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Published: 2004/09/26
by Jesse Jarnow

Vermont Youth Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, NYC- 9/14

NYC ROLL-TOP: 7th Avenue, The Hard Way

Q. How do ya get to Carnegie Hall?

A. Start a wildly cult rock band. Stop practicing.

Knowing next-to-shit-all about the world of modern concert music, one thing that struck me at the September 14th performance of the Vermont Youth Orchestra at Manhattan's Carnegie Hall was the difference between the way Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and the five other Vermont composers on the program utilized the players. I sense I probably wasn't alone. A less than full house of VYO family members, civilian concertgoers, and Phishheads checked each other out with equal good humor (and a refreshing deflation from the palpable tension at most Phish events of recent months). It's hard to say what the former two groups thought of Anastasio's pieces, since the latter were surely louder, but the Phishheads were (mostly) respectful during the rest of the program, curiously investigating unfamiliar musical and physical terrain.

On "Between Hills Briefly Green," conductor Troy Peters composed (as he described in his program note) "a summer idyll for orchestra," which employed the musicians for a sweet meditation on airy themes. David Ludwig's "Radiance" was "a nocturne serenade." Thomas L. Read's "Resound!", meanwhile extended its themes "by continuous repetition." There was very little drama. The orchestra, for the most part, rewarded for patience, such as the swing flourishes in (Anastasio mentor) Ernie Stires' "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" and the playful development of themes in David Gunn's opening "Urban Renewaltz."

But it's Anastasio you're here to read about, huh?

It's easy to see why he picked "Guyute" for his formal Carnegie Hall debut. Despite a few other promising starts (notably the "Pebbles and Marbles-derived "Prologue" on Seis De Mayo), the ugly pig remains Anastasio’s only fully completed orchestral work. The orchestration is fully unfurled right from the get-go, starting at a level of high drama that most of the other pieces intentionally didn’t reach until their climaxes, and progressing methodically in distinct modules. A friend (perhaps negatively?) said it sounded like an Indiana Jones score. In other words, it was overblown. Which is true. "Guyute" is totally overblown. But, of course it’s overblown. Phish – or much of their most striking playing, anyway – was exactly that. In fact, for a long time, that was the point. Why should it change now?

And what was once overblown in the form of a brash band of lovable dorks is now overblown in the form of more adult music (and instead of a rock band imitating an orchestra, it's an orchestra imitating a rock band imitating an orchestra). "Guyute" was invested with more obvious forward momentum than any of the other pieces on the program. In an arena, with thousands of screaming fans, it's challenging to hold an audience's attention with complex music. In Carnegie Hall, one need not do anything. Like many great concert halls, an intimate respect for the performers is implicit in the hall's architecture. Still, after an evening of relative tranquility, the erupting themes of "Guyute" were a welcome break, many fans whooping unabashedly as the song rose to its bobbing peaks.

"The Inlaw Josie Wales" and the unbilled encore, "Flock of Words," on the other hand, were pictures of polite restraint, though each still found a hook to keep the listener's ear. In the case of "Josie Wales" it was Anastasio's fleet-fingered open-tuned melodies. In the case of "Flock of Words," it was the traditional song structure. With trap drums removed and the rock ballad overtones muted slightly, the tune – featured on Anastasio's self-titled 2001 album – revealed itself gracefully. Tom Marshall's seemingly obvious lyrics ("let me knoooooooooooooow…") and Anastasio's wispy melody proved to be more substantial under the hyper-scrutiny brought on by the room's acoustics and grandeur (though still oddly thin, given the song's accessibility, when listened to casually). Missing in the latter piece, especially, was the sense of fun and/or idiosyncrasies that keeps much of Anastasio and Marshall's best music buoyant. Either way, Anastasio earned himself a pair of standing ovations.

And he absolutely deserved both ones, at the very least for allowing his fellow Vermont composers the chance to have their music heard. If his name didn't earn the Carnegie Hall booking, then his prescence at least assured half of the audience for the Vermont Youth Orchestra. For Phishheads, it was the diametric opposite of Anastasio's last public performance, at Coventry: no travel hassles, no mud, no police (or bandmembers) telling you to go home, a rehearsed performance, and no improvisation. The Phish world continues to twist.

Meanwhile, Anastasio seems to have set himself a calm course. Orchestral music, if pursued doggedly and whole-assedly by Anastasio, could prove to be a happily rich and satisfying direction for both the guitarist and his audience (though he'll have to be more committed than occasional performances and half-hour albums of potential-infused fragments). It is, as he is fond of pointing out, a lifelong pursuit. Anastasio's got the time.

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