A Classical Makeover In Baltimore

Brian Sacawa curated and performed at the Mobtown Modern program.
Brian Sacawa curated and performed at the Mobtown Modern program. (Www.myspace.com/sacawa)
Thursday, September 11, 2008

"The overarching problem of classical music," as critic Alex Ross recently put it, "is the tuxedo." At Tuesday night's opening concert of Baltimore's Mobtown Modern contemporary music series, the supposed signs of classical music's stuffy elitism were nowhere in evidence, banished in favor of jeans and T-shirts.

The hour-long program featured the music of living composers who draw on the driving rhythms of rock, hip-hop and other popular genres. Julia Wolfe's "Lick," written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, received a hip-hop makeover. Series co-curator Erik Spangler, in the persona of DJ Dubble8, reworked Wolfe's percussion and piano parts for turntables and laptop, although the perennial problems with amplification caused a false start. The other series curator, Brian Sacawa, contributed precisely timed solos on three different saxophones.

The most interesting work was "The Anvil Chorus," a tour de force for one man and pieces of junk by fellow Can Banger and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, played with rocketing force by Steve Owen, in spite of a page-turning mishap. The strangest work was Anna Clyne's "Paint Box," which involved Jody Redhage cradling her cello and cranking a tiny music box over its amplified body.

For all of the radical self-proclamation of this concert as "Too Cool for School," the trendy young crowd members, who showed up in large numbers at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum, listened quietly and applauded politely at the right places. The only difference from a typical National Symphony Orchestra concert, besides attire and median age, was that some listeners sipped discreetly from cans of soda.

-- Charles T. Downey


© 2008 The Washington Post Company