New Music, Faces Energize Scene At Cincinnati Festival

Bryce Dessner and Louis Langrée at MusicNOW Festival 2014, the first collaboration between the contemporary music presenter and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO)
Composer-guitarist Bryce Dessner, founder of MusicNOW, takes a bow with CSO music director Louis Langrée.
The 2014 MusicNOW Festival was a collaborative first with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. (Photos courtesy of CSO)
By Mary Ellyn Hutton

CINCINNATI – A happy coincidence led to the collaboration of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the 2014 MusicNOW Festival on March 21 and 22 at Cincinnati’s Music Hall.

MusicNOW 2014 (Facebook-MusicNOWFestival)
Music Hall, festooned for MusicNOW. (Facebook-MusicNOWFestival)

It was an occasion to let one’s hair down, but it was more than that. It stood for the cross-fertilization of rock and classical music, a process finding its tentative roots here and elsewhere. The event drew a large and enthusiastic audience, enough to cause Louis Langrée, the Cincinnati Symphony’s music director, to look out and welcome the “new faces” in the crowd.

MusicNOW was founded in 2006 by Bryce Dessner, a Cincinnati native and lead guitarist of the alternative rock band The National, to provide a venue for new works. The festival made its home in Memorial Hall, which is next door to Music Hall, headquarters for the orchestra as well as the city’s major opera and choral programs. In 2009 Dessner’s mother invited Trey Devey, president of the Cincinnati Symphony, to a MusicNOW concert. A seed was planted. In 2012, Dessner (classically trained at Yale) met with the orchestra’s newly appointed music director Langrée, leading to this first-ever collaboration.

Nico Muhly takes a bow
Nico Muhly takes a bow after the premiere of ‘Pleasure Ground.’

The March 21 concert featured the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Pleasure Ground — a musical portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park — and two compositions by Dessner, including a work for two electric guitars and orchestra, featuring himself and his brother, fellow National rock guitarist Aaron Dessner, as soloists.

March 22 offered the world premiere of David Lang’s mountain, a tribute to Aaron Copland, as well as the pairing of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) for 48 solo strings with 48 Responses to Polymorphia (2011), composed by Jonny Greenwood of the rock band Radiohead.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy at the MusicNOW Festival.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy sang his own songs at the MusicNOW Festival.

Performing at the festival, in addition to the Dessner brothers was  the sextet eighth blackbird, baritone Nathan Wyatt, and singer-guitarist Will Oldham(better known as Bonny “Prince” Billy), who sang some of his own songs at the head of the March 22 program.

Langrée closed the concerts with works that were challenging in their day, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite.

Helping to cultivate a festival air, there were opening acts by the local band Little Lights March 21 and New York singer-songwriter Olga Bell March 22. Non-iced drinks were even allowed in Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium (generally a no-no).

Pleasure Ground, the Olmsted portrait, demonstrated Muhly’s mastery of orchestral color. Baritone Wyatt voiced Olmsted’s words (he was also a journalist) in the three-part, 20-minute work, which explores his early optimism, his horror at the ravages of the Civil War and his last years in a sanatorium. Part one had an expansive “American” sound, turning dark with sharp stabs of brass in part two. Part three had a tragic cast, again punctuated by brass and percussion, and encompassed a kind of threnody by the winds. “If man is not to live by bread alone, what is better worth doing well than the planting of trees?” The work was deeply expressive, with its emphasis on man’s connection with the earth and how he affects it. Muhly’s title is a pun, by the way, since he uses several ground basses as structural elements.

David Lang takes a bow for the premiere of 'mountain.'
Composer David Lang takes a bow for the premiere of  ‘mountain.’

Lang’s mountain employs the metaphor of a mountain to pay tribute to Aaron Copland. (Lang was further inspired by hours spent viewing a mountain during a summer in Vermont, he told the audience.) The work is structured around a majestic repeated chord, alternating with held pitches by the orchestra. There are subtle changes in both as it goes along, but the effect, said Lang, is “of staring at something for a really long time.” At 10 minutes in length, it makes its impression quickly and powerfully, but one felt that a moment or two over that would have been too much.

Eighth blackbird performed the first of Dessner’s two works on March 21 — Murder Ballades (2013), a work commissioned and premiered by them in 2013. It is a set of seven pieces based, in the manner of Bartók, on American folk music, specifically the “murder ballad,” a folk idiom dealing with notorious homicides. One of them, “Brushy Fork,” included a foot-stomping fiddle tune. Three of the songs are Dessner’s own and are not based on pre-existing models (“Dark Holler” “Wave the Sea” and “Tears for Sister Polly”), though they share the same kind of homespun menace.

The Dessner brothers, Bryce and Aaron, perform together in The National. (
The Dessner brothers, Bryce and Aaron. (

St. Carolyn by the Sea, for two electric guitars and orchestra, brought the Dessner brothers to the stage. This 2011 work is not a concerto for two electric guitars; the instruments are too assimilated for that. They provide gleams of color instead, with occasional exposed passages. The work takes its name from Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur. It is very dramatic, evoking crashing waves against the shore, along with moments of ebb and flow.

Langrée closed the March 21 concert with the Poem of Ecstasy, accompanying Scriabin’s music with lighting effects, gold at the beginning, brightening to white as the music became increasingly rapturous, ending with the house lights up.

Langrée passes around the Penderecki score.
Langrée passes around copies of Penderecki’s ‘Polymorphia’ score.

On the following night the conductor made an invaluable contribution by introducing the Penderecki and Greenwood works. He explained Penderecki’s concept of “what is music” (anything). He passed out pages of the score of Polymorphia to the audience, noting their similarity to readings of an electroencephalogram. Then, cautioning listeners to “fasten their seat belts,” he led the orchestra in the seven-minute work for 48 solo strings (made familiar by the horror films “The Exorcist” and “The Shining”. Color effects were used here as well, mostly red. It was an impressive reading by the orchestra, with wide dynamic ranges and precise execution (sliding the finger over the strings, tapping strings with the stick of the bow, pizzicato, tapping instruments and music stands). It ended with a surprise on a big, blue-lit C major chord.

Parts of the MusicNOW concert were staged with color.
Parts of the MusicNOW Festival concert were staged with color.

Langrée also distributed a page of Greenwood’s Responses (likewise set for strings). On it was a large oak leaf with the stem marked “C” and the curves of the leaf indicating pitch deviations. Blue light was again associated with “C” here, a recurring pitch throughout. Each of the nine Responses takes something from Penderecki’s Polymorphia, but has its own identity. In the first, “Es ist genug,” a chorale becomes a thicket of sound. In “Ranj,” a lament becomes a hail of pizzicato. There are ethereal sounds in “Overtones” and an anguished melody squashed by a big dissonance in “Overhang.” The final Response, “Pacay Tree,” where the players tapped their strings with bean pods, was great fun. The audience’s warm reception of both the Penderecki and the Greenwood testified to Langrée’s skill in providing background and his genial manner of presentation.

Langrée closed the festival with Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. The orchestra played with real virtuosity here and included no fewer than eight percussionists lined up at the rear of the stage. Whether savage, gentle or shimmering with harp and celeste, the four-movement work filled up 3,400-seat Music Hall as few pieces can.

Response to the CSO’s MusicNOW adventure was overwhelmingly positive, with enthusiastic ovations and the hope that it may be repeated in the future.

Mary Ellyn Hutton is a free-lance music writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She wrote for the Cincinnati Post until it closed in 2007 and now maintains a web site at