Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Trying to Keep Up With Pianist Satoko Fujii’s Grey-Sky Majesty

What’s more amazing about Satoko Fujii‘s over eighty albums as a bandleader – that virtually all of them are worth owning? Or that she reached that epic number in about twenty years? It’s hard to imagine another artist building such a vast and consistently excellent, often transcendent body of work over that  timeline.

The pianist has always been ahead of her time, touring relentlessly, releasing an average of four records a year (a dozen in 2018, to celebrate her sixtieth birthday). She’s got a three-day series of New York shows coming up next month with her husband Natsuki Tamura, the world’s number one samurai extended-technique trumpeter. On Dec 13 at 8:30 PM at the Stone at the New School the two will be remixed live by a frequent collaborator, Ikue Mori; cover is $20. The-following night, Dec 14 at the same time Fujii and Tamura are at I-Beam for five bucks less. Then on the 15th at 8 they’re at 244’s Black Box Theatre, 244 West 54th St., 10th Flo, time TBA.

Fujii is neither a particularly dark nor political person – although her music is often brooding and troubled, she’s actually very funny. Ironically, her most harrowing album to date is one she conducted rather than played on, the Fukushima Suite, with her improvisational Orchestra New York. That reflection on the terror in the wake of the March 11, 2011 nuclear meltdowns earned the designation of #1 album of the year at New York Music Daily in 2017. Considering her prolific output, it’s hard to pick a single record to get stoked for her Manhattan and Brooklyn shows, although one recent release, this past summer’s Confluence, a live-in-the-studio duo set with drummer Ramon Lopez, is especially good and arguably her most minimalist so far. It hasn’t made its way to the usual online spots yet.

The album’s first track, Asatsuyu has a close resemblance to the Twin Peaks title theme…only more interesting and unpredictable. Lopez uses his brushes to ice the background as Fujii builds variations on a simple, forlorn theme, up to a majestic, latin-tinged crescendo and gracefully down again.

Fujii goes under the piano lid, way down in the lows, as album’s most epic number, Road Salt gets underway. From there the two rise from a muted majesty to a steady series of catchy, loopy, emphatic phrases, a cautiously boomy drum solo and a hammering coda that reminds of the Police’s Synchronicity (speaking of synchronicity, just wait til you see what’s on this page in about 48 hours!).

Run! Is a fun, picturesque, scampering interlude, followed by Winter Sky, a surrealistically crescendoing tableau, Fujii both under the hood and on the keys as Lopez evokes hailstones and banks of snowclouds. Three Days Later, the album’s most gorgeous track, is an understatedly moody, spacious neoromantic theme, Lopez’s rumbles shadowing Fujii’s somber chords.

Fujii pairs a coy cathedral chime-like theme and then an unexpectedly austere, wintry melody with Lopez’s syncopation in Tick Down. The two cautiously lowlight the lingering atmospherics of Quiet Shadow and close out the album with the austere stillness of the title track. Although it’s probably safe to say that Fujii had a lot of these ideas in her head or a sketchbook by the time she recorded the album, most of this music was most likely made up on the spot.

November 30, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fresh New Interpretations and Dazzling Technique from Conrad Tao at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Conrad Tao delivered a performance that offered a glimpse of an unselfconscious bon vivant sensibility along with daunting, world-class chops and and frequently astonishing insight into a very diverse program.

Tao played with such precision and and evenness of attack that even the night’s most staccato passages had fluidity. He leveraged the thrill factor with an old orchestral trick, beginning pieces or developing themes from a whispery pianissimo so that when things got loud, they seemed even louder. But what was most impressive is that he’d spent a lot of time under the hood with these works, figuring out exactly what makes them purr…or roar.

He opened with David Lang‘s Cage [sorry dude, titles are capitalized around here], a brisk study in single-note counterpoint and a shout-out to the famously silent American composer. Tao’s matter-of-factness and exactitude enhanced the music’s hypnotic feel: others might not have played this as a nocturne, and that’s their loss.

Others also definitely would not have played Bach’s Tocccata in F Sharp minor, BWV 910 with as much spaciousness, and dynamics, and probably with less or even none of the judicious rubato that Tao would return to again and again throughout the evening. But in so doing, he revealed the love ballad at the heart of the work, its fondly jubilant righthand melody cleverly cached amid the composer’s outwardly morphing phrases. Obviously, Bach on the piano is inevitably going to be iconoclastic: this was as rewarding to hear as it must have been fun to play, Tao gritting his teeth and raising his eyebrows as the web grew more complex.

Another work that got even more time under the microscope, as far as extracting every ambitious flicker of modernity, was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2. Harmonically, it’s almost shockingly more adventurous than the rest of those relatively brief High Romantic iano pieces, most of which he wrote in the 1890s. This one dates from 1917, foreshadowing where he’d go with the Third Piano Concerto and its incessantly shapeshifting jazz-influenced rhythms and flourishes.

Tao delivered Julia Wolfe‘s Earring with acerbity and meticulous, often pointillistic rhythm. There seemed to be a man-versus-machine narrative prefiguring her John Henry suite; here, the machine grew more and more human, with a belltone poignancy. To close the first half of the evening, Tao returned to Lang for another 1990s composition, Wed, an increasingly plaintive, restless, frequently carrilonesque ballad written as a salute to a couple who got married while the bride lay dying in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the second half of the program was a breathtakingly expressive and fresh performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Counterintuitively, the high point was also the quietest section, awash in resonant, lingering phrases, the contrast even greater considering how fast Tao had scampered, if not particularly loudly, through the introduction. Lilting cantabile passages stood out amid minor-key unease and a dance that seemed not only rather Russian but almost phantasmagorical, as Tao worked the dynamics up and down, all the way through to a puckish coda.

There were a couple of misfires too. It’s one thing to program a study in spastic/resonant contrasts, but two? At least the Jason Eckart piece eventually wound down to a blackly suspenseful reflecting pool…but getting there, as the rhythm was epileptically jerked around any time the music could have coalesced, was torture. Which is not to say that ugly music can’t be meaningful or impactful, but this could have made its point in a tenth the time, never mind the Elliott Carter piece it was paired with. And the mawkishly inept freak-folk of Daniel Johnston is no less artless or awkward at Carnegie Hall than it would be on open mic night at any grungy, overpriced Bushwick beardo bar.

November 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tschaikovsky for a Winter Afternoon

If you’re considering a splurge on the post-Thanksgiving, 2 PM Nov 30 matinee performance of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 by the NY Philharmonic, it’s probably a good idea. Music Director Jaap Van Zweden is back, and he and the orchestra excel with Rachmaninoff, so this also could be sublime. Tix are pricy: $34 will get you in. The Mozart Wind Serenade in E flat might seem like an odd piece to start the show, but Van Zweden has a knack for making sense of seemingly bizarre segues.

And if you’re looking for a way to warm up for the concert, there’s an excellent, characteristically epic new recording of Tschaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 just out from the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev and streaming at Spotify. Make no mistake about it, this is heavy music: Swan Lake it is not, although it also isn’t completely dark.

The delicately brooding bassoon-and-strings lament that bookends the first movement’s stern, angst-fueled waltz and blustery, swirling crescendos will be a recurrent trope. Likewise, Gergiev and the ensemble stay low to the ground in the grimly murky atmospherics that wind up the first movement, and the melancholy horn melody that opens the second. Mournful bassoon and clarinet eventually rise warily, but not that far. When the plucky basses introduce a secondary theme, that’s a big message, foreshadowing a sudden jolt from nocturnal contentment to sheer horror.

The lickety-split counterpoint of the third movement is downright furtive, and closure doesn’t quite happen with the relative calm of the waltz afterward. For that we have to wait til the triumphant lustre and unexpected, jovial majesty of the finale. And ultimately, it’s too pat: happiness just busting through the clouds without the slightest warning?

So the album’s piece de resistance is the gloomy cumulo-nimbus Russian gothic Symphony No. 4, the album’s opening number. The obvious model is Beethoven’s Fifth, and there are riffs everywhere that Rachmaninoff nicked and took to their logical conclusions with his Second Symphony. The angst police show up with a fanfare; strings sweep down like a flock of vultures, relentlessly; that bassoon and clarinet again!

Momentary cheer gets strutted off to trial or shadowed by a stalker or three. Desolation on some barren steppe gets maximum grandeur. What another orchestra might do as a ballet all the way through, this group introduce as phantasmagoria. Gergiev and the orchestra finally reach Eldorado in the rapidfire overture of the finale, filling the sonic picture, floor to ceiling: they get this troubled masterpiece.

November 22, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Challenging, Relevant New Album From Avant Garde Piano Titan Kathleen Supove

Kathleen Supove is not only the most virtuosically dazzling pianist to emerge from the downtown New York scene of the 1980s; she’s also a champion of some of the most individualistic composers of the past few decades. Her new album Eye to Ivory, a collection of five world premiere recordings, is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the album release show on Nov 24 at 3 PM at Spectrum; cover is $15

She opens the album’s title track, by Mary Ellen Childs, with a stern, grimly marching lefthand, adding increasingly cynical, emphatic righthand accents. Ghostly flickers can’t derail this stomping steam train even as it slows to an echoey pause. Supove’s legendary technique comes front and center with the insistently challenging staccato of the second movement. A stygian, deadpool call-and-response is followed by a lively contrapuntal waltz and a twisted, increasingly savage boogie – the dystopic ELO classic From the Sun to the World taken to the next level. The menace rises with the sun over Supove’s chillingly minimalist, looped righthand.

Akin to a slowly melting ice sculpture, the late Nick Didkovsky’s slow, Terry Riley-ish Rama Broom has slowly increasing, Debussy-esque activity over subtle variations on a hypnotic fifth interval anchored by a lingering low A note. There’s also a cut-and-pasted spoken word component: dread seems to be the central theme, which makes sense when you reach the end. No spoilers here, ha!

Talkback IV, by Guy Barash, is an electroacoustic piece, echoey phrases disintegrating into distortion amid eerie insistence and flailing chaos. A caricaturish march emerges, only to dissolve into a hammering reflecting pool. Likewise, an echoey calm following a return to belltone disquiet is subsumed in persistent atonalities.

Randall Woolf’s nine-part suite In the Privacy of My Own Home makes its point, although it could be shorter. Everyone who’s not living in a cave (or glued to a screen 24/7) is aware of how the confluence of the surveillance state and social media imperil us. Here, an attractively uneasy, slowly unfolding series of loopy riffs contrast with samples of laughs, sighs, gasps and a burp or three. Yes, TMI is ugly: yes, the pornification of even the most mundane moments is too.  For what it’s worth, Supove negotiates the piece’s tricky metrics with an agile aplomb.

Supove closes the album with Dafna Naphtali’s Landmine, a dissociative, occasionally creepy four-part electroacoustic suite. Mechanical, Louis Andriessen-style staccato accents and an increasingly ominous belltone melody mingle with split-second bursts of various timbres, sometimes like a scan of a busy radio dial. Although there are no explosive moments until more than midway through, everything does get blown to shreds here.

November 21, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brilliant New Album of Haunting Works by Obscure Composer Edith Hemenway

Clarinetist Nancy Braithwaite‘s new quintet album To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway (streaming at Spotify) isn’t just darkly delightful obscurities. It’s a major achievement, the first-ever recording of Hemenway’s compositions. What an incredible find. While there are echoes as diverse as the French early modernists, Messiaen, Berg and Bernard Herrmann in her work, her sound is unmistakably her own. The thirty picturesque pieces on this deceptively epic album, many of them miniatures, pack a great deal into a little space. They’re accessible but acerbic, often troubled and melancholy, sometimes macabre. To call much of this material Lynchian is an understatement. It is astonishing that such impactful music has been overlooked for so long – and kudos to Braithwaite for having the vision to release it.

Now in her nineties, the Providence-based Hemenway was trained as an organist but gravitated toward art-song and opera. She’s written for both adults and children; her operas have been premiered at popular venues in New York and New England. Pianist Vaughan Schlepp brings dynamic intensity and crepuscular sensitivity to Hemenway’s persistently uneasy tableaux, Braithwaite’s effortlessly dancing phrases and crystalline resonance enhancing their many mysteries. Cellist Robert Stirling and sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander complete the ensemble.

The opening suite, Doors: Three Poems by W.S. Merwin, for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano brings to mind Bartok’s Mikrokosmos along with Ravel, Debussy and Amy Beach. From a steady, distantly anxious interweave and strenuous highs from the soprano, to an encroaching menace and finally a troubled waltz that doesn’t quite hit grand guignol, it’s a tour de force.

Questions of Travel for clarinet, cello and piano seems to chronicle a very questionable trip. The centerpiece is Journey of the Ancients, a slow, cinematic, broodingly stairstepping theme that rises to troubled crescendos with echoes of Ravel, Herrmann and early Schoenberg (and a wry Rachmaninoff quote). A waterfall flows down furtively; a siesta is depicted via a brooding canon. The coda is as apprehensive about the return as it is wistful for home.

In the album’s centerpiece, Braithwaite’s clarinet tersely answers and then mingles with Schlepp’s menacing neoromantic chromatics – it’s a David Lynch theme waiting to happen, with a Duet for the End of Time at the end.

The suite A Child’s Garden, for soprano, clarinet and piano is a particularly twisted playground of the mind. Braithwaite’s chilling downward cadenza in the opening sequence may be the album’s high point. Boats ripple anxiously on chilly waves; drafts waft relentlessly through an attic; a little later, friendly Schubertian companionship emerges in the form of a cow.

Asian Figures for clarinet and piano, based on texts by W.S. Merwin are less Asian than the title implies. The steady, Satie-esque four-part sequence, filled with Satie-esque longing, is another of the album’s most striking interludes. The Rachmaninovian, slowly crescendoing If I Could Find Her I Would See Nothing Else has a similar, aching melodicism.

The album concludes with Hemenway’s best-known suite, Four Poems of Langston Hughes: duets for two sopranos and piano, has stately gospel inflections punctuated by disarmingly piercing flourishes. All this makes you wonder how many other Edith Hemenways there are out there, overripe for discovery.

November 20, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

A Radical Change of Pace and a Park Slope Gig From a Future Vocal Jazz Icon

Svetlana & the Delancey 5 have had a memorable run as one of New York’s most colorful swing bands. But their charismatic Moscow-born frontwoman is much more eclectic than most of the other oldtimey hot jazz chicks in town – and you can hear it in her voice. Her latest album Night at the Movies – streaming at her music page – is a total change of pace for her, yet in a way it’s a logical step forward for someone who was always too sophisticated to be fenced in by just one style. It’s a collection of movie music. Peggy Lee and Mel Torme – iconic voices, but worthy comparisons – made lavishly escapist records like this, although neither of them had to escape Soviet ugliness as so many other Russians did before the Chernobyl disaster bankrupted the regime. You can get a sense of that at her quartet gig Nov 21, with sets at 7 and 9 PM at the newly opened, ambitious Made in New York Jazz Cafe & Bar at 155 5th Ave off Degraw in Park Slope. You can get in for free; it’s ten bucks for a table. Take the R to Union St., walk uphill and back toward Atlantic.

Svetlana is at her balmiest throughout the album’s opening track, a lushly orchestrated bossa-nova take of In the Moonlight, from the 1995 flick Sabrina – it’s a good showcase for her impeccable nuance and remarkably vigorous low register, considering that the song is essentially a simple two-chord vamp. Sullivan Fornter’s terse piano cuts through the orchestration in the torch song Sooner or Later – not the Skatalites classic but a Sondheim track sung by Madonna in the 1990 Dick Tracy film.

Svetlana pairs off with her bud, trombonist/crooner Wycliffe Gordon – whose deviously entertaining charts she’s used for years – in the swing standard Cheek to Cheek, a throwback to the classic Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duets. Their remake of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, from 2010’s Despicable Me, is even more of a revelation: who knew what a great blues tune this could be?

Svetlana makes an elegant ballad out of Pure Imagination, a devious stoner theme from the Willy Wonka movie, with a sly take of a lyric that works as well for experienced older people as well as for the kids. Her disarmingly intimate duet intro with guitarist Chico Pinheiro on Moon River is the coolest interpretation of that song since the days when REM used to surprise audiences with a janglerock version.

Fortner’s celestial gravitas matches the bandleader’s knowing, wistful take of the standard When You Wish Upon a Star. Michel Legrand’s Watch What Happens, from the 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an unexpected match of jaunty, New Orleans-tinged swing and bruised hope against hope, with a jaunty Jon-Erik Kellso trumpet solo.

John Chin’s crushingly crescendoing piano in a sambafied take of Remember Me, from the 2017 film Coco, contrasts with Svetlana’s lushly bittersweet delivery. She sings Boris Pasternak’s ominous lyric from No One’s In This House – from the 1975 Russian drama Irony of Fate – as latin noir, spiced with Sam Sadigursky’s moody clarinet. The band reinvent the Charlie Chaplin classic Smile as a gentle latin swing tune, then make a chugging New Orleans romp out of Randy Newman’s Almost There, from the 2009 Princess & the Frog film. Has anybody ever done so many unexpected things with so many movie songs?

The epic cast of characters here also includes but is not limited to Rob Garcia and Matt Wilson on drums, Elias Bailey on bass, Rogerio Boccatto on percussion, Michael Davis on trombone, Antoine Silverman and Entcho Todorov on violin and Emily Brausa on cello.

November 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Picturesque Brilliance and Rare Treasures at Vasco Dantas’ New York Debut

“Feel free to create your own story for each of these preludes,” pianist Vasco Dantas encouraged the big crowd who’d come out for his New York debut at Carnegie Hall yesterday. Playing from memory for the better part of two hours, he gave them a panoramic view from five thousand feet. The music didn’t need titles or explanations: whatever was there, he brought out in stunning focus.

The most highly anticipated part of the program comprised a very rarely performed, pentatonically-spiced suite, Portuguese composer Luis de Freitas Branco’s 10 Preludios. Interspersing these World War I vintage pieces with five from Debussy’s 1910 Book 1 might well seem ludicrous on face value. But in a particularly sharp stroke of programming, Dantas had rearranged them so that, at least for those familiar with the French composer, there was never a question as to who was who.

And Branco’s music in many ways is more Debussy than Debussy himself: what a discovery! An Asian influence, often gamelanesque, sometimes mystical, was ubiquitous, as were close harmonies that sometimes reached an aching unresolve. Taking his time to let the narratives unfold, Dantas revealed a lullaby cached inside the ripples of Branco’s first prelude, followed by the vigorously waltzing, chiming incisiveness of the second.

The first of the Debussy works, The Sunken Cathedral, was also a revelation in that the pianist bookended its opulent languor and nebulous mysticism around a sternly rhythmic midsection: this was one striking edifice rising from the depths! Other delightful Debussy moments abounded, particularly the deviously blithe song within a song in What the West Wind Saw, and the momentary fish out of water amidst the sun-splattered ripples of Sails.

The rest of the Branco preludes glittered with minute detail. Spare, wintry impressionism moved aside for sharp-fanged, modally-tinged phantasmagoria and a slightly muted mockery of a march. The most dramatic interlude was in Branco’s Modern Ride of the Valkyries, its grim chromatics bordering on the macabre. The most technically challenging was the Preludio No. 5, Branco’s own relentlessly torrential counterpart to Debussy’s famous hailstorm shredding the vegetation.

Dantas brought equally telescopic brilliance to an old favorite of the Halloween repertoire, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet not once did he go over the line into grand guignol: he left no doubt that this was a requiem. Who would have expected the carnivalesque creepiness of The Gnome to be dignified, and balanced, with just as much quasi-balletesque grace? The Old Castle may be a familiar horror theme, but Dantas’ insistently tolling low pedal notes left no doubt that this was in memory of a most original friend.

There were a few points where Dantas brought the menace to just short of redline – those were truly mad cows! – but otherwise, this was about poignancy and reflection. Dantas’ unwavering, perfectly articulated, otherworly chattering phrases in Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks were spine-tingling. The contrasts between the elegant Samuel Goldenberg and his lumbering namesake from the boondocks were striking yet sympathetic. Similarly, the grief in Dantas’ vast, desolate interpretation of The Catacombs was visceral, as was the unexpectedly distant horror of Baba Yaga. And he drew a straight line all the way back to Beethoven with the long crescendos and false endings after the whirling, evilly gleeful peasant dance in The Great Gate of Kiev.

After a series of standing ovations, he encored with his own gleaming, moodily Chopinesque arrangement of the Burnay Fado, from his home turf, complete with sparkly ornamentation mimicking a Portuguese twelve-string guitar. Let’s hope this individualistic rescuer of obscure and forgotten repertoire makes it back here soon.

November 18, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rivetingly Relevant New Album and a West Village Release Show from Individualistic Composer Zosha Di Castri

Zosha Di Castri is one of the most fascinating and distinctive composers to emerge from the New York indie classical demimonde in the last decade or so. She loves contrasts, paradoxes and disquieting timbres, and doesn’t shy away from darkness or social relevance. She also has a refreshing sense of humor and a healthy distrust of technology. She and a series of ensembles are playing the album release show for her brilliantly thematic new one, Tachitipo (streaming at Bandcamp and named after an 18th century typewriter) at the Tenri Institute this evening, Nov 17 at 6 PM. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs and includes a copy of the album.

It opens on a creepy note with The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, a creepy choral setting of a Nicole Sealey text sung by the ensemble Ekmeles in haunted-house counterpoint balanced by ghostly resonance. Imagine Pauline Oliveros at her most allusively disturbing.”Tell me I am not the point at which all light converges…blistering wood on the pyre,” one of the guys in the choir coldly intones.

Likewise, Cortège – a processional for chamber orchestra – juxtaposes frantic, Bernard Herrmann-esque terror with steadier motives and suspenseful atmospherics, drawing on the ancient Roman wartime siege narrative that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song Alexandra Lost. It’s a stunning, troubled piece: the whole procession lurches on, as if they have recovered.

The Jack Quartet blister and bluster through Di Castri’s String Quartet No. 1, fleeting moments of poignancy often subsumed by what the composer calls “squeaky insectile chatter, zips, squeals, ricochets, and lightning-speed hocketing glissandi.” It calls for ridiculous extended technique: the quartet dig in and make strange magic out of it, all the way to a welcome, calmly horizontal interlude before the frenzy returns.

Pianist Julia Den Boer plays Dux (latin for “leader”), a cynical diptych reflecting “polarizing juxtapositions” in the wake of the fateful 2016 Presidential election. Much of it is update on an old Rachmaninoff trope, crushing lefthand stomping the life out of any hope offered by the right (politically, the reverse would apply). As with the previous two numbers, calm when it occurs is only momentary, Den Boer returning to breathlessly shifts between frantic scampering and cold crush.

Lorraine Vaillancourt conducts a quintet of flutist Emi Ferguson, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, pianist Cory Smythe, violinist Joshua Modney and cellist Mosa Tsay in La Forma Dello Spazio. Inspired by Bontecou and Calder mobiles, it begins as a coyly amusing study in keening, sustained/fleeting contrasts enabled by extended technique but winds up as an icily starry deep-space tableau.

Piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire play the album’s title track, which seeks to reclaim the heritage of the typewriter from its role in keeping an emergent pink-collar class in their place. DiCastri also touches on how technology ostensibly meant to empower us often has the opposite effect. “I believe we create art in the hopes of transcending the everyday, to connect with others, to reach towards moments of opening, clarity or understanding, and yet the tools we’ve invented to facilitate this pursuit can result in isolating us even further, curling the body back in, onto itself,” she explains. The rest of her extensive album liner notes have a similarly rare eloquence.

The piece itself comes across as a sardonic mashup of mechanical Louis Andriessen-style satire, lingering, gamelanesque noir set piece and irresistibly sly sonic cartoon. As its emerging vistas grow more desolate, the effect packs a wallop. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the decade. We don’t have far to go.

November 17, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ambitious, Politically Charged New Album and a Carnegie Hall Concert by Pianist Conrad Tao

Every year, conservatories around the world turn out scores of hotshot pianists. There’s been a lot of cynical ink spilt over the “sovietization” of how piano performance at that level is all too frequently taught. It’s a career, after all, with endless mutability and speed-reading at the top of the list of desirable assets, right? One of the many problems with that model is that rugged individualists like Lionel Yu, Karine Poghosyan and Melody Fader – all favorites of this blog – don’t fit a cookie-cutter model. Perish the thought that a player with monster technique might actually prefer tunefulness to flash or trendiness.

One of Conrad Tao‘s distinguishing characteristics on his latest album American Rage– streaming at Spotify – is that he goes much more deeply than so many of his contemporaries into the many styles he’s called on to play. The record is all 20th and 21st century compositions, which shouldn’t be a bold move at this point in history – but let’s get real, it is. But lest anyone typecast him as an indie classical guy, he seems to be equally at home in the Romantic repertoire.

Tao gets off to a flying start on the album with the first of two daunting Frederic Rzewski compositions, Which Side Are You On. What’s most striking is how Tao lets the allusive bluesiness in the melody linger, taking his time, parsing the score for plaintiveness and rusticity before the hammering fireworks kick in. When that happens, Tao is there with a stilletto incisiveness, but even then, he backs away as soon as he can for a remarkable resonance, letting those bell-like righthand loops ring out, signaling a changing of the guard – or so it would seem. What an appropriate – and hopeful – piece of music to be immersed in for the first week of the 2019 public Presidential impeachment hearings.

The second of the Rzewski pieces. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues closes the album. The low, low lefthand quasi boogie-woogie is mutedly chilling, vividly evocative of the mechanics of Jim Crow-style exploitation. And although Tao raises the ante a little, he doesn’t relent, looping the lefthand with almost imperceptibly crescendoing intensity as the righthand melody grows more accusatory. The icepick swell to the false ending just a little more than midway through is hair-raising; the sepulchral dynamics at the end are perfectly counterintuitive.

Julia Wolfe‘s Compassion, written in the wake of 9/11, makes a great segue into that work. Again, Tao works the hypnotic and crushing contrasts masterfully, a twistedly chiming funhouse mirror tour of a stalactite cave.

Including Aaron Copland in an album of music inspired by freedom fighters is a stretch, considering his penchant for conveniently folksy music for backwater orchestras…and orchestras in search of a backwater sensibility (for the record, Copland was from New York). But the anxious close harmonies, proto-minimalism and quasi-Mompou belltones of Copland’s Piano Sonata fit in well here. While it doesn’t rise to the invensity of the other two works, Tao’s thoughtfully considered pacing – especially in the rather still final movement – is noteworthy. Tao is playing the album release show at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on Nov 20 at 7:30 PM, with a wildly eclectic program of works by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Wolfe, David Lang and Jason Eckart; tickets are $25

November 16, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caroline Shaw and the Attacca Quartet Rock Their New Classical Sounds at Lincoln Center

Why did the Attacca Quartet‘s performance of an all-Caroline Shaw program at Lincoln Center last night seem so much more vibrant, and ablaze with color, compared to a meticulous concert of much of the same material at National Sawdust back in 2016? This time out, the group seemed to size up the sonics and decided to go for broke – the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is much more of a “live room” than the Williamsburg venue.

The fact that they’ve had so many months in between to get the music in their fingers was obviously a factor. And the composer was out in front of the ensemble, singing, channeling a jubilant rapport together that comes from years of collaborating.

Introducing the group, Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Leigh entreated the audience to stay off their screens and get lost in the music. And this was a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd; it’s as if the hordes of people who come out for the monthly salsa dance concerts here had come out for this one too. Anybody who thinks that classical music is dead wasn’t here.

The quartet opened with Valencia, a shout-out to a particularly juicy orange, an increasingly intricate interweave of subtly morphing, circular phrases contrasting with warmly emphatic riffage, a lot of spiky pizzicato handoffs between group members – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee,

Shaw then joined them for a couple of art-songs: Stars in My Crown, where they pushed the boundaries of a calmly wistful Appalachian ballad further and further toward the edge, and Cant Voi L’aube, a stately, increasingly complex reinvention of a medieval French minstrel tune with a “forget me not” theme. Shaw has sung here before, as part of energetic indie classical choir Roomful of Teeth, and she was electrifying then. But getting to see her singing lead out in front of the quartet was a revelation. What a powerful, expressive, nuanced voice, completely in command as the harmonies grew more adventurous and the volume rose and fell. She was good when she used to play with Robin Aigner‘s oldtimey Americana band at Barbes back in the zeros; she’s a force of nature now.

She hinted that the seven-part suite Plan & Elevation – a guided tour of Washington’s Dunbarton Oaks garden – would be a thrill ride: “It gets pretty attacca,” she deadpanned. It’s a modern-day DC counterpart to Respighi’s Fountains of Rome: wild and crazy things seem to happen there, as Shaw seems to see it, juxtaposed with moments of hushed, verdant rapture.

She returned to the mic for a plaintive reinvention of the old hymn I’ll Fly Away: the poignancy in her delivery as she sang, “Take these shackles from my feet” was shattering. The song after that sliced and diced riffs from a couple of unfamliar top 40 songs beneath a familiar, rosy Gertrude Stein quote, a friend of Shaw’s joining the ensemble and playing daunting counterrhythms on a bowl of water tuned just a hair off, enhancing the persistent unease.

The quartet danced through the joyous anticipation and technical challenges of Entr’Acte, with plucks and harmonics and the occasional devious glissando. They closed the concert on a counterintuitive note with And So, fading down to an extended hush.

The Attacca Quartet are playing the album release show for Schram’s new electroacoustic record at the second-floor space at 1 Rivington St. on Nov 23 at 8 PM; cover is $20/$10 stud/srs. The next concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space is tonight, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM with percussionist Edwin Bonilla and his oldschool salsa band. Get there early if you want to get in and dance.

November 15, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, children's music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment