With the profile and presence in town of composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe – the co-founders (with David Lang) of Bang on a Can and a prolific New York new music power couple – it’s easy to forget the powerful works that came and went a decade or more ago. The string orchestra Ensemble Signal provided a well-received reminder of a few of those works last Wednesday in Zankel Hall, in the basement of Carnegie Hall.

Ensemble Signal
© Stephanie Berger

The evening opened with the first movement of Gordon’s massive Weather from 1997, an intensely rhythmic piece for strings that lures the mind into filling in the implicit percussion, and resistance is futile. Gordon's music wants volume and demands precision and fortunately the hall and the ensemble delivered. Zankel’s pristine acoustics packed the requisite punch and Signal rode the shifting, gale-force winds with vivid brilliance. Of particular note was Greg Chudzik, the sole bassist in the ensemble, who was given the unlikely chore of anchoring the weather. All the players were on point, but Chudzik's entrances and exits were felt as much as heard. At nearly half an hour, Gordon's weather patterns interlocked, pounded and thrilled. 

Wolfe, who currently holds Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer Chair and will be featured in several concerts this season, first heard the song Cruel Sister as played by the '70s progressive rock band Pentangle in college. Years later, she was inspired to revisit the story, if not the song. Her 2004 Cruel Sister occupied the second half of the evening. In it, she follows the narrative arc, wordlessly depicting the drowning of a young woman, killed by her sister out of jealousy, her remains found by two passers-by who craft a harp out of her ribs and hair. The bold and slowly developing motifs bore some structural resemblance to Gordon's Weather, and Chudzik proved himself again invaluable, but the thematic development was more gradual, maybe because water is denser than air. Both works are dark and foreboding, and Gordon all but invites us to imagine the tragedies that a windstorm can bring. But in Wolfe's Cruel Sister the tragedy is (in a sense) real, and the dramatic tension is relentless. The force of the waves to which the sister succumbs is palpable, the sad serenity of the harp that plays itself truly poignant.

Tessa Lark
© Stephanie Berger

It was a bold move to put a violin solo between two such powerful works but Bang on a Can invites boldness. Wolfe's With a blue dress on (2010, revised 2014), for singing violinist with looping electronics, filled the room quite well in an intense and joyous performance by guest soloist Tessa Lark. The piece is built from an old folk song sometimes called Pretty Little Girl With a Blue Dress On (and not to be confused with a certain devil of song also known to wear blue dresses). With pitch-perfect dissonances and a haunting delivery, Lark, in a blue dress and boots, built a droning nest of loops. The drones were broken by occasional fiddle stabs, slowly introducing close harmonies and familiar bluegrass stylings. It's the kind of piece that might seem studied and procedural in a recording but to see Lark confidently meet the various demands – including amplified hopping double stomps in time – pumped blood into the music. A Kentuckian by birth, she seemed a natural for Wolfe’s unusual, virtuosic treatment. The piece also exists in a string quartet version, but hearing Lark fully possess it was a treat. And set in a thoughtful program, it made for a welcome return for older works of two NYC MVPs.