Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music with Mazz Swift at Roulette

Face the Music, a Kaufman Music Center program, gives teenagers a glimpse into the world of composing, rehearsing, and performing contemporary music. On Sundays, nearly 100 kids gather together in New York City for classes and rehearsals to prepare for the 20 concerts that Face the Music presents at some of New York’s coolest concert spaces, like January 14th’s concert at Roulette, which showcased both student works in addition to works by Todd Reynolds and Mazz Swift.

Like middle school orchestra and band concerts–and somewhat unlike the norm of contemporary music concerts–the lobby of Roulette was humming with younger siblings running around and parents eager to see their children perform. The first work on the program was Todd Reynolds’ Seven Sundays for mixed ensemble (the instrumentation for the majority of the pieces programmed on this concert varied only slightly from flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, electric bass, electric guitar, keyboard, and drum set). Reynolds’ work borrows inspiration from a recording of African American preachers from the 1930s through the 1950s and melds the blues with delicious pitch bends and upbeat sonic distortion. There were some great licks for the percussion, but the ensemble’s balance of sound could use a little work. (All the instruments were amplified, so this may just be a job for the person at the mixing board.)

Butterflies, sung and played by burgeoning singer-songwriter Athena Chuang and her trusty ukulele, was quite compelling and made a strong case for the singer-songwriter program that Face the Music offers. The other singer-songwriter featured on the program, Logan Spaleta, bravely sang his heart out while banging out his quite catchy tune on the piano.

Face the Music

Face the Music–Photo by Joan Jastrebski

Logan didn’t notice that behind him, yet another parent was getting up to leave the hall and loudly whispering goodbyes to other folks sitting next to her.  This gradual exodus was continuous throughout the concert. For the children’s sake, I wish that perhaps there had been a conversation with parents encouraging them to stay for the entire concert, if at all possible. Being there for the entire experience as an audience member so that the children programmed at the end of the night have just as rousing of an applause as those programmed at the top is part of the educational experience these children are here for. Stage changes that didn’t feel rehearsed and many technical difficulties were also an unfortunate part of the evening; when young people are in a situation where they are expected to perform at a high level, the adults contributing to that experience should ensure that production of the concert is held to the same standards.

Composer-performer Mazz Swift’s ensemble pieces Trumped by a Joker aka Who’s Gonna Pay For That?! and Conduction were the real gems of this program. Consisting of both improvised and composed gestures, Swift’s Conduction gives the conductor the ability to both conduct and create improvisation within the group. For example, Swift would point at a musician or musicians in the band, and, with pre-determined hand signals, would elicit some gesture from them in a given range at a given volume. This game-like atmosphere worked very well with the groovy, high-octane nature of her music. Rarely have I seen such poised young performers; rarely have I seen such intense, aware eye contact between conductor and ensemble. Jonah Murphy on flute, Austin Celestin on trumpet, and Max Dolgin on drum set were especially enjoyable to listen to and to watch; their solos were invigorating and full of personality, and they were obviously comfortable and confident with this music on a very high level.

Mazz Swift

Mazz Swift

Ilaria Loisa Hawley’s Singing Planets & Tsunamis borrowed Swift’s conduction method as a means of composing part of the work in real time as the musicians responded to the conductor’s cues. The work had an ambitious narrative program, but the conduction method didn’t serve her as well as it probably could have. There wasn’t enough of Ilaria herself in this work; the musical factors left to chance far outweighed her own artistic input, and as a result, most of the movements felt more composed by the group than composed by the composer.

Kaufman Music Center has created so many programs to open doors and give training to young people interested in contemporary music, and Face the Music is just one indication of its continued success in creating relevant experiences for pre-college musicians.