Bruce Levingston, one of the go-to pianists in the shadowy world where indie classical meets the Romantics, has an excellent new album of nocturnes just out on Sono Luminus, titled Nightbreak. The new album’s big drawing card is the world premiere of a new piano arrangement of Philip Glass’ Dracula Suite. It’s a characteristically hypnotic, circular theme based on a descending progression, Glass at his catchiest and most accessible: in fact, this version bears a closer resemblance to the dark rock music of artsy 90s bands like Blonde Redhead or DollHouse, than it does to the Indian music that Glass has drawn on for decades. Levingston plays this stripped-down version of what was originally a string quartet plaintively and sensitively: this Dracula is a genuinely tragic character.
There’s more eye-opening (or ear-opening) material here as well. The Liszt homages long since reached overkill point this year, but Levingston has pulled a trio of particularly vivid, impressively dynamic, lesser-known works out of the archives. Levingston takes the crescendoing overture Vallee d’Obermann from Chopinesque pensiveness to a carefully precise crescendo and follows that with warm, contemplative takes on the Nocturne from Les Cloches de Geneve and Les jeux d’eaux. The Brahms pieces which follow: Intermezzo, Op.116, No.4; Ballade in D minor, Op.10, No.1;and the Waltz in D minor, Op.39, No.9 are period pieces, nothing special, even if they’re as warmly melodic as you would expect. And then Wolfgang Rihm’s Brahmsliebewaltzer, just a hair strange enough to be really creepy instead of the Brahms homage that the title hints at, sets the stage. Alone in a darkened room, The Count!
“All hands can play Liszt,” emcee David Dubal asserted in front of what appeared to be a full house Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall, introducing this season’s debut of pianist/impresario Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series.
“Yeah, right,” a fellow pianist in the crowd murmured to his friend. That opinion is widely held, often fueled by frustration at being unable to master the composer’s work, but also by the perception that Liszt’s notoriously challenging compositions are ostentatiously shallow. This year being the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, the Liszt tributes and retrospectives have been endless, and underwhelming. Which made this particular program such an eye-opener. Pianist Eric Clark also deserves credit for offering a revealing look at a different side of the composer a couple months ago; Joan’s take on Liszt was even more enlightening, especially since she played a handful of obscure pieces associated with the composer. Dubal may have had something to do with this, having been her teacher at Juilliard.
And he offered fresh insight into the program, providing a broader historical context as well as the history of the pieces themselves: Dubal is a big-picture guy, and a fearlessly unreconstructed Lisztian. The Valse-Impromptu that Joan opened with, he said, was a prototype for parlor music of its era. And it sounded like that, generically lively: it hasn’t aged well. But Joan has an ear for depth and a flair for the unconventional, so the choice of Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Fruhlingslaube was characteristically striking, a slowly expansive, meticulously paced pastorale. The Funerailles from Liszt’s Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, which followed, was a quiet, mournful knockout. Dubal reminded that this was a requiem for the freedom fighters who unsuccessfully fought in the Hungarian uprising of 1849. Restrained almost to the point of minimalism in places, fueled by a stark series of low lefthand riffs, it’s Chopinesque to a fault, rarely played, and Joan let it linger, powerfully: quiet as it is, it was the high point of the night. By contrast, she hit the Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor – which she segued into artfully – with a hard-hitting scamper.
Dubal nailed it when he said that Schubert’s Der Doppelganger was “literally schizophrenic” – Joan played up its spacious, mysterious aspects. And she gave Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor a precision that managed to be biting without losing sight of its warm cantabile resonance, another quality that doesn’t exactly spring to mind when thinking of Liszt. The Valse-Caprice No. 2 after Schubert’s Soirees de Vienne was warm and bright, if not much more than simply a testament to Liszt’s loyalty as an advocate of Schubert at a time when that wasn’t exactly cool.
The final composition was the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, “one of those crazy pieces,” as Joan alluded afterward, where any hope for any kind of interpretive insight bit the dust. Liszt’s arrangement is so elaborately showy that the opportunity to imbue it with soul, or poignancy – Joan’s signature traits – falls by the wayside. To simply get through it and get the notes all right is an achievement in itself. And that she did, an athletic feat made all the more impressive considering that the heavy action of the Bosendorfer she was playing probably would have given Art Tatum a workout. The result, predictably, was a series of standing ovations, ironic to the extreme considering the earlier part of the program was a far more noteworthy achievement. Should every pianist have some Liszt in his or her fingers, as Dubal suggested? A bit of the lesser-known Liszt, that Joan showcased so admirably here, couldn’t hurt.
And not only is Dubal a savvy historian, he’s also a painter, a very eclectic one. Adorning the walls here were a striking, El Greco-ish blue-green cathedral; a series of playful, glittery, Kandinsky-esque abstracts; an invitingly nebulous, colorful city tableau that could have been Paris’ Right Bank from the Pont Neuf; a couple of bucolic outdoors scenes with pre-medieval Asian tinges; an aggressively striking black-and-white work that could be a homage to Jackson Pollock; and even a handful of playful, simple drawings with a coy Keith Haring sensibility. Clearly, Dubal has watched as broadly and as deeply as he’s listened.
If you listen to NPR or watch PBS, this is old news, so here’s to all of you who’ve made the switch from the small screen to an even smaller one and might not have noticed that pianist Christopher O’Riley and adventurous cello virtuoso Matt Haimovitz have a new album out. It’s titled Shuffle. Play. Listen., and they’ll be touring it next year, with a stop at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Jan 22. Pianist O’Riley, host of the NPR/PBS program From the Top, is no stranger to making neoromantic instrumental albums out of rock and pop songs: this double cd makes three in a row. It’s a lively and often exquisitely good duo performance, simply the best thing O’Riley’s ever put his hands on.
To succeed with a music show, you ought to know something about connections, which is what the first cd is all about. Who knew how much Bernard Herrmann’s classic soundtrack to the equally classic Hitchcock film Vertigo had in common with works by Stravinsky, Janacek or Martinu? This guy, obviously. To make those commonalities crystal-clear, imaginatively potent new arrangements of parts of the Herrmann score are interwoven between the other pieces, a concept that might seem preposterous but works brilliantly. Haimovitz gets most if not all of the juiciest parts, perhaps logically since Herrmann’s score was heavy on the strings, and also because O’Riley has the good sense to stay within himself. His playing is distinguished by smartly thought-out dynamics, pacing and elegantly terse embellishments rather than pyrotechnics.
The first cd opens on a deliciously macabre note with Prelude from the Vertigo Suite, done here as a creepy waltz with artful, unexpected cello/piano overlays. The duo follow that with Leos Janacek’s Fairy Tale, which follows a similar trajectory: after the minimalistic first movement (with some striking, Kayhan Kalhor-style echo effects from Haimovitz), it grows more wary and winds up with an understated menace. The nightmare scene from Vertigo follows, impressively understated with its agitated cello flurries. Martinu’s Variations on a Slavic Folk Song makes an unexpected but rock-solid segue, growing from stark to forceful, with a suspenseful edge very similar to Herrmann’s.
They segue back to the Vertigo Suite for the hypnotic Carlotta’s Portrait, then take a detour for a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, its highlights being the sad waltz that precedes the dynamically-charged, surprisingly quiet Aria and then the Tarantella, which pushes the limits of how far and how fast O’Riley can go. The Scotty Tracks Madeline scene from the film gorgeously juxtaposes longing with blitheness and a rapt upper-register duo between Haimovitz – who can get tones out of his cello that no one else can – and O’Riley. From there, a spirited take on Piazzolla’s Grand Tango – with each instrumentalist assigned to cover a little of the ground that Piazzolla’s bandoneon did on the original – is spot-on. The disc concludes with the thinly disguised, mournful minuet that serves as the film’s love theme.
The second cd reverts to the random vibe of O’Riley’s two other classical-rock piano albums, with generally good results. There’s a marvelously successful instrumental version of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, right down to the cello winkingly spinning off a fade or a psychedelic riff straight off the record as O’Reilly rubatos the piano with just the right touch of suspenseful anticipation. And that band’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi gets a graceful, circular indie classical treatment, focusing on its subtle counterpoint, as does the almost unrecognizable version of A Perfect Circle’s Three Libras. A couple of Cocteau Twins tunes reach for a slightly less hypnotic atmosphere than the originals, while two Blonde Redhead tunes – Misery Is a Butterfly and Melody – run richly memorable hooks over and over for an approach that builds toward grand guignol. There are also two John McLaughlin compositions here – Dance of Maya, whose austere acidicism doesn’t stop it from matching up well with Herrmann as it morphs into a bitterly bluesy minor-key romp, and A Lotus in the Back Seat, done as Ravel might have orchestrated it.
Another Cocteau Twins track, the lightweight Heaven or Las Vegas, isn’t as well-suited to this kind of serioso treatment as the other tracks are, and the derivative faux-baroquisms of the first movement of the Stravinsky make for two minutes of what-are-we-doing-here. And as far as the two Arcade Fire covers here are concerned, the two players take an energetic stab at elevating them to Herrmann-ish grandeur, but ultimately, garbage in, garbage out: Arcade Fire is a boring band. But those are only small complaints about an otherwise mammothly successful effort. O’Riley also has a very cool, gospel-flavored free download available, Time of My Time inspired by Kris Saknussemm’s recent novel Reverend America.
American String Conspiracy’s new album Help the Poor has pretty much something for everybody, if you like Americana roots music. Whether they’re playing bluegrass, or oldschool soul music, or blues, or rock, it’s a smartly produced, rich feast of good guitar from frontman Gary Keenan and brilliant, eclectic lead player Shu Nakamura. Longtime standouts on the always fertile New York roots music scene, their colleagues on this album include Ernie Vega on electric bass, Suzanne Davenport on violin and cello, and Charlie Shaw switching between drums and upright bass.
Keenan’s laid-back baritone kicks off the opening, title track (a witty original bluegrass tune, not the old blues song) with his former mates in the haunting, excellent Nashville gothic band Bobtown – Jen McDearman, Karen Dahlstrom and Katherine Etzel – on backing vocals. “Whether by the will of god or your maxed-out credit card, that could be you someday,” Keenan offers, a friendly rebuttal to those NYC subway posters discouraging passengers from handing over a buck or two to those in need.
The first of the rock songs is Never Too Late. Like the others, it’s got tasty layers of electric guitar and a spiky solo from Nakamura, and a nice instrumental out, everybody – violin, guitars and Shaky Dave Pollack’s harmonica – firing on all cylinders. Freddy’s King, a tribute to the great Texas blues guitarist, is a spot-on shuffle instrumental, Davenport’s stark, memorable solo followed by an exuberant Freddy K. seance by Nakamura, who really nails the style, going all the way up the fretboard with some joyously slashing tremolo-picking.
My Guitar is a successful detour into countrypolitan, while Wrong Road is straight-up country and pretty hilarious: it’s amazing the things people will do after too much Jim Beam and V8. Keenan’s mandolin lights up Cherry Pie, a salute to the kind of food that really hits the spot after smoking a little weed. Crawl, a slow, bitter rock ballad, has the women from Bobtown again, an ominous violin-driven outro and a starkly chiming, simple guitar lead over lush, jangly Telecaster. They go into country gospel with Little Hymn, then back to the secular stuff for Leave It Alone, another wryly funny song, this one for the smokers: “There’s far too many ways to get stoned – just stick with reefer, it’s a whole lot cheaper.” N.O. Blues, a biting, funky minor-key number, bitterly references the Katrina disaster. “Singing Nearer My God to Thee on the banks of Ponchartrain,” Keenan intones, with Trailer Radio’s Shannon Brown guesting on a verse. They mix country, Beatles and Tex-Mex into Maybe, a duet between Keenan and Brown, and echo that vibe more quietly on the slowly swaying ballad that closes the album. It’s yet another excellent, cross-pollinated hybrid to sprout up in the greenhouse of the New York country scene. American String Conspiracy are at 68 Jay St. Bar on Jan 4.
It’s easy to be cynical about classical ensembles parading out the same old repertoire again and again, but when a group the caliber of the Brentano Quartet shows up a local hotspot, all cynicism goes out the window no matter what’s on the bill. Our trio of the most curmudgeonly fans you could imagine were unanimously awed by the group’s performance at the church space at 93rd and Broadway where Music Mondays puts on a monthly program which rivals any other in town for both quality and adventurousness. The curmudgeons agreed that the performance of Louis Andriessen’s …miserere… was the most enticing and bracingly delicious, although there were other treats on the menu. The stately melodicism of the introduction doesn’t sound like Andriessen, because it isn’t: the composer based this particular set of variations on the famous Renaissance choral work by Allegri. Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee unwound its stark, simple, astringent motifs spaciously, handled its frequently tricky rhythms with aplomb, alternating between harmonium-like ambience and lush yet acerbic permutations on an octave a la Philip Glass.
The rest of the program was more familar but performed with a blissful confidence, whichever emotion or approach the ensemble chose to take. A buttery, sleek Schubert Quartettsatz was the opener, viola and cello spinning in tandem seamlessly on the cadenzas. Their take on Haydn’s final, unfinished String Quartet, op. 103 was a revelatory contrast. So much of Haydn’s repertoire relies on familiar tropes that after awhile become practically indistinguishable, but the Quartet’s rustic approach to the andante was inviting to say the least, and they brought out an unexpectedly vivid ache in the minuet. And then they followed with the somewhat more muted angst of the unfinished chorale which would be Haydn’s final work. That the closing piece, a richly vibrant performance of the Debussy String Quartet, could possibly be anticlimactic testifies to how captivating the program had been up to this point. Working methodically from Lee’s deeply rooted cello, they gave the first movement an unrestrained joy, found the inner dance in the second and romped through it, reveled in the ambric low treble harmonies in the third andantino section and finally took it out on the same joyous note they’d established early on. The crowd, a sold-out house from the looks of it, wished openly for an encore. Word is out: what started out as a local scene here has quickly earned a citywide audience.
The next Music Mondays concert is January 9 at 7:30 PM with the renowned conductorless East Coast Chamber Orchestra; you’re advised to get there early.
Forget for a minute that Wadada Leo Smith’s new album Dark Lady of the Sonnets, with his trio Mbira, is a summit meeting of three of the most compelling voices in jazz improvisation. More than anything, it’s a celebration of being alive. An intimately majestic, sometimes exuberant, warmly conversational album, it’s a must-own for fans of free jazz. Then again, that could be said about a lot of the Wadada Leo Smith, Min Xiao-Fen and Pheeroan akLaff catalogs. This particular session, recorded in 2007 in Finland and released worldwide just now on the reliably adventurous Tum Records label, captures the trio exploring Smith’s permutations on ancient Shona melodies from west Africa.
In the liner notes (which include comprehensive bios for each artist), Smith traces a line back from himself to Louis Armstrong, a connection that might not seem evident at first listen, but up close becomes very clear. Steeped in the blues as a child, Smith never lost that idiom’s terse soulfulness. What’s more, this album is remarkably rhythmic for a free jazz session, something that Smith’s cohorts here deserve credit for as well.
But first Smith goes back to a bell-like Miles Davis tone on the first track, Sarah Bell Wallace, a dedication to his mother, trumpet austerely calling for a dutiful response from spiky thickets of pipa plucking and rolling, suspenseful drums in turn. AkLaff’s signature drum sound, playing actual melody rather than simply rhythm, is in vivid effect here. It’s a warily soulful portrait of an indomitable woman who obviously knew suffering but rose above it and brought her family along.
Min Xiao-Fen, who is afraid of nothing and will play anything, is often the wild card here, bringing her signature sense of humor to Blues: Cosmic Beauty, a story of renewal. Peering up through Smith’s alternately flurrying and richly sustained, restrained lines, she swoops, dives and vocalizes a little, finally ceding to the trumpet on the chorus (much as there’s a great deal of improvisation going on, there’s a clearly defined architecture to all these works).
Zulu Water Festival, meant to evoke South Africans dancing on surface of a lake, juxtaposes a festive melody to a stately allusive groove and a strikingly spacious interlude held down by akLaff’s apprehensively nuanced, drony rumble. The title track, a Billie Holiday homage, puts the pipa player to work as a singer again, low and intimate as the conversation between instruments slowly rises, finally reaching bop fervor as Smith takes the trio out rattling and flurrying. The final track is a suite simply titled Mbira, a spiritually-inspired ballet based on Shona thumb piano music, with variations on a hypnotic circular theme. An animated dialogue between the three instruments swells and ebbs, with akLaff almost imperceptibly building to what seems like an inevitable crescendo with gorgeously nebulous washes of cymbals. Pipa, vocals and trumpet move from calm and sustained to agitated, Min finally swooping down coyly to meet Smith’s summoning call and then setting the whole thing ablaze with a forest of tremolo-picking as akLaff rumbles and leapfrogs his way out of it. It ends on an ambiguous note – maybe there’s a sequel lying in wait.
Also recently out on the Cuneiform label is Smith’s considerably more electric, aggressive and compositionally-oriented Heart’s Reflections double cd with his Organic band, featuring akLaff along with guitarists Michael Gregory and Brandon Ross along with a wide assortment of downtown New York types. Smith will be giving both of these bands a workout along with his Golden Quartet, Golden Quintet and Silver Orchestra as he celebrates his 70th birthday at the new Roulette space in Brooklyn on Dec 15 and 16 at 8 PM.
This time of year the concerts in churches all over town pick up steam: it’s a holdover from the days when Advent was a way of keeping the peasants out of trouble until the final Saturnalia-style blowout at the end of the year. Sometimes the result is festive overkill. Last night at St. Thomas Church, Joseph Ripka of Calvary Church in historic Stonington, Connecticut played a concert that was just the opposite, a welcome antidote to all that pomp. Airing out the church’s smaller, more Northern European-toned gallery organ, his program featured works by baroque and pre-baroque composers especially suited to that instrument.
He began with a carefully paced, somewhat wary take of Sweelinck’s Chromatic Fantasy, which actually owes its brooding quality to an artful sequence of minor chords rather than to much of any sort of chromatics. Sweelinck’s contemporary, German composer Johann Steffens’ Veni Redemptor Gentium maintained the soberly Teutonic ambience, which brightened considerably with Abraham van der Kerckhoven’s memorable, strikingly more modern-toned Fantasie in D Minor. Buxtehude’s Mit fried und freud ich fahr dahm (BuxWV 76) is a typical period piece, a simple theme and variations that kept the stately expanse of counterpoint going: it only remotely echoes the composer’s intense, chromatically-fueled, paradigm-shifting passacaglias and fugues. Ripka finally pulled out all the stops for a rousing, majestic take of Bach’s Fugue on Meine Seele erhebt den Herren. What a delightful and counterintuitive way to close out the year at this long-running, perennially high-quality series of recitals, which resumes this coming January 15.
by Serene Angelique Williams
I took my two-year-old daughter to the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Annual Family Concert this weekend, apprehensively not knowing if she would be able to make it through her first experience seeing a symphony orchestra without some sort of embarrassing meltdown. I had nothing to worry about. It was the perfect way to break her in to the glory of live music, and Barbara Yahr, the GVO’s music director and conductor, knows just how to appeal to young minds. Everything was geared to making the concert experience enjoyable for young people in a fun, non-stifling environment. The orchestra is tight, professional and technically brilliant, and the show, which consisted mostly of Christmas music, was a lively and well-executed medley of familiar selections from Tchikovsky’s “Nutcracker” along with works by Edvard Grieg, Aaron Copland, and no less than 12 variations on Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The auditorium at Washington Irving High School is gorgeous, and there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out. The kids were encouraged to participate with each piece by dancing, clapping, and even were invited to sit on stage with the musicians. I loved hearing these pieces live, and it was thrilling not to be stressed out and worried about my child misbehaving, or causing disruptions. To my surprise and overwhelming joy, she responded to everything enthusiastically, and there was not one moment when she seemed to lose interest.
After the show, there was a holiday party with many tasty goodies: plenty of wine for the adults, seltzer and cider for the kiddies. There was also an “instrument petting zoo” where the children were welcome to try out all of the instruments with very patient and encouraging instructors. I was amazed when my little one decided to try out the violin, and in less than 15 minutes, she had not only learned how to properly hold the child-size instrument, she was already beginning to play! The afternoon was well worth the $10 per family admission price, and I can’t wait to do it again. Next year I’ll be sure to bring along more friends, ones with or without kids. Everyone can enjoy this show, but it’s a particularly fine way to introduce very young people to the unadulterated joys of playing music, and the wonderfully varied world of instruments, with first-rate musicians and instructors.
Thursday night pianist Lee Feldman and cellist Noah Hoffeld made their public performance debut together in the welcoming second-floor space at Chabad of North Williamsburg on Bedford Avenue. Their new album Sacred Time is out today – they’re playing Something Jazz (formerly Miles Cafe) tonight at 5:30 if you’re in the mood for something intense. This music is deep, both deeply Jewish and deeply universal. Feldman’s signature style is defined by wit, sometimes exuberant, but more often very subtle. This was a chance to hear him evoke gravitas, which he does just as vividly. Likewise, Hoffeld can be eclectic (he plays in the psychedelic Middle Eastern band Pharaoh’s Daughter); this was a chance for him to go deep into the most mystic tonalities. The two make a great team. Credit Rabbi Shmuly Lein for having the foresight to realize that he had a couple of musicians in the shul who would not only pair up well together, but would be a source of good music for the congregation!
So it made sense that they began the show with a pristine, austere take on three old Hasidic ngunim, the two musicians interweaving and sometimes trading off on the rather haunting, wary minor-key melodies and the intensity of their Middle Eastern allusions. The two got more complex with a cinematic mini-suite by a contemporary Israeli composer, Feldman building toward the crescendo with jazzy block chords. Feldman closed his eyes and played with unselfconscious rapture throughout a hypnotic Naftule Brandwein tune that Hoffeld aptly described as healing – it’s the kind of music that if you hear it or play it long enough, it’s impossible not to start to feel good. Another song without words had an almost bluesy vibe, in the same vein as an African-American spiritual – could this have been an example of cross-pollination, one way or the other? After a brief pause, Feldman played an understatedly triumphant solo piano piece based on a folk tune about a guy who rather than breaking his Yom Kippur fast, starts singing and ends up going all night. The duo ended with a powerfully evocative epic by Hoffeld on Jewish melodic themes, addressing issues of diaspora, adaptation and musical syncretism, which were fascinating to watch unfold as the procession of motifs made its way from the Middle East to Russia and then became less scattered than richly diverse. What a treat it was to hear this in such an intimate space – no doubt there will be other shows like this.