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Friday, July 24, 2015

Concert Review: It Takes a Village...of Percussionists

Lincoln Center presents Harry Partch's Delusion of the Fury.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Ensemble Musikfabrik stages Delusion of the Fury.
Photo by Klaus Rudolph courtesy Lincoln Center Festival.
Every summer, the Lincoln Center Festival can always be counted on for at least one "maverick" performance, something that falls outside the mainstream and proves to be artistically important. This year's offering Delusion of the Fury is a 100-minute stage play/opera by maverick American composer Harry Partch, mounted by the Germany-based Ensemble Musikfabrik on the stage at City Center. This was a touring version of the production premiered by the Ensemble at the Ruhrentrienialle in 2013.

Partch (1901-1974) was a true original, composing music in a uniquely American aesthetic that reflects this country's pioneer spirit. He rejected conventional 12-note tonality for a self-invented system of 41 tones and built a bewildering array of self-invented, fanciful instruments to play his music. Completed in 1965 and first performed in 1969, Delusion of the Fury is a late major stage work, serving as an effective introduction to Partch and an effective summation of his musical achievement.

Under the direction of Heiner Goebbels, the musicians of the Ensemble crowded onto the stage, moving through what looked at first like a bewildering junk-shop pile of these Partchian instruments. They included the "cloud-chamber bowls", hanging, suspended glass vessels that emitted tones when struck, the dinosaur-sized "marimba eroica" and the wonderfully named "boo", a sort of tiered xylophone made from cut bamboo tubes.

All these instruments were combined with more conventional creations: the (Partch-designed) "Chromelodeon," a keyboard based reed organ (one for either side of the stage) the Turkish darbuka and the Irish bodhran. A Japanese koto, 12-string guitar and the "harmonic canon" (which looked like a gigantic hammer dulcimer) brought melodic contrast to the waves of percussive sound. The music was spidery, enchanting and surprisingly melodic, falling somewhere between a very skilled fireside drum circle and the precise beauty of a Javanese gamelan.

This is Partch's only stage work. Its two contiguous acts are based on Atsumori, a Japanese Noh play and Justice, an Ethiopian folk tale. Although the hypnotic effect of the music overwhelmed the dramatic action onstage, it was possible to discern a rough plot outline from the onstage movement of singers and percussionists. As the work moved through its various sections, an old-fashioned highway road sign had its placards changed to announce to the audience that they were in a new section.

These had titles like "Chorus of Shadows," "Emergence of the Spirit," "A Quiet Hobo Meal" and (this reviewer's personal favorite) "Time of Fun Together." These would be occasionally accompanied by costume changes (apparently fun together requires green ponchos and sunglasses) and shifts in the stage lighting. The emergence of inflatables onstage provided lines and curves for the players to work against.

Players changed stations and freely swapped instruments, creating the impression of a busy beehive of musicians that buzzed, clattered and droned. The human voice was an important agent too, whether emitting drone-like chants while squatting next to actual waterfalls, huddling around the small campfire that burned at center stage or singing and declaiming strange texts over the percussive orchestra.

At the climax of the trial scene that ends Act II, a collection of piñata-like sheep were proudly carried forth, presided over by a Mad Max-like high priestess in a calfskin headdress and wielding a length of industrial pipe as a sceptre. These were perhaps the only items onstage that were not used as percussion instruments. In this new century it is possible to see the vast influence of Partch on modern musical culture. In fact, this performance was like a brief visit to the Burning Man festival without the blowing sand or event-ending immolation.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.