Often considered a Lebanese counterpart to Bob Dylan, oud virtuoso and bandleader Marcel Khalife has been a freedom fighter for decades, even before founding the Al Mayadine Ensemble in 1976. Jailed and exiled for championing peace and human rights in the Middle East, his stance has never wavered. Today, his work continues to inspire fellow activists as the Arab Spring spreads around the world. For decades, he maintained a close friendship with the late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, turning many Darwish poems into songs that would become anthems throughout the levantine world and beyond. It would not be an overstatement to compare Khalife to another artist, legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, who also blended sounds from around the globe with classical Arabic song. Even by Khalife’s eclectic standards, his latest album Fall of the Moon, with the Al Mayadine Ensemble and Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Sirinko, is a titanic achievement. A lavish double-disc set streaming in its entirety at Khalife’s Bandcamp site, it juxtaposes ornate western classical orchestration with stark Middle Eastern melodies, both songs and instrumentals. Khalife and guest chanteuse Oumaima Khalil sing in Arabic; the cd booklet supplies English translations. Lyrical themes are alluded to via imagery far more often than they’re stated outright: it’s typical of Darwish’s poetry that what isn’t said that often resonates most powerfully. This is one of the most gripping and powerful albums in recent memory.
The title cut, a lavish, balletesque orchestral piece, could be Morricone, or a Rachmaninoff symphonic dance with Middle Eastern tonalities. The most vividly affecting of all the songs is Mohammad, a plaintive portrait of a child in a battle zone, sung a-cappella by Khalil. Themes of exile and longing for home run deep here, unsurprising considering that Darwish was Palestinian. The concluding song, The Damascene Collar of the Dove, pictures a fugitive back in Damascus, knowing that absolutely nothing will ever be the same again. Like many of the songs here, it’s a diptych, a vintage-style levantine melody that begins with an unnamed qanun player taking the lead and follows an increasingly haunting series of variations on a brooding theme that rests uneasily between traditional motifs and an angst-driven western sensibility: in that sense, the music perfectly matches the lyric. That occurs again and again not only throughout the album, but throughout the collaboration between Khalife and Darwish, brothers in arms in so many respects.
The rest of the album is more elusive, and allusive. The opening track, The Pigeons Fly begins with elegantly pensive piano by Rami Khalife, son of Marcel. Even when he solos, Marcel Khalife’s oud playing here, and throughout the album, is precise and biting but also understated, as are his vocals: his music has always been about intention rather than ostentation. What’s essentially a deftly orchestrated, acoustic levantine pop song speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring edge, following Darwish’s surreal imagery: “We are ours when a shadow enters its shadow in marble, and when I hang myself it is myself I resemble on a neck that embraces only clouds.” A refugee’s tale, And We Love Life sets a dark vamp to funky syncopation that grows more insistent as the melody weaves between the oud, the bass (played either by longtime Khalife collaborator Peter Herbert or Mark Helias – the liner notes don’t say who) and Khalife’s percussionist son Bachar. It’s a chilling piece of music: “We find a place to settle, plant some fast-growing crops and harvest the dead.”
The Stranger’s Bed, a sonata of sorts, features intricately wary interplay between Bachar Khalife’s piano and Fabio Presgrave’s cello. Oh My Proud Wound, a habibi ballad for a lost land, has Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet reaching the highs usually carried by a ney flute in this kind of music, with a characteristically soaring, terse solo as it reaches a distantly anguished swell. Houriyeh’s Instructions – a rather nostalgic litany of advice from mom – evokes the classic Ya Rayyeh, from an otherworldly intro to its lush guy/girl harmonies. Of all the diptychs here, Now, In Exile is the most eclectic, with a suspenseful but punchy opening bass solo with Led Zep echoes, then a dancing theme that first goes carefree but soon brings in the clouds. From Darwish’s final work, In the Presence of Absence, it’s an elegy for an old lion of the revolution who can see the end coming.
A Song on My Mind, with Anthony Millet’s accordion playing sleek lines in the midst of all the strings, has the cinematic sweep of a classic Abdel Wahab number, juxtaposing bloody wartime imagery with the memory of when the locals were the only ones who fenced off the olive groves. Two other tracks, Remember and The Poem of the Land (an “over my dead body” theme) set trickly rhythmic Middle Eastern themes to swirling art-rock arrangments not unlike the Moody Blues at their peak. The most memorable of all the melodies here might be Palestinian Mawwal, whose warily circling string intro grows into a gingerly crescendoing Middle Eastern orchestrated dance interrupted by gunshot percussion.
There’s also an Andalusian-flavored dual-guitar instrumental played with precision and fire by Mahmoud Tourkmani; a couple of magnificently orchestrated, acoustic habibi pop tunes; and a lavishly orchestrated waltz with echoes of Beethoven, Celtic music and also a theme from Marcel Khalife’s austerely intense Taqasim album from 2008. For sheer majestic sweep and vision, there’s no other album released this year that can touch this.
The New School’s jazz program turned 25 this year: to celebrate, they threw an eclectic, often transcendent bash last night featuring a mix of jazz legends, alumni, faculty and students, a younger generation practically jumping out of their socks to be playing with icons, the veterans just as psyched to be up there with what could be the next generation of jazz greats. The premise of the night – other than to get more than three hours’ worth of enticing video for students who might be vaccillating between jazz programs – was a tribute to former faculty members Frank Foster and Benny Powell. For whatever reason, the program ended up having more to do with Dizzy Gillespie than the Basie connection those two shared for decades. But what’s unplanned is almost always why jazz is so much fun.
The Foster/Powell tribute kicked off with a blistering version of Foster’s Manhattan Madness. Reggie Workman, as shrewd an observer of talent as there is, introduced the band and told everyone to keep an eye out for pianist Martha Kato, a student. He was right on the money about her: fearless when it came to mining the lowest registers for magisterial power, she showed off a crystalline, bluesy purism that made a perfect match alongside a mix of alums and faculty: Kenyatta Beasley (who conducted the ensemble) ; Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet; Arun Luthra, Keith Loftis and the Cookers’ Billy Harper on saxes; Christopher Stover on trombone; Rory Stuart and Mike Moreno on guitars; Josh Ginsburg on bass; and the Yellowjackets’ Marcus Baylor clattering up a storm on drums. Their take on a series of swing, Afro-Cuban and bossa nova themes reveled in the tunefulness that defined Foster’s repertoire.
The night’s single most transcendent moment was a rich, gospel-infused blues duet between pianist Junior Mance and violinist Michi Fuji. The two play together in Mance’s trio and share a finely attuned chemistry, Fuji adding an element of mystery with judiciously placed glissandos, Mance mimicking Fuji’s attack with some unexpected flutters of his own before returning to an otherworldly glimmer. The two were done all too soon. Mance plays with his trio most Sundays at Cafe Loup on 13th just west of 6th Ave. in case you might need more of him.
Close behind was an expansive, high-energy yet richly dynamic “trumpet battle” led by the great Jimmy Owens in tandem with Bridgewater, a tribute to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Gillespie, Thad Jones and also Thelonious Monk. Owens’ straight-ahead, often slyly witty style paired off with Bridgewater’s artfully ornamented attack; Bridgewater’s decision to do Clifford Brown’s Dahoud as a subdued, plaintive ballad was shatteringly successful. Again, it was a student, bassist Tony Lannen, who held the crowd rapt with both his wit – it takes nerve to punctuate your first solo of the night with a joke and make it resound like he did – and then a bristlingly precise, rapidfire spot later on which he played entirely with his bow. Meanwhile, Winard Harper put on a clinic in joyous, counterintuitive, latin-tinged beats: when he finally got a solo, it was all avant garde sticks and hardware and rims, and yet purist in a way that drew a straight line back to Elvin Jones. At one point, Owens wanted to take it all the way down to just his horn, but pianist JoAnne Brackeen wasn’t looking up: she’d become one with the resonant sheets of Monk she was playing at that point. Another up-and-coming talent, Alejandro Berti, joined in a genially crescendoing round-robin of trumpets to wind up the set on a literally high note.
For the night’s second duet, faculty pianist Andy Milne joined forces with Swiss harmonicist Gregoire Maret for a radical, slowly unwinding, atonalist reinterpretation of Body and Soul. The night ended on with the more traditionally ecstatic sounds of the Eyal Vilner Big Band, first backing nonagenarian tenor player Frank Wess and then fellow tenor legend Jimmy Heath, who’s five years his junior. Wess embodied pure soul, matched nuance to energy and got two standing ovations out of it; Heath, eternally youthful, refused to take a seat, cheered on his new bandmates – Mike McGarill, Tom Abbott, Lucas Pino, Asaf Yuria and big baritone guy Jason Marshall on saxes; the explosive Cameron Johnson and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet; Ivan Malespin and John Mosca on trombones; Yonatan Riklis on piano and Mike Karn on bass, with drummer Joe Strasser showing off a nimble originality matched to a power that never quite exploded – clearly, he was feeling the room and played to it perfectly. Chanteuse Brianna Thomas – whom none other than Will Friedwald has anointed as arguably the new generation’s finest straight-ahead jazz singer – joined them and battled a nonresponsive PA to put her message of sass and style across vividly in a rousing take of Lover, Come Back to Me. Otherwise, Vilner’s arrangements of Bud Powell (a potently percussive Un Poco Loco) and Diz nimbly articulated voices throughout the ensemble, Vilner himself taking the occasionally understated bluesy solo spots on alto sax. When they closed with what sounded like a Gillespie reworking of a Louis Jordan jump blues, Heath grinned and looked on deviously before choosing his spot to join in the raucous riffage as it wound out. It was something of a shock to see a handful of empty seats: concerts with the sheer magnitude of this one don’t come along every day.
The New School may not have weekly concerts like they had back in the early days, but those they do have tend to be extraordinary: both Marc Ribot (with his noir soundtrack project) and Ethiopian jazz masters Either/Orchestra have delivered equally sensational concerts here in recent months, something to keep in mind if you’re looking for major live jazz events percolating just under the radar.
This season’s concluding concert of the New York Festival of Song series Tuesday night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center was characteristically challenging and entertaining. NYFOS’ definition of art-song takes the idea of lieder (essentially, operatic songs without the opera) and brings it into the 21st century, musically and lyrically. Some of the works on the bill were basically opera songs but a lot weren’t, with a nod to the adventurous downtown 80s and what are turning out to be the equally adventurous teens. Put together by New Yorker scribe (and prolific art-song writer and advocate) Russell Platt, it teamed a talented parade of singers with versatile pianist Thomas Sauer, who deserved top billing here for tackling a dizzyingly diverse, technically challenging series of compositions and pulling them off with flair and sensitivity. Platt explained that this year’s theme was “a snapshot of Generation X music,” which for him meant taking “an irreverent tone to text.” Which when you think about it is punk rock, pure and simple: it may be more comforting than accurate to assign credit to GenX for much more than effeteness, at least as far as the arts are concerned.
The highlight of the evening was a trio of songs by Lisa Bielawa, a powerful and eclectic composer who looks back far beyond her own generation – in this particular case, to Franz Kafka. Violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt smartly chose to read the texts before launching into the songs (written for her by Bielawa around 2001-03), alongside Matthias Bossi on pump organ and percussion. A parable of the longing to find order in disorder was vividly anxious, lit up with the violin’s quavery intensity, overtones and glissandos against the organ’s placid tones, followed by a more playful take on existential angst and then a piece about the nature of ghosts illustrated with sepulchrally muted pizzicato. Kihlstedt followed this with her own take on a Robert Louis Stevenson poem on a “nevermore” theme, which she’d discovered via a Google search (could it be that the Edgar Allen Poe estate or its equivalent needs to pay off Google to get top billing for that particular keyword?). She began on trumpet-violin, again contrasting against the warm washes of the organ, eventually switching to violin for a bitingly rustic, minor-key theme that eventually came full circle, ending pensively and unresolved.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night was a parody of MTA snafus and subway announcements written by Gilda Lyons, delivered with grand guignol drama, a-cappella, by Sarah Wolfson and Blythe Gaissert. In its own cruelly sarcastic way, it was just as Kafkaesque as Bielawa’s songs. Harold Meltzer also contributed three settings of texts by Ohio poet James Wright, given coloratura nuance by tenor Kyle Bielfield over piano melodies that ranged from creepy, inchoate iciness, to Pat Metheny-ish meandering against a central tone, to allusions to gospel and the blues, all handled deftly by Sauer. A sadness pervaded all of them, roadkill juxtaposed against dead dreams and unrequited homoeroticism.
And Platt also included a quartet of his own songs, mining a similarly dispirited Midwestern milieu via texts by Paul Muldoon set to noirish, chromatically-fueled piano that ranged from bracing atonalism to neoromantic angst. Bass-baritone Mischa Bouvier dignified these portraits of a smaller, claustrophobic world (Platt spent some time there after college and clearly wanted out) with a raw, rugged intensity, finding drama in the seemingly mundane without going over the top, at least for the most part.
Not everything on the bill was as successful. Sometimes the stylized “scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the fandango” operatics (Bouvier found himself rolling his R’s periodically although he was singing in English) overwhelmed the content. And a coy hail-mary pass, sort of a composer’s equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” should have been left on the rehearsal room floor. Still, it was good to see a full house respond enthusiastically to a program that so often embraced the cutting edge.
There’s a school of thought that considers the string quartet repertoire to be the world’s most exciting music – an opinion advanced mostly by people who play those works. The Cypress String Quartet’s new triple-disc set of late Beethoven string quartets (Op. 127, 130,131, 132, 133 and 135) is an album for people who share that point of view. It’s less radical an interpretation than it might seem: in fact, it’s about as retro as possible, simply a dedication to following Beethoven’s dynamics to the letter. It may be the most Beethovenesque of all the recordings out there: the old grump, if he could have heard this, no doubt would have approved. Partial, and very noteworthy, credit goes to the Quartet’s Cecily Ward, who produced the album: all the close-miking and attention to minute detail pays off with a brightly bristling, intense intimacy enhanced even further via headphones. While you will find yourself having to adjust the volume periodically, that’s the way Beethoven undoubtedly would have intended it. But ultimately it’s the playing even more than the production here that steals the show, a powerful, dynamically charged performance that refuses to back away from storminess while also embracing the quietest passages with a gentle rapturousness that adds just as much power and insight. You could spend the better part of a week downloading every recording of these works available on the web, but ultimately this collection might be the more cost-effective choice.
Suffice it to say that Beethoven’s late quartets are arguably the high point of a career spent pushing the envelope, a feat even more noteworthy considering that he was in ill health and could increasingly hear only less and less of what he was writing. Violinists Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel celebrate the unexpected throughout these works: the attention to detail is astounding. Unexpected passages leap out at you and are every bit as interesting as the main themes, sometimes more so. For example, in Op. 127, the second movement becomes much more of a nocturne than a courtly waltz; and then the ensemble gives it a suspenseful bounce. Suspense is the key to so much here: the sudden swells and pervasive unease in the following movement; the briskly wintry foreshadowing of the first movement of Op. 132; the emphatic oomph that springs out of its waltzing third movement; Kloetzel’s cello as omnipresent reality check beneath the hypnotic dreaminess of the fourth movement of Op. 131; the spacious pacing of brooding swells within the comfortable crepulscule atmospherics of Op. 135’s second movement; and the absolutely macabre, insistent tritones of that work’s final movement, the Quartet allowing the frantic horror to linger even as the passage recedes into Haydnesque pleasantry. It would take a small book to list all the highlights. For a more in-depth look at disc two, here’s a review of that one (with Op. 130 and both its “final” ending and the famous Grosse Fugue that Stravinsky reputedly picked as his alltime favorite composition), previously issued as a stand-alone disc toward the end of 2010.
Conceivably, at low volume, this might make suitable background music, although at too low a volume, considering the dynamics, the music fades in and out. But this wasn’t created as background music: this recording is for anyone who would prefer to revel in the power and vast emotional scope of these immortal works. The Cypress String Quartet have a couple of New York shows this month celebrating the release of this album: Wednesday the 25th they’re playing a free show at 7 PM in the auditorium of the computer store at 1981 Broadway on the upper west, with a benefit concert at PS321 at 100 Attorney St. on the Lower East Side at 7 PM on the 26th.
The Turksoy Symphony Orchestra made their debut last night at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Most ensembles typically take an easier road to the spotlight. But this trans-Caucasian orchestra (a combined project of cultural organizations in Turkey plus several neighboring nations) more than validated the herculean effort of staging Adnan Saygun’s Yunus Emre Oratorio. Conductor Rengin Gokmen led the orchestra with a majestic, epic sweep, augmented mightily by roughly 120-piece choir the Jonathan Griffith Singers plus soprano Esin Talinli, mezzo-soprano Ferda Yetiser, tenor Senol Talinli and bass Tuncay Kurtoglu. A 1947 work premiered in the United States eleven years later by Leopold Stokowski, it’s robust, often haunting and worthy of Shostakovich. To witness it staged at all, let alone outside its native Turkey, was a rare thrill: even what appeared to be a brief medical crisis involving one of the choir onstage couldn’t derail this juggernaut.
It’s meant to illustrate a rather grisly, death-fixated 13th century poem by Yunus Emre, who is to Turkey what Rumi is to Iran, or Chaucer is to the UK. The most resonant of its many themes is the low, ominous, introductory low-string movement which follows an apprehensive trajectory as it recurs in various guises including a waltz neart the end, the orchestra giving it a resonant bulk and heft. It was a reminder of how close Turkey is to Russia, and how much cross-pollination there’s been between throughout the Caucasus over the years. Saygun is remembered best for employing traditional Anatolian melodies within a post-Romantic architecture, and this is a prime example. As one might expect of Turkish music, several other themes are introduced by a clarinet – this ensemble’s first chair exhibited a crystalline clarity but also tremendous nuance, no surprise considering that Turkey is a hotbed of good reed players. As one might also expect in such a dark work, Kurtoglu got most of the meatiest lines and made the most of them, contrasting with considerable plaintive harmonizing between the Talinlis, and as the work resolutely reached critical mass (and an explosively ecstatic false ending), by the entire crowd of voices.
As the poem’s foresaken narrator eventually gives up hope of any kind of reconnection with lost friends or earthly redemption, the music becomes more rapt and, perhaps ironically, considerably more hopeful. Gokmen and the ensembles made this significant thematic shift seem like a natural progression, bringing an optimistic glimmer out of the darkness to end this harrowing work on an unexpectedly upbeat note that could have been anticlimactic to the extreme but wasn’t.
“This is our whistle-stop tour of Renaissance polyphony,” Stile Antico tenor Andrew Griffiths nonchalantly explained at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin last night, the concluding concert of this season’s Miller Theatre early music series. He was being somewhat disingenuous: the self-directed twelve-piece choir (six men, six women), arguably the hottest ticket in early music for the last couple of years, are dead-serious when it comes to their repertoire, but otherwise not very much at all. Griffiths seems to be the most gregarious out of possibly several cutups in the group: the subtext was that the ensemble was here to span their favorite era with a “treasures of the Renaissance” program of relatively short works, some showstoppers, some more somber, with a deliciously unexpected highlight of far more recent vintage.
That was John McCabe’s Woefully Arranged, a new commission by the choir based on a William Cornysh setting of a Christ-on-the-cross text probably dating from the early 1500s. Tense to the breaking point with sustained close harmonies versus rhythmic bursts, it was the darkest and most stunning moment of the night. Quasi-operatic outrage gave way at the end to organlike atonalities so richly atmospheric and perfectly executed that it seemed for a moment that the church’s mighty organ had actually taken over. This group’s blend of voices is especially well-anchored by basses Will Dawes, Oliver Hunt and James Arthur (subbing for Matthew O’Donovan, who had nonetheless provided very useful historical notes for the program), a launching pad for the sopranos, notably Helen Ashby – one of this era’s most electrifying voices, who always gets top billing with this group – but also Kate Ashby (her sister) and Rebecca Hickey, who share a finely honed but penetrating, crystalline style.
The rest of the program was characteristically insightful and otherworldly, that is, when it wasn’t festive, as it was when the group romped joyously through Palestrina’s brief Exultate Deo. After the serene, celestial translucence of Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s mid-1500s Ego Flos Campi, they brought the energy up with the far more lively, rhythmic Laetentur Coeli of William Byrd, from about fifty years later. They soared from plaintive suspense to the exalted anthemic melodicism of Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium, then expertly negotiated the labyrinthine counterpoint of another, rather stern Tallis work, Why Fum’th in Fight. The haunting, gothic side of this music was most potently represented via a Spanish piece, Rodrigo de Ceballos’ Hortus Conclusus (Secret Garden), echoed afterward by a smaller version of the ensemble where four members stepped aside, leaving the rest to do a stately take of Sebastian deVivanco’s Veni, Dilecti Mi. The group closed with Pretorius’ famous Tota Pulchra Est, which they very smartly held back from the unbridled exuberance that church choirs typically imbue this piece with: the subtle precision served them especially well when a series of clever echo effects came around at the end. The crowd wouldn’t let them go without an encore, so they obliged with a matter-of-fact take on the hymn Never Weather-Beaten Sail, a track from their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi).
The Miller Theatre holds these concerts at “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. rather than at their usual space uptown since the sonics here make such a good fit for the programming, a mix of choral and chamber concerts featuring international touring acts along with some of the creme de la creme of the Gotham early music scene.
Since when, in 2012, could a performance of Beethoven piano sonatas possibly be newsworthy? Doesn’t it make more sense to spread the word about new composers pushing the envelope and putting new ideas to work? To a degree, yes, but Beethoven was doing that two hundred years ago. That his “transcendent sonatas” could be as transcendent and even state-of-the-art today as they were almost two hundred years ago speaks for itself, as Beth Levin reminded a rare, intimate, semi-private gathering at Faust Harrison Pianos (open to the public with RSVP) in midtown last night. It’s one thing to hear these well-loved works late at night while multi-tasking, but nothing beats an immersion in their torrential power and anguish in live setting. Levin’s personal connection and deep affinity for the three Beethoven sonatas on the bill – Nos. 109-111 – made itself obvious from the beginning. But beyond the alternately harrowing and mystical quality of her playing, what was just as revelatory is that she’d programmed the three pieces as a suite. Imputing intentions to an artist or composer can be risky, but by the end of the performance, Levin left no doubt that Beethoven had created these works as an integral whole. Playing a big, robust, restored 1887 Steinway, she brought out every bit of lingering otherworliness in the rapturously hypnotic variations that serve as perhaps the most vivid link connecting the three sonatas, along with plenty of wrathful firepower.
There were brief pauses between the works: each is quite a workout for a performer. “I needed some vodka after that one,” Levin joked after the first. “Me too!” someone in the front row responded. If in fact Levin wasn’t joking and she actually did take a slug, it didn’t affect her. Her prodigious technique is well known, but what was most striking was how closely she followed the trajectory of the pieces, an emotional roller coaster ride. The story of Beethoven being almost completely deaf and in failing health, no doubt exacerbated by heavy drinking, when he wrote these, is also well known – are these works a self-penned obituary, a requiem for a great talent reduced to zero by cruel stroke of fate? This performance offered strong evidence of that.
The high point among many was the third movement of Op. 110, its inescapable, anguished resonance foreshadowing the Chopin E Minor prelude. In retrospect, madness seems to be be emerging from around the corners in Op. 111, although it’s the madness of a genius. That series of simple, argumentative fortissimo pedal chords early on? That blithe scherzo that leaps out of nowhere following one of several long, overtone-inducing trills? Where did that come from? Levin handled them matter-of-factly, one by one, and made them seem completely natural. When the sonata finally closed on an unexpectedly peaceful note – yet another surprise element – the crowd sat reflectively silent for several seconds before rising to their feet, stunned.
The piano showroom is a treasure trove of lustrous Bosendorfers, Steinways, Mason-Hamlins and more, all of which seem to be silently luring the viewer to try out a chord or two – “C minor seventh over here! No, ME, not that one!” – and also features the occasional solo performance by an A-list artist, such as this one. It’s worth bookmarking their site and checking back to see what they might have in store.
Pianist Jenny Q Chai’s Carnegie Hall debut last night was expertly programmed and packed with joie de vivre: she played as if she had a secret and couldn’t wait to share it with everybody. Her approach to a mix of premieres, 20th and 21st century compositions and an old High Romantic concert favorite matched fearsome technique to a confidently matter-of-fact emotional intelligence. When the material called for space, she let it linger, most notably (and amusingly) in one of the world premieres, Inhyun Kim’s Parallel Lines, a playfully rigorous study in parallelistic close harmonies punctuated by a Day in the Life-style sustained pause. The joke going around the hall was that Chai could have rubatoed it if she’d wanted to. And when she had to reach back for all the power and precision she could muster, whether for the cruelly difficult machine-gun staccato passages of Marco Stroppa’s Innige Cavatina (a US premiere), or the torrid, torrential rivulets of Debussy’s Etude No. 6, she awed the crowd with what seemed to be an effortless articulacy.
Yet despite the pyrotechnics, it was Chai’s sensitivity to color, timbre and emotion that resonated the most. She nailgunned the stratospherically high notes in Ashley Fu-tsun Wang’s Current (another world premiere), but let the murky, contrasting depths speak for themselves. It was arguably the high point of the night, icily misty tonalities in a rather Rachmaninovian architecture, alternating between spacious minimalism and jaunty flair. And when Chai reached the final variation on the opening theme, she let it go out on a quietly brooding note which packed quite a wallop.
Messiaen’s Canteyodjaya was a mixed bag: Chai handled its herky-jerky, explosive clusters with aplomb and then seemed to revel in its low, stalking basslines, one of the piece’s high points: it could have been a hit single, so to speak, if Messiaen had only edited it down to the juicy passages. And even a wardrobe malfunction didn’t distract Chai from from expertly negotiating the juxtaposition between jarring dissonance and comfortable resonance in a couple of Kurtag miniatures, Quiet Talk with the Devil and Les Adieux, both selections from his Jaketok suite. After all this harshness, Schumann’s Kreisleriana was dessert, and Chai played it as as bittersweet reminscence rather than nostalgia: her phrasing throughout it, whether the rivulets of the main theme, the stately requiem of sorts, or the closing waltz, was judiciously terse, a fitting elegy for Schumann’s old friend from literature. The crowd roared for an encore and got two: the first, an unfamiliar, fluid miniature that would have made a good theme for the PBS special Springtime in Alaska (or the equivalent), the second a John Cage vocal number that she tapped out on the piano lid as she sang.
The MATA Festival continues tonight and tomorrow night at Roulette’s spacious new digs in Brooklyn across the street from Hank’s Saloon, a thirty-second hop from the Atlantic Avenue subway. If the rest of the program is as richly enjoyable as last night’s was, it’ll be one of the high-water marks of what’s been so far a great year for live music. Tonight features composer-performers including fascinating sound-sculptor Leslie Flanigan along with Cecilia Lopez and Eli Kelzer; tomorrow’s bill features SIGNAL playing works by Francesco Filidei and David Coll, plus a viola quartet by Eric Wubbels and a piece for solo kantele (Finnish autoharp) by Alex Freeman along with the charismatically pyrotechnic Kathleen Supove attacking an Ivan Orozco composition.
MATA has come a long way since it was Music at the Anthology (meaning Anthology Film Archives) about a dozen years ago; this particular program had an ambitiously global scope, with two equally ambitious ensembles, all-female German recorder ensemble QNG (Susanne Fröhlich, Yoshiko Klein,Miako Klein and Heide Schwarz) alternating with the JACK Quartet (violinists Christopher Otto, Caleb Burhans, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Kevin McFarland). Both groups were playing with ringers – QNG with Yoshiko Klein subbing for Andrea Guttman, and Burhans filling in for JACK’s Ari Streisfeld – and each player blended in flawlessly.
QNG opened, tackling Qin Yi’s new Sound Shadow. Dancing and rippling with a staccato pointillism, the group held it together with a pinpoint rhythmic insistence: Messiaen’s birdsong as Bach might have orchestrated it. It would be difficult enough as a work for piano: it must be doubly so for wind instruments. Even a sonic crisis midway through couldn’t derail the JACK Quartet’s first assignment, a Huck Hodge partita that played permutations of the word “refuse.” Up and away with a swirl they went, the jaggedly acidic tone poem’s microtones pulling hard against a wavery central anchor, bracingly and intensely. A bell-like chorus shot off glissandos like roman candles, atmospherics evoking an accordion with half the keys held down, and an off-center call from the viola and cello against an increasingly agitated, eventually horrified thicket of violins that finally wound up with a grinding, gnashing march. It wasn’t the biggest audience hit of the night – that would come a little later – but it was the most exhilarating piece of music. Their take on a second tone poem, Icelandic composer Hugi Gudmunsson’s Matins, a pastorale depicting sunrise over the mountains, was every bit as cinematically majestic as anyone could possibly want, yet without being the least bit over-the-top.
Frohlich played Oscar Bianchi’s Crepuscolo, from 2004, solo, powerfully amplified so as to capture the most minute sonics escaping from her mighty multi-chamber large-scale recorder. Considering how vast the piece’s dynamic range would become, it’s a good thing she started as quietly as she did, especially since it involves percussion on the recorder almost as much as melody. Precisely oscillating riffs tiptoed, then scurried, then helicoptered suddenly and explosively out of suspenseful stillness, careening off the walls of the theatre. It’s amazing that a single recorder could create such a vast and assaultive array of sounds, especially the low-register ones, and quite the herculean feat to witness, never mind attempt. Frohlich has a place on an Olympic team waiting for her somewhere if she ever gets sick of music.
QNG followed with Gordon Beeferman’s Passages, whose rapt, organ-like ambience offered not the slightest hint of the rousing roller-coaster ride of swoops and dives the group would get to joyously swing through before returning comfortably home. The concert ended with both ensembles joining forces for a mutual commission, Yotam Haber’s Estro Poetico-Armonico. The Vivaldi allusion came through vividly: Haber based this on Benedetto Marcello’s final transcription of a series of psalms sung in a baroque-era Venetian synagogue. Through a glass darkly, it fluttered, microtonal curliques rising, obscuring and then backing away, elegantly ceding centerstage to the stately, wary, old-world stained-glass ambience.
Here’s a killer concert for jazz fans in New York: this coming Wednesday, April 25 at 7:30 PM at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium at 66 W 12th St., a mix of hall-of-famers and rising stars get together to celebrate 25 years of the New School’s well-regarded jazz program. $30 tickets (a real bargain considering who’s on the bill) are still available as of this writing: your best bet is to call ahead to 212-229-5488 and make sure since tix go fast once word gets out. If you want to stop by and pick them up, the box office is open Monday-Thursday 4-7 PM and Friday 3-6 PM. Here’s the lineup:
– A tribute to Frank Foster and Benny Powell led by trumpeter/arranger Kenyatta Beasley, with Keith Loftis, tenor/soprano sax; Arun Luthra, alto sax; Chris Stover, trombone; Martha Kato, piano; Josh Ginsburg, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums; Billy Harper, tenor sax; Rory Stuart, guitar
– Piano duos with Junior Mance and violinist Michi Fuji plus Andy Milne and harmonicist Gregoire Maret
– A trumpet battle led by Jimmy Owens along with Alejandro Barti and Cecil Bridgewater with JoAnn Brackeen on piano, Tony Lannen on bass and Winand Harper on drums
– The Eyal Vilner Big Band, composed of New School alumni and joined by Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess plus Eyal Vilner, arranger/saxophone; Mike McGarill, alto/flute; Tom Abbott, alto/clarinet; Lucas Pino, tenor/clarinet; Asaf Yuria, tenor; Jason Marshall, Bari/bass clarinet; Cameron Johnson, trumpet; Takuya Kuroda, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ivan Malespin, trombone; John Mosca, trombone; Yonatan Riklis, piano; Mike Karn, bass; Joe Strasser, drums; Brianna Thomas, vocal.
See you there!