More than a concert
Thousands gathered along the Milwaukee River Saturday evening. Boats of all sorts glided by, some part of the show, some just passing through. Artists set up along the banks. Somewhere, the Wisconsin Cream City Chorus sang. Puppeteers with poles sent artificial aquatic life wafting around the grounds. Finally, two boatloads of musicians arrived, playing Row, Row, Row Your Boat in canon in Charles Ives fashion, in a multitude of simultaneous keys and permutations.
And Present Music‘s concert hadn’t even started yet.
The multitude then crowded into Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center. Free admission had a lot to do with filling all 2,300 seats in the place. Babies cried. Patrons crowded in late and some left early. An exceptionally dark hall made it impossible to read the program. Conductor/artistic director Kevin Stalheim played Ingram Marshall’s Sea Tropes, David’s Lang’s Water: My Soul, Water: Before Roll, Ocean, Water: Roll, Ocean and Water: Heavy Water and Timothy Andres’ Fast Flows the River without pause. I lost track of what was being played when, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
It didn’t make much difference. The music carried us along in watery tumult and meditation, through hypnotic siren song (rendered by the Milwaukee Choral Artists and the Bel Canto Boy Choir and the Vocal Arts Academy). Kelly Lahl’s projected images, abundant in pithy quotations about water, set the stage. Mesmerizing videos, by UWM Art and Design grad students Yoko Hattori and Joe Grennier, harmonized beautifully with the shifting musical moods.
Seven Danceworks dancers came on at intervals. I recognized Dani Kuepper’s choreography from Stone Soup, given in training shoes on concrete at Sweetwater Organics last April. In bare feet on the good Uihlein Hall floor and adjusted to the very different rhythms of very different music, the dance changed. At Sweetwater, it was about thrust, power, effort-driven virtuosity. Saturday, it was softer, more lyrical, more easy and witty, and utterly exquisite. And again brilliantly danced.
The striking, highly original sound world Ince created charms at every turn. His formal procedure, while free-wheeling and intuitive, is comprehensible. He works with certain categories of sound: quiet, lapping ones; dreamy siren songs; gently rocking, repetitive ones; breathy, gossamer ones; and wild raucous ones. He might not use the same notes when these categories recur, but we recognize the sentiment of the sound, and the sentiments build the structure. You can follow the development and interactions of these sentiments and qualities of sound, and the whole thing makes sense in a very original way.
Then seven gentlemen came out and sang David Lang’s a cappella Water: Give Me, a funny, virtuosic series of riffs on the sentence: “Give me a glass of ice-cold water.” I especially liked the bits in which the whole thing sort of melted, microtonally speaking.
The guys and the orchestra remained on stage while four other choirs took positions out in the house. Each took up a water song — How Dry I Am, The Water Is Wide, Down by the Riverside, Row Your Boat — in various keys. The orchestra jumped into the Ivesian racket with Handel’s Water Music. Glorious.
All that came to a halt, and a boy of about 8 years stood on the stage and sang one line: Shall We Gather at the River (an Ives favorite, by the way). The whole audience sang back: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river...”
Outside, after the concert, a rock band, Herman Astro, played. Giant soap bubbles floated overhead. Fire dancers danced. People drank and smiled and talked and enjoyed a perfect late-summer night. UWM art students showed their work. And the Milwaukee River rolled on.