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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Concert Review: Making Tracks in Brooklyn

Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer rolls into BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Bang on A Can All Stars and the SITI Ensemble perform Steel Hammer. 
Eric Berryman (standing, right, with hammer) is John Henry.
Photo © 2015 the Krannert Center and courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The composer Julia Wolfe is one of the most important voices in American music. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her oratorio Anthracite Fields she combines Appalachian folk music, minimalist techniques and the power of the human voice to create a unique American sound, rock-ribbed, raw-boned and bursting with vitality. On Wednesday night, the Bang On A Can All-Stars and the SITI Company brought the New York premiere of the fully staged version of her first oratorio Steel Hammer to the BAM Harvey Theater in the waning days of this year's NextWave Festival.

This is the second version of Steel Hammer, an expansion of Ms. Wolfe's oratorio into a two-hour stage show with music, dance and spoken dialogue. Its subject is John Henry, the steel-driving' man who remains, along with Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, one of the legendary figures of the American frontier. The John Henry story includes superhuman feats of railroad building, a contest with the hero and his hammer up against the precision of a steam drill, and other feats of strength and speed that would make even Arnold Schwarzenegger sweat.

The show took place on the wide stage of the Harvey, which featured an octagonal wooden stage in its center, a sort of temple space for this American mystery play to take place. Overhead, industrial light bulbs hung in daisy chains above the house, providing old-fashioned and environmentally unfriendly lighting for the show. On this bare stage, the only props were lanterns, water buckets and of course, the massive, unwieldy railroad hammer, itself an icon of the power of labor against management.

The Bang on a Can players flanked the stage, with Mark Stewart leading the musicians as he switched between guitar, banjo and dulcimer. Hand-claps grunts and even hambone solos from the dancers added a human element to the chugging sound, generated by piano, double bass and Ashley Bathgate's virtuosic cello. Behind a battery of instruments David Cossin augmented his rock-solid drumming with struck steel bars and glittering tuned percussion.

Six actors danced and sung the parts of the players in the show. Eric Berryman took the role of John himself, swinging that railroad maul, chugging in a railroad line with the other actors. collapsing to the stage in repeated enactments of the heart attack that felled Henry and occasional reflections on the 500-plus versions of the story that Ms. Wolfe mined to create her work.

Patrice Johnson Chevannes took the role of Polly (or Polly Ann whatever her name was--there's some disagreement) John Henry's fiery beloved. Akiko Aizawa provided sardonic, even caustic narration, telling and retelling the story of the man with the hammer and asking: was he a modern Hercules? A convict working on a chain gang? A mortal man who became a symbol of the American Frontier. Nobody agrees--but the in-depth analysis of the myth made for some interesting interchanges.

The strongest supporting performance came from Stephen Duff Webber, as a gruff overseer, his top hat indicating either steampunk fashion sense or his character's place in upper management. The six actors engaged in an intense and physically punishing show, portraying the triumph of the iron horse from the tops of chairs, running in place like a locomotive building up steam and even occasionally folk-dancing.

The six actors were backed by a trio of female singers who used their voices to create minimalist support and textures. These dancers acted out multiple versions of the John Henry story, questioning the mythic feats of the story, arguing whether Henry really existed, and even debating the name of his beloved: was she Polly? Mary? Judy? Trudy? (Does it matter? No.) Their discursions reminded one of the knee plays in Einstein on the Beach, a beautiful frame for this hard-driving story.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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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.