It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of the deliciously enveloping duo set that violinist Sarah Neufeld and multi-saxophonist Colin Stetson played this past evening at the World Financial Center atrium. If you missed it, good news: it’ll be rebroadcast on a date TBA on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live program on WNYC.
Neufeld and Stetson did a memorable duo album, Never Were the Way She Was, last year; since then, she’s released another solo effort, The Ridge. This show revisited both recordings: it was a performance to lean back and take in with eyes closed and get absoutely, completely lost in.
Neufeld opened solo with some assistance from her trusty loop pedal, building steady rhythmic variations on a stately three-note descending riff. Her second number rose out of canon-like, fluttery flurrying, a call-and-response of extended phrases. It was hard to tell what was in the pedal and what Neufeld was playing herself, but she was working up a sweat. Brisk broken chords and allusions to Romanticism appeared and were subsumed by sirening banks of sound.
Stetson joined her and supplied a rippling, almost subsonic idling-diesel drone, then introduced minutely stygian shifts as Neufeld played terse, wary, minimalistic washes overhead. Together they built a microtonal mist heavy at both ends of the register, Neufeld’s swipes and swoops against Stetson’s digeridoo-like rumble. The two slowly wound the epic down at the end with what could have beeen whale song translated to the two instruments: a deep, endangered ocean.
It was here that it became obvious that the two musicians had figured out the timing of the sonic decay in the boomy atrium space: in their hands, it became an integral part of the instrumentation as the echoes bounced off the walls. Memo to musicians looking to capitalize on that: it’s a fast echo, only about a half a second.
Stetson’s work on tenor sax was just as hypnotic, and expertly rhythmic, as his rumbling bass sax attack, the kind of masterfully metronomic series of live loops that he does with his live techno. A warmly nocturnal vamp and all sorts of otherworldly warping textures – including some ethereal vocalese from Neufeld filteried through the mix. They lost the crowd for a bit with a dancing, flitting number with a lot of pizzicato violin but pulled them back in, ending on as anthemic a note as such vast, spacious music can conjure. As the show wound up, Neufeld stomped her foot for a trancey percussive loop and pushed Stetson to his murkiest depths. What a refreshing, revitalizing experience in the middle of a week that really screamed out for one.
Meanwhile, throughout the show, a jungly loop of birdsong fluttered behind the mix, audible in the quietest moments. At first it was cute, but the shtick wore thin. Juan Garcia Esquivel would have faded it out thirty seconds in.
The premise of the Greenwich Village Orchestra, along with the other community orchestras throughout the five boroughs of New York, is that there isn’t enough room in the New York Philharmonic for all the first-rate classical players in town. This year marks the GVO’s thirtieth anniversary, half of that under the direction of maestro Barbara Yahr. And it’s their most ambitious season ever, in fact, arguably the most ambitious season of any orchestra in New York this year For example, their next concert, on Nov 6 at 3 PM includes the hauntingly immortal “Rach 2,” the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with Imri Talgam as soloist, along with some highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet as well as his Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Further down the road, they’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, along with a more playful Broadway-themed program that will probably be heavy on Leonard Bernstein.
The opening concert of the orchestra’s 2016-17 season was similarly ambitious: an all-Dvorak bill that began with a tightly focused romp through the first of his Symphonic Dances. On one hand, it was a signal that the orchestra wasn’t going to waste auy time bringing the energy to redline. Yet, Yahr’s calmly unassailable direction gave the piece a balletesque precision in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a more elegant take on a centuries-old folk tradition.
They followed with Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Adele Anthony. As the program notes alluded, this piece has a funny backstory. The composer wrote it for Joseph Joachim, one of the 19th century’s greatest violinsts…who refused to play it, probably because it isn’t flashy enough! And flash is the last thing in mind Dvorak had in mind for it: at its ravishing heart (to quote one particularly astute, veteran GVO supporter), it’s a love story. And it’s noteworthy for how contiguous and integral the solo violin is within the context of the whole lush picture. For what it’s worth, Anthony played her cards close to the vest, an appropriate choice considering how intricately her part is woven into the work’s lavish and lively exchanges.
The orchestra closed with the most dynamic performance of the New World Symphony ever witnessed by this blog – and if you stick around the New York classical scene long enough, you see a bunch of them. One thing that made this special was that Dvorak very likely wrote part of the symphony on the very spot – 17th Street and Irving Place – where the orchestra performed it. Dvorak taught for a couple of years at the conservatory which remained there until it was razed in the early 1920s. What was equally special was how Yahr and her ensemble pulled it off. She is passionate and meticulous about details, particularly the most minute ones that a composer will hide away just to see if anybody gets them. In this case, it was the momentary, surreal dream-state rondo of an interlude that flashes by in maybe forty seconds in the symphony’s final movement, a secret key that seems to resolve every previous theme if you listen closely. After going deep into the score, Yahr had it sussed out: “I think this is about memory,” she asserted. “ And maybe Dvorak remembering his life in Bohemia, and being homesick.”
And the orchestra responded. It would be facile to explain the vast expanse they tackled, and conquered, by saying that Yahr started everything out hushed and sotto voce to give the musicians as much headroom as possible later on. What came into clearest focus – another point that Yahr emphasized – was that as much as Dvorak seized on African-American blues and spiritual themes, this is an indelibly European piece of music. Everybody who had to be on his or her game was. Horns, first and foremost, scouts surveying the terrain and foreshadowing the bellicosity in their path, were absolutely flawless, along with percussion and the tight-as-a-barrel string section. Other NewYork orchestras release every performance: a grab bag, to say the least, including the Philharmonic’s own performances. For the GVO, this was one for the ages.
While we’re at it, here’s an alternate interpretation, one that Yahr might or might not agree with. Dvorak was definitely in memory mode – memory of conflict, and fear, and maybe war. Repression was a fact of daily life in the Hapsburg Empire, something that might well have factored into the volleys and frantic retreats that provide an understatedly chilling contrast with the earthy themes that recall Swing Low Sweet Chariot – and which both George Gershwin and Paul Simon would rip off years and decades later. Dvorak might well have had an ulterior motive to take up a New York society matron’s offer of residency here: to stay out of harm’s way for a bit.
It was a grim, grey day, sticky with global warming-era humidity. No sinister force could have conjured a more appropriate atmosphere for a concert inspired by conspiracy theories. As the eighteen-piece Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society assembled onstage this evening at National Sawdust for the album release show for their new one, Real Enemies, the trumpeters clustered around the piano, back to the audience. What on earth were they conspiring about?
The opened the show by playing into the piano: in other words, blowing into an echo chamber. The hint of natural reverb enhanced the squirrelly exchange of brass phrases, and the visual matched the music. This wasn’t the chattering groupthink that would recur several times, to mighty effect, throughout the concert, a performance of the new album in its entirety. Rather, this seemed to be a portrait of a paranoid personality, or personalities, all lost in their own universes and echoing only themselves. On album, the effect is unsettling; live, it was nothing short of comedic. But nobody in the crowd laughed.
The group’s previous album, Brooklyn Babylon, blended rat-a-tat Balkan brass, sardonically loopy prog-rock riffage, even more savage faux-pageantry and a blustery unease. This new album is closer to Stravinsky or Shostakovich in its darkest moments, which predominate what’s essentially a contiguous thirteen-part suite best experienced as a whole. The project, drawing on Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, first took shape as a multimedia collaboration between composer/conductor Argue, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2015. This performance also featured voiceovers and samples – triggered by Argue from the podium – including some pretty killer quotes from George W. Bush (“We can’t wait any longer!” twice, from the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq), JFK and others. The suite wound up with the band swaying along to a long narration examining the paranoid mindset, actor James Urbaniak’s steady cadences echoing from the speakers overhead. Hardly an easy task for the group to stay locked in, but they .swung along with it
This is an amazing band. Brooklyn Babylon is punctuated by a series of miniatures which pair unusual combinations of instruments; Argue also pairs off instruments in this series of compositions, but more traditionally. The most spine-tingling one was early on, trombonist Ryan Keberle’s frenetic, deep-blues spirals up against Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant, angst-tinged flugelhorn. At the end, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen spun and dipped while tenor saxophonist Dave Pietro channeled his own sputtering galaxy, one of many caustically illustrative moments. And a deep-space duet between Adam Birnbaum – switching from grand piano to an echoey electric model – alongside guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s spare, austere lines was only slightly less cold and cynical.
Argue is an amazing composer. Withering humor was everywhere: in the constant, flittingly conversational motives, in subtle shifts from balminess to icy, Morricone-esque menace, and in the choice of samples, a couple of them seemingly tweaked from the album for extra irony. Lights and darks, highs and lows hung and swung in the balance as the composer – rocking a sharp suit and a sharp, short new haircut, maybe for extra sarcasm – calmly directed the ensemble through them. Maria Schneider may be the consensus choice as the standard of the world for big band composition, and she’s earned it (and has a political sensibility no less perceptive than Argue’s), but Argue’s work is just as strong. And this concert reaffirmed that he’s got a world-class crew to play it. This edition of the band included but wasn’t limited to most of the players on the album: multi-reedmen Lucas Pino, Peter Hess, Rob Wilkerson and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Seneca Black, Jonathan Powell and Jason Palmer; trombonists Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton; multi-bassist Matt Clohesy and dynamic drummer Jon Wikan.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays the album in its entirety at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 465 Huntington Ave. on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories
The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.
The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.
With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.
The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.
Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.
Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.
One of the year’s funnest concerts was back at the end of July at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where three of New York’s most distinctive jazz vocalists – Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade – sang a lascivious and occasionally heartwrenching mix of blues and early swing tunes. Daycamp kids, retirees, office workers on their lunchbreaks and others playing hooky from work (guess who) hung around and grinned in unison when Russell sang the story of what happened when Miss Liza Johnson’s ex finds out that she’s changed the lock on her front door. “He pushed it in and turned it round,” she paused, “And took it out,” she explained. “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore,” she grinned afterward.
Wade made her entrance with a pulsing take of Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition and its litany of Freudian metaphors, which got the crowd going just like it was 1929. Matt Munisteri, playing banjo, took a rustic, coyly otherworldly solo, dancing and then frenetically buzzing, pinning the needle in the red as he would do often despite the day’s early hour. Thomas did a similar tune, working its innuendos for all they were worth. And the split second Wade launched into “I hate to see that evening sun go down,”a siren echoed down Jay Street. Not much has changed in that way since 1929 either. That was the point of the show, that the blues is no less relevant or amusing now than it was almost a hundred years ago when most of the songs in the setwere written.
The band – Munisteri, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McLean drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone and Mark Lopeman on tenor and soprano sax – opened counterintuitively with a slow, moody blues number that sounded like the prototype for Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, Munisteri’s beehive of a tremolo-picked banjo solo at the center. They went to the repertoire of Russell’s pianist dad Luis for an ebullient take of Going to Town, a jaunty early swing tune from 1930 with brief dixieland-flavored solos all around. The rest of the set mined the catalog of perennial favorites like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, with a bouncy take of bouncy take of Fats Waller’s Crazy ‘Bout My Baby to shake things up.
The show’s most riveting number was a hushed piano-and-vocal duo take of Ethel Waters’ Supper Time. Thomas took care to emphasize that it was the grim account of a woman explaining to her kids that their dad wasn’t coming home anymore since he’d been lynched. Shane’s piano matched Thomas’ understated anguish through austere gospel-flavored passages, occasionally reaching into the macabre. Then she picked up the pace just a little with a pensive take of the Bessie Smith classic I Ain’t Got Nobody, fueled by Shane’s striding lefthand and Kellso’s energetically shivery, melismatic lines.
Russell let her vibrato linger throughout maybe the night’s most innuendo-fueled number, Margaret Johnson’s Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone (sample lyric: “Who’ll clam your chowder?”), the horns as exuberantly droll as the vocals. The three women didn’t do much in the way of harmonies until the end of the set, which would have been fun to see: Wade with her no-nonsense alto, Russell with her purist mezzo-soprano and Thomas’s alternately airy and fiery higher register. How does all this relate to what’s happening in New York right now, a couple of months after this apparently one-off collaboration was over? Russell has a new album out – which hasn’t made it over the transom here yet. Stay tuned!
No less august a figure than ELO’s Jeff Lynne had asked the Attacca Quartet to open his sold-out weekend stand at Radio City this past weekend. The string quartet responded with an ecstatic, robust performance that, while tantalizingly brief, threatened to upstage the headliners. It was as much a testament to the group’s ability to connect with an audience most likely unfamiliar with their repertoire as it was Lynne’s confidence in his thirteen-piece band’s ability to pull off a similarly electric set of ambitious, iconic chamber pop and art-rock hits.
The foursome – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – spiced their set with codas by Haydn and Beethoven, practically jumping out of their shoes to be playing to such a vast audience. Beyond that, they impressed with their choice of material, opening with John Adams’ acerbically percussive miniature Toot Nipple, then a bit later slinking up his Alligator Escalator with its steady, apprehensive drive out of a rondo of sepulchral high harmonics. It was arguably the high point of the night. While the group could have taken the easy route with standard Romantic repertoire, or the ostentatious one with, say, Bartok, they cemented their cred by showcasing material from their pals, emerging composers Paul Wiancko and Michael Ippolito. Stark low-midrange washes and enigmatically lively exchanges held the crowd’s focus before the headliners hit the stage.
Opening with a low, ominously swirling vortex of sound – one of several recurrent tropes this evening – Lynne and company launched into the stark, misterioso intro to Tightrope, the uneasily dynamic, Dvorak-influenced first cut on the group’s platinum-selling 1976 New World Record. The only remaining member from the band’s several chart-topping 70s lineups is keyboardist Richard Tandy; the rest of Lynne’s merry band is on the young side, and they were stoked to the nines to be able to share the stage with one of the greatest rock tunesmiths of alltime.
They didn’t play Do Ya – the cult favorite by Lynne’s previous band the Move that ELO reprised much more ornately for an American audience – but they also didn’t segue into it like they used to do back in the day, when they’d cut off the galumphing, phantasmagorical outro to 10538 Overture, the alienation anthem that opens the band’s 1972 debut album. This time out they played that all the way through. Other than that and Tightrope, the night’s only other deep cut – an epically pulsing take of Secret Messages, title track to the band’s 1983 album – also rose out of a stygian reflecting pool.
The crowd saved their most heartfelt ovation for a particularly gorgeous, majestic take of the 1974 ballad Can’t Get It Out of My Head, lit up with terse Tandy keyboard flourishes that held very closely to the kind of fun the band would have with it onstage forty years ago. Otherwise, the band’s two additional keyboardists, as many as four guitarists at once and a couple of backup singers over a hard-hitting but swinging rock rhythm section brought new energy to Lynne’s already hefty studio arrangements.
The one new song in the set, from the late 2015 release Alone in the Universe, was the Lennonesque, autobiographical piano ballad When I Was a Boy. Otherwise, this was a clapalong show. The band followed an inspired version of the bluesy, minor-key 1976 kiss-off hit Evil Woman with a similarly terse performance of their 1973 British hit, Showdown. Their late-70s disco era was represented by the bouncy Shine a Little Love and All Over the World as well as a hypnotically spiraling run through Turn to Stone, from the 1977 double album Out of the Blue.
The rest of the set drew on fun, imaginatively orchestrated arrangements of radio hits including Livin’ Thing, with its spiraling violin solo; a boisterously strummed Sweet Talking Woman; and the stately, angst-drenched ballad Telephone Line, shimmering with surreallistic, melancholy keyboard textures. They closed with the crescendoing pastorale Wild West Hero and then a full-length version of Mr. Blue Sky – a nod to a well-known jazz standard – and encored with an expansive cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, a popular FM radio staple from 1972. Throughout the set, Lynne sang strongly, from the bottom of his formidable baritone, to the falsetto he used with such frequency in the late 70s. It would have been a treat to hear Eldorado, or Kuiama, or similar early material voicing his visionary; dystopic worldview. Guess we’ll have to wait til next tour for that.
The Attacca Quartet’s’ next New York performance is on October 21 at 8 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 3 W 65th St. where they’ll be performing works by Beethoven and Caroline Shaw. General admission is $20.
Roger Nierenberg’s InSight Concert Provides a Rapturous, Under-the-Hood Look at a Symphony Orchestra
What was it like to be seated between the basses and the kettledrums at conductor Roger Nierenberg‘s InSight Concert at the DiMenna Center Saturday night? For those who gravitate toward the low registers, pretty close to heaven, when those instruments were part of the sonic picture. The rest of the audience was interspersed between various other orchestral sections…and then were encouraged to move to a new spot for the second half of the evening’s program. Not a brand-new idea – the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony played a revelatory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this same configuration last winter – but in any event, a memorable one.
Nierenberg has carved a niche for himself helping corporate clients employ orchestral-style teamwork, and the orchestra’s performance of a very smartly chosen program made a striking reminder just what a monumental feat it is to pull off a successful symphonic performance – the primary difference between a musical ensemble and a corporate environment being that backstabbing musicians have very short careers. To get a piece of music to work, everyone playing it has to trust each other.
On the podium, Nierenberg personified purpose and clarity, and a sense of call-and-response, delivering an agenda that the ensemble made good on. As a bonus for concertgoers, he invited them onto a big platform behind him, to watch over his shoulder for a conductors-eye view of the concert throughout a dynamic reading of Kodaly’s Galantai Tancok. It was the third and most vivid of a trio of folk-themed suites on the program, alternating between upbeat airs and more brooding Balkan themes, oboe and clarinet delivered crystalline, minutely nuanced solos front and center.
