What was it like to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the umpteenth time? Seated within the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony last