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Chamber, Indie Rock and Much in Between

by Steve Smith, The New York Times.

In creating the Wordless Music series in September 2006, Ronen Givony, a sophisticated young rock fan with an informed curiosity about chamber music, aimed to provide similarly open-minded listeners with access to contemporary classical music in familiar, comfortable and unthreatening settings. To entice a broad, nonspecialist audience, Mr. Givony’s concert programs bundled classical performers together with stylistically complementary electronica artists and indie-rock bands.

One significant effect of Mr. Givony’s efforts was evident during the opening event of Wordless Music Meets Miller, a four-concert festival he is presenting in conjunction with the Miller Theater at Columbia University. A program presented by Nico Muhly, Thomas Bartlett and Sam Amidon on Wednesday night showed how Wordless Music has helped to foster a perceptive, appreciative audience for artists whose work resists compartmentalization.

Mr. Muhly, a gifted, stylistically polyamorous composer and keyboardist, has become increasingly prominent in classical music circles. Mr. Bartlett, a singer and pianist who performs under the name Doveman and also leads a band by that name, and Mr. Amidon, a banjo player and vocalist, are more familiar among indie-music partisans.

Rendering that distinction meaningless, all three regularly participate in one another’s projects; last year they collaborated in the 802 Tour, a string of concerts named after the area code of their native Vermont. Reunited under that banner at Miller, the trio and its guests “” Oren Bloedow on electric bass, the drummer Dougie Bowne and the ACME String Quartet “” sometimes segued from one work to the next in a seamless flow.

Still, there was never any danger that these strong personalities might somehow become diluted. Mr. Bartlett’s piano-driven ballads, including some from a forthcoming CD, “The Conformist,” had a shadowy, confessional intimacy that was accentuated by his tremulous, nearly whispered crooning. In sharp contrast, Mr. Amidon affected a ragged backwoods yelp for traditional shape-note songs and other folksy material.

Mr. Muhly’s appealing instrumental compositions drew on Philip Glass’s harmonic stasis and the rhythmic vitality of Stravinsky and Ligeti, mixed with a flair for electronic counterpoint that was all Mr. Muhly’s own. Yuki Numata, a terrific violinist from the ACME group, brought out an ardent romanticism in “Honest Music,” for violin and electronics.

At times the commingling verged on preciousness: twinkling, burbling keyboard parts from Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Muhly during Mr. Amidon’s songs suggested a needlepoint sampler restitched with gilt brocade. The most thorough blending of styles came in “The Only Song,” Mr. Muhly’s phantasmagorical explosion of an eerie folk ballad. Here, Mr. Amidon’s rough-hewn warble offered a tenuous thread that bound up Mr. Muhly’s most elaborate, explosive innovations.

Where genres had been gently mixed during the concert, in an encore medley they were mangled outright. Mr. Muhly waxed rhapsodic at the piano in Mariah Carey’s “My All”; Mr. Bartlett offered a limpid rendition of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”; and Mr. Amidon turned R. Kelly’s “Relief” into a suitably crooked hootenanny singalong.

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