What was it like to hear the Jack Quartet play Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Iij. Noct.at the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown last night in more-or-less total darkness, as the composer intended? On the most prosaic level, the ensemble performed it in stereo, mirroring how the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony incorporated the audience into their stage plot for their performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony earlier this year. In this case, cello and viola (Kevin McFarland and John Pickford Richards) were behind the audience, violins (Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld) onstage, with only the occasional twinkle from a tiny overhead light (a CO2 alarm, maybe) and a couple of orange neon fire door lights, muted and obscured from much of the sold-out crowd. In any case, it was impossible to see the performers. Were they able to make out a shadow or two in the audience? That depends on how sharp their eyesight might be.
The performance was playful, and fun, and gripping, and full of surprises, and harrowing in places. The quartet, who’ve played it a couple of dozen times, at least, have it more or less in their fingers, although the score is mostly improvised, based on a series of riffs and a brief quote from Gesualdo which surfaced about three-quarters of the way in. What was most stunning was how meticulously the group made the slow slide downward, then upward, from basic major to minor triadic harmony and then back again. There were flickering, irresistibly fun hide-and-seek interludes, lots of austere, acidic atmospherics that required extended technique to sustain challenging overtones and harmonics, and a couple of chillingly insistent codas that reminded of Julia Wolfe.
One might think that hearing it in such relative sensory deprivation would be a solitary experience, but that turned out to be 180 degrees the opposite. Being in the dark enhanced the sense of everybody being in the same boat. Basic questions of urban diplomacy quickly posed themselves. Why didn’t that narcissist with her paroxysms and grossness just stay home instead of sharing her sickness? Does an oniony lunchtime falafel carry through the air like the homey scent of hand sanitizer coming in on the left? If anything, an experience like this reinforces how much a little compassion, or just plain common courtesy, really make a difference at a public event.
As far as hearing the music in near pitch-blackness, we’ve all done that, at least those of us whose windows face a shaftway rather than the street. If you’ve ever drifted off to sleep with something wafting from the boombox or the turntable rather thnn from the glow of a phone or a laptop, with, say, a cat or a girlfriend nestled in your arms, this was somewhat more impersonal but required no less attention to the consequences of disturbing the peace.
The Austrian Cultural Forum puts on a lot of adventurous shows like this. There’s another tomorrow night, February 26 at 7:30 PM at the Czech Center 4th floor ballroom at 321 E 73rd St. featuring works by Haas performed by members of the Talea Ensemble, including the world premiere of a piece for solo trumpet, dedicated to the memory of Eric Garner, to be played by Gareth Flowers.
Cuban-born pianist and Quincy Jones protege Alfredo Rodriguez made waves with his 2012 debut album Sounds of Space, His latest and third release, Tocororo – streaming at Spotify – is a welcome return to that record’s juxtaposition of terse Afro-Cuban and broodingly lustrous third-stream sounds. Rodriguez is leading a trio with bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Henry Cole plus chanteuse Ganavya Doraiswamy through a three-night stand at the Jazz Standard starting on March 3, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30, which may seem steep, but remember, the Jazz Standard has no minimums (although they do have good food if you feel like splurging).
The album takes its name from the Cuban national bird, which does not survive in captivity: subtext, anyone? Rodriguez opens it with Chan Chan, a gorgeously creepy George Crumb-like inside-the-piano theme lowlit by some absolutely bloodcurdling bass clarinet. Yemaya veers elegantly between jaggedly insistent Afro-Caribbean intenstiy and enveloping lushness,building with soaring vocalese from Doraiswamy and the duo Ibeyi. Rodriguez’s hard-hitting, music-box-like precision livens bassist Richard Bona’s generically vampy Raices; the bassist also contributes an easygoing cha-cha that they reprise at the end of the album.
Ginaterias spirals with a wickedly catchy intensity that’s part flamenco, part suspenseful phantasmagoria and part Bach. Speaking of which, there’s a wryly syncopated version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring a bit later on.
The album’s title track mashes up jackhammer latin swing, brooding neoromanticism and anxious Indian classical motives, sung with an aptly dynamic, meticulous intenstiy by Doraiswamy. There are two numbers by haunting Lebanese-French trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf here: the first, Venga La Esperanza is a wistful title theme of sorts. The second, Kaleidoscope, is the album’s best track, a propulsively dynamic blend of Middle Eastern classical, Indian carnatic, neoromantic and balmy cinematic styles featuring some strikingly ominous microtonal trumpet from its composer.
Sabanas Blanca is a surreal, unexpected departure into an avant garde take on trip-hop. Adios Nonino, the classic Piazzolla elegy, rocks a lot harder than other artists typically do it, at least to begin, which underscores the plaintiveness that follows. And Meteorite turns on a dime from breathless cinematics to lively pointillisms, then a crushing, angst-fueled dirge. The not-so-subtle message here, other than “Free my people!” seems to be, what can’t this guy play? Answer? Probably nothing. It’ll be fun to see where he lands when he eventually sorts all this out.
Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock Brings Her Enigmatic Improvisational Intensity to the Jazz Gallery Saturday Nigh
Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock’s latest album Ubatuba opens with a series of misty, foghorn-like pulses featuring…a tuba. That’s Dan Peck playing the big thing. Which is a red herring. Laubrock builds a sense of angst and menace that recurs throughout the record’s half-dozen expansive tracks, streaming at Spotify. You could call this free jazz noir. She and her quintet are playing the album release show on February 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Gallery, Cover is $22
Tom Rainey’s drums, flickering cymbals and hardware add cardio to the vascular as the album’s opening track, Any Breathing Organism, slowly coalesces; Laubrock enters on tenor sax with a strikingly bright flourish as Rainey gives her the red carpet cymbal treatment in the background. With its tantalizingly enigmatic textures, much of this ten-minute tone poem of sorts, a launching pad for leaping and diving sax (Laubrock joined by Tim Berne on alto), is closer to Japanese folk music or indie classical than it is straight-up jazz.
The band picks up the pace with a restrained suspense as the slow, tersely melodic exchanges of Homo Diluvii get underway: Ben Gerstein’s trombone-fueled doppler cadenzas enhance the Lynchian mood up to a chatty go-round where everything goes more or less haywire. Rainey’s shadowy explorations fuel the creepy/fluttery dichotomy as Hiccups begins, Laubrock and Gerstein taking separate corners, building to an insistent, minimalist pulse that eventually comes undone as it rises. The way Laubrock orchestrates that heartbeat up through the octaves, and into a fullscale attack, is clever and fun. From there the group winds their way down to a long carefree but closely conversational free round.
Hall of Mirrors comes together slowly out of that with steady, minimalist exchanges and uneasy close harmonies…and then it’s over. Any Many opens as a squalling free jazz pastiche over diesel-engine tuba with deft polyrhythmic flickers, and a droll are-we-tired-yet false ending. The epic final cut, Hypnic Jerk comes across like a Burroughsian cut-up take on a more trad postbop sound, the band eventually meeting in the middle with a jaunty, shuffling flair before they wind it down to hazy atmospherics, then back to another frenzy. Those who need a steady 4/4 swing beat may find much of this challenging, but it’s a clinic in close listening and good teamwork from a crew who have a lot of fun blazing a path through knotty terrain with their eyes closed.
One of the great things about Music Before 1800‘s programming is that it’s not just standard repertoire. Sure, a lot of baroque and early chamber music sounds quaint to us today since it wasn’t written to be anything more than a backdrop for courtly dancing or whatever else the dictators or petty dictators who commissioned it were up to. But a lot of it has as much resonance now as it did then. Last night at the Kosciusko Foundation, violinist Lina Tur Bonet and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss took paradigm shifts from the early 1700s and brought them to life with equal parts adrenaline and meticulousness.
The program was titled “La Petite Merveille and the Red Priest.,” the latter referring to Vivaldi, two of whose dynamic, so-called Graz Sonatas moved seamlessly through graceful, balletesque leaps to gritty, rapidfire riffage, Weiss providing a steady, purposeful safety net beneath Bonet’s charges through volleys of sixteenth notes and biting minor-key cadenzas.
As exciting as all that was, the pieces de resistance were two similarly dynamic works by pioneering French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was given her marvelous little nickname by Louis XIV. Beyond the challenge of being a woman composer of concert music in a field that was a a thousand times more of a boys’ club then than it is today, she singlehandedly introduced the Italian sonata form and its virtuoso playing to French court music, in the process transforming it. That it took such an outsider to pull off that feat has many implications for royalty of the era.
The duo first played her Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, possibly dating from as early as 1695. From its plaintive, moody adagio introduction, throgh fascinatingly fugal, waltzing counterpoint, a handful of strikingly rapidfire passages for Bonet to relish, and a bitingly edgy coda, it was a radical piece of music for its era. There was somewhat less bite but no less innovation in the alternatively wistful, pensive and eventually triumphant variations in Jacquet’s Sonata No. 4 in G Major, which the two performed after a voluptuous yet precisely considered Weiss interpretation of Louis Marchand’s Suite in D Minor for solo harpsichord.
Weiss also put a close spotlight on the intricacies and playful japes in a quartet of solo harpsichord sonatas by Scarlatti. It’s one thing to multitask with this kind of music in the background: up close in concert, it was impossible not to be surprised and tickled by the composer’s occasional use of modern-sounding close harmonies, or the irrepressible humor that bubbled throughout Sonata K. 56. The duo encored with a brief Bach piece that sent the crowd downstairs to the after-show reception with a pre-party nocturnal glimmer.
In addition to their pretty-much-monthly series of concerts by top-tier choral ensembles, Music Before 1800 sometimes features rare treasures and familiar favorites from the chamber repertoire. Their next concert at the Kosciusko Foundation is on March 3 at 7 PM, featuring rising star Beiliang Zhu playing all six Bach Suites for Solo Cello.
That the Mozart Requiem wasn’t the centerpiece of the program last night at Trinity Church speaks to the ambition of conductor Patrick Dupre Quigley and the transformative brilliance of his choir, Seraphic Fire. The sixteen-piece ensemble put on a virtuosic display of vocal prowess and daunting extended technique, not for the sake of show but for emotional impact. The sold-out crowd – comprising all ages and pretty much every demographic that exists in this multicultural city – rewarded them with a series of standing ovations.
Quigley programmed the Mozart as a coda, including new material by Gregory Spears, replacing the three next-to-last segments originally cobbled together by Franz Sussmayr in the wake of Mozart’s death. On one hand, this was as much of stretch for the audience as it was for the emsemble. Sure, singers on as elite a level as this crew are expected to shift on a dime between very diverse idioms, but there was definitely some gearshifting going on as the group – backed elegantly by chamber ensemble the Sebastians – voiced Spears’ minimalistic and frequently challenging variations on comfortably post-baroque Mozart riffs. Spears didn’t follow Mozart’s eighteenth century tonalities for long, but he did stay true to the original thematically, moving between stately waltz time, lustrous washes of sound and plaintively prayerful interludes. Since the Requiem is an incomplete work – if you include all the repetition, only about twenty percent of it is original Mozart – lots of composers have taken up the challenge of wrapping it up. Quigley encouraged the crowd to see this new version as a requiem in the broad sense of the word, a memorial service open to those who need to contribute and share
Interestingly, Quigley didn’t direct the Mozart portions of the work as a mighty, all-stops-out tour de force as choirs tend to do. Instead, he led the group on a matter-of-fact build through sorrow and wistfulness to the fullscale angst of where Mozart realizes that this is finally it.
