Brooklyn is Burning

One of the new things at the Brooklyn Philharmonic is C.E.O. and Managing Director Richard Dare. He spoke to the crowd briefly before the Phil’s closing concert on June 9 at Restoration Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and alluded to the stir he’s created with his series of energetic and opinionated essays on the state of classical music and arts organizations, published at the Huffington Post. The classical music world being what it is, the one that caught the notice of the editors at the Times was on the subject of decorum at concerts: Dare wants to hear more applause between movements and while the music is playing, more reaction from the audience, evidence that they are being moved by the music in some ways. At some venues, that’s the equivalent of the turd in the punchbowl.

Gregg August, Yasiin Bey, and Alan Pierson. Photo: Dave Sanders © Brooklyn Philharmonic.

While I disagree with Dare on many details, I’m sympathetic with his values and what he sees as the faulty business models that arts organizations cling to like leeches on a medieval consumptive. Dare wants the Phil to play great music that has meaning for the audience, and as the audience I want to hear just that. That has been the particular strength of the Phil this season: concerts with music that has so much meaning, in so much variety, that the audience cannot help responding. Great music speaks for itself, but one of the problems classical music organizations face is trying to explain that music to listeners. Since most of them do such a terrible job of it, and aren’t able to see what a terrible job they are doing—it seems that if the marketing department “gets” it, that’s sufficient—they should just present it as great music, play the shit out of it, and let people listen. This tends to work. The exceptions that prove the rule are the season-ending programs that Alan Gilbert has put together at the New York Philharmonic. They run for only two or three performances, so they clearly don’t have the backing of the board, which probably finds the music too difficult to sleep through; they are also incredibly successful. The two performances at the Park Avenue Armory this summer were sold out, and the mix of Gabrieli, Mozart, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Ives in that space was one of the most brilliant things I have ever experienced. Very few orchestral concerts can be so completely involving.

Except for the Restoration Rocks program from the Brooklyn Phil. Where orchestra boards think of community and summertime concerts as a time to trot out Boz Scaggs (or Andrea Bocelli, as the New York Philharmonic shamefully did last year), the Brooklyn Phil made an actual collaboration with Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), with astounding and idiomatic arrangements of his hip-hop material by composer Derek Bermel. I have seen some burning live music in my time—Tower of Power, the Jack Bruce Group, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach at Town Hall—and this was burning like a rocket through the brain.

This is not about dumbing down classical music for a faux-populist facade, or dressing up popular music with arrangements for strings and woodwinds. It’s about taking strong music and placing it in a different context and seeing what happens. Bermel’s arrangements keep the original songs, like “Life in Marvelous Times” and “Casa Bey,” and by replacing electronic production with acoustic instruments and live players they make everything sound clearer. The performances become ravingly exciting. Where things don’t work, it’s because the music just isn’t that strong, like Waka Flocka Flame’s minor, dumb “Paintball,” or D.J. Eddie Marz’s winning entry in the Beethoven remix contest, “Ill Harmonic,” which managed to sap the explosive rhythmic energy from Beethoven by setting everything to a square and stiff pop music beat. (This is a real problem in contemporary pop, replacing the physical power of pulse with quantized, deadly syncopations.) Bey wrote lyrics set to the “Allegretto” of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, but was uncharacteristically cowed by the master. However, the Bey–Bermal collaboration on “Something Spiritual,” one of the more abstract tracks from the Tony Williams Lifetime, was astonishing, as blistering a musical performance as is possible. Special praise for principal bassist Gregg August, who led the section in the Beethoven movements, played in the rhythm section behind Leslie Uggams, and drove everyone on the electric bass with Bey. A musician’s musician.

Great music for good people: That’s an ideal institutional value, observed by the Brooklyn Phil in the breach. A part of me wants to hear what Pierson can do with the classics, but the music in the Lena Horne tribute is classic in a very American, urban, sophisticated, beautiful way. It’s our music as people who think and feel, not just consume and dispose. There will be more this year, starting with a free WNYC New Sounds Live concert in the World Financial Center Winter Garden on October 25: new music from Brooklyn composers and Outside-In Fellowship winners, music with films and steel drums and Russian poets, and Stravinsky’s great Les Noces. Not a dumb or dull moment.

Contributor

George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is a composer, musicologist, independent scholar, and Brooklyn resident. He publishes the Big City Blog, writes for ClassicalTV, and is Critic-in-Residence at Galapagos Art Space.

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