Like the Ringling International Art Festival’s productions in past years, this season’s was salted with hits and, occasionally, peppered with misses. Take the very long hour of Phyllis Chen’s Toy Piano as an example.
It took place in James Turrell’s Skyspace at sunset, and if you haven’t yet experienced this fascinating natural and LED light show, it’s worth the trip to the museum. For us, it was the twinkle before the tinkle. Chen seemed to have stepped out of the 1960s, and her performance (I can’t honestly call it a concert) was reminiscent of the psychedelic (classical) music experiences they used to call “happenings.”
The first three pieces weren’t bad. In fact, the “Suite for Toy Piano,” by John Cage, was surprisingly melodic and interesting. From there, it was all downhill, with Chen overshadowing herself with taped sounds, spinning tops and percussion-like bowls that set my teeth grinding.
Some of her comments may have been enlightening, but, because they were the only things that weren’t amplified, I have no idea what she said. Thankfully, this kind of experimentation took place some 50 years ago and has since been relegated to the musical dustbin of time. If Ringling wants to polarize audiences, it might do better to look forward rather than back.
Much more satisfying were the singers in the Ensemble Basiani, one of the regions in Southwest Georgia, which is now in Turkey. This chorus of a dozen singers sports some of the finest vocal musicians I’ve ever heard. Using little vibrato, they produced impeccable pitches that made perfect fifths and even minor seconds seem like the steppes of Central Asia.
Choral singers know about staggered breathing: You breathe when the person next to you doesn’t in order to create a long phrase that one voice, alone, couldn’t possibly produce. These men were masters of this, and it enabled the basses, in particular, to produce an absolutely seamless pedal point that seemed to go on forever.
Their antiphonal singing, solo melismas and a couple of eerie but effective yodels on an open fifth — strangely reminiscent of European police sirens — added to their special effects throughout their performances of Georgian folksongs. Would that more vocal ensembles had that kind of control and musicianship.
One other musical mention must be made of the festival. Mark Morris travels with his own musicians for his wondrous dance group. Among them, pianist Colin Fowler must be praised for his excellent “accompanying” and technique especially in “Silhouettes” (music by Richard Cumming) and — with violinist Aaron Boyd — in thev dramatic “Grand Duo” with music by Lou Harrison. They were so good I almost took my eyes off the amazing dancers on stage.