Review: Man-Made and Natural Music Merge on a Steamy Sunday

By Anthony Tommasini
July 3, 2018

KATONAH, N.Y. — Sunday afternoon was steamy, with temperatures in the 90s and thick humidity. But that didn’t deter 60 intrepid percussionists and about 700 curious music lovers from attending a free performance of John Luther Adams’s outdoor work “Inuksuit” at Caramoor, the summer music festival here.

Mr. Adams, who lived for years in Alaska, has written that “Inuksuit” was inspired by the stone sentinels constructed over centuries by the Inuit indigenous people of the Arctic. The music is haunted by visions of melting polar ice.

There is no master score for the 60-minute piece, which can be performed by up to 99 percussionists on whatever instruments are available. Instead, the players draw from a collection of musical materials to create their own realization. The result depends crucially on the character of the site where it is performed. (Earlier this year, a performance took place on both sides of the fence separating San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico.)

Over the weekend, as the musicians rehearsed, they started mordantly referring to “Inuksuit” as “Inuksweat.” Both players and listeners did plenty of sweating on Sunday. But everyone seemed too involved to care.

Doug Perkins, a percussionist who directed the performance, decided more or less where the players would be placed: standing on patches of lawn in the sun or under trees in the shade, kneeling on mulch-filled paths in the woods or hovering over drum sets within the Sunken Garden. The piece began with all the musicians gathered in a group for a period of meditation.

Then, quietly at first, individual performers started blowing through conches, twirling plastic tubes and shaking boxes of tinkling bells to produce an array of drones and whistles, some of them evocative of bird calls. (Mr. Adams is an avid birder.) Slowly, the musicians moved to various sets of drums, gongs, cymbals and more, placed here and there, and began playing. Delicate, halting riffs grew into nervous bursts and, before long, pounding rhythms.

The audience was invited to stroll around close to the players, creating their own individual experiences of the music. Many of the small children in attendance, including Lily, a 2-year-old who had come with me, seemed at once riveted and a bit scared by the pounding rhythms. One little boy standing next to a percussionist flailing away at drums reacted by smiling and dancing.

For me, the music was richest when I stood in one place for a while and let sounds from distant players mingle with nearby flourishes. As the end approached, the music settled down and thinned out, until there seemed to be only tinkling chimes, like the actual bird calls that had been part of the music all along.

On Saturday evening, Caramoor presented a more traditional event: a splendid concert by the festival’s resident Orchestra of St. Luke’s in the open-air Venetian Theater. The conductor Ludovic Morlot, departing next year as the music director of the thriving Seattle Symphony, began with a bracing account of Smetana’s “Dance of the Comedians.” Then Benjamin Beilman was the soloist in an exciting performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Playing with rich sound and plenty of brilliance, Mr. Beilman conveyed both dreamy lyricism and heated intensity.

The New York premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s “Evidence” revealed an elusive yet engrossing orchestral piece. The 20-minute work is layered with shape-shifting elements: droning low sonorities; restlessly oscillating figures; sonic masses that come in and out of focus; blocks of chords that heave and sway; and, in one surprising turn, a beguiling melodic episode that yearns to settle in but never quite does. For all the contrasts, the piece holds together with unfailing dramatic purpose.

The evening ended with a bold account of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.”

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