Music review: Newspeak at the Atlas Performing Arts Center

June 23, 2013

In the tiny but essential niche of punk-classical music, Newspeak pretty much rules. Driving rhythms, sophisticated compositions by cutting-edge composers, virtuosic playing on electrified instruments — there’s little not to like about the New York-based ensemble, and after canceling a show here last fall because of Hurricane Sandy, Newspeak arrived at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Friday night for a set steeped in rock, politics and a kind of nostalgia for the revolutionary violence of the 1960s.

The evening, billed as an exploration of “imprisonment and release,” made for an often hard-punching close to the Atlas’s New Music series. Things lurched into gear as the ensemble tackled composer Corey Dargel’s “Last Words From Texas,” a song cycle built on the final statements of eight criminals as they were led to their executions. That’s a compelling idea — what goes through the human mind in those intense, final moments? But the disappointing answer, it turns out, is: not much.

Dargel’s subjects are all just Hallmark-card vapid, showing little insight or intelligence or even honesty about themselves. One refers to his crime as “the mishap of the deceased,” another blandly thanks his wife “for being there,” another struggles with a joke that makes no sense. Dargel drapes the banalities in sophisticated music, as if to show some redeeming humanity in these destructive lives, but it came across as sentimentalizing rather than revealing. Lipstick, if you’ll excuse the creepy cliche, on a pig.

Speaking of which: Next up was Randall Woolf’s “Blind Pig,” a tangled fairy tale about the 1967 Detroit riots, followed by “Sweet Light Crude” by David T. Little and “The Way of the Mob” by Ruby Fulton. Of the three, “Crude” — a mock love song to oil — was the most subtle and engaging, though Fulton’s use of Google Maps directions to tell the story of the Baltimore Bank Riots of 1835 had a dry, deadpan charm.

But the real climax of the evening was Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together,” inspired by the Attica prison riots of 1971. Its spare music built from a single riff, and slowly gathered in power as the text — a self-admiring screed from the 1960s bomber Sam Melville, who was killed at Attica — is chanted over and over and over again. Yes, there’s a hectoring quality to it, and yes, the thing reeks of self-righteousness and the musty revolutionary politics of 50 years ago. But Newspeak’s gutsy soprano Mellissa Hughes, leading the ensemble with fire and purpose, ratcheted the work to a wild, intoxicating pitch, with fine playing all night from the entire group — particularly the dangerously gifted Courtney Orlando, who sat in at the last minute for violinist Caleb Burhans.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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