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Dispatch from New York: John Lennon and Karlheinz Stockhausen, together at last

March 11, 2011 |  5:00 pm

When I tell you that "1969," an evening of music, video and theater performed Thursday at the Zankel Hall in New York, and based on the prospect that John Lennon and iconoclastic German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen planned to stage a concert together, was fantastic, I mean it in all senses of the word.  It was a fantasy. Last week, Allan Kozinn of the New York Times asked Yoko Ono about the long-
rumored rendezvous of the pop and avant-garde music masters. Said she: "there is not an iota of truth to that story."

But Alarm Will Sound, the 20-member new-music ensemble that created "1969," proved fantasy is its own path to truth. The group fulfilled every expectation that Lennon and Stockhausen might have had for their own big show. They exploded musical genres, made history come alive and demonstrated that art -- original, vivid, reckless -- can lift the grim clouds of current events, if only for two hours.

Alarm Will Sound artistic director Alan Pierson explained that "1969," the show and year, represented the genesis of the "connection being formed between popular music and art music." That might sound
like a modest or academic motivation for an elaborate concert, four years in the making. (It will be staged again April 23 at the University of Denver's Newman Center.) But it's neither when you realize just how vivifying new art music can now be.

Rock does seem dead and classical music in the grave when you hear the vibrant sounds of new music groups like Alarm Will Sound and eighth blackbird, the Dirty Projectors and Jack Quartet, which are turning up more regularly now in L.A. venues. Young musicians blind to barriers between the Beatles and Stockhausen, Sibelius and the National are making music with the creative fire that first seared rock into your soul. They are the "liberating forces of eclecticism," as 1960s composer Luciano Berio declared in "1969." And they know their history.

The action in "1969" is propelled by accomplished actors playing Lennon, Stockhausen and fellow vanguard composer Berio. The actors narrate lines expertly crafted from the composers' own writings and past interviews. They ham it up in front of the 20 orchestral members of Alarm Will Sound, shadowed by three video screens. Projected on the screens is an ongoing reel of the '60s worst hits: the
assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, civil-rights riots and the Vietnam War.

This could have descended into a Time-Life special on the '60s cooked up by Juilliard graduates. But the scintillating pieces of music by the Beatles ("Tomorrow Never Knows") and Stockhausen ("Hymnen"),
Berio ("Traces") and Leonard Bernstein ("Mass"), performed with fury and precision by Alarm Will Sound, stripped the nostalgia and dread from the familiar scenes. A relentless version of "Agnus Dei," Bernstein's discordant conclusion to "Mass," his angry, defiant, let-the-devil-rule response to sanctimony about the Vietnam War, could have been directed at the White House today.

In reverse, the video scenes of upheaval injected the music, notably a stray patch of Lennon's and Ono's "Unfinished Music," with renewed force. As the cacophony of Lennon's early foray into experimental
music wound down, the musicians on stage put brown paper bags over their heads  -- a reference to the brown paper wrapped over the original "Two Virgins" album cover of John and Yoko naked -- and
turned their heads to the video screens, violent scenes morphing into a shot of the lonely blue planet Earth from space. A gentle tone reigned.

Best of all was the arrangement of the Beatles' "Revolution 9" by Alarm Will Sound horn player and composer Matt Marks (performed in in the video above). Astute violins and sly woodwinds, punctuated by timpani, handclaps and tense, whispery voices drew out every haunting and sinister note of Lennon's maelstrom. It was a stunning example of electronic music being reborn by acoustic instruments.

Not every piece of music, narration and video that Alarm Will Sound, director Nigel Maister and writer Andrew Kupfer loaded into "1969" worked as movingly. But the overall triumph of the show was the
indelible relationship it forged among music, politics and culture. The dynamic performance of music that shattered barriers gave us a profound glimpse of unity then and now. Music can't "stop the wars" or "lower the price of bread," Berio said. But that shouldn't be a sign of defeat. Composers, he added,
had one job: "Keep going." That was precisely what the creators of "1969" did, and did brilliantly.

-- Kevin Berger

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