The Meaning of the Village

The answer is simple, really—so obvious that the harder you look for it, the more you work the problem, the easier it is for it to pass by unnoticed, hiding in plain sight. In the midst of a country that labels and commodifies every banal feeling and notion and sells it as culture, it is common to overlook the fact that music, every moment of intentional sound and listening, has meaning. The passion that musicians have for their craft and art—especially in once-dominant fields, like jazz and classical music, that were long ago shoved aside by pop styles—runs up against the frustration of small audiences and smaller incomes. With millions of people listening to and buying recordings, how does a symphony orchestra find a way to get people with little knowledge and no experience of their world, beyond a few Stanley Kubrick soundtracks, to buy tickets and sit patiently through a whole concert? Why, by giving them meaning, of course.

Alan Pierson with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Photo: George Grella.

If that sounds deceptively simple, it’s because the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Brooklyn Village program at Roulette on March 24 made it seem so. However hard it might have been for conductor Alan Pierson and the orchestra to find the particular meaning in each piece of music on the program and stitch them together into a coherent whole, the directness and clarity of each gesture made it seem the simplest thing in the world, and made the concert into a transformative event, far beyond what other orchestras have imagined.

This was a multimedia concert, but I’ll dispense with that aspect quickly because it was, relatively, of minor importance. The stage was surrounded by projected images of Brooklyn, as it is now, and as it has been seen in pictures, paintings, and maps. This display, from designer Laurie Olinder, was always interesting, attractive, and unobtrusive. It was also the background for the concert’s ingenious narrative, which began with Pierson stepping on stage in white tie and tails, introducing the music by pointing out how, in times of economic hardship, gathering together in such a way is a necessity. It quickly became clear that he was talking not about our times, but the 1869 financial crisis provoked by the infamous Jay Gould.

He then immediately led the orchestra in the scherzo movement from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, continuing their movement-by-movement connection to the 1857 inaugural season, which began with the same piece. Music as well-known as this, or the Prelude to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 1, played after a reading of a letter written by the composer about Brooklyn and music, is the measure of the quality of this orchestra, which is increasingly impressive. The care and clarity of the Copland, and especially the way the musicians maintained a direction in the mostly hazy atmospherics of the piece, was involving, and the Beethoven playing was exciting. Pierson likes his Beethoven fast, and he’s good at it, keeping it fleet and quick but never rushed, firmly on its feet even for the most challenging syncopations.

This was the old music—the known music—and it was presented amidst a good quantity of new music. The Beethoven scherzo didn’t end but faded into a sampled, looped, electronic fog, from which Dianne Berkun led the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in the premiere of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Here,” a sensitive and affective setting of a poem by Nathaniel Bellows—a skillful composition built out of an ostinato and bright diatonic chords. Matthew Mehlan’s “Canvas,” another vocal piece, was the opposite, and the only bad work on the program; even with soprano soloist Lauren Worsham giving it everything she had, backed by a small boys’ chorus, it’s a mess. The text, from Royce Vavrek, might make some kind of pop song, and Mehlan sticks to choppy, short phrases, but the words are poorly scanned, and the piece is a clumsy jumble of styles, all badly written.

There was brilliant playing of one of the stronger sections of Sufjan Stevens’s The BQE, “Movement VI. Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges.” Then, as the intermission ended, a meeting of the parishioners of St. Ann’s church was brought to order. The church was about to be razed to make way for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the flock came together to sing the classic shape-note hymn “Idumea,” because they still had each other to sing with. Surrounding the audience, the young people of the chorus sang the ringing, rough-edged notes of the song, and after two verses of solfège, many of us found ourselves singing along. At the close, we witnessed the premiere of David T. Little’s “Am I Born,” with the musicians and chorus members joined by the excellent singer Mellissa Hughes. The piece combines Little’s virtues: a tough lyricism, strong structure, and a good helping of heavy rock aesthetic. The relentlessly minor-key composition touches on monotony at times, but the ruminative sense of both joy and regret in the lost history of the borough came through powerfully. The meaning of it was clear to all.

Contributor

George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.

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