Most of the concerts at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall are performances of classical music, and the concert on Thursday, April 9, was by a cellist — but it felt at times more like a rock concert. Maya Beiser plays the cello with plenty of sonic effects, the sort of touches you expect a guitarist in a rock band to use, as well as some of the looping methods used by artists like multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird.
I’ll venture a guess that some of the audience members at Pick-Staiger were more accustomed to seeing straightforward acoustic performances by string players on that stage, but Beiser’s virtuosity seemed to win over the crowd. It wasn’t just the special effects that made her cello sound like a modern instrument — she also devoted the first half of her concert to playing her interpretations of rock songs, accompanied by bassist Gyan Riley and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. These weren’t straight-ahead covers, though the songs, ranging from Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” to Nirvana’s “Lithium,” were always recognizable. Evanston composer Evan Ziporyn wrote the arrangements for Beiser, sometimes deconstructing the classic tunes into their fragmentary parts and then reassembling them. Beiser sang a bit, including Laurie Anderson-like chanting of a few words from “Black Dog,” but it was her cello that really gave voice to the songs, functioning like lead singer as well as guitar soloist.
The first half of the concert also included a solo cello composition by Kotche, “Three Parts Wisdom,” which matched Beiser’s apt description of it: “Bach on steroids.” Beiser performed alone in the second half of the concert, playing two mesmerizing pieces based on sacred music, Mohammed Fairouz’s “Kol Nidrei” and Michael Gordon’s “All Vows,” followed by an epic infused with elements of Indian raga, Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops.” And then Riley and Kotche returned for the encore, Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” The room thundered with Kotche’s pounding John Bonham-style beats.
Afterward, I headed to Metro, where Foxygen was playing — part of what the band is calling its farewell tour. Like most Foxygen shows, it was unhinged and odd. As it gets ready to call it quits, the band has moved toward a more epic show, with three female singer-dancers lined up on side of the stage, giving the concert a hint of what the Flaming Lips are famous for doing. But the show also included some awkward pauses and stage banter. There were flashes of cool psychedelic songs amid the cartwheeling spectacle. The band seemed out of control — sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good. But it was certainly entertaining.