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Review: Vietnam War-Inspired Programming Results In the Sublime to the Questionable

By Christopher Johnson, March 26, 2018

No one could have anticipated that the climactic event in Carnegie Hall’s months-long festival The ’60s: The Years that Changed America would coincide with the March for Our Lives, one of the biggest protests since the Vietnam War Moratoriums of 1969 and 1970, nor that the march would have passed within a block of the Hall for more than three hours, comprising the entire duration of the performance taking place inside.

There were resonances.

The first part of the program featured the Friction Quartet’s shattering performance of George Crumb’s Black Angels, a composition that I believe, with no exaggeration whatsoever, to be one of the greatest works of the twentieth century in any form, and one of the most astounding imaginative leaps in the history of art. If, by some miracle, we fail to destroy ourselves and all our works, this piece will still be sending audiences reeling into the lobby, stunned with pity and fear, long after you and I are gone and forgotten.

There are no words for Black Angels—even Crumb struggles to describe it—but in performances this good, it speaks, overwhelmingly, for itself. Friction is a young group, far too young to have anything to bring to the piece beyond empathy and profound musicianship, but their performance was The Sixties, in all its random horror, creepy beauty, and wild accesses of awe and wonder. There was no fuss, no ‘tude, none of the usual hipper-than-thou sanctimony; instead, they entered into the work reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of something bigger than themselves. They are also sublimely gifted and exquisitely skilled.

There was a twenty-minute intermission afterwards, and thank God for that: it took me all that time, plus a stiff drink and three of the Hall’s generously-proportioned oatmeal-raisin cookies, even to begin to pull myself back together, and still I burst into tears on the subway-ride home, and my hand trembles as I write this, twenty-four hours later. I’ve been at this game, one way or another, since the Eisenhower Administration, and this performance was one of the truest and most moving things I’ve ever heard or seen.

John Monsky in ‘The Vietnam War: At Home and Abroad’ at Zankel Hall; photo: Stefan Cohen.

The second part of the program consisted of a new installment in John Monsky’s America in the Balance, a series of multi-media productions that combine live and recorded music, film, photography, material artifacts, and lecture “into a format that moves the listener to a visceral and then new intellectual reaction” to major historical events or movements.

On this pass, Monsky organized a comprehensive survey of the Vietnam era around a collection of 298 Zippo lighters owned by men and women who served in country, each engraved with thoughts about the War, or messages to an unknown future. This was conceptually neat, but limiting. The inscriptions themselves are evocative, even eloquent, and they allowed Monsky to build a coherent narrative out of a series of events that were famously chaotic, self-contradictory, frustrating, and often wildly absurd. At the same time, they set up an implicit emotional polarity that skewed essential facts: you would never have known, for example, that one of the principal practical uses of these lighters—well known at the time—was to torch the “hooches” of suspected enemy “gooks,” just as you might have thought that the principal victims of napalm were two American soldiers killed in a friendly-fire incident, rather than the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese—perhaps a million or more—who were incinerated. By the same token, the protest-movement back home was reduced to a couple of ugly scuffles with returning servicemen, and Kent State, with its student death-toll of only four; given the immediate proximity of the March For Our Lives, this seemed almost quaint.

Crystal Kellogg and John Monsky (center) with additional performers in ‘The Vietnam War: At Home and Abroad’ at Zankel Hall; photo: Stefan Cohen.

There were equivalent imbalances in the production’s choice of music. Woodstock, for instance, was not just “a concert” — it was a historic watershed with vast cultural and political implications, and to represent it with a token medley from Hair, staged in a peppy, feel-good manner reminiscent of Up With People, distorts and diminishes both. Any ten seconds of Jimi Hendrix’s napalm-raid on the National Anthem would more accurately have reflected what happened at Woodstock, and how it was understood at the time. It would also have provided necessary moral counterpoint to extended footage of Bob Hope’s pandering 1966 Christmas Special, and a musical link, otherwise absent, to Black Angels.

Performance-style was largely anachronistic. A quartet of accomplished Broadway juveniles cast a jukebox-musical sheen over Stephen Stills’s oracular “For What It’s Worth” and Joe McDonald’s acid-bath “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” for example, while a pastel-pretty, harmonically-luxuriant arrangement of Pete Seeger’s death-haunted “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” rendered by an uncredited male a-cappella group that quite literally smirked and simpered its way through the piece, bordered on the offensive, especially to one who was of draft-age during the height of the War and remembers the anguished, hard-won simplicity and restraint of Seeger himself, of Joan Baez, of Peter, Paul and Mary—or even, believe it or not, of Marlene Dietrich.

(l. to r.) Shonica Gooden, Kelvin Moon Loh, Crystal Kellogg, and Justin Sargent in ‘The Vietnam War: At Home and Abroad’ at Zankel Hall; photo: Stefan Cohen.

The audience’s invariant response to the musical numbers—yipping applause that would have been perfectly appropriate at a family reunion or a company picnic—showed how fundamentally misconceived this part of the program was. As the great mystery-writer Donna Leon put it, “The Greeks were right. They knew. We aren’t meant to see such things happen: they were meant to horrify, not entertain.”


Carnegie Hall presents The Vietnam War: At Home and Abroad, at Zankel Hall, on March 24, 2018.

CRUMB Black Angels (Images I): Thirteen images from the dark land, for electric string quartet. Friction Quartet: Otis Harriel, violin; Kevin Rogers, violin; Taija Warbelow, viola; Doug Machiz, cello.

JOHN MONSKY The Vietnam War: At Home and Abroad (A Multimedia Presentation). With John Monsky, creator and speaker; Shonica Gooden, Crystal Kellogg, Kelvin Moon Loh, and Justin Sargent, vocalists; and Richard Danley, music director and pianist. Directed by Peter Flynn. Research and media design by Eric N. Duran.


Cover: Friction Quartet in concert at Zankel Hall; photo: Stefan Cohen.


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