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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

New York’s Great Champion of Undeservedly Obscure Classical Repertoire Shares These Treasures at Her Magical Salon Series

Pianist and impresario Yelena Grinberg is New York’s greatest advocate for undiscovered and unorthodox classical repertoire. Her Upper West Side salons, founded in the Fall of 2013 as a monthly soiree, have since expanded to two thematic programs per month, and have become legendary. The Russian music site Etazhi calls them “Musical Salons for the Guinness Book.”

Grinberg graciously took some time away from her rigorous schedule of playing and teaching to give New York Music Daily the inside scoop into a New York phenomenon.

New York Music Daily: You’ve archived the programs going all the way back to Salon #1, where you played rarely-heard music by Charles-Valentine Alkan. Ever since I talked to you, I’ve been listening nonstop to his music. It’s mind-blowing. Now, I have a pretty decent exposure to lesser-known repertoire, and I have my favorite niches too, and I have vague memories of hearing one of Alkan’s organ works once. But hearing his piano music, thanks to you, has been life-changing. He sounds like nobody I’ve ever head before: Chopin and Beethoven mashed up with otherworldly old Jewish melodies, but also a rhythmic sensibility that reminds me of Hovhaness. And from a hundred years earlier! I owe you huge for this! I can’t imagine how much fun it must have been for you to play that program!

Yelena Grinberg: It was a fascinating undertaking to do all the research and perform Alkan’s unjustly neglected music. I was struck by the transcendental difficulty of the keyboard writing as well as the originality and the richness of his musical ideas. I programmed his demonic Grand Duo Concertante in F# minor, whose second movement, is entitled L’enfer  – “Hell”- for a good reason! I also played his epic Sonate de concert in E Major for cello and piano, which is among the most devilishly difficult works in the entire Romantic chamber music repertoire.

For my solo Alkan-inspired program, I performed selections from his evocative 24 Preludes, Esquisses, his enchanting Barcarolle and one of his last wild works, Toccatina. At some point in the future, I would love to program his never-heard Piano Trio.

NYMD: And he’s just one example of the innumerable lesser-known but amazing composers whose work you’ve championed. How did you discover Alkan and what drew you to his music?

YG: I can’t recall if there was one particular inspiration. I do recall that I came across an Alkan CD by Raymond Lewenthal and Marc-Andre Hamelin in the Fall of 2013, when I first began my salons, it marked the 200th anniversary Alkan’s birth, so I made him the focal composer for that season.

NYMD: Long before it became all the rage to resurrect forgotten treasures by, say, black composers, you were unearthing material that hadn’t been played in New York, maybe anywhere in the world, in a hundred years or more. I am amazed by your dedication to the cause. It must take an enormous amount of energy and sleuthing. What is your motivation, what drives you? Is this because you want to be the queen of niche, or that you’re sick of standard repertoire, or that you get bored fast? Or that you’re rewriting history to set the record straight?

YG: I was getting weary of overplayed standard repertoire and wanted to program music that was hard to find and fresh to the ear. Luckily I learn very quickly, which enables me to cover a lot of new repertoire in a short span of time. I typically build each season’s programs around the  anniversary of a celebrated or an unjustly neglected composer’s birth, for example, Charles-Valentin Alkan or Carl Czerny. I like to balance out the program with a work that everyone loves, like Franck’s Violin Sonata, along with lesser-known repertoire.

NYMD: At your salons, you always like to share insights on the material on the program . You seem completely immersed in the lore of classical music, with all the colorful characters and endless drama. With you, it’s a big epic movie. Most artists just get up and play but you seem to have as much fun engaging with the history of the music as the music itself. Is this just a performance shtick – look, Yelena is the pianist who always finds the great stories! – or do you have a more ambitious agenda here?

YG: I especially like to engage with the audience in a lecture-performance format, and I love the Q&A afterward. The majority of the people who come to my salons are not musicians, so they bring their individual interests and professional backgrounds to the conversation. The guests often tell me they appreciate the commentary, the history, they may not know a certain musical term but they enjoy the historical background and find the listening experience richer as a result.

Over the years, I’ve had some fascinating visitors at the salon such as Ruth Slenczynska, the last living pupil of Rachmaninoff, who attended my solo Alkan program back in 2013.

NYMD: As I understand it, your salons started exactly the same way a lot of regular classical series started: friends getting together to read chamber music. That’s how ICE started, how Kettle Corn New Music evolved. At what point did you realize that you were doing something that nobody else was? Was there a moment where you realized that in your own unique way, you were making New York music history?

YG: Initially, I did not expect that my salons would blossom into a regular concert series, and that I would showcase 230-plus salon programs up to this point. The initial salons were attended mostly by a handful of family members and close friends, and by word of mouth, they grew to a much larger audience over the years. I didn’t know how frequently I would end up doing these concerts. I was excited to recreate the refined, European style “hausmusik”, which is how much of this music was meant to be enjoyed in its original conception.

NYMD: Can we talk about where you find your material? For example, your most recent sold-out event featured duo works for piano and guitar. Can I ask you, are you also a fan of classical guitar? How much of this repertoire actually exists? And of the material you discovered, how much of it turned out to be worth playing? Obviously, you discovered a lot!

YG: For the lesser-known repertoire I do more extensive research to see which libraries or stores have it, and a lot of what I find comes from Europe. Thankfully, I have close connections to the music librarians at Columbia University, the Juilliard library, and the Brooklyn College library, who have been very helpful over the years in obtaining rare editions for my research and performance.

Initially, I chose the topic or the focal composer for the entire season. Then, I thoroughly research all the solo and chamber music repertoire by that composer and think of creative interconnections with the composers who were in his or her close circle of friends, pupils, and fellow composers. For instance, this year I am presenting a series inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s belated 250th birthday, and have programmed works by such lesser-known composers as C.P.E. Bach, Ferdinand Ries, Ignaz Moscheles and Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn.

This summer, I presented an Enchanting Evening for Guitar and Piano – the first time I featured a guitar in my series. Turns out, there is very little music originally written for piano and guitar, and a lot of it obviously shines the spotlight on the piano. Aside from rarities like Hummel’s Potpourri for Guitar and Piano and Tedesco’s Fantasia, the majority of other works are arrangements or transcriptions. It turned out to be a kaleidoscopic program and everybody loved it. I designed it to cover 250 years – from Vivaldi to Piazzolla.

In the past, I’ve programmed music by seldom-represented women composers such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Cecile Chaminade, Ethel Smythe and Pauline Viardot.

And over the last few years, every February, I present an Aquarian Genius program featuring three composers born under the sign of Aquarius, namely Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert.

NYMD: That makes sense, if anybody understands Aquarian genius, it’s probably you, considering you have the same birthday as Mendelssohn!

YG: Thank you! I’m truly honored to share my birthday with Felix Mendelssohn.

NYMD: OK. Have you ever tried to come up with a program that didn’t get off the drawing board because enough material for it didn’t exist?

YG: I never had that quandary. When I come up with a program, it’s partly analytical and partly intuitive. I do these concerts so frequently, so my mind has to stay focused. I do very extensive research, and I always find enough repertoire to make for what, I hope, is a satisfying salon program.

NYMD: How about commissioning contemporary artists? I don’t see a lot of 20th century, let alone 21st century material on your programs. You’ve played Satie, and Piazzolla, but not much that’s more current. Is that just not your thing?

YG:  My area of interest lies in the music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. I prefer to play the music that I find intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding, that speaks to me and challenges me. That’s not to say that I’m not open to including some works from the 20th century. For instance, I will be including Gyorgy Kurtag’s atmospheric Three Pieces for violin and piano, from 1979, at my November 7 and 10 salons.

My salons are meant to be a throwback to the music of the Enlightenment so it makes sense that the material relates to that time period. I think there’s a certain joy for people to be able to anticipate the sound of a piece from a particular era, even if they don’t know that specific work. There’s a lot to be said for historical context.

NYMD: Let’s talk about your collaborators. You have a duo project with an absolutely brilliant violinist, Emilie-Anne Gendron of the Momenta Quartet. She’s pretty high-profile. Where do you find all these people to play with? Or is this just being part of the classical scene here and having a good sense of who might be a good fit for a particular bill?

YG: It’s a combination of those factors. Either a musician is recommended to me, or it is someone I’ve known and collaborated with from my years at Columbia University and Juilliard. I also consider who might be a good fit for a particular program. Interpersonal chemistry is key. In a sense, playing chamber music together is like being in a relationship. Emilie and I have been playing together since 2003, since we were both students at the Barnard-Columbia-Juilliard program.

NYMD: Can we talk about you as an artist, start at square one and work forward? You were born in Moscow, started playing piano at an early age. Your mom plays, right?

YG: Yes, my mother was my first piano teacher. She went to the Gnessin Institute, and I began my professional music study at Moscow’s Gnessin School for Gifted Children at age 5.

NYMD: You had famous teachers at the Gnessin school. You were a sixth grader when you came here. Did you have your sights on being a famous pianist, or were you just a kid who liked playing?

YG: I was studying professionally, and that was probably going to be my professional path, but of course I didn’t know how my life would ultimately play out. I always had great intellectual curiosity, I wanted to expand my horizons and was very social. I knew music would always be my path but I was not sure of what I would do more of, teaching versus performing. Today, I combine both, along with coordinating my salon series…which is nearly a full-time job in and of itself [laughing].

For a long time I was fascinated by biology. I was very keen on becoming a biologist, but between the lab work and music, I chose the latter, which was my true calling. But my love of science definitely informs my salon programming. I’ve adopted a scientific approach to the way I conduct the research for the repertoire and the way that I select my programs, pair the works thematically, etcetera. This intellectually rigorous approach appeals to me much more to me than a purely emotional one.

NYMD: Can we talk about the difference between music education in Russia, and here? Was there anything that struck you immediately when you first got here?

YG: I would say that teachers’ expectations were much higher in Russia, coaches were to be obeyed and greatly admired. In US, the emphasis is much more of consumer-oriented. For instance, a student can request that he or she wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, even though they may not be at the level but because they pay for the lessons, they believe they are entitled to request the repertoire they want to work on. In Russia, teachers typically get more respect, and students are much more obedient. But a lot of that has to do with the political landscape – freedom of speech, for example, which we did not have in Russia.

NYMD: Obviously, you never stopped playing, but I see your undergraduate degree from Columbia is not in music but in English literature. You’re a Shakespeare scholar. Was this a departure from your career path, or were there other reasons involved?

YG: I always enjoyed Shakespeare – the brilliance of his writing, his razor-sharp wit, the wonderful paradoxes in his language, and the universality and timelessness of the characters in his plays. Obviously, English isn’t my first language, but I always enjoyed the subtlety and the witty banter in Shakespeare. Which you find in the music of Haydn, for example, or Schumann: the use of extra-musical narrative, the different fictional characters which remind me a lot of the Shakespearean world, Mendelssohn, of course – the way the music feeds off literature and poetry, and vice versa. I was always drawn much more to Schumann as opposed to Chopin, for example, because of the literary richness and multifaceted humor in Schumann’s music which appeals to my personality. In fact, my doctoral dissertation at Juilliard was on Late Schumann.

NYMD: Have you ever merged those two passions? Say, a Shakespeare-themed program?

YG: I have not yet… but that’s a great idea!

NYMD: Since your Columbia days, you’ve done all the usual career-track things that every other classical pianist wants to do. You studied with even more famous pianists – Richard Goode among them – and you got your doctorate from Juilliard. You played competitions and did well, you played Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and all the usual places. But you followed your own muse, off the beaten path. Was this something that just evolved or did you have a plan?

YG: The way it’s happened with the salons, I guess my path in life has always been kind of off the beaten path. I don’t concertize too much like a lot of other musicians and my home base is here in New York. I strive for balance between stability and variety. I enjoy having my own enterprise, and not having anyone to report to. And I love that I can program whatever composers that suit me for my salons. That would be much different if I had to fill a thousand seats. In an intimate salon setting, I can afford to exercise my creative license when it comes to programming,, etcetera. Luckily in New York, there are a lot of intellectually sophisticated, open-minded individuals who are drawn to the lesser-known repertoire that I present, and they enjoy coming to my salons for the enlightenment and novelty.

NYMD: As you know, I love getting a scoop, covering artists who are underrepresented in the media. I have a thing for rugged individualists. But I also have a larger agenda and that’s much more ambitious – and goes against the current corporate zeitgeist. I’ve always advocated for live performance because it gets people off their screens, back into reality, where real communities are born. I get the sense that the raison d’etre behind your salons dovetails with my agenda, at least to some extent. Am I on to something here?

YG: In a sense, yes. My salons hark back to the old tradition of “hausmusik” since the day of the Enlightenment. I wanted to revive this old and elegant tradition of music-making and thereby create a community on the Upper West Side and beyond, that would go against the current trend of increased robotization and commercialization in our society. The salons enable a lively and stimulating dialogue between the performer and the audience, in an intimate setting that, I think, is highly precious during this day and age.

NYMD: How much, if any audio exists from your salons? Is there an archive? Where can we hear it, or when will we be able to?

YG: Yes, I audio-record each salon for my own personal archive.

NYMD: You are aware that hundreds of years from now, your audio and sheet music libraries will be referred to as the “Grinberg Collection” and will be both a resource and a record of a major achievement in music history, right?

YG: You are too kind.. Should that ever happen, I would be very honored, indeed.

NYMD: Can I ask you, what’s your musical fallback? You have such a wide range of musical interests, wider than just about anybody I know. Who do you play just for you? When nobody else is listening, or for your family, or loved ones? What sets your synapses on fire more than anything else?

YG: Undoubtedly, it would be Bach. I’ve always had a special affinity for Bach’s music, which is sublime and transcendent. That’s not to say I don’t love Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, just to name a few, but Bach for me is No. 1. In the early stages of the lockdown I just kept playing Bach. His music is inspiring, empowering, and therapeutic like that of no other composer. I typically perform an all-Bach program every January. In 2016, I presented an Italian Bach program, featuring his Italian-style works, in 2018, I performed all his French Suites; in 2019, all English Suites, and in 2021, showcased seldom-heard Preludes, Fugues and Fantasies, which I entitled Rare Bach. And I am hoping to get to perform his complete Partitas in January 2022!

NYMD: What do you think the future holds for your salon?

YG: It’s so hard to even think of the future right now. I hope that my salons will continue to bring joy and meaning to people’s lives, and that more people get to discover them!

Yelena Grinberg’s next salon (No. 237), entitled Romantic Beethoven, is on Wednesday, October 27 at 6:30 PM., showcasing a richly lyrical, all-Romantic program where she’ll be joined by cellist Madeline Fayette. The program includes Beethoven’s celestial Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major, op. 102, no. 1, Schumann’s enchanting Five Pieces in the Folk Style for cello and piano, op. 102, Mendelssohn’s ebullient Cello Sonata No. 1 in B-flat Major, op. 45, and Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn’s wistful and little-known Fantasia in G minor for cello and piano, inspired by Beethoven. This not-to-be-missed salon is a short walk from the 1/2/3 train at 96th St. To learn more and to register, email her.

October 24, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Another Edgy, Highly Improvised Masterpiece From Gordon Grdina

Gordon Grdina is the rare jazz guitarist who plays a lot of notes, yet manages to find a way not to waste them. His music has always been more about mood and narrative than merely a display of gritty chops on guitar and oud, both of which are scary-good. Since the late teens, he’s been on a wild creative tear, which does not seem to have been adversely affected by the lockdown. He got a solo album out of it, and now also has a richly textured, edgily conversational new quartet record, Klotski, just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

Grdina calls the band Square Peg. Violist Mat Maneri and bassist Shahzad Ismaily play with their typical purpose, choosing their spots. Christian Lillinger is just as much colorist as timekeeper behind the drum kit. The album is a highly improvisational uninterrupted suite of variations on cell-based melodies. The camaraderie is high spirited, matched by a meticulous focus: jazz improvisation is seldom this outright tuneful.

Resolutely unresolved viola wafts around over Lillinger’s rustles on his hardware to introduce the album’s opening number, Impending Discomfort. Then Grdina’s guitar angles in, sparely. Maneri wryly responds in kind to Grdina’s slide licks; a steady, brisk stroll develops, Ismaily playing suspenseful, terse polyrhythms. The fireplace tableau that results pits Maneri’s yellow flames over Grdina’s deep-ember sputter.

Grdina calls the next part Escherian, Maneri in contrast to Lillinger’s black reflecting pool, Grdina running loops beneath Ismaily’s smoky ambience. The Halloweenish drollery the quartet link arms and eventually stroll into is irresistibly funny, especially when you hear where they go with it. A little obvious, maybe, but the fun these guys are having is visceral.

Maneri and Grdina have additional fun exchanging volume knob-style washes over Lillinger’s flutters and Ismaily’s wise, steady, sparse pulse in Bacchic Barge, before the bandleader takes centerstage with a solo that’s more Juno on the prowl than Bacchus falling off the boat. His matter-of-fact contentedness as he switches to oud contrasts with the unexpected wrath Maneri and Ismaily pull from the shadows.

Pitchblende bass, bucolic viola, scrambling oud and rises and falls from the drums permeate Sulfur City, up to a snarling march that Ismaily eventually colors with blippy, harmonium-like synth, finally luring Grdina into the brambles.

The quartet work sagaciously expansive chords out of a simple, well-used blues riff as they move methodically through Kaleidoscope, Maneri’s giddyup phrases and shivery harmonics balanced by a contiguous attack that his bandmates rise and pull away from. A bit of a sepulchral surprise sets up the lively, bubbling segue into Microbian Theory, once again developing out of a familiar minor-key blues lick. The descent into plaintive washes afterward might be the album’s most offhandedly gripping interlude.

Murk and vampy acidity interchange in Sore Spot, a catchy, tolling metal anthem in spiky disguise. Lillinger fuels the suite’s coda, Joy Ride, with a tricky quasi-Balkan circle dance groove, Ismaily’s hypnotic riffage anchoring the bandleader’s increasingly volatile, blues-infused meteor shower. It ends unresolved.

October 22, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Broken Reed Saxophone Quartet Bring Their Irrepressibly Entertaining Sound to the South Slope

More than anything, the Broken Reed Saxophone Quartet swing. Most sax quartets work in the rarefied and all too frequently abstruse world of contemporary classical music. The Broken Reeds are one of the world’s funniest jazz bands, and the absence of bass and drums doesn’t keep them from bringing the party. Their most recent album, Those Who Were – a 2019 release streaming at their music page – may reference a lot of artists who’ve left us, but alto sax player and bandleader Charley Gerard’s compositions are as irrepressibly upbeat and entertaining as always. The group are bringing their bright, erudite, often comedic, catchy tunes to an outdoor show with special guest singer Tammy Scheffer on Oct 22 at 6:30 PM at Open Source Gallery, 306 17th St south of 6th Ave in South Park Slope. Take the R to Prospect Ave.

The album’s opening number, Something to Remember You By is somewhere between a stroll and a march, with rightly lustrous four-part harmonies, understated dixieland counterpoint and walking bass from baritone saxophonist Dimitri Moderbacher

Gerard leads a series of flutters punctuated by moments of warm resonance built around a catchy, cheery theme in A Long Life: the point seems that if you stick around long enough, you’ll be happy too. Soprano saxophonist Jenny Hill’s tantalizingly brief solo adds unexpected gravitas. She Was Connected to the Earth has more of a dixieland-style intertwine between the horns, while Don’t Forget the Cork Grease has a tightly pulsing hot 20s exuberance, once again capped off by Hill’s quicksilver legato.

A Lot of Living in a Short Amount of Time is an edgy, increasingly wild, Ellingtonian minor-key jump blues with some incisively conversational moments between Hill and tenor saxophonist Justin Flynn. Call Me Jimmy, dedicated to Gerard’s teacher and big inspiration Jimmy Giuffre, is an aptly eclectic mini-suite built around a sternly strolling, 19th century gospel-infused blues: a brilliant guy, but not a particular warm, fuzzy character, if this is any indication

The sixth track is Who Was Father Mckenzie? – gotta love these titles, huh? – and as Gerard sees him, he has a secret latin side. With its sly cha-cha riffage and Gerard reaching for the rafters, the song has absolutely nothing to do with the Beatles.

The group go back to biting minor-key blues in the steady, strutting bursts of Do You Want to Be Ruth. Hmmm…which one could this be? Ruth Brown, maybe? Hill’s solo about three quarters of the way in is one of the album’s most unselfconsciously breathtaking moments.

Gerard airs out his latin side again in Adios A Cuba, a slinky nocturne and one of only two tracks on the album with bass and drums. Goodbye Don, a fond remembrance of a former drummer, shifts from matter-of-fact lustre to a pulse that’s just short of frantic, Gerard’s high-voltage solo saluting a guy who obviously had no shortage of energy.

The group finally reach Keystone Kops scamper, intertwined within a surprisingly shamanic Afro-Cuban groove, in Father Mckenzie’s Cuban Catastrophe, only to end it on a simmering, serious note. They close the record with Ugly Duck Strut, dark and tan Ellingtonian blues filtered through jauntily shifting rhythms. If you were lucky enough to catch Quatre Vingt Neuf onstage in the months before the lockdown when Wade Ripka was frantically writing charts to Leroy Shield’s Little Rascals themes, you’ll love this crew.

October 17, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Colorful, Counterintuitive World Premiere Organ Recording of a Famous Symphony

Today’s album is an especially colorful piece, organist Thilo Muster‘s world premiere recording of Eberhard Klotz’s transcription of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, streaming at Spotify.

Beginning around two centuries ago and for many decades afterward, it was common for European organists to play music written for symphony orchestra, for audiences in small or rural communities who couldn’t make it to the big city to see the genuine item. But this one is special: it’s arguably better than the original, and wouldn’t be out of place in the Charles Widor catalog. Klotz’s transcription is noteworthy for its translucence: themes never get subsumed in bluster. Muster plays with dynamism amid steady pacing, his registrations taking full advantage of the wide, French-toned palette of the organ at the Eglise St-Martin in Dudelange, Luxembourg. Anton Bruckner, who for years made his living as a church organist and earned a reputation as a brilliant improviser, would no doubt approve.

It’s an unfinished symphony: the composer died three movements in. The first rises to a rather cheery, airily anthemic sway, then at the change to minor, Muster pulls out the stops and the effect is breathtaking. A cuckoo phrase over a gentle march gets spun in stately style through a series of increasingly serious variations, stern peaks, calmer valleys and tidal atmospherics. Muster really takes his time after a full stop as the long upward trajectory continues: this is scenic ride, and he wants everybody to be looking out the window.

Muster masterfully alternates a cheery strut with a big, puffy pulse as the second movement gets underway, up to the mighty, torrential Russian dance coda. He pulls back but keeps a matter-of-fact drive going in movement three – the closest thing we have to a conclusion. It’s more of an energetic stroll than a march; likewise, the volleys of eighth notes at the peak are a swirl rather than a torrent, setting up the descent into calm, wistful reflection.

October 15, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Distantly Melancholy, Catchy, Profoundly Relevant New Symphonic Themes From Max Richter

Although pianist and composer Max Richter’s new album Exiles – streaming at Spotify – is built around a suite that reflects on the trans-Mediterranean refugee crisis which reached horror pitch starting in the mid-teens, not all of it is dark. And when it is, it’s distantly melancholic rather than outright morbid. He supplies the piano and keys here, joined with elegance and lushness by the Baltic Sea Philharmonic under the baton of Kristjan Järvi.

Richter’s themes are as translucent as they are lush – he knows that even reduced to most succinct terms, a hook is still a hook and this album is full of hum-alongs. Henryk Gorecki is a persistent influence here, as is Steve Reich in places. Yann Tiersen‘s more ambitious work also comes to mind frequently as well.

The Haunted Ocean serves as a brief curtain-lifter with its ominously atmospheric, shifting sheets. Infra 5 strongly evokes Gorecki’s iconic Symphony No.3, although this comes across as more of a study in wave motion than a cavatina, as the orchestra follow a long upward trajectory. It ends suddenly and completely unresolved – just like the refugee crisis?

Flowers of Herself, written to reflect a Mrs. Dalloway-like bustle, has a brightly circling, Reichian atmosphere. On the Nature of Daylight comes across as a more incisive variation on the album’s second piece, a resolute violin leading an understated, subtle counterpoint.

Richter plays a simple, chiming four-chord sequence to open the album’s title suite, the strings drifting behind him at a much slower pace. Where one refugee goes, so goes the world, just more slowly? Let that sink in for a moment. Calmly and airily, with an increasingly defiant, striding rhythm, Richter does that at symphonic proportions.

October 14, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Restriction-Free Show From One Of New York’s Most Interesting, Individualistic Jazz Reedmen

Until last year’s lockdown, multi-reedman Mike McGinnis was a ubiquitous presence in the New York jazz scene. He’s an eclectic, erudite composer and arranger, as adept on the sax as the clarinet, equally informed by Americana and music from across the European continent. With his lush nine-piece Road Trip Band, he rescued Bill Smith’s picturesque 1956 Concerto for Clarinet from third-stream jazz obscurity. But as serious and straightforward as much of his own work is, he also has a great sense of humor. It’s anybody’s guess who he’s playing with at his gig at 2 PM at Parkside Plaza in Prospect Lefferts Gardens on Oct 17, but it’s bound to be entertaining, especially as there are also dance performances on the bill. The space is at the corner of Parkside and Ocean Avenue, close to the Q stop at Parkside Ave.

One particularly colorful project McGinnis has been involved with for over a decade is the Four Bags. He plays clarinet and bass clarinet in the band alongside trombonist Brian Drye, guitarist Sean Moran and another trombonist, Jacob Garchik, who plays accordion. Their most recent release, Waltz, came out in 2017 and is still up at Bandcamp. The connecting thread is a frequent but hardly omnipresent time signature: they should have called the album The Three-Four Bags.

To set the stage, they put a coy dixieland spin on what could be a Mexican folk tune, El Caballo Bayo, then go fullscale cartoon on you. It’s obvious, but impossible not to laugh.

The joke in the second track, Runaway Waltz is polyrhythms – those, and a baroquely comedic sensibility. Waltz of the Jacobs is a brassy, Belgian-tinged musette, the four taking a couple of increasingly cartoonish detours before Drye and Garchik engage in some calmer, completely deadpan clowning around.

Invisible Waltz is not a John Cage cover but one of the deliciously slow, airy, sinister tunes the group like to throw at you once in awhile. The group go back to jaunty latin sounds with Puerta Del Principe, which also has droll hints at flamenco, unexpectedly stormy gusts and a head-scratchingly exuberant McGinnis clarinet solo.

Vaults Dumb ‘Ore bears a suspicious resemblance to a famously venomous Randy Newman song that Nina Simone covered. The band switch her out for a brooding, bolero-tinged interplay between accordion and guitar, then Drye adds a surprisingly somber extra layer before Moran takes it into increasingly fanged psychedelia. Finally, the jokes kick in, one poker-faced quote after another.

G is for Geezus is a buffoonish New Orleans theme. There are also bits and pieces of variations on Les Valse Des As, the wryly nocturnal closing cut, scattered throughout the album. Fans of funny jazz acts like the Microscopic Septet and Mostly Other People Do the Killing will enjoy this goofy but very seriously assembled stuff.

October 13, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trio Karénine Play Transformative Music For a Transformative Time

We are in the midst of a shift of ages, watching the final ugly convulsions of centuries-old systems of repression and murder as they self-destruct. To paraphrase Dr. David Martin, the global totalitarians are the brontosaurus that ate itself out of existence since its pea brain couldn’t adapt. At such a transformative time in history, there’s plenty of music to inspire us as we find our way out of the wreckage and regroup. One particularly timely recording is Trio Karénine‘s imaginative version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, from their latest album La Nuit Transfigurée, streaming at Soundcloud.

This group’s take of the piano trio transcription by Eduard Steuermann is an eye-opener. Pianist Paloma Kouider sets an understatedly crushing funereal mood to introduce the first movement, violinist Fanny Robilliard leading the troubled upward drive, cellist Louis Rodde a disquietingly lingering presence. The trio’s gusty but minutely attuned attack lures the inner, surrealist beast out of its comfortable lair in the second movement.

They give movement three a more strikingly emphatic ache, only to watch it sepulchrally flit away. The thread loosens with Kouider’s Romantic glitter and the strings’ matter-of-fact counterpoint in the fourth movement, setting the stage for a wistful if guardedly forward-looking conclusion that fits in alongside the composer’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

The album’s first piece is Liszt’s Tristia, a transcription from his suite Années de Pèlerinage. The sparseness and wounded restraint are stunning, particularly Kouider’s muted, chromatically chilling pedalpoint behind Rodde’s plaintive solo and then the strings’ understatedly conjoined angst. Likewise, the sudden descent from a stately (some might say cliched) pavane into increasingly explosive torment on the wings of the violin and Kouider’s eerily twinkling riffs. In context, the homey sentimentality of the finale comes as a real surprise.

The group also follow a matter-of-fact, dynamically sensitive but also playfully jaunty trajectory through Schumann’s Studies in Canonic Form, op.56

October 10, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Irrepressible Champian Fulton Brings Her Dad Onboard For a Charming, Conversational Album

When the 2020 global coup d’etat crushed the performing arts in New York, Champian Fulton took to social media to keep her fan base satisfied. The woman who is arguably the best piano-playing singer and best singing pianist in jazz has featured her dad, flugelhornist and trumpeter Stephen Fulton on many albums in her discography. But her new one Live From Lockdown – streaming at Spotify – is their first full-length duo release, the culmination of a long series of online performances together.

This is actually a live-in-the-studio project, fearlessly recorded in Queens just over a year ago. Champian Fulton is one of the great wits in jazz, and hearing more of her father than ever here, it’s obvious where that sense of humor comes from. Together the two breathe new life and hope into a collection of familiar standards along with a couple of welcome originals.

The younger Fulton takes a colorful, sometimes misty, sometimes wry, sometimes joyous line by line approach on the mic and a steady, precise stroll on the piano on the album’s opening cut, I Hadn’t Anyone Till You. Daughter responds to dad’s goofy cluster with an ever better one of her own; likewise, his gruff curlicues and her playful, romping phrases in Satin Doll. It’s great to hear her really air out her keyboard chops here: one of her best records (and a big favorite of this blog) remains her 2016 all-instrumental album, Speechless.

Flugelhorn takes centerstage in an insightfully moody version of You’ve Changed, with a surprisingly airy vocal. Champian restrains herself mostly to a walking lefthand while Stephen picks his spots in Blow Top Blues, a goofy tune by the late jazz critic Leonard Feather. Then the two take a restrained midnight walk through an instrumental take of Moonglow, a lyrical trumpet feature with an irresistible piano solo that rises from a devious twinkle to jubilation.

There’s breathtaking, spiraling righthand piano in What Is This Thing Called Love and meticulously modulated Dinah Washington-esque vocals in What Will I Tell My Heart. The duo stride resolutely through Look for the Silver Lining, the 1919 Jerome Kern ragtime tune, then imbue I Had the Craziest Dream with a bluesy gravitas.

Pass the Hat, a co-write by the Fultons, is a brisk, straight-up blues and a launching pad for good-natured humor and sparkle on the keys. The hundred-year-old children’s song I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles is just plain ridiculous, balanced by Champian’s original, Midnight Stroll, more of a sly prowl with carefree flugelhorn overhead. It’s an aptly optimistic way to end this entertaining, familial project.

October 4, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Entertaining, Mesmerizing Solo Soprano Sax? Check Out Sam Newsome on the 9th

It’s hard to imagine anything more difficult than playing a solo show on a chordless instrument. Sure, there are buskers…but it’s rare to see someone sticking around to watch an entire solo “set.”. On the other hand, the prospect of watching soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome play a solo show is enticing to the extreme. He has three solo live albums out and all of them are worth hearing. And if his East Village duo show with guitarist Elliott Sharp last weekend is any indication, his upcoming gig on Oct 9 at 2 PM at the Urban Meadow park at the corner of President and Van Brunt in Red Hook is going to be off the hook.

You could take the B61 bus and get out just down the block from the Jalopy, but it might be even faster to take the F to Carroll, exit at the front of the downtown train, take First Place straight to the pedestrian bridge over the BQE, then make a U-turn at the base of the bridge, go another block on Summit and then hang a left on Columbia. That’s about ten minutes from the subway.

It’s funny how, ten years ago, Newsome was regarded as the rising star for straight-ahead postbop jazz on the soprano. Then all of a sudden he started turning up at places like the late, great Spectrum and took a deep plunge into the avant garde. It was then that his mind-blowing extended technique really came to the surface. For example, at the East Village gig, he got his horn to resonate with a low digeridoo buzz, or a keening wail like an Indian shennai or a Bulgarian zurla, shedding otherworldly overtones and duotones. And while Sharp was playing through his usual arsenal of effects, Newsome was completely unamplified. What had he done to his reeds, or his valves, or both? Who knows – but it was raw magic.

There were all kinds of irresistibly amusing moments, when Newsome would pick up a rack of wind chimes, or two, slinging them over the body of the horn as he blew looming duotones for background. Then there was the point where Sharp, who’d been tapping out tensely frenetic sequences, fired off a phrase of about twenty notes. Newsome paused and played the whole paragraph back to him, and suddenly the dialogue shifted from jaunty banter to a serious joust. Musicians engaging each other with short. singalong riffs is the oldest cliche in the book, but this seemed to be a philosophical discussion between two sages. What they were philosophizing about wasn’t entirely clear, but it was deep.

Meanwhile, Sharp maintained his edge throughout about fifty minutes of close interplay, whether opaquely ambient, squirrelly, skronky, or lingering in a couple of brief, overcast A minor interludes. Newsome got plaintive in response to the first one, then expansive on the second, drawing out similarly thoughtful flurries from the guitarist. There were plenty of other points in the improvisation that were funny, and formidable, and fleeting; you can expect the same at the Red Hook show.

October 2, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Keeping the Great British Tradition of Choral Music Alive

In these perilous times, what could be more appropriate than a spare, elegaic Ukrainian choral work titled Kontaktion of the Dead? Or a haunting suite for choir and organ dedicated to the millions murdered by Axis evil in World War II? That piece is Maurice Durufle’s Requiem: both appear on today’s album, Remembrance, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, recorded six years ago and still streaning at Spotify.

This may be the work of a student ensemble, but they are no ordinary group of college kids. Under the leadership of Graham Ross, this rotating cast of young choral talent have released a series of awardwinning records. They sing repertoire from the Middle Ages to the present day. Some group members go on to careers as professional singers, others take fond memories of their days as Cambridge choristers elsewhere.

Organist Matthew Jorysz provides delicately circling ambience as the men pulse amid the women’s lustre to introduce the requiem. This version is much more ghostly than the full symphonic arrangement (the New York Choral Society sang a rich, saturnine version at Carnegie Hall in February of 2017). The organ and women of the choir fuel the big crescendo in the second movement. The imploring intensity but also the lingering ghostliness of the third are stunning, with bass chorister Neal Davies taking a solo turn as the organ grows more ominous.

Hazy ambience turns blustery and bracing; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston hits anguished peaks and then fades down to Guy Johnston’s cello. The terseness of this arrangement is srriking, the composer often putting the women’s voices front and center in gently lilting, consoling melodies. Macabre echoes of the war linger in the organ melodies of the concluding movements: restraint, but also seething anger.

The album opens with the fleeting, stately Call to Remembrance, attributed to 16th century British composer Richard Farrant, followed by the somber, hypnotic waves of Thomas Tomkins’ early 17th century setting of the hymn When David Heard. A possibly earlier version, by Thomas Weelkes has much more of an upbeat sway.

Remaining in the 17th century, the group cut loose with symphonic intensity and dynamics in Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen. Ross’ world premiere arrangement of Abide with Me offers momentary calm and optimism. The other 20th century works here include John Tavener’s Song for Athene, a muted, brooding farewell for a friend and two William Harris pieces, the first with more lively, tricky changes.

October 2, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment