November 14, 2006
Music in Review
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
It might not have been the sort of Hollywood red-carpet coterie that the Metropolitan Opera mustered for its opening-night extravaganza, but the crowd that assembled on Friday night for a concert at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center was liberally sprinkled with noteworthy figures: composers, artists, even the independent film director Jim Jarmusch. The free concert also drew a sizable number of curious onlookers and giddily distracted toddlers.
The occasion was the premiere of �John the Revelator,� a new work by the composer Phil Kline. Mr. Jarmusch�s presence made sense: he and Mr. Kline played together in a rock band, the Del-Byzanteens, during the rough-and-tumble early years of New York�s downtown scene, when borders between artistic disciplines were particularly porous.
A healthy disregard for traditional boundaries continues to inform Mr. Kline�s work. He remains best known for �Unsilent Night,� a holiday caroling procession of portable tape players that is perhaps less a composition than a piece of musical performance art. More recently Mr. Kline has created quirky, rock-influenced song cycles based on sayings of Donald H. Rumsfeld and inscriptions that American G.I.�s carved into cigarette lighters during the Vietnam War.
�John the Revelator� was more conventional than those works in tone and comportment, yet it ultimately proved just as audacious in its stylistic juxtapositions and thematic concerns. WNYC radio commissioned the piece specifically for performance in the Winter Garden, which the radio host John Schaefer called a postmodern cathedral in his introductory comments: an impression based not only on the space�s architectural grandeur but also on the way sounds are sustained, echoed and blurred by its vast expanse.
Mr. Kline responded with what amounted to a postmodern Mass. He set the traditional Latin Ordinary for the male vocal sextet Lionheart, a group renowned in both early-music and contemporary circles. Demonstrating an estimable knack for vocal ensemble writing, Mr. Kline provided plaintive, searching melodies and playful counterpoint in movements that suggested by turns the tonal richness of Barber, the austerity of Stravinsky and the harmonic piquancy of Ligeti.
Interspersed among them was a set of Propers drawing on Early-American hymnody, the Book of Jeremiah, poetry by David Shapiro, a passage from Beckett and the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, who wrote the namesake song, �John the Revelator.� Here Lionheart was joined by the eclectic string quartet Ethel, which alternated between the grainy burr of a viol consort and the mechanistic chug of Minimalism. Conjoined, the two ensembles provided an ideal vehicle for Mr. Kline�s offbeat but ultimately moving ceremony. STEVE SMITH
WNYC-FM will broadcast a recording of the performance on Dec. 5, 2006 at 11 p.m.