Music awards ceremonies can be funny, and not in a good way – for example, when’s the last time you watched the Grammies? A better question would be, have you ever watched the Grammies? At their 2011 awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall Monday night, the Classical Recording Foundation chose the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio to receive their “collaborative artist award,” named in honor of Samuel Sanders, the longtime Itzhak Perlman collaborator and a sensitive pianist. Other than that they have excellent taste – and that maybe they should call this award the Classie – what does this say about the Classical Recording Foundation? Do celebrated pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson deserve yet another award? Without question, yes, as they reminded when they played a fresh, cliche-free take of the opening Allegro Moderato from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1, acerbic and sometimes stingingly direct where they could go in that direction, redemptively cheery when that path wasn’t an option. This was especially impressive considering that they’ve probably played this piece hundreds if not thousands of times. But do they need this award? At this point in their career, having debuted as an ensemble at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural, they have their choice of concert halls worldwide and audiences who will fill them and walk away afterward in awe – and tell everyone about it.
If that particular award set the bar, the others upheld it. The first of two “composers of the year” was Robert Paterson. The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Paterson compositions, Star Crossing, is one of 2011’s best and most richly enjoyable albums, a feast of noir flourishes, accent on flutes and percussion, from someone who’s a somewhat unlikely combination of percussionist and composer. Imaginative, often magical trio Maya got to play several selections from Paterson’s considerably more lighthearted but equally original new Book of Goddesses album. Paterson’s keen sense of melody and remarkable eclecticism were evident throughout the four pieces on the bill. The first, Aphrodite, took on a bracing Middle Eastern edge with Sato Moughalian’s full-throated flute, Bridget Kibbey’s characteristically lithe, incisive harp and percussionist John Hadfield’s slinky levantine groove. After an ersatz Andean folk tune, Oya was a showcase for Kibbey, who switched effortlessly from percussive fire to funky rhythm and back, while The Muses gave the group a chance to work their way with a casual elegance from the ancient Middle East to current-day downtown New York. The other composer of the year, Arlene Sierra, was represented by piano duo Quattro Mani, whose pianists Susan Grace and Alice Rybak merged singlemindedly on the otherworldly Wuorinen-esque atonalisms of her 1997 composition Of Risk and Memory, which gave way to a cruelly difficult, insistent, staccato rhythmic attack and then extrapolated on both themes.
Young Artist of the Year went to Metropolitan Opera star Susanna Phillips, who delivered Debussy’s six Ariettes Oubliees, pianist Myra Huang getting the enviable assignment of playing them, turning in a richly sustained, spacious interpretation that essentially got the max out of the composer’s otherworldly minimalism. Phillips is a force of nature and sang like one, but the songs wouldn’t have had the same impact without Huang.
Awards are just a small part of the Classical Recording Foundation’s agenda (to an outsider, this concert felt like an exclusive party: everybody seemed to know each other, with several famous or least semi-famous faces scattered throughout the crowd). The Foundation’s agenda is to raise funds for important recordings, without regard to commercial appeal. The roster of acclaimed artists they’ve worked over the years includes such familiar names as Simone Dinnerstein, Donald Berman and Ann Marie McDermott. The CRF also has an ongoing collaboration with the Library of Congress and Bridge Records, both fortuitous relationships for an organization clearly not afraid to take risks in the spirit of making our era’s important works and performers available to future generations.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s most recent concert this past Sunday featured fresh, energetic, revealing takes on a couple of familiar favorites, bookending an unexpected interlude. Led by guest conductor Pierre Vallet, the ensemble opened with Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture: lush, dreamy beauty shifting to brighter and more energetic, with pinpoint French horn flourishes and a bouncy precision. Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Op. 37, the lesser-known follow-up to the Enigma Variations, were next, sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who showed off a full soprano’s range as the suite went on, a series of cinematic, coastal and nautical settings of British Romantic poems including texts by Elgar’s wife along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. From sweeping, craggy, windy bluster to more simple, catchy songcraft and then up with more drama – particularly the final song in the cycle, The Swimmer, considered by some to portend Robert Browning’s suicide at 39 – the orchestra gave Johnson Cano a lush backdrop for her vivid, turbulent evocation.
From seats close to the orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition turned out to be as close to an opportunity to get inside Maurice Ravel’s mind as is physically possible. There’s literally not a bad seat at the GVO home base on 16th Street, an unexpected bonus considering that the building is now a public high school. On one hand, it was impossible not to revel in how much fun Ravel had orchestrating Moussorgsky’s creepy suite. On the other, Ravel did it justice: ultimately, this is a requiem for Moussorgsky’s painter friend Victor Hartmann. And the GVO did them both justice, particularly in the darker passages, not to mention the brief refrains that punctuate the “pictures.” Conductor Barbara Yahr likened them to an inner journey, the composer remembering his dead pal, rather than simply a chronicle of the stroll from one end of the gallery to the other. “These aren’t filler,” she reminded the crowd before the piece began, and she wasn’t kidding: by the time she took them down into the Catacombs, what began as a fanfare had become a dirge. Themes familiar to every moviegoer became profound: the Gnome bellicose yet poignant; the Old Castle brooding with a nostalgic tone, the children dancing in the Tuileries quaint and somewhat courtly. The orchestra’s attention to the astringent faux-Orientalisms in the portrait of the two Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuely, alone made the trip worthwhile. And after the off-center menace of the Catacombs, the most macabre part of the suite, the orchestra maintained that atmosphere intensely even as the classical heavy metal of Baba Yaga’s Hut kicked in. If the Catacombs is Moussorgsky facing the fact that his friend’s not coming back, as Yahr mentioned, then maybe this is the rage afterward. The coda, The Great Gate of Kiev contemplates a mechanical marvel which was actually never built, a cruel irony for this towering, majestic ending to end all endings and its epic Beethoven allusions. Through two standing ovations, the mostly sold-out house seemed as out of breath as the musicians were.
Either/Orchestra’s long and remarkable career has taken them from a sort of punk jazz, through a latin jazz phase and then on to worldwide acclaim collaborating with the dean of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Astatke. While there’s been some turnover in the group, bandleader/saxophonist Russ Gershon has been a rock of consistency as far as strong, imaginative tunesmithing is concerned (their 1992 album The Calculus of Pleasure made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list). Saturday at the New School, Gershon unveiled a suite of New York premieres recently commissioned by Chamber Music America: after all these years, this band’s creativity just gets more and more amazing. This had to be one of the two or three best New York concerts of the year.”We’re going to play this, and then we’re going to pass out,” Gershon joked about halfway through almost three hours of new compositions and some other tunes recently rescued from the archives in Ethiopia.
Gershon’s stock in trade is wit and sophistication. The new compositions and arrangements revealed an unexpected gravitas and lush, majestic power to rival or maybe surpass anything this band’s ever done, effortlessly and imaginatively bridging the gap between Cuba and Ethiopia. Either/Orchestra in its many incarnations has always had the sound of a big band twice their size (this version has ten players): the shifting textures and voicings of these new compositions are equal to anything Gil Evans ever came up with. Another strength of Gershon’s is how he writes to the strengths of his players: alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger’s restless intensity, pianist Gilson Schachnik’s fluid melodicism, trombonist Joel Yennior’s febrile, cerebral expansiveness and drummer Pablo Bencid’s effortlessly spectacular facility for demanding polyrhythms.
Interestingly, the new suite, The Collected Unconscious – which was being recorded for broadcast on WBGO’s Jazz Set early next year – incorporates several waltzes, from the unselfconsciously attractive, Beatlesque opening theme, to several bracing, acidic variations on Ethiopian riffs that occur later on (the whole thing runs about an hour and a half) along with a little straight-up swing and several richly noir segments. Yennior’s long, slow burn on the second segment, which elliptically mixed loping Ethiopian triplet rhythm with hints of Afro-Cubanisms, was one of dozens of highlights; Niswanger’s no-nonsense attack during a long Ethiopian vamp was another, with Gershon himself contributing casually climactic passages on tenor and soprano sax and joining Niswanger on flute on another. At one point, Bencid had one beat going with the hi-hat, another with the cowbell he had on a kick and a third which he used as the basis for a solo while not missing a beat with his magic left foot.
As the suite unwound, the group went deep into noir territory, took it back to Cuba with just drums and Vicente Lebron’s congas against slinky Rick McLaughlinbass and Schachnik’s piano. After a break, they unveiled three new versions of classic Ethiopian themes. As has been documented on NPR and elsewhere, Haile Selassie discovered western brass band music, but there was no such thing in Ethiopia, so he hired an Armenian immigrant, Nerses Nalbandian, who would become a sort of royal court music teacher and arranger. He also happened to be a fan of Afro-Cuban music: it was as if a proto Either/Orchestra had been born. Gershon’s new arrangements of these songs – which probably haven’t been performed since the early 70s, maybe earlier – utilized the same artful exchange of voices that’s always characterized his work. The most spectacular of the new ones, with charts by Yennior, was a stunning and hard-hitting example of the sheer number of permutations that an inspired arranger can pull out of one simple, eerie riff. After that, they treated the crowd to a rousing, lengthy, funky dedication to New Orleans, then the politically-fueled Town Hall Meeting, featuring a hilariously bellicose duel between trumpeter Tom Halter and baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase. They closed with their new version of Auld Lang Syne, which of course bears virtually no resemblance to the original: Gershon took one of those gorgeously apprehensive Ethiopian riffs and expanded on it, interpolating a little Scotland to see if anybody might be paying attention. Ostensibly, that’s also scheduled for broadcast on BGO for New Year’s Eve. If this is what this group does with a commission, Chamber Music America might as well just make Either/Orchestra their house band.