The Lincoln Center Festival

Meredith Monk | Lincoln Center, New York
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The Independent Culture

The Lincoln Center Festival has for several years been some compensation for New York's July heat. This all-20th-century affair, now directed by Nigel Redden, casts its net wide. Of especial value this year was a three-concert series, plus film screenings, devoted to the American composer, choreographer and film-maker Meredith Monk. Now 57, Monk is frequently referred to as a minimalist. Her unique approach often integrates music using her own extraordinary range of extended vocal techniques, sometimes described as those of a shaman inventing her own folk culture, into an effortless unity with movement. Known in Britain through her recordings on the ECM label, Monk is less familiar here in concert. This neglect - particularly unfortunate given the crucial visual dimensions of her output - may now be remedied, since she has just signed a contract with the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes.

The Lincoln Center Festival has for several years been some compensation for New York's July heat. This all-20th-century affair, now directed by Nigel Redden, casts its net wide. Of especial value this year was a three-concert series, plus film screenings, devoted to the American composer, choreographer and film-maker Meredith Monk. Now 57, Monk is frequently referred to as a minimalist. Her unique approach often integrates music using her own extraordinary range of extended vocal techniques, sometimes described as those of a shaman inventing her own folk culture, into an effortless unity with movement. Known in Britain through her recordings on the ECM label, Monk is less familiar here in concert. This neglect - particularly unfortunate given the crucial visual dimensions of her output - may now be remedied, since she has just signed a contract with the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes.

"Meredith Monk: Voice Travel" was accordingly a rather timely, as well as well-planned retrospective. It was a pity that her early site-specific works were represented only by a short film sequence from the 1976 opera Quarry, and from a British perspective, that we heard nothing composed since 1994. Yet these well-attended, avidly acclaimed programmes were still ample testimony to Monk's achievements.

Not the least among these are her accomplishments as a singer. As far and away the most compelling performer of her own output, Monk will have problems with its survival in live performance when she can no longer act as its prime champion. But over three delightful New York nights, her charismatic stage presence and skills at instantaneous characterisation, enhanced by well-timed gestures, as well as her sheer technical prowess, enlivened everything from the relative simplicities of the 1976 Songs from the Hill, in the opening solo programme, to the more complex musical and dramatic demands made by substantial extracts from her 1991 opera ATLAS. Monk's music has grown considerably, not least in harmonic and contrapuntal sophistication, over more than thirty years: no surprise, really, but something not always appreciated.

Her voice appeared to have grown understandably tired by the final evening, when the familiar magic was glimpsed more fitfully. Even on the second night, the most impressive one, the intonation of some of her vocal colleagues showed rough edges. But many things impressed: not least how well the ATLAS selections stood up in semi-staged versions (with an instrumental ensemble conducted by Wayne Hankin), and reacquaintance with extracts from the delightfully dotty Facing North, from 1990, in which Theo Bleckmann ably partnered the composer. The 1979 Dolmen Music - which in its combination of emotional power and wit, and its dramatic interplay of six voices and cello, epitomises Monk at her best - provided this festival-within-a-festival with a fitting conclusion.

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