Jherek Bischoff with the Wordless Music Orchestra

It’s that time of year again, time for the second annual Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall—a festival, curated by New Amsterdam’s Judd Greenstein, dedicated to genre-blending music and collaboration. And, as encouraging as it is to see festivals like this succeed with audiences, perhaps even more exciting are the often mind bending performances that result from it. And Saturday’s sold out opening night with Jherek Bischoff, Wordless Music Orchestra, and guests including David Byrne (yes, that David Byrne), Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Zac Pennington (Parenthetical Girls), Mirah, Carla Bozulich (Geraldine Fibbers), Sam Mickens (Dead Science), and Charlie Looker is perfectly indicative of that fact.

With the all sweeping string gestures and post-Romantic grandeur of an early 60s film score but without the hedonistic self-indulgence of Rufus Wainwright, Bischoff’s music is immediately captivating. And, considering that the first guest vocalist to appear onstage was David Byrne crooning his way through “Eyes”, it’s no insignificant statement to say that the music holds it’s own (and, in fact, dominates) in what could have easily become a star-studded game of vocalist roulette.

Yeah, that David Byrne.

Charlie Looker’s smooth-as-silk vocals carry through the charming and subtly schizophrenic “The Secret of the Machines” (featuring Greg Saunier on drums) into Mirah’s rendition of “The Nest” evocatively laden with all the emotional intensity of a great torch song.

For “Blossom”, the composer himself took to the mic (one of the many musical hats he would don throughout the night) before Craig Wedren’s gorgeous and all-too-brief turn on “Your Ghost” and Carla Bozulich on Bob Lind’s “Counting”. And fans of Serge Gainsbourg will be happy to know that Zac Pennington took to the stage for his duet with Sam Mickens, “Young and Lovely”, with all the flair and dapper deportment of the best of the yé-yé scene—a perfect lead-in to the dizzyingly stirring closer, “Insomnia, Death and the Sea” (perhaps a holdover from the composer’s childhood on a sailboat).

A second half, described as “Songs by Jherek’s friends”, featured Bischoff’s arrangements of songs written by several of the guest vocalists performing on the first half of the show, including with the premiere of David Byrne’s “The Fat Man’s Comin’”. It was during this second set that the composer took the opportunity to address the audience, admitting that he chose the moments following Craig Wedren’s “Heaven Sent” because at any other point he would have been to overcome with emotion to be coherent. And it’s that picture of an artist (who assembled his album by biking around Seattle painstakingly recording and layering a single instrumental line at a time) choked up at seeing his full vision realized an array of innovative collaborators with talent to spare that so perfectly illustrates what makes events like the Ecstatic Music Festival so exciting.

Zac Pennington (center, mic) stealing hearts, Sam Mickens (far right); behind and between them is Jherek Bischoff.

The next Ecstatic Music Festival will take place at Merkin Concert Hall, February 8th at 7:30 P.M and will feature Son Lux, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), and yMusic (and for those who missed it, here are my thoughts from the last time I heard yMusic play Richard Reed Parry’s music). To my knowledge, all of this year’s Ecstatic performances will also be streamed and archived on the Q2 Music website.

For a complete schedule of upcoming Ecstatic performances, check here.

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