premiere concert arrangements of two songs from her opera Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, which was performed for the first time at The Kitchen in February. Oh, how I wish I had seen that! Projections by by Stephen S. Taylor formed an eerie, hypnotic background for the songs, for which Victoire was joined by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, who created the lead role at The Kitchen. She is a genuinely dazzling vocal theater artist and she brought these superb art-songs to full-blooded life with her gorgeous tone, her intensity, and her commitment. It was a privilege and a pleasure to witness and when Mektoub, the second song, ended I had to remind myself to start breathing again.
After a brief pause to reset the stage, Victoire and Skeletons joined forces for two new works. As predicted, Mazzoli made masterful use of the additional musicians for “Roll Up Your Sleeves”, fully delivering on the elusive promise of the merger of indie rock and classical. I’m looking forward to hearing it again. Mehlan’s song, Don’t Smother It, was merely a reshuffle of the ideas he had already presented at the top of the show. It seems he is already at a compositional cul de sac.
A slightly blah finale to the concert could in no way erase the magnificent glow of what Missy Mazzoli, with the able assistance of Victoire, achieved. She is not just one to watch, she has arrived–and you can quote me on that.
Postscript: in an effort to be completely thorough, I gave a listen to People, the latest from Matt Mehlan and Skeletons. While the music is certainly more accomplished than what I heard last Wednesday, he seems to have inherited his tenor and terminal smugness from Paul Simon. Not for me.
Jeremy Shatan is the writer and editor of the blog anearful (anearful.blogspot.com)