A league of their own

The view from the stage

If the rest of the League of American Orchestras conference here goes as well as the special St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert they saw tonight did, it will certainly be a week to remember. Maestro David Robertson conducted a very full program (two and one-half hours with intermission) that showed off the orchestra’s versatility: arias and overtures by Mozart and Wagner (with powerful performances by bass-baritone Eric Owens) along with Sibelius’s 7th symphony (which still sounds strikingly original nearly 90 years later) and John Adams’s flashy but (to my ears) rather empty “Doctor Atomic” symphony.

There was heroic work by the brass and percussion in the Adams and fine playing all around.  The string sound in the Sibelius was particularly striking.

After a week in Fort Worth for the Cliburn Competition and another week in Boston for the Boston Early Music Festival, it was nice to settle back with the home town band at Powell Hall—even if I am more aware of its acoustic shortcomings as a result of my travels over the last twelve months.  It’s still a lovely space and, to quote a Tom Lehrer lyric, “what the hell, it’s home.”

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 4: A Mighty Wind

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), which ran June 9 through 16 this year, is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

The fourth and last day (Sunday, June 16) was a one-concert day for me, but it was a good one: “Angeli, Zingare e Pastore: Symbols and Allegories in Italian Renaissance Music” by The Royal Wind Music, a recorder ensemble created by Paul Leenhouts, the director of early music studies at North Texas University and a professor for recorder and historical development at Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. The program apparently draws from their CD of the same name on the Lindoro label.

It’s a big family

Most recorder ensembles I’ve heard have been small—maybe three or four players—and limited to the higher-pitched members of the family. The recorder clan, however, is actually quite a large one, ranging in size from the twelve-inch sopranino to the massive sub-contrabass (over 10’). The thirteen members of The Royal Winds play all of them, producing a sound that is organ-like in its depth and sonority.

The parallel isn’t exact, of course. The Baroque organ had a much more varied sound, with stops that imitated other instruments. As an all-recorder band, The Royal Wind Music produces a wide range of pitches (several octaves worth) but a relatively limited tonal palette. When I think of Renaissance and Baroque wind music, I tend to think in terms of mixed groups like the late Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica or contemporary ensembles like Piffaro that augment the recorders with shawms, sackbuts, crumhorns, and bagpipes. The Royal Wind Music tends to sound a bit monochromatic by comparison.

Paul LeenhoutsPhoto: Toon Vieijra

That said, there’s no denying that, taken on its own terms, The Royal Wind Music does itself proud. It’s clearly a virtuoso assembly of versatile players, nearly all of whom appear to be comfortable with multiple members of the recorder family. Whether performing in trios, quartets, or quintets, or as a full ensemble, the sound they produced was uniformly pleasing. Mr. Leenhouts’s arrangements showcased the instruments and players nicely.

The program, while varied and interesting, did not strike me as being structured as effectively as possible. In the first half, for example, four slow, reverential late 16th-century religious works were grouped together in a way that threatened to produce what Peter Schickele (in a radically different context) describes as “a confused slumber.”

The second half of the concert changed things up a bit more, though, with some dance-inspired works by (among others) Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Giovanni Maria Trabaci (ca. 1575-1647). A set of galliards by the latter brought the concert to a lively conclusion, followed by a standing ovation and a full ensemble encore.

Taken as a whole, this was a satisfying way to end my four-day immersion in early music. After being immersed in the 19th and early 20th century piano and orchestra repertoire at the Cliburn Competition the week before, the music of the 16th and 17th centuries made for a pleasant contrast.

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 3: Escales

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), which ran June 9 through 16 this year, is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

Day three (Saturday, June 15) involved less dashing about than the previous day, which gave me a chance to wander about the exhibition rooms at the Revere Hotel. As you can see by the picture gallery at the end of this article, makers of a wide variety of historical instruments were well represented: viols, recorders, harps, Baroque flutes and violins (along with appropriate bows), and (of course) many varieties of harpsichord, clavichord, and organ—even old-style fortepianos of the sort Mozart and Beethoven used. All were clearly the work of master craftsmen (and women)—with appropriate price tags.

Jordi Savall

My first concert (2:30 PM at Jordan Hall) was one I’d been looking forward to: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI (a group whose makeup, according to a fellow critic, consists of “whoever Jordi Savall is working with at the moment”) with “Istanbul: Dimitrie Cantemir’s ‘The Book of the Science of Music’ and the Ottoman, Sephardic, Greek, and Armenian Traditions”. Cantimir (1673-1723) was a noted virtuoso on a long-necked lute-like instrument called the tanbur as well as a composer and scholar. “The Science of Music” is both a treatise on music theory and a collection of 355 compositions which, according to Mr. Savall’s notes, “constitutes the most important collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman instrumental music to have survived to the present day.”

About this genre (to quote Tom Lehrer in a different context) “I am knowing from nothing.” But it didn’t require an expert ear to appreciate the virtuosity of Mr. Savall (playing vielle and lyre) and his fellow musicians, who were: Hakan Güngör on kanun (a zither-like instrument played with metal finger picks), Yurdal Tokcan and Driss el Maloumi on oud (essentially a Persian lute), Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian on ney and duduk (recorder-esque woodwinds), Dimitri Sonis on tanbur and santur (relative to the hammered dulcimer), and David Mayoral on percussion.

[Mr. Mayoral’s battery included a dumbek, a hourglass-shaped metal drum that I’ve been playing around with myself, so I was watching him especially closely in hopes of picking up some tips. I wasn’t disappointed.]

This iteration of Hespèrion XXI produced an array of exotic sounds that brought ancient Istanbul to vivid life in the hart of contemporary Boston. You could almost smell the spices, feel the hot sun, and taste the thick, black coffee. This was music that was sensuous and joyful, and the BEMF audience—which seems to be less uncritically enthusiastic than most American classical music audiences—awarded them with a standing ovation rivaling the one that greeted “Almira” Friday night. The group responded with an encore consisting of three different versions of the same tune: Greek, Sephardic, and Ottoman. As an illustration of the rich multicultural stew brewing in Istanbul at the end of the 17th century, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Seven PM found me back at Jordan for a double bill of chamber operas written for the court of Louis XIV’s unmarried cousin, Marie de Lorraine, by Marc Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704): “Le Descente d’Orpheé aux Enfers” (“Orpheus’s Descent into Hades”) and “La Couronne de Fleurs” (“The Crown of Flowers”). The score for “Orpheé” is incomplete—only two of the presumed three acts survive—so director Gilbert Blin created a kind of “Charpentier sandwich”, placing “Orpheé” between the second and final scenes of “Couronne.”

That’s not as odd as it sounds. The plot of “Couronne” (such as it is) has a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses engaging in a contest to see who can come up with the most poetically beautiful paean to the magnificence of King Louis (Charpentier knew what to kiss and when, as they say). The judge is the goddess Flore and the prize is the titular crown.

The Orpheus story, in this context, is performed by the rustics as a way to demonstrate that even the ancient stories of the gods pale in comparison to Le Roi-Soleil. When the company gets to the end of Charpentier’s score, Mr. Blin has Louis XIV’s notoriously dictatorial court composer, Jean Baptiste Lully, walk on stage and invoke his royal privilege of restricting public performance of operas to his own works (which, historically, he did). The company then concludes by deciding that, since no mortal can adequately praise the king, the only solution is to divide the crown among all the contestants, wish Louis eternal life, and call it a day.

Charpentier’s score is, without a doubt, finely wrought and beautiful stuff. It was all magnificently sung and, like “Almira,” acted and danced in historically appropriate style. But even the remarkable Mr. Blin and his music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs—the team that scored such a hit with “Almira”—could not, in my view, overcome the dramatic inertia of this material. I also found it hard to stomach all the fawning praise of a particularly wretched monarch, but that’s just me.

That said, the audience appeared to love it all to bits and gave it a standing ovation.

Stephen Stubbs

Saturday’s late-night concert (11 PM at the Jordan) took us to an entirely different world. The early music ensemble Tragicomedia “and friends”, directed by Mr. Stubbs, brought us “Singen, Spielen, Trinken, Tanzen: Hamburg in Handel’s Time.” As the title indicates, this was a neat tie-in with “Almira” (which Handel composed for Hamburg) and, in fact, the program included a couple of scenes from the opera for which Handel was conducting the band from the harpsichord when he got the “Almira” commission: Johann Matteson’s “Cleopatra.” They were pretty silly stuff and went a long way towards explaining why the opera has fallen into obscurity.

But then, “silly stuff” characterizes most of what went on in this concert. This was nothing if not good-humored music-making and a reminder that guys like Telemann, Lully and (especially) Heinrich Schütz liked to have a good time a much as anyone. There was, for example, a slightly rude madrigal “Scherschliep! Messerschliep!” (“O shear-grinder! Knife-grinder!”) by Sebastian Knüpfer (performed with gusto by Jason McStoots, Zachary Wilder, and Christian Immler); a rudely rebuffed seduction scene played out with songs by Telemann; and a performance of Monteverdi’s lively “Chiome d’oro, bel Tesoro” (“Hair of gold, beautiful treasure”) from 1619 followed by Schütz’s satirical German translation from around 1650. It’s a reminder that parody lyrics didn’t start with Weird Al Yankovic.

Throughout the evening Harlequin, danced by Caroline Copeland, provided comic bridges between numbers and silently led everyone in a Knüpfer drinking song at the end. If there were any doubt that early music can be great fun, this would have dispelled it. I took the Green Line subway back to the hotel in a very cheerful state of mind.

Photo gallery: BEMF exhibition rooms.  Not too bad for iPhone snaps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 2: Manic Friday

Running June 9th through 16th this year, the biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) is a biennial cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

Day two of the festival and conference could have been called a Manic Monday, except that it was Friday. MCANA members had a 10 AM session on Baroque opera in general and the festival’s production of Handel’s “Almira” in particular, followed by lunch, followed by a Q and A session on early music. Both of those sessions were interesting enough to deserve their own blog posts, so I won’t go into detail on them here.

Gli Incogniti

The first concert of my day (at 5 PM) was at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, site of the majority of the BEMF concerts. It featured four members of the Italian ensemble Gli Incogniti (Amadine Beyer, Baroque violin; Baldomero Barciela, viola da gamba; Francesco Romano, theorbo and Baroque guitar; and Anna Fontana, harpsichord and organ) in “Viennoiseries: Austrian Music in the Stylus Fantasticus from the 17th Century.” Stylus Fantasticus, according to program notes by Ms. Beyer, is a compositional approach associated with the Austrian Hapsburg courts of the latter half of the 17th century and is characterized by “a flamboyant and original style not found in other music of the period.” If what I heard at Jordan Hall on Friday was any indication, this is also music that demands considerable virtuosity—which it certainly got from this group.

Ms. Beyer was particularly stunning in von Biber’s “Sonata violino solo representativa,” in which the soloist is called upon to imitate a variety of birds and beats (including Musketeers!) as was Francesco Romano in a Toccata from Johannes Heironymous Kapsberger’s 1640 “Libro Quarto”, but all four members impressed me with their skill. I’m told Ms. Fontana, who worked with a harpsichord stacked on top of an organ console, thereby enabling her to elegantly play both at once, had a terrific solo of her own towards the end of the program. Alas, I missed it, because I had to dash across town to the Cutler Majestic Theater to make the 7 PM curtain of Handel’s “Almira.”

Almira and ladies in waitingPhoto: classical-scene.com

“Almira” was the first operatic hit by the 19-year-old Handel, who got the commission to compose it because, essentially, he was in the right place at the right time. The libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking is a preposterous romantic comedy set (more or less) in medieval Spain and revolving around what appears to be a star-crossed romance between the newly crowned Queen Almira (Ulrike Hofbauer) and her secretary Fernando (Colin Balzer). All difficulties are eventually resolved via a ludicrous plot twist worthy of W.S. Gilbert, but not before we’ve had nearly four hours of impressive arias da capo and some lavish set pieces (demanded by the Hamburg audiences), including a Grand Procession of the Continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia; America didn’t count yet).

A four-hour youthful Handel opera might sound like a bit of a slog but in BEMF’s production it was anything but. Director Gilbert Blin and music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs treated both the music and the audience with respect. The production was a scrupulously historic re-creation of the original, complete with forced-perspective sets that looked exactly like the ones I’ve always seen in the history books, period dances, and a historically appropriate acting style that relied on precisely choreographed gestures (hands spread wide to appeal, had extended and finger ranged to admonish/repel, etc.).

And it worked, both as music and drama. Every performer was thoroughly invested in his or her character, each was perfectly cast, and every one sang beautifully.

Ms. Hofbauer and Mr. Balzer were exceptional all the way through. Amanda Forsythe, as Princess Edilia, had what must be the best revenge aria ever in the second act. Jason McStoots got his share of laughs as the comic servant Tabarco. Others in the uniformly fine cast were Christian Immler as the buffoonish Consalvo, Zachary Wilder as his social climber son Osman, Tyler Duncan as the disguised King of Mauretania (who seems to be on board only to make the triple betrothal at the end possible), and Valerie Vinzant as Princess Bellante (ditto).

Áine Ní Dhroighneáin

The orchestra, which used instruments appropriate to the period, sounded glorious. The production received a wild ovation and multiple curtain calls. Alas, I had to rush out while they were still going on to make an 11:15 performance of “My Small Dark Rose: Early Irish Songs and Harp Music” at Emmanuel Church a few blocks away.

Siobhán Armstrong

The titular song and fifteen other traditional Irish songs and instrumentals were performed with consummate style by singer Áine Ní Dhroighneáin and early Irish harper Siobhán Armstrong, although Ms. Ní Dhroighneáin’s singing did not always do justice to the strong emotions in some of the texts—most notably in “Táimse im’ Chodldh” (“I am asleep and don’t waken me”) with its open call for violent rebellion against the English. It was a program of delicate, intimate music—the early Irish harp’s metal strings don’t create a very big sound—that was poorly served by the church’s vast, echoing acoustic. The artists deserved better.

And on that note, I reeled (puns intended) into bed, another day of remarkable music in the offing.

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 1: Medieval stories, Baroque dances

 

The Newberry Consort

It’s been a chilly, soggy day today in Boston, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from swimming their way into the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to hear a pair of sharply contrasting concerts as part of the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF).

Running June 9th through 16th this year, BEMF is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I’m covering it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America, which is also having its annual conference this week.

The evening started with a joint performance by The Newberry Consort and the vocal ensemble Exsultemus of “Rosas das Rosas,” a collection of songs and dances from the “Cantigas de Santa Maria”

Exsultemus

“Cantigas” is a collection of four hundred and twenty-seven pieces extolling the virtues of (and inventing stories about) Mary. It may or may not have been written by the prolific Alfonso X, King of Castile, León, and Galicia around the middle of the 13th century. Listening to the lyrics, it’s impossible not to be struck by just how much the medieval Mary resembles the goddesses of pre-Christian religions. She demands loyalty from followers, rewards the faithful with magic, and generally carries on like something out of Bullfinch. If, as is often suggested, the cult of Mary was a conscious effort by the early church to co-opt existing goddess cults, it clearly succeeded.

The performances were hypnotic and entertaining. Some of the poems are comical and whimsical in their view of Mary’s miracles, others deeply reverential. English translations of the texts were projected on a screen above and behind the performers, as were scans of the illustrations that accompany the stories in their original manuscripts. Twenty-first century technology helped bring this 13th century music to life.

BEMF Orchestra

Next was a program of (mostly) theatre music from the 17th century, performed with great style by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra. Highlights of the program included a suite of dances from Lully ballets (accompanied by dancers executing period choreography) and suites by John Blow and Georg Muffat. The combination of Baroque-era tuning (A=392 Hz instead of 440 as is the case today) and reconstructions of period wind instruments produced a transparent sound with considerable bite. It’s a different from what most of us are used to hearing from a modern orchestra and rather refreshing.

Tomorrow: 17th century Austrian music by Gli Incogniti, a fully-staged production of Handel’s “Almira”, and Medieval Irish music for voice and harp.

 

Concert review: Unlikey duet of masters Béla Fleck and Chick Corea brings the Touhill crowd to its feet, Saturday, March 23


Béla Fleck and Chick Corea at the Touhill. Photo by Wil Wander.

The crowd filled the lobby of the Touhill Performing Arts Center in waves, pouring down the stairs in a cascade of diversity.

Easily spanning over seven decades of age disparity and donning attire ranging from flannel and tie-dye to evening dresses and three-piece suits, the eager patrons mingled their way through the sounds of the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars to take their place in the ever growing line at the concession stand. This came as little surprise as this unusual combination of musicians was bound to stir up fans from all walks of life.

Béla Fleck‘s career most closely reflects the variety of cultures in attendance that night as the innovative banjo player has garnered Grammy nominations in more categories than any other performer in the history of music, diving into the realms of country, jazz and pop. Perhaps best known for leading his band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, including the now celebrated bassist Victor Wooten, Fleck has generated an infectious love the of the banjo that continues to inspire young musicians and impress the masters.

Joining Fleck on stage was Chick Corea, one the aforementioned masters of the jazz world. Performing and recording with Miles Davis during his early career and leading a number of bands including the eminent fusion act Return to Forever, Corea has been active in the scene for over 50 years and has continually helped progress the roll of the piano in modern jazz. He has also become well accustomed to the fading duet format, recording and performing with contemporary Herbie Hancock and rising phenom Hiromi Uehara among other notables.

After a generous and excited introduction from Jazz St. Louis’ Gene Dobbs Bradford, the performers took the stage to an instant uproar from the near capacity crowd. Making a humorous spectacle out of the simple actions of sitting down and setting up the sheet music, the duet soon began with one of Corea’s compositions, “Señorita.” This choice set the tone for the night well, as it demonstrated many of the best aspects of the duet form including many call and responses, unified riffs and syncopated grooves. Fleck’s feet generally illustrated the mood of each segment, staying still when trying to support Corea’s lead parts, tapping one foot on his own leads and bouncing them both during the most natural jams.

The duet treated the crowd to two lengthy sets full of twists and surprises. Often the initial style of the song disappeared into a natural flow of form and design. The pair mixed the sounds of straight-forward jazz, blues, funk, bluegrass, folk and a little dabble of rock and country at times, taking the audience on a journey through the depths of music. They largely tackled their own compositions, but included the Stevie Wonder ballad “Overjoyed,” regarded by Wonder as a “new standard” in a conversation recollected by Corea. Throughout their sets, most songs ended with Corea standing quickly from his bench with the appearance of accomplishment; the duo received countless standing ovations throughout the night in response.



Humor made a constant appearance throughout the night as both performers were rather comfortable on the microphone between songs. They made jokes about the unintelligible song names the other came up with, and Fleck poked fun at a song titled “Waltz for Abby,” which was written for his wife, who he teased may be an axe murderer. There were even times when one musician would go off into such a frenzy of notes that the other would simply sit and stare, offering single notes and chords with a smirk and look of amazement in accompaniment. While not their first time appearing as a duet, the two performers seemed to have a chemistry built on mutual respect and the other’s reputation, both honored and amazed to share the stage together.

They closed the night with a two-song encore, adding a substantial treat to the night and demonstrating their chemistry vividly as they attacked even the speediest phrases in unison and sometimes finished each others’ riffs, sounding not like a duet but a single, four-handed creature. Perhaps a few Flecktones fans were taken back by the jazzier format of the night, but not a person left without a look of astonishment and admiration.

Concert review: Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker swap songs and stories at Off Broadway, Friday, March 22

facebook.com/chrisknightmusic

There is a haze of cigarette smoke and coffee stains as the memories of a few hours ago settle in. This midnight oil burns as daylight starts to arise. The songs of Chris Knight, Cody Canada and Evan Felker are a not-so-distant memory.

At Off Broadway on Friday night, three chairs lined the stage and in those chairs three of today’s best songwriters passed the proverbial guitar around. This relay of songs conjured fantasies of times gone by, a distant past when poets with guitars would sit around the kitchen tables with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a case of beer and other substances, just to bullshit, sing, laugh and pass the guitar. The sight of Knight, Canada and Felker trade songs made that fantasy come just a little closer to reality.

Beer and whiskey flowed with rowdy abandonment as the crowd was let into a world that only songwriters and pickers usually get to see. The sound that filled Off Broadway was the pure essence of what these three songwriters are known for. They are the writers and singers of songs, songs that have been stripped naked and vulnerable to expose an undiluted emotional core.

Cody Canada took center stage where he acted as ringmaster. He opened the show with a welcome and a first song. This Oklahoma native, best known for his work with Cross Canadian Ragweed, showcased a deeper sense of song-craft, one that gets lost in his rowdy, high-velocity electric country musings. Alone with his guitar, he was clearly an artist with more to offer than country-rock ear candy. Canada’s songs became almost unrecognizable as they took on a new life that allowed room for each of his songs to resonate.

There was nervous energy for Evan Felker as he waited his turn. He showed a desire to prove to himself and to the audience that he was on par with Canada and Knight’s years of experience and craft. The leader of the Turnpike Troubadours took his place with a sound inspired by a New York folk/country tradition influenced as much by Ryan Adams as it is the folk scare of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Felker’s songs have a great pop sensibility, but they also have roots in the traditions of the south and Appalachian Mountains. The intimacy of being alone with his guitar was countered with a cocksure rock attitude that resulted in rousing versions of “Whole Damn Town,” “Every Girl” and “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead.” He led the crowd in sing-alongs with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stag hoisted high into the air.

Sitting quietly, waiting, listening, watching was Chris Knight. He embodied the elder-statesman with songs that reached down into the heart and soul pulling at the strings of humanity. His songs expressed a loss and reverences, a feeling that no longer are you “like” a rolling stone but you have “become” a rolling stone.

As his hands touched the neck of the guitar and his voice carried out his first song, “In the Meantime,” he made you believe he had lived these songs. His voice evoked the spirit of Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Songs like “Rural Route,” “Enough Rope” and “The River’s Own” speak to the dissipating rural life that was so prominent when Woody Guthrie took to the trains to find America. The America that Guthrie saw may be gone, but Knight digs deeply into the heart of those who care to keep the dusty American roots alive.

As with any show, the crowd was ready for one more song and one more beer. After the main set, Canada, Knight and Felker returned to the stage to give the audience a musical nightcap. Knight started the encore with the title track from his most recent album, “Little Victories.” On the strength of the audience’s response Canada quickly followed up with a rousing version of the Neil Young classic “The Needle and the Damage Done.” This version seemed to set the final tone for his portion of the set, a way to say goodbye with one of the most amazing songs about love and loss.

But it was Felker that finished off the night. With harmonica in hand he launched into a rowdy version of “Long Hot Summer Day.” Canada supplied the guitar while Felker took his harmonica to the mic stand to create the rhythm of hammers and pickaxes landing to the ground. It was the spirit of the classic work songs that sent the crowd into one last frenzy.

Concert review: A crumptacular night of music with Major Lazer at the Pageant, Thursday, March 21

Major Lazer at the Pageant. Photo by Louis Kwok.

The bros sporting their headache-inducing shirts, the raver girls wearing their psychedelic furry boots and suburban youth with their pasty faces occupied the compact mosh pit at the Pageant. It was going to be an interesting night. Making its debut performance in St. Louis, Major Lazer was determined to get everybody in the joint jumping and at least one girl to p-pop on a handstand.

More often than not, rave-type concerts such as these all start the same way. A drawn-out, two-hour DJ set building up to the main event. Usually such DJs are a good warm up, but after the first 30 minutes the repetition and monotony of worn-out songs start slowing down time and drawing out the night. If time was already slowed down for you in the first place then you’re golden, but if you’re stone-cold sober or down to your last dollar for cocktails you’re in for a long night.

The one thing that made Thursday night’s opening DJ set a worthy ritual is that it built anticipation for the real show — the one that brought everyone together. This excruciating suspense for the music, the dancing and the wild stage performances was even more intense in those final moments after the opener left the stage empty for the headliner. As the house lights were finally cut and a loud roar from the audience filled the darkness, the roller coaster teetered on the peak of a plummet before the ride to follow.

Major Lazer is known for it’s over the top productions, whether it be its music videos or its live performance. The night was set off in this spirit with a comic book-style cinematic display depicting Mr Lazer himself launching off into space to “Free the Universe” in a nod to the group’s latest release and current tour. Finally, after an evening of waiting and a cartoon short, the curtains fell and Diplo, Walshy Fire and Jillionaire took the stage accompanied by their seductive Rastafarian booty dancer as they handed out vuvuzelas and prepared the crowd for a night of insanity.

The floor practically began warping under the stress as the full three tiers of the Pageant were assaulted by the hundreds of bodies suddenly jumping in unison to the bombastic beats. Lazer played through a good variety of tracks as well as some new material including a “Harlem Shake” remix that made for yet another hilarious YouTube video. A jubilant, South African-style song brought an interesting flavor to the venue as the vuvuzelas blasted as arms and legs moved on their own to the sounds. And of course the old standby, “Pon de Floor,” had things going a bit crazy.

The stage performance was absolute sensory overload coupled with the music. A DJ climbed around on all the equipment as another rolled through the crowd in a giant bubble while the other blasted confetti guns through the thick fog and intricate light show that provided a fitting otherworldly party atmosphere. While they were occupied commanding the stage, the DJs also interacted with the crowd. They weren’t afraid of rewinding and restarting a track if they didn’t think the crowd was crazy enough on the drop. They encouraged the audience to take off and spin around an article of clothing, resulting in a dizzying display of twirling t-shirts that practically propelled the crunked-out crowd off the ground.

At one point, the show turned into amateur hour when the stage was suddenly full of girls from the crowd proudly shaking what their mothers gave them. The strange spectacle and incredible energy went non stop throughout the night in a musically driven rave on a level that is rarely witnessed around these parts.

After a generous three-song encore, Major Lazer retired its set and the sweat-drenched party people slowly filed out to the relief of the cold St. Louis night, mostly in a haze of what had actually transpired that night. Many will try to explain to others what happened, only to miss the essence entirely. It was something that just had to be seen to believe.

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