Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dawn Upshaw rocks but needs a better sound engineer.

Dawn Upshaw sang Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre at the Seattle Symphony’s joint, Benaroya Hall, Friday night, with Orquesta Los Pelegrinos, a hot chamber ensemble made up of members of the Grammy-Award-winning group eighth blackbird and other musicians. The performance rocked but the mix was bad and the experience as a whole fell between the cracks of the piece, between classical and a pop version of “world” music, between chamber and orchestral, between acoustic and electric. It tried to bring these disparate strands together and, to my ears, failed. I was in the minority, though. The audience cheered the piece with a five-minute standing ovation.

The mix was bad. Upshaw was too low. In traditional classical music, under-powered singers in large halls are the norm. But this isn’t traditional classical music. One movement boasted four Dawn Upshaws singing together, one of her live in the room with us, the other three pre-recorded. She was amplified for the concert. But not enough to make it work in the room.

The electronic percussion was mixed too high. The electronic reverb on the electronic percussion made the band sound less cohesive. I can only speculate, but the case of the over-reverbed electronic percussion may have been a result of not thinking through the difference between live performance and record production. For the record, it makes sense to overlay a veneer of reverberation on the whole ensemble. But to take the treated percussion recording and perform with it, the reverb will redouble against the acoustics of the actual room. It puts the recorded track out of sync with the live musicians. A more effective route would be to eliminate the reverb from the recording for live performance.

On the record, Golijov makes full use of pop studio trickery, to powerful effect. It’s loud, powerful, high-impact music.

It wasn’t that at Benaroya Hall on Friday night. It sounded small, and the smallness felt like a concession to classical convention. “Don’t amplify it too loud.”

One classical convention pleased me more than it had on the record. The almost inaudibly quiet recitation of a translation of a poem by the Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish is equally too-quiet on the record, but the near-inaudibility played better with the speaker in sight.

Ayre is a masterpiece of marketing. If it had been marketed as a world-music fusion album -- which is what it is -- it would have garnered a handful of deservedly excellent reviews and then dropped from sight. As “classical” music its novelty has serious legs. From a world-fusion viewpoint, some of the composing feels second-hand. Golijov can reel off an excellent klezmer-style riff, but once he lays it out, he doesn’t surprise us with anything within the style he is mimicking. A musician with more commitment to a style will find continual surprises within it.

Again, my reaction was in the minority. I can understand why: The exciting bits were exciting, the pretty bits were pretty, the juxtapositions were novel from a classical point of view, Upshaw’s performance throughout was fantastic, the band was terrific, some of the writing -- the last movement in particular -- is gorgeous. And
I do have to give it up to Golijov for using techno-style electronic percussion for a movement in very fast 18/8 meter -- a quick 6-beat measure with very fast triplets throughout -- I have no recollection of having heard that meter elsewhere, and it works great techno-style.

So why am I such a grump? Because the music didn’t fit the venue, the technical logistics were not thought through, and in at least one place the music seemed second-hand.

* * *

A quick note about the deplorable quality of the complementary programs provided by the symphony: Nowhere does the program acknowledge that Oscar-winning soundtrack composer Gustavo Santoalalla wrote two of Ayre’s movements (I wrote about this last May; the use of multiple composers is another similarity with world-fusion; typically, the Symphony’s program elided this). Also, there was no information about the band besides their names; I had to dig through a number of internet search links before I found out anything about them.

* * *

I’m not really so grumpy. It’s funny. Now, several days after the concert, themes from the piece echo in my mind’s ear. I want to hear it again -- on a recording. In fact, I’m listening to it now on my computer as I type this. I’m even liking the klezmer licks.

-- Photo by Dario Acosta.

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