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Two Downtown Luminaries, Still Blazing

Two Downtown Luminaries, Still Blazing

This clinic in avant-garde singing recalled past items from Ms. La Barbara’s catalog, like “as lightning comes, in flashes,” while the lapping, ambient background waves seemed to channel “Cyclone,” another important early piece. (Both those works are available on the crucial reissue set “The Early Immersive Music of Joan La Barbara.”)

CYCLONE Video by Joan La Barbara – Topic

But any sense that Ms. La Barbara was content to stay in greatest-hits mode was soon dispelled by “The Wanderlusting of Joseph C.,” a cycle inspired by Cornell’s life, with lyrics by Monique Truong. The writing, for baritone and soprano accompanied by cello and flute, often skated surprisingly close to more traditional forms. A mournful duo passage between the still-obscure artist Cornell (Mario Diaz-Moresco) and his caring if uncomprehending mother (Lauren Flanigan) had a wounded grandeur worthy of opera. (No surprise that “Wanderlusting” has its roots in this composer’s long-developing Woolf-Cornell opera.)

The dramatic irony of Cornell’s conflict with his mother — centered around the viability of his artistic career — hit an expressive peak as Ms. La Barbara (conducting), the performers and the audience paced the galleries of the museum’s modern wing, including near some Cornell pieces. But this music would have worked well in any space.

Half an hour later, Ms. Beglarian’s crew amassed on the Morgan’s stage for a program of a dozen pieces, written between 1986 and 2013. She cites a diverse array of influences; any given work might bear traces of early music, Motown or the Minimalist-adjacent Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. (Ms. Beglarian cites Mr. Andriessen in the notes for “Did He Promise You Tomorrow?” — the harmonically arresting opening track from her latest self-released recording.)

It’s the mixture of this wild stylistic synthesis and an overall relaxed mood that makes Ms. Beglarian’s music feel so personal. At the Morgan, pieces premised on driving rhythmic verve and timbral relationships (like “Douce dame jolie”) were made more distinctive by coming next to compositions that created drama through dryly absurdist theatrical recitations (“Landscaping for Privacy”) or dreamy counterpoint (“Lullaby”).

The cumulative impact was similar to that of Ms. Beglarian’s recent EPs, but greater, thanks to the extended engagement with her eclectic imagination. The performers communicated a clear reverence for the material, with the soprano Tony Arnold and the percussionist Al Cerulo being standouts in a small ensemble that also included Ms. Beglarian, who sang and played a bit of toy piano. The spare, subtle use of video to illuminate certain entries in this “Book of Days” also tended to work much better than most new-music-meets-multimedia conceits.

Swinging from one concert to the next brought on a kind of ecstasy: a blazing musical high fired by old-downtown decadence. But I regretted that the two events were scheduled in such uncoordinated fashion. For all the charm of low-key nonpromotion, both these composers could do with some more shouting-from-the-rooftops advocacy.

Just think: What would it sound like if, at some major celebration of Minimalism or of the broader downtown New York aesthetic, Ms. Beglarian and Ms. La Barbara were at the center of the proceedings and given the career-retrospective treatment?

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