On Friday night, amid the snow, the New York-based Bang on a Can All-Stars — a sextet of piano, cello, double bass, electric guitar, clarinet and percussion — nearly sold out the Atlas’ s Lang Theater (on the heels of packed houses last month for both So Percussion and yMusic).
It’s easy to understand why the music draws hip 30-somethings. The Bang on a Can aesthetic, now in its 26th year, has masterfully, organically, even gleefully integrated rock and classical. Performed by amplified musicians dressed in street clothes who talk to the audience, the feel is distinctly casual, not “classical.”
The first half of the show spotlighted pieces by the three Bang on a Can co-founders — Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. Lang’s “Sunray” began with mesmerizing splotches of dancing sunlight, then shifted abruptly to head banging power chords. Vicky Chow’s piano rang like a fire alarm in Gordon’s penetrating “For Madeline,” a haunting homage to his late mother. The ethereal combination of Mark Stewart’s guitar and Ashley Bathgate’s cello created a dizzying siren. There were poignant parts for Carol McGonnell’s clarinet, but she was often too low in the mix to be properly heard. (She has big shoes to fill, taking over for the charismatic Evan Ziporyn, an All-Stars original member who left last year.) The set closed with the bracing “Big Beautiful Dark and Scary,” Wolfe’s nine-minute throbbing wall of sound inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Don Byron’s “Basquiat,” a lovely tribute to the troubled New York artist, was a welcome contrast to all the intensity. A kind of fractured waltz, the piece merged jazz and classical, blossoming slowly, unfolding its colors in florid clarinet solos and a guitar twinkling gently like a harpsichord. Alternately, Byron’s “ Show Him Some Lub ” gave way to funky rock beats, spoken recitations and a squalling, Jimmy Page-like guitar solo.
“ Ridgeway ,” by Kate Moore, a fellow of Bang on a Can’s summer institute, was perhaps the least satisfying, with its tiresome toggling of chords and moods. But “Stroking Piece #1” by Thurston Moore (no relation), of the seminal alternative-rock band Sonic Youth, was brilliant in its simplicity. Beginning with a muted pulsation in percussionist David Cossin’s floor tom and soft guitar strumming, the music slowly grew to gigantic, arena rock proportions before atomizing into a single chromatic note.
Hearty applause brought the All-Stars back with “Closing” by Philip Glass. Its wistful warmth in cello and clarinet, lovingly performed, was a perfect way to usher the appreciative audience back out into the cold.