The first frame in the Quodlibet Ensemble’s online program of Frederic Rzewski, Florence Price and Johann Sebastian Bach was countertenor Reginald Mobley in a close shot, facing a wall, his back to the camera. He turned to reveal a Wonder Woman face mask and a t-shirt that read “Black Love Matters”. The screen flashed in a polarized, negative image. The camera then panned quickly to the left to land on Joe Magar playing an electric bass continuo. The propulsive bassline, which continued throughout the 20 minutes of the piece, is the foundation of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together. The other primary element is the text delivered by Mobley, eight sentences that exude confidence and hope, written by Sam Melville, an inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility, who was killed in the prison uprising in 1971.

Reginald Mobley and Quodlibet © Pastor Isaac Scott
Reginald Mobley and Quodlibet
© Pastor Isaac Scott

The piece is a classic work of the innovation that arose from the tumult of the 1960s, when lines between improvisation and composition and between concert music and popular music were willfully blurred. The streamed presentation of the Quodlibet performance – conceived by ensemble violinist Katie Hyun (who co-produced the program with the formerly incarcerated artist and activist Pastor Isaac Scott) had the pace and feel of a popular music video. Mobley looked at the camera hard, barely moving. The intensity in his eyes was the only connection with the masked figure.  

The scene flashed to the other members of the ensemble, splitting the screen into varying configurations of frames, and back to Mobley. His shirt had changed to another image of Wonder Woman, this time showing the comic book heroine in a fist fight. The underlying suggestion wasn’t far from the surface: a black man in a mask giving voice to a convict (even though Melville was white) sporting a white woman who fights lawbreakers on his chest. It contained too many layers of nuance to count.   

Quodlibet © Pastor Isaac Scott
Quodlibet
© Pastor Isaac Scott

Performers sometimes try to enhance Coming Together, adding dance or lighting, or varying the vocal delivery. It rarely works. The repetitions in Rzewski’s work aren’t meant to be hidden. But stagnant video feels very different than stagnant staging. The flashes and fast pans didn’t come off as an effort to liven things up. The strings stabbed, the camera panned in quick spurts with jump cuts to different rooms, but the performers were still, sometimes shown when not playing. It was anxious and enormously effective. 

The program was presented by Five Boroughs Music Festival, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Tippet Rise Art Center, and Bay Chamber Concerts in collaboration with VOTESart, a civic engagement campaign launched by Quodlibet violinists Rebecca Anderson and Alex Fortes, and included links and announcements to encourage voter registration and participation The second half of the program, however, set social issues and partisan politics aside and reached for higher planes. Four songs written by the 20th-century American composer Florence Price and arranged by members of the ensemble cast Mobley in a decidedly different light. In concert black with his face now visible, he floated with the songs, singing the hymns in the voice of an angel, not a Friday night revival but a Sunday morning service. The contrast was no accident.

The redemption of Price was followed by the ascension of Bach. Mobley sang the short solo cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Just Resist Sin) BWV 54 beautifully, his German falling in warm, rounded tones. The masked ensemble behind him played with a measured confidence, not so strong as to weigh it down. An unfortunate decision to switch to a handheld camera and cross-fades in the recitative was one of the few missteps in a nearly perfect, hour-long program. 

 

This performance was reviewed from the video stream

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