The rest of the program was sublime. The choir opened with Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, its enveloping, misty textures and endless washes of sustain showcasing the singers’ seemingly effortless command of circular breathing. Baroque composer Heinrich Schutz’s Selig, Sind die Toten, with its striking balance of celestial highs and pillowy lows, made an apt segue with Mendelssohn’s Richte Mich, Gott, considering how much its early Romantic composer drew on Schutz’s forward-thinking orchestration. The group channeled the same kind of confident ebullience and optimism that characterize Mendelssohn’s organ works.
Throughout the terse, nebulously minimalist variations on simple, baroque motives in a new arrangement of Ingram Marshall’s Hymnodic Delays – originally written for vocal quartet and loops rather than a full sixteen-piece ensemble – the group foreshadowed what they’d do with Spears’ work a little later. And soprano Molly Quinn made the most of her flickering and then soaringly riveting appearances in front of the choir, in and out of Dominick DiOrio’s I Am, a prayerfully-tinged, bittersweet launching pad for her literally spine-tingling flights to the upper registers as it wound up on an optimistic note. Seraphic Fire return to Trinity Church on April 20 at 7:30 PM with a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem.
A gusty, unexpectedly chilly February night in a boomy, barewalled basement-level public space hardly makes for optimum conditions for an up-and-coming string quartet to debut their new collaboration with a similarly irrepressible, cutting-edge concert harpist. But Bridget Kibbey and the Amphion String Quartet – violinists Katie Hyun and David Southorn, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Mihai Marica – defied the elements and made a strong impression Tuesday night, notwithstanding the gusts of wind, ganja smoke and a hi-tech coffeemaker working hard in the background during quieter moments. Kibbey took it all in stride, no surprise considering that she made her way up with shows in rock clubs and loft spaces, and the quartet were just as game. Watching them pull everything together made the prospect of seeing them in more comfortable surroundings all the more enticing.
Hyun wore knitted armwarmers for the first number, Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1036. She took them off afterward – playing first-chair violin, you work up a sweat even if it’s cold. Meanwhile, Kibbey negotiated the composer’s rapidfire runs with a harpsichord’s precise, even articulation, hardly an easy task. The group followed by nimbly negotiating Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane with a dynamic performance from stately gamelan-inspired phrasing to more kinetic, traditionally western ballet territory.
For whatever reason, the one piece that seemed the hardest to tackle under the circumstances was its least challenging one, Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 77, No. 1. As Hyun told the crowd, she was happy it “made the cut” for the program, maybe just under the wire, because the group had to battle their way into the graceful opening movement before coming together with an energetically friendly chemistry as the piece rose and fell, spiced with bits of humor and drollery in the same vein as early Beethoven. As Hyun explained, this made sense considering that the quartet was published just a year after Beethoven’s first, a point where there was about to be a changing of the guard…but Haydn wasn’t going to let it happen, at least not yet.
It would seem that the stoners in the house, or outside of the house would have been most entranced by the circling riffage of the Bach or the elegant maze of counterpoint in the Haydn, but instead it was the murderously acidic danse macabre of Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique that got them huffing and puffing. The piece follows the narrative of Edgar Allen Poe’s Mask of the Red Death, a cruelly populist parable that in the age of ebola scares seems especially relevant. Southorn took over first violin part as the group lept and bounded while Death skulked in the background and then tiptoed in over the castle walls. After the bloodbath subsided, the ensemble took it out on an aptly sepulchral note.
This concert was staged by the Concert Artists Guild, whose raison d’etre is to springboard the careers of up-and-coming artists. One especially enticing upcoming CAG-sponsored bill is at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on March 22 at 7:30 PM, where trumpeter Brandon Ridenour, pianist Rachel Kudo and the ensemble Useful Chamber perform works by Gershwin, Ravel, Debussy, Paganini, Bartok, Saint-Saens and Vivaldi.
To what degree are Sunday and Monday the new Friday and Saturday night? To the extent that those first two days are when the spoiled children of the rich and larcenous are too tuckered out – poor things! – to party like it’s 1929, that’s as close as it gets to New York being trust fund kid-free. And if you’re one of the increasing number who’ve taken shelter behind locked doors on the weekend, by the time Monday rolls around, you’re ready to step out. One ongoing Monday night option you might consider, if you’re in an adventurous mood and willing to step into a world where you’d most likely never go otherwise, is charming swing quartet Sarah King & the Smoke Rings‘ weekly 7 PM Monday night residency at the 18th floor bar at the Standard Hotel at 848 Washington St just south of 13th.
The band’s debut album is streaming at Spotify. Most of the songs are standards, done very low-key and purposefully without a lot of gratuitous…anything. Everything counts, even the solos, and King pays a lot of attention to the content of the lyrics when it counts, employing an expressive, sometimes quirky high soprano. The opening track, Tea for Two is one part Lady Day, two parts Blossom Dearie, and the piano matches (and drolly foreshadows) King’s low-key playfulness. The frontwoman adds a touch of sardonic brassiness to the propulsively shuffling Jersey Bounce: intentional or not, its entreaty to party across the Hudson is all too tempting given what’s happened to Manhattan and Brooklyn. Bassist Scott Ritchie’s strolling solo keeps the tongue-in-cheek vibe on the straight and narrow.
I Won’t Dance pairs King’s chirpy vocals against pianist Alex Levin’s stride-influenced lines as Ritchie walks insistently over drummer Ben Cliness’ precisely circling brushwork. Smoke Rings offers an aptly misty nod to the Billie Holiday version of I Cover the Waterfront, matched by King’s most wistfully impressionistic vocals here.
The tiptoeing vocal take of Caravan here looks back less to an Ellington band version than, maybe, the Ventures, considering the tightly wound, nimble tom-tom intro. Some Other Spring gets a purposeful, optimistic interpretation; it has an Ain’t Misbehaving feel to it until Levin takes over with his judiciously considered solo, shifting the song into more enigmatic territory.
King gets unexpectedly blue and then sunny in a flash when the band leaps in halfway through the first verse of Our Love Is Here to Say, Levin adding a no-nonsese, bluesy solo. I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do) follows the same pattern but without the a-cappella intro. The album winds up with a gently swaying take of Up a Lazy River that the band suddenly takes warpspeed. It’s good advertising for the residency. The quartet plays facing the oval bar in the middle of the room, amplified but not too loud. There are a couple of banks of tables and a banquette around the corner from the little stage if you’d rather be less conspicuous, drift back to a New York that time forgot and cast your gaze across the river to pretty much the same thing that Jersey sees when they look back.
Drummer-led bands tend to be excellent. And they should be. Good drummers are more in demand than any other musicians: consequently, they tend to have enormous address books. So it was hardly difficult for Dan Weiss to pull together his Large Ensemble, which includes singers Jen Shyu and Judith Berkson, harpist Katie Andrews, bassist Thomas Morgan, alto saxophonist David Binney, tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianists Jacob Sacks and Matt Mitchell, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein,
Their latest album Sixteen: Drummers Suite (due out momentarily from Pi Recordings, hence no streaming link yet) celebrates the work of some of the greatest names in jazz drumming, with original conpositions springboarding off a series of the bandleader’s favorite riffs from across the ages. It’s an awful lot of fun. The band moves between jaunty interplay, frequent droll/serioso contrasts and playful echo phrases, relying heavily on Shyu and Berkson’s ghost-girl vocalese. It’s indie classical with more complex rhythms and what sounds like purposeful improvisation, although it could be completely composed. The AACM’s album with Fontella Bass could be an influence. Weiss and the group are celebrating the album’s release with a weekend stand, sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on February 12-13 at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22
Weiss kicks off the album solo with a terse series of licks that the ensemble will build on later. The compositions’ titles all refer to iconic jazz drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones and so on. The arrangements very seldom have the full orchestra going all at once, instead relying on momentary handoffs, slowly rising trajectories and frequent pairings or conversations. Those can be downright hilarious. The interlude during Max where it sounds like John Zorn doing P-Funk, Weiss’ abrupt WTF reaction to increasingly cacaphonous sax chatter in Tony and the many, many, many trick endings in Philly Joe are some of the best. There are plenty more.
In their most hectic moments, the band evoke the Claudia Quintet on crank; in their most ornately lustrous, Karl Berger joining forces with Roomful of Teeth. Most of the seven tracks here are partitas, shifting completely from one theme to a seemingly unrelated one. Although the segues are a little off-kilter, the music is consistently interesting. Elvin has jaunty wafts of vocalese from Shyu to Berkson and come-hither fingersnaps. Max features tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions between faux-metal fuzzbox guitar and Berkson’s arioso vocalese…and then takadimi drum language taking over in the drollery department.
For all its hijinks, the creepy piano riffage early on in Tony foreshadows a lot of what’s to come. There are echoes of Missy Mazzoli in a rare carefree mood throughout the vocal swoops and dives in Philly Joe. Klook features an enigmatic, starlit interlude amidst its circling, indie classical-influenced riffage, as does Ed. That passage is a stark, desolate one with acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and tinkly piano, straight out of the Iron Maiden playbook. Even for those who don’t get all the references and insider jokes here, this is still an awfully fun ride.
If there was ever a symphony for our time, it’s Sibelius’ No. 7. And it’s practically a hundred years old: completed in 1924, to be precise. Before leading the Greenwich Village Orchestra through it yesterday, conductor Barbara Yahr cautioned the audience that it would be as challenging to hear as it is to play. “But it’s one of my alltime favorite pieces,” she smiled. “What Sibelius says in a phrase would take twenty minutes in Mahler.”
As usual, she was right on the money. She’d always intuited that the symphony’s central theme is love: “It grows more human,” she explained, pointing to how the first movement coalesces and brightens out of ambiguous, restlessly shifting cell-like phrases. She pointed out that the program notes validated that understanding: the scherzo in the second movement is a lively dedication to one of the composer’s daughters, and the warm major-key theme in the third refers to his wife.
The notes also dismissively characterized the work as domestic. Domestic, shmomestic! It’s a relentlessly harried, sometimes haggard piece, and although more optimistic themes take centerstage as it goes on, it ends more enigmatically than anyone would probably expect given the triumph that comes before. Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for us. On an intellectual level, this is the late Romantic Sibelius listening to Modernism and thinking, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to be said for this twelve-tone stuff.” This performance focused on the emotional content, “I know we’re crazy busy, but I still love you.” And if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. The barrage of ideas and motives flies by like a fast-forward film until at last the sun comes out – and what a warm sun that was, how funny that Nordic music has so many memorable “it’s finally not dark anymore” moments, huh? Yahr managed to bring her signature precision and attention to minute, revelatory detail to this vexing but ultimately rewarding work, one that nobody’s about to conduct from memory, let alone play without the music in front of them.
She and the ensemble bookended it with two considerably more accessible pieces about love: love for freedom, and pure undiluted passion and joie de vivre. The concert opened with a fervent, insistent take of Sibelius’ Finlandia, leaving no question that this was no mere national anthem: it was about giving Russian invaders a swift kick. That spirit brought to mind the similarly unleashed version that Dorrit Matson and the New York Scandia Symphony played at Symphony Space last year.
Pianist Ko-Eun Yi brought equal parts fire and luminosity to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Together, she and the orchestra made it swing, made it rock, at the end threatening to crush the piano keys with her savage, fortissimo chords as the coda swung in like a construction crane run amok. No wonder its themes have been plundered by so many rock acts – for example, ELO, who made surf rock out of it, and the Fugs, who would have made it x-rated had their 1967 record label let them. From that bristling, wickedly anthemic six-chord hook that Yi really took her time with, making it resound for all it was worth, through gleaming cascades and dazzling sunset-on-the-waves ripples, she had come to bring the party, and Yahr and the group behind her were only too glad to raise a sturdy foundation and a wide-angle backdrop for all the Romany and flamenco-tinged festivities.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on April 10 at 3 PM at Irving Auditorium, 17th and Irving Place (cattycorner from Irving Plaza), featuring the Mozart Adagio and Rondo, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Suggested donation is $20, reception to follow.
What was it like to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the umpteenth time? Seated within the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony last night at the DiMenna Center, unlike any other. Placing musicians on the perimeter of an audience is both an old theatrical trick and an experience common to anyone who’s ever seen a marching band or a drum corps competition. But placing a crowd within various sections of a symphony orchestra is something new and exciting.
Conductor David Bernard was candid about the challenges posed by working with such an unorthodox configuration. “I found myself looking for people and not finding them,” he grinned during a lively Q&A with the crowd after the performance. “And you looked back at me,” he told the audience, “And said, ‘Don’t look at me, I don’t come in yet.’”
This audience was a particularly sophisticated and engaged one. Concertgoers marveled at the difficulty of sustaining vibrato, especially in unison with an entire string section; that the players, many of them estranged from the usual stage plot, had to be especially on their toes for cues; and the simple fact that a symphony orchestra performance requires several dozen musicians to be simultaneously at the top of their game, in sync. Compounding the basic challenge of pulling off a famous Beethoven symphony that pretty much every classical fan knows well, if not by heart, was the slight doppler effect created by having musicians separated so far from each other – an aspect that the audience was aware of. That the orchestra was sensitive to such minute rhythmic shifts and responded as well as they did speaks to the quality of this ensemble’s musicianship.
Bernard has boundless enthusiasm and can’t resist sharing it, a useful quality considering that he was wearing his impresario’s hat as well as his conductor’s one. Getting to watch him from the perspective of an orchestra member reinforced earlier perceptions: his relationship to the musicians was a constant push-pull, a friendly but firm “Gimme!” and then a beaming “yessss” when the orchestra delivered. Playing music is like acting; you have to trust the people you’re onstage with, and Bernard’s unassailable confidence has obviously filtered down to this crew.
What was the experience like? Those in the audience who were willing to cop to not having seen much classical music (a lot wouldn’t admit it), unsurprisingly, seemed the most thrilled, as people tend to be after their first exposure to this symphony. From the perspective of having grown up with it – first a comfortable friend wafting in from WQXR atop the family fridge, then later being transfixed by it both in concert and by close, uninterrupted listening on a Sony walkman (remember those?) – this was still a revelation.
First of all, depending on where audience members were situated, certain voices would be elevated or would even drown out others. One element that came into stunning focus was how subtly yet stunningly Beethoven shifts meters. Another was the sophistication of the counterpoint (many in the crowd marveled at that). Bernard addressed the grimness and black humor of the opening movement by explaining that he saw it as a relentless tug-of-war between energy and restraint, one that should leave both performers and listeners spent by the time it’s over. But the rest of the symphony is often uproariously funny. That buffoonish faux-patriotic march in the second movement, the point where an elegant waltz suddenly becomes a stilted Punch-and-Judy theme, and the shlemiel sentry of a bassoon on the perimeter, crying wolf…or maybe not? It was hard to resist laughing out loud, and disrupting the musicians. What was more impressive was how the orchestra managed to get through those passages, and similar LMAO moments, with a straight face.
Taking the audience out of their element and challenging them to watch, and listen, literally immersed in the music, could become this orchestra’s shtick…or at least one among many. It could make them very, very popular. One older gentleman in the crowd explained that at last he understood the thrill his son experienced onstage with his rock band. This was like being in that band, multiplied a dozen times over. After all, who wouldn’t want to be onstage performing Beethoven’s Fifth?
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 21 at All Saints Church on 60th St. just west of First Ave. featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the fantastic Inbal Segev as soloist, plus Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.. It’s not known how traditionally or untraditionally Bernard might stage it. That prospect alone makes it enticing.