Via The New York Times, written by Zachary Woolfe:
Just over three years ago, a crowd gathered for a concert under the stars in the empty brick shell of an old sawdust factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The program was a glimpse at the motley artistic philosophy behind the ambitious contemporary-music organization that was to grow within the shell: There were Syrian melodies and butterfly-shaped kites, flute duos and Mexican jazz singing. The building was to open in a year, and be called the Original Music Workshop.
Fund-raising hurdles being what they are, it took quite a bit longer than that. And by the time the $16 million space finally opened on Thursday, it had been renamed National Sawdust, in a nod to the original business.
National Sawdust, at the busy corner of North Sixth Street and Wythe Avenue, doesn’t give away its secrets all at once. It’s not unheard of, in condo- and design-filled 2015 Williamsburg, to encounter an old factory with some broad windows cut into the brick and a psychedelia-bright mural spreading across one side. At first glance the building could be … a tech firm? An avant-fashion boutique? An indie movie house?
But after you pass through a dark, glossy lobby, the main space comes as a soaring, distinctive surprise, vivid enough to mask the fact that it is, essentially, another black-box theater, which can be configured to fit an audience of 120 to 350. While New York knows black boxes well — a Sawdust competitor, BAM Fisher at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, opened in 2012 — this is a black-and-white box. Designed by the firm Bureau V, the intimate but airy, high-ceilinged space is lined with jagged white textured sound panels, separated to reveal thick black slashes of the wall beneath.
It feels, from the floor, like being in a futuristic forest clearing, and brings to mind what an experimental Brooklyn arts space might look like on a television show, all angular lines and moody lighting. The experience is even more disorienting up in the shallow balcony, with the angles of the walls seeming to stretch and crunch the room as you look at it.
Having raised money for construction costs, National Sawdust claims it will be solidly supported by what it says is a unique model of “philanthropic investors” who bought shares in the building that they can donate back to the nonprofit organization, which inhabits the space rent-free. (This is what you get when your founder, Kevin Dolan, is a tax expert.) Overseen by a creative and executive director, the composer Paola Prestini, and a team of artist-curators, the programming is still intentionally wide-ranging, poised at the intersection of pop, jazz and classical, of America and the world.
Heavy on Ms. Prestini’s own compositions and contributions from her husband, the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (formerly of the Kronos Quartet), the mild, modest, even slapdash opening concert was a family affair that, at two-and-a-half hours, might better have been a more focused demonstration of the space’s possibilities. Instead it was a grab bag of harmless duos from the composer-pianist Nico Muhly and the violist Nadia Sirota; a muddled excerpt from Ms. Prestini’s “Yoani Songs”; a bit of propulsive percussion from Glenn Kotche; and the vocalist Theo Bleckmann’s lugubrious Handel arrangement.
The Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso exuded gentle ease, backed by Mr. Zeigler and Philip Glass on piano; the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq sounded like a satisfyingly demonic Björk. Most gala-ready was the charming mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, confident as he alternated bluegrass songs and Bach arrangements: an apt summary of a typical young National Sawdust musician’s sprawling interests.
The acoustics, engineered by the firm Arup, were impressive in music both amplified and not, a difficult feat. When the pianist Stephen Gosling opened the concert with Ms. Prestini’s “Limpopo Songs,” the final note was radiantly clear as it died away. But just as lucid was the art-pop group Cibo Matto’s joyfully danceable yet easygoing set around midnight, with amplification that filled the space without overwhelming it.
National Sawdust’s next couple of months are jam-packed, with short festivals devoted to Terry Riley and John Zorn; an opera based on Bergman’s “Persona”; and a range of performances by searching musicians and ensembles like Emel Mathlouthi, Miranda Cuckson and Yarn/Wire.
The big Manhattan institutions, hungry for new audiences, are paying attention: National Sawdust will collaborate with Carnegie Hall and host installments of the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! new-music series. The challenge, with so many curatorial cooks hovering over the broth, will be making the offerings excitingly varied rather than merely scattered.