Night two of the 2010 MusicNOW festival was the night I was most looking forward to. I am a huge fan of St. Vincent, the name under which young guitar virtuoso Annie Clark performs, and I was blown away by her live show when I saw her perform last year.

But St. Vincent’s set wasn’t the only thing I was excited about. That night, a special commissioned piece composed by Clark would be performed by contemporary music ensemble yMusic.

For this show, I chose to sit on the floor, just a few rows back from the stage. The last time I had seen St. Vincent, my vantage point was in the balcony of that venue, so I wanted the opportunity to see her up-close this time.

As it had the night before, the evening began with Bryce Dessner welcoming everyone to the show. He gave a little background of the festival and recognized the patrons who had helped keep it going. He also discussed teenage Cincinnati musician Esme Kenney, who was brutally murdered during last year’s festival. He talked about how much her death had affected him and everyone involved in MusicNOW and because of that, it was decided that the 2009 festival would be dedicated to her.

He went on to explain that each year, MusicNOW has commissioned new music from young composers that would be premiered at the festival and that the piece commissioned for 2010,  and all future commissioned pieces, would be in the young girl’s honor and would be called the MusicNOW Esme Kenney Commission. Incidentally, the man who murdered Esme had been sentenced to death earlier that day.

Then, he talked a bit about one of MusicNOW’s biggest supporters, a man named David Cohen, who had recently, and suddenly, passed away. He then introduced the evening’s first commissioned piece, a solo viola composition called “Trace” that was written by one of Cohen’s favorite composers, Evan Ziporyn, in his honor. It was performed by violist Nadia Sirota, who is also a member of yMusic. The piece was strange, haunting and beautiful.

Sirota performed one more solo piece before she was joined on-stage by the rest of yMusic. With violin, viola, trumpet, cello, flute and guitar, among other instruments, the group performed a brief, but spectacular set of instrumental pieces.

The sound these six musicians put forth was huge and the second piece they played sounded like something lifted directly from the score of a lost Hitchcock thriller. As a former violinist myself, I especially enjoyed this portion of the evening, though I was visited by the pang of regret I often get when I see violinists in contemporary bands and once again, I wished I’d never quit playing. Maybe some day, I’ll give it another go.

The last piece in yMusic’s set would be the Esme Kenney Commission, and it was introduced by Dessner. Clark watched from the balcony as her first commissioned piece, titled “Badland,” was performed. It was a gorgeous, sweeping chamber piece,  at times bright and happy, yet also solemn and wistful and definitely recognizable as one of Clark’s compositions. In fact, I half expected her to come out on stage and provide vocals. At the end of the performance, the audience rose, clapping enthusiastically and, I expect, were a little choked up. It was a truly special moment and I’m glad I was there to witness it.

After an intermission that lasted about 20 minutes or so, St. Vincent took the stage and launched into “Strangers,” the opening track from the 2009  album, Actor. The next three songs were also from Actor and were played one after the other with no real breaks, except for Annie to briefly tune her guitar.

Already I was noticing a decidedly different energy about this show than the last time I had seen St. Vincent. There was virtually no between-song banter and the performance itself was a lot more subdued. Missing was the second microphone she had used previously to provide vocal effects and the many mid-song, crazy guitar solos. I’m not sure what the cause was — possibly it was a combination of the venue, the Esme Kenney element and the fact that it was the last show of the tour — but it made for a completely different experience than I’d had previously seeing her play.

YMusic joined the band onstage for the fourth and fifth songs of the set. Before the larger group began playing “The Bed,” Clark explained that she had known she’d be playing MusicNOW for quite some time and it was the thing she’d most been looking forward to the entire tour.

After finishing the second song with yMusic, “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood,” everyone but Clark left the stage and for the first time, she talked to the audience at some length. She explained that it was the last night of the Actor tour and she was really happy to be there. She thanked everyone who had seen a show during the tour and everyone who would see future shows.

She then picked up her  guitar and played a solo cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” It was absolutely gorgeous and you could hear a pin drop in the audience. Besides hearing her commissioned piece, that might have been my favorite moment of the night.

The band returned and finished the main set with two more songs from Actor, “Black Rainbow” and, one of my favorites, “Marrow.” It was so great to be able to sit up close this time and really watch her work that guitar — it’s truly incredible the sounds she coaxes out of the instrument. As I watched her play, I imagined what it would be like if she and one of my other favorite guitar players, Lindsey Buckingham, ever collaborated on something.

The final song of the main set was an epic version of “Your Lips are Red,” the only song she would perform from her debut record, Marry Me. It’s one of my favorites from that album and was the perfect song to close the set. This was the first time that night we’d really seen Annie freak out on the guitar. She spent a good portion of the song practically sitting on the ground playing with various effects pedals. It was one of those “rock your face off” kind of performances.

For the encore, yMusic once again joined Annie and company on stage. They played “The Party,” another song from Actor and it was lovely. After a second standing ovation, the band left the stage and the evening was over.

While I would’ve liked to have seen her do a few more songs from Marry Me, I was pretty happy with this show. For several of my friends in the audience, this was their first time seeing her live and they were totally blown away. I’m pretty sure next time St. Vincent rolls into town, or even a near-by town, she will have an even bigger audience than she has before.

Here’s St. Vincent’s full setlist, in order:

Strangers
Save Me from What I Want
Actor Out of Work
Just the Same But Brand New
The Bed (with yMusic)
Laughing with a Mouth of Blood (with yMusic)
These Days (Jackson Browne cover; Annie solo)
Black Rainbow
Marrow
Your Lips Are Red

Encore
The Party (with yMusic)