Ljova & the Kontraband: Playful Fun and Riveting Intensity at Symphony Space
In an email the day before his show last night at Symphony Spaace, composer/violist Ljova Zhurbin described his ensemble the Kontraband as being “wry, fierce and ready.” Which is a considerable understatement, given that their set included several eclectic, evocative film pieces; a lullaby; western Ukrainian klezmer songs; a couple of jazzy gypsy numbers; a brand-new rock anthem; and a ukulele-style arrangement of a Mahler symphonic theme for solo viola. Zhurbin happens to be one of the world’s foremost violists; there isn’t a symphony orchestra or string quartet that wouldn’t be happy to have him. But he’d rather write film scores and lead this dazzlingly cosmopolitan string band, this time out featuring accordion virtuoso Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and drummer/percussionist John Hadfield energetically and expertly filling in for the band’s Mathias Kunzli.
They opened with Blaine Game, a hypercaffeinated, trickily rhythmic, shapeshifting romp written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop in between jazz workshops that Zhurbin had been invited to teach there. They followed with Plume, a pensively swaying, lushly crescendoing atmospheric piece written for a documentary film about a World Cup competition for homeless European soccer players a few years ago. Then they launched into Love Potion, Expired, a boisteriously leaping, amusingly picturesque gypsy dance written, Zhurbin explained, when he was “moonlighting” in the gypsy band Romashka and had designs on the band’s frontwoman. Unlike the song’s storyline, this one ended well: the two ended up marrying, and with that, he brought his wife Inna Barmash to the stage for a series of intense, often harrowing klezmer numbers. Barmash is gifted with a diamond-cutter soprano; how subtly yet powerfully she weilds it is viscerally breathtaking to witness. They began with a sad waltz done as a duo between the couple, a vengeful dirge titled Koyl (Yiddish for “bullet” – you can guess the rest) and a couple of bitingly expressionistic, minor-key settings of poetry from across the ages. The most gripping of those was an early medieval German poem (retranslated wonderfully from Russian by Barmash) which commented caustically on a decline of civility and civilization that, as Zhurbin alluded, potently echoes our own era.
Not everything they played was that intense. Zhurbin brought out a couple of songs inspired by his two sons. Benjy, the oldest, got a playful, deviously joyous, bouncing number – if this portrait is accurate, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. His brother Yossi got a steady, more serioso song in the form of a lullaby, but with an amusing ending.
After the absolutely ridiculous Mahler theme and a darkly majestic, brand-new art-rock anthem, they wrapped up the set with the title track to the Kontraband’s absolutely brilliant 2008 album, Mnemosyne. It’s an increasingly angst-driven exploration of self-imposed exile: Barmash delivered goosebumps with her spun-silver wail as she took it all the way to the top of the final crescendo over Farrell’s rapidfire rivulets, Savino’s steady, incisive pulse and Zhurbin’s richly plaintive melodicism.. Zhurbin’s next New York show is with bassist Petros Klampanis’ excellent gypsy-flavored jazz group at Drom on Oct 11 at 7:30; the Kontraband will be at the Brooklyn Museum on January 5 at 5 PM.