NSO Declassified: Bryce Dessner
Most people probably know Bryce Dessner's music through his work as a guitarist in the band The National, but he has an increasingly rising profile as a composer of contemporary classical and chamber music through his collaborations with artists such as eighth blackbird, Kronos, Nico Muhly, the filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, and commissions from a wide range of institutions and organizations. On Friday night the National Symphony Orchestra performed an entire concert of his music as part of its Declassified series, with Dessner on hand to introduce the pieces and perform one of the two electric guitar parts on St. Carolyn by the Sea, his 2011 composition inspired by Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur, a kind of tone poem for orchestra and electric guitars.
It was my first visit to an NSO Declassified concert and I appreciated the number of ways the series departs from convention apart from the musical programming: the Friday night concerts begin at 9:00 p.m., leaving plenty of time to arrive having had a proper meal beforehand without feeling rushed; a warm-up act performs on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage before the show (on this evening it was Baltimore artist Jenn Wasner's Flock of Dimes project); for those inclined, drinks can be consumed in the auditorium; and there's post-performance activity in the lobby (here one of Dessner's bandmates in The National doing a DJ set in the lobby). Not surprisingly, the crowd skewed noticeably younger than the typical audience at an orchestral performance and I overheard more than a few people remarking that it was their first time in the hall (all of those comments also included some variation of "that was awesome!").
90 minutes of Dessner's music wasn't as transfixing to me as 90 minutes of Beethoven or Berg might have been, and I didn't discern a signature sound that's recognizable in the music of some of his silo-bursting peers who also have a substantial presence in the pop world like Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh, or Trent Reznor, but a number of Dessner's pieces seem to pose musical questions followed by responses that either confirmed or continued the line of questioning. None of it felt like filler, and Dessner's music has an impressive range, represented here in both short and longer pieces written for ensembles of varying size.
The concert began with "Imagining Buffalo," a short piece written for the film The Revenant which benefitted from Dessner's introduction explaining where the piece fits in the film and how he envisioned it. Quilting, commissioned by the LA Phil, is much larger in scale and according to Dessner, is a kind of contemporary musing on what Americans were doing during the time of Beethoven and Brahms. As the title suggests, the piece is a patchwork of repeating staccato snippets and riffs coming from a piano, a snare, and trombones which create a theme and variations later responded to by the violins, then piano, eventually expanding to the entire orchestra before bringing it to a climax.
Lachrimae features only string instruments. Driven by buzzsaw slashing from the bass and cello, it reminded me of a scherzo derived from the spirit of the "run for your life" interlude that follows the march in fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th with an eerie, Ligeti-like coda. I found it the most interesting piece on the program.
The five (of seven) movements performed from El Chan range from Glass-like repetitiveness to stark depictions of sadness, emptiness and ennui. Like Quilting, it also has a patchwork feel to it but there's a sense of the composer being more interested here in timbre above all else through its back and forth between movements summoning a sense of resignation alternating with aggressive, jagged sections.
St. Carolyn by the Sea, with its duo of electric guitars, psychedelic flamenco inflections, and sense of increasingly downward abandon, is perhaps the most ambitious of Dessner's pieces played on Friday, and one he's often performed with other orchestras. I found it heavily reliant on repetition to create a sense of heightening drama, and while the presence of electric guitars adds an interesting, combustible element to the orchestral sound, the rest of the program offered ample evidence Dessner knows his way around an orchestra well enough that he doesn't need big exclamations from guitars to make a musical statement. That doesn't mean I think the presence of the guitar(s) is unnecessary -- in fact I'd like a lot more of it in future pieces - it's just that in St. Carolyn the guitars seem to fill in for conceptual gaps when they ought to be expanding the concept beyond the traditional boundaries.
Jacomo Bairos conducted as an apt, willing accomplice in breaking down the barriers between musical genres.
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