Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Youngster Lincoln Center Festival is an urban and urbane summer festival. Not to be confused with Jazz at Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, or the over 30 year old Mostly Mozart Festival (which used to be the only game in town), the four-year-old Lincoln Center Festival’s 113 performances span music — contemporary and not –dance, theater and opera.

New York, NY
July 7-25, 1999

With 10 to 20 premieres and a large-scale opera production each year in addition to a healthy concentration of new music in all its categories, the Festival, held at various locations like Alice Tully Hall and Avery Fischer Hall, is proving itself to be an American contender.

Focusing on one composer’s body of work each season, the Festival has so far shined a light on Morton Feldman, Ornette Coleman and Leonard Bernstein.

This season illuminates Steve Reich with four programs of works illustrating different aspects of his career, including pieces that have been done infrequently in New York. Upfront and center is Reich’s and video artist Beryl Korot’s epic The Cave, a futuristic opera that explores Biblical themes. Other programs feature a Belgian choreographer’s interpretation of better-known Reich pieces like Come Out and Clapping Music, two larger scale “mainstream” orchestral works, the New York premiere of the Kronos-commissioned Triple Quartet, and Reich and group performing his ’70s “hit” Drumming.

“What we try to do is not focus on an obvious retrospective, but look at works that are not performed very often or look at artists who in a way hadn’t gotten their due,” says Erica Zielinski, general manager of the Lincoln Center Festival. “Our role is to fit things into a context and cross-relate them.” Symposiums and discussions with the artists are numerous so as to help festivalgoers with that context.

All art and periods are considering game. The 20-hour, 160-character Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion that will make its Lincoln Center debut was first performed 400 years ago. An aeriel ballet of Les Arts Sauts that takes place 60 feet over a reclined audience is seemingly from the future. (Even better are those events that combine several arts and periods: last year, the Festival presented Hildegurls, the de/re-construction of 12th-century Hildegard von Bingen texts by Eve Beglarian, Lisa Bielawa, Kitty Brazelton and Elaine Kaplinsky.)

“We wanted to not box ourselves into specific genres: here would be the classical music, here would be the new music, here would be the opera,” comments Zielinski. “We have a commitment to a wide range of performing arts, including things that aren’t necessarily ‘cutting edge,’ but are things that you wouldn’t normally have a chance to see in New York during the regular season — things that wouldn’t be possible without a festival context.”

Most works chosen are more contemporary that one would find at Lincoln Center in the dead of winter. They may or may not be avant-garde, but the listener is guaranteed a new perspective.

The diversity of the Festival can be grasped in a quick scan of events, all intriguing. One series of programs examines four decades of the dance of Merce Cunningham, performed by Cunningham (80 years old and still going) and Mikhail Baryshnikov, with music by Feldman and Brian Eno, and sets by Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.

The world premiere of The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III, a theater piece directed by Robert Wilson sets text from Umberto Eco’s latest novel The Island of the Day Before to music by ’80s techno-pop master Ryuichi Sakamoto. (Good festival strategy #1: Expand audience base through combination programs. People who are fans of Sakamoto or Eno might take a chance at the Cunningham or Wilson.)

Some events aren’t new presentations, but are presented in a new way.

A nine-concert “gospel marathon” doesn’t sound inventive in a city where gospel spills out of churches and from stages in outdoor festivals, but the Festival juxtaposes a traditional a cappella African-American spiritual choir (The Great Day Singers) with a younger gospel hip-hop group (Crossroads Taberacle) in exploration of gospel’s permutations.

While the Festival might not program a simple concert of Beethoven, it will program all of the Beethoven piano concerti played by the same pianist (Emanuel Ax) in an eight-day span, not something that you come across even at more longhaired festivals.

“What’s important,” sums up Zalinski, “is putting the music in a context that can help people make connections either to other art forms, to other genres of music, or to other time periods.”

From Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms
by Mic Holwin
© 1999 NewMusicBox