The opening Friday night concert of Denver's Mile High Voltage Festival was an especially fine evening for new music fans. Some of us travel to New York or San Francisco to hear high level performances of "alternative classical" music, but this was just about the first time such concerts have occurred in the Denver area. As critic Kyle MacMillan wrote in the Denver Post, this event "is a first for Denver and probably for the Rocky Mountain region."
The concert opened with Burkina Electric, described as the "first electronica band from Burkina Faso" (located in the deep interior of West Africa). The group blends pop/dance music with unusual, sophisticated rhythms. In live concert, the focal point is the charismatic vocalist Maï Lingani, who sings and moves with an appealing passion. She's flanked by 2 energetic male dancers. They are backed the electronicist Pyrolator and the multi-talented percussionist/composer Lukas Ligeti, who brings a highly developed sense of rhythm and meter to the band. The audience responded enthusiastically to the group.
Next was a new work, commissioned by the Newman Center, for this festival. The composer is Andy Akiho, who specializes in performing on the steel pan. In recent years, he's received considerable attention as a composer. This new piece, NO one To kNOW one, was performed by Andy and The Playground (a new music ensemble in residence at DU's Lamont School of Music). The exciting piece presented mostly driving rhythms and further established the worth of this composer.
The wonderful clarinetist Evan Ziporyn played several pieces by David Lang, Michael Harrison, and Ziporyn himself. Having heard him perform many times in New York, I was again so pleased with his committed, glorious performances. Evan played 2 pieces with Michael Harrison, who performed on his distinctively tuned piano.
In addition to the Lang piece, the other 2 co-founders of the Bang on a Can Festival, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, were also represented by effective pieces: Gordon's pulsing The Low Quartet (which features 2 bass clarinets in its ensemble) and Wolfe's Early That Summer, a typically driving work for string quartet.
What the Newman Center has done is most impressive. They've brought in top musicians, normally not heard in this area. For example, this was Lukas Ligeti's first performance in Colorado. (As I chatted with him afterward backstage while he packed up, he mentioned he was leaving for a performance in Dusseldorf, due on a plane leaving about 8 hours later.) The music we heard was vibrant, energetic, engaging alternative new music. In addition to the concerts themselves, the Newman folk also organized performances in the student center, a lunchtime performance of Terry Riley's "In C" in a public atrium (which I heard went well), master classes by both Lukas Ligeti and Evan Ziporyn, meetings with composers, and a panel presentation on Building a Profile in the Music Business.
And, in addition to the performance in the fine Gates Concert Hall, they also setup a separate lounge, dubbed the Cantaloupe Cafe, where folks could watch and hear the concert on screen, while ordering food and drink. They even put all the program notes online beforehand, and sent out emails to ticket-holders detailing the full schedule. And they brought in a distinguished moderator, Tom Moon, who's interviewed everyone from John Adams to Frank Zappa.
Overall, it's a major, ambitious, and surely quite expensive effort. Let's hope this becomes a regular event.
Saturday's concert will have the Sö Percussion, along with The Playground performing music by David Lang (his classic Cheating, Lying, Stealing), Michael Harrison, and Conrad Kehn. It'd be great to see lots of new music fans there.