“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!”