On Thursday evening, not a seat was vacant in Alice Tully Hall for The Holy Visions, the inaugural concert of Lincoln Center Festival’s three-day performance series honoring John Zorn’s impending birthday. The series is just a small installment in Zorn@60, an international celebration of one of New York’s most revered avant-garde composers and musicians, who will turn 60 on 2 September.

Jon Zorn © Scott Irvine
Jon Zorn
© Scott Irvine

With a program of works for female vocal quintet and solo organ, concert-goers were provided with an ample representation of Zorn’s compositional hybridity, calling attention to the myriad composers, artists and musical genres that have influenced Zorn during his near-six decades of life.

The concert commenced with a performance of Shir Ha-Shirim (“The Song of Songs”), arranged for five a cappella female voices. Zorn’s original score included the reading of Biblical poetry by male and female narrators, which accompanied the music. However, in a recent decision made by the composer, the narration was eliminated, thus marking this performance as the world première of his new arrangement.

The structure of Shir Ha-Shirim is about as anomalous as all of its creator’s music. Its individual sections vary greatly in length, tempo and character, and incorporate a spread of vocal techniques and textures that put the virtuosity of each performer to the ultimate test.

What is perhaps most striking about this work is that, woven into each of the vocal lines, one can hear influences that span across twelve centuries of composition. The work includes medieval-sounding polyphony and melismas, while slowly built, repetitious phrases call to mind the music of Glass and micro-polyphonic textures are suggestive of Ligeti. The composition is also laced with Phrygian dominant scales – a common feature of Jewish music – and induces hair-raising sensations of mysticism and sensuousness throughout.

Stripped of its narration, Shir Ha-Shirim felt stagnant at times, lacking the added sense of propulsion that text often provides. However, as a whole, vocalists Lisa Bielawa, Abigail Fischer, Mellissa Hughes, Jane Sheldon and Kristen Sollek delivered an exemplary performance, which demonstrated the work’s well-balanced amalgamation of gravitas, fervency and humor.

Next on the program was Zorn’s “mystery play” The Holy Visions, a work composed in eleven strophes with an original Latin libretto. The piece called each of the five female vocalists back to the stage for a performance about the life and work of 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen.

Much like the preceding work, The Holy Visions is influenced by medieval polyphony and plays heavily with vocal timbres and textures, including hissing whispers, spoken text, unison chant, and piercing soprano shrieks. The composition highlights Zorn’s interest in exploring a broad emotional spectrum and concludes with a sudden heavy gasp that, in typical Zorn fashion, caught everyone by surprise.

It was Zorn who took the stage for the evening’s final performance. Clad in a baggy red T-shirt, camouflage pants and sneakers, his appearance was of great antithesis to the all-white formal attire worn by the other performers. But perhaps his dress served to foreshadow the distinct vibe of the coming music: his improvised organ piece entitled The Hermetic Organ, Office no. 8.

Many are quick to associate Zorn with the saxophone, but in fact his musical career began on the organ. Indeed, Zorn took instant command of the hall’s pipe organ, beginning his improvisation with a deep oscillating drone, which tested the lower range of audible frequency, before guiding the audience through a tour of the instrument’s incredible timbre and sonority. Frequently, Zorn would remove his hands from the keys, raising his arms into the air as if to question what was next, which allowed the instrument a moment to resound before new material was introduced.

Overall, the recital provided an intimate look into the creative and perplexing mind of this versatile composer, demonstrating how one can maintain individuality and originality in his exploration of the oft-intimidating multitude of musical styles and techniques. So happy birthday, John Zorn, and here’s to many more.