Wasabi-Eating Contest: John Zorn Composer Portrait @ Miller Theater

Last month, Miller Theater presented a concert of John Zorn’s music as part of its Composer Portraits series. The all-star performers—Talea Ensemble (led by new-music conducting guru Brad Lubman); plus pianist Stephen Gosling, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Kenny Wolleson, violinist Jennifer Koh, cellist Fred Sherry, trumpeter Peter Evans, bass trombonist David Taylor, and tubist Marcus Rojas—ate the spectacularly virtuosic and athletic music for breakfast, meeting every note with the fire and intensity it required.

John Zorn

And that, dear reader, was the problem. From the opening world-premiere strains of Bateau Ivre (“Drunken Boat”), commissioned by Talea Ensemble with major (and I mean it) support from the Chamber Music America and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the intensity never let up for more than a brief moment. What began as edge-of-seat excitement soon became, frankly, stressful. Relentlessness is wonderful, but without a foil it becomes just as oppressive as any other unchanging musical character. At intermission, I ran into a friend and colleague, who excitedly asked me what I thought of the concert so far. The only reply I could muster was to wave an imaginary white flag and mouth the words “I surrender.” It was like eating a meal in which every course was prepared with a different ethnic hot thing: tabasco in the soup, sriracha in the noodles, Red Savina habanero ice cream. I love spicy food—really!—but it’s possible to have, as Grandma used to say, too much of a good thing. I love wasabi, and once got into a wasabi-eating contest with a friend. I’ll never do that again.

Talea Ensemble. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan.

Which is a real shame, because on their own, the pieces made it absolutely clear why Miller Theater had chosen Zorn to “sit” for a Portrait. Here is a composer of seemingly inexhaustible energy and verve, endlessly fascinated by music and eager in an almost childlike way to transmit that enthusiasm to others. I was particularly enthralled by Cerberus, a new brass (!) trio for Peter Evans, Dave Taylor, and Marcus Rojas, and named after the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades. Originally “written” in the recording studio and later transcribed by Zorn into a score-of-sorts, Cerberus had the three brass gods milking every conceivable sound (and some inconceivable) from the horns, plus quite a bit of what can only be described as “dog noise,” including barks, growls, and yelps. It’s always a joy to see brass instruments featured in new music concerts—seriously, why is this so rare?—and especially so when the music is this imaginative, adventurous, and, yes, fun.

Zorn the man actually provided the biggest textural relief during the whole evening during a post-intermission onstage chat with Fred Sherry, in which he revealed himself to be a genuinely talented comedian. For ten minutes, he had the whole of Miller Theater in stitches, this writer included.

Jeremy Howard Beck is a New York-based composer, as well as an active trombonist. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremyhowardboo