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A large but somewhat bewildered audience came to Greensboro's Christ United Methodist Church on April 15 to listen to virtuoso organist Matt Curlee and a few of his very talented friends. Presented by Music for a Great Space, Neos fully lived up to its billing as an innovative, ambitious ensemble. The result was a concert which stretched most listeners beyond their customary expectations and tastes. While this reviewer for the most part reveled in their performances, the evening's success varied from partial to complete, depending on one's musical cultivation.
Neos includes Curlee, violinist Courtney Orlando, percussionist Ian Fry, bassist Ike Sturm, and drummer/percussionist Ted Poor. All demonstrate the first-rate performance level expected of the Eastman School of Music, where they met. Greensboro audiences are well-acquainted with Curlee, who garnered one of the organ world's top prizes at the Grand Prix de Chartres while only 20 years old. Orlando's violin playing exhibits, among other things, hauntingly beautiful sul tasto with impeccable intonation. Sturm and Poor have both amassed considerable credentials in their relatively young careers, each playing with discipline and precision. Poor in particular showcases the sensitive dynamic control necessary in the absence of a mixing board. Relative newcomer Fry dances nimbly around the marimba, vibraphone, and percussion with equal ease.
As Neos, the artists synchronize their playing at levels reminiscent of the best chamber music and jazz groups anywhere. Their concerts offer music which defies traditional labels of classical, jazz, or contemporary. They include original works by their own members, commissions, and transcriptions/arrangements of existing music. The performance straddles somewhere between composition and improvisation, all the while taking in a variety of influences of styles.
The concept is by no means new. Progressive rock (Genesis, Yes), experimental jazz (Return to Forever, Jack DeJohnette's New Directions), and "new age" groups (Oregon, Paul Winter Consort) have all employed an endless array of unlikely instruments and other sources of sound in every conceivable way, often bridging the span between classical and contemporary genres. Neos aimed for a realm beyond been there/done that with their peculiar instrumental integration (which includes classical organ) and rapid-fire delivery, sometimes in unison and other times in quick antiphony.
The concert included many selections from the ensemble's "Mackerel Sky" CD (Suigeneris, 2005), a recording definitely worthy of a Grammy. Live performances of these works require a room with clear, warm acoustics and an organ which speaks with immediacy and clarity. The church's sanctuary and Fisk pipe organ happily offered all of these qualities. I much prefer the sound of the Fisk to that of the recording's electronic instrument, although its bolder stops occasionally obliterated Orlando's violin and Fry's vibraphone.
With additional lighting and gentle amplification, the evening's performances blended atmosphere and pyrotechnics as expected. The players, including Curlee, enjoyed the good proximity with each other necessary for live performances of this music to succeed. Although Fry was partially obscured by the loft wall, his contributions came across with sufficient clarity.
The printed program served only as general guide, as some selections were exchanged for others. "Tres Minutos" by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla could have given a stronger first impression at the top of the concert than Curlee's Neos 7, but it opened the second half, when we expected the three Children's Songs by jazz keyboard wizard Chick Corea. The concert's tour de force, Jesse Kreb's "Photon Clocks," was listed to conclude the first half but instead preceded bassist Sturm's "Infinite Horizon," the beautiful dream-like, improvisatory strains of which closed the concert with something of a letdown. Confused? So were we. Moreover, Curlee inserted an untitled work, freshly composed and known to the other members of Neos for little more than 24 hours, as a premiere (or, more appropriately, an unheralded unveiling). All these changes seemed to be the artists' own choosing, rather than necessitated by external circumstances. While such programming might work at venues like the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Greensboro Neos might have generated more appreciation from all of its audience by providing printed program revisions and opening and closing on stronger notes.
These reservations, however, were not enough to detract from appreciating the distinctive voice of Neos, epitomized in Curlee's "Mackerel Sky." The composition oscillates between an easy groove (complete with a melodious bass guitar solo) and quick rhythmic punches, at times suggesting Corea's hit "Spain." "Children Songs" nos. 11, 6, and 20 are piano pieces by Corea, first transcribed to the organ by Curlee and later arranged for the ensemble. Here Orlando, Fry, Sturm, and Poor provide subtle attachments and enhancements to the compositions' original keyboard material, deftly interpreted by Curlee. These arrangements could become classics over time.
I'm not sure the same can be said for Justinian Tamusuza's "Katonda Yebale." Cut from the minimalist fabric of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, this upbeat work dances about in a rapid hemiola pattern, with playful antiphony among violin, organ, and percussion. While I found it hypnotic, other audience members grew increasingly restless from its repetitiveness. Even in the closing seconds of the piece, the players seemed to be treading on eggshells for fear of one false entrance. In the end I wonder if concerts by Neos wouldn't benefit from more exuberant performances played from memory instead of merely precise readings of very complex and precious music. Perhaps future compositions and commissions could grant them that opportunity.
Congratulations to the organizers of Music for a Great Space for the courage to present this kind of program on their series. While their concerts cover the gamut of music from classical to "other" — jazz greats Wally West and Jim Ketch have played on the series to capacity audiences — I cannot think of a program on its series that ventured toward such cutting-edge programming. Ultimately, exposure to such fine talent as Neos can only be good for all of us.