Best of 2016: 10 Memorable Musical Events
For anyone expecting a painstakingly winnowed-down, tightly focused tabulation of the most significant events to take place in the musical world circa 2016: I apologize, but you’ll have to look elsewhere. I’m not in any position to judge, having spent the first half of the year effectively serving as the staff pop music critic (in fact if not in title) for the Boston Globe, and then returning to New York City at summer’s end for the next phase of my journey. Even so, it’s not at all difficult to name 10 meaningful and affecting musical performances I witnessed this year… and I’ve intentionally omitted events presented by National Sawdust, covered in a previous post.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
David Del Tredici: Child Alice
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA; March 25
“What I heard was what you would expect: exuberantly virtuosic music, extravagantly tuneful, frequently pitched at frenzy’s edge. It was thrilling, overwhelming, historic. What I felt, unexpectedly, was sad. Intensely so. … What twisted my gut was perceiving at last what Del Tredici must have meant us to feel when he realized the work’s extraordinary architecture.” I’m quoting my own Boston Globe review; you can read the rest here.
JACK Quartet + IRCAM
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA; April 29
For one of the last outings to feature its original personnel, the JACK Quartet collaborated with the aural scientists of IRCAM in a program featuring two rewarding electroacoustic compositions: one a modern classic (Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No. 4), one destined to be (Chaya Czernowin’s Hidden). You can read my Boston Globe account here.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
The Sinclair, Cambridge, MA; May 13
Dizzy, daffy, extravagant, exuberant: all those words suited the show this wiry and wired Australian psychedelic band mustered at Bowery Boston’s Cambridge flagship, yet somehow they still fall short of capturing the berserk joy found in Nonagon Infinity, the band’s infinite-loop eighth LP. “Its sounds might be borrowed from any number of well-worn LPs extracted from residue-sticky gatefold sleeves, but its synthesis is fresh, and audience response testified to its potency,” I wrote in the Globe; further details are here.
City Hall Plaza, Boston, MA; May 29
This whip-smart pop-music festival curated by Aaron Dessner of the National never mounted a dull bill, but this particular Sunday night – the grand finale of the festival’s customary iteration, prior to its transformation in 2017 into a sprawling mega-fest in Allston – featured brassy, blistering performances from two of pop’s quirkiest savants, Christine & the Queens and Janelle Monáe, plus a set by Haim that proved the hype surrounding this sister act’s popular debut LP was warranted. (Globe review here.)
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA; June 3
The most dynamic stadium show I’ve ever had the privilege to witness (and certainly the best-drilled) featured Beyoncé and her choreographic cadre in music mostly pulled from the singer’s pop-operatic Lemonade, set against a video-plastered monolith, and aided and abetted by a red-hot band that played in the shadows but was never overshadowed. Seriously: all that and a keg of dynamite; Globe review here.
International Contemporary Ensemble + University of South Carolina School of Music
Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY; Sept. 16
An ambitious tour by percussionist Greg Stuart and his University of South Carolina student players intersected fruitfully with the season-opening round of free OpenICE presentations at the Abrons Arts Center. The collaboration prompted a new take on composer Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (2) – as stark and elemental as the original version, but with velvety folds and shadows dispelling some of its austerity.
First Unitarian Congregational Society, Brooklyn Heights, NY; Oct. 29
Lawrence Kumpf, formerly the music curator for Issue Project Room, has continued his essential work on behalf of aesthetic outliers and unsung geniuses with Blank Forms, a movable feast of concerts, symposia, and other intriguing events. He scored a substantial coup in October with the U.S. debut of the singular French vocalist and sound artist Tazartès, who offered a brief but astonishing set that transcended whimsy to achieve pathos and epiphany.
Composer Portrait: Lei Liang
Miller Theatre, New York, NY; Nov. 4
Works both recent and brand new offered a compelling overview of Liang’s vivid, visceral oeuvre, in which Chinese, European, and American elements merge in fresh, distinctive ways. The participating performers, including loadbang and the new-look JACK Quartet, provided ample dexterity and authority; Steven Schick was ideally persuasive as both conductor and onstage interviewer, and the evening culminated in a breathtaking show of virtuosity by Mark Dresser in Luminous, Liang’s uncanny concerto for improvising bassist and ensemble. (Whether you heard the concert or missed it, don’t miss the new recording of the piece on New World Records.)
Claire Chase: Density 2036, Part IV
The Kitchen, New York, NY; Dec. 1
Where previous installments of Chase’s ambitious Density 2036 series concentrated on the dynamic flutist exploring new horizons in sound and motion in solitude, for this new episode the singers of Roomful of Teeth provided not only the voices required by Richard Beaudoin’s Another woman of another kind, but also visual foils with which Chase could interact. The program included further works by Suzanne Farrin, Vijay Iyer, Pauchi Sasaki, and Tyshawn Sorey; the stage director Lydia Steier somehow transformed it all into a virtuosic (mostly) instrumental opera. Mandatory disclosure: The presenters engaged me to conduct preconcert talks with the artists; voluntary confession: I teared up twice during the show, once with joy and once with awe.
Kaija Saariaho: L’Amour de Loin
Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, NY; Dec. 14
A cranky contraption briefly halted the action the night I saw Saariaho’s splendid meditation on perfect love, but Robert Lepage’s customary grind couldn’t dull the luster of this historic arrival. Susanna Phillips, Tamara Mumford, and Eric Owens provided exemplary singing; Susanna Mälkki, the dynamic conductor, helped the remarkable Met Orchestra sound at home in music distilled from a modernist idiom the company has ignored completely, making the achievement even more impressive.