A capacity audience of 90 cool cats and codgers mingled expectantly at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum last night for Phoenix Orchestra’s latest peripatetic outing of booze, Beethoven, and bravura minimalism. As canned pop music issued from the blaster box, patrons strolled past the great engines in the Romanesque Temple of Industry with cocktails from Bully Boy Distillery in hand. Phoenix Executive director Matthew Szymanski introduced us to a schema that would induce us to move among purple stage, orange stage, and bar five times in the course of an event that balanced an hour of chamber music with about the same amount of social engagement and drinking.
The very resonant and imposing structure, with most of the floor space reserved for the mute, dimly lighted, motionless steam pumps, seemed to be begging for site-specific repertoire to awaken the sleeping giants…maybe Gabrielli Canzonas from antiphonal balconies, or maybe Mannheim Steamroller fun. Instead, we got four short, bright contemporary outbursts and half an hour of Beethoven—movements three, four and five from Beethoven’s valedictory opus 132 quartet. The latter’s “Dankgesang…” movement has of late been associated with Covid recovery. The op. 133 Grosse Fuge might have worked better with the new music that preceded it. Stravinsky famously deemed it an “absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”
After the pop-music blaster was unplugged mid-phrase, Julius Eastman’s Joy Boy, could proceed. This “… indulgent form of self-deception asks, “Can a self-actualized Black man, override its stigma without succumbing to rage? …” Phoenix co-concertmasters Zenas Hsu and Jean Huang took to the purple stage with flautist Ashley Addington and clarinetist Nicholas Bro in what we took to be fluttery Morse code impulses (the composers asked for “ticker-tape music”) repeating with differences before ultimately congealing and fading out. It worked the resonance of the room well, and no one succumbed to rage. After those episodic eight minutes, we repaired from the Joy Boy minimalism to the Bully Boy bar.
Szymanski, relieved to be beyond the streaming era, told us that Caroline Shaw’s Limestone and Felt “needed to be experienced live.” Not quite as interesting to this writer as have been some of her vocal works for Roomful of Teeth, the work channeled pizzes in octaves to a jungle beat. The viola (Luther Warren) sometimes rolled chords in an antiquated manner to a heartbeat rhythm from the cello (Leland Ko), and then they reversed musical roles (though not instruments). Some sort of a Toccata briefly developed before a four-note motif on the viola just ceased. Then we repaired to the Bully Boy bar.
From the orange stage (so created by the play of four floodlights on the wall), Eric Nathan asked us to imagine that his Spire, a ten-year-old homage to Julie Mehrutu’s Berlinerplatz paintings could also pay tribute to the lofty triple-expansion Allis engine. Pointillist outer sections of the wind quintet framed a melodic and legato core which felt like a welcome siesta. Towards the end, downward scales became general as the French horn seemed to anchor while the other played with room echoes. Big tonal chords proclaimed closure. Then to the bar.
Back to the purple stage, Purple Sage’s 11 minutes of circusy acrobatics for cello (Leland Ko) and double bass (Christopher Laven) seemed devoid of the deeper meanings of composer Julia Wolfe’s substantial Her Story [reviewed enthusiastically HERE]. Glassian ostinatos kept getting interrupted by glissandi. Tremolos, an Irish jig, more tremolos…faster and louder, approached the cutting power of a reciprocating saw…a warning siren, then some striking wa-wa- glizzes scrambled according to the instruction, “Let the vibrato be wild, like an electric guitar.” Then to the bar…it was beginning to feel like Passover with the fourth glass.
A relaxed and sensitive foursome (Zenas Hsu, and Jean Huang, violins; Luther Warren, viola; and Leland Ko, cello), having recovered from bouts with the earlier modernists, patiently intoned the post-pandemic Dankgesang giving every indication of pleasure in one another’s company and ensemble diligence… we particularly enjoyed the interplay in the Rondo. Beauty of tone prevailed at times when more pronounced accents, sharp elbows, and vehemence were wanted, but overall, we welcomed the healing warmth of the music and the libations. Out of duty, I limited my bibulous impulses to half an Old Fashioned.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer