Miranda Cuckson and Conrad Tao held the stage at PS 21 on two successive Friday nights as part of a series of mostly contemporary music concerts at the semi-open stage in Chatham NY, on August 28 and September 4. Both performers captivated their audiences with superb focus and transcendent technique, conveying a fierce commitment to contemporary repertory that gained force by virtue of the context of the pandemic. Played to masked listeners seated in a distanced pattern, the intense performances knitted musician, audience, and composers together into a powerful matrix of expressive power and imaginative adventure.
Let’s now return to more hopeful times during the summer with further—and concluding—reports on PS21’s Modern Music Fest by Larry Wallach on concerts by violinist Miranda Cuckson and composer-piano virtuoso Conrad Tao and myself on a recital by another, no less virtuosic composer-pianist, Timo Andres. I am unaware of any other organization to have offered professionally presented, socially-distanced live music in the Hudson Valley or Berkshires during the summer season, and that in itself was most welcome. But, beyond that, the Modern Music Fest, organized by PS 21’s Artistic Director, Elena Siyanko, only weeks before it opened, to replace an ambitious program of visitors from abroad which was planned last year, long before anyone thought of Covid-19. Most impressive were the coherence and focus of the programming, as well as the level of musicianship among the performing artists, all of whom hailed from New York City. As we all know, New Yorkers were not entirely occupied with surviving a readily spread and often lethal microbial threat, but hostility from the federal executive, an equally dangerous disease threatening the basic rights of not just themselves but of all American citizens. Mr. Andres and Mr. Tao, as well as the leadership of PS21 were energetically participating in movements which, have, from this retrospective point in time, have preserved the right to vote and have reminded Americans of their duty to vote, so far. These urgent concerns brought them together while they were pursuing their daily lives under these radically altered circumstances, including the planning and rehearsal of the music that brought us all together in Chatham.
Ax and Ma chatted about their relationship over the years and the personal idiosyncrasies that sustain or annoy them both. To engage novice listeners, the Beethoven’s sonata became the subject of some slightly nerdy talk about the tonic-dominant-tonic arches that propelled the Beethoven’s sonata. Finally, somehow, they drifted to discussing chef Jacques Pépin’s freaky tolerance for seizing hot skillets its supposed relevance in interpreting the piano attacks in the scherzo.
Elena Siyanko, Executive Director of PS21, in her introductory comments preceding Alarm Will Sound‘s performance of John Luther Adams‘ Ten Thousand Birds, said that this event has been in the works for a year. Its purpose, conceived months before there was any hint in people’s minds that the performance would occur under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic which continues without an end in sight, at least in the United States. The particular features of the new performance structure and the determination and resourcefulness of Ms. Siyanko and her staff have made PS21 a pioneer in offering live performances under safe conditions. The performance of Ten Thousand Birds was intended to showcase the new PS21 and its new semi-open performance space to the public. The beautiful grounds surrounding it are in integral part of its design and function in a way quite different from Tanglewood and SPAC, where lawns simply provide expanded seating for those who prefer to be out in the open.
PS21 was founded by the late Judy Grunberg in 1999 with the mission of presenting advanced and diverse performances of music, dance, and theater, as well as some film screenings. Under her leadership as President of the Board, local residents and some from further away enjoyed lively summer programs performed in an ingenious plastic stage-cum-shelter in the middle of a field. Before her passing in 2019, she initiated the construction of an equally ingenious and certainly more elegant permanent structure which could be used from autumn through spring. A 300-seat theater open on three sides functions as the summer venue. Its stage house can be converted into a black box theater seating 99, providing a more intimate space for performances that need it. It was designed by a local architect, Evan Stoller, son of the legendary architectural photographer, Ezra Stoller.