Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Springtime Blossoms in Boston With a Concert of Vivid World Premieres

Last night at the Multicultural Art Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Juventas New Music Ensemble played eight verdant world premieres celebrating the Frederick Law Olmsted bicentennial. In a spot-on example of post-March 2020 programming, the bill was titled Lungs of the City. It was a breath of fresh air on many levels.

A subset of the ensemble – which comprised flutist Wei Zhao, clarinetist Wolcott Humphrey, horn player Anne Howarth, violinist Ryan Shannon, cellist Minjin Chung, violist Lu Yu and percussionist Thomas Schmidt – went off script to open with a sober arrangement the Ukrainian national anthem. With the stark cello introduction, it seemed like more of an elegy than a celebration of solidarity. Such are the times we live in.

The first piece on the program was The Forest and the Architect, by Christina Rusnak. The Portland, Oregon tableau began with elegantly cheerful passages spotted with moments of more somber reflection, moody clarinet over a gently emphatic march and a visceral sense of relief. Burred woodwind timbres and a dancing, enigmatic, circular theme quickly gave way to a lush pastorale and then a dance kicked off by woody flute tones. A terse interweave with lower pitches developed to mingle with the initial theme: this music breathed, deeply.

Ryan Suleiman‘s still, meditative Piece of Mind was inspired by Olmsted’s Brookline home workshop, as well as the Japanese concept of a park coexisting with nature rather than being imposed on its milieu. Subtly breathtaking long tones and circular breathing from the wind players were first punctuated by momentary sprouts in the ether, then the group slowly unfolded a calm series of harmonies. Like a muezzin, Chung’s cello sounded a bracing trill before the whole group returned to calmly shifting tectonic sheets.

That work’s minimalism was echoed more playfully by Libby Meyer‘s diptych Beauty of the Fields. Butterfly weed was brought to life by minutely oscillating overtones from Schmidt’s vibraphone behind a minimalistically balmy flute theme sailing on the breeze. With echoey percussion through a buzzy haze, evocations of muted insect activity and birdsong, her portrait of milkweed just might have involved somebody plucking a ripe stalk and blowing it on an unsuspecting neighbor.

Ayumi Okada‘s tantalizingly brief partita Golden Hour Walk at Fort Tryon Park traced the Washington Heights composer’s 2021 winter solstice stroll through her favorite spots there just as the sun was about to go down over the Hudson. It was characteristically evocative, beginning as a wistful pavane and growing more animated, with Carl Nielsen-esque echo phrases bouncing from voice to voice. Baroque inflections, elegantly intertwined horn and flute, and colorfully squirrelly pizzicato rose to a lushness that contrasted with shivery strings and silken flute lines. The final sunset theme became a gently wafting, Dvorakian singalong.

Composer Justin Ralls related that prior to creating parks, Olmsted worked as an undercover journalist chronicling the horrors of slavery in the American south, and that those experiences informed the democratic aspect of his designs. Ralls’ Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations reflected the bustle of the landscape assembled around Seattle’s Lincoln Reservoir. Somewhat akin to Peer Gynt taking a stroll in the garden, the group’s long tones coalesced from echoes of a familiar, sunny morning theme to a rather triumphant, steady, circular pulse fueled by the highs. Tight polyrhythmic counterpoint receded to a reflective, echoing quiet signaled by Schmidt’s lingering vibes.

The most unselfconsciously catchy piece on the bill was Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Indian-flavored mini-suite Olmsted Gardens. Anticipatory sprouts of melody pushed up, to a cheery carnatic flute theme followed by a deliciously coy, suspenseful interlude with film noir bongos, furtive individual voicings having devious fun in the shadows. The group took it out with an anthemic return to the initial dance.

Also on the bill were an unhurried, warmly crescendoing Oliver Caplan ballad without words, and a similarly fond summer pageant by Nell Shaw Cohen bookended around a cautious dance.

Those who missed the concert can catch the video of the entire performance here. Juventas New Music Ensemble’s next scheduled concert is June 5 at 6 PM at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts. Tickets are $18, ages 4-12 get in for $12.

March 27, 2022 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Smudges Bust Out With a Deviously Funny, Indomitable Debut String Jazz Album

Maggie Parkins and her sisters may have the best taste in instruments of any family of jazz luminaries. She plays cello. Sisters Zeena and Andrea (harp and accordion, respectively) share a love for eclectic sounds that defy categorization. Maggie’s husband Jeff Gauthier may be better known for running Cryptogramophone – one of the few record labels whose imprimatur carries genuine cred – but he’s also an inspired violinist. Together the two are the Smudges, who after years together have finally released their debut album, streaming at Bandcamp. In an era of endless virtue signaling and pomposity, we need more music as defiantly unserious and playfully entertaining as this.

It’s easy to lump the album under the rubric of jazz, but the influences run wild here, from the baroque to rocksteady to genre-busting acts like the Kronos and Turtle Island Quartets. Considering that the two musicians weathered the lockdown under the draconian Gavin Newsom regime in California, it’s amazing how they never lost their joie de vivre. Parkins, especially, seems to be in good spirits, spicing these songs with puckish pizzicato, sly glissandos and woozy electronic effects.

The duo dig in hard for the bright, stately opening number, Music of Chants, harmonizing with an Indian carnatic flavor. The album’s second track is Julius Caesar Eyebrows, which comes across as an edgy tarantella at halfspeed. The two rise from austere harmonies to stern fugal triplets, then Gauthier takes bracing, judicious steps and whirling riffs over Parkins’ biting, pedaled chords before the song comes around again.

They build The Gigue Is Up around a cheery riff that sounds straight out of Jamaica, 1966, Gauthier’s jaunty leaps and trills over Parkins’ lithely dancing incisions. Kasha’s Lament is ridiculously funny: beyond the good cop/bad cop dichotomy, no spoilers. The two run themselves through a series of hilariously goofy, warpy electronic patches to begin Matter of Time, but then get very serious. through a wary heroic theme before going completely off the rails again. Is this a cautionary tale about taking yourself too seriously?

Cartoonishly irresistible moments persist in the album’s most epic, noisiest number, the title track: the degree to which musicians can fixate on birdsong never ceases to amaze. Goodnatured amusement continues amid drifting ambience and jaunty syncopation in Blitva, then grows more puckish and fleeting in Palindromes. The two wind up the album with Release: just when you think this collection is mostly jokes, they throw this expertly articulated fugue at you. Beyond that, this is a rare string jazz party record. Spin this at your next get-together after everybody’s had a few and you will get lots of “Who the hell are these guys?”

March 27, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment