The Carnival of the Animals Holds a Multi-Generational Family Concert Crowd Rapt at the Miller Theatre
The best kind of so-called “family concerts” are like the Simpsons: they’re fun on face value, for the kids, but also have multiple levels of meaning for the adults. Such was the case yesterday afternoon at the sold-out multimedia performance of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals at the Miller Theatre. The kids – as diverse a mix as can be found in this multicultural city – loved the surrealistic, more-or-less lifesize puppets designed by Lake Simons and paraded around the stage with suspenseful, vaudevillian flair by Kristen Kammermeyer, Brendan McMahon, Justin Perkins and Rachael Shane. The adults, as well as what seemed to be a large percentage of the children, responded raptly to an exquisitely detailed, unselfconsciously playful performance by a ten-piece chamber orchestra, the strings of the Mivos Quartet augmented by an all-star cast on piano, percussion and winds.
While Simons took her inspiration for this show from late 1800s’ toy theatres, which rivalled the most elaborate dollhouses of the era, her creations had a lo-fi charm: mops, brooms, dusters and other wood-and-fabric assemblages brought to life the menagerie in the composer’s well-loved score. The ensemble followed the stage direction seamlessly, and that was a lot more cleverly orchestrated than a simple procession. Lively interplay between the puppeteers extended down into the audience at one point, drawing all sorts of laughs.
The music pulsed along vividly: regal lions, sputtering chickens, buffoonish donkeys, birds of all kinds and even pianists tortured by a cruel parody of boring etudes all got a minute or two centerstage. What was most striking about this concert – from the perspective of an adult who was able to brush up on the music beforehand with a well-worn vinyl record – was how downright creepy it is. Pianist Ning Yu’s otherworldly glimmer reminded how often the suite’s portrait of fish underwater has been used in horror films…and how Philip Glass nicked it for his Dracula soundtrack. And the depiction of fossil bones – which, in a neat choice of dynamics, the ensemble slowed from a gallop to a slinky sway – is a rewrite of the composer’s famous Danse Macabre. Happily, that aspect of the music seemed to go over the kids’ heads.
Toy pianist Laura Barger and percussionist Russell Greenberg opened the concert with a sprightly dance by William Byrd, a familiar Tschaikovsky theme and a carol, all of which were performed intricately and conversationally, although this long intro left the kids restless. There was also narration, utilizing Odgen Nash doggerel originally recorded in 1949 by an ensemble led by Andre Kostelanetz, and that drew some chuckles from the oldsters but didn’t connect with the younger contingent either. Speaking of which, everyone from about age four on up was captivated by the spectacle, which wrapped up briskly in just under an hour. Predictably, the toddlers were not: it’s hard enough to get an eighteen-month-old in and out of the grocery store, let alone through an hour of sitting still in the midst of an audience who’ve bought their tickets expecting not to be annoyed. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to expect the most entitled contingent of the Upper Westside crowd here to respect the theatre’s no-toddlers policy.
Rare as it is for a woman to lead a large jazz ensemble, it’s rarer still for a big band to be led by the singer. Sara McDonald, composer and leader of the NYChillharmonic, blurs the line between art-rock, chamber pop and big band jazz. She sings in a tersely modulated alto and writes lustrous, slowly shapeshifting, moodily lyric-driven songs. The group’s debut album, credited to McDonald herself, is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the Lincoln Center Atrium this Thursday, December 17 at 7:30 PM. The echoey space ought to be hospitable to this group’s methodically rising, often epic swells, slow tempos and cinematic sweep. As always, getting there early is a good idea if you want a seat, or for that matter, if you want to get in at all since management never lets the place fill to capacity.
Based around looping Darcy James Argue-esque phrases, the album’s opening track, Dead the Trees is a gently lush, lavishly orchestrated, global warming-era apocalyptic waltz. “No one was thinking, no one intervened…smitten with greed,” McDonald intones understatedly, letting the message speak for itself. Guitarist Martin Wessalowski’s lingering, brooding phrases mingle with the increasingly majestic tectonics of the orchestra as the second track, Plans – also a waltz – rises toward peak elevation. Grounded by Lukas Voith’s elegant piano, another gracefully grandiose waltz, Isobel, has a soaring catchiness and enigmatic mix of tense drama and wistfulness that brings to mind Greta Gertler’s similarly lush art-rock band the Universal Thump. It isn’t til the final cut, the evocatively balmy, clave-fueled Sand Castles, that McDonald airs out her torchy side, vocally or otherwise, and it’s worth waiting for, in fact all the way through an amped-up but ultimately misguided cover of a pointless Grizzly Bear bossa ripoff. It’ll be fun to find out what else McDonald has come up with in the roughly year-and-a-half since this album came out.
What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.
Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.
What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.
The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.
She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.
Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.
Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.
If there’s any community in the United States that can claim the vast legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, it’s in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with its rustic Moravian stone architecture and vestiges of decades as a rust belt mainstay, sits about two hours outside of New York. Comparable in size to Cleveland, it’s home to one of this country’s most popular annual Bach festivals. Last night in the comfortably lit confines of the city’s First Presbyterian Church, its good burghers had come out to hear the Bach Choir and Festival Orchestra of Bethlehem perform the first three parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for the first time in ten years.
An unselfconscious joy and optimism radiated from the stage to the crowd: neither ensemble nor audience were the least bit blase. Nor should they have been. The Christmas Oratorio doesn’t have the stormy gusts and restless intensity of, say, Bach’s St. John Passion; this late-career epic is a sleekly detailed, confidently interwoven celebration of the triumph of the human spirit, Teutonic 18th century style. That’s exactly how this group delivered it, letting their enthusiasm shine through its endless series of interchanges without getting carried away. It was calm excitement, an eye-opening time capsule, not just to the the era when this music was created, but to a less virtual time in American history when performances like these were just as much about the fabric of a region as about spectacle. “Try to imagine being in Leipzig in 1734 and hearing this music for the very first time,” conductor Greg Funfgeld entreated the sold-out house, although he might just as well have been talking about 1901, when an earlier version of this same group – America’s oldest Bach choir – performed this suite in its entirety for the first time.
Soloists were strong and distinctly individual. Soprano Ellen McAteer got the most out of her brief time in the spotlight with a calmly steely precision. Countertenor Daniel Taylor got the most of anyone and made his challenging flights up into the clouds look easy. Tenor Isaiah Bell confidently channeled the music’s optimism, as did bass-baritone David Newman, whose unassuming smile and irrepressible good cheer were contagious.
The orchestra displayed a calm cohesion amid the swirl, bringing Bach’s breathtakingly inventive voicings and textures into crystalline focus: the old organist just couldn’t resist pairing, say, cello and bassoon for a spot-on facsimile of a krummhorn organ stop. Ingenious echo effects, fusillades of call-and-response pinballing through the choir, elegant pairings of voices and solo instruments, pensively waltzing interludes and a couple of mighty swells just short of bursting with contentment combined to evoke shepherds and angels and an anxious mother-to-be all awaiting one expectant moment, the mystical as vividly personal. To reinforce that, after the Bach was finally done, there was a singalong of three carols – in German, for authenticity’s sake, many of the concertgoers joining in. For New Yorkers and other residents in the northeast who didn’t have the good fortune to catch a ride out for this performance, the concert was recorded and will be broadcast in its entirety on WWFM on Christmas day at 8 PM.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem’s next concert is February 28 at 3 PM as part of a festival of youth choirs at the arts center at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, They’re also performing the St. John Passion on March 20 at 4 PM at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem at 2344 Center St.
Bassist Petros Klampanis is one of New York’s most eclectic sidemen, equally sought after for straight-up jazz, Middle Eastern and Greek music. But his greatest strength is as a composer and bandleader. His compositions draw on all of those influences as well as classical music. As you might expect from someone who grew up on a Greek island, he likes minor keys and chromatics, but also lush strings: his arrangements, awash in eerie close harmonies, are unique in jazz and something he’s clearly proud of, if the merch section on the front of his webpage is any indication. His most recent album, Minor Dispute blends broodingly cinematic themes with Greek folk-influenced material and some lively postbop. But his greatest achievement yet is his work with his new chamber jazz ensemble Chroma. This past evening at the Onassis Center in midtown, Klampanis the big band – Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Shai Maestro on piano, John Hadfield and Keita Ogawa on percussion and a hefty string section – through a dynamic set of mostly new material.
Klampanis explained to the sold-out crowd that the inspiration for the group name, and the title of their forthconing album – the Greek word for “color” – draw on the kaleidoscopoic nature of individual experience. Several of the early numbers in the set built from moody, neoromantically nocturnal Maestro piano intros, the first up to a maze of polyrhythms that came together as the piano and twin percussion spiraled with an almost frantic bustle while Hekselman sailed overhead, choosing his spots. Klampanis sang anthemic, distantly angst-tinged vocalese over the cinematic sweep of the strings as the piano grew more intense and emphatic on what was the catchiest and possibly best number of the evening. The bandleader’s one bass solo of the night bubbled and contrasted with the eerily rising strings behind him, returning to crepuscular ambience that receded down to a series of ghostly, austere washes.
The night’s most kinetic number hinted at the Mission Impossible theme with its polyrhythms, highwire piano and blippy staccato guitar, opening with and later and returning to Philip Glass-like circular riffage and a mighty, crashing crescendo at the end. Likewise, Monkey Business vamped along with a darkly jaunty pulse and wryly effects-laden guitar, again bringing back those ominously opaque strings with a descent into the shadows.
Soulful, expressively melismatic baritone crooner Mavrothi Kontanis sang the night’s big audience hit, a lively jazzed-up take on a cheery Greek bouzouki folk tune. The aptly titled, rhythmically shapeshifting Shadows, by Klampanis’ island-mate Spyros Manesis, rose and fell in quick waves over Maestro’s precise, gravely balletesque piano and the clip-clop rhythm of the two percussionists. Cosmic Patience, a Hekselman tune, began with glistening, black-confetti strewn guitar and quickly hits a suspenseful groove, Klampanis pedaling his syncopation as the tension grows, then the rhythm relaxed and Hekselman took the most trad postbop solo of the night, the strings’ austerity at the end ushering in what by now had become an inevitable, haunting, austere return. For those who had the misfortune to miss this show, Klampanis is reprising it with pretty much the same crew on December 26 at Cornelia St. Cafe with sets at 9 and 10:30; cover is 10 + $10 min.
In concert, at least, symphonic music varies much more than you might think, considering how specific the instructions are from composer to conductor and musicians. Then again, that difference of interpretation is what makes orchestral concerts so much fun (and sometimes, so painfully disappointing) to be immersed in. Last night the up-and-coming Queensboro Symphony Orchestra offered two highly individualistic, richly successful takes on a couple of popular works from the standard repertoire, as well as a smooth run-through of another.
That one was Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. “Here’s what’s gonna happen,” says Mozart. “This will give you a basic idea of what to expect. This isn’t heavy, it’s upbeat and fun and sometimes funny, and you’re going to be entertained. And I’m gonna keep the musicians on their toes, make it conversational, so they’re entertained too.” And that’s how this ensemble played it.
Next on the bill was an intensely dynamic take of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor. Conductor Dong Hyun Kim led the orchestra very calmly and precisely out of the sub-basement, setting the thermostat very low so that when the stormy ambience finally kicked in during the second movement, the contrast packed all the more wallop. Violin soloist Yosub Kim delivered frenetic, spectacularly shivery flights against a slowly pulsing, rather ominous backdrop for much of the piece, another study in contrasts that drew spontaneous applause from the crowd between every movement. When the orchestra finally cut loose in a series of triumphantly foreboding waves at the very end, a battering ram in a velvet glove, it made for a mighty payoff.
The concert ended with a similarly individualistic version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Listen to just about any recording of the third movement, and the high strings will barely be present. At this concert, they were very loud, completely transforming the music with a whole new level of suspense. Beethoven is foreshadowing here: that this conductor caught that, where so many others don’t, wasn’t the only exciting development in full effect at this concert. There were other contrasts, notably in the high winds and brass, that added considerable color, especially throughout the symphony’s ebullient first movement.
The abrupt transition from major to minor toward the end of that movement was vividly reflected in the somber second; the ending was everything it’s known for, Beethoven at his most Beethovenesque. It’s basically a very long outro, one false ending after another, the composer going for laughs at every juncture, teasing the conductor, the musicians and most of all you. What a fun way to end a broodingly overcast Sunday night.
The Queensboro Symphony Orchestra makes a move outside their usual digs for a special young people’s concert of vocal music and concertos by Haydn, Mozart and others at St. Ann’s Church, 58-02 146th St. in Flushing this coming Sunday, December 13 at 7 PM. If you don’t live in the neighborhood, it’s a comfortable 25-minute walk from the Main St. 7 train (last stop); go straight up Main and continue through this quiet residential area to 58th Ave and make a left, then walk three blocks. You can also take the Main St. bus right from the subway.
On one hand, it’s risky to call a classical pianist an individualist. In some circles, that might imply that the artist takes liberties which could range from debatable, to suspect, to completely unwanted. On the other hand, pianist Alexandra Joan has such fearsome technique that she’s able to interpret whatever emotion she can evince from the material in front of her. And when that’s unexpected, as it often is, it’s a revelation. Classical musicians are expected from their earliest days at conservatory to be all things to all people and all music, and Joan’s performances in the recent past have reflected those demands. With that in mind, there’s no question that she likes the Romantics, yet she’s also a great advocate for new music and especially the protean and colorful Mohammed Fairouz. And she likes a challenge, which is exactly what she’ll tackle this Friday, December 11 at 8 PM at Bargemusic where she’ll contend with a program including works by Bach, Arvo Part, Elliott Carter, Kaija Saariaho and Schumann’s famously difficult Etudes Symphoniques. Cover is $35/$30 srs/$15 stud., and early arrival is advised; Joan is popular.
Her most recent solo album is titled Dances and Songs. Interestingly, the most striking piece on it isn’t the physically taxing Liszt works, or the richly enigmatic Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; it’s Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor. She plays it as if she was playing a harpsichord, giving full weight to the ornamentation and grace notes, proportionate to the rest of the score rather than lettting them just flit off the page. It’s a neat trick, and one that requires vastly more lightness of touch and completely different technique than if she was playing an actual harpsichord. And then, she finds the one part of the suite where she can make the greatest contrast with what, up to then, has been just short of lickety-split, and the effect is explosive. At that point, she hits a dirge tempo, so slow that it seems that the rhythm has fallen conpletely out. Essentially, she looked for the one place where she could wring every ounce of contrast (and raw, unvarnished angst) out of it, and pulled it off.
The album opens with a precise, emphatic take of Valse-Caprice No. 6 from Liszt’s Soirees de Vienne; she’ll return to waltzing Liszt at the end of the program to bring the album full circle. As the Ravel picks up steam from a stately tempo, Joan lets the distant gleam shine through, seemingly allowing the cascades to tumble from her hands rather than evoking a climb in one direction or another. It seems effortless even though it’s not.
After the intensity of the Bach, Liszt’s take of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman offers a dynamically shifting emotional respite. However, Joan’s muted approach at the end sets up another far more moody performance, Lizst’s arrangement of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger. Such segues are typical in her repertoire: she can’t resist making a connection where she can find one. The album isn’t up at any of the usual streaming spots, although Joan’s performances are well represented on youtube and at Instantencore.
What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.
French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.
Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.
Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.
Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.
The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.