Sometimes, you’ve just got to treat yourself. Such was my mindset last Friday as I drove four hours to see a concert, of all things. yMusic, one of the dominant young forces in new classical music, adopts an indie-rock approach to their commissions, but their virtuosity and nuance as musicians is only heightened by their fresh approach. Their concert appearances outside of their home in NYC are limited, so I knew I had to pounce on this concert, and I did just that.
The hall was a charmed, glowing old relic; complete with gussied-up bluehairs volunteering as ushers and a crystalline chandelier hanging above the balcony seats. Ornate streams of maroon and gold paint patterned the tattered proscenium arch, and beneath, to my shock, was seated a full orchestra, warming up.
As it happens, the sleepy town of Salina is prodded awake for a few days each winter for the Kansas Wesleyan University International Music Festival, although the “International” seems like an overstatement to the outside observer. At any rate, the orchestra stumbled through some lukewarm Haydn and Mozart while I questioned every part of my trip. What was I THINKING coming here? I wondered silently from my seat, as slumping cellists with rolled sleeves bumbled through some scales and the horns repeatedly cracked on the high notes. I began to question if yMusic was even here, let alone whether they were going to play. But as the botched finale of the Mozart rang out and the orchestra filed offstage, on came the faces I knew only from videos, dressed to the nines and ready to play all the way up to the elevens.
It always amazes me how casually The Pros stroll on stage, about to begin a set, but stroll they did, as the ensemble barely sat down by the time that the blazing riff of Son Lux’s “Beautiful Mechanical” bounced crisply out of Gabriel Cabezas’ cello. The concert was off to the races, and I grooved with ecstatic delight. Immediately apparent was the group’s uncommon chemistry. “We formed this group because we like playing with each other, not because the instrumental combination makes any sense whatsoever,” quipped the charismatic violist Nadia Sirota, before the band eased into the sparkling “Bladed Stance” by the Brazilian Marcos Balter. The six instrumental timbres flow easily from and through each other, as if electronic, as the work tiptoes forward, phrase by phrase.
yMusic has worked in the last five years not to be genre-defying, but genre-transcending, and one of their cornerstone pieces is Andrew Norman’s monstrous and enigmatic “Music in Circles.” The simple throbbing and whistling sounds of an air-conditioner spun into ten experiential minutes, “Music in Circles” is one of those pieces that comes around and changes the game. The piece is told from the viola’s perspective, offering some stratospheric notes with scored air and resonance from the wind instruments before spiraling out and landing on some low ricochet pitches. As if discovering it for the first time, Sirota dawdles through this first taste of rhythm, dipping a toe in before taking the full, incredible plunge and dragging the rest in with her. The splash unfolds in slow motion, with an inexhaustible crescendo that lasts minutes, broken bow hairs flying, and aerobic strain evident on the faces of the winds. At last, it explodes into wild streaks of light and color, and gently simmers down, as the viola seems to learn what the piece is about. Moving further and further from center, Sirota places every note of her final, minutes-long phrase with absolute precision and delicacy to reveal that we have ended where we began. Music; in Circles.
To be honest, I wasn’t good for much else; after headbanging in the raucous splendor and bathing in the richly colored delight of the climax, I was left aquiver. The final five pieces contained four brand-new works (two more by Son Lux, one by Caroline Shaw, and another by Chris Thile), which is a part of the splendid nature of this ensemble: everything they have ever done has been written exactly for them, and because of that they are uncommonly close, as people, as performers, but also as an unstoppable force.
After the concert, I stood in line with my fellow Midwesterners, but still alone, head still racing, heart still in knots. I trudged towards the merch table, where these gods from the pantheon of music had parked their earthly presence, and I bought a CD, desperately hoping to strike up a conversation and grab a beer, but too stuttery to communicate. I sheepishly thanked them and reeled at the sheer majesty I had just witnessed. Rest assured that yMusic is doing good work for the world, and with times as dark as they are, being reminded of what it is to be a human is a necessity.