Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Brooklyn’s Best-Kept Secret

Back in the days before myspace, this was often how you learned about shows: some guy would stand outside a venue after the band had finished and the crowd was exiting, feverishingly handing out cards for another similar show elsewhere. Word of last Saturday’s show reached Lucid Culture HQ via the program notes given out at the scintillating solo oud performance by Zafer Tawil and then George Ziadeh at Barbes last Friday. As it turned out, the Brooklyn Arts Council had been promoting a monthlong Arab music festival at venues throughout New York, which Friday’s show had been a part of, and as much as fun as it undoubtedly would have been to have seen more of these events, it was still great fun to catch the tail end of the festival.

Arab music is Brooklyn’s best-kept secret. Arab culture as it exists today is vastly more musical and literate than corporate-driven American culture, and the Arab diaspora throughout New York swarms to events like these. Saturday night at Alwan for the Arts downtown, it was mostly the diaspora that showed up and packed the hall, although there were other communities represented. Essentially, the program was Arab country music. “These days, you get mostly Levantine dance music and Egyptian pop,” the woman from the BAC told the crowd. “Not that that’s a bad thing!” She was right: this was a brilliantly assembled bill featuring seldom-heard music from across the Arab world, from outside the cities. The night started with singer Naji Youssef and his band, playing a passionate set of Lebanese standards including songs by the “voice of Lebanon,” Wadie el Safi. There’s a darkness and melancholy in a lot of this, and Youssef, with his soaring baritone and his supporting cast, brought out all of it. Maurice Chedid played oud, reminding of how much fun it was back in the day when he was essentially the house band at the Hosri family’s somewhat legendary Cedars of Lebanon throughout the decade of the 90s.

The next act was Yemeni expatriate Ahmed Alrodini, playing oud and backed by two percussionists, doing a fascinating set of music from across Yemen. Most Yemenis in New York hail from around the capitol, Sana’a, but Alrodini comes from the seacoast, thus, his repertoire is somewhat more diverse. He opened with a “habibi” song, imbued with considerable sadness and longing before changing tempos in an instant toward the end of the song and turning it into a dance number. After that, the group did a Hindi love song (the area has a sizeable South Asian population) with more of a hypnotic feel, followed by a brief but rousing drum interlude where they boisterously showcased the area’s various rhythms. They closed with a complex, intriguing pastoral number, Alrodini’s split-second timing and seemingly effortless tremolo-picking as energizing as it was throughout the rest of the show: he’s a spectacular player to watch.

The evening’s final act was essentially a bass-and-drums unit. Southpaw Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Abdel Rahim Boutat played the loutar, a four-string acoustic bass and sang, accompanied by two percussionists. Strangely, the drummers were playing what looked to be modern drum heads that weren’t locked down, producing a shivery rattling throughout the show that may not have been intentional. In the corner of the room, a drunken reveler was clapping and singing along: “Go to the middle!” Youssef encouraged him. Genius: the crowd where the guy had been holding a party for one could hear the music again, and now the band had a dancer up front with them. In his all-too-brief set, Boutat frequently sang the same lines he played on his instrument, running through a set of Moroccan mountain music. It’s more melodic and Arab-inflected than the hypnotic, afropop-inflected music usually found elsewhere in Morroco. With the dancer bouncing around up front, the crowd was energized and so was the band. They opened with a haunting, hypnotic number, then another in a similar vein featuring the percussion toward the end, then brought the night to a rousing crescendo with their third song. Bass and drums never sounded more melodic or more interesting, as the crowd seized on the counter-rhythm and clapped along. The hypnotic yet ecstatic party ambience continued through the end of the show.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Arabic, concerts like these are a great introduction to what could become a lifelong addiction: the calendar at Alwan for the Arts is a good place to start.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Blaze of Glory: Oliver Brett at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 3/31/08

Westminster Cathedral organist Oliver Brett opened with Mendelssohn’s Third Organ Sonata. The first movement, allegro maestoso, is typically ebullient and boisterous, owing a considerable debt to Bach but adding classical dynamics typical of its era. Of Mendelssohn’s sonatas, it’s not the best – that would be the titanically powerful Fourth – but it’s comfortably invigorating. The second part is warm and quiet, frequently fugal, and Brett played it with impressive subtlety.

The next piece on the bill was Louis Vierne’s Third Symphony. Vierne was legally blind (he could only read music in very large type) and suffered greatly throughout his career as organist at Notre Dame before and after World War I. He lost several family members in the war and afterward had to play several American concert tours to raise money to rebuild the Notre Dame organ. Perhaps as a result, much of his work has an unrestrained wrath. In the third symphony, this counterintuitively doesn’t come to the forefront during the powerfully ominous, portentous opening movement or its scorching conclusion: it’s reserved for the quieter, more ambient middle sections. This was pretty revolutionary stuff when Vierne wrote it in 1911, predating Stravinsky and the Rites of Spring by a couple of years, something of a bridge between the romanticism of Widor and Franck and the strangely ominous modernism of Messiaen that followed. Yet Vierne didn’t receive much of a reaction, positive or negative. when it came out, testament to the fact that the organ repertoire has been pretty much been relegated to an enthusiastic but small subculture – despite our incessant attempts to change that!

With all its eerie dissonances and pedal melodies, this is an exceedingly difficult piece to play, and Brett handled the middle sections with aplomb, although he gave in to temptation and blazed throught the intro and outro at a breakneck pace that didn’t let the symphony’s signature pedal figure resonate with the power that it has when played at a slower tempo. Nonetheless, any opportunity to see this incredible piece of music is worth seeking out, especially played on such a powerful instrument in a space as sonically beautiful as this. To his credit, Brett plans to play a marathon of the complete organ works of Maurice Durufle later this year in the UK: here’s wishing him the very best.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment