I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first NSO pops concert. I could imagine a mega pop star – like Beyoncé or Barry Manilow, belting hits backed by swelling strings. But what to expect when one of your featured artist’s claim to fame is riding Amtrak around the US to bridge the political divide, and the other just finished recording his violin standing barefoot under a bridge?
The answer, it turns out, is an enjoyable layering of sound and collaboration by three talented musical entities: songwriter, singer, musician, and arranger Gabriel Kahane; multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, whistler, and songwriter Andrew Bird; and the Steven Reineke-led Ben Folds-advised National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) pops.
The show began with the NSO string section on the stage. Kahane entered stage right sporting mussed hair, printed t-shirt, sport coat, and a big blue mug of steeping tea.
Kahanne began with selections from his Ambassador Suite, each of which is named for a building in Los Angeles (like “Ambassador Hotel (2400 Wilshire Blvd)”), and each connected to a specific character (the Ambassador is the hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and the hotel itself becomes a tragic character as it nears demolition). The strings added simple chords to fill out Kahane’s arpeggiated electric guitar and dynamic piano work. The songs didn’t need cymbal crashes or trumpet hits. Clear acoustics and Kahane’s falsetto backed by cello fit the suite nicely.
At one point, a transfixed audience leaned in as Kahane paraphrased his liner notes as an introduction to “Empire Liquor Mart”:
On March 16, 1991— thirteen days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King— a fifteen-year-old African American girl named Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market at 9127 South Figueroa St. in South Central Los Angeles. This is what I know of her story.
As he drew us into Harlins’ story, the theme of the evening emerged: listening. The audience was clearly here to listen, Kahane had just returned from a listening tour of the Amtrak lounge cars across the country, and all the musicians on the stage were listening to each other, improvising, filling, communicating.
Kahane closed out the first half of the show with a solo set from his new album Book of Travelers (the aforementioned Amtrak album). He added the song “Port of Hamburg” in honor of the 11 victims of shooting that day in Pennsylvania, singing about his grandmother’s flight from Nazi Germany, accompanying himself on the piano, sounding like a full orchestra himself.
Andrew Bird took the stage to enthusiastic cheers in the second set, and was joined by a full NSO, rather than just the strings from the first set. Opening with selections from his new suite Time Is a Crooked Bow, arranged by Kahane, the collaborators built on the expectations of the audience adding layers of strings, woodwinds, tuba, percussion, and eventually Bird’s famous whistling. Bird too sang about communication, in his clear haunting vocals, both interpersonal and epoch-ful. In “Manifest”, he sings about the organisms that lived ages ago, fossilized, and now escape like ghosts from the tailpipes of our automobiles, talking to us about the past and possible futures.
The moment many fans were waiting for finally came during the dramatic “Armchair” when Bird’s steampunk-looking ‘spinning horn’ started… well, spinning. Sitting atop the choir section, in its own spotlight, this double-gramophone-plus-one-microphone setup loops back Bird’s sounds in a deep resonant tone and seemed to delight the orchestra as much as the audience. When he sang, ‘I dreamed you were a cosmonaut of the space between our chairs’ I really did feel like I was on a space trip. Still half-way through the second set, this song ended in a standing ovation as the orchestra left the stage.
Bird finished the final set with a variety of songs, including a couple new ones- a hoedown and a confessional. He sonically expanded each selection with help of his incredibly on-pitch whistling and, of course, the spinning horn. The emotion peaked with his affecting “Why?” spun up to almost a dirge at one point. You wonder why the lyric “damn you for being so easy going” stirs him up so much until he clues us in: he wrote the song from the perspective of the other person.
An interesting change of pace came when Kahane on piano joined Bird on guitar and violin. They described their wish for more improvisation in classical music, then proceeded to improvise on Bird’s “Carrion Suite”. The two weaved a line through the melodic tune, comfortable in this the last night of their tour. Still, I was left thinking they could have delved deeper into the improv. Perhaps there is room to grow on this line. The natural direction would be jazz, described as ‘America’s classical music’ by none other than Dr. Billy Taylor, former artistic director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Perhaps Bird and Kahane could pursue a future project with the present director Jason Moran, well known for his collaboration with musicians from other genres.
Bird closed the set with a stirring “Three White Horses” at full force, layering the sound like only he can: whistling into his violin, recording it on his looper, transposing it through the spinning horn, and oh yeah, playing the guitar and singing!
After a standing ovation, Bird returned for an encore. A sweet rendition of The Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire”, the melody of which is more familiar as the tune to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. The circle is unbroken.
Gabriel Kahane with the NSO
Two kinds of light (Ambassador Suite)
Veda (1 Pierce Dr.)
Bradbury Building (304 Broadway)
Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd.)
Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)
Gabriel Kahane solo set
Selections from Book of Travelers
Port of Hamburg
Little Love (feat. Bird)
Andrew Bird with the NSO
Time Is a Crooked Bow [Bird, arr. by Kahane]
Archipelago – Roma Fade
Weather Systems – Pulaski at Night
Armchairs – Scythian Empires
Andrew Bird solo set
Hole in the Ocean Floor
Carrion Suite [feat. Kahane]
Figure Eight [by Bob Dorough]
Three White Horses
Andrew Bird Encore
When the World’s on Fire [by The Carter Family]