Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Nine Questions for Maestro Barbara Yahr of the Greenwich Village Orchestra

The Greenwich Village Orchestra, as their name implies, draws on some of the finest classical talent from a neighborhood that’s been synonymous with artsy downtown New York for decades. They play a diverse and characteristically thematic program this Sunday, November 20 at 3 PM: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture; Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 16th and Irving Place. There’s a reception to follow: all this for a suggested donation of $15. The orchestra’s dynamic musical director, Barbara Yahr, took some time to answer a few lingering questions about this elite ensemble:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: The GVO seems to be one of New York’s hidden treasures. You get major grants, you’ve played innumerable world premieres and New York premieres by important current-day composers. You are held in high esteem especially by musicians – it seems that practically everyone at your concerts is one! I’ve been going to your concerts for over a decade at the auditorium at 16th and Irving Place.

Barbara Yahr: I’m so glad to hear that!

LCC: Has this become a comfortable home for you?

BY: This is a wonderful home for us…with fantastic acoustics!

LCC: Does this have anything to do with the fact that audiences can literally get on top of the orchestra and experience the rush you get from being so close to the beast? I remember being a kid at Carnegie Hall and sneaking down from the peanut gallery to the orchestra during intermission. Here, it doesn’t cost $100 to get a good seat for the entire show….

BY: Low ticket price is only one of the great things about the GVO experience – but it does make a difference. We love the fact that the audience is so close – at family concerts, we like to bring kids up on stage! The next one is December 11 at 3 PM.

LCC: You remember the uproar when Alan Gilbert increased the number of rehearsals per concert for the New York Phil? How many rehearsals does the GVO typically have per performance?

BY: We usually have six – not that many when you realize that most fulltime, professional orchestras only have four and occasionally five.

LCC: In what way if any does your orchestra’s somewhat less hectic workload impact the quality of your performances, by comparison to, say, the Philharmonic or the New York City Opera?

BY: We get to live with the music for several weeks, which is a delightful luxury. We can get into the inner workings of a piece of music, really take it apart and put it back together.

LCC: You like themes. I’m assuming that you’re the one responsible for coming up with with the November 20 program, right? And would you say that this particular one is more thematic musically, or narrative-wise?

BY: This program is only thematic in extra-musical terms. All of the pieces make use of imagery. This way of writing music, as opposed to an abstract symphony with no clear extra-musical idea, does affect the composers, but these are three – four if you count Ravel, who orchestrated the Mussorgsky – very different composers.

LCC: There’s obviously a lot of camaraderie in this ensemble. To what degree if any is this a democratic institution, for example, if an inspired member of the winds says, “We ought to do this a certain way,” for example. How do you as conductor handle that?

BY: I love it when a player has an opinion – and if I like it, or find it interesting or exciting, of course we go with it! If it’s something I don’t feel works musically, then we have a discussion. An orchestra cannot be a pure democracy but it’s not a dictatorship. It requires leadership, but in the end, the best performances are collaborative.

LCC: Dynamic contrasts and the desire to portray one thing or another via the music seem to be especially important to this orchestra. Among these pieces, are there parts that you’ve singled out specifically for the orchestra to focus on? For example, in the Mussorgsky, how creepy are you going to make The Gnome? Or are you going to see how quiet and mysterious you can get with The Catacombs?

BY: I think the Gnome is pretty darn creepy, and yes, this piece is full of contrasts…but the heart of the work is found in understanding the backstory, the friendship between Mussorgsky and the painter of the Pictures, Victor Hartmann. For me, we are there, with the composer, at the exhibition of his friends’ works, walking from picture to picture. At the end, after he has visits the Catacombs, he confronts and accepts the death of his friend and is perhaps celebrating his friend with the finale, the Great Gate. This is a personal interpretation but it is, for me, a meaningful narrative for the piece, and helps us to understand the work as more than just a series of attractive pieces depicting a set of paintings.

LCC: Are you recording this? Any plans to release any of this material in the future?

BY: We always record our concerts— stay tuned!

November 16, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Explores Love and War

Iraq-born trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been making extraordinary music for several years, most notably with his sister Dena in eclectic pan-levantine band Salaam,and more recently with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh . ElSaffar’s latest adventure in east/west cross-pollination, his Two Rivers Ensemble has a new album, Inana, recently out on the adventurous Pi label, that’s a lock for pretty much everybody’s best-of-2011 lists as far as both jazz and Middle Eastern music are concerned. This is ElSaffar’s deepest venture into jazz to date, reminding how well his microtonal quartertone style – which basically doesn’t exist in western music – is suited to American postbop as it is everywhere east of the Nile and many points in between. The album is a thematic suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and warfare. The melodies shift seamlessly between Arabic and western jazz modes, and as usual ElSaffar has a sensational band to play them: Shusmo’s Tareq Abboushi on buzuq; Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion; Ole Mathisen on alto sax; Carlo DeRosa on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. One comparison that springs to mind is Ansambl Mastika, reedman Greg Squared’s deliriously intense pan-Balkan band, which also works many of the same tonalities as this group, although they’re crazier and more improvisational.

The opening track, Dumuzi’s Dream is stunning and intense, ElSaffar’s bright but allusive trumpet contrasting with the suspenseful, rustic, dark levantine groove underneath. Rolling triplets give way to insistence, an otherworldly, spiraling qanun solo, and a biting, pensive oud solo over judicious bass that ElSaffar breaks out of with the Arabic equivalent of major on minor. It’s creepy, and it gives absolutely no idea of how wildly he’s about to take it outside. Meanwhile, Waits proves as comfortably at home moving from one odd (to western ears, anyway) tempo to another, often playing polyrythms against the bass or the rest of the percussion, injecting one counterintuitive, incisive riff after another when he can sneak one in.

That’s sort of a prelude. The suite really gets going with Venus the Evening Star, where the main themes get introduced: this one, a tricky dance with a distinctly Greek shuffle bounce, flutters along amiably until Zawil’s oud solo takes it in a much more ominous direction, DaRosa’s pulse signaling a long, captivating return to the party as ElSaffar casually works his way up to a triumphant note. A suite within a suite, Inna’s Dance coalesces slowly, then sets a catchy, simple trumpet/sax riff over a hypnotic bass vamp, Abboushi adding a thoughtfully energetic sitar-like solo. As it progresses, it takes on a funky edge (that’s Abboushi bringing a little James Brown to the party), Waits and DaRosa’s polyrhythms hypnotic under ElSaffar’s river of microtones.

The warm, stately Lady of Heaven kicks off the most straight-up jazz-oriented section here, simple, sustained trumpet/sax harmonies over clanking buzuq and Waits’ gentle flurries. Infinite Variety picks up the pace, Abboushi reminding that jazz chords are also suited to the buzuq, ElSaffar’s clever arrangement setting up a series of echo permutations against the central bass riff. The big fifteen-minute epic Journey to the Underworld should be Journey Through the Underworld instead: moving from lengthy improvisations for oud and vocals, it reaches unexpectedly upbeat terrain, driven by DeRosa’s insistent bass, then goes murky and rubato until ElSaffar finally signals that the end of the tunnel is in sight, yet almost having to pull the rest of the ensemble out by himself. Those are merely the highlights: it’s an absolutely fascinating, intricately orchestrated performance.

The suite’s concluding segment, Venus the Morning Star, answers the question of what side the goddess will end on: with a return of the simple, supple opening theme, it’s an optimistic, brightly evocative early morning tableau. The final track, Al-Badia, isn’t part of the suite, but it ends the album on the same richly intense note where began, an imaginative blend of oldschool funk and Mohammed Abdel Wahab cinematic hitworthiness, the instruments taking turns nailing the place where the choir would respond as the verse hits a turnaround. The fun the band is having is visceral: count this among the best albums to come over the transom here this year.

November 16, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment