Review: Renga Ensemble at the Bop Stop

by Jarrett Hoffman

The BOP STOP stage was covered Sunday night — with instrument stands and cases, clarinets and saxophones large and little, and at least one broken reed — for The Renga Ensemble’s first visit to Cleveland. Having just released The Room Is last week, the sextet, formed by Chicago-based composer and clarinetist James Falzone, showed off their reed feast of a debut album, as well as a few extra tunes.

They opened with the title work, “The Room Is,” a feud between families of instruments: the clarinets’ layering of whispy tones is cut off abruptly by the saxophones. Falzone (Eb clarinet) and Ken Vandermark (baritone sax) seemed to be the generals, making hand signals to their forces.

Soon the music moves into the wild and the herky-jerky. Jason Stein (bass clarinet) and Ned Rothenberg (Bb clarinet) added spice with sugar-rush tonguing. Long-tone territory seemed to bring peace — until another intrusion by the saxes. Rude.

Next was “Grace and Chants,” a new piece Falzone wrote specifically for the tour. Screaming clarinets and groovy saxophones married onstage like the couple you wouldn’t expect. The language moved into hoarse, breathy sounds, then into epic territory, incorporating the hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This” in moving fashion.

Though The Renga Ensemble is inspired by Falzone’s love of haiku, you might not guess it from some of the muscular music that was on display. In “White,” the duet between Stein (bass clarinet) and guest member Dave Rempis (baritone saxophone) might be more accurately called a boxing match. Large in stature, and with instruments to match, the two men simply thrashed, musically tearing each other to bits. I wanted to know who won. 

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