Cellist Seth Parker Woods presented an evening multimedia program called “Difficult Grace” at 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall on Saturday evening. This was the world premiere of the full staging, but as Woods notes, a “core version” had premiered in Seattle in February 2020; The coronavirus lockdown has given him the opportunity to reframe his concept in its current form.
Woods was already a cellist with outstanding technical skills and keen mind. This program further challenged him to perform as an instrumentalist as well as a vocal artist and singer.
Helped by choreographer and dancer Roderick George, a childhood friend from Houston, “Difficult Grace” was a feast for the ears, eyes and minds.
In one episode of Freida Abtan’s “My Heart Is A River”, the audience sees a pre-recorded video projection of the two dancers as Woods plays live in front of the screen. Dancing figures ride a cello, which they re-imagine as a boat. The front performer – actually Woods himself, with dancer Tamzin O’Garro behind him – uses the cello bow as a paddle. This is a wonderfully apt metaphor: Woods is an artist with roots in classical music, but whose cello is a vehicle that takes him and his concertgoers on far-reaching journeys.
The program featured works by a large cadre of composers, many of whom used live acoustic cello as well as electronic sound design: Fredrick Gifford, Monty Adkins, Nathalie Joachim, Abtan, Ted Hearne, Devonté Hynes and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. (In addition to Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who died in 2004.)
Gifford’s work, “Difficult Grace,” for which the entire program is named, featured projected drawings by Barbara Earl Thomas and was inspired by the poetry of Dudley Randall. Unfortunately, from the seats in the auditorium it was difficult to understand much of what Woods was saying during the long speeches. (The proposed headers would be a welcome addition.) The same was true of Hearne’s work with the texts of the poet Kemi Alabi with an unprintable title. In the most gripping part of Hearne’s piece, Woods sang and played R&B-flavored harmonies alongside hip-hop-inspired electronic beats.
Using pre-recorded cello and electronic sound design, sometimes with on-site manipulations, each composer has done so for very different aesthetic purposes. Woods sang two parts (“Opening Out” and “Seeping In”), in which the electronic parts and live cello from Abtan’s piece revolve around each other in haunting, resounding duets. Adkins’ gentle, cinematographic “Winter Tendrils” used electronics like an almost invisible string orchestra framing Woods’ cello with lush, luminous harmonies, along with an equally warm film by Zoë McLean.
The clearest narrative work is Nathalie Joachim’s “The Race: 1915,” which uses images from artist Jacob Lawrence’s “Immigration Series” and texts from The Chicago Defender, The Black newspaper, founded in 1905 and urging Black Americans to action. it was work. Towards the north in what became the Great Migration. Joachim’s music oscillated between periods of intense, cyclical movement and meditative, slow bow.
The most traditional “classic” piece throughout the evening was a technically demanding cello sonata written by Devonté Hynes, which some music-loving New Yorkers may remember from his last opening for Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden.
The other purely acoustic work was the third part of Perkinson’s “Lamentations: Black/Folk Song Suite for Solo Cello” entitled “Calvary Ostinato”. Perkinson’s music evoked centuries of Black American music, with generous portions of pizzicato suggesting connections between the American banjo and West African string instruments and note-to-note blues slides.
The evening ended with a powerful duet where Woods and George danced live on stage to Tremblay’s “asinglewordisnotenough 3 [literal]”. A piece that crackles with a taut, spiraling energy. Woods often attacked his strings with fierce intensity, while George’s dance combined solid muscularity and curvy movements. Somehow, all these emotional currents found a home in Tremblay’s score.
He performed at the Kaufmann Concert Hall in Manhattan on Saturday.