The Lively Arts (redux)

Art and Music in Denver and Beyond


April 2019

Bang on a Can

“the composers at the heart of Bang on a Can have sustained what may be the most convivial vanguard in modern music history.” Alex Ross,The New Yorker

The eclectic music ensemble Bang On A Can invaded the Newman Center for Performing Arts for their first performance in Denver on Friday, April 12th.  In 2017, the organization celebrated 30 years of performing and composing contemporary music.

At a postconcert talk, guitarist Mark Stewart commented that the evening was “Sonic Dim Sum.” There was plenty of wasabi served up with the group’s decision to begin big and loud with Julia Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, conceived after 9/11.  If anyone in the audience wanted to settle in for a nap he chose the wrong performance. The piece began with Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet. The fireball kept hurtling across the seats from Vicky Chow’s piano, Mariel Roberts’ cello, Robert Black’s stand up bass and David Cossin’s varied percussion. When the music dictated a break from the bass clarinet to the standard clarinet, the assault decelerated to an odd state of comfort.

Next up was Pulitzer Prize winning co-founder David Lang’s Sunray with theme and variations representing the sun. According to Stewart, he was inspired by a ‘Sun’ sign that he saw illuminated by rays of light. The piece began as a shimmer and exploded to a burn when drummer David Cossin lit up the five piece drumset with a jarring solo.

To end the concert’s first half was co-founder Michael Gordon’s composition Big Space which premiered in 2017 at the BBC Proms. With an assembly of 24 brass and percussion students from DU’s Lamont School of Music grouped in threes in the mezzanine and on stage, it was the only conducted piece on the program. Percussionists kept the prevalent beat with blocks, glockenspiels and tambourines while six sliding trombones keened in my ears. Ken Thomson aptly said the sound was like hearing multiple sirens blaring around your head. The music from the Bang on the Can All Stars and the students was so immersive that at the final note the audience rose to their feet. Applause and shouting filled the hall.

After the concert when an audience member questioned the slower tempo of Philip Glass’ work Closing, Thomson answered that their rendition allowed the listeners to relax into the tempo maintained by the vibraphone and piano and cello, played by Denver’s own Mariel Roberts. The resultant melodies exuded a warm glow.

The group turned to Saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s piece I haven’t been where I left in three movements with jazzlike variations. A 2015 Paris Review tribute described Coleman as “saintly as he could be, he was not without his thorns, and there was often a gentle—there’s that word again—malice that lurked below the surface..”

Steve Martland’s 1994 composition Horses of Instruction closed the concert with a gale force winds. It blew in Gates Hall like psychedelic rock. Sax player Thomson rocked back and forth on his feet and jumped in the air as if he couldn’t contain the energy of the music. Watching the forearms of pianist Chow I couldn’t dismiss the comment from writer and pianist Siwan Rhys that playing the piece “was also seductive as a difficulty that had to be surmounted” as there was “ample opportunity to throw the whole ensemble off kilter with the slightest hesitation.”

This performance from thirty-year old Bang on a Can added to the conversation of defining classical music. Their answer blended jazz and classical traditions in contemporary music. Bassist Robert Black noted Bang on a Can was “breaking down barriers of what is expected from a piece of music.” He added with Martland’s inclusion of an electric bass and an electric guitar Horses of Instruction was “concert music!”

The $475 Million Shed

The widely anticipated Arts Center  – The Shed – opened April 5th in Hudson Yards at the north end of the Highline in New York. The building is anything but a shed with a cost of $475 millon. Michael Bloomberg donated $75 million for the center dedicated as the Bloomberg Building.   Michael Cooper of the New York Times shared that the telescoping shell “can roll back and forth on rails. When extended, it doubles the footprint of the Shed, creating a huge indoor space.” Credit for the architecture goes to Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro – Diller Scofidio + Renfro.  The firm designed an expansion of the MOMA for 2019 and redesigned the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 2014.  Elizabeth Diller is being honored by Bang on a Can for her Mile Long Opera. For details on that project and upcoming projects see the link below.

A five day concert series, ‘Soundtrack of America’ (conceived by filmmaker Steve McQueen and Quincy Jones) celebrates the influence of African American musicians. Tamar-kali, Braxton Cook, Victory and Phony Ppl were slated to perform. Jon Batiste opened the series with the Howard University Marching Band playing James Reese Europe’s band music from 100 years earlier. In one of the five performance spaces designed for simultaneous performances, Reich Richter Pärt – part exhibition and live performance – will continue with scheduled performances through June 2nd. An accompanying film by Corinna Belz suggests the connections between Reich’s pulsing music and Ricter’s pattern paintings.

According to the architect’s website The Shed “will be an arts center dedicated to commissioning, producing and presenting all types of performing arts, visual arts and popular culture.” To insure the mission of bringing the arts to the community, Artistic Director Alex Poots guaranteed $10 tickets will be available for those who can’t afford full price tickets.  In addition the Shed sponsors ‘Open Call’ to provide commissions to artists from New York’s five boroughs. 52 artists were selected out of 900 to receive funding, support and space to exhibit. The next deadline to apply is May 1.

Ready for Ragtime?

Ragtime music is coming to Denver. On April 9th at 7:00 pm Reginald Robinson an “antiquarian” of our generation will take over the Steinway for a solo concert in the historic Baur’s building.  The self-taught ragtime pianist out of Chicago will be presented by MAS Eclectic concerts on the Chandelier stage at Dazzle. Ragtime music was a precursor to jazz and rock. In 1973, The Entertainer by Scott Joplin (1902) from the movie The Sting was in everyone’s ears.  In 1996, audiences raved about the Tony award winning musical, Ragtime.

Longtime Denver audiences might recall “Mr. Ragtime” Max Morath who hosted the 1960’s KRMA series The Ragtime Era. After being elected to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2016, Morath said he was “a white kid from Colorado who lucked into an interesting line of work and I wouldn’t be there with that music without a lot of forgotten African Americans who had it very tough…”

Reginald Robinson found ragtime at age 13 and was trapped by the late 19th century music that descended from jig and march music played by African American bands. He learned to play the piano by comparing note by note transcriptions of ragtime sheet music to piano rolls of the same rags. Jon Weber, jazz pianist from Milwaukee, mentored Reginald for his 1992 demo that earned him his first record contract.  

In 2004, Robinson was awarded the MacArthur Genius grant for “his ragtime compositions, his ingenuity as a pianist and his unyielding advocacy of an otherwise unjustly overlooked art form.” Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune 12/17

In addition to his scholarly study of ragtime music and a discovery of an unknown Scott Joplin fragment in the archives of Fisk University, Robinson has composed “dozens of harmonically daring, structurally complex works.”  He received a commission in 2018 to compose the first left hand only ragtime piano work. Later in 2018 at Chicago’s Symphony Hall on the SCP Jazz series he premiered his composition, A Tribute to the Great James Reese Europe. Europe was a composer and conductor of The Clef Club, an all black orchestra that performed at Carnegie Hall in 1912. According to Keith Gerbosi from Splash Magazines, Robinson’s Chicago performance was  “lively and fun, but none more than at the end when his entire band got up, while still playing, marched around and eventually marched right off stage.”

The 2015 recording, Music of Reginald R. Robinson live in concert, captured a live performance by the River Raisin Ragtime Revue.  Listeners can hear Robinson’s virtuosity as a composer in William Hayes’ orchestration. The liner notes name the record as the “first major collection of ragtime works composed and orchestrated by African Americans since the ragtime era.”  

Reginald Robinson’s appearance at Baur’s is a unique opportunity to hear classic music performed as it was written. Reserve your tickets soon as seats are limited for the April 9th show at 7:00 pm at

“Revitalizing this early twentieth century musical form while taking it in contemporary and unanticipated directions.” MacArthur Grant Foundation.

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