MORRISTOWN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Live performance ended abruptly in March as the coronavirus spread around the world, putting musicians out of work and audiences out of concert halls. Artists have taken to the internet, sending out livestreams, prerecorded streams, streams from the archives almost all with the implied caveat that nothing beats the real thing, the real sound.
That sound is slowly, cautiously re-emerging. On Thursday evening, two of our classical music critics, Joshua Barone and Zachary Woolfe, did what they used to do several times a week: They went to a concert. The JACK Quartet was appearing as part of the modest Lot of Strings Festival in the parking lot of the Morris Museum here the series continues Aug. 27 and Sept. 3 and the critics chatted the next morning about how an everyday experience had become something precious.
JOSHUA BARONE: Its been so long since I attended a concert, I almost couldnt find my notebook on Thursday. When I did, I saw that the last date in there was March 5, the New York Philharmonic. Since then I havent heard any live music except for my own amateur playing, which even my dog doesnt want to be in the audience for. What about you?
ZACHARY WOOLFE: I understand youve even been pecking out the Goldberg Variations on the piano! But I digress. My last performance before the lockdown was on March 8: Sweet Land, an intense and atmospheric new opera in Los Angeles about Manifest Destiny and colonization, about how our countrys history has always been about giving to some people and taking from others, about national conditions of incomprehension and fear. So it was actually appropriate and appropriately keening preparation for this tragic season.
BARONE: Sweet Land was, thankfully, recorded. So I saw it virtually, which is how Ive taken in all performances since March. But in the same way that we all quickly tired of Zoom happy hours, I struggled to maintain enthusiasm for music on the small screen. Weve been trained to treat digital media as never requiring our full attention, and thats not an easy habit to break.
WOOLFE: Its been difficult but clarifying to see how mightily classical music struggles in an online-only format. Experiencing sound in person, among others, turns out to be even more essential than Id assumed. This art form has long been devoted to recordings but always as a counter, an implied (or screamed) comparison, to real performances. Theater and dance have in some ways effectively recast themselves for this new medium, but five months in, there has been lovely work on offer but not any true, truly satisfying adaptation of classical music or opera for the digital space.
BARONE: Thursdays concert was still something of a substitute. We were seated in lawn chairs within socially distanced, spray-painted squares on top of a parking structure, with the JACK players Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello performing, amplified, from a platform in front. Yet there was the thrill of live music-making, and also what Ive missed just as dearly: people. Sure, there were distracting sounds from audience members fumbling with their snacks. A man nearby was straight up reading The New York Times instead of watching. But the novelty of company made me giddy, even when someones cellphone went off during the opening remarks. It was familiar; we were together.
WOOLFE: With the players framed by a beautiful sunset behind rolling hills on a mild night, I thought of all the idyllic outdoor music I was supposed to have heard these months, in Ojai, California; in Santa Fe; at Tanglewood; in Aix-en-Provence, France. I couldnt stop thinking last night of those communities and their losses in art, in jobs. Yet it was joyous to be in Jersey. Not just to hear music, but also to schmooze with a publicist, to run into a friend, to glimpse a composer I recognized in the audience. (To see you, Josh, my deskmate at the Times office, for the first time since February!) Music isnt just a pretext for gathering, but simply gathering was for me almost as satisfying as listening to John Zorn and Bach.
BARONE: Satisfying not just to listen, but also to react. During the applause for the Zorn, his Cat O Nine Tails, you and I shared a smile at least thats what I think it was under your mask of contentment. I dont know about you, but I couldnt be happier that this piece ended up being the first thing I heard live: Its a whirlwind of musical styles, relayed in a series of jump cuts that, miraculously, never lose the sense of a coherent whole. At least as performed by the JACK men, some of Zorns most able and enthusiastic interpreters, who leaned into both the pieces gritty aggression and its moments of cartoonish levity, like when Richards cued his fellow players with whips of his bow.
WOOLFE: People tend to think of Zorn as a composer of harsh buzz, but this work on this night, especially moved me in its quieter moments. A bit of folksy song, a little tango, a quiet lament. His postmodern grab-bag style is broadly shared by a younger generation of composers, including Zosha Di Castri, whose quartet came next on the program. With its jittery evocations of swiping, popping electronic sounds, this could have been a Zorn piece, too though its less lighthearted in its skittishness than Cat O Nine Tails.
BARONE: Di Castris quartet shared an episodic nature with Zorns, a vibe that carried through the entire program, which could have easily been titled Episodes. To close, JACK intertwined sections from Marcos Balters Chambers, Bachs The Art of Fugue and John Luther Adams The Wind in High Places, creating a new, nine-part suite. The juxtaposition didnt reveal anything particularly new about the individual pieces so much as it played on what they share mainly, the use of elemental sounds to build layered complexity.
WOOLFE: The Bach selections perhaps began to sound a little more dreamlike under the influence of the contemporary, delicate, amorphous Balter and Adams coming between them. Chambers and The Wind in High Places were perfect in this setting faint, glassy, slowly glinting and softly flittering, like the crickets and birds audible in the woods around the Morris Museum.
BARONE: Adams music, which so often absorbs and reflects nature, thrived here, the airy harmonics joined by the chatter coming from the trees. It was the high point, though the emotional peak for me may have come during the Bach. Which I didnt expect, because the Art of Fugue selections otherwise betrayed stylistic shortcomings in the JACK, a group whose reputation is built on extended technique and fearless experimentation. They seemed out of their element, even misguided in how they played it, like they were performing late Beethoven.
WOOLFE: Im all for a richly Romantic, vibrato-heavy take on Baroque music, but I agree that the Bach seemed stilted. As I listened, I felt a little guilty to be reacting that way. Shouldnt my relief at returning to concerts make everything sound wonderful? But I realized that making distinctions between better and worse, flexing the muscles of judgment, both appreciating and analyzing, was a crucial part of the happiness of finally being back.
BARONE: Thats something Ive had difficulty with watching virtual performances: Critical judgment is obscured by so many caveats. It was good to be back, however briefly. At the risk of sounding rosy, I couldnt keep from reading into the final section of Adams work, Looking Toward Hope. The cello enters on its lowest string, and rises with open fifths. Its an awakening.