Concert Review: The American String Quartet Plays Robert Sirota, Irving Fine and Others at Bargemusic, Brooklyn NY 4/26/09
The American String Quartet had played the Brooklyn debut of Manhattan School of Music President Robert Sirota’s 9/11-themed Triptych suite the previous night. Looking across the river at Manhattan from inside the barge the following afternoon, the Twin Towers’ absence became more and more striking as the first movement built to a frantic, chaotic, horror-stricken crescendo of tritones and dissonance. From an audience perspective (particularly as witnessed by someone who was three blocks away when Tower Two blew up), the music was viscerally harrowing. Lucid Culture puts up a year-end “best New York concerts” list, and while being far from definitive, you can bet this performance will be on it.
Sirota was in New York on 9/11 and over the following months, writing the suite in tandem with Deborah Patterson’s painting of the same name – the artists’ intent was for the music to reinforce the painting and vice versa. To say that both are impactful would be a ridiculous understatement. The suite’s first movement, Desecration began with a shock, immediately followed by frenetic anguish that eventually fell apart, leading to a mournful solo by violinist Peter Winograd and eventually an evocation of car alarms (Sirota imagined that the destruction of the towers would have set off every one of them in Manhattan, an insult added to injury that thankfully didn’t occur) followed by a brief, single siren played on violin, fading into the distance.
The second movement, Lamentation began stark and modernist, growing more insistent, anguish finally turning to outrage, the impossibility of being able to fathom the enormity of the event intensely and vividly captured by a tentative cello line eventually passed to the other instruments, ending with a simple, defeated fade to solo violin. It’s not known how deeply the composer was able to investigate the mystery surrounding the tragedy, or whether this is simply a rendering of the city’s collective emotional state.
At last, some consonance appeared in the final movement, Prayer, reaching for solace and not finding it, interestingly with less of a feeling of communion and inclusiveness than there was at the time. While the months afterward brought out in many respects a beautiful and unforgettable period of camaraderie and compassion among New Yorkers, the conclusion of Sirota’s work rightfully maintains a persistent and unavoidable sense of loss. As riveting and heartbreaking as the piece is to witness in concert, one can only imagine how difficult it must be to play, especially for a New York group such as this, but the musicians didn’t let on.
The rest of the bill was a thicket of knotty cerebrality, but the Quartet accentuated its emotion and also its frequent good humor. They’d opened with Irving Fine’s 1952 String Quartet, an astonishing and powerfully Stravinskian work delivering many of the tropes of Romanticism in a completely different language, jeweled with suspense, horror-movie cadences and complete defiance in places. Winograd related an amusing anecdote about how his father, also a noted musician, knew Fine, who was notoriously prickly. After hearing the piece, the story made perfect sense. The ensemble also tackled Henry Cowell’s strange and often boisterously witty, improvisationally-driven String Quartet No. 3, the “Mosaic,” named for its interwoven, deceptively simple themes designed to be repeated as the performers see fit. They closed with Walter Piston’s String Quartet No. 1, another work which cast numerous codas and cadenzas straight out of Brahms or Beethoven straight into the drink where they landed dazed. Did Mingus know Piston’s work? One would think so from hearing this piece.
Shock of shocks, the barge wasn’t sold out, either. Fault of the depression? Maybe. The challenging nature of the program? That would be strange – Ives and his ilk don’t usually scare the crowds off. From the looks of it these days, Bargemusic could be something you could decide on at the spur of the moment, a wonderfully romantic idea.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #456:
The Church – Field of Mars
Unlike the best-of lists at those ineffable other music sites (no names), anything goes here – we didn’t put any kind of limit on how many songs a single band can have on this list. If you’ve been following the daily countdown here, you’ve noticed that this is the first appearance by these iconic Australian art-rockers. There will be many more. Matching the jangle and clang of the Byrds, the epic grandeur of Pink Floyd and the visionary lyricism of Elvis Costello, the Church were arguably the best rock band of the 80s and are inarguably one of the best of alltime. This isn’t frontman Steve Kilbey’s first song about a ghost, but it is one of his best, punctuated by a rich, watery Peter Koppes guitar solo. Twelve-string player Marty Willson-Piper sings. The Field of Mars referred to here isn’t the one in Paris, it’s a cemetery in Sydney, Australia. From The Blurred Crusade, 1982 (link will take you to a download). Look for the band on US tour this summer, and a new album as well as solo efforts from Kilbey and Willson-Piper.
Another pretty amazing group show up at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center. This one features a “younger generation” of women born after 1950, up through the end of May. Many highlights, probably as many as last year’s vastly diverse exhibit.
Nivi Alroy contributes an intense collection of mixed media, notably a tall (seven-foot) sculpture of a bombed-out house sitting in an upturned dresser drawer, the scorched face of a stuffed rabbit fixing its stare from a second story window. There’s also a rustic woodcut of a collapsing industrial area juxtaposed with a reflection below, a daguerreotype-style view of workers staring at themselves in the water. Andrea Cukier has three green-tinted, stylized medieval Chinese-inflected pondscapes: as with so much of her work, she makes the heat and humidity visceral.
Shan Shan Sheng has a number of strikingly colorful, heavy glass sculptures here including an absolutely haunting, orange-tinted undersea scene and a couple of massive bells, one of them abruptly upturned. Bahar Behbahani has both a murky, out-of-focus wallsize umber-tinged portrait of a family staring out from their couch, Arabic calligraphy and musical notes floating overhead, as well as an unsettling 3-D piece, a dense mandala-like figure on a screen a couple of inches above a second, painted level, obscuring more calligraphy and a dead sheep on its back.
Even more provocative were a series of bombs (their noses, to be precise, seemingly fashioned from restaurant-sized carbon dioxide canisters) by Leonor Mendoza. Adorned with earrings, peace signs, an animal figurine, lockets, charms, and most ominously, melted green plastic peoploids, they’re poignant and as understated as bombs can be.
Of the best-known artists on display here, Judy Chicago is represented by a trio of black-and-white woodcuts, the earth mother under siege, as well as a sculpture study from The Dinner Party, part of the plate eerily peeling back. There are also prints and a striking, colorful wallsize painted quilt depicting a jazz trio and its unperturbable frontwoman from Faith Ringgold.
But the most striking of all the images here was the live installation by Olek (Agata Oleksiak) and Naomi White. They’d positioned a group of people in colorful, full-body knitwear, their faces hidden, lazing around a living room, watching tv, the screen depicting the struggles of someone in an all-white bodysuit, seemingly in a lot of pain and trying to escape. Abu Graib, anybody? Talk about making an impact!
Over by the Nivi Alroy section, classical guitarist Margaret Slovak played warmly and virtuosically. You probably won’t get to hear her or be taken in by the Olek/Naomi White installation, but the show is a must-see if you’re in Williamsburg – it’s only a couple of minutes from the J/M stop at Marcy Ave., 135 Broadway on the south side of Williamsburg, about a block past Bedford as you walk toward the water. Hours are Saturday-Sunday noon-6 PM.