Classical music fans in New York looking something more interesting than the same old standards have numerous options. Among the best of these is the New York Scandia Symphony, who dedicate themselves to reviving interest in lesser-known Nordic composers as well as premiering new works by emerging composers from the upper reaches of that hemisphere. Last night at Victor Borge Hall in Murray Hill, the highlight of the night, performed by a twelve-piece chamber version of the orchestra, was the American permiere of contemporary Danish composer Anders Koppel’s Symphonie Concertante. A triptych, it’s a characteristically enigmatic and absolutely fascinating work, something to get lost in if not for the endless tempo and stylistic shifts. Conductor Dorrit Matson, a Dane herself, led the ensemble seamlessly through a wary, pulsing first movement that evoked Astor Piazzolla’s later work before engaging Steven Hartman’s clarinet and Andrew Schwartz’s bassoon in a long round of animatedly crescendoing rhythmic hijinks over the swells of the strings and eventually a labyrinth of polyrhythms. And yet, the jousting stopped abruptly during the early part of the second, Largo movement and turned to apprehension, reaching near-horror proportions via the chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque string motif around which the final Allegro appassionato movement was centered. A celebrity in his native land ever since his days in popular rock band Savage Rose, Koppel deserves to be much better known here.
Another highlight of the program was Symphony violist Frank Foerster’s Suite of Scandinavian Folk Tunes for string ensemble. Foerster is a very eclectic player and has a great wit – another suite of his, Summer in Fort Tryon Park, is a quintessentially New York tableau, packed with irresistible on-location references. This piece is more serious, a rugged hardanger fiddle-style sea motif linking a series of portraits of several of the Nordic nations: by this account, the Norwegians and Swedes are a serious bunch given to vivid dramatics, while the Finns and Icelandics are party animals. Opening the concert, Matson and the group took Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Haydn-esque Violin Concerto and tackled its rather rugged, stern underpinnings with a muscular sway beneath violinist Mayuki Fukuhara’s spun-silk swirls; a bit later, Hartman was featured in a velvety version of the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, Op. 11 of Bernhardt Henrik Crusell, a Swedish contemporary of Mozart. They closed with enjoyably jaunty yet precise takes on the Prelude and Rigaudon from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Concerts like this only add intrigue to the question: what have else we not yet heard from this particular part of the world that deserves to be known equally well over here - and when is this orchestra going to play it?
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #628:
Astor Piazzolla – Hommage a Liege
In putting this list together, we’ve tried to limit the number of albums per artist to one or two. Which with Astor Piazzolla is just plain absurd: there must be at least a dozen, maybe several dozen of his recordings that belong among the 1000 best albums ever made. Did the iconic Argentinian composer, bandleader, bandoneon player and inventor of tango nuevo put out one that stands over the rest? Frankly, no – they’re pretty much all good. We picked this dark, richly lush 1985 live album because A) Piazzolla plays on it and B) even though it doesn’t have any of his signature songs, like Libertango, it represents him well. Backed by two guitarists plus the Liege Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leo Brouwer, this is Piazzolla the classical composer rather than Piazzolla the pop tunesmith (he was both, and preferred to think of himself as the former). It’s two suites: first the epic triptych Concerto para Bandoneon y Guitarra (Intro, Milonga and Tango), then the four-part Histoire du Tango (does anybody besides us think it’s funny that the concerto is Spanish but the history is French?). This one is a musical portrait of how the style developed (with major contributions by the composer himself), from the whorehouse in 1900, to the Cafe 1930, Nightclub 1960 and Aujourd’hui (Today). If Piazzolla is new to you, get to know him via Piazzolla Radio streaming 24/7. Here’s a random torrent via musicaparalacabeza.
Although chock-full of aching bandoneon melodies, wistful and anguished strings, the Rough Guide to Tango Revival is not a particularly rough-edged compilation – but it’s definitely a global one. Compiler Chris Moss is a former Buenos Aires resident and an enthusiastic fan of the classics but doesn’t have much use for (or seemingly much knowledge of) tango nuevo, therefore, no Avantango, let alone Federico Aubele. Most of the cuts here are instrumentals, three of them Astor Piazzolla covers; in addition to the Argentinians, the artists here hail from such unexpected places as Romania and Holland. Hardcore tango fans get plenty to sink their teeth into here (and dance to, with the exception of three numbers with uptight,mechanical drum machine rhythm): as a starting point for newcomers, it’s as good a place as any to start your journey into the heart of tango’s darkness, although you might first want to stream Radio Piazzolla.
Argentinians Selección Nacional De Tango (which translates roughly as “Tango Allstar Team”) bookend the album with a dynamic-laden, richly orchestrated version of the iconic 1917 composition La Comparsita (The Little Parade) and the even lusher, wilder abandon of their version of the Piazzolla classic Adios Nonino. Their countrymen Orquesta Color Tango De Roberto Alvarez also get two tracks here, Piqueteros (Protesters) surprisingly blithe in light of its subject matter, and – the aptly titled Quejumbroso (Querulous) – homage to legendary bandleader Osvaldo Pugliese – with the uneasy staccato of the bandoneon battling the lush strings behind it.
La Madrugada (Daybreak) by Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro, a cover of the Angel Maffia composition is delivered in raw, fiery fashion as befits an “orquestra tipica,” i.e. oldschool group. Hungarian group Quartett Escualo makes the connection between gypsy music and tango in the Piazzolla classic Fuga Y Misterio , guitar, bandoneon, piano and strings all shadowing each other, then morphing into a dreamy extended string passage. Dutch bandleader Carel Kraayenhof bravely tackles more Piazzolla – Libertango – and dexterously puts his own stamp on it, a marvelously echoey piano-and-percussion first verse (is that tap dancing?) giving way when the rest of the band comes swirling in. German combo 6 Australes contribute La Lujanera, setting a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop lyric over a noirish cabaret arrangement, its dramatic Weimar vibe evoking a Spanish-language Dresden Dolls. Argentinian ensemble La Camorra’s La Maroma is the most intense number here, a vividly noir evocation that builds menacing ambience with a somewhat explosively percussive staccato intensity And Romanian chanteuse Oana Catalina Chitu’s Zaraza benefits from vivid Balkan tinges, especially with the strings, enhancing the unease behind the warmth of her voice. The more modern stuff here (other than a woozily fun if totally out-of-place reggaeton track by Melingo) suffers from overproduction despite some clever manuevering: no matter how clever the composition, it’s no fun dancing to a drum machine if you know what a real milonga is like.
For those wanting more of a raw edge, it doesn’t get much more raw than the rustic, remastered bonus cd of legendary oldtime tanguero Carlos Gardel, old 78 RPM scratches and all. It’s just acoustic guitar and vocals, Gardel’s mannered vaudevillian delivery quite a contrast with the frequently sly humor of the lyrics.
The latest album by self-described Romantic pianist and Carnegie Hall favorite (she’s playing there on June 12 at 8 ) Katya Grineva is a treat for fans of canonical 19th century favorites, proudly idiosyncratic and unabashedly individualistic. Grineva was seemingly born to play the Romantics, wringing plenty of angst and longing out of a mix of familiar standards, Piazzolla classics and a perhaps predictably but aptly emotional take of the Ravel Bolero. On both the Chopin Mazurka in A Minor and the Waltz in E Minor, she mines the dynamics for heart-tugging shifts that stop just this side of overwrought – yet, by contrast, she lets the Albeniz Tango breathe for itself, a smart move. Granados’ Planera Spanish Dance is likewise allowed to shimmer and gleam, at a tastefully stately pace.
Most impressively, it’s the Piazzolla that best draws out Grineva’s intensity. Adios Nonino, a requiem written right after the death of the composer’s father, is stoic yet wrenching. An abbreviated arrangement of the sprawling crazy-love anthem Balada Para Un Loco is considerably more blazing and percussive than the original, and Grineva careens through its louder passages like a woman possessed, after which Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dances makes a perfect segue. The Bolero alternates between slinkiness and impatience, a nice contrast to see in a piece where some performers find none at all.
Grineva’s Carnegie Hall show this week is billed as a family-friendly event, lots of familiar standards by Debussy, Satie and Chopin and others delivered with characteristic verve: bring a 15-year-old friend, family member or someone who looks hopelessly underage, and they get in free with your paid admission.
Concert Review: Thomas Piercy, Claudine Hickman and Pablo Aslan Play Piazzolla at Caffe Vivaldi, NYC 5/23/09
It didn’t matter that there was no bandoneon in the band: the trio of clarinetist/arranger Thomas Piercy, pianist Claudine Hickman and upright bassist Pablo Aslan managed to silence the sold-out room (no easy task!) with a practically telepathic, emotionally rich program of both familiar and more obscure compositions by the legendary Argentinian composer, along with meticulous yet spirited performances of two pieces by French jazz composer/pianist Claude Bolling. Playing mostly with a strikingly clear tone, Piercy expertly worked the nooks and crannies of the songs’ innumerable permutations, only going full throttle when the piece demanded it (and one did). With a bright yet haunting precision, Hickman was every bit his equal and Aslan, who’s only been taking classic tango to new and exciting places for about two decades with his group Avantango, alternated between stately majesty, dark ambience and fiery verve, frequently using a bow.
The first two numbers, Tango del Diablo and Milonga del Angel were a study in contrast. Piercy’s arrangement of the ominous Tango Seis found him playing the original’s violin line with a jaunty effervescence, pulling back when the piece wound its way into eerie flamencoisms. The long, catchy suite Le Grand Tango could have been made showy or done with a sentimental feel but was neither, the trio content to let its sense of longing speak for itself right up to the end where Piercy finally cut loose with a visceral intensity.
The two Claude Bolling numbers gave the group a chance to relax and play more expansively. The first, Allegre was a showcase both for Hickman’s vivid, Brubeck-esque melodicism, contrasting with Piercy’s Bach-inflected precision. The second, Romantique bookended a brisk excursion pulsing along on Aslan’s jaunty basslines with two segments imbued with plaintive, Romantic beauty. They wrapped up the program with an exquisite take of the classic Soledad, Piercy’s clarinet soaring to the heights with unaffectedly raw anguish right before the end, and closed with the vastly more optimistic, insistent Michelangelo ’70. Piazzolla, ever the innovator, would no doubt have approved. Watch this space for future performances.
“Is there anyone else who needs to leave?” grinned classical guitarist Bret Williams, “Like the guy in the back there?” He was referring to the screaming rugrat who’d erupted in rage at the end of the La Vita/Williams Guitar Duo’s first song, an anonymously springtimey piece by Brazilian composer Sergio Assad. As welcome as it is to see classical music on a program outside of the usual midtown concert halls, the infant slowly wheeled outside by a lackadaisical mother never would have made it past security at Carnegie Hall. Apparently, the church fathers at St. Paul’s Chapel today were too nice to turn her away. And this was somebody who obviously wasn’t homeless. Memo to parents: you had a choice, you had the kid, now you pay the price. No concerts for at least four years (for the kid, anyway).
What started inauspiciously got good in a hurry. Duetting with Williams was Italian guitarist Giacomo La Vita, whose fluid, brilliantly precise playing made a perfect match for Williams’ lickety-split yet subtle fingerpicking. The two ran through two pieces by Manuel de Falla, the romantic, flamenco-inflected Serenata Andaluza and the swaying, 6/8 Danza Espanola, then did two Scarlatti pieces that La Vita had arranged himself. In music this old, the emotion is in the melody, not the rhythm, and both of them dug deep into the stateliness of the tunes to find it.
The high point of the show, and probably the drawing card that got the audience in here on a cold, rainy Monday was Astor Piazzolla’s 1984 Tango Suite, another original arrangement for guitar. It’s unclear if the pantheonic Argentinian tango composer actually knew Charles Mingus personally, but the third piece in the suite definitely had the same kind of defiant scurrying around that the great American jazz composer was known for, beginning with a chase scene, running through all kinds of permutations to arrive at a fiery chordal ending. The two parts which preceded it began darkly reserved, then became expansively jazzy.
“We usually have an intermission, but we have to get up to the Upper West Side to teach,” explained Williams. “To a bunch of kids who probably haven’t even practiced. We’ve got to be there at 2:30!” And with that they burned through yet another of their own arrangements, this for De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, an orchestral piece every bit as volcanic as the title would imply. An impressively good crowd, especially for the time of day and the drizzle outside, responded with a standing ovation. Obviously, fans of acoustic guitar music will like these guys best, but they cover vastly more terrain than most of their colleagues, a savvy move because it will earn them more of an audience. One hopes enough to eliminate the need to rush off to a midafternoon private-school teaching gig after they’ve finished playing a great set.
Always a hotly debatable question. On Monday afternoon, there couldn’t have been anything better. Should anyone claim that Argentinan bandoneon player and bandleader Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) wasn’t one of the greatest composers of alltime, the trio of Thomas Piercy (clarinet), Masataka Odaka (upright bass) and Claudine Hickman (piano) reaffirmed that brilliantly throughout their afternoon performance at St. Paul’s Chapel.
Throughout his career, Piazzolla was torn between two worlds, classical and traditional Argentinian tango. While living in New York as a boy he took piano lessons and discovered the joys and pleasures of Bach; later, in the 1940s, having returned to Argentina and established himself as a player and songwriter, he ventured deeply into jazz, incorporating that as well into his own unique vision. Perhaps because he had one foot in what was then considered pop culture, and the other in the all-so-serious world of classical music, Piazzolla’s music is stormy, often downright anguished. Most of his greatest works are in dark minor keys replete with tense, riveting crescendos and all sorts of drama, the ominous, flamenco-inspired beat always driving it on. The trio of Piercy, Odaka and Hickman brought out all of this but also the sunnier, jazzier side of the great composer in what was essentially an impressively inclusive overview of Piazzolla’s career.
Because Piazzolla was such a genre-bender, his music has been arranged for all different types of configurations, from rock bands (notably Big Lazy) to full orchestra to fusion jazz. Piercy’s often mournful clarinet, flying over Hickman’s tasteful, understated piano and Odaka’s insistent, pulsing bass brought out every bit of melody in the program. Because Piazzolla liked a big, lush sound, playing his bandoneon – a German accordion – with a full orchestra roaring behind him, tunes were occasionally subsumed beneath lavish arrangements. The opposite was the case here. The trio ran through the angst-driven, somewhat death-obsessed Oblivion, the misnamed Tango del Diablo (which begins with a big eerie cadenza before quieting down and building very subtly), Le Grand Tango (a beautiful, overtly classical mini-suite from late in Piazzolla’s career) and one of Piazzolla’s most popular and catchy compositions, Solitude, with confidence and sensitivity to even minute emotional shifts. They closed the almost hourlong program with his 1960s composition, the darkly and somewhat modernistic Tango Six, the somewhat wistful, classically-inflected Angel’s Tango and finally the surprisingly optimistic, jazzy Invierno Porteno (Winter in Buenos Aires). The crowd – a mix of retirees and office workers on their lunch break – were spellbound. If Piercy’s planned upcoming recording of Piazzolla works is anything like this, it’ll be amazing.
Their most cinematic album, on which the most mesmerizing instrumental band on the planet broaden their sonic palette from the usual charcoal and grey to include, perhaps, burnt ochre and dark olive. The album cover looks like a poster for a 60s spy film, with the shadow of a woman running with a briefcase. The case opens to show the woman’s ankle and the briefcase, but it’s not clear if she’s running alongside a wall covered with dying ivy…or if she’s lying on a path in the woods. The visuals couldn’t be more appropriate.
Big Lazy’s first two releases were all menace and suspense, conjuring up images of black-clad figures slipping in and out of the shadows in a 4 AM industrial wasteland, the pavement cold and luminous with late autumn rain. This one, their fourth, is much more diverse. Big Lazy unsurprisingly get a lot of film soundtrack work, and the songs on this album may well be destined for Sundance or Hollywood. Several of them begin menacingly and end on a sunny note, or vice versa, with innumerable twists and turns in between. The album opens with Thy Name Is Woman, virtuoso guitarist Steve Ulrich playing with distortion instead of his usual oceans of reverb. Essentially, it’s a 6/8 blues, propelled by brilliant bassist Paul Dugan’s staccato arpeggios. The next cut, by Dugan, is Walk It Off, opening with bowed bass playing the ominous melody as Ulrich plays the bassline on guitar. All of a sudden, on the second verse, Ulrich launches into some noir jazz as guest keyboardist Ed Pastorini’s Hammond organ kicks in. It’s very 60s. The following cut Glitter Gulch begins with a sexy bassline, like The Fever, with dark, quietly booming drum flourishes and eerie organ. Then it morphs into a Morricone-esque spaghetti western theme. After that, Ulrich returns with more guitar distortion on the brief, skronky Drug Czar.
The cd’s next track, France, is a very funny song, something akin to how Serge Gainsbourg’s 60s backing band might have covered Big Lazy. It’s an uncharacteristically bouncy number with just enough moments of incisive reverb guitar to give the listener pause. Drummer Tamir Muskat (ex-Gogol Bordello) spices the following cut, His Brother’s Wife, with all kinds of metallic percussive effects, with Ulrich and Dugan reverting to the dark, New York noir sound of their previous work until a country-inflected chorus with soaring lapsteel. After that, on Postcard from X, bowed bass carries the melody over plinky, ragtimish guitar. It’s an unusually wistful, pretty song, evocative of the great Southwestern gothic band Friends of Dean Martinez as the lapsteel flies in at the end of the song.
The best song on the album is the lickety-split, minor-key punkabilly theme To Hell in a Handbasket, another Dugan composition. Los Straitjackets or Rev. Horton Heat only wish they wrote something this adrenalizing. After Dugan and Ulrich play their fingers off for a couple of minutes, there’s a brief bass solo and then a gently happy ending. The lone cover on the album is an Astor Piazzolla classic, Pulsacion #4, which most closely resembles Big Lazy’s early work, all macabre chromatics and scary reverb. The cd’s next tune Naked begins with Dugan pedaling a single note over a suspenseful, steady beat, evoking a movie scene where the hero may be having second thoughts. You want to tell him (or her), don’t go back in the house, don’t get in the car with that guy and whatever you do, stay inside the tent. But they don’t, and all hell breaks loose. The album concludes with The Confidence Man, a total 60s spy movie theme, jazzy with staccato bass and tinny organ, its menace building gently at the end of the verse, then breaking through the door when the chorus kicks in.
If this album can reach the people who blast the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack at parties, that’s where it needs to be. Inevitably, it’ll be a cult classic for decades to come. Be the first person on your block or in your dorm room to turn your friends on to this amazing band. And if you think the occasional lightheartedness of this album might mean that Big Lazy has lost any of the white-knuckle intensity of their live shows, not to worry: check our reviews page for a glimpse of the best show we’ve seen this year, Big Lazy’s cd release at Luna Lounge last month. Classic album, an instant contender (along with Jenifer Jackson’s new one) for best of the year. Five bagels. Pumpernickel (because that’s the darkest kind available).
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