Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series: Fearless Otherworldly Beauty

Just as the most exciting things in rock music are happening in the small clubs rather than in stadiums, the most exciting classical and chamber music these days typically happens off the beaten path. On and off, over the past several months, we’ve been peering into some of these dark but fertile corners: pianist Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall in Murray Hill may the most exciting of them all. Wednesday night she and her cohorts – cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and violinist Erno Kallai – tackled a program that was as diverse as it was individualistic, and frequently exhilarating. “Thank you for not watching American Idol,” Joan laughed.

First up was Brahms’ Trio in A Minor (Op. 114). Dating from 1891, it’s one of his final works. With its characteristic melodic beauty and alternating wary/warm passages, it follows a straight line back to Beethoven. There’s also some Brahms thinking outside the box, the gypsy passage at the beginning of the concluding allegro section being the most notable. This may be overly reductionistic to say, but essentially it’s a piece with assigned roles: the clarinet pensive, the cello mournful and the piano providing the energy and lighter contrasts. Joan, Thorsteinsdottir and Dukovski took those roles and gave them flair and personality.

For anyone who might have found that piece too predictable in its unselfconscious, pensive beauty, Bartok’s Contrasts, from 1938, was a feral, snidely joyous, jazzy treat. As Joan and Dukovski explained beforehand (they do that a lot, with a genuine passion for the music, which helps more than any pedantic program notes ever could), it was commissioned by Benny Goodman as a way to get Bartok an American visa just as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was looming. The concept was to get the composer to deliver something sufficiently short to release as a 78 RPM single: for whatever reason, Bartok didn’t exactly comply. What he did was shoot a savagely gleeful spitball right in Der Fuehrer’s face. Joan has a vividly acute emotional intelligence, and she went on the assault from the beginning behind Kallai’s slashing incisions while Dukovski got to demonstrate the “mellow tone” mentioned in his bio (he’s actually an electrifying player, as he would remind a bit later on). Warped Romanticism made way for lurid ragtime, a feast of creepy atmospherics and a conclusion delivered with the glee of an escapee from certain death. Kallai put down his Strad and picked up the house Guarneri for that one since the violin part is out of tune: the vicious humor in his tritone-packed solo was viscerally delicious.

The quartet then took on the formidable challenge of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written in a Nazi prison camp for piano, clarinet, violin and cello because those were the instruments that the musicians captured with Messiaen happened to play, it was premiered there on the same day that the clarinetist made a failed escape attempt yet sufficiently charmed his captors with his playing, Dukovski related, so that he escaped what would otherwise have been a summary execution. To say that it is harrowing is an extreme understatement. As with so much of Messiaen, its movements correspond to Catholic liturgy: beforehand, Joan encouraged the audience to experience it for its universality. Which makes perfect sense: Messiaen may well have written it primarily as an illustration of the coming of a heavenly eternity, but its subtext screams out defiantly, an anthem for escape from and victory over the Nazis.

Which is where interpretations of Messiaen differ: where some hear otherworldliness and mysticism, others hear the macabre. Clearly, Messiaen found the prospect of heavenly rest nearly as daunting as being murdered by the Nazis, and horror is everywhere in this piece, from the ominous early-morning exchange of birdcalls that open it, to the stunned, jagged, wounded cadenzas that punctuate the tense stillness, to the seemingly endless, almost horizontal clarinet solo that may be its most riveting point. Dukovski pulled that off without a hitch: with its endless sostenuto wash, it requires an almost interminable sequence of circular breathing, and is extraordinarily difficult to play as a seamless whole, but that’s exactly what Dukovski turned it into. Like her collaborators, Thorsteinsdottir is a fearless player who will rise to any intensity required, and she dug in with a mighty vibrato. A final cry for rescue was followed by still, judicious piano that signaled an eventual if hardly unscathed victory over the demons. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the musicians clearly felt the music as overwhelming, intense and cathartic as the crowd did. Alexandra Joan’s next Kaleidoscope Series concert at WMP Concert Hall (31 E 28th St. between Madison and Park Avenues) is on April 27, a characteristically intriguing program featuring piano works by Enesco, Ravel and Mohammed Fairouz.

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February 8, 2011 - Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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