The hat was back at the November 11, 2011, concert, and Shanahan—not to mention every other performer—was in fine form. (As Shanahan explained, for the earlier event, he was playing as part of a larger ensemble, so the hat would have stuck out.)
The reasons why it’s so exciting to see and hear Contemporaneous in live performance are legion; Shanahan in performance (with hat or without), is one, and I’ll come back to that. But first, as I continually puzzle over why listening to the work of twenty-first century composers and performers is so particularly thrilling, I want to say something about that.
The Sixteen singing Pérotin and continuing on to that young upstart, Johann Sebastian Bach). I can easily slip off into the world of nineteenth and early twentieth century composers—Ravel and Sibelius, to name just two—and linger there a long, long while.
My first foray into contemporary classical music was accidental: my mate once met a fellow named John Metcalf when he was a music student in Wales, and, one day, while surfing the internet for music to load on the iPod, looked him up to see “if he’d made anything of himself.” Well, he had: his piece, Mapping Wales, captured our imaginations—perhaps particularly mine. That piece, along with many others of Metcalf’s works, remains among those I turn to often, and he never, ever disappoints.
elsewhere, but here’s the point right now: What Metcalf did was welcome us in to listen (something he does on a grand scale as Artistic Director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music in Wales). He showed us there’s far more to contemporary classical music than the soul-deadening insularity of total serialism, that exclusive and excluding club of sounds, that disastrous dead-end to which Arnold Schoenberg’s turn-the-world-upside-down twelve-tone system inadvertently led.
The musicians of Contemporaneous embody Metcalf’s same welcoming spirit in everything they do, say, compose, and play. They communicate their passionate engagement with every breath. They know that listeners are not “outsiders,” but the third essential component in the transporting alliance of composer and performer that music is at its brilliant best. Just as Metcalf does, and as so many young composers and performers do today, the young men and women of Contemporaneous do care if you listen, and more than that, they want you to have every bit as good a time as they do while you’re at it.
See what I mean?
I love, too, the subtle ways in which they teach you what to listen for. I never feel I’m taking cod liver oil, but rather that I’m being entrusted with a precious jewel of new information: Something to hear! Something to do! A way to participate! David Bloom, in introducing Meditation (In Memory of John Lennon), told us how composer Aaron Jay Kernis had taken Lennon’s song Imagine and expanded it, so we “really taste every harmony and riff that’s in that song.” Mattingly added, “it’s as if you were very, very small in time.”
What’s more, there’s often a chance to hear from the composer directly. Composer Anna Bikales told us how her piece, Brick Elegy (played with elegant precision by Hye-Joong Jeong, as you’ll see in a video clip below the post), sat unfinished for two years. What finally got her to finish it was, in fact, a Contemporaneous concert. “I actually left in the middle of the concert and went straight back to my room and spent the next few hours finishing this piece.” (Mattingly didn’t let that go by, you can be sure: “It’s a good thing,” he said, “it’s so good.”)
Even without the “extras,” with Contemporaneous, it’s an exciting sonic adventure simply to listen and watch. Which brings me back to Finnegan Shanahan’s hat. . .
Here’s Shanahan on violin (with Mattingly on piano), in a clip from their performance of Mattingly’s “structured improvisation,” Gravity and Grace:
The thing is, you see, they don’t just know how to play music, they also know how to plain old play.
See what I mean?
Postscript: Nor are these young men and women short on social graces (though I don’t mean to imply that’s required; beautiful music, well-played, is gift enough). Some may recall that, in an earlier post, I wrote grandly, but completely inaccurately, about cello strings breaking left and right. Thanks to Friko, who tipped me off, I realized my mistake and corrected it in the post. (What I’d seen were bow hairs snapping off.)
Mattingly, of whose cello I wrote, never made a peep, though I suspect he had to cringe at the prospect some might think he was trying to play his cello minus some strings. At this concert, close to the end of Gravity and Grace, I saw a very big something fly up from Mattingly’s cello. I was pretty sure, this go round, what it was. After the concert, though I didn’t inquire, Mattingly caught my eye and said, "this time, it was a string." See what I mean?
The Program (to read more about the program, click here)
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960): Meditation (In Memory of John Lennon) (1981)
Anna Bikales (b. 1992): Brick Elegy (2010)
Philip Glass (b. 1937) (arr. for four cellos by Joan Jeanrenaud): Metamorphosis No. 4 (1988)
— Intermission —
Dylan Mattingly (b. 1991): Gravity and Grace (2011)
David Moore (b. 1985): And Then it Rained (2010)
(If you have Spotify, you can also click on Finnegan's Hat to hear John Metcalf's Mapping Wales and Paths of Song.)
Hye-Joong Jeong playing Brick 1 from Anna Bikales's Brick Elegy:
Credits: The image of Finnegan Shanahan is a still from the video of Shanahan performing Andrew Bird’s Why?, which can be found here. The image of Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here. The image of Arnold Schoenberg can be found here. The image of the Contemporaneous program cover can be found here.