Inside the Town Hall last night, the atmosphere was not quite as dark and stormy as the unseasonable torrents pelting the midtown streets. Out of the rain, a robust, enthusiastic, mostly Russian-speaking crowd were engaged by some of the most otherworldly sounds resonating on any New York stage this year. Music from the Republic of Georgia is instantly recognizable – there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. While the twelve men of the eclectic and often electrifying choir Ensemble Basiani sometimes echoed the solemn, brooding quality of the Russian tradition, as well as a couple of interludes of lustrous polyphony in the same vein as Palestrina or Monteverdi, most of their music was strikingly and unmistakably distinctive.
Singing completely from memory, the choir seamlessly aligned an endlessly shifting series of uneasy close harmonies, when they weren’t firing on twelve individual cylinders’ worth of wry, sometimes droll call-and-response. Much of the material in their repertoirs dates back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, yet those harmonies are so strangely sophisticated that they’re avant garde: music that old suddenly becomes new again. Stravinsky took melodies like those from further north on the Russian continent and turned them into the Rite of Spring – nobody knew at the time how much he was simply appropriating ancient village themes.
There wasn’t a lot of the ornamentation found in Ukrainian, Baltic and Balkan music in this set, but when there was, the choir worked those effects for all the deadpan humor they were worth. One number pulsed along with an emphatic “huh” refrain worthy of James Brown. The opening and closing pieces featured one of the tenor voices leaping around, utilizing a device that came across as half yodel, half chirp. And he was very good at it!
Likewise, the group worked the dynamics up and down, from insistent, rhythmic agrarian chants, to rapt hymns, to a handful of slowly crescendoing, hypnotic themes which a couple of guys in the ensemble accompanied with bandura lutes. Another number featured a larger-body lute to match the heft of the music. One of those songs, possibly the biggest hit with the audience, was recognizable as a larger-scale arrangement of an ancient folk tune memorably recorded by the duo of acclaimed American singers Eva Salina and Aurelia Shrenker on their classic AE album. The audience finally came out of their trance and began a spontaneous clapalong; at the end of the concert, they wouldn’t let the group go and after several standing ovations were treated to three encores. Ensemble Basiani’s next stop on their American tour is November 1 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S Goodwin Ave in Urbana, IL; tix are $33.
As far as New York concerts this year go, the most irresistibly yet understatedly macabre Halloween music played on any stage in this city was Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell‘s duo performance of Holmes’ Conqueror Worm Suite at Barbes on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s lurid 1843 poem, it’s a disturbing, grimly picturesque, many-segmented work – just like Poe’s flesh-eating insect.
A catchy, low-key trumpet figure with allusions to oldtime African-American gospel matched by moody, suspenseful low-register accordion opened the suite before Holmes picked up the pace, pensively and optimstically. The trumpeter narrated the first verse as Farrell’s accordion shifted into a morosely staggered waltz rhythm, Holmes’ brooding lines overhead echoing the Balkan music he’s been immersed in over the years, especially at this venue.
The poem follows the same plotline as Poe’s better-known short story The Masque of the Red Death. a high-society party turned into a nightmare – in 2016 political terms, there might be some symbolism here. Holmes put his mute in for a plaintive, rustically bluesy minor-key theme as Farrell held down a brooding, resonant anchoring ambience. From there the duo shifted unexpectedly from a momentary interlude of sheer, rapt horror to a bouncy Balkan dance, the trumpet soaring over Farrell’s rat-a-tat pulse; then the two switched roles and intertwined like..well, a giant worm and its prey.
After a briefly scampering detour, Farrell took centerstage with his big, evil, Messiaeneaque chords as Holmes did a Frankenstein sway several octaves higher. Since we know how the poem ends, it’s probably fair to give away the ending: only here did Holmes let terror flutter through his valves. The duo wound it up with a morose march. According to esteemed photographer and Barbes music room honcho Kate Attardo, this was the second time the work had been performed in its entirety here. Attardo knows a thing or two about good Balkan and brass music, and strongly affirmed that as good as the debut was, this performance was even better. There’ll be a “best concerts of 2016” page here at the end of the year, and this one will be on it. Holmes’ next gig is on Nov 5 at 10 at Barbes with mighty, exhilarating Sionaloa-style ranchera brass orchestra Banda De Los Muertos. Farrell’s next New York show is on Nov 28 at 6 PM with klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals‘ sizzling band outdoors at the triangle at 63rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side.
Ask any dedicated Halloween fan what they think of for a soundtrack for their favorite holiday, and a lot of them will scream, “Organ music!” Thankfully, here in New York we have Patrick Allen to supply that soundtrack a little in advance.
Allen is the tireless organist of Grace Church on Broadway just south of 11th Street. In addition to his extensive work with church services and the choir, Allen plays Bach Tuesday through Friday at twenty minutes past noon, sharp. These “organ meditations,” as he calls them, are free of charge, although you are encouraged to bring canned goods for the church’s food pantry.
Allen is a connoisseur of Bach. Not only does he perform the standard repertoire of preludes and fugues, and passacaglias, and hymns, but he also uncovers all sorts of obscure treasures like pastorales and folk dance themes in liturgical disguise. Playing expertly on the mighty 2013 Taylor and Boody organ, enhanced by the historic 1846 edifice’s magnificent natural reverb, his four-times-a-week performances are a gothic treat that every New Yorker should play hooky from work or school at least once in a lifetime to enjoy.
Beyond the general association, what do Allen’s performances have to do with Halloween? Right around this time of year, he breaks out Bach’s Toccata in D. It’s arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, it’s been a staple of horror film for almost a century, and Allen always lets his phrases linger with just a little extra grand guignol menace right about now. Stop by the church today or tomorrow if you’re in the neighborhood because you may be in for a real treat. The trick is to get here on time or you might miss it.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of the deliciously enveloping duo set that violinist Sarah Neufeld and multi-saxophonist Colin Stetson played this past evening at the World Financial Center atrium. If you missed it, good news: it’ll be rebroadcast on a date TBA on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live program on WNYC.
Neufeld and Stetson did a memorable duo album, Never Were the Way She Was, last year; since then, she’s released another solo effort, The Ridge. This show revisited both recordings: it was a performance to lean back and take in with eyes closed and get absoutely, completely lost in.
Neufeld opened solo with some assistance from her trusty loop pedal, building steady rhythmic variations on a stately three-note descending riff. Her second number rose out of canon-like, fluttery flurrying, a call-and-response of extended phrases. It was hard to tell what was in the pedal and what Neufeld was playing herself, but she was working up a sweat. Brisk broken chords and allusions to Romanticism appeared and were subsumed by sirening banks of sound.
Stetson joined her and supplied a rippling, almost subsonic idling-diesel drone, then introduced minutely stygian shifts as Neufeld played terse, wary, minimalistic washes overhead. Together they built a microtonal mist heavy at both ends of the register, Neufeld’s swipes and swoops against Stetson’s digeridoo-like rumble. The two slowly wound the epic down at the end with what could have beeen whale song translated to the two instruments: a deep, endangered ocean.
It was here that it became obvious that the two musicians had figured out the timing of the sonic decay in the boomy atrium space: in their hands, it became an integral part of the instrumentation as the echoes bounced off the walls. Memo to musicians looking to capitalize on that: it’s a fast echo, only about a half a second.
Stetson’s work on tenor sax was just as hypnotic, and expertly rhythmic, as his rumbling bass sax attack, the kind of masterfully metronomic series of live loops that he does with his live techno. A warmly nocturnal vamp and all sorts of otherworldly warping textures – including some ethereal vocalese from Neufeld filteried through the mix. They lost the crowd for a bit with a dancing, flitting number with a lot of pizzicato violin but pulled them back in, ending on as anthemic a note as such vast, spacious music can conjure. As the show wound up, Neufeld stomped her foot for a trancey percussive loop and pushed Stetson to his murkiest depths. What a refreshing, revitalizing experience in the middle of a week that really screamed out for one.
Meanwhile, throughout the show, a jungly loop of birdsong fluttered behind the mix, audible in the quietest moments. At first it was cute, but the shtick wore thin. Juan Garcia Esquivel would have faded it out thirty seconds in.
The premise of the Greenwich Village Orchestra, along with the other community orchestras throughout the five boroughs of New York, is that there isn’t enough room in the New York Philharmonic for all the first-rate classical players in town. This year marks the GVO’s thirtieth anniversary, half of that under the direction of maestro Barbara Yahr. And it’s their most ambitious season ever, in fact, arguably the most ambitious season of any orchestra in New York this year For example, their next concert, on Nov 6 at 3 PM includes the hauntingly immortal “Rach 2,” the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with Imri Talgam as soloist, along with some highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet as well as his Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Further down the road, they’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, along with a more playful Broadway-themed program that will probably be heavy on Leonard Bernstein.
The opening concert of the orchestra’s 2016-17 season was similarly ambitious: an all-Dvorak bill that began with a tightly focused romp through the first of his Symphonic Dances. On one hand, it was a signal that the orchestra wasn’t going to waste auy time bringing the energy to redline. Yet, Yahr’s calmly unassailable direction gave the piece a balletesque precision in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a more elegant take on a centuries-old folk tradition.
They followed with Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Adele Anthony. As the program notes alluded, this piece has a funny backstory. The composer wrote it for Joseph Joachim, one of the 19th century’s greatest violinsts…who refused to play it, probably because it isn’t flashy enough! And flash is the last thing in mind Dvorak had in mind for it: at its ravishing heart (to quote one particularly astute, veteran GVO supporter), it’s a love story. And it’s noteworthy for how contiguous and integral the solo violin is within the context of the whole lush picture. For what it’s worth, Anthony played her cards close to the vest, an appropriate choice considering how intricately her part is woven into the work’s lavish and lively exchanges.
The orchestra closed with the most dynamic performance of the New World Symphony ever witnessed by this blog – and if you stick around the New York classical scene long enough, you see a bunch of them. One thing that made this special was that Dvorak very likely wrote part of the symphony on the very spot – 17th Street and Irving Place – where the orchestra performed it. Dvorak taught for a couple of years at the conservatory which remained there until it was razed in the early 1920s. What was equally special was how Yahr and her ensemble pulled it off. She is passionate and meticulous about details, particularly the most minute ones that a composer will hide away just to see if anybody gets them. In this case, it was the momentary, surreal dream-state rondo of an interlude that flashes by in maybe forty seconds in the symphony’s final movement, a secret key that seems to resolve every previous theme if you listen closely. After going deep into the score, Yahr had it sussed out: “I think this is about memory,” she asserted. “ And maybe Dvorak remembering his life in Bohemia, and being homesick.”
And the orchestra responded. It would be facile to explain the vast expanse they tackled, and conquered, by saying that Yahr started everything out hushed and sotto voce to give the musicians as much headroom as possible later on. What came into clearest focus – another point that Yahr emphasized – was that as much as Dvorak seized on African-American blues and spiritual themes, this is an indelibly European piece of music. Everybody who had to be on his or her game was. Horns, first and foremost, scouts surveying the terrain and foreshadowing the bellicosity in their path, were absolutely flawless, along with percussion and the tight-as-a-barrel string section. Other NewYork orchestras release every performance: a grab bag, to say the least, including the Philharmonic’s own performances. For the GVO, this was one for the ages.
While we’re at it, here’s an alternate interpretation, one that Yahr might or might not agree with. Dvorak was definitely in memory mode – memory of conflict, and fear, and maybe war. Repression was a fact of daily life in the Hapsburg Empire, something that might well have factored into the volleys and frantic retreats that provide an understatedly chilling contrast with the earthy themes that recall Swing Low Sweet Chariot – and which both George Gershwin and Paul Simon would rip off years and decades later. Dvorak might well have had an ulterior motive to take up a New York society matron’s offer of residency here: to stay out of harm’s way for a bit.
It was a grim, grey day, sticky with global warming-era humidity. No sinister force could have conjured a more appropriate atmosphere for a concert inspired by conspiracy theories. As the eighteen-piece Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society assembled onstage this evening at National Sawdust for the album release show for their new one, Real Enemies, the trumpeters clustered around the piano, back to the audience. What on earth were they conspiring about?
The opened the show by playing into the piano: in other words, blowing into an echo chamber. The hint of natural reverb enhanced the squirrelly exchange of brass phrases, and the visual matched the music. This wasn’t the chattering groupthink that would recur several times, to mighty effect, throughout the concert, a performance of the new album in its entirety. Rather, this seemed to be a portrait of a paranoid personality, or personalities, all lost in their own universes and echoing only themselves. On album, the effect is unsettling; live, it was nothing short of comedic. But nobody in the crowd laughed.
The group’s previous album, Brooklyn Babylon, blended rat-a-tat Balkan brass, sardonically loopy prog-rock riffage, even more savage faux-pageantry and a blustery unease. This new album is closer to Stravinsky or Shostakovich in its darkest moments, which predominate what’s essentially a contiguous thirteen-part suite best experienced as a whole. The project, drawing on Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, first took shape as a multimedia collaboration between composer/conductor Argue, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2015. This performance also featured voiceovers and samples – triggered by Argue from the podium – including some pretty killer quotes from George W. Bush (“We can’t wait any longer!” twice, from the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq), JFK and others. The suite wound up with the band swaying along to a long narration examining the paranoid mindset, actor James Urbaniak’s steady cadences echoing from the speakers overhead. Hardly an easy task for the group to stay locked in, but they .swung along with it
This is an amazing band. Brooklyn Babylon is punctuated by a series of miniatures which pair unusual combinations of instruments; Argue also pairs off instruments in this series of compositions, but more traditionally. The most spine-tingling one was early on, trombonist Ryan Keberle’s frenetic, deep-blues spirals up against Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant, angst-tinged flugelhorn. At the end, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen spun and dipped while tenor saxophonist Dave Pietro channeled his own sputtering galaxy, one of many caustically illustrative moments. And a deep-space duet between Adam Birnbaum – switching from grand piano to an echoey electric model – alongside guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s spare, austere lines was only slightly less cold and cynical.
Argue is an amazing composer. Withering humor was everywhere: in the constant, flittingly conversational motives, in subtle shifts from balminess to icy, Morricone-esque menace, and in the choice of samples, a couple of them seemingly tweaked from the album for extra irony. Lights and darks, highs and lows hung and swung in the balance as the composer – rocking a sharp suit and a sharp, short new haircut, maybe for extra sarcasm – calmly directed the ensemble through them. Maria Schneider may be the consensus choice as the standard of the world for big band composition, and she’s earned it (and has a political sensibility no less perceptive than Argue’s), but Argue’s work is just as strong. And this concert reaffirmed that he’s got a world-class crew to play it. This edition of the band included but wasn’t limited to most of the players on the album: multi-reedmen Lucas Pino, Peter Hess, Rob Wilkerson and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Seneca Black, Jonathan Powell and Jason Palmer; trombonists Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton; multi-bassist Matt Clohesy and dynamic drummer Jon Wikan.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays the album in its entirety at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 465 Huntington Ave. on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
This October 28 at 7 PM one of the most esteemed choral ensembles in this country, the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola celebrate their parish’s 150th anniverary with a program of rare works from the Jesuit tradition by 17th century composers Domenico Zipoli and his contemporaries: Jan Josef Ignac Brentner, Bartolomé Massa and Martin Schmid. The roughly fifty-voice group, conducted by the fearlessly ambitious K. Scott Warren, is bolstered by soprano Sarah Griffiths, mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein and tenor Douglas Purcell along with a period instrument chamber ensemble. This might be your only opportunity to hear material that’s never before been performed in North America, and if this ensemble doesn’t do it, might never be performed again here.
There was a buzz at the reception after the choir’s first performance of the 2016 season. They’d just stunned a sold-out crowd with an exhaustive, era-spanning and genre-hopping performance that ranged from the pre-baroque to the present day. The theme was the ancient Greek elements: earth, air, fire and water. For the record, there was no Earth, Wind and Fire song on the bill – maybe next time they can transfix the crowd with a fifty-voice take of Boogie Wonderland. The controversy this time out concerned the merits of interspersing the four Vvialdi-inspired movements of Frank Ferko‘s The Seasons – a richly dynamic, rapturously ambitious string quartet with choir – along with selections from Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns From the Big Veeda suite, amid the other works on the bill, rather than playing each suite all the way through without interruption.
Warren opted for defamiliarizing everyone, making a strikingly seamless shift between the 21st century American avant garde, late Romanticism drawing heavily on Indian influences, rapt minimalism, knotty earlier 20th century works and the occasional friendly, familiar departure into lustrous Renaissance polyphony. The younger contingent in the crowd heartily endorsed Warren’s ambition; an older crowd voiced a mixed response. Whatever your taste, if you think that keeping up was hard on the audience, imagine being among the choir gathered onstage. Singers are routinely expected to deliver material in unfamiliar genres and languages without a hitch, but this was a real workout for everyone concerned.
What concertgoers might forget is that this world-class choir – although frequently augmented with the prowess of internationally known professionals – it remains at its heart a local church ensemble, albeit a magnet for Manhattan’s best voices. If that isn’t testament to the resilence of New York under the luxury condo blitzkrieg, nothing is. They made the shifts between genres look easy. On the minimalist side, two pieces from Julia Adolphe‘s immersively coloristic Sea Drean Elegies were arguably the most rapturous points of the concert. On the other hand, that could easily have been said about the crescendoing eclecticism of Stephen Paulus’ Songs from the Japanese, or the concert’s ambitious concluding number, composer John Kennedy’s Someday. As for the Ferko, arguably the most memorable of all the works on the bill, its bristling, trickily rhythmic second movement almost seemed to make more sense when, amid several detours, its hypnotically swaying Summer gave way to the kind of ambered, prayerful lustre his work is known for, in the final two movements. You can experience the same kind of rapture on the Upper East Side on the 28th.