MusicNOW Night Three: The National, CSO, and more

Rubato Photo

For years, Memorial Hall has been MusicNOW’s spiritual home. Even last year, the first partnered with the Symphony, the Karl Jensen lightboxes and strands of incandescent bulbs felt a bit as if they’d been uprooted. But walking into Cincinnati Music Hall last night, there could be no doubt: the festival’s soul was clamoring for some bigger real estate. The lightboxes and projections are once again aglow in the lobby, but are now joined by Jensen’s new striking companion piece hanging above the Springer Auditorium stage. Welcome home.

The evening opened in the third floor Corbett Tower with a pair of short recitals. Virtuosic violinist Yuki Numata Resnick started us off with Bryce Dessner’s “Ornament and Crime,” a two-movement Bach and Loos-inspired piece recently commissioned by the Dutch festival Crosslinx. Resnick then invited her husband, National horn player Kyle Resnick, to perform with her for the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1. Contemporary legend Nico Muhly then introduced his beautiful “Drones for Violin,” in which violin and piano take turns soloing while the other creates ambient noise in the background. 2012 MusicNOW alumnus (and former organist for Westminster Abbey, London) James McVinnie closed out the recital on piano and positively nailed the seven movements of Bach’s Partita No. 4.

The atmosphere was absolutely buzzing in Music Hall as the lights went down for the first half of the program. In a clever ruse, conductor Louis Langrée entered the stage prior to concertmaster Timothy Lees. When the latter arrived stage right, Langrée ushered him onto the podium, where Lees promptly started the orchestra into Edgard Varèse’s satirical “Tuning Up,” which, as you might expect, sounds like the symphony’s traditional pre-concert tuning. After the work, Langrée and Dessner used this as a teaching moment in their introduction. “Was that music?” Langrée asked. “It was certainly composed.” Dessner spoke on the artificial barriers people place in genre classification: “to us [the musicians], it’s all part of the same thing.” MusicNOW’s ethos in a nutshell.

“The Infernal Machine” was next, from Christopher Rouse’s Phantasmata cycle. The string sections conjured demonic steam hisses while the clanking percussion implied the eponymous clockwork contraption. One night removed from her breathtaking vocal performance with concert:nova, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and violinist Caroline Shaw premiered her first violin concerto, “Lo,” commissioned by MusicNOW. The work is punctuated by chiming xylophone and foreboding bass drum, and nasal horns give way to rapid overlapping pizzicato cellos. This was Shaw’s debut performance as an orchestral soloist, but with this remarkable personalized piece under her belt, it’s far from her last.

Another Dessner piece followed, “Lachrimae,” featured on the same recording as “St. Carolyn by the Sea” which was performed at last year’s festival. Dessner is a master at creating textural contrast with strings, and cellos took doomed descents down the bass clef while a sea of violins churned above. There was some confusion over the program, as the listed order had been abandoned due to the logistical considerations of incorporating a rock band. Many audience members started towards the doors for intermission only to rush back to their seats as Langrée cued up John Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” The piece lost some of its punch in the large outdoor setting at last summer’s Lumenocity performances, but the ecstatic whirligig was in fine form here. At intermission, French singer Mina Tindle played a delightful six song set, and was joined briefly by Dessner on guitar. Cheery crowd chatter and boomy acoustics made her a bit hard to hear clearly unless you were directly in front of the speakers, but she’ll be playing a full set at Memorial Hall on Sunday evening.

Reentering the auditorium, it was clear that the majority of the audience was present for The National, making their second MusicNOW appearance and their first joined by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. This was a unique and defining moment in the history of a band with deep local ties. They did not disappoint. Bryce’s twin brother, guitarist Aaron Dessner, was in upstate New York awaiting the birth of his child (“Aaron’s not getting paid for this, right?”), and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry filled in admirably. Muhly rounded out the group on piano.

Dessner quietly started the intro to High Violet’s slow-building “Runaway,” and one by one the rest of the band, and then the orchestra, joined in. After singer Matt Berninger’s final moan of “It’s taking forever,” the dormant strings swelled above the rest, carrying the song home to its climax and a roaring ovation. The symphony added a nice counterpoint to the confessional end of “This Is The Last Time,” but the collaboration didn’t reach its full potential until the monolithic “England.” If ever there was a National song born to get the full orchestral treatment, it was this, and the brass section particularly rose to the occasion here. Berninger was more restrained than he sometimes is, holding back most of his shrieks on “England” and This Is The Last Time,” and although I wouldn’t want to see it as a permanent aesthetic shift, it was the right move given the setting.

The orchestra took a back seat for a pretty run through “I Need My Girl,” the appetizer for the evening’s crowning achievement. Nauseous strings shuttered beneath the quiet dread of “About Today,” decidedly the best song in the set, and although they cut the usual extended outro a bit short, Dessner’s Gibson Firebird still rang out triumphantly above the fray. As has become tradition over the last two tours, they closed their set with “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” As the song went on, Berninger stepped progressively farther back from the microphone, letting his resonant baritone echo through the hall.

Called back to the stage for an encore, the group launched into “Fake Empire,” and Louis Langrée himself took on the piano duties for the finale. What was initially advertised as a 20 minute set ended up clocking in just shy of 40, and the generosity did not go unappreciated. Friday was just another in a long string of great MusicNOW programs, but due to its high profile will likely come to be a defining one for many. Fortunately, it was deeply deserving of that status. MusicNOW and the Symphony return tonight with Sufjan Stevens, Sō Percussion, and many more. Check out our festival guide for full details.

Yuki Numata Resnick recital:
Ornament and Crime (Bryce Dessner)
Sarabande from Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor (J.S. Bach, with Kyle Resnick, trumpet)
Drones and Violin (Nico Muhly, with Nico Muhly, piano)

James McVinnie recital:
Partita No. 4 in D Major (J.S. Bach)

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra:
Tuning Up (Edgard Varèse)
The Infernal Machine (Christopher Rouse)
Lo (Caroline Shaw, world premiere)
Lachrimae (Bryce Dessner)
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (John Adams)

The National with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra:
This Is The Last Time
I Need My Girl (without Orchestra)
About Today
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

Fake Empire (without Orchestra, with Louis Langrée on piano)


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