On Thursday, February 11, 2016, Contemporaneous, the new music chamber orchestra that now makes its home in New York City, presented its program, Laws of Nature, in an incredibly cool-looking Brooklyn venue, Pioneer Works. The next night, to my grateful hosannas, Contemporaneous came home to the Hudson Valley—to Tivoli, a stone’s throw from Bard College, where the orchestra’s life began. Tivoli is one of those small Hudson Valley villages of unassuming, arty charm. I’ve visited its main street eateries, shops, and gallery many times, yet I hadn’t known about Murray’s, a former church converted into a concert space, café, and art gallery, and let me tell you, as soon as I walked in the door, I was ready to move in.
Contemporaneous chose for its program four works by an international roster of composers: Icelandic Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977), Australian Kate Moore (b.1979), Canadian Fjóla Evans (b. 1987 in Iceland), and Californian Joanna Newsom (b. 1982). As you’ve probably noted, all four happen to be women. Evans, whose work Contemporaneous commissioned, came in from Toronto especially to introduce her piece.
From a front row seat I marveled, yet again, as the unequaled miracle of live performance in a felicitous setting revealed itself before my ears and eyes. At Murray’s Sanctuary, with its excellent acoustic, musicians and listeners are enveloped in a unique intensity of connection, and the sublime physicality of music-making comes alive as it does nowhere else. In a larger hall, the force of live performance, precious gift though it is, can be blunted: I have too often had the experience in large halls of music “over there” while I am “way back here.” Sitting in the front rows can be aurally exhilarating, but visually, I crane my neck for a view of musicians’ feet and the underside of a sea of stands.
Not so at Murray’s. I could see, as well as hear, the musicians of Contemporaneous enact Thorvaldsdottir’s sounds and shapes, redolent, for me, of watching spring break open on the Hudson River, with jagged ice floes piling on one another and dispersing along currents of trapped water newly freed. I could see, as well as hear, Moore’s sounds and rhythms swell from strings through winds and brass to the tier above, where Amy Garapic and Matt Evans worked percussive alchemy, while behind me Eric Farber‘s sculpture sounded harsh disruptions in Colin Davin‘s adept hands. I could see, as well as hear, the liquid elegance of Lucy Dhegrae’s voice emerge from the lovely night-lull of Evans’s Nótt. I could see, as well as hear, Newsom’s harp-notes transformed by Dylan Mattingly’s orchestral rendering as Finnegan Shanahan rose bodily to caress each note of text with pellucid voice. And I could see, as well as hear, David Bloom conduct with precise, balletic grace, his hands gathering in each note and sending it aloft.
Contemporaneous is, by now, “my tribe.” I’ve come to know many of its composers, musicians, and ever-growing community of listeners. I’ve watched Contemporaneous evolve from a group of highly talented students with a passion for new music into a thoroughly professional, consummately focused, chamber orchestra that is buoyantly alive to the music it performs.
All this I could see, as well as hear, from arrival out of the bitter cold into a sanctuary suffused with warmth through the moment when David Bloom, describing a graceful arc in the air, summoned the orchestra’s members to stand and, in perfect unison, take a well-earned bow.
Audio and video of music by Kate Moore may be found here.
Audio and video of music by Fjóla Evans may be found here.
A review of the concert may be found here.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s album Rhízōma, on which Streaming Arhythmia appears, may be found on Spotify here.
On YouTube and Elsewhere
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Streaming Arhythmia (2007) (This is the work Contemporaneous performed at the concert.)
You may also hear Streaming Arhythmia here.
Joanna Newsom: Sawdust and Diamonds (2006) (This is the work Contemporaneous performed at the concert, in an arrangement for orchestra by Dylan Mattingly. The text, which Finnegan Shanagan performed from memory, may be found here.)
Credits: The source for the photograph at the head of the post may be found here. The photographs in the slideshow are mine.
Proud to say I know and like what I’ve heard of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s music (you see, I’ve even borrowed the Icelandic ‘th’ from my Arts Desk mention of her Ró in Reykjavik, a piece I instantly liked. And she created the effective fanfare for the launch of Harpa, the city’s stunning concert-hall complex). Four cheers here, then, for Contemporaneous’s programming. We MUST have them over here.
David: Love your Icelandic “th.” Found the link to your TAD article mentioning Þorvaldsdóttir, which, for anyone who’d like to read it, is here: http://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/theartsdesk-reykjav%C3%ADk-fanfare-harpa-concert-hall This Contemporaneous show was indeed a great performance of a terrific program, and all four of us who attended together, each with very different musical tastes, had a wonderful time. I wish you could have been there, too: along with the music, I think you would have really appreciated the setting. I join in hoping that, at some point, they’ll come to YOUR side of the pond.