Britten’s Suite of English Folk Dances came across as sort of an etude for orchestra, packed with all sorts of high/low dichotomies that kept audience heads turning as the focus shifted in a split-second from the flutes, to the low strings, to percussion and then brass. Nierenberg’s own Playford Dance Suite, drawing on the very same folk melodies that Britten appropriated for his, packed considerably more emotional impact, and was much more clearly focused as well.
As many conductors do, Nierenberg also had the orchestra pull illustrative quotes from the program’s concluding numbers, Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – a birthday wake-up present from the composer to his wife, the conductor explained – and Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet. Again, the contrasts – balmy atmospherics versus kinetic phantasmagoria – were striking to the point where the crowd was left with a takeaway that most likely lingered long after the concert. If Nierenberg gets his way, it’ll leave a much more lasting impact: mission
“There are more piano competitions than there are pianists,” a snarky singer in the crowd observed at last night’s performance at Steinway Hall by five finalists in this year’s American Pianists Awards. But this contest champions artists worth following: Aaron Diehl is probably the most prominent of recent winners. Was there a champion among Steven Lin, Sam Hong, Drew Petersen, Henry Kramer and Alex Beyer?
Considering how vastly different each’s choice of repertoire was, any kind of verdict would be subjective to the extreme. In terms of fluid, nuanced and often strenuous command of the kind of keyboard acrobatics required for the showstopping dramatics of La Legierezza from Liszt’s Three Concert Etudes, Petersen was flawless. For that matter, so was Kramer, whose bravely quirky choice of a relatively less demanding trio of Ligeti miniatures from the Musica Ricercara was a platform for a triumph over cruelly brain-warping lefthand-versus-righthand polyrhythms and cramp-inducing circular motives.
The way Lin artfully let the few lingering phrases of Bach’s Echo from the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 – a harpsichord piece – resonate to a minute but vivid degree was particularly striking, and intuitive. Hong’s confident, vigorous virtuosity shone through two Schumann Fantasiestucke selections. And perhaps partly because of his choice of his material – here is where things get very subjective – Beyer channeled soul, and gravitas, and historically-informed programmatic savvy in addition to formidable technique through Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The pianist made it easy for a listener to take it in with eyes closed, to imagine a young Rachmaninoff having every bit as much fun as he was, finding counterpoint and fugal roots in a piece that drew both a straight line back to Bach as well as the ironic dichotomies that would take root in the Russian composer’s own music.
May the best man win when, after a rigorous program of solo, chamber and symphonic performances, a new champion is chosen in the spring of 2017 in Indianapolis.
One of the most richly fascinating and historically important releases of recent months is the Gowanus Arts Ensemble‘s new album American Romantics: Premiere Recordings of Turn of the Century Works for String Orchestra. Reuben Blundell, who has enjoyed a productive association with the Chelsea Symphony, one of New York’s most enterprising, consistently entertaining orchestras, conducts this similarly enterprising group of Brooklyn string players, with meticulous attention to detail. On one hand, this album – streaming at Spotify – has immense value for rescuing these works, all by American composers, from obscurity. It’s every bit as enjoyable as a collection of lush, low-key, often moody Romantic nocturnes.
Eighteenth century Danish immigrant Karl Busch’s Omaha Indian Love Song, from his Four North American Legends suite, opens the album on a soberly waltzing, rather plaintive note. As stark as the music is, its colors are especially vivid, the low strings evoking a horn section. Later on, the ensemble makes precise work of his fascinatingly Asian-tinged Chippewa Lullaby, and finally his achingly understated Elegie. Fans of the Barber Adagio will especially enjoy discovering that one.
Julian Schwarz’ elegant cello takes centerstage along with some playful pizzicato high strings in German-born Paul Friedrich Theodor Miersch’s Pleasant Memories, which is far more dynamic than its blithe title would suggest. Best remembered in the organ demimonde, early 20th century composer Ludwig Bonvin is represented by his gently balmy Christmas Night’s Dream. A lullaby by German-born Karl Hillman, who enjoyed an unusually versatile career as a Chicago Symphony Orchestra multi-string player, takes a striking detour toward the somber before returning with a delicate triumph. Horatio Parker, another composer best known for his works for organ, is remembered with a lively rendition of his uneasily waltzing, Italian baroque-tinged Scherzo for Strings.
The ensemble takes graceful flight on the wings of prolific New Orleans creole composer Eugène Dédé’s picturesque waltz Abeilles et Bourdons (Bees and Bumblebees). Yet another esteemed American organist and composer, Arthur Foote, is immortalized here with his lush, enigmatic, canonic Air & Gavotte for Strings
Boston composer Frederick Shepherd Converse’s Serenade, yet another waltz, contrasts poignancy alongside the most lighthearted piece here, a scherzo by Milwaukee-born Henry Schoenefeld. What a fantastic album, with seamless and lustrous playing from violinists Hiroko Taguchi, Orlando Wells,Yuiko Kamakari, Elizabeth Nielsen and Sarah Zun; violists Entela Barci and Carla Fabiani; cellists Julian Schwarz and Alisa Horn; and bassist Rick Ostrovsky. It makes a valuable companion piece to organist Gail Archer‘s An American Idyll, a similarly historic collection of works by American composers working the “organ highway” from New York to Washington in the past century.
And the Chelsea Symphony – under the direction of Blundell and Matthew Aubin – play two concerts this weekend at their home base at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The centerpiece of both programs, Friday, Sept 9 at 8:30 PM and then the following night, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM is Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Friday’s bill is especially enticing, with Zhou Long’s orchestral arrangements of Chinese folk songs plus the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto with soloist Rachel Seiden. Saturday night’s program switches out the Strauss for the Elgar Cello Concerto; suggested donation is $20.
Every string quartet worth their salt eventually get around to the Bartok cycle,Chiara String Quartet cellist Gregory Beaver hastened to remind the sold-out crowd at National Sawdust this past evening. “Because we’re crazy,” he added sheepishly. This extremely ambitious, relatively young (mid/late 20s) ensemble’s take on Bartok’s string quartets stands apart from what the rest of their colleagues are doing in that they’ve been playing all six of these iconic works from memory. A fluke of rehearsal became a lightning bolt of inspiration. – the group discovered by accident that the most difficult passages, which they’d had to shed until they had them in their fingers, enabled more chemistry than the parts they were reading off the page. And much as the quartet’s new album, Bartok By Heart, bristles with all sorts of electric moments, watching this group play Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 was even more transcendent.
There’s an argument that every civilized home should have at least a few recordings of the late Beethoven string quartets. For the sake of argument, here’s another: everyone, civilized or not, ought to experience the entire Bartok cycle in concert at least once.
Why? This music is as relevant – never mind cutting-edge – now as it was a hundred years ago, or more (the relatively rarely played String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1909). This evening’s themes included but were hardly limited to heartbreak, war, exile, loss and bereavement. And to illustrate just to clever Bartok’s harmonizations of folk tunes from his native Hungary, to Turkey, to North Africa were, Beaver introduced the program with a snippet of one of the ancient Magyar folk songs that the composer collected early in his career as a proto-Alan Lomax. Later, offering some insight into the night’s final piece, String Quartet No. 5, violist Jonah Sirota entreated the crowd to pay close attention to the piece’s concluding movement and the “delicious” series of chords that he clearly couldn’t wait to sink his fingers into.
The uneasy, verging-on-microtonal harmonies unravel so kaleidoscopically that there’s no end how fascinating this material is. Bartok wasn’t a string player, but he knew these instruments inside out and was generous to the extreme with virtuoso moments for everyone. Second violin seldom gets to have as much white-knuckle, intense fun as Hyeyung Julie Yoon had with the slithery slides in the rather vindictively matter-of-fact second movement of String Quartet No. 1. Out of the many, many challenges first violinist Rebecca Fischer had to pull off, possibly the most striking was how deftly she bounced her bow off the strings to provide stark high harmonics during the third movement of No. 5, the warped ghost dance where the whole group was forced to the limits of their extended technique.
Other riveting moments took shape less sharply and immediately but no less forcefully. The subtext of the first quartet seemed in this context less of a lovelorn lament and more of a cynical, I-told-you-so kissoff. The third, its horrified staccato growing as troops amassed along the border, was dynamically a world apart from heavy metal but no less ghoulish. And the dirge that ties up Quartet No. 5 came across as a cavatina that was arguably the most conversational passage of the entire evening. The crowd responded with three standing ovations before jazz started wafting through the room ,softly, as it had before the show. They’re playing the even-numbered quartets in the six-quartet cycle back at National Sawdust tomorrow night; advance tickets are gone, but $30 day-of-show cover is still a bargain for how this group delivers the material.