Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

The Da Capo Chamber Players Jumpstart Black History Month

Gil Scott-Heron famously observed that Black History Month could only happen in February. Last night at Merkin Concert Hall the Da Capo Chamber Players gave it a vigorous jumpstart with a program of music by contemporary black composers that was often as gripping as it was provocative. Da Capo flutist Patricia Spencer and clarinetist Meighan Stoops chose the works, inspired in particular by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and its revelation that the percentage of blacks currently incarcerated in the United States is higher than it was in South Africa under apartheid.

Da Capo pianist Blair McMillen opened with a trio of Nkeiru Okoye miniatures: a tightly assembled group of children at play, a droll rain dance and a beautifully nuanced take of Dusk, an elegaic nocturne mingling oldtime gospel and 70s soul themes. A similar darkness and mystery would recur a little later in the night’s quiet showstopper, Alvin Singleton’s La Flora. From the perspective of not having read the liner notes beforehand, it conjured up images of early morning New England industrial parks, plots being hatched among sleepy accomplices who slowly begin to focus as the light grows and then leap into action. However it might be interpreted, it’s a hushed, lush, conspiratorial, powerfully cinematic piece, part minimalist tone poem, part Lynchian noir narrative. The ensemble (McMillen, Stoops, Spencer on bass flute, Curtis Macomber on violin and James Wilson on cello) took their time with it, Wilson working its pianissimo drones for all the tension they were worth, McMillen and guest vibraphonist Matthew Gold adding eerie glimmer in turn alongside the lushness of the winds and strings and percussionist Samuel Nathan’s terse, distantly menacing accents. As it turns out, Singleton’s inspiration was Botticelli’s La Primavera and its subtext-loaded assemblage of dieties and nymphs: go figure. Either way, the foreshadowing lingered long after it was over. The composer was present and seemed pleased: he had every reason to be.

The ensemble’s approach to Jeffrey Mumford’s complex, alternately harsh and balmy A Diffuse Light That Knows No Particular Hour was judicious and matter-of-fact,  its calm/agitated dichotomies highlighted by a swaying, conversational interlude between flute and clarinet that recurred memorably as the work hit a trick ending and then continued an upward arc, developing a visceral sense of longing.

A series of miniatures by the Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman drew on Langston Hughes poems which were recited in between: a resilient and surprisingly bubbly portrait of Helen Keller; wry jazz and blues-inspired Paris nightclub romps; a Debussy-esque rainstorm and a dark, understatedly majestic Harlem nocturne that was equal parts blues, gospel and art-rock. The ensemble closed with Wendell Morris Logan’s Runagate, Runagate, a jarringly cinematic, shapeshifting, often chilling portrait of slaves escaping to freedom. Trouble was, it was paired with a long Robert Hayden poem – both spoken and sung – on a similar theme. Taken separately, music and lyrics have much to recommend them; together, it seemed that the poem had been grafted haphazardly to the suite, a fault of composition rather than performance. The vocal line never wavered far from a central tone since there was nowhere to go over the leaps and bounds of the rest of the arrangement, and there were moments, especially early on, where operatics actually drowned out the music behind them.

The Da Capo Chamber Players return to Merkin Hall on June 6 at 8 PM to play a new commission from Mohammed Fairouz plus Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with soprano Lucy Shelton.

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January 30, 2013 - Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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