David: Going back to your review, I thought again about what a vibrant place for music Iceland is, reminding me so much of Finland. And lo, here’s a line from your review that’s exactly on point: “None of this, huge fun though it was, should obscure the fact that musical training in Iceland is taken very seriously – second only, perhaps, to Finland in the Nordic countries.”
And of course if I’d heard more about the training in Norway, especially for a whole new generation of superb string players (there’s a very famous school in Oslo), I wouldn’t have presumed to know which countries were best. Our information about the world is always so partial until we experiences aspects of it for ourselves.
David: Wonderful to learn that about Norway, and not surprising, is it? How right you are that our information about the world is always so partial until we experience it for ourselves (and even then). We saw the new Michael Moore movie today, which features, among others, Norway, Iceland, and Tunisia. At one point, he invites a Tunisian journalist to speak directly to us in the US. What she says is very much to your point, about the importance of getting to know more of the wider world. (Thanks also for the link, BTW.)
Oh, and ps, the article in which I came more to grips with Icelandic Anna was about the Dark Music Days Festival: http://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/theartsdesk-reykjav%C3%ADk-bright-nights-dark-music-days
I so understand your joy at being able to hear and see the music and performers. There’s nothing like listening in an intimate space when a chamber orchestra is playing.
Congratulations, by the way, on having been one of the first people to ‘discover’ Contemporaneous’. You appear to have been spot on with your appreciation of their work. May they go from strength to strength.
Friko: So nice to hear from you! It really was a wonderful occasion, in every sense. Now that Contemporaneous has moved its “base of operations” to NYC, I don’t get to see them perform as often, so this was a particular treat, and the venue, as I’ve already exclaimed about repeatedly, was perfect. I’ve really enjoyed (in case you hadn’t noticed?!) following their path from almost inception. I knew, from early on, that I was witnessing something rare, but it’s only over time that I’ve come to appreciate fully what a miracle it was (and is) to have an honest-to-goodness chamber orchestra of this caliber that, in country-living terms, is right at my doorstep.
I so enjoyed your rhapsodic comments about the melding of music and space for this concert. It is a beautiful venue, and I would think a perfect spot for an evening of Contemporaneous’s music.
And just this morning, I saw some of the most amazing photographs from Iceland. It seems that there, too, the music and the larger environment complement one another.
I have to say, Joanna Newsom was my favorite. I was so intrigued by her voice that I went a-browsing, and learned about her two-month inability to sing or speak because of nodules. I also read that she dislikes the “childlike” quality of her voice. That was what I noticed, I think: although it didn’t diminish my pleasure in her music. I do like a harp, and was interested in the fact that her mother played hammered dulcimer.
You certainly have experienced some treats of late — thanks for sharing them with us.
shoreacres: Iceland’s scenery does look spectacular, doesn’t it? I first learned about this from David Nice, who considers it a must visit place in the world and has posted incredible photos from his trips there on his blog. On Newsom and the harp, here’s a fun connection for you: Dylan Mattingly is a big fan of Newsom’s, so much so, that he wanted at one point, to take up the harp as his instrument.
“In a larger hall, the force of live performance, precious gift though it is, can be blunted: I have too often had the experience in large halls of music ‘over there’ while I am ‘way back here.’ ”
Unfortunately we had that experience last Sunday sitting toward the back of a larger church for a performance of “Very Truly Yours,” a medley of Gilbert and Sullivan songs connected by quotations from the letters between the two:
Future or even current sociologists probably have much to say about the phenomenon of churches getting converted to restaurants. I’ve eaten in several, including the pizzeria called John’s of Times Square:
Even more interesting for sociologists, perhaps, is the conversion of churches to antiques emporiums: ‘looking for a bargain’ has been a Sunday religion for a couple of decades in the UK now.
Steve and David: I think there’s a post in here somewhere about church buildings converted to other uses. I see this quite a lot in the area where we live now, yet now can’t think of a single one. Note to self: pay better attention! Steve: ah, too bad about the G&S; I do recall once sitting way back in a church for a concert, and it didn’t work very well either. Love your link on the converted NYC churches. I haven’t been in the pizzeria, but I’ve been in a couple others at the link. David, I don’t think I’ve run across a church converted to an antique emporium. Must keep an eye out for that.
Does this give rise to the oft-used phrase, “Whatever will they think of next?”
We were struck by the conversion in Norwich, which of course has some 50 churches, so they can’t all be used for their original purposes. I’m encouraged by all those enlightened vicars who use their space as a community centre, for putting on plays of all sorts etc. It’s the only way many in the UK can keep on going.
David: Yes, here it’s much the same, and some, like Trinity Wall Street, make an incredibly vibrant contribution to NYC’s musical life.