By Don Heckman
Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion tour arrived at Disney Hall Monday night. And one couldn’t have asked for a more amiable setting than Frank Gehry’s architecturally unique performance space. The stage was filled with the Orchestrion’s clusters and stacks of instruments – from a grand piano, marimbas and acoustic guitars to cymbals, percussion and bottle organs – their visual impact enhanced by the dramatic overhead presence of Disney’s seemingly scattered organ pipes.
The dozens of sound-producing entities – driven by various solenoids and valves, controlled by computer sequencing as well as real-time triggering – represent the latest, and far and away the most expansive, manifestation of Metheny’s continuing enhancement of his creative musical palette. Triggered by his fascination with his grandfather’s player piano, the Orchestrion is a contemporary version of the wide variety of mechanical instruments that came into popularity around the beginning of the 20th century. But, although similar in the sense that it consists of physical, sound-producing devices, it is fundamentally different in that the sounds produced by each of those devices is the product of human hands – Metheny’s.
The actual participation of the Orchestrion in the program took several numbers to arrive. Metheny began with a few solo pieces, switching to his 42-string Pikasso guitar for one, perhaps intending its sweeps and glissandos of sound to serve as a kind of transition. But, even so, his initial interaction with the Orchestrion was relatively modest, involving a back-beat from a pair of finger cymbals and his solo guitar version of “Unity Village,” from his first album.
When the full panoply of sounds kicked in, accompanied by flashing lights and the visual images of hammers striking and keys depressing, the effect was dramatic enough to generate a roar of approval from the crowd. And, over the course of the five movements of the “Orchestrion Suite,” the combination of Metheny’s guitar and his lush, far-ranging composition thoroughly affirmed the physical, financial and creative efforts he has put into the project.
More problematically, however, the implicit limitations of the Orchestrion – the pre-set sequencing, the fact that all the sounds are the product of single person – made for an absence of spontaneity that was underscored when Metheny was joined for a guitar duet segment with Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo. Performing Jobim’s “Insensatez” together, one immediately sensed a feeling of rhythmic lift – call it “swing” – that never quite seemed to surface in the Orchestrion’s passages.
Nonetheless, viewing the project from the perspective of Metheny’s desire to create a live musical entity in which every element is the product of his own imagination, the performance had to be considered a success. The music, of course, is always what matters. At its best, the “Suite,” with Metheny’s always compelling guitar soaring freely in and out of the Orchestrion’s multi-leveled textures, was a work reaching beyond the limits of genre. And perhaps even more interestingly, a work with the potential to reach beyond the framework of the Orchestrion.