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Fishing for Coolness

At long last, this week I headed down to Poisson Rouge—the hip club at the former site of the Village Gate that opened last summer—yes, the spot that has been covered to death in the media, meaning the possibility exists that I am just way too un-cool to even set foot inside the place. Or, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, should I be allowed to visit any club that would have me as a member?

So it took a while, but in the performance that finally brought me to this place turned out to be FLECTION, produced and conducted by Paul Haas and his SymphoNYC ensemble —a chamber orchestra—joined by live electronica artist Paul Fowler. The piece uses Barber’s Adagio for Strings as a departure point and brings in music by Judd Greenstein, Haas, and Fowler at key “points of inflection,” with added instruments like oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trombone, and trumpet (and of course live electronica). The performance was billed as a “continuous visual and sonic experience” and promised “lighting and other visual and spatial elements.” All-capital-letters are apparently part of the Sympho marketing philosophy: you may remember one of the ensemble’s earlier New York concerts, REWIND at the Angel Orensanz Center in 2006, or TRACES in March 2008.

Haas conducting SymphoNYCI brought along a friend who is emphatically not of the classical-music world. Here were our reactions. From my perspective, the piece was like listening to the mind of someone obsessed with Barber’s Adagio, a melancholy piece that can in fact get stuck in your head pretty easily. Some “flection” movements (the parts not composed by Barber) had long repeated sections a la Philip Glass; in one, strings drooped and swooped pitches up and down, like in a Dali painting; another featured a long pedal point E-flat with gently undulating chords above; in another, strings frenetically played chromatic notes up and down within a narrow four- or five-note range, creating an effect like multitudes of butterflies trapped, all beating their wings. Throughout the evening, much was made of intervals like minor seconds and minor sixths. It all felt rather cinematic—like a movie without any screen. I didn’t notice much in the way of lighting effects. A few people in the audience apparently thought the piece was over before it was actually finished—the first lengthy half featured Barber’s original music, with the numerous “flections” or “variations” interspersed. After intermission, the two halves were separated into their component parts, with the six original FLECTION movements by Haas/Fowler/Greenstein played first, followed by Barber’s Adagio for Strings as originally written by Samuel Barber. Haas, conducting baton-less, in shirtsleeves and black pants and mopping his brow by the end of the performance, looked spent.

The two-hour event was too long for my friend, who said it felt like a movie without any script or visuals and commented on how much chromaticism there was in the music. He said, “They played the piece—it was LONG—and then … they played it AGAIN!” It was long, but in the end I found the piece oddly mesmerizing, if you just gave in and let it surround you.

The up-side of going to a place like Poisson Rouge: if for some reason you don’t like the performance, you can at least enjoy a drink at the bar. Also, the ticket prices to many events there are so low you can make a last-minute decision to ditch, without feeling too bad about it. (I actually bought a pair of tickets to hear the Fireworks Ensemble performance at Poisson Rouge this past January, but was feeling under the weather that day and didn’t end up going.)

Oh, and for the record, my worries about uncoolness seemed pretty baseless. That is, I don’t think I was any un-hipper than most of the audience. Or we were all equally un-hip.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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