Review of Apartment House/Elaine Mitchener – poetry and provocations | Classical music


HAmong this year’s anniversaries is the centenary of Charles Mingus’ birth – 2022 also marks 50 years since the first performance of his String Quartet No. 1, commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of a program celebrating poet Frank O’Hara.

The piece, for voice and string quartet (violin, viola and two cellos), was premiered in Europe only three years ago. It’s more Bartók than blues, a compressed squiggle of diligent counterpoint that stays constantly entangled for about 10 minutes. Opening Round’s Sounds of Now series, new music group Apartment House and Elaine Mitchener gave a relatively simple account of this expressive and sometimes passionate work. I would be intrigued to hear a more languorous rendition – perhaps on a long-awaited debut recording.

It was the only small disappointment in a moving hour of music drawn mostly from the American experimental music tradition. In a post-concert talk, Mitchener underscored the centrality of the struggle to the program’s featured poets – from the rantings of Susan Griffin in Christian Wolff’s I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman, to the provocations of Jeanne Lee in the striking Blasé du saxophonist Archie Shepp. Lee’s Mingus Meditations – a duet for voice and double bass, originally recorded with Dave Holland – was a real treat, with nimble bass work from the impressive Neil Charles backing up Mitchener’s characterful chatter.

Between these pieces were two responses to visual works, treated as graphic scores (Insomnia Drawings by Louise Bourgeois, musically suggestive, and the experimental typography of The text by Jackson Mac Low on the opposite page), as well as an augmented version of Ben Patterson’s Duo for Voice and Voice. String instrument and some of Mitchener’s works. Mitchener’s phonetic fireworks and mastery of register are instantly striking, but his dedication to the wide variety of spoken texts carried the deepest moments of the evening.

Sounds of Now continues through May 19.


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