Last night bassist Lukas Kranzelbinder’s Lukas im Dorf quartet made their powerful, darkly tuneful New York debut at the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown. With a hard-hitting, frequently noir sensibility, they blend terse Steven Bernstein-esque cinematics with slinky latin rhythms and out-of-the-box improvisation and turn that into a style that you might not think would be unique but that this group makes indelibly their own. Kranzelbinder is the melodic and often rhythmic anchor of this project, holding the center, often tirelessly looping his motifs while tenor saxophonist Jure Pukl, trombonist Phil Yaeger and drummer Max Andrzejewski colored and warped the themes with verve and biting elegance. Anyone who might offhandedly dismiss European jazz should be tied to a bank of Marshall stacks and forced to listen to this group for twelve hours straight.
They manage to work a familiar formula – catchy hook followed by long, methodical solos that push the melodic boundaries, hard – to produce unexpected results. Except in the case that a piece is particularly dark, which at this concert it frequently was, and in that case they maintained a brooding focus.
Over a hypnotic bass notif, the night’s first song – from the band’s Very Live! album from last year – built to a bustling, distantly Mingus-esque intensity, Pukl’s fiery bop runs contrasting withi Yaeger’s more spacious, blues-infused solo. It brought to mind some of Tomasz Stanko’s more direct, melodic work from the 60s. Their second number juxtaposed intense horn harmonies and tightly resonant, pedaled bass chords against a woozy, swirly interlude lit up by a nimble, rather wry Andrzejewski solo, mainly on hardware and rims. The drummer also has a background in surf rock, which served him extremely well in this instance. At other times, his clattery, occasionally vaudevillian approach evoked Ches Smith in his most focused moments: what a pleasant surprise to discover a drummer so interesting and yet with such a viselike grip on the songs’ swing.
The best material came after a brief, airily bucolic interlude inspired by an Austrian big-sky theme of sorts, when they took it deep into the noir. Pukl built a blue-flame menace with his creepily modal solo in the tune that followed, while the best song of the night blended sustained Sex Mob minimalism with macabre cinematics evocative of Beninghove’s Hangmen. They encored with a tight, hypnotically Lynchian clave groove lit up by Pukl’s jaggedly spiraling tenor lines and a warmer, more terse Yaeger solo with a wry Gershwin quote: much as this music is in the here and now, you can also follow a straight line from this band all the way back to Mingus – or to Bernard Herrmann in places. Let’s hope they make it back to Manhattan sometime sooner than later.
Trombonist Michael Dessen’s New York premiere of his his new suite Resonating Abstractions, with Chris Tordini on bass and Dan Weiss on drums at Shapeshifter Lab a couple of nights ago was a lot of fun. Ostensibly inspired by the imagery of seven mysteriously unnamed visual artists, it challenged the audience to conjure who those artists might be as it pulsed along on a groove that proved to be as hard to resist as it was tricky. Weiss dug in and had a good time with it: although there’s a clearly visible mathematical architecture to both the rhythm and the melody, Dessen left just enough room for the trio to imbue it with their personal wit and rambunctious energy.
At its knotty but robust heart, it’s a funky, head-bobbing piece that takes a simple duotone bass riff and doubles it, then doubles it again over similarly minimalist yet thoroughly unexpected metric permutations. Overhead, Dessen carried the tune with a jaunty, warmly melodic focus and bluesy directness. Most of the suite (not yet recorded, a task hopefully to be achieved in 2013) is extremely accessible, although there were spaces where it was extremely not. The juxtaposition between the work’s long, consonant passages – which Dessen delivered with a wonderfully opaque, balmy tone, without recourse to either squalls or squeaks – was somewhat jarring, in contrast to where he utilized an electronic mute to add a chaotic, timbrally extreme edge.
Tordini anchored both the melodic and rhythmic center during those moments, slowly and methodically shifting from suspensefully resonant long-tone passages to nimbly pulsing, looped phrases that he took his time embellishing, and there was always a payoff. Meanwhile, Weiss neatly worked shuffling polyrhythms into his tersely altered groove, exchanging a few wry elbows with Dessen along the way.
The electronic enhancements were more successful with the bass, when it came to a long, nonchalantly crescendoing Tordini solo: Dessen limited the laptop to a slightly reverb-tinged sustain effect that fleshed out the many spaces between early on. As the suite wound up, Dessen finally took it skyward, flurrying and clustering, for a long-awaited yet understatedly resounding crescendo. Being a Chamber Music America commission might have something to do with its canny blend of minimalism and traditionalist jazz tropes. And what about those artists? Escher, maybe? Some of the 70s op-art guys? Paul Klee, in the suite’s more playful moments? Or maybe none of the above. The work’s less-focused electronic moments allowed the listener space to ponder questions like that.
You might not expect a club to be packed on the eve of Thanksgiving, but the Jazz Standard was sold out and there was good reason for that: the Maria Schneider Orchestra were playing the second night of their annual weeklong stand here, and word had obviously gotten around. If jazz is your thing and you haven’t seen this band in awhile, now’s the time. The Jazz Standard is closed Thanksgiving day but they’ll be open tomorrow the 23rd, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; Schneider will be here through Nov 25.
At the risk of inciting jealousy among other composers, Schneider is the gold standard as far as writing for big band is concerned these days – and has been for some time. Her music is an instance where the melodies mirror the artist herself, lithe and beautiful. Her work is defined by an economy of notes, vivid emotional attunement, lyrical transparency, ability to surprise and even stun and evince every breath worth of talent from the formidable cast behind her. For the mighty beast that they are, this orchestra can be exceptionally quiet: last night’s early set seemingly had as many solo, duo, trio and quartet passages as it did fullscale, all-stops-out crescendos. The result is plenty of suspense as well as a dynamic that sets up those big, sweepingly majestic swells so they can revel in their lustrous glory.
Even by Schneider’s standards, this particular set was transcendent, loaded with rich payoffs like that. Casually but energetically, she led the band through her well-loved Concert in the Garden, its bright, triumphant anthemics and lively Brazilian rhythms contrasting with terse guitar solos and an unexpectedly chilling, chromatically-fueled Frank Kimbrough piano solo out. The cinematic Journey Home wound its way methodically through its brass-heavy introductory theme, a series of rises and ebbs over a dancing tropical groove, Dave Pietro’s alto sax solo handing off nimbly to trombonist Ryan Keberle, who took his time as the chart wound down to just him and the rhythm section before bringing it up with a lushly energetic pulse.
Dance You Monster to My Soft Song, a standout track from Schneider’s 1992 debut, vividly drove home its taunting, tantalizing themes inspired by a Paul Klee painting in the Guggenheim. It’s an ambitious work full of ominous slides and tricky metrics, punctuated this time out by a wailing, upper-register bari sax solo from Scott Robinson and an agitatedly heated hard-bop conversation between soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.
A brand-new song dedicated to George Wein, an early champion of Schneider’s music, made its New York premiere, dancing its way to a warm, balmy series of shifting sheets of sound, lit up by an expansively lyrical Rich Perry alto sax solo and Kimbrough’s glimmering nocturnal piano. Big band jazz simply doesn’t get any better or more memorable than this. The ensemble wrapped up the set with a towering, stormy take on El Viento, a showstopper if there ever was one, working an Arabic-tinged mode with venomously powerful, succinct solos from Chris Potter on tenor sax and Mike Shapiro on trombone. As it hit the final series of seemingly endless false endings, it was easy to hope that the band simply wouldn’t end it and would keep going as long as the club would let them. In sum: this is why big band jazz is so much fun, a monster performance from a group which also included Tony Kadleck, Laurie Frink and Garrett Schmidt on trumpets, Jay Anderson on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, Marshall Gilkes and George Flynn on trombones.
Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall was the Classical Recording Foundation’s annual awards night, and to their credit, they keep blazing a trail. Keeping an eye on the arists that producer/engineer/violinist Adam Abeshouse’s nonprofit is championing is one way to stay in touch with some of the best things simmering just under the radar in the world of classical music these days. Auspicious things are happening with the foundation as well: if all goes according to plan, they’ll have new digs in Williamsburg for both recording and live shows, complete with bar and restaurant, by 2014.
The concert celebrated centuries-old traditions as it saluted new ones. The star of this particular evening was harpist Bridget Kibbey. While the classical concert harp probably isn’t the first instrument that you would think of as being badass, Kibbey makes it that way. Praised for her DIY esthetic, she lends her unorthodox virtuosity and powerful attack to a nonstop series of new commissions: much as the Imani Winds are doing for wind ensembles, she’s singlehandedly springboarding a new repertoire for her instrument. This time out she began with latin jazz, which is a good fit for her rhythmic, hard-hitting style since the one contemporary instrumentalist that she sometimes evokes is Colombian jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda. While she didn’t go deep into the funk like he can, Weill Hall doesn’t really have the acoustics to accommodate that. But the moody intensity of a Paquito D’Rivera diptych, a shapeshifting partita by David Bruce and the rapidfire circularity of a Kinan Azmeh piece were more than sufficient to wow the crowd.
The old guard was first represented by harpsichordist Gerald Ranck, who deserves a special shout since he’s the man in charge of music at the perennially eclectic New York Society for Ethical Culture. He’s also an intense and intuitive player: at one point during his all-Bach program (from an upcoming recording of the entire Well-Tempered Klavier, on harpsichord, piano and organ), he hit one particular low chordal sequence in the G Minor Fugue, BWV 885 so hard that the assistant turning pages beside him broke into a grin: no doubt he was doing the same inside. Likewise, his take on the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWE 847 was hair-raising, one of the most lusciously invigorating performances of Bach in recent memory.
Representing for the 19th century were Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Barbara Govatos and pianist Marcantonio Barone, who delivered a passionate, dynamically rich, suspensefully spacious version of the first movement from Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 47 from their new Beethoven sonata cycle cd. To close the night, soprano Elizabeth Futral sang a brief series of Philip Lasser songs backed warmly and tersely by pianist Margo Garrett. Lasser’s signature update on the French High Romantic in this case served primarily as a showcase for Futral’s stunning range while keeping the theatrics in check on the piano side. And when the lyrics – a series of French texts from across the ages – took a sudden turn into darkness and angst, Lasser illuminated the words (a Louise de Vilmorin poem) with a sudden, Debussy-esque, wary lustre.
The Clayton Brothers always deliver, pure and simple: they’re kind of like the Adderleys for this decade. You always know they’re going to swing the changes like crazy, the soloing is always focused and emotionally impactful and at the end of the show or the album, you’ll feel something. The first impression that a listener is left with after hearing their new album The Gathering is that it’s a concert recording. Which it’s actually not, but it has that kind of energy. This time out their usual lineup – Jeff Clayton on alto sax and alto flute, brother John Clayton on bass, Terrell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jeff’s son Gerald on piano and Obed Calvaire on drums – gets a little bolstering from guests Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Stefon Harris on vibraphone.
The eagle flies on Friday, and that’s the vibe they leap into with John Clayton’s high-energy, unstoppably swinging opening track, Friday Struttin’ ,with hard-hitting solos all around until Gordon adds a tinge of levity, Stafford putting it back on the fast track with his trademark spirals and trills. Tsunami, a tune by Jeff, reaches toward a towering, majestic feel driven by sax and trumpet, the rhythm digging in deeper as it crescendos.
The tensely nebulous Touch the Fog, another tune by John, is a movie theme waiting to happen with a tersely catchy, central bass hook, lush horns and some nice interplay between the piano and vibraphone. By contrast, Jefff’s This Ain’t Nothing but a Party works a good-time New Orleans theme with grittily bluesy piano and a trick ending.
John’s Stefon Fetchit [ouch] swings hard, Harris choosing his spots judiciously. They do Don’t Explain casually and expansively, solo piano building artfully to a starlit glimmer, then pulling it back into the shadows where the bass bows rather ominously. Then they flip the script with the buffoonish Coupe de Cone, a springboard for Gordon to do his shtick.
Gerald’s ballad Somealways is the most modern thing here, bracing and modally-charged, edgy piano versus balmy horn chart, Calvaire driving a nimbly scrambling return to the starting line. Jeff felt that his alto work on the first take of Benny Carter’s Souvenir was too effusive, but the band insisted they keep it, and it’s a good thing because he pours his soul out, but not melodramatically: this stuff is real.
John’s Blues Gathering is classic postbop, bass pulling the piano back into terse moodiness on the heels of yet another comical Gordon solo. Jeff’s Simple Pleasures is vastly less simple than the title implies, its heavy, humid mid-August ambience slowly lifting as Harris gets underway and then lets it linger suspensefully again. The album closes with another first-rate Jeff tune, The Happiest of Times, its Monk allusions and nonchalant swing lit up by casually expert, pulse-elevating solos by Stafford, Gerald and then the composer. This might be the band’s best studio effort to date, pretty impressive considering the all-star cast involved.
Hafez Modirzadeh’s latest album Post-Chromodal Out!, out now from Pi Records, is every bit as radical as it’s been billed, a paradigm-shifting work. It is important to the point of simply saying, go out and get it and let it take you away to a magical place where nobody’s ever really gone before.
In many ways, this is a continuation of the path Modirzadeh began on his equally groundbreaking 2010 Radif Suite. For the piano here, the Persian-American saxophonist has devised a scale of his very own, interpolating microtones within standard tuning to free the musicians from the limitations of western intonation. Vijay Iyer plays it – it might be the best thing Iyer’s ever done, which says a lot. It’s certainly the most difficult thing he’s ever done. Modirzadeh plays tenor and soprano sax alongside fellow paradigm-shifter Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, with Ken Filiano on bass and Royal Hartigan on drums, plus contributions from Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. The album itself comprises two heavily improvised suites, Modirzadeh’s seventeen-part Weft Facets and Jim Norton’s eleven-part Wolf and Warp.
This is hardly the first time a musician has devised his own harmonic language. While Modirzadeh’s work has obviously been inspired by both Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, it doesn’t sound much like either of them: his voice as both a composer and a sax player is unique and distinctive. Given the piano’s use of three-quarter tones – which in the western scale sound either a little flat or a little on the sharp side, depending on the interval – fans of Iranian music might think at first that Iyer is playing a santoor. By the same token, the piano doesn’t sound the least bit out of tune since a truly out-of-tune piano is randomly pitched and, unless it’s a total mess, is usually just far enough off key to sound jarring. Ironically, Iyer’s signature chromatics when applied to this scale have the opposite effect of the horror-movie cadences they create in western tuning: here, the effect reaches toward a resolution that’s actually quite consonant, even soothing.
What’s most striking about this album is how articulate the band is. This isn’t some tentative adventure in exoticism: their comfort level is as if this was their native tongue. Modirzadeh plays with a richly tuneful precision, eschewing the usual reliance on effects like blue notes, squalling and wailing as means of introducing microtones. ElSaffar is an extraordinary musician – anyone who’s seen him play santoor might tell you that trumpet isn’t even his best instrument. His approach is similar to Modirzadeh’s if a little more rapidfire and energetic. The only noticeable difference between Iyer’s work in this context and elsewhere is that here he employs fewer chords. Filiano swings the beat, walks and embellishes the melody with a rewarding matter-of-factness, Hartigan adding equal amounts propulsion and counterintuitive color.
At its most upbeat, parts of Modirzadeh’s suite evoke an evocatively surreal hybrid of New Orleans and Moroccan sounds. The santoor is employed during the most recognizable Middle Eastern interludes; likewise, the kulintang for most of the hypnotically enveloping, gamelanesque segments. Conversations between santoor and piano, sax and trumpet abound; the composer’s use of echo phrases enhances the otherworldliness of much of this. Iyer’s triumphant cascades, flourishes and judiciously emphatic accents provide the icing on the cake. Lusciously strange as the tonalities here are, much of the architecture is straight-up postbop: there’s plenty of brisk swing with bright hooks to open followed by thematic variations, cleverly orchestrated rhythmic shifts and an unselfconscious joy in the interplay. The electric guitar doesn’t make an appearance until the suite is almost done but adds a terse suspense and then grandeur that sets up the final, lush swell.
Norton’s composition is a quartet piece for tenor, trumpet, bass and drums that draws heavily on more modern jazz tropes: a head followed by variations and free improvisation with divergent voices, beginning slower and less rhythmic but eventually taking the energy up a notch higher than in Modirzadeh’s work. Terse, often minimalist exchanges build to wry shuffles, with solo spots for piano, drums and bass. Filiano is much more present here than in the first suite, digging into the melody with a memorably growly tone, sometimes employing a bow. Melodically, this also hews closer to the west than the east: the more cohesive and upbeat segments seem almost as if they’ve simply been transposed to this scale rather than having been written for it. Here it’s ElSaffar who finally seizes the chance to raise the ante with moody microtones and bring the atmosphere full circle to where it originated. Iyer’s phantasmagorically funky lines as it builds toward a final crescendo wouldn’t be out of place in the Frank Carlberg songbook. It ends with an unexpectedly macabre, rain-drenched, funereally hypnotic reprise of one of the initial themes.
On one hand, this is one of those rare moments in jazz history that will change the way a lot of people hear music – and the way they play it. On the other, there’s a sizeable contingent, most of them on one side of the globe, who will be saying, “Big deal, so you’re playing Middle Eastern jazz now. What took you guys so long to catch up?”
Low-register reedman Josh Sinton’s Holus-Bolus project is defunct at this point, but they have an intriguing album to show for it. Strangely, Sinton shopped the band’s one and only recording, Pine Barren (a reference to his rural New Jersey youth) for the better part of a year before landing with upstart Brooklyn label Prom Night. Which is surprising: challenging as much of this is, it’s full of wit and irony, not to mention an impressive amount of straight-up tunesmithing considering the quintet’s fondness for the strange. Has what’s left of the labels become completely polarized between accessibility and more adventurous sounds? Sinton’s hardly an unknown, this band is playful and has star power to the extent that such a thing could or should exist: Jon Irabagon on saxes, Peter Goldberger on guitar, Peter Bitenc on bass and Mike Pride on drums.
The opening track quickly grows to a tricky circular vamp that wouldn’t be out of place in soukous music, Pride’s drums and overdubbed vibraphone mingling into what’s essentially a rhythmic tone poem, individual voices dropping out elegantly one by one as it winds down. It makes a jaunty contrast with the plaintive, rain-soaked, dirgy Water for My Father, Sinton’s growling bass clarinet and later his baritone sax providing an ominous contrast with the stately, shifting voices overhead. Deeper in the Woods Than You quickly moves from skronky guitar swing to a free-for-all, while The Earth for My Father – a variation on track #2 – raises the dirge’s intensity by setting Goldberger’s tersely majestic lines against a quarrelling cluster of horns echoed by Pride, pushing the austere beauty of the melody further and further out of the picture.
My Clarinet Teacher – a Steve Lacy tribute, possible? – takes a goodnaturedly funky groove, deconstructs it and then has fun with individual instruments doing their best to pull their completely intractable bandmates back onto the rails. I’m Still Trying wryly yet plaintively illustrates an endless series of defeats, while Goldberger’s immutable skronk anchors the twisted clave funk of Dizknee Justice Abounds.
Solo drums, solo bass clarinet and then metal-tinged guitar build an arc in the gnomically titled Five, followed by the viciously sarcastic Full of It…Love That Is, the album’s most assaultive moment – with a surprise ending. A sense of longing returns with the surprisingly quiet Starfuckers, its terse exchanges of voices slowly rising over Goldberger’s acidic resonance. They close with a warmer and more focused return to the initial Afrobeat-tinged theme. In sum, an ambitious but richly listenable and entertaining album. That’s why it seems weird that it would be overlooked – it’s not hard to imagine this band connecting with a young, hungry crowd on a bill with one of the new breed of dance/punk/jazz groups like Moon Hooch.
It’s that time of year again, which means it must be time for a new album from Stile Antico. This time around, the hottest act in Renaissance polyphony give us Passion and Resurrection: Music Inspired By Holy Week. As one would expect, it’s a happier, considerably more optimistic, less gothic collection than their previous efforts. The conductorless British choral ensemble explore a richly resonant mix of short and longer works, nothing remotely as epic as their practically 24-minute version of John Sheppard’s Media Vita from 2010, but there are still fireworks here amidst the otherworldly glimmer and gleam.
The centerpiece, and longest work here, is a recent commission, John McCabe’s Woefully Arrayed. A review of their concert in New York this past April here called it “tense to the breaking point with sustained close harmonies versus rhythmic bursts, 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.” The recorded version needs to be turned up much louder than usual to deliver that effect, but it’s there.
The rest of the album has the balance of rich lows blending with angelic highs that defines this group’s work. There’s a roughly six-centuries older version of Woefully Arrayed – by William Cornysh – that opens it, considerably modern for its time. The closing piece, Tomas Crecquillon’s Congratulamimi Mihi, displays an even greater sophistication for its time with its dizzying polyrhythms. In between, there’s an absolutely gorgeous, dynamically rich version of Thomas Tallis’ iconic, anthemic O Sacrum Convivium, an intense miniature work (if such grand-scale music can be called miniature) by William Byrd and lush, variously paced pieces by a pan-European cast of fifteenth and sixteenth-century composers including Orlando Gibbons, Orlando de Lassus, Cristobal de Morales, Tomas Luis de Victoria, John Taverner, Francisco Guerrero, Jean Lheritier and Tomas Crecquillon. It’s out now from Harmonia Mundi.
In an earlier incarnation, this space was devoted almost exclusively to live music. Then the publicists found us and the deluge of albums began. If you’ve been wondering where all the concert coverage went, that’s part of the answer. But there’s more to come – and there’s been a lot happening that hasn’t been mentioned here recently, in the scramble to wrap up this year’s crop of recordings.
This blog has been a longstanding advocate for the Sunday, 5:15 PM organ recitals at St. Thomas Church on 53rd Street at 5th Avenue, whose presence in the New York music scene become more precious since the massive old organ there is slated to be replaced at some unspecified future date. The mighty beast is actually a hybrid whose innards are in a more precarious state than they sound. But organists from around the world still make it sing, particularly the church’s director of music, John Scott, a New York treasure if there ever was one. His recordings of the complete organ works of Mendelssohn are definitive; he’s done the entire Buxtehude and Messiaen cycles for organ at this very same console. His October concert there saw him pull out the stops with nimble elegance on a towering Bach fantasia and then a quietly lustrous hymn, followed by a Charles Villiers Stamford setting of a different hymn, Maurice Durufle’s transcription of Louis Vierne’s thunderously atmospheric Meditation and then Jean Langlais’ even more blazing Te Deum from his Gregorian Paraphrases triptych completed a thrilling program. Suffice it to say that any time Scott plays, he is worth seeing. In the coming weeks he’ll be busy with church choir concerts – which are also worth seeing. His next scheduled recital here is February 10 of next year.
Another concert that delivered a titanic majesty was the New York Repertory Orchestra’s late October performance of Prokofiev’s phantasmagorically shapeshifting Divertimento followed by a lush, richly dynamic performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto with guest soloist Inbal Segev at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. As one random concertgoer perfectly capsulized it, this was an welcome surprise. It would have been even more enjoyable to have been able to stick around for the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, but there were other things on the agenda here (and hence no fair and just way of giving the orchestra the fullscale review they deserved). They’re back here on Dec 15 with a program of Delibes, Walton and the New York premiere of Tubin’s Symphony No. 8.
Two other concerts that deserve a mention are the Hugo Wolf Quartett’s performances at Trinity Church the Thursday before the hurricane, and then a week later at the Austrian Cultural Center, where they’d been camping out since they weren’t able to fly home. At Trinity, they opened with a rousing performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K421. This is the second of the two Mozart quartets in minor keys; it’s focused, and as deep and dark as the composer ever got. The quartet had a ball with it, soaring through its wary exchanges with abandon and in the process almost upstaging Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 74.
That piece is loaded with plenty of the did-you-just-hear-that cadenzas and sudden shifts between voices that the composer loved so much, well beyond the pizzicato section that inspired its nickname. A work so iconic isn’t supposed to sound different from program to program, but this one did at the ensemble’s temporary midtown campground, and it was better. That is to say, more intimate and at the same time more energetically lush, although that interpretation might be colored by the superior sonics at the small concert hall here…and the group’s ability to roll out of bed, at least theoretically, and play. Also on the bill and delivered with meticulous nuance were Mendelssohn’s rousing early Romantic String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 and Philippe Hersant’s 1988 String Quartet No. 2, which juxtaposed airy atmospherics with bracing twelve-tone melodicism arrayed with High Romantic rhythms and dynamic swells. A gesture of appreciation from violinists Sebastian Gürtler and Régis Bringolf, violist Gertrud Weinmeister and cellist Florian Berner to the community for having put them up at a moment of crisis, they ended up giving back far more than they could have taken.
It’s always a treat to discover an excellent new orchestra. Saturday night on the upper west side, the Spectrum Symphony and the New York Festival Singers joined forces for a concert as richly captivating as anything that could have possibly been happening just a couple of blocks east at Lincoln Center or at Carnegie Hall. A member of the string section noted sardonically during the intermission that this orchestra is “the pickup group of pickup groups.” If that’s the case, one can only wonder what kind of transcendence they could deliver with a few more rehearsals. As it was, the whole orchestra was cohesive, nuanced and responsive to conductor David Grunberg’s matter-of-fact, determined focus.
They opened with the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20. This isn’t Mozart in hurried, let’s-get-this-over-with mode. It’s a lively, tuneful piece that recycles a few motifs from Don Giovanni, lit up with dynamic shifts and energetic exchanges between voices. Guest Steven Graff brought an agile, rapidfire, imaginative edge to the piano, notably his own improvised cadenzas, which were as bitingly entertaining as they were anachronistic, taking the piece two hundred years into the future. Yet these made a perfect fit with the music.
A percussionist supplied a single, funereal bell note as the strings swirled and rose in Arvo Part’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten with a restrained shimmer, hypnotic and vividly regretful (Part was reputedly chagrined that he never met Britten). The concert concluded with a rewardingly lush, ornate take on the Faure Requiem. Conventional wisdom is that it’s a lighthearted view of death, and that’s hardly the case. Faure reputedly wrote it on a lark, but this ensemble gave it majesty and depth, the richness of the choir blending with the swells of the orchestra, the organ utilizing stops in the center of the church, creating an all-emcompassing, surround-sound experience for those lucky enough to be in the right place.
The soloists, soprano Beverly Butrie and baritone Alec Spencer were superb as well. Butrie has a voice that ought to be heard more. It’s original, and it’s grounded in a considerably lower resonance that you would expect from a true soprano, even though she hit the high notes in this piece with a nonchalance and a liquid yet firmly anchored vibrato that fit like a glove with the demands of her solos. A delivery like hers is more typically found in the Middle East and India, but not so much here, all the more reason to seek her out. By contrast, Spencer went for intensity, stayed in the haunted zone and never left. As the work shifted from methodical and somber to more airy and ethereal, Grunberg and the orchestra maintained an unhurried focus, letting the piece breathe and the polyphonics reach toward something closer to a spree than a sepulchre. The Spectrum Symphony performs regularly but not frequently; watch this space for future concerts.