Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Orchestral Works of Carl Nielsen – The New York Scandia Symphony, Dorrit Mattson, Conductor

Discovery is invariably fun, whether getting a scoop or stumbling onto something that slipped under the radar the first time out. This definitely falls into the latter camp, having appeared on the market a couple of years ago, but it screams out to become part of the canon, a masterfully recorded, emotionally rich collection of the Nielsen orchestral pieces that you’ve most likely never heard and quite possibly never heard of. The New York Scandia Symphony is simply one of the nation’s most adventurous orchestras, devoting a staggering ninety percent of their repertoire to either United States or New York premieres of works by Scandinavian composers. This cd is characteristic. Nielsen’s most familiar symphony is the widely played Fourth, “The Inextinguishable,” along with the fascinatingly voiced, call-and-response-laden Fifth. Yet the Danish composer wrote several other first-class works for full orchestra, collected here for the first time under the inspired direction of Dorrit Matson (revealingly interviewed here recently). It’s early 20th century romanticism, soaring, bright or lushly atmospheric, occasionally tinged with Eastern and Middle Eastern motifs.

The first three pieces, the Symphonic Rhapsody, An Evening at Giske and the Helios Overture share a robust melodicism that compares with anything Cesar Franck ever wrote. Also included are the crescendoing, darkly stately partita An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands and the subtly uneasy, balletesque Amor and the Poet Overture, written a year before the composer died and inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s doomed infatuation with the popular singer Jenny Lind. But the centerpiece is the Aladdin Suite, based on the iconic Adam Oehlenschlager novel that sought to appropriate the myth as a reaffirmation of early 19th century Danish identity. The Oriental Festival March, the blazing overture that opens it, works off one of the alltime great catchy hooks, right up there with the Peer Gynt themes and the 1812 Overture. South Asian and Arab influences are alluded to if not directly in the suspenseful Aladdin’s Dream and Hindu Dance which follow, the pace picking up with Prokofiev-esque deviousness in the Chinese Dance – like his protagonist, Nielsen gets around a lot here. The high point is the haunting, vertiginous Market Place in Ispahan, soprano vocalese whirling in counterrotation with booming timpani against a shrill choir of high woodwinds. After that, the explosive arabesques of the Prisoner’s Dance are almost anticlimactic. The suite ends in a crashing, demonic blaze of voice and orchestra with the Blackamoor’s Dance. That the ensemble was able to complete a recording-quality performance of such a dramatic work within the boomy confines of New York’s Trinity Church speaks volumes.

In addition to this cd, the New York Scandia Symphony has also released three previous cds: a warm collection of Nielsen concertos; a collection of sometimes generic, sometimes fascinating suites by Lars-Erik Larsson and an album of concertos by pioneering early Romanticist Bernhard Henrik Crusell, whose post-Viennese School adventures are on par with pretty much anything Schubert ever did. The New York Scandia’s summer 2009 season includes an ongoing series of Sunday afternoon quartet and quintet shows in Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights.

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June 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Phillip Johnston – Page of Madness

A horror movie soundtrack like no other. In addition to his substantial body of jazz, Microscopic Septet founder Phillip Johnston gets plenty of film work. This one debuted a full ten years ago at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, played live to the 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film A Page of Madness by the Transparent Quartet:  Johnston on soprano and alto saxes, Joe Ruddick on piano and baritone sax, Dave Hofstra on bass and Mark Josefsburg on vibes. More a haunting portrait of insanity than outright horror, A Page of Madness has achieved cult status as a rare example of 1920s Japanese avante-garde filmmaking (Kinugasa cited Murnau’s The Last Laugh as a major influence). For reasons unknown, literally dozens of record labels were approached but were unwilling to release this album, notwithstanding the fact that a more recent electronic score is absolutely lame and only detracts from the movie.

From his work with the Micros, Johnston makes a good match for the flick, being no stranger to effective, frequently very amusing narrative jazz. This is a radically different side of the composer and quite a departure from his usual approach in that there is a great deal of improvisation going on. This one-off set was played to a relatively slow 18ips projector speed, most likely to maximize shading and minimize the herky-jerky fast-forward effect that plagues so much of early cinema. Like the film, Johnston’s composition is sad, viscerally intense and frequently haunting, the group’s improvisations sometimes rising to shriekingly anguished crescendos to match the script, by far the darkest work Johnston has released to date. To call it schizophrenic attests to its success in tandem with the visuals. Many of the instrumental pieces, some as long as nine or ten minutes, segue into each other. The central theme is an indignant, twisted little march, beginning on the vibraphone but frequently picked up by the piano or, toward the end, by the sax, sometimes traded off between instruments. Counterintuitively, it’s Hofstra’s snapping bass that launches a fullblown episode on track nine where the central character loses it for good. Johnston flutters and floats more than he goes crazy, while Ruddick, definitely the star of the show here, gets to fly completely off the hinges with crazed runs from one end of the keyboard to the other, a couple of murderously raging chordal passages and some plaintive sax work in tandem with Johnston.

Toward the end, there’s a ten-minute dream sequence alternating between troubled and balmy until a fullscale nightmare sets in, followed by sort of an overture and closing with a breezy, tinkly swing number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Micros catalog, morphing into a snazzy tango only to end somberly with the central march theme. As much as possible, it’s closure, coming to grips with madness. This is treat for jazz and vintage cinema fans alike as well as anyone who enjoys listening to the darkest stuff imaginable late at night with the lights out. Watch this space for live dates by Johnston with his many diverse projects.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Eric Vloeimans and Florian Weber at the Stone, NYC 6/9/09

Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and German pianist Florian Weber treated a warmly receptive, full house to a fascinating, tuneful show that managed to be both cutting-edge and rich with jazz classicism. Vloeimans does not limit himself to his instrument’s traditional tones: while showing off both soaring clarity and a burred, rustic attack, he would frequently open a piece seemingly almost without embouchure (the pursed-lips position inside a horn’s mouthpiece) for a breathy, sax-like timbre. In places, it was as if there was a musical steampipe in the band. Likewise, Weber would frequently go inside the piano and judiciously pluck the strings for a banjo-like tone. On their last song, he went so far as to take off the newsboy cap he’d been wearing throughout the show, placed it inside on top of the strings and used it as mute, adding an impressive dynamic range to his plucking: this hat trick may be a standard part of his act.

Their first number worked the theme of a popular Indian folksong with often hypnotic shades of trumpet while Weber chose his spots to add incisive, minimalistic plucked notes. By contrast, a vintage Dave Brubeck tune got a glistening, gently crescendoing treatment, Vloeimans showing off some purist blues chops. They brought up drummer Ziv Ravitz, who would stick around for the rest of the show, launching into what Vloeimans said was a response to Buena Vista Social Club, clattering along with seemingly every bit of metal on the drum kit put to use while piano and trumpet shifted the groove to tango swing.

A beautifully lyrical, balmy trumpet tune with absolutely gorgeous, vintage 70s art-rock piano inflections (Rick Davies of Supertramp in particularly heartwrenching mode comes to mind) was followed by an effectively comedic number titled Bradshaw, inspired, said Vloeimans, by the sight of a bizarre-looking utility vehicle in an airport terminal. It was all about incongruity, and the band brought it all out with numerous amusingly jarring stylistic nonsequiturs, the drummer hamming it up with the most four-on-the-floor beat the club had probably ever seen while Vloeimans swung overhead, seemingly oblivious. They closed with a piece titled Fatima, not a Middle Eastern dance but a big, soulful, trad ballad, Vloeimans finally cutting loose and letting its crescendos ring out for all they were worth.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 6/10/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #413:

Public Image Ltd. – Think Tank

After Keith Levene left the band, John Lydon’s post-Pistols project floundered, the noise-rock pioneers running through a forgettable series of guitarists that included Steve Vai for one album! But toward the end, former Banshee John McGeoch did some time in the band, and it’s his ferocious, distorted chords and completely unhinged solo that make this anti-fascist anthem so brutally potent. Kiss this, Heritage Foundation. From their surprisingly good swan song That What Is Not, 1992; mp3s are everywhere.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment