An image of a person or an object which is grossly distorted is typically perceived as cartoonish. But take a portrait and distort the eyes, or the mouth, or the teeth just a little, and suddenly it becomes grotesque, even menacing. That’s exactly what guitarist David Fiuczynski does on his latest album, Planet Microjam, and that’s why it’s one of the most deliciously creepy releases of recent years. He uses familiar architecture – jazz, funk, classical and even a reggae groove or two – as a framework for slippery, quavery tonalities that refuse to resolve in any ordinary sense. The average listener might say that he sounds like he’s playing out of tune, which actually is just the opposite of what’s happening: there’s a very distinct (and fascinating, and often thrilling) harmonic language here, it’s just that he and his bandmates seem to be the only ones who speak it. The group includes Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr.
Obviously, microtonal music has been around for centuries. Every time a horn player or guitarist hits a blue note, that’s a microtone; rock bands like Public Image Ltd. and Sonic Youth built careers out of shimmery, otherworldly guitar sonics that resonate beyond the usual major and minor scales. One of Fiuczynski’s many tricks here is to do the opposite of what a blues or jazz guitarist typically does, bending a note to add an element of tension: playing a fretless or quartertone guitar, he hits a note that in the western scale would be considered flat, then bends that upward to land squarely where he’s going. There are plenty of other tricks here, some borrowed from Indian and Asian music, some uniquely his own, and he blends them artfully for an effect that ranges from chilling to comedic. Fiuczynski can be very funny: there are a couple of instances where he does a “look, ma, see how many notes there are in this scale” thing, other times doing microtonal Wes Montgomery, or a twisted fanfare, or an off-key quote or two. But most of the album is serious and disconcerting.
With the exception of a spaciously bucolic arrangement of a traditional Chinese melody, this is an upper-register album: there aren’t a lot of low notes, even from the bass and the piano. Fiuczynski will frequently wiggle around a note in the style of a Hawaiian slack key guitarist; other times, he swoops and dives like a sitarist, plays with a slide or matter-of-factly walks his way through the wobbly sonics. The album opens cleverly with Micro Emperor, an arrangement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, reinvented as a rather joyous Indian-flavored dance. Lebedev’s piano offers artful chromatic allusions to his bandmates’ murkily keening tonalities on the second track, set to a slow, sludgy reggae-tinged groove. There are two tracks based on a quartertone string quartet by Julian Carrilo: the first pensive and blues-tinted, the second a sinister, Lynchian nocturne with a delicious contrapuntal guitar interlude. Sun Ra’s Sun Song gets redone as a cross between a slide blues and a sitar piece (although it isn’t exactly either one); they follow that with Fiuczynski’s Horos Fuzitivos, a cryptic, energetic, microtonal take on current-day gypsy jazz fusion. A little later they slide into a spacious approximation of a tango, DeJohnette’s quiet rumble enhancing the otherworldly mood.
A minimalist, querulous mini-raga, Green Lament segues into the album’s most intense, memorable track, the aptly titled Apprehension. That one begins with warped washes of sound over tricky polyrhythms, stretches out with an anxious, sustained violin solo, muddles around and then winds down like a broken toy at the end. The album ends on an equally anxious, unresolved note with a dark solo guitar piece featuring samples of Fiuczynski’s dog. In a 25-plus year career distinguished by a distinctive, idiosyncratic style and prodigious chops that are equally at home in funk, metal, jazz and Middle Eastern music, most notably with his Moroccan-inspired Kif ensemble, this is the best thing Fiuczynski has ever done. No doubt there’ll more of it.
Blues pianist/chanteuse Dianne Nola has a gorgeously purist album out titled Queen Bee, after the Slim Harpo song, which she imaginatively covers. Nola is oldschool: her playing is judicious. It’s clear that she knows Otis Spann and James P. Johnson, and she’s got a jackhammer left hand – we’re talking McCoy Tyner power here – and a sense of melody that likes the occasional wry flourish to drive a phrase home, but stays within the song. You won’t hear any endless volleys of Professor Longhair licks here, or for that matter, any cliches. Nola has a message to get out and that message is soul. Vocally, she’s a jazz singer at heart, but she doesn’t clutter the songs: her approach to the lyrics mirrors how she plays the piano, tersely and purposefully, as informed by gospel as it is the blues.
Most of the songs here are solo piano and vocals; multi-reedman Ralph Carney serves as a one-man dixieland band on the slow, torchy opening track, Down in the Dumps, and the closing cut, a tongue-in-cheek original, Garbage Man, which adds bluesy double meaning to the exasperated story of a woman trying to get some rest during the usual morning rattle and clatter. And blues harpist Jimmy Sweetwater adds some thoughtfully crescendoing work, notably on the sultry, swinging Do Your Duty, which hitches a restrained gospel joy to a New Orleans groove.
The covers here get an imaginative reworking: See See Rider is reinvented as languid boudoir ragtime, while a hard-hitting version of Leadbelly’s Grasshoppers in My Pillow plays up the lyric’s bizarrely surreal angst. Sippie Wallace’s Mighty Tight Woman is the most straight-up, matter-of-fact number, punctuated by a washboard solo. The title track hits with a resolute force, while Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me gets a twinkling, suspenseful approach, appropriate for a blueswoman who refuses to settle. But the originals here are the best. Free showcases Nola’s soaring upper register: this carpe diem anthem wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez songbook. By contrast, Pocketful of Blue comes together slowly, like Nina Simone would do in concert, and then works a dangerous, darkly sensual soul groove. It’s the most overtly jazzy track here and a quietly moody showcase for Nola’s ability to mine a subtly brooding phrase.
At her New York gig last week with the reliably charismatic LJ Murphy, Nola proved to be every bit the match for the noir bluesman, scatting her way cleverly through an a-cappella number and then joining him for a memorably careening duet. Watch this space for future shows.
Last night the Escher String Quartet wound up this season’s characteristically eclectic Music Mondays series on the upper west side with an equally eclectic and intuitive performance. Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 6. in F Minor, Op. 80 was first on the bill. It’s one of the most impactful, stormily poignant pieces of music he ever wrote, and his last major work. We tend to forget how young he died: it’s a cruel reminder of the other masterpieces he might have been able to create. The ensemble dug in hard, anchored by the viola of Pierre Lapointe and the cello of Dane Johansen as it churned with an outright angst that this composer seldom alluded to so directly, the first movement’s abrupt tempo change coming as a genuine surprise. They turned the courtly dance of a second movement into a bitter, tearstained anthem and let the triumph of the final movement speak for itself without taking it up much further: the depth of this piece lingered long after it was done.
Which was all the more remarkable considering that the second work on the bill was Australian composer Brett Dean’s 2002 triptych Eclipse, inspired by the cruel fate of the waves of refugees taking to the Indian Ocean in decrepit vessels around that time. The quartet gave a tightly wound luminosity to its quietly shrieking, atonally shifting sheets of sound, negotiated the tricky rhythms of a weirdly spacious pizzicato interlude and then brought a semblance of closure as it wound down with a hypnotic sostenuto on the stratospherically elegant wings of Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie’s violins. As radically different as it was from the Mendelssohn, it made an emotionally apt segue. The quartet closed with Zemlinsky’s Quartet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 4. Lapointe mentioned beforehand that it harks back to Schumann, and it does, but there are also echoes of Alban Berg in its uneasy, defiant absence of resolution: High Romantic architecture incorporating remarkably modern tonalities. It made an unexpectly strong segue with the even uneasier works on the bill yet managed to send the crowd out on a note that at least intimated that things would be somewhat less arduous. It’s not every day that an ensemble tackles a program this brave and challenging, from both a musical and emotional perspective.
Brian Charette’s an interesting guy. He practices an unorthodox style of kung fu; he writes authoritatively on topics like chord voicings in Messiaen; and he plays the Hammond B3 organ like no other jazz musician. That might be because he was on the fast track to a career in classical music before being sidelined by a severe finger injury. So he went into jazz, and the world is richer for it. Charette employs every inch of his B3 for an unexpectedly diverse, rich sonic spectrum. His compositions are counterintuitive, catchy and clever, but not too clever by half. His latest album, Music for Organ Sextette is cerebral and witty, packed with good tunes and good ideas: it shifts the paradigm as far as carving out a place for the organ in jazz is concerned. The band here is superb and rises to the occasion, with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums.
Bright and ambitious, the opening track, Computer God sets the tone, the organ against punchy punctuation from ensemble horns over a bossa beat that morphs into a vivid dichotomy between wicked chromatic chorus and a tricky, circular, riff-driven verse. Charette’s use of the organ’s highest, most keening tones, along with DiRubbo’s occasional diversion into microtones, adds edge and bite. They follow that with a miniature straight out of Scarlatti, Fugue for Katheleen Anne, and then into the Ex Girlfriend Variations, who if the music is to be believed is a nice girl but she just won’t shut up. It’s a soul song, essentially, building to a nimbly orchestrated thicket of individual voices and New Orleans allusions that threaten to completely fall apart but never do. A study in incessant tempo shifts, Risk disguises a soul/blues tune within all kinds of hijinks: a coy fake fanfare from Frahm, an unselfconscious yelp from Charette and an irresistibly amusing trick ending. The funniest track here is The Elvira Pacifier, a spot-on parody of a device that every Jamaican roots reggae band always overdoes in concert. It gives Rueckert the chance to prove he’s a mighty one-drop player; Frahm acquits himself well at ska, but DiRubbo and Ellis don’t take it seriously at all. As they probably shouldn’t.
Equal Opportunity offers a launching pad for all kinds of dynamic contrasts: shifting use of space, lead-ins stepping all over outros, whispery lows versus blithe highs, Charette and DiRubbo using every inch of their registers. Prayer for an Agnostic proves the band just as adept at a slow, sweet 6/8 gospel groove, lit up by a spiraling Collins solo; Late Night TV explores a wry, sometimes tongue-in-cheek go-go vibe and then hits unexpectedly joyous heights. French Birds, a slyly polyrhythmic swing tune, features all kinds of nimble accents from Rueckert and reaches for noir ambience, followed by the creepiest track here, Mode for Sean Wayland, jagged funk juxtaposed against eerie, otherworldly interludes that make psychedelia out of big Messiaenesque block chords. The album ends with Tambourine, the album’s one funky “Chicken Shack” moment that takes a jaunty turn in a Booker T direction. It’s a fun ride, and will make new believers of jazz fans who might mistakenly think that all B3 grooves are created equal.
Organist Christopher Houlihan Explains His Marathon Celebration of the Great, Underrated Composer Louis Vierne
This coming June 2 at the Church of the Ascension, 5th Ave. at 10th St., renowned organist Christopher Houlihan plays symphonic works by legendary, cutting-edge French composer Louis Vierne to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne’s dramatic death. At 3 PM Houlihan plays Symphonies No. 1, 3 and 5; and at 7:30 PM, Symphonies No. 2, 4 and 6. Houlihan managed to take some time away from rehearsals to shed some light on this herculean endeavor.
Lucid Culture: First of all, congratulations for creating www.vierne2012.com. As you’ll remember, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times created a stir with his “ten best composers of alltime” list last year. It inspired me to come up with one of my own, and I picked Louis Vierne as one of my top ten. Why do you think such an extraordinary and eclectic composer isn’t better known?
Christopher Houlihan: Good choice! If Vierne is remembered at all, he is thought of as a composer of organ music. He certainly wrote some of his greatest music for the organ, but that only makes up a very small part of his output, actually. I’ve gotten to know some of his other compositions while I’ve been preparing the six symphonies and have to say – his other music is stunning. The Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet are particular favorites of mine. I think the reason he’s largely unknown is because his musical language was fairly conservative by early 20th century standards. He identified more with the style of Franck than Debussy. But the musical world of Paris surrounding Vierne was hearing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Rite of Spring. Vierne’s music is spectacular, but wasn’t as shocking as the other music of his time. That being said, nothing like these symphonies had ever been written for the organ before!
LC: Would you agree that Vierne’s career mirrors the paradigm shifting from Romanticism to Modernism just as much as, say, Debussy’s or Ravel’s, both of whom were his contemporaries?
CH: I’d actually say Vierne was firmly planted in Romanticism and not much of a modernist. His music definitely becomes more and more chromatic as he ages, but it is always rooted in tonality. His musical structures are always very clear. I think it just took organ music a lot longer to catch up with Romanticism than the rest of the music world – after Bach, there was very little significant organ music written until Mendelssohn and Franck in the mid-nineteenth century!
LC: For those who aren’t familiar with the organ demimonde and its history, can you explain the rather grisly events of June 2, 1937 in the organ console at Notre-Dame in Paris?
CH: After the clergy of Notre-Dame decided that organ recitals weren’t going to be allowed in the cathedral any longer, a “final” recital was planned. Vierne finished playing his Triptyque, then was programmed to perform an improvisation – something French organists are famous for. He set up the organ’s stops…then he had a heart attack! His foot landed on low E, and everyone in the audience thought it was the start of the improvisation, but he had actually died! Because the story of his death is so legendary, I think it’s very appropriate to commemorate the 75th anniversary with a celebration of his music. I’m constantly reminded not to reenact his death as well!
LC: Vierne had a tough life – a gentle soul who was practically blind since childhood, who lost family and friends in World War I, was forced to tour the US to raise funds to repair the organ at Notre Dame after the war…the list goes on. To what extent do you think Vierne transcended his suffering?
CH: Vierne was used to overcoming setbacks: he learned to play the organ despite being blind! The organ is probably more complicated than any other solo instrument, and that’s if you can see! So, I think he transcended his suffering a great deal. Sure, in a lot of his music one can really sense this was a man who knew suffering, but there is almost always extreme joy and beauty alongside the angst. One can’t hear the Final to the Sixth Symphony and think Vierne was anything but an optimist.
LC: Much of Vierne’s work has been described as diabolical, especially Symphony No. 3 – which you’re playing on June 2 here in New York. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?
CH: Much of it is diabolical, but that’s really only gives half of the picture. His music is also very sensual, playful, silly, and joyful. Vierne’s music explores the full range of human emotion. But when it is diabolical, it doesn’t just rain, it pours! The Final to Symphony 4 is about as wild as it gets.
LC: You’re going to play the entire set of Vierne symphonies – all six – at the Church of the Ascension in the West Village on June 2. Isn’t that a bit much? That’s an enormous amount of music by any standard. The Beatles and the Doors would play four sets a night on the Reeperbahn or at the Fillmore, Muddy Waters would play all night in Chicago juke joints, but what you’re doing is vastly more demanding. What kind of preparation does one have to go through to pull this off?
CH: Sometimes I think I’m a little crazy for doing this, yes! It is a lot of music, in total shortly under four hours worth. But, I chose to perform the symphonies in two halves, odd numbers at 3 PM and even numbers at 7:30 PM. This way, each recital is totally digestible and gives the listener a taste of the changes in Vierne’s style over the course of his life. Preparing this music for performance hasn’t been easy but has been worth every sacrifice: this music deserves to be heard.
LC: Why a fullscale symphony cycle? Why not include some of Vierne’s shorter pieces for variation? Clair de Lune, that gorgeous lullaby, maybe one of the clock chime variations – I’m thinking the Longpont Cathedral, perhaps?
CH: Of course Vierne wrote a lot more for organ than just the Symphonies, but they are really his most monumental works for the instrument. The 24 Fantasy Pieces are sort of like the Debussy Preludes for Piano, some with equally whimsical titles: Naïdes (Water Nymphs), Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), Feux Follets (Will o’ the Wisp), Étoile du soir (Night Star)… these titles almost make you forget the sadness in Vierne’s life!
LC: Are you recording these performances so that we can enjoy them later?
CH: I eventually would love to record the symphonies for a CD release, but don’t think I’ll be releasing any live recordings of these marathons.
LC: New York has many world-famous organs: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue and “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. have tremendous vintage instruments whose tonalities are well-suited to the French Romantic repertoire. Why the Church of the Ascension?
CH: The brand-new organ at the Church of the Ascension is totally unique among instruments in New York and is just perfect for the music of Vierne. It was installed last year, built by the French organ builder Pascal Quorin. It is the only French-built organ in New York City and one of only two in the country. There are certainly no shortage of wonderful North-American built organs here in the city, but this instrument has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that I love. You could even say it does more than just speak with a French accent – it speaks French fluently.
LC: Can I ask you what drew you to the organ initially – and what drew you to Vierne?
CH: I think initially I was drawn to the mechanics and extreme sounds of the organ, as many people are: the buttons, pedals, and keyboards, and the very quiet and very loud sounds the instrument can often produce. What sustains my interest isn’t a love of “the organ,” which can’t create beauty on its own, but my love of the music that’s been written for it and the opportunities I’ve had to share this music with audiences.
I can’t explain why I’ve been drawn to Vierne’s music, but I know what I love about it: it is colorful, dynamic, exciting, and packed with emotion. These symphonies, I think, are not what people expect when they think of organ music, especially because they don’t expect organ music to be so personal. But Vierne’s music is about as intimate as it gets.
LC: To what degree are you preaching to the converted? What I mean to say is that there are those of us who can never get enough Louis Vierne – but most other classical music fans have no idea of who he was or why his music is so relevant and vital to this day. Do you really think you can connect beyond the Pipedreams crowd, such that it is?
CH: I can’t help but think of an interview with the late American organist Robert Glasgow, who was asked – on Pipedreams! – how an audience unfamiliar with the Symphonie Romane of Widor – who was Vierne’s teacher – should approach listening to the work. He simply said: “Don’t worry about whether it’s coming from the organ or not; it’s just music.” And Vierne’s music communicates, plain and simple. I can’t tell you how many times after playing a recital I’ve heard: “This was my first organ concert and I had no idea it was going to be this exciting!” Somehow organ recitals have gained the reputation of being boring, but music like Vierne’s is anything but boring. I know anyone coming to this music for the first time will be very pleasantly surprised at what they find.
A theme and variations in the style of a classical sonata, trombonist Marshall Gilkes’ new Sound Stories is one of the most beautiful albums of nocturnes issued in recent years. Essentially a sequence of songs without words, it’s a richly memorable, warmly enveloping suite, evoking Brahms or Schubert as much as it does Frank Foster or Coltrane in particularly lyrical mode. Gilkes brings a direct clarity but also blues-infused nuance to his phrasing; tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin adds a welcome, occasionally acidic bite when he’s not contributing harmonies amidst the enveloping warmth and glimmer. Bassist Yasuhi Nakamura’s concise, incisive lines and drummer Eric Doob’s purposefully rumbling upward trajectories also serve to elevate Gilkes’ elegant compositions above the level of serene contentment.
A flamenco-infused riff anchored by pedal-point piano opens the first track, Presence, pianist Adam Birnbaum memorably setting the stage for the rest of his performance here with a vividly moody neoromantic waltz interlude. The second part’s variations feature smartly developed interplay between trombone and sax, McCaslin artfully shadowing the melody as it winds out. The second diptych here is perhaps sarcastically titled Anxiety – it’s a casual, unselfconsciously attractive ballad with intriguing dynamic and rhythmic shifts, dancing latin allusions, bass taking over as anchor in place of the piano and McCaslin’s slightly off-center lines adding just enough apprehension to give the listener pause without ruining the mood.
Downtime begins as a march and features some absolutely gorgeous horn harmonies, a tersely attractive bass solo and tinges of Celtic melody. A dramatic fanfare takes centerstage in the funky, early Herbie Hancock-inflected Slashes, a launching pad for some strikingly insistent teamwork between McCaslin and Doob. They go back to third-stream balladry – and a series of droll quotes from standards – with Bare, then build the original theme from slinky bossa to a bustle with Armstrong, the final diptych here, Gilkes taking a turn in the shadow role as a calming counterpart to McCaslin’s animated unease. First Song crystallizes the central theme as a wistful, glimmering cinematic main-titles piece: there’s a film or cable tv show out there that needs this. The final track, Thruway is where Gilkes throws caution to the wind and the band really cuts loose with a salsa-infused improvisational flair: it makes a triumphantly unexpected coda for a work otherwise defined by impeccable craftsmanship. Who is the audience for this? Jazz fans, obviously, although the sheer attractiveness of the tunes here will reach fans of both classical and pop music.
Saxophonist Tom Tallitsch has a strong, diverse and thoroughly enjoyable album, Heads or Tales, out recently with Jared Gold on organ, Dave Allen on guitar and the semi-ubiquitous Mark Ferber on drums. Tallitsch plays with a slightly smoky tone and a light touch, heavy on the nuance which makes him sneaky fast – when he has to drive home a particular phrase, it doesn’t take a lot of effort. The result is impeccable taste: the melodies get plenty of time to breathe here. There are no stampedes to the finish line, but there’s a terrific amount of sympatico playing and strong compositions. Don’t file this one away in the postbop ghetto.
Maybe this is par for course from a guy who can be very allusive, but the album starts off on a bit of a wishy-washy if well-played note with the rhythmically tricky Coming Around, a sort of warmup with lots of steady minor blues scales from Tallitsch and Allen. Then they give you the gem, Tenderfoot, which sounds like a Marc Ribot noir classic, but done as straight-up jazz rather than dramatic, cinematic main title theme. Beginning as a staggered bolero, morphing into a slinky organ boogie lit up by suspenseful staircases by Tallitsch, they swing it through a series of Middle Eastern-tinged riffs and then out with graceful filigrees from Allen. It’s one of the most evocative jazz songs you’ll hear this year.
They follow that up with the briskly walking Double Shot, which is essentially a souped-up blues with Gold at the absolute top of his game as trickster, setting up a satisfying series of alley-oops from Allen early on, harmonizing with Tallitsch and then casually making his way through a cruelly tricky series of right-vs-left rhythms when it’s time for a solo. By contrast, Perry’s Place could be a lakehouse theme – it seems to be the kind of joint where you can start the day at noon with a hot dog and a couple of bloody marys. Contentment and good companionship shine through Allen’s slow, richly judicious solo, Gold’s sunny midsummer chords and then Tallitsch’s methodical arc to a crescendo. Gold goes back to ham it up again in the funk-infused Flat Stanley; later on, The Lummox is Tallitsch’s moment to draw a caricature – in this case, of somebody who’s basically a hopeless doofus even if they have a serious side.
There are three more tunes here. Travel Companion swings with a carefree but purposeful vibe, Tallitsch reaching for the lows on tenor, Gold switching up his pedal rhythm artfully. Dunes vividly depicts a rolling, crepuscular tableau, a suspenseful series of shifts between sax and organ that Allen eventually gets to spice up with additional bounce. The album winds up with Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down, done as you would pretty much expect, understatedly and tastefully, after hearing everything that came before. You could call this a good driving record, and it is, but the thought and creativity that went into it obviously transcends that label: the more you hear it, the better it gets. Another winner from Posi-Tone.
The New York composer/performer collective Counter)Induction has an intriguing collection of new and relatively new chamber works, Group Theory, just out. The quintet of Steven Beck on piano, Miranda Cuckson on violin, Benjamin Fingland on clarinet, Sumire Kudo on cello and Jessica Meyer on viola tackle an ambitious and challenging series of works and pull them off with flair and conscientious attention to emotional content. The most unabashedly atonal of the lot is a piece by Salvatorre Sciarrino which is more of a study in textures and waves of shifting dynamics than melody. The real knockout here is Kyle Bartlett’s Bas Relief, a grimly resolute diptych unexpectedly juxtaposing twisted boogie woogie piano bass, icy upper register piano glimmers, apprehensively fluttering strings and a chilling crescendo anchored by an ominous bass clarinet drone. It’s avant noir in the best possible sense of those two words; as with many of the works here, the quintet’s somewhat unorthodox instrumentation enhances its plaintive edge.
Right up there with it is Douglas Boyce’s triptych Deixo Sonata. Spacious fugal tradeoffs between voices lead to a creepy dance of sorts that quickly descends to a furtive sway, rises to a crescendo with hints of ragtime and old-world Romanticism and then a neat false ending. Ryan Streber’s Partita, for solo cello utilizes a similar architecture, sostenuto forebearance versus insistent staccato, steady arpeggiated cadences punctuated by the occasional dramatic flourish or chordally-charged crescendo. Lee Hyla’s rather minimalist Ciao Manhattan is considerably less sad than the title might imply: pensive hints of the baroque and graceful, sustained layers of strings shift to a simple but affecting piano/violin duet that ends on a surprise note.
Eric Moe’s Dead Cat Bounce (Wall Street slang for a stock on the way down that’s recovered for just a second) follows a jauntily bittersweet trajectory, from a rondo to a sort-of-tango to a fullscale dance, the entire ensemble in and out of the melee, winding out on a puckishly ironic note. The longest work here, Erich Stem’s four-part suite Fleeting Thoughts juxtaposes a terse, balletesque pulse with icily moody piano-and-string interludes that eventually leads to a richly satisfying noir bustle on the way out. Frequently dark, challenging, compelling music utilizing an imaginative mix of devices and genres from across the decades to the present: watch this space for upcoming NYC concerts.
This coming Sunday, May 20 at 3 PM the Greenwich Village Orchestra plays Shostakovich’s lively and entertaining yet subtext-loaded Symphony No. 9, conducted by Yaniv Segal of the eclectic Chelsea Symphony, followed by the GVO’s own Barbara Yahr conducting Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at Washington Irving HS Auditorium at Irving Place and 16th Street. A $15 donation gets you in; there’s a reception to follow. Segal is widely sought out as a guest conductor; luckily, he had a little time to discuss what promises to be a characteristically rich program.
Lucid Culture: You’ve had a very eclectic background in the arts, having been involved with the theatre and in music since childhood. Let me ask you, is your acting background something you draw on as a conductor, and if so, how?
Yaniv Segal: Being on stage from a young age has helped me to become very comfortable as a performer in front of an audience. I very rarely get nervous, but if I do get a little antsy before a performance, as soon as I step on stage I am over it and able to focus on the music at hand.
Conducting is different from acting in many ways but a big difference is the timeframe – whereas acting requires emoting in real-time, a conductor must show what is about to happen in the near future while reacting to what is going on in the present. It is a constant mind trick to be both involved and aware of shaping the present while preparing the future and considering how the present will impact something that occurs in the music down the line.
A similarity between conducting and acting is that the end result must be apparent..and communicated. If an actor were to feel a certain passionate scene in some way – let’s say Maria’s reaction to Tony’s death at the end of West Side Story – but the reaction were internal, and not communicated to the audience, the actor might feel personally devastated, but the audience may not be moved at all. Thus the good and successful actor must not only be able to feel the emotion in the story, but also to communicate that in a way that the audience feels the same way. A conductor must resonate with the music but also must translate that into some kind of physical or spiritual communication so that the musicians all feel it and thus are able to bring the emotions and power of the music to the audience.
LC: You’re also a trained violinist. Does that inform your approach to conducting an orchestra – and especially the string section?
YS: I have a lot of experience playing in orchestras. I still play violin and viola regularly, and that has definitely influenced my conducting. Perhaps one of the biggest areas of influence is on my rehearsal technique. As an orchestral musician, I have been frustrated by conductors who are not efficient with their time on the podium during rehearsal. We want to make music together and the best way to do that is through more playing and less talking. I think that a successful conductor knows how to manage their limited rehearsal time and knows how to get the most out of an orchestra using the fewest words possible.
As to my specific string playing knowledge, it is certainly helpful for conducting. The strings are the most numerous members of an orchestra. Although I have learned a little bit about playing all the instruments in the orchestra in order to feel a connection to them, I will always feel a close relationship with string sound and technique—and that certainly informs my conducting and rehearsing.
LC: You are a founder of the Chelsea Symphony, that excellent and eclectic orchestra across town on the west side. It’s good to see cross-pollination going on between these two ensembles. As up-and-coming orchestras from neighborhoods long known for their artsiness, is there any competition between you? Or is it more collaborative – you know, in classical circles, everybody tends to know everybody else…
YS: I don’t think that there is competition between the two organizations. We have had a very positive working experience between the two organizations and in the past GVO has graciously lent some of their equipment, and there are some players who play in both orchestras. If I can make a general statement, I would say that competition is created by people and not by organizations. The two orchestras serve different communities and have different aspirations and specific goals. It makes more sense to work together to bring more music to New York’s diverse and wonderful neighborhoods than to think of ourselves as in competition.
LC: To what degree, if at all, do you have to throw a switch, transition from one work or one era to another? I’ve seen you conduct Tschaikovsky, you just conducted a massive symphonic poem for choir and orchestra, Mario Jazzetti’s The Profile, the Life, and the Faith Across the Notes at Avery Fisher Hall. Now you’re moving to the Shostakovich Symphony No. 9. Both of those pieces have a triumphant sensibility, on the surface at least: does this make the shift easier for you?
YS: Conductors these days are expected to do the impossible and to have a command of all types of repertoire, styles, time periods, etcetera. A single concert might typically juxtapose a world premiere with a classical warhorse. Basically we have to be able to switch gears on a dime. I think if anything makes shifting between pieces easier, it is the quality of the music that makes the difference. When there is music that we love to perform, it doesn’t matter when it was written.
LC: Many listeners hear considerable sarcasm along with triumph in the Shostakovich. Do you agree?
YS: For sure. It is very important to listen to this piece in the context for which it was written. At the end of World War II, the Soviets, Stalin especially, expected a triumphant Ninth Symphony from their country’s leading composer, Shostakovich, along the lines of Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead, he gave them this 30-minute chamber symphony full of wit, humor, and sarcasm. Every seeming development towards a climax dissipates before it fully materializes. The symphony has a witty scherzo and an enormous faux-serious and plaintive bassoon solo which negates the weightiness of the low brass (the fourth movement). Finally in the last movement Shostakovich gives us what seems to be a true military march and perhaps the final triumph, but that two disappears into a childlike “nyah nyah” moment.
LC: Is there something in this work – a message, an emotional resonance maybe – that you hope send listeners home with?
YS: Perhaps Shostakovich was trying to point out the folly of war, perhaps he was just sticking it to the authorities… I think the message is clear from Shostakovich. He stayed true to his artistic integrity regardless of what was expected of him from an authority he didn’t believe in. It is important for all of us, even when faced with tremendous calamities, to remember that we have our own voices.
LC: Have you ever conducted the GVO before? If so, you’re in for a treat…
YS: Yes, I have. I was their assistant conductor when I lived in New York. I got to work with them a lot in rehearsal and conducted several pieces in performance. The last time I conducted them was Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals, and Barbara Yahr played the piano part.
LC: Any other questions I should be asking?
YS: I met my wife through the GVO. She was playing flute and piccolo in the orchestra as a grad student, and I was called to sub for Barbara for a rehearsal. Joanna and I hit it off and started dating a few weeks later. I ended up becoming the assistant conductor of the orchestra, she ended up serving on the board, and we are about to celebrate our two-year anniversary!
Abdel Hamed Mowhoush fell for a lie, and it cost him his life: being a major general in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein in 2003 didn’t help. According to Human Rights First, Mowhoush’s four sons were taken prisoner by US forces. Assured that he and his children would be released if he turned himself in, Mowhoush did so. But rather than being let go, he was brutally tortured and subsequently murdered by an interrogator, Lewis Welshofer, who was courtmartialed and along with a few of his fellow soldiers, given a slap on the wrist for his role in the events. This killing raises all sorts of questions, from why the murder was committed – or sanctioned – in the first place, to whether or not such acts are ever justifiable. Seattle saxophonist Neil Welch addresses the incident with a chillingly and rather brilliantly orchestrated tone poem of sorts, Sleeper, out now on Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.
Welch’s point of view here is clear. “May the darkest, most difficult moments of our lives be met with love instead of hate, compassion instead of rage,” reads the epigram on the album sleeve. As you would expect, this is a somber and intense piece of music, played sensitively but acerbically by Welch along with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos. It begins ambient and elegaic in the manner of a salute delivered by slowly shifting sheets of sound from which harmonies slowly begin to develop, as if in a flashback. Martial allusions bustle and reach anguished peaks, then recede: much of this has echoes of Stravinsky. Fullscale horror is kept under restraint here, to crushingly powerful effect. A menacing harangue, a possible good cop/bad cop interlude and furtively official-sounding scurrying eventually cede to atmospheric horror bleeding with microtones. When a more cohesive martial theme appears, it quickly takes on a cold blitheness. Figures dart around like extras shuffling around the set of an early black-and-white film. Ending on much the same note as it began, it makes a potent follow-up to Welch’s Bad Luck collaboration with drummer Chris Icasiano. That one rated in the top 25 jazz albums of the year here last year: this could easily do as well.