Lucid Culture


Gil Morgenstern Recreates the Ambience of a Fin-de-Siecle Paris Salon

For the past few years, violinist Gil Morgenstern‘s Reflections Series has imaginatively and fascinatingly blended both classical and new music with drama, literature and history. Thursday night at WMP Concert Hall, he offered a revealing look back at the musical life of the long-running Paris salon run by Winnaretta Singer, an heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune who commissioned works by many major composers including Stravinsky, Debussy and Satie. The program, featuring Morgenstern along with pianist Hiromi Fukuda and soprano Deborah Selig, was especially interesting in that it included both major and less important works. Because that’s what the programs were like at these salons – as Morgenstern explained, composers would use the events as a focus group or open mic of sorts to work up new material, gauge the audience’s reaction and explore collaborations with other musicians. These gatherings also served as an important way of connecting ambitious (or impoverished) composers with patrons of the arts. These days, you send off a grant proposal and cross your fingers: in 1896, you schmoozed someone like Singer. Morgenstern related an anecdote of how Maurice Ravel brazenly dedicated a piece to her before he’d even met her, a faux pas if there ever was one – and yet, as the work began to make waves and Singer’s following began congratulating her for having such cutting-edge taste, she had no choice but to play along as if she’d actually commissioned it.

Ravel’s Tzigane was the last piece on the bill, and one of the highlights. It’s a showstopper, Morgenstern gritting his teeth and blazing through its strenuously challenging gypsy-inflected passages with equal parts passion and skill, firing off lightning pizzicato passages, plucking his strings mandolin-style or launching a series of airy overtones requiring a touch completely the opposite of the pyrotechnics of the rest of the piece. The most gypsyish passages belonged to Fukuda, who dug into them with similar verve when she joined in about halfway through.

Debussy’s Sonata No. 3 in G Minor, the last work the composer finished prior to his death in 1918, was only slightly less intense and equally gripping. Lively but ridden with unease, it undoubtedly reflects a wartime ambience. Morgenstern and Fukuda brought a warily conversational feel to the fugal pizzicato of its “fantasque et leger” middle section and wound out with a brisk ominousness through the distantly gypsy-tinged concluding dance. Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole, a series of 1925 miniatures written for a puppet show, were delightfully evocative, shifting from the Spanish ragtime, to hypnotic counterpoint, to a blustery, brief fight song, to a genial, laid-back “good guy theme” of sorts. And Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante and Divertimento was a fascinating look at the composer in full-blown Romantic mode, or at least as immersed in the tropes of the era – a dramatic overture, a playful gypsy dance and a rather blissed-out coda – as he ever was.

And as much of as Singer’s salon, and others like it, were fertile incubators for talent, they were also the pops concerts of their day. Most of the vocal numbers on the bill were a reminder that top 40 has been with us long before there was such a thing as the top 40. A series of Ravel settings of French poetry were early examples of the power ballad, foreshadowing Freddie Mercury; several similar works by Faure featured some demanding, insistent staccato passages that Fukuda managed to glide through with impressive ease – or what looked like it, anyway. This was a tough gig for Selig – these were hard songs to sell. Her approach was to deliver them with a full, round intonation, more in the style of a chorister, a clever and very effective strategy: words took a backseat to color and dynamics. A trio of Schubert songs at the end of the program became a canvas for her to vividly draw a playful butterfly – “keep your hands off my flower!” – a lovelorn riverside tableau, and then ecstasy, or at least a version thereof.

The next Reflections Series concert, here at 7:30 PM on February 17 of next year, explores the effect of location, dislocation and diaspora on composers and their works, featuring pianist Jonathan Feldman, music of Chopin, Schulhoff and Smetana, and a not-yet-announced literary component.

November 20, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence Earns Its Name

Wednesday night at Smalls Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence made their debut – or one of their debuts. The drummer hedged a bit, but whether or not this was their first-ever gig, this is definitely a new unit, one that won’t stay under the radar much longer. Brash as their name is, they lived up to it, which makes sense in that the trio includes guitarist Chris Sholar and the redoubtable JD Allen on tenor sax. Seeing Allen in such an intimate venue was a rare treat, and as usual he found his vector and took it to its logical destination. It’s hard to imagine a musician or composer right now whose emotional intelligence is firing on this level: if GPS actually worked, JD Allen would be GPS. This unit base their songs on old Alabama spirituals. The concept seems to be how long, and how deep they can take those stately, often harrowing ideas and motifs. This time out, that meant all the way to the center of the earth, which turned out to be a warm but not scorching place, aware of a hell that might have been and that still resonates even if it no longer exists.

They’d brought along a friend who doubled on harmonium and vocals. Their first number set the tone for most of the night, a thoughtful, often minimalist exploration of a single wounded, brooding minor-key blues mode that went on for what seemed like half an hour. Sholar held it together with washes of sustain when he wasn’t adding the occasional offhandedly snarling, reverb-tinged motif. Allen played it serious and mysterious when he wasn’t developing slightly lighter earthtone tinges with some casually rippling ornamentation. As usual, he didn’t waste a note. Brown is a colorist in the Jim White mold, taking the lead as much or more than the guitar and sax. Even when he went off on a tangent, loosening the reins to where Allen and Sholar could also go peering into darker, more distant corners, he was a man on a mission. Whether playing with mallets or sticks, his touch on the drum kit was deliciously nuanced: guys who play as many beats as this guy don’t usually make them count, or count by as many minute, deftly placed fractions as he does.

About midway through the show, Allen seized on a motif and worked his way into the terse, foreboding, chromatically charged intensity of the theme from his now-classic I Am I Am album, casually slashing around for a couple of verses before stepping back to take in Sholar’s hypnotic atmospherics. They flipped the script for about fifteen minutes of a warm, optimistic, minimalist vamp punctuated by judicious accents by all three; later, Sholar introduced a troubled four-chord descending progression that took on the feel of a Beatlesque ballad before Brown started alternating rhythms and taking a long, inexorably crescendoing solo while Sholar built a trancey, Indian-flavored series of loops that led back into the gospel-powered mystery, enhanced by Allen’s wistfully expansive lines. And while Alabama superseded India in this particular show, it’s interesting how this project has come together at the same time as Vijay Iyer’s ascendancy, and drummer Sameer Gupta’s hypnotic Namaskar project. If Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence never goes beyond this stage, to see them now would give you a piece of history: twenty years from now, jazz fans will be bragging that they saw this show even if they didn’t.

November 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment