Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Tension and Transcendence from the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony are not unknown – they’re touring China late this year – and their Manhattan concert yesterday appeared to be sold out. If you’re a fan of classical music and they’re not on your radar, they should be: they are a world-class orchestra, and not as small as “chamber symphony” necessarily implies. Sunday evening they offered fresh, inspired takes on a couple of old favorites – Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61 – as well as Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations.

They opened with the Britten, an orchestral setting of Rimbaud poems on diverse themes, sung here by soprano Tamra Paselk. The program notes suggested that there may be a gay subtext to Britten’s interpretation, which may or may not be true – when he wrote them, the composer might simply have been glad to be hanging out in America, far from the stodginess of British high society. Throughout the nine-part suite for strings and voice, there was a recurrent sense of unease in the orchestra, counterbalanced, sometimes to triumphantly joyous extreme, by Paselk’s interpretation. With the occasional, unexpected sudden leap and chromatics that play against the orchestra, these were not easy songs to sing, but she owned them, moving from clenched-teeth intensity to redemptive joy to end on an unexpectedly rapt note.

This orchestra’s version of Death and Transfiguration wasn’t much about death, but it was all about transfiguration – still, intense apprehension giving way to hope. Conductor David Bernard didn’t leave an inch of headroom, taking it to the rafters with a bang at the first opportunity, which worked magically because the dynamics to come later would bring it all the way back down, a monumental contrast. It’s amazing how modern this piece is. A lot of orchestras have done it fairly safely as a tone poem of sorts; this version, for all its blazing crescendos, was an impressive reminder of how little the melody actually moves around, how much of it foreshadows “horizontal music,” and how dynamics can transform it from decently suspenseful to absolutely electric. Nietzsche, who wasn’t far behind (Strauss would write Zarathustra only a couple years later), would have approved.

Metropolitan Opera orchestra concertmaster David Chan played the violin concerto from memory with an intuitive sense of touch, varying from crystalline to split-second doublestops and more than one subtly modulated vibrato approach. There’s a series of three big insistent chords that leap unexpectedly out of one of the early solo cadenzas, and Bernard brought the orchestra in to land with an understatedly nimble assurance. Although the work dates from 1806, Beethoven is already hinting amidst the comfortably nocturnal Haydn-influenced highclass alehouse consonance – this was from a time before cocktails were invented – at the kind of melodic and architectural paradigm shifts of his last sonatas and string quartets. Through subtle and then more dramatic melodic variations, with and without the ensemble, Chan methodically assembled a launching pad for the final victory round. After their Chinese tour, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony wrap up their season with Beethoven’s Symphony #4 and Mahler’s Symphony #1 on May 5 and 6.

Advertisements

October 24, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pitch Black American Pie

That the American Composers Orchestra’s program Saturday night at the World Financial Center, closing this year’s SONIC Festival, would be saddled with a title that evoked boomer nostalgia made no sense at all. Maybe it was an inside joke, or a stroke of sarcasm. Instead, the ensemble treated the crowd to a fiery, frequently noir and brilliantly played series of ambitious new works by up-and-coming American composers. Conductor George Manahan led them with an almost casual but ironclad confidence, beginning with Paul Yeon Lee’s showstopper Echo of a Dream. A towering, often ferocious work that arranged modern tonalities in familiar High Romantic architecture, it was a tour of a monstrous landscape with fear and apprehension at every turn. A bellicose March of the Orcs! A swooping, darting, terrified Flight of the Nazgul! And The Siege of Minas Something, which ended minus the orchestra as Lee deftly dropped almost everything out for a split-second of cliffhanger suspense. For all the sturm und drang, the orchestra delivered it so matter-of-factly that it couldn’t have been anything other than genuine. Such storms do in fact exist, and it was a blast to hear this one and know that Lee is keeping an old flame very, very much alive while fueling it with something that could only have been invented in this century.

Ruby Fulton’s Road Ranger Cowboy was much quieter, but packed just as much of a wallop. Based on a caricature used by the Road Ranger chain of truck stops in the midwest, it’s a portrait of both incongruity – a horseman at a truck stop? – and clinical narcissism, and its pathological effects on the personality. Like the best political art, it manages to be very funny: a cowboy theme that disintegrates slowly and inevitably, leading up to an absolutely hilarious ending, in this case where the first violinist got to deliver the punchline and was obviously having such a good time that she could barely keep a straight face.

Ryan Gallagher’s Grindhouse might have been sarcastically titled as well. A classy, sometimes macabre film noir mini-suite, it was the high point of the night. Eerily shifting atmospherics contrasted with an aghast crescendo with the brass and high winds shrieking, skeleton key percussion, a furtive pizzicato spy vs. spy theme scene, a handful of pummelling, murderous scenes and a titanic ending that wouldn’t be out of place in Shostakovich. Suzanne Farrin’s equally gripping Infinite Here was brooding and more ambient but maintained the dark mood, slowly and methodically building tension and apprehension. In this piece, here is limbo, next door to hell.

Andrew Norman’s Unstuck was the most diverse piece on the bill, matching some of the drama of Lee’s work with Gallagher’s noirisms and Farrin’s vividly overcast milieu. Creepy swirls of strings, doppler brass and unpredictable percussion made a lethal combination that set off a chain of ominous little explosions which grew absolutely ballistic, then went down morosely and back up again to a surprise ending.

The biggest surprise of the night was Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, on which he and his brother Aaron joined the orchestra on electric guitars. The Dessners’ band the National is a derivative but very effective cure for insomnia: this piece was anything but. Inspired by Kerouac’s Big Sur, it’s supposed to evoke loneliness and lost love. From its windswept, desolate overture, carefully articulated thematic shifts throughout the orchestra, and pensive circular motif that ran over and over as an underpinning toward the end, the ensemble took what could have been an awkward 5/4 tempo and made it comfortable and effortless. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the guitar melodies were the least memorable, whether recycled 17 Seconds-era Robert Smith meandering or sotto-voce Grey McMurray tremolo-picking. Maybe the Dessners were just trying to blend in with the orchestra. Either way, it looks like Bryce Dessner has found his muse in a big way.

Much of this will be airing at some future date on Q2 – tune in and find out.

October 24, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment