United States David Bowie, Black Star: Maya Beiser (cello), Donny McCaslin Band, Ensemble LPR / Evan Ziporyn (conductor), Central Park Summerstage. New York, NY. 9.6.2018. (DS)
It couldn’t have been a better kick off to Central Park’s Summerstage. Attracting an ample audience in this intimate outdoor clearing, the still-mourned David Bowie landed on stage — in spirit, that is — via the musical messengers of Donny McCaslin’s Band and Ensemble LPR led by Evan Ziporyn, featuring cellist Maya Beiser. The show’s centerpiece was an orchestral rendition of Bowie’s last album, Black Star, with solo vocals replaced by the rockstar bravado of Beiser’s unabashed solo cello.
The Grammy-winning Donny McCaslin Band, who had performed with Bowie on tour, opened the evening’s concert, with several Bowie covers interspersed with their own songs. McCaslin led on sax with a visceral excitement that riffed across the boundaries of rock, jazz, and the contemporary edges of classical. His playing caught the drive of each song and encapsulated its core message with an ease of delivery. Vocals and synthesizer blended otherworldly accents into textures that recalled a past-decade’s pop enthusiasm without sacrificing a fresh sound.
Like great classical compositions transcribed into various forms, the songs of great pop artists are not pigeon-holed to their original forms of expression. Ziporyn, Beiser, and the ensemble demonstrated this by passionately delivering Bowie’s composition without vocals, but with a full ensemble of classical talent. Their performance was a gift to the audience, a privileged opportunity to marry the musicians’ talents with that of the great cultural icon. Similar to string quartets, which have drawn out the melodies and harmonies of canonic pop works like The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, we will likely be hearing many rebirthings of Bowie compositions. And in the hands of firmly competent artists, they will link the inevitable mood of reminiscence with a captivating new interpretation.