Philadelphia classical music events, discussion, and directory
On Thursday, July 12th, at 7:30 pm after a relaxing afternoon enjoying drinks in Rittenhouse Square, I joined some friends at the William Way LGBT Community Center for the LocalArtsLive/William Way Classical Music Showcase. I was looking forward to a very interesting evening, as the bill featured three groups with unique agendas: The Laughing Bird, Beta Test Music, and Murmuration.
I must confess that this was my first time attending an event at the William Way Center, and I was not disappointed in the least. The Community Center is housed in an elegant building located at 1315 Spruce Street; originally conceived as two separate townhouses, the building was given a facelift in 1929 by the Engineers Club of Philadelphia, who owned both structures since the early part of the 20th century, and wanted a unified structure as the headquarters for their downtown professional club. The building became the new home of the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, now William Way LGBT Center, in 1997. As I entered the building I was struck by the elegance of its beautifully restored Edwardian interior; after entering through the fantastic mahogany accented lobby we were led up the grand paneled staircase to the second floor ballroom which is used as an events venue, in this case a musical salon.
As our host, Steve Schatz, put it: the evening would provide a very expansive view of musical expression. From music of the past, to music of the present, to music that has not yet happened (because it would be improvised on the spot).
The first group to take the floor of the showcase was The Laughing Bird. This was the second time I heard this group (for a full review of their debut concert in February see: here) and I was astounded once again by the quality and musicality displayed by their members. This time they performed a concise program of chansons interspersed with parts of their corresponding parody masses. The first of many musical transformations that evening, the opening chanson Frère Thibault with its salacious text about a monk’s frustrated encounter with a prostitute, was immediately followed by the Kyrie and Credo of Orlando Lasso’s Missa super “Frère Thibault” (aka Mass on the theme of ‘Friar Thibault’). Now, just so that we are on the same page, a ‘parody mass’ is a type of Mass setting quite popular in the 15th and 16th centuries in which composers utilized a popular tune from a secular song as the thematic basis for a sacred Mass setting. One can imagine that using a tune from a popular song about a friar whose sexual encounter was thwarted by the fact that the prostitute’s rear was too large to pass through the grate of his cell was probably the cause of much laughter, and likely much scandal as well. It appears, however, that the practice of parody mass writing was pervasive enough to prompt a ban by church officials in the council of Trent when in a document dated September 10th, 1562 they admonished: "...let nothing profane be intermingled ... banish from church all music which contains, whether in the singing or the organ playing, things that are lascivious or impure." (Reese, G. Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954, p. 449). In any case, banned or not, The Laughing Bird quartet of Leslie Johnson (soprano), Jenifer L. Smith (mezzo-soprano), Steven Bradshaw (tenor), and Colin Dill (bass), treated those present at the William Way center to some of the best a capella performance of early 16th century music they will find for miles. Keep an eye (and ear) out for them. They are good, VERY good.
The second group to take the floor was Beta Test Music, a chamber ensemble specializing in adapting and performing “Geek” and contemporary music co-founded by Steven P. Lakawicz, and Douglas Laustsen in 2010. This evening they were joined by Rob Tait on drums, Ben Mulholland on horn, Justin Bulava on clarinet and piano and Mark Zelesky on saxophone and piano. This was the first time I listened to this lively group of gentlemen, and I was not disappointed. These self-styled and proud Geeks treated the audience to a variety of musical adaptations that included music by video game great Koji Kondo, Nintendo powerhouse composer responsible for the music in the Mario and The Legend of Zelda series; also on the bill was the theme music from the film Beetlejuice, as well as a suite music from the BBC sci-fi classic series Doctor Who. Group co-founder Douglas Laustsen’s Diminutive Tetrinoes, a re-imagining of music from Tetris was featured as a quartet (in keeping with Tetris’ basis on the number 4). This was a very fun group to listen to because it was evident that they really enjoy what they are doing, and you can tell that performing this music live is great fun for them. The same can be said for the audience (me included), who were made to move and laugh to the cool and klezmer-esque sound of Elfman’s wonky film tune (my personal favorite). What makes this group so appealing, aside from the evident love they have for what they do, is that they bring to the audience a vibrant live performance of music that is often heard as Bit tracks or as incidental music in a much more complex work, a film for example. By extracting the music and performing it live, they are able to play on the audience’s emotional reaction to music that is most likely part of very happy memories from childhood or adolescence (or adulthood for those life-long Geeks among us). I would definitely go hear this group perform again, especially if they played along with big-screen visuals of Zelda or Mario. You can keep up with the happenings at their website.
The third and final group of the showcase was Murmuration, a trio (mostly) constituted by Eric Coyne on ‘cello, Russell Kotcher on violin, and Andrew Marsh on voice; all the members also occasionally play the keyboard. Now, I admit that it is quite challenging to write a review for these cool cats because the music they perform is true ephemera: most of what they do is improvised on the spot, and for the most part, never played the same way again or written down. Their first musical extemporization for piano, voice, and ‘cello, featured a text (unknown) from an anthology of Gay Mystic poetry selected at random by Andrew Marsh, whose versatile voice was treated as another instrument on equal footing with the rest of ensemble, not as a typical piece for voice and accompaniment: all parts were equally strong and cohesive. Midway through this improvisation, Russell Kotcher abandoned his place at the piano bench and picked up his violin, allowing the music to transition seamlessly and providing the listener with a variety of tone color. That was followed by a “murmuration” (as these little improvised tidbits may be styled) with a text selected at random by one of the audience members; the person asked if they might improvise using the text from Frère Thibault: the libidinous chanson performed by The Laughing Bird that very evening. This time we’ll call it Murmuration super Frère Thibault! Needless to say the audience laughed and listened attentively as the musicians navigated the text and thought of new ways to highlight the words immediately as they heard them; and trust me, this is harder than it sounds. But the members of Murmuration are not only about creating free-form sound clouds, part of their aim is to play with and explore more traditional forms, as was evident in their final offering for the evening for which they were joined by Beta Test Music member Mark Zelesky on saxophone. Their parameters were simple: improvise some music on a very traditional classical form known as rondeau. This is structured as A-B-A-C-A where the ‘A’ represents a returning theme and the interspersed letters (B, C, D, etc) a contrasting theme; because the ‘A’ returns after every new variation, this gives the form a circular feel, hence its name. Their structure for this version was a great deal freer than usual: the ‘A’ sections would be dissonant/atonal music, and the other episodes (B, C, D, etc) would be tonal. Most people who listen to Murmuration for the first time (they have been featured at the Philly Fringe, various Salons, and are currently part of Commotion’s interactive sound art project “Sound Places”) are amazed with what they are able to achieve with little to no previous planning, and usually comment on how they have never heard a classical improvisation group. This is great for them: they have found fertile ground; but it also speaks of a dying art that was for many centuries an integral part of musical education: the art of ex tempore improvisation. These days that sort of thing is usually left to particularly geeky Early Music enthusiasts, or well-trained Jazz musicians, but hardly ever is this a part of classical musical instruction per se, where religious adherence to what is printed on the page sometimes borders on comical absurdity. Follow them on Facebook so you can have a chance of catching some of their classical improv tunes before they dematerialize into the ether.
All said, it was a great musical showcase planned by LocalArtsLive director Sharon Torello and the William Way LGBT Center; I can think of very few times when I was treated to such diversity of talent, people, and aesthetics in one single program. Additionally, was I ever surprised by the fantastic accoustics in this place! Definitely an excellent downtown location and concert space. One thought that kept coming back to me throughout was how much I would love to see ALL three groups collaborate on something. Seriously, if you’re a filmmaker, game designer, producer, or any creative type that needs some fantastic music to compliment any of your creations, you better get to these guys before someone else does and makes them famous. I hope someone does soon: they deserve it!
Carlos Roberto Ramírez is a Graduate Fellow in Musicology at Cornell University.