Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The JACK Quartet and Ensemble Signal Play a Riveting Henryk Gorecki Tribute

What a rare treat it was to see a rare all-Henryk Gorecki performance last night at le Poisson Rouge, a tribute concert held on the first anniversary of the great Polish composer’s death. The club hasn’t been so packed, at least for music, since last year’s Winter Jazz Festival. This time, courtesy of the Polish Cultural Institute, the standing-room crowd got to witness intense, haunting versions of Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, played by the JACK Quartet, as well as the Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, Op. 66 by Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman.

Both pieces date from a couple of years before the recording of Gorecki’s Symphony #3 by the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw went platinum in the UK, and then became a worldwide sensation back in the early 90s. In a lengthy interview before the concert with one of the club’s personnel, the head of Nonesuch Records admitted that he’d made a “good deal” with the performers on that album, paying them only as musicians for hire, with no royalties. To his credit, when sales exploded – its status as the bestselling album of alltime featuring work by a living composer has yet to be surpassed- he cut both Gorecki and the musicians in on the deal. Gorecki was supposedly so flabbergasted that he carried his first royalty check around with him for a couple of years before he cashed it. The label head also noted insightfully how 1933 in Poland was auspicious for artists: not only Gorecki but also Jerzy Kosinski and Roman Polanski were born that year. And for all three, the defining moment seems to be their survival of Hitler’s terror, which may be one explanation for the enduring popularity of Gorecki’s plaintive, otherworldly music.

Both works contrast lush, hypnotic atmospherics with jarring, terrified passages, the String Quartet the more dramatic and intense of the two. Like the work of another chronicler of that era’s terror, Shostakovich, there are passages in both pieces that mock pageantry and bombast, and also the lockstep conformity of fascism (having also survived the Polish communist regime, Gorecki may also had that in mind when he wrote these). Despite some difficult operating conditions – the club had turned the air conditioning virtually all the way off, making it oppressively hot – the JACK Quartet turned in a raw, powerfully plaintive performance. Brooding and then somewhat warmer atmospherics quickly gave way to shocked, horrified staccato passages anchored by a cello pedal note; the second movement gave the ensemble a platform to grimly and inexorably build to an insistent crescendo of microtones, as Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld’s violins played starkly rhythmic harmonics against the menacing low notes of Kevin McFarland’s cello and John Pickford Richards’ viola. The melodies here don’t move around much: it’s all about dynamics, and foreshadowing, and frantic, horror-stricken panic, and the quartet vividly portayed each as it appeared.

Lubman led Ensemble Signal through the little requiem for a polka with dexterity and great respect for its spaciously minimalist architecture: the silences between the bells and piano in the opening movement, and the jarring increases in distance between string motifs later on, are very tricky rhythmically, but the group was as ready for them as anyone can really be: as random as they might sound, the effect is purposeful, and packs a punch. There’s another even more caricaturish faux-martial passage here, and the group sank their teeth into it. The piece wound out slowly, a requiem of slowly shifting string textures punctuated by distant, decreasingly frequent, minimalist bell accents, the funeral winding down pensively, one bitter memory at a time.

The Polish Cultural Institute regularly schedules an excellently yearly series of film, literary, dramatic and musical events, not only in New York but elsewhere in the United States and in Poland as well.

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November 9, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Azam Ali Brings Her Haunting Middle Eastern Lullabies to NYC on 11/22

Originally from Iran, singer Azam Ali is one of those extraordinarily eclectic musicians who’s equally at home with music from her native country as well as from Kurdistan, or Egypt, or Turkey, or probably anywhere else on the globe. Her most recent album From Night to the Edge of Day came out earlier this year; she’s at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 365 5th Ave. on 11/22 at 7 PM and if Middle Eastern music is your thing, it’s a concert you shouldn’t miss. On the album, Ali plays santour and percussion; Loga Ramin Torkian, who put out the extraordinary Mehraab album with singer Khosro Ansari earlier this year, plays his usual collection of stringed instruments including kamman, lafta, guitar, viola da gamba and saz, and contributes his signature, swirling, lushly echoing production. The duo’s comfortable familiarity working together here makes sense, considering that that they’ve been the nexus of pioneering pan-levantine band Niyaz since the 90s. Multi-percussionist Omer Avci and frame drummer Ziya Tabassian propel the band with a stately, understatedly booming intensity, with Naser Musa on oud, Kiya Tabassian on setar, Ulas Ozdemir contributing electric saz on a couple of tunes along with a full string section and light, ambient electronic touches by Carmen Rizzo.

Ali has a full, round, wounded voice and uses it judiciously and effortlessly for maximum impact: she doesn’t overemote. The songs themselves are Iranian, Turkish, Lebanese, and Kurdish lullabies (along with a stunning original by Musa that could pass for a Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic). But these aren’t sleepy, happy songs: they seem to be meant to provide a heads-up about the difficulties that will arise in a future just over the horizon. The first track is like a symphony composed of layers of vocals, dark and European-flavored, with echoes of the central theme from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The band follows that with an elegant, echoey, darkly hypnotic Iranian melody; Georges Iamman’s tersely wary Arabic violin opens the next song with an improvised intro before the drums come rolling in, bringing the rest of the orchestra along on a dreamy, otherworldly levantine vamp, Ali’s vocals gentle but resolute overhead.

One of the most gripping tracks here, Neni Desem, sets the stringed instruments rustling and clanking against a sepulchral drone as Ali also improvises her way in. It’s a tone poem with layers of vocals rising and falling, howling and pleading – and creepy. The centerpiece is Faith, a duet with Musa that sounds like classic Abdel Wahab with south Indian flourishes, oud and violin playing artfully off Ali’s vocals as she finally goes up the scale with some subtle Bollywood-style melismas. The fifth track, Shrin, also blends Indian and levantine influences, in this case from Azerbaijan. There’s also the slow Persian gothic Mehman (The Guest), strings quietly aching against the brooding, inscrutable vocals; a low, gentle, suspenseful vocal taqsim in over lush oscillating drone, which is actually the closest thing to a traditional western lullaby here; a Kurdish waltz with ethereal harmonies that evoke Bulgarian folk music; and a lushly ambient reprise of Faith at the end. Alongside Torkian’s album with Ansari, this is one of the year’s most original and captivating releases.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment