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Remembering Oliver Knussen: The Week in Classical Music

Category: Entertainment,Music

Though it can seem like New York’s classical music scene goes into hibernation during the summer months, the pleasing reality is that smaller scale enterprises rush to fill the void while major players like the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic are taking a breather. Over the last week, I attended five intriguing shows, three of which were free to the public. (Yes, that’s another summertime trend, in the city’s classical culture.)

First, following up on my recent enthusiasm for a series of concerts at National Sawdust led by John Zorn, I followed the composer-saxophonist to his takeover of the Frick Collection’s popular “First Friday” series. Mr. Zorn and his close collaborators roamed across the museum for several hours, setting up in various chamber music configurations, in different galleries and foyers. I caught up with them in the building’s celebrated, intimate music room — which is set for repurposing in a coming renovation. There, it was possible to hear a pair of artists making a strong case on behalf of the space’s current iteration.

The cellist Michael Nicolas played Mr. Zorn’s “As Above, So Below,” a febrile work full of contrasting energies. (The piece is one of several that Mr. Zorn will be bringing to concerts accompanying the Guggenheim’s coming exhibition of paintings by Hilma af Klint.)

Then Mr. Zorn performed some contrasting lines of his own, on alto saxophone. Billed on the program as a continuation of his long-in-process solo saxophone series, “The Classic Guide to Strategy,” he initially mirrored some of the quick-changing style heard during the work for cello — as he let raunchy lines of harshly overblown texture alternate with brief legato phrases, suggestive of mellow balladry (if only for a moment).

Though at the end of his solo, as he found the center of the room, Mr. Zorn simply aimed the bell of instrument toward the ceiling, and let rip for a while. With this rough cry, it seemed he was performing his own sonic renovation of the space: getting under the décor, making the room vibrate on his frequency.

The most recent recording from his “Strategy” series features blood-soaked reeds on its cover. And you can get a sense of the way Mr. Zorn commits the body, during these performances, in a live video of a 2009 solo, hosted on the site of the radio station WQXR. (Mr. Zorn’s retinue will return to the Frick’s First Friday series on October 5.)


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