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MusicNOW Marries Classical, Bluegrass, and the Avant-Garde

MusicNOW Marries Classical, Bluegrass, and the Avant-Garde

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Unlike most festivals, MusicNOW has institutional memory. Each spring, founder Bryce Dessner (best known for his work in The National) continues an ongoing story, building on prior performances rather than presenting one disjointed slate of acts after another. In addition to carefully curated lineups, every year features once-in-a-lifetime collaborations, world premieres, and pop-up performances. Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival and Justin Vernon’s Wisconsin-based Eaux Claires exist in similar rarified air, but there is no other event in the country quite like MusicNOW. Over the last decade, Dessner has often fielded offers to move the festival to larger locales, but has pointedly kept the event right here in Cincinnati. In 2014, Dessner launched a new partnership with Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which continues for a third year (and has already been extended for a fourth next January).

Check out our interview with Bryce Dessner, the Founder of MusicNOW HERE!

Enter to win a pair of tickets to MusicNOW HERE!          

The 2016 incarnation of MusicNOW is more streamlined than the sprawling brilliance of last year’s festival, which saw dozens of artists and multiple ensembles at four venues over five nights. This year comes packaged as a neat long weekend, Friday and Saturday at Cincinnati Music Hall with the Symphony, and a Sunday concert at the Cincinnati Masonic Center Auditorium. Mandolinist Chris Thile is the man of the weekend, performing a solo set at the end of the Friday program and a headlining appearance with his dynamic Punch Brothers to close things out. Thile is only in his mid-30’s, but has already been a prominent force for two decades, touring the world since his teens as a member of Nickel Creek, Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Sessions, and his own masterful solo work. Punch Brothers shows run the gamut from bluegrass instrumentals to Radiohead covers to carefully-arranged classical pieces. Last year, the quintet released their fourth album, The Phosphorescent Blues, on Nonesuch, and followed it up a few months later with the EP The Wireless. Starting in the fall, Thile will also be taking over for Garrison Keillor as the new host of PRI’s A Prairie Home Companion.

MusicNOW’s other marquee name is the Kronos Quartet, the incomparable Bay Area ensemble that has towered over contemporary Classical music for four decades. The group has recorded Dessner's work before, and his roiling “Aheym” is on this year’s program in a world premiere full-orchestra arrangement. The Quartet is on hand to perform Julia Wolfe’s nightmarish post-9/11 “My Beautiful Scream,” a concerto for quartet and orchestra, which she describes as “a scream, in slow motion, beginning with the breath that one takes and reaching out to the extremity of the human cry.” They return on Saturday to perform another concerto, this time Terry Riley’s “The Sands,” which, like Wolfe’s piece, was originally commissioned for the group.

As usual, though, the weekend goes far deeper than its headliners. World-renowned violinist Jennifer Koh, an alumnus of Oberlin College, continues this year’s trend of concerti with Anna Clyne’s electronics-infused “The Seamstress,” which Koh premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year. Unaccompanied, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will also present Witold LutosÅ‚awski’s avant-garde “Musique Funebre,” composed for string orchestra in tribute to Béla Bartók, followed by the North American Premiere of Dessner’s “Reponse LutosÅ‚awski,” first performed in Poland two years ago. Langrée and the CSO close out the Music Hall portion of the weekend with Magnus Lindberg’s “Feria,” and episodic, bright work punctuated by exultant fanfares. 

The final night of the festival moves down to 5th and Broadway at the Cincinnati Masonic Center Auditorium. The venue is new to the festival, taking the place of traditional home Memorial Hall while the building is undergoing renovations.  In addition to the aforementioned Punch Brothers, folksinger Sam Amidon returns to MusicNOW after a breathtaking set to open the 2012 festival which saw him joined by Nico Muhly, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and organist James McVinnie. Amidon, part of the Bedroom Community collective, is touring off of his revelatory 2014 LP Lily-O and a recent reissue of his debut record, But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted. The night opens with Brooklyn-via-Australia duo Luluc, whose Sub Pop debut Passerby was produced by Dessner’s brother and National bandmate Aaron.

And hopefully, we’ll get a few of MusicNOW’s trademark surprises. In recent years, artists such as National side project LNZNDRF, Mina Tindle, and Olga Bell have performed in the Music Hall lobby during intermission, and pre-concert recitals by classical artists have been announced days (or even hours) beforehand. No matter what happens, though, it will be another unforgettable and irreplicable weekend, and another chapter in the incredible decade-long gift that Bryce Dessner has given the city of Cincinnati.

MusicNOW Festival
March 18-20
8:00 PM, Friday and Saturday at Music Hall, 1241 Elm Street, Over-the-Rhine
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, Jennifer KohChris Thile
Tickets $10-101 per night, two-day passes $50-75 

7:00 PM Sunday at Cincinnati Masonic Center Auditorium, 317 E 5th Street, Downtown
Punch Brothers, Sam Amidon, Luluc
Tickets $30 general admission