So, as requested, I'm posting to share a little of my experience conducting the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble this past weekend at the Kitchen.
Working with John has always been inspiring. I feel I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to get the gig in the first place. I've learned a lot about music, freedom, rhythm, rehearsing, and really what I'm capable of as a conductor, of which I never really dreamed I'd be doing a significant amount. John's music is incredibly difficult both execution-wise and especially conceptually, but somehow rehearsals (and the recording) never seem to get very tense. He always manages to crack a joke or lighten the mood or change directions at the perfect time to keep things relaxed. This is also made possible by the incredible professionalism, patience, and sense of humor of the band members.
First of all, the Kitchen is a really a great space, if you've never been there. The sound guys did a great job. Everything sounded very acoustic, even though it was coming through the system.
To talk about the concert itself, let me start by saying that the opening lyrical piece, "The Shape of Spirit," actually has sections that both John and I conduct different tempos simultaneously. (It feels pretty cool to have both of us up there at the same time). The piece ends with a beautiful, soaring melody played my several players, but most notably to me one of my favorite musicians in NYC, Dan Willis on an unbelievably sweet and moving soprano sax.
"rain and grace (like Gandhi)" is a perfect example of Hollenbeck's rhythmic mastery and concepts. He transcribed the sound/rhythm of falling rain and gave those extended and overlapping rhythmic patterns to the ensemble to play. These rhythmic sections are interspersed with gradually longer lush "graceful" sections until the end in which a recording of the rhythmic rain is played over the PA and the musicians play along. (For the record, John & I had headphones on during this section, but we only had a louder version of the rain recording, NOT a click track.)
We had an "optional intermission" in which folks were encouraged to treat as a normal intermission (get up, walk around, chat, etc.) even though for most of the time various groups on the ensemble were improvising to a melodic line that John provided. This line foreshadowed and eventually evolved into the Kitchen commission premiere of "Long Swing Dream," a simple walking piece that represented a dream he had about writing a piece.
He surprised me at the rehearsal on Thursday by pulling out one of my favorites pieces of his, "Weiji (Danger & Opportunity)." This is the only piece we performed at the Kitchen that is on his Grammy nominated CD, "A Blessing." It's incredibly exciting, mainly due to the intense rhythmic pattern the piece is based on, but also because of the scintillating improvising of the featured soloists: Dave Ballou, Charlie Pillow, and Ben Kono.
To me, the performance appropriately culminated in Processional/Desiderata which he wrote for a very important person in his life (and mine), Bob Brookmeyer. This is a piece that some have issue with, mainly due to the well known Max Ehrmann text, but this piece has deep meaning to me . . . partially because of that fact alone. One of the great things I so admire about John is his complete disregard for expectation. This text and its connection to how he feels about Brookmeyer overrode any thoughts of listeners thinking that text choice would be cheesy or inappropriate. He sees Bob as the caring provider of wisdom to so many of us evolving musicians (as do I), and to him this text closely represents this role. Since the first time I heard this piece (Brookmeyer proudly played it for me), I have been deeply affected by it, so it's a little tricky for me to not get too emotionally involved while conducting the piece, especially the end where, on the recording, Brookmeyer's booming, fatherly voice (portrayed on the concert by Theo Bleckmann) is heard simultaneously with his majestic trombone sound (Jacob Garchik at the Kitchen).
I heard many great comments from audience members, even from folks I didn't expect would dig it. Of course I also heard someone say that it was the most pretentious thing he'd ever heard. Well, that's Hollenbeck's music. Sometimes he's hard to "get," but when you do, it can be an incredibly moving experience (sorry, just a little subjective opinion).