From Terry Riley to Ethiopia, CMA’s Solstice 2019 an incandescent night to remember

Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH
June 22, 2019

Now in its eleventh year, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual Solstice soirée has steadily become the banner cultural event of the Cleveland summer. Running until the early hours of the next morning, the event is first and foremost a musical celebration, with this year’s remarkably diverse lineup curated by the Philadelphia based DJ and record producer King Britt. Two stages were constructed, one in the atrium and one outdoors on the south terrace, allowing for a robust list of performers – and the inevitable frustration of not being able to be at two places simultaneously! Most striking about the outdoor stage was the extensive use of video projection, turning the facade of the museum into a massive canvas on which to display a dizzying array of colors and imagery – with credit to Undervolt & Co. and the team of curators and artists.

The evening opened with a performance of Terry Riley’s watershed In C. Dating from 1964, it is often considered the first major work of minimalism, setting the stage for Glass and Reich. Riley left the instrumentation, number of players, and duration open to interpretation. The present rendering was given by an ensemble of 10 instruments – xylophone, marimba, harp, steel pan, some commanded by multiple players – and lasted just over the 45 minute mark (Wikipedia notes recordings ranging from 16 to 78 minutes). I noticed the players (who were uncredited in the program) used a stopwatch to keep pace, likely a necessity in this work comprised of 53 phrases each to be repeated an indeterminate number of times. The incessant repetitions were mesmerizingly hypnotic, and I was struck by the communal ambience with the performers positioned such that the space between them and the audience all but evaporated. It was hard to not get disoriented in the wash of sound, but I did notice one subtle effect in the use of a cello bow on one of the xylophones, a technique that would later be put to effective use in John Adams’ Scheherazade.2. To close the work, each musician dropped out one at a time, almost imperceptibly, before all that remained was silence.

Terry Riley’s In C

Of course, the evening wasn’t exclusively about the music: one highlight was the opportunity to walk through the galleries after hours – and it was a bit surreal to stand in front of favorite paintings by Pissarro or Church at nearly midnight. Along with the permanent collection, the second iteration of Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art was open to all, a fascinating display of visual art in praise of Japanese deities – some pieces over 1000 years old – further putting the Cleveland Museum of Art on the map as a major destination for Asian art. In addition, a full program of gallery talks were offered. I caught Amanda Mikolic’s discussion of the late 16th-century half armor designed by the noted Pompeo della Cesa.

To my mind, the biggest musical discovery came from the Brooklyn based band Anbessa Orchestra, commanding a musical fusion rooted in the folk traditions of Ethiopia. The seven piece band – including a very fine trumpet player and a flutist à la Ian Anderson – had an absolutely electric chemistry, bridging both Western and African traditions with an unrelenting kinetic energy. There was nonetheless a certain cosmopolitan quality to their music, however, as if some of the folk roots got lost in translation, yet distinctive elements such as the exotic scale central to “Son of No Country” showed a nuanced understanding of the North African inspiration. Back in the atrium, the melodic strumming of guitarist Rafiq Bhatia provided a more laid back alternative to the dance club vibe on the terrace with Ohio native RJD2 – who closed the memorable evening in understated fashion on the acoustic guitar.

Anbessa Orchestra