NEW YORK – New York City, hit early and and hit hard by the pandemic, remains under relatively strict lockdown, a particular burden for a city with such a large concentration of performing artists. While many European and a few U.S. opera companies and orchestras have been rehearsing and performing fresh material, sometimes for live audiences, New York’s large theaters have been dark for over a year, with orchestra members furloughed and companies reduced to streaming archived shows or earnest Zoom performances.
City theaters are now permitted to open with limited audiences, but most local companies can’t afford to operate at only one-third capacity. So for now, streaming remains the best practice, and in a city with a robust freelance scene, chamber music offers varied and flexible options, including easy social distancing.
Enter Cutting Edge Concerts, the annual new music series directed and curated by the multi-talented Victoria Bond — conductor, composer, educator, and stalwart of the New York music scene. Bond founded the series in 1998 as a showcase for works by living composers. Over the years, her eclectic programming has ranged from solo performances to large ensembles by composers both well established and lesser known. Last year’s series had to be canceled, but this spring, weary of ongoing pandemic restrictions and eager to resume concert life, she decided to forge ahead almost as usual, offering a pair of intriguing programs performed in the series’ regular home, the Thalia Theatre, 30 blocks up Broadway from Lincoln Center, still dark, and streamed live on YouTube without an audience.
The April 19 concert was a solo recital by Paul Barnes, a pianist, teacher, and chanter in the Greek Orthodox church in Lincoln, Neb. His repertoire has focused on contemporary works and music with a spiritual component. Barnes has a special affinity for the music of Philip Glass, with whom he became friends after a chance meeting in 1995 on a flight out of Nebraska. New music, spiritual inspiration, and Glass converged in the program titled “Immigrant Dreams,” though it might more appropriately have been called “Immigrant Prayers,” as all of the music was based on or inspired by Byzantine chant.
As at every Cutting Edge concert, Bond prefaced each piece with conversation with each composer, here relying on taped introductions from Ron Warren, a Native American composer and flutist, and composer David van Kampen in their absence, and with the performer. For this program, as Byzantine chant was the evening’s unifying element, she invited Barnes to explain the sources and context of each chant. Before each piece, the pianist also sang the liturgical chant or chants on which each composition was based (for all but the opening work). Accompanied by an iPad-controlled recording of a drone sung by monks, his penetrating, reedy baritone rang out hypnotically, gliding through the melismas of each antiphon or psalm to establish mode and mood before he sat down to play.
The title of Warren’s Distances Between 2 (2018), the opening work, refers to the microtonal pitches of the native flute, whose intervals vary from those of the equal-tempered Western scale. Barnes and Warren had previously worked with Glass on his Piano Concerto No. 2, premiered in 2004 by the pianist, in which the composer incorporated the sounds of chant and native flute in the second movement. Warren’s contemplative, transparent piece eased a listener into a sound world of “in between” notes with an ethereal halo of overtones that hovered softly as sustained chords faded. Hearing this in the theater, I wondered whether the effect would be audible over the Internet, but the YouTube recording does provide some idea of that haunting sound.
Any expectation of an evening of gentle trance music was dispelled with Glass’s Annunciation, originally written and premiered for piano quintet in 2018 and arranged by Barnes last summer during time freed up by Covid cancellations. It might be difficult to imagine a piano reduction of Glass’s intricate textures, but as Glass himself observed before the performance, “By bringing the music through one personality, it shows a range and depth of the music which I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t heard him play it.” Indeed, through the veil of Glass’ characteristic driving arpeggios, I could hear Barnes emphasize fundamental voices that don’t always emerge so clearly in Glass’s ensemble music. Barnes’ playing devoured the often dense textures with aplomb. The second movement burst into jazzy rhythms and exploded across the keyboard in both directions.
Barnes invited Kampen, a University of Nebraska composer colleague who specializes in choral and jazz vocal music, to write Trisagion (2020), incorporating Byzantine baptismal and funeral hymns in an eight-minute theme-and-variation structure. Baroque figuration stretched out the ornaments of the chant, and jazz harmonizations lent an air of meditative improvisation as the energy surged and retreated.
The final work, Bond’s Three Illuminations on Byzantine Chant, offered a set of chant interpretations. The opening movement, “Potirion Sotiriu,” written for Barnes in 1999, fleetingly evoked Ravel’s Greek folk song settings, with rolling arpeggiation under the simply stated chant melody. The second movement, “Sineron Kremate” (2019), was based on a Crucifixion chant that Bond had identified as very similar to a Passover chant; her exploration of the modal twists and turns demanded Lisztian virtuosity before relaxing into quiet arpeggios embroidering the chant theme. The finale, “Enite ton Kyrion” (2021), suggested the joyful peal of bells that slowly faded into the distance.
The concert was well paced and beautifully performed, with a satisfying energetic arc and a surprising amount of variety for a program based entirely on Byzantine chant. And sitting in a theater felt strange but comforting as I experienced again some of the once-familiar rituals of concert going: focused listening in the company of (a very few) others, unmediated musical sonorities, the energy projected by the performers, even the sound of fidgeting behind me, and applause restoring the performer-audience relationship. All of it offered a link to the Before times, and a hope for normalcy to resume sooner rather than later.