Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada, true to its name, is very quiet, but it’s murderously difficult to play. Not because it requires great technique, but because it calls for an extraordinary command of minutiae – the subtlest gesture on the part of a pianist brave enough to tackle it can make a mountain of difference. Friday night in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, Haskell Small went deep into the suite with a nuanced command and relentlessly intense commitment and turned in a performance that was often nothing short of harrowing.
Mompou wrote the series of twenty-eight more-or-less miniatures in four “books,” beginning in 1959 and concluding fifteen years later, when the composer was eighty-one years of age. Mompou’s obvious reference points are Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes – but with more dynamic variations, and less of a lingering, macabre sensibility – and Messiaen at his most otherworldly and haunting. Small explained beforehand that Mompou described the suite as “airless,” but it’s less a study in stillness than in the anguish of wanting to break a spell. There’s also a prayerful aspect to this music, but in Small’s hands it was an imploring, get-me-out-of-here kind of anguish, similar to the quietest works of Jehain Alain.
Mompou’s father ran a bell foundry, which might be the original inspiration for the eerie, sustained close harmonies that define the work. Small approached them with a minutely varied rubato which mightily enhanced the suspense and element of the unexpected that pervades these pieces. He cautioned the audience to pay close attention to the occasional tortured explosions of sound, making them count far more loudly than he actually played them. As the bit of an opening overture quickly morphed into lento creepiness, Small built tension with a knife’s-edge intensity that never wavered. The alternately atmospheric and sudden, twisted motives of the middle series of pieces in the second book was a highlight, as was Small’s favorite of the entire suite, the next-to-last segment which in many ways sums up the entire work with its plaintive, acidic, bell-toned angst. It concluded at last with a hymn of sorts, but even that never quite let go of the pervasive longing. The crowd, silent throughout the performance, waited until it was certain there would be no more and then slowly began their standing ovation. Small is also a composer, and will play a follow-up to this concert featuring his own similarly-tinged works at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on 69th St. between Central Park West and Columbus Ave. at 8 PM next March 28.
The big story at the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony‘s performance at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday was pianist Daniela Liebman‘s debut. But the orchestra did their best to pre-empt that. They exploded with their introductory piece, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, more curtain-burner than curtain-lifter. Maestro David Bernard conducted from memory, as he did with all but one of the works on the program. He’s a lot of fun to watch, a very kinetic presence, big smile stretched across his face, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The work has the same romping energy as the composer’s Slavonic Dances, but with considerably more dynamics, done plushly, with pinpoint precision and an unexpectedly delicate balance between the brass and strings for such a robust piece of music.
If the thought of an eleven-year-old tackling Shostakovich in front of a sold-out house makes you wince, you’re not alone. What’s the likelihood that a young middle-schooler, with her limited life experience, slight build and small hands, would have the stamina and technique, let alone the emotional depth, to deliver anything more than a rote version of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 102? This isn’t Shostakovich the outraged witness; this is the 20th century’s greatest musical ironist at the peak of his sardonic, puckish, satirical power. Shostakovich wrote it in 1957 as a showcase for his pianist son Maxim, obviously something of a parody of the sturm und drang of the traditional High Romantic concerto form. But the simple fact that Daniela Liebman would choose this darkly amusing piece, with its seething anti-fascist subtext, over, say, something more straightforward by Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart, says a lot. And she seemed to intuitively grasp it, playing with a deadpan intensity and just the hint of a wink, whether adding a touch of evil when the dancing first movement morphed into a coldly marionettish mockery, or with a coolly singleminded focus as the piece playfully slid into 7/8 time in the final movement. Shostakovich himself had a hard time getting his own hands around several of the rising unison passages that occur about midway through, but Liebman pulled them off with aplomb. Depth is not a quality that only older people can access, and Liebman left no doubt that she is a deep soul. She also loves the spotlight, treating the crowd to rapidfire, triumphant solo versions of Vitaly Fillipenko’s cruelly difficult, staccato Toccata as well as a Chopin etude, earning more than one standing ovation in the process.
The closing work on the bill was Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, which Bernard and the ensemble immersed in a dreamy unease that never quite relented, an apt illustration of the doomed lovers, through long crescendos to a stormy dance, an absolutely lustrous brass interlude and a series of big Beethovenesque endings. This was a world-class, majestic performance.
The orchestra also played a steady, Teutonically matter-of-fact version of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Featured violinist Jourdan Urbach got an old-fashioned standing ovation after the first movement, but to be fair, the solos from the oboe and then Alix Raspe’s harp a bit later on were every bit as compelling. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is February 22, 2014 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St (between 2nd and 3rd Aves) featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer 1915 and Dvorak’s Dance Suite for Orchestra.
The crowd at the Japanese-owned Kitano Hotel in Murray Hill this past February got a tightly choreographed performance from pianist Fred Hersch and guitarist Julian Lage. Throughout their duo album Free Falling, recorded during their stand there, the two keep a strict tempo: no rubato or free interludes or similar messing around. That rich harmonic convergence is a clinic in brisk, steady phrasing – imagine a snare-and-hi-hat shuffle beat underneath and the picture is complete. Much of the time it’s hard to distinguish who’s playing what, the performance is that seamless. The two will be at the Blue Note on November 25-27. no doubt reprising and reimagining many of the songs on the album.
The opening number, Song without Words #4 opens as a neoromantic theme and gives way to a Brazilian-tinged romp highlighted by Lage’s solo – Egberto Gismonti-ish in the best sense of the word. Down Home, a Bill Frisell homage (and a reminder of Hersch’s memorable late-90s collaboration with the guitarist) evokes a strolling Willoughby, Connecticut of the mind (google the Twilight Zone episode if it’s not familiar), a rustic pastoral pre-ragtime theme that gives Lage a launching pad to take it up all the way.
Heartland – for Art Lande – gives Lage the chance to build a gently lyrical wee-hours theme. The title track – a Gismonti homage – is a spectacularly pointillistic neo-baroque duet with some particularly choice lo-hi contrasts from Hersch’s dancing piano and Lage’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds glimmer. Sam Rivers’ Beatrice gets reinvented as a similarly lithe song without words – this could be Gismonti too. Song without Words #3: Tango messes with a straight-up Argentine beat, Lage’s lines careful and incisive as Hersch builds to a dance. Stealthiness, a Jim Hall homage, gives Lage a chance to go just thisfar outside: there’s a devious Halloweenishness that Hall would not doubt approve of, whether Lage is jumping at the chance to take it doublespeed or let those double-string bends ring out loud and just long enough to pack a wallop. Gravity’s Pull – writtten for Mary Jo Salter – finally backs off on the steady tempo a little, deviously alluding to the REM college radio hit from a lifetime ago with a tightly interlocking polyrhythmic attack. The two wind up the album with a take of Monk’s Dream which builds to a droll game of chase before Hersch brings everything back to a purist bluesiness.
The second annual Jazz & Colors festival is coming up on Saturday, November 9 from around noon til 4 PM. It’s sort of Make Music NY for jazz, but on a cool, enjoyable fall day rather than in the middle of a horrible New York summer.
The concept is to have a whole bunch of first-rate New York talent playing two sets of standards, including a couple of unexpected favorites from Gil Scott-Heron and Roy Ayers. Wander through Central Park and see what great surprises you find, or stake out an area and see your favorite act/s for free! There’s a complete schedule and map available here.
The first set, beginning at noon, will include: “Caravan” – the classic first performed by Duke Ellington in 1936; “Bemsha Swing” by Thelonious Monk, appearing on his acclaimed 1957 LP Brilliant Corners; “Cherokee” – written in 1938 by Ray Noble and recorded by numerous jazz musicians over the decades; “A Night in Tunisia” — one of the signature pieces of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band; “So What” — the opening track on Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind of Blue; “Footprints” by legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter; “Maiden Voyage” — one of Herbie Hancock’s best-known compositions; the unmistakable “Take 5” by Paul Desmond, first performed by The Dave Brubeck Quartet on their 1959 album Time Out; and “Tenor Madness” by the Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins, originally a twelve-minute piece recorded in 1956 with John Coltrane.
The second set (following an intermission) will include: Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A Train”, written by in 1939 for the Duke Ellington Orchestra; the frequently recorded “Harlem Nocturne” (1939) by Earle Hagen; “Stompin’ at the Savoy”, composed by Chick Webb in 1934 and named after the Savoy Ballroom that once existed in Harlem; “Grand Central” by John Coltrane, recorded in 1959 on Cannonball & Coltrane; “Central Park North” by Thad Jones, the title track from the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra’s album from 1969; “New York City” by Gil Scott-Heron, arranged by Brian Jackson, from their joint 1976 recording It’s Your World; “A Foggy Day in London Town” by George Gershwin, which appeared in the 1937 Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress; “Las Vegas Tango” from The Individualism of Gil Evans (1964); and the jazz-funk-soul classic “We Live in Brooklyn Baby” by pianist Harry Whitaker, appearing on Roy Ayers’ 1971 recording He’s Coming.
Thursday night at the Town Hall featured a global cast of talent assembled by Philip Glass for a benefit concert for the Garrison Institute, a Westchester County nonprofit think tank. As befits an organization housed in a former monastery space, the music had a mystical quality, no surprise considering Glass’ involvement. Early music choir Pomerium opened the evening with a garden of unearthly delights, conductor Alexander Blachly immediately setting the tone with Gesualdo’s haunting, strikingly ominous O Vox Omnes (whose Biblical lyrics, from the Book of Lamentations, have Jesus asking passersby how their pain might compare with his). From there the ensemble lightened somewhat and went deeper into hypnotically meticulous polyphony from Talls, Desprez and Lassus. This expertly lush, velvet-toned group is at Corpus Christi Church, 529 W 121st St., at 4 PM on Oct 27 if Renaissance choral treasures are your thing.
The most tantalizing piece of the night was a brand-new Glass composition which the composer played as a duet with pipa innovator Wu Man, his murky resonance contrasting with her Chinese lute’s airy, acerbic, ghostly overtones. She also played a suspenseful, slowly rising improvisation on a Chinese folk song as well as Glass’ 2004 chamber work, Orion, teaming with the Scorchio Quartet (violinists Amy Kimball and Rachel Golub, violist Martha Mooke and cellist Leah Coloff) for an eclectic and biting journey through its alternately Indian and Middle Eastern passages. The quartet also joined with pianist Nelson Padgett and baritone Gregory Purnhagen for another New York premiere, Glass’ Songs of Milarepa, whose exquisitely meta-Glass music – nuevo baroque mingled with hauntingly minimalist, Dracula-esque arpeggiation and echoes of a couple of Glass string quartet themes – far surpassed the prosaic translations of doctrinaire Buddhist lyrics written by an eleventh-century Tibetan monk.
Longtime Glass collaborator Foday Musa Suso, the Gambian-born griot, opened the second half of the show solo on kora harp, maintaining a balance between hypnotic and spikily insistent, a one-man orchestra of circular rhythmic riffage and intricate ornamentation. Turkish virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek followed and was arguably the high point of the show, with a slinky, crescendoing, all-too-brief set with his son Murat on frame drum. The father began with a long, enigmatically searching taqsim (improvisation) on flute while hitting the occasional rhythmic chord on baglama lute. Then he picked up the lute and delivered a slowly crescendoing, impassioned, microtonally-charged setting of a rather epic Rumi poem. Austin, Texas-based Riyaaz Qawwali brought the energy level up to redline, ending the night with a joyously undulating, percussive homage to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
It’s always risky to read subtext into a work of art. But pianist Geri Allen‘s new Grand River Crossing – a tribute to the Motown music of her Detroit childhood – has a persistent unease, a plaintive and often poignant quality, in stark contrast with the upbeat material on which most of it is based. To what extent is the album – Allen’s final installment in her mostly-solo trilogy – a reflection on how her hometown has seen a sad transformation from auto capitol of the world to bankrupt Murder City?
Allen’s m.o. here is less to reharmonize a bunch of catchy pop tunes than it is to use their changes as a springboard for improvisation. She opens with a briskly dancing, unrecognizable take on the Michael Jackson hit Wanna Be Starting Something. Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown is reinvented as a haunting, carnivalesque, absolutely brilliant portrait that’s far more true to the title than the original. Stevie Wonder’s That Girl follows some insistently moody variations to a lively, off-the-beaten-path, syncopated romp. Then Allen imbues Ray Brooks’ The Smart Set with a darkly biting, elegaic edge,Marcus Belgrave adding bluesy trumpet. Allen’s solo version of the Beatles’ Let It Be is bitter and jaggedly wounded, as far from the calm resignation of the original as you could possibly imagine.
Belgrave’s Space Odyssey, another duet, builds a broodingly syncopated march around a surreal, microtonal trumpet intro and a brief free interlude. The first Holland/Dozier’Holland tune here, Baby I Need Your Lovin’ plays hide-and-seek with the hook, followed by the second, Itching in My Heart – with David McMurray on alto – done as a pulsing oldschool soul vamp.
Frank Wilson’s Stoned Love is a wary, precise early 60s soul groove – it doesn’t have much of anything to do with jazz, yet it might be the best song on the album. Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues has Allen running the riff in the lefthand against variations in the right; his Save the Children is moody and enigmatic, more question than answer. Allen winds up the album with another duet with Belgrave, Gerald Wilson’s Nancy Joe, finally emerging jauntily from the pervasive darkness that preceded it. There are also three Allen solo miniatures here which for the most part maintain that mood.
The massive, lush Park Avenue Chamber Symphony with David Bernard on the podium make their latest appearance at Carnegie Hall on Oct 27 at 2 PM at Stern Auditorium, playing Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, the Brahms Violin Concerto with Jourdan Urbach on violin, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Daniela Liebman on piano and then Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture. The Upper East Side’s counterpart to the ensembles across the park at Lincoln Center also regularly release recordings of their concerts, just as the NY Phil does, and many of them are very choice. It’s a great marketing concept: truth in advertising, what you hear is exactly what you get in concert. More orchestras should do this.
The latest in this orchestra’s ongoing releases pairs Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1 and 7. The full-bodied performance of the former captures the joy of Beethoven exploring the sonic extremes that the relatively newfangled symphonic form allowed, and in his case encouraged: that his symphonies would become his most popular works comes as no surprise after hearing this. The recording of No. 7 is similarly dynamic – a consistent quality of this orchestra – pairing understatedly explosive pageantry against the tightly controlled, richly creative songcraft that dominates the final three movements.
The orchestra’s previous release is one of the most tantalizing recordings in their extensive catalog, an irresistibly high-spirited take of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony along with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It’s easy to take the Mendelssohn as a romp, but there’s also an almost conspiratorial calm to counter the dancing themes that dominate the work: again, Bernard has the ensemble working rich dynamic contrasts. Another treat in the orchestra’s catalog, from a few years back, is arguably the most plush, luxuriant recent recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. For anything that remotely resembles this, you have to go back to the 1970s for Yevgeny Svetlanov’s version with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. No doubt they will record the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, for which tickets are still available as of this writing.
Medieval Andalucia was the musical mecca where the nobility of Europe sent their spoiled kids to learn how to play it. It was where Arabs, Jews and Spaniards traded riffs. The golden age of jazz was much the same. with its alchemy of African, European and Latino sounds. Trumpeter David Buchbinder‘s new album Walk to the Sea with his Odesssa/Havana group recalls those eras as well as Arturo O’Farrill and Steven Bernstein’s recent mashups of those sounds. It’s one of the best albums Tzadik has put out in recent years and one of the best of 2013.
The opening track, Coffee Works, is a a diptych, juxtaposing a slinky klezmer-tinged stroll and then triumphantly picking up the pace with a salsa groove lit up by Aleksandar Gajic’s stark, resonant violin, and then a spiraling Hilario Duran piano solo A Duran arrangement of the traditional tune Landarico sets Maryem Hassan Tollar’s cool caramel vocals to a gorgeous minor-key jazz waltz, a blend of cutting-edge Fania era salsa, klezmer and jazz. Buchbinder’s chromatically bristling solo hands off to Roberto Occhipinti’s boomy bass, which gives John Johnson’s tenor and Duran’s piano a chance to conspire furtively as it goes doublespeed and then back.
The lone Duran composition here, Aventura Judia works variations on a similarly catchy chromatic salsa vamp with a lively exchange between Johnson and Buchbinder and a scampering piano solo, its web of percussion growing thicker as it pulses along. Somebody write some lyrics and give this to Earth Wind & Fire, or Spanglish Fly! La Roza Una follows with vocal variations on a stately minor-key martial riff.
The title track begins with a moody syncopation and builds to a blaze fueled by a two-horn attack from Johnson’s clarinet and Buchbinder’s trumpet, growing funkier as it bounces along. La Roza Dos goes in the opposite direction from a funky waltz to a wary, intense anthem, Tollar’s microtonal vocals enhancing the uneasy atmosphere. Valentin gives Buchbinder a chance to work dynamic magic against Duran’s flickering piano and Johnson’s pensive tenor sax, the percussion section pushing the ensemble through long upward and downward waves.
Calliope, another slinky salsa groove, gives Johnson a launching pad for a killer Middle Eastern tenor solo, Duran’s solo leading them through a brief doublespeed romp as it winds out. The final track rises from brooding, spacious neoromantic atmospherics to the closest thing to a straight-up salsa tune here, Tollar’s insistent vocals working a neat counterpoint with the resonant twin horns, Occhipinti, Duran and then Gajic trading incisive licks. Tuneful, edgy cross-pollination doesn’t get any more memorably anthemic than this.
It’s possible that the best globally-known export from the South Korean city of Suwon is its Civic Chorale, who made an exciting and eclectic debut in New York at Alice Tully Hall last night, meticulously directed by In-Gi Min. That a lush, vividly poignant arrangement of the Agnus Dei section of Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings was not the highlight of the program testifies to the diversity of the rest of the bill and the choir’s otherworldly power. In both the 20th century and traditional Korean pieces, both Asian and Western scales were employed, typically within the same work. Both Korean and American composers were represented, and although the Korean works surpassed the American material in terms of edgy harmony and intricate polyphony, every arrangement had something unique and often unusual to offer.
Beyond being simply entertaining, this ensemble can be very funny. The audience chuckled throughout a drolly choreographed Vivian Fung arrangement of a Malaysian monkey dance – guys against the girls – and was equally tickled by not one but three works illustrating birdsong – which the group delivered with an amazing verisimilitude in full-blown stereo. Gyun-Yong Lee’s Bird song featured two pairs of soloists trading off with both each other and the ensemble, with spine-tingling moments from both high soprano and low bass as species from a roc to a phoenix were depicted. By contrast, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque and Little Birds gave the group a chance to show off their ability to work lustrous, minutely jeweled magic.
The ensemble opened with a rousing yet nuanced arrangement of Airiramg, the only national song that’s a curse, meaning, essentially, “leave me and your feet will hurt before you’ve walked a couple of miles.” The Kyrie from Jong-Sun Park’s Airirang Mass bristled with eerie close harmonies and low/high dynamic tension. Keeyuong Kim’s Dona Nobis Pacem, an elegaic tone poem of sorts sung in the Asian pentatonic scale and dedicated to the victims of the poison gas attacks in Syria, grew in waves to rather harrowing crescendos
The group paired amped-up folk songs: the anthemic, somewhat predictably nostalgic Gagopa (Wishing to Return) and a lumber camp song which literally lumbered, a grim illustration of the arduous conditions faced by rural laborers as the singers literally panted in unison Then Jeeyoung Kim’s Miserere brought back the austere close harmonies and angst
After the Barber, the group sang Shenandoah with a wistful, towrering sway – it was the most traditionally Western piece on the program. The program concluded with Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, delivered with an icepick staccato almost all the way through, to the point where the high and low registers diverged for an all-too-brief, showstopping explosion of voices.
Thursday night at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village marked the US debut of composer Marco Missinato‘s orchestral suite Unfolding Secrets: A Symphony of the Heart. For those who might see the title of the piece and assume “Hallmark Channel,” it’s not like that at all. Missinato has built as career as a film composer, and true to form, this is a suite of dreamy, cinematic soundscapes built on slowly unfolding, anthemic themes. Juilliard-trained soprano Kristin Hoffmann, who is best known as a purveyor of moody, soul-searching piano-based chamber pop, delivered mostly wordless vocals with both a stunning nuance and an unexpected power that took the piece to surprisingly forceful heights. That they played seven of the work’s thirteen movements out of sequence only added to the intrigue. Missinato wrote the score; Hoffmann wrote the vocal charts, and quite possibly improvised some of them: she can jam with anyone, which became even clearer at the end of the show.
Hoffmann and Missinato share a birthday, and they were celebrating that and the album release for this project together, Hoffmann backed by a chamber ensemble of pianist Assaf Gleizner, bassist Scott Collberg, cellist Alex Cox, violist Timothy Maufe and violinists Marielle Haubs and Caitlyn Lynch. This was an electroacoustic performance, with a backing track including the woodwinds, synthesized orchestration and occasional percussion missing from the group onstage, plus visuals shot by filmmaker Ashley Rogers (whose short documentary tracing the development of the collaboration between Missinato and Hoffmann was screened before the concert) .
A sweeping, slowly shifting main theme of sorts was followed by an optimistic, occasionally suspense-tinged interlude: “Come with me,” Hoffmann sang brightly, an open invitation. She aired out her lower register during a more dramatic, somewhat more anxious sequence. Hoffmann varied her approach considerably as the music unwound, sometimes with a bell-like clarity, other times with a carefully modulated vibrato that she unleashed for a pillowy touch and then pulled back in, and then back and forth, adding a welcome dynamic charge to Missinato’s soothingly enveloping, warmly major-key shades. A minor-key canon lit up by Gleizner’s judiciously minimialist upper righthand work introduced a brooding interlude closer in spirit to Hoffmann’s songwriting. And then the music slowly rose to practically operatic heights.
Hoffmann ended the concert with a trio of her own songs: Ghosts, a pensive but ultimately triumphant trip-hop contemplation of overcoming being haunted by the past; Temple, a slowly and passionately rising anthem, and Falling, a bracing but again triumphant exploration of having the courage to let go and take a plunge, emotionally speaking. Then most of the string section exited, leaving Hoffmann, a guest digeridoo player and the rhythm section to improvise what might have been the night’s most exciting number. Gleizner began with a simple variations on a, gleaming, saturnine riff as Collberg worked around a steady pulse, the digeridoo almost a loop, Hoffmann writing a wounded, angst-fueled anthem on the spot, a vivid portrait of alienation amidst chaos and the struggle to achieve some kind of balance despite it all.