Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a specific soloist, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.

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November 11, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Years of Celebrating Howard Zinn and Freedom Fighters at Lincoln Center

This past evening was the fourth annual Lincoln Center celebration of freedom fighters from across the decades, inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. A partnership with Manhattan’s High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, the night featured an all-star cast from years past along with some new high-profile artists lending their names to the festival, a mix of readings plus soaring oldschool soul and gospel staples delivered by mighty crooner Zeshan B.

It was a way “To continue to think about way to hope and improve and make our own impact… I think we saw that on Tuesday with so many people coming out and voting,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh reaffirmed, introducing Staceyann Chin’s defiant reading of Marge Piercy’s colorful arithmetic concerning how to start a movement. Chin brought the night full circle at the end with Angela Davis’ remarks at the first Women’s March on Washington, reminding that “History cannot be deleted like webpages.”

Akema Kochiyama – daughter of Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama – read fifteen-year-old telephone operator Michiko Yamaoka’s harrowing account of the Hiroshima bombings: “People couldn’t scream, even when they were onfire…I wonder what kind of education there is in America about atomic bombs. They’re still making them, aren’t they?” Kochiyama’s mom’s account of Japanese-Americans sent to concentration camps during World War II was just as insightful if less outright chilling: “How little you learn about American history: you learn only what they want you to know.” 

Brian Jones delivered Jermain Wesley Loguen’s famously dismissive letter to his former slavemaster, whose demand that he return to the plantation set the bar Bushwick-level high as far as entitlement is concerned. Later Jones recounted Martin Luther King’s 1967 remarks to the SCLC on the inevitability of taking the Civil Rights Movement to the ne xt level, fighting economic injustice.

Trisha Johnson brought plenty of fire to Frederick Douglass’s 1852 anti-slavery address to a group of upstate New York ladies. Leta Renee-Allen channeled righteous rage in Susan B. Anthony’s address to the court who convicted her of illegally voting, Jones relishing the role of the clueless sentencing judge who constantly interrupted her. The correlation between the civil disobedience of Underground Railroad freedom fighters and the women’s suffrage movement went over big with the crowd.

Imogen Poots got the part of Lowell Mills striker Harriet Hanson Robinson, in her account of how many decades of struggle and resistance preceded the eventual workers’ hard-earned victory. “Whoever heard of these eight-hour days? No one expected decent wages,” Poots reminded later, in the words of Depression-era organizer Rose Chernin, whose battle against ruthless landlords and profiteer shopkeepers resonates mightily today. After fighting fire with fire, metaphorically at least, “Within two years we had rent control in the Bronx.”

“If there’s any national anthem we should stand for, it’s this one, Zeshan B said, introducing his soaring solo vocal-and-harmonium take of James Weldon Johnson’s Raise Every Voice and Sing: the crowd agreed. Later he raised the roof with a Sam Cooke Civli Rights-era staple. Another calmer but no less rousing musical piece was Eva Davis‘ take of a popular, starkly gospel-infused Bernice Johnson Reagon protest song.

Renee-Allen returned to the mic for Genora Dolinger’s gutsy, plainspoken account of the 1930s General Motors sitdown strikes. Wallace Shawn was aptly cast as a perplexed Howard Zinn contemplating cognitive dissonance in late 1960s politics: Daniel Berrigan behind bars while J. Edgar Hoover got to roam free, the National Guard firing on students at Kent State who were subsequently arrested.

Jessica Pimentel brought a straightforward articulacy to Assata Shakur’s description of life on Rikers Island: “American capitalism is in no way threatened by the women on Rikers,” eighty percent of who were there because of drugs. “They have taken away our gardens and our sweet potato pies and have given us McDonalds, dope and televisions as culture.” 

And in somewhat more recent developments, she voiced Standing Rock activist Julian Brave Noisecat’s sardonic insight as to how much the project continues an ugly tradition of American colonialism.

The atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is pretty much unrivalled in midtown for relevant programming. The multimedia performance by catchy, anthemic janglerock band No-No Boy – who explore the history and aftereffects of Japanese-American internment during World War II – on Nov 15 at 7:30 PM promises to be especially insightful. The show is free; get there early if you’re going.

November 8, 2018 Posted by | drama, gospel music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practical Strategies For Introducing Audiences to New Composers of Serious Music

The panel discussion this past evening at Lincoln Center was less a skull session about how to fix the crisis of diminishing audiences at concerts of serious music and more about how two of the most colorful individuals in the business are tackling it. The New York Philharmonic‘s Isaac Thompson, who moderated, wisely picked the orchestra’s first-ever Creative Partner, Nadia Sirota, along with her International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist pal Rebekah Heller, then let the two of them chew the scenery. The result was refreshingly optimistic, all the more so for being grounded in the grim reality of experience and history.

Both approach the situation from a programming rather than audience perspective – one that goes completely against the grain of conventional corporate strategy. These days we’re told to mine data to the nth degree, then bombard those attached to that data with lures and incentives to buy more and more of what the numbers say they already like. In so doing, you take absolutely no chances.

But as Heller put it, “Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is also the safest.” She was referring to Ashley Fure’s Filament, which the Philharmonic chose to open their season this year. Heller played that piece from a position in the audience. Unorthodox spatial configurations of musicians are old hat in the avant garde, and there’s plenty of mainstream precedent – Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? – yet have been quite the exception in this particular milieu. Was this a one-off? Far from it, Heller vigorously asserted.

“I didn’t get called by the New York Philharmonic because I’m an amazing bassoonist,” she demurred. “I got the call because I’m part of this community with Ashley. This is a generation of community-building, with and for each other, and giving back to the field,” she explained. What Heller could have said but didn’t is that she’s actually a very dynamic bassoonist, a disciple of  Pauline Oliveros with a flair for the unusual. Her Dark and Stormy project with Adrian Morejon might be the only group in history to have played the entire extant repertoire for bassoon duo.

Sirota enthusiastically affirmed Heller’s communitarian philosophy. “New York is this incredible farm team of nineteen and twenty-year-old musicians just dying to play new music. It wasn’t always that way,” she reminded soberly. “In twenty or thirty years I hope that audiences for this will have octupled,” she enthused.

The Juilliard-trained violist and founder of indie classical chamber ensemble yMusic speaks from experience. You can see the wheels turning at the Phiilharmonic: it’s impossible to think of a more likable ambassador for new composers. With her rapidfire wit and livewire enthusiasm, she earned the position after three years running arguably the best new music podcast out there, Meet the Composer. Her agenda: to bring that passion – along with a considerable following – to a new series of Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortable amphitheatre sonics of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There’s also the late-night Kaplan Penthouse Nightcap series of intimate performances featuring composers whose work is on the bill in the hall downstairs – and where you can actually meet them.

She’s also booked her first Young People’s Concert for March 2 of next year, pairing Beethoven with Andrew Norman. She took her cue for the afternoon’s video game theme from a comment by Norman comparing motivic development in Beethoven with the challenges of increasingly complex gaming levels.

Heller is one of several ICE musicians do double duty as administrator and programmer. The group’s ICE Lab program, a workshop for emerging composers, springboarded her connection to Fure. And the long-running, free OpeniCE series – the latest of which are happening this week through Nov 8 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – continues to offer exciting, eclectic programming accessible to everyone.

The elephant not in the room was the Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. “He is so game!” Heller asserted. “He made his name on these big Germanic pieces but that’ s not the only thing he likes or is good at,” pointing to his advocacy for new composers with the Dallas Symphony. “So with this orchestra, he gets to be this amazing explorer with them.” It will be interesting to see how far the can take that: Alan Gilbert’s adventurous and often absolutely delightful Contact! series, dedicated to emerging composers, got off to a smashingly good start but stalled out as the venues got smaller and smaller while ticket prices went up.

In the Q&A afterward, one audience member asked why the Philharmonic doesn’t open every performance with a new work. Neither SIrota nor Heller acknowledged that they used to do that all the time. Half the audience would leave at the intermission, dejected, while the other half would show up then for the big Germanic piece. Instead, the two women simply acknowledged that new music belongs on the program wherever it makes sense to put it: in the middle of the bill wouldn’t be a bad idea. As musicians, Sirota and Heller know that better than anyone. We’ve come a long way since the days when, as Heller explained it, the twelve-tone camp and the neoromantics were duking out over which was preferable: ”Music that was intelligent but emotionally lacking, or emotional but stupid.”

The Philharmonic’s next performances are Nov 7-8 at 7:30 PM and Nov 9 at 8 PM with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony plus two works by Schubert: the Fifth Symphony and a “joyous, charming mini-cantata,” featuring Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill and soprano Miah Persson. You can get in for $34. 

November 5, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hauntingly Revealing Children’s Portraits in Galina Kurlat’s Tintypes

The children in Galina Kurlat’s latest photo exhibit, Shadow Play, stare out with an almost unanimous intensity. “We have subjectivity,” their faces tell us. “Take us seriously – and don’t disrespect our private worlds,” is a more common, unspoken theme. These almost shockingly intimate, black-and-white portraits, a characteristically diverse New York bunch ranging in age from three to fourteen and captured on tintype from the shoulders up, are on display at Peter Halpert Fine Art‘s new gallery space at 547 W 27th St. in Chelsea through Dec 1.

To what degree does Kurlat’s medium define or underscore the message here? Her sense of light and shadow is most strikingly evident in the grey areas, in every sense of the word. To call these pictures haunting and enigmatic is an understatement. On the surface, their rustic quality has a gothic sensibility enhanced by the fact that none of these kids are smiling (for the record, Kurlat only had to admonish one of the kids not to). But what’s most revealing about these shots is their depth.

Obviously, the greatest challenge in taking pictures of kids is simply to get them to sit still. Compounding that is the way we typically shoot children – on the fly, with goofy faces on both sides of the lens. Kurlat’s chosen medium here – a nineteenth century process – raises the difficulty another notch. With a tintype, you only get one shot. Your eye has to be attuned to catch a particular expression or pose in a fraction of a second. And if you don’t, there’s no handy filter or clever post-production technique available as a quick fix.

Many children inhabit extremely rich worlds of imagination, places that adults so often lose the ability to access. There’s reverie, even occasional fatigue in the kids’ expressions here, but the prevalent pose is pensiveness. There are even a couple of fleetingly stricken, “Damn, I forgot to  close the door to my imagination,” moments, most notably with a pair of siblings who appear to be about six and eight. As is the case occasionally here, their gender isn’t immediately apparent, adding to the otherworldly effect.

Much as Kurlat’s medium looks back to the past, these portraits project the kids into the future. It hardly takes imagination to see these faces as future college students, parents, businesspeople, athletes or artists themselves. It’s as if they’re telling us, “This is one possible thing I can be if I put my mind to it.” That’s something we should all take just as seriously – and it’s a good thing that Kurlat’s work is there to remind us.

November 2, 2018 Posted by | photography, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment