11/21 Bang On A Can All-Stars + Trio Mediaeval @ Zankel Hall
Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer
A more succinct version of this review available here.
After seeing Julia Wolfe’s Vermeer Room performed by the NYU Symphony Orchestra in October, I became interested in the music of Ms. Wolfe and was thrilled to find out that a new piece of hers was being premiered at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in November. Zankel is a more intimate venue in the same building as Carnegie’s main stage, Perlman/Stern and a perfect place for the premiere of a new work performed by a chamber group. And an interesting chamber group it was. The piece called for piano, clarinet, cello, bass, guitar/banjo/mountain dulcimer, and quite an assortment of percussion (including performers’ feet and hands, and “the bones”) as well as the wonderful Trio Mediaeval, three female vocalists from Scandinavia. The piece, Steel Hammer, was a retelling of the myth of John Henry, known for using his steel hammers to beat a steam machine in a race. But unlike many composers before her, Ms. Wolfe did more than just retell a legend-she chose to look at the legacy of legends themselves through the lens of this particular one.
The piece was organized into several different movements that each told a part of the legend, and were ordered by each segment of lyrics. However, the “lyrics” were mostly descriptions which were then layered together to create an ambiguous narrative. The first movement was a setting of the words “Some say he’s from”, which were broken down and put back together in a round of the three vocalists. There were some beautiful harmonies and the cohesiveness of the singers was quite impressive. The instrumentalists joined in at the end with percussion that sounded like a train moving on a track-a theme both aural and visual throughout the night. The next movement, The States, was a list of (as Ms. Wolfe explained in the talk beforehand) all the places that different versions of the story said John Henry was from, which were again layered by the vocalists over and over such that the meaning of the words themselves was almost obscured. One got a sense of how many different versions of the story exist and have been told. The trend continued in the other movements, with John Henry being described as small, tall, black, white, true, false and many other things. By choosing lyrics that were ambiguous and layering these descriptions over each other, Ms. Wolfe was able to communicate to the listener the sheer scope of the legend. Walking away from the concert, I felt as if I had heard the legend itself of John Henry, a myth made up of the weaving together of many different stories. The three vocalists embodied the hundred different narrators of these stories, speaking with different musical voices to lend a rich diversity of sound to the entire piece.
The instrumental accompaniment to the piece also added to the feeling of many stories being communicated at once. The background was constantly shifting, although a percussive take on the instruments as well as repeated melodic pointed to Wolfe’s minimalist background and gave cohesion to the piece. Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn’s lines often joined with the vocalists, while the rest of the ensemble was largely a percussion ensemble, using cello, bass, and guitar lines to create rhythm and drive the piece. The mood changed from tender at some points to cacophonous, particularly in the movement about the race between the steam engine and John Henry. The instrumentation was evocative and descriptive at some points, for instance when trying to portray a train, and at other times merely a background against which the singers portrayed the storyline.
The piece had a curious, and I felt rather unnecessary series of visuals, at times flashing the words that made up the lyrics and also using charcoal drawings of a train and the map of the United States. There was a revealing moment in which the picture of chair rocking was shown to be several chairs rocking during the movement about John Henry’s “woman” Polly (further contributing to the feeling of multiple stories being told at once), but otherwise I found the video amateur and distracting. Ms. Wolfe said during her talk that she did not want it to be a formal, boring concert, but I honestly found the musicians themselves wonderfully engaging and entertaining. The use of lighting to highlight drama and show the change between movements, as well as the campfire-esque stage setup were nice touches.
The musicians themselves were quite wonderful-engaged in the music while also very precise. If no one had told me the Trio Medieaval was from Scandanavia, I would not have known given their excellent articulation. They had great group chemistry and were fun to watch. Clarinetist and conductor Evan Ziporyn was lyrical and worked well to keep the group together. Guitarist Mark Stewart is also to be commended for the performance of his feet during one movement as an effective percussion instrument-not an easy feat (yes, pun intended). The ease with which the musicians performed imbued the piece with a familiarity that one might not have expected from a modern composition.
Though I felt the piece was rather lengthy, the ingenuity of its conception and the lovely presentation it was given were quite impressive. Julia Wolfe is definitely a composer to keep watching and the Bang On A Can All Stars a group to see again.