What is Liederabend, you ask? Literally translated as “song night”, the Liederabend dates back to the 1800s when singers performed songs from the classical repertoire in someone’s home or another intimate setting for friends, peers and the public. Attempting to replicate that salon-like experience, the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought together 22 living composers, from a wide variety of backgrounds and musical styles, for two performances. The end result: 21c Liederabend.

21c Liederabend © Rebecca Greenfield
21c Liederabend
© Rebecca Greenfield

Part of the Next Wave Festival – BAM’s signature fall festival that showcases contemporary performances, artists talks, storytelling, visual art and film – 21c Liderabend achieved a delicate balance that, more times than not, New York’s larger performing arts venues fail to accomplish: an intimate experience in an extravagant, larger-scale setting.

Part of its success was due to the physical space: BAM Harvey Theater. First opened in 1904 as the Majestic Theater, it was then transformed into an elegant European-style movie house in 1942; but then with the rise of television, the theater remained empty for two decades until it was repurposed in 1987 as a performing arts space. Retaining its original architectural elements, the theater’s design maintains an aged look – paint is still peeling of the walls and scaffolding runs along the walls – so that the theater boasts that bougie blend of past and future that Brooklyn is so well-known for.

Eric Whitacre’s Sleep was a real highlight Friday evening. Just a bit of background on Whitacre: a Juilliard alum and student of John Corigliano, Whitacre’s music is lush and tonal, but also minimalist. Many of Whitacre’s works are premièred online through his Virtual Choir project, an online social experiment for choral music. Sleep, which was originally performed in April 2011 as part of Whitacre’s second Virtual Choir project, included at least 2,000 singers from 58 different countries, and was premièred on YouTube. But a live performance by Trinity Wall Street Choir was no less impressive. Positioned in the aisles holding tealights cupped in their hands, white twinkling lights glowed from each singer’s fingertips as their voices carried across the darkened hall. And the Trinity Wall Street Choir executed Whitacre’s rich harmonies perfectly. Towards the end, the word “sleep” was repeated over and over; some voices held their note, suspended in the heavy air, while others moved incrementally up or down one semitone. As this word and harmony was repeated, the choir softened, so much so that they were soon singing no louder than a whisper; and then gradually, there is no sound and the venue is wrapped in a warm blanket of silence. The effect was chilling.

No less brilliant was Netsayi & Black Pressure. Netsayi, a singer-songwriter who reworks traditional sounds of Zimbabwe into American song, performed three pieces: Hondo, Georgie and Sara Regina. Hondo, a tribute to the unease and pain associated with warfare, is a somber rock ballad. The combination of electric guitar and heavy lyrics had an emotive and electrifying effect. And so when the band let loose in the last two songs – bringing in a bass marimba and traditional marimba, drums, violin, cello, plus Netsayi’s own percussion strapped around her ankles – it was immediately clear this music was brilliant and fresh. (Think Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Sessions but with marimbas instead of the mandolin.) And as Netsayi stood there, barefoot, rocking out to her own music, I only wished I could jump out of my seat and join her and the guys on stage.

The best part about contemporary classical music is that is not easily defined; in fact, some may argue you cannot constrain it within musical limits at all. For some, that is a reason to scoff at contemporary music or shy away from attending concerts like 21c Liederabend. I will admit, I was wary of the two-hour performance with no intermission. But when the final sound dropped and the evening’s performers took their final bow, I realized exactly why contemporary music is so exciting, and so important. There were old and young performers on stage; they were pianists and singers, pipa and marimba players; they were black, white, Asian, African, male and female; there was real diversity present on stage. And it is this mix of cultures and musical ideas that continue to make classical music fresh and relevant.

So even if contemporary music is not your thing, next time, push yourself to go a little bit out of your own way. You may surprise yourself. And if you don’t know where to start, I suggest BAM’s Next Wave Festival.

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