Friday, January 25, 2008

Moments of a Piano Marathon and the Fastest Fiddler Around

To celebrate the renovation of Merkin Concert Hall here in New York City, the artistic director Gregory D. Evans--he of the outlandish hair, large plastic glasses and (possibly, although he doesn't wear them anymore, George Steel-inspired) bowtie--decided to host a six-hour piano marathonon Dr. King's Day and make it free.

The event started at 2:00 p.m. My friend Dan and I arrived there around 4:30. As might be expected of a free event being held at a 450-seat concert hall in New York, the lobby was a zoo. We proceeded to wait in line for almost an hour before enough seats freed up that we could enter. The beleaguered Merkin Hall house staff was doing their best to contend with a group of typically entitled-feeling New Yorkers. ("It's my husband's birthday. Can't he cut 12 of you in line?") But a little bit of better planning would have been useful (e.g. distributing tickets in advance for the different performance segments and then additional stand-by tickets).

When we did get inside, they were running between an hour and 90 minutes behind schedule. We weren't there to see anyone in particular, so it didn't matter that much. (In fact, Dan and I had quite opposite preferences in terms of music: he wanted to hear the Rachmaninoff and the Chopin and avoid the Glass; I wanted to hear the Rzewski, the John Adams and, most importantly, Gyorgy Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique, which is not a piece for piano at all, but rather a tour de force scored for 100 metronomes. (Part of the appeal of seeing Poeme Symphonique was to figure out exactly how Gregory D. Evans--he of the bowtie--would be "conducting" it as alleged in the press release.))

We caught Vijay Iyer's last piece, which as near as we could tell was a riff on John Lennon's "Imagine" and pretty enjoyable. Two young piano students--Farrah Dupoux and Brian Ge, the latter of whom was all of ten or eleven years old--tackled John Adams' Hallelujah Junction and did a rather amazing job of it--especially Brian Ge, who recovered from some mistaken page-turning with composure that, I think, few adult pianists would be able to muster. Lee Musiker, a pianist who has worked with the likes of Tony Bennett and Mel Torme, played a couple of jazz standards, and then Jimmy Roberts came out.

Jimmy Roberts is the composer for the long-running Off-Broadway musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, and he was the clear hometown favorite during the piano marathon. People greeted him with an amount of enthusiasm that surprised me (since I had never heard of him). He proceeded to perform three piano "mashups"--my terminology, not his, so far as I know--mixing together classical piano music with pop songs. First we had "Winter" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons mixed with "A Little Help from My Friends" by The Beatles. Then Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" with Beethoven's The Moonlight Sonata. And finally Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations with Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." They were rather charming little concoctions, although they worked better the more you knew the original pieces--so I didn't do so well with the Elgar/Simon mashup, although the Elgar is beautiful, beautiful music, and I wish that I knew it better.

Poeme Symphonique was supposed to come next, but because they were so far behind schedule, they decided not to do it, which was a bit of a disappointment for me. So I have been contenting myself with Ligeti performances on YouTube ever since.

Also, I would like to know where the $17 million of renovation went. I guess that it was mostly to the facade and behind the scenes because the inside of Merkin Hall looked pretty much the same as the last time that I was in it. But a piano marathon is a piano marathon, so I'll take it.

The Fastest Fiddler Around

For the evening's entertainment, I met up with Allan, and we went down to Joe's Pub to see Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Rhonda Vincent has won the International Bluegrass Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year seven times. (She got edged out this year by Dale Ann Bradley, who has a pretty good new CD out--and I'm normally not a huge fan of her stuff.) The band also won Entertainer of the Year back in 2001, although there has been significant personnel turnover since then.

For example, back in 2001, the fiddler in the Rage was Michael Cleveland who also won fiddler of the year for the first time that year and has won it every year since, except for one year, when Jason Carter edged him out. Now, my understanding--which essentially comes from the time at a festival when the Perfect Strangers dedicated their song "Canned by the Best" (written by Bob Black about the time Bill Monroe fired him) to Mike--is that Rhonda told Michael to move along. So you might think that wasn't the best move if the guy went on to win four (and counting) more IBMA awards. But if you think that, maybe you haven't seen Hunter Berry in a while.

Before joining The Rage, Hunter Berry played for a brief time with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, which is about as solid a bluegrass training ground as you can get these days. Despite having had an accident recently--and therefore being doped up on pain medication, Hunter played what I believe the kids call "some awesome fiddle." His fingers were flying, and so were the notes. Visually, it was just a blur, but musically, it was a pretty sweet sound. (No, I said that he was the one on the pain medication.)

(We also discovered why Rhonda keeps him in the band: he's been dating her elder daughter for six years!)

The band is still finding themselves a bit, and maybe particularly so on the night in question. Bass player Mickey Harris had not been able to fly his bass up to New York, and so he was borrowing local bluegrass impresario Allen Cohen's bass. And I think it was the soundman and not the bass, but that bass was way too loud! "Jolene," which Rhonda normally kills, was kind of ruined for me by the booming bass that was knocking the vocals out of the way. And then Kenny Ingram, the star banjo player who has played with bluegrass progenitors Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin and Curly Seckler, was absent from the show because his wife had had an accident of her own recently, so Rhonda's other daughter's boyfriend--really--Daniel Grindstaff, was filling in. Grindstaff was all right in the accompaniment, but his fear of playing up the neck meant that his solos were restrained and a little lifeless.

The best songs were old standards that the players all had in their fingers: Jimmy Martin's "Drink Up and Go Home" and "Little Maggie," for instance, were dead on. But on Rhonda's original material, the band was a little looser and less energetic.

Don't get me wrong: the show was great, and this band is worth traveling some distance to see (like all the way from Morningside Heights to the East Village on a school night). But I've seen The Rage tear a place apart, and a few things got in their way on Monday night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I spent the weekend in DC and was a little sad to be out of town for the piano marathon -- though reading this makes me less so, since the Ligeti was definitely what I was most excited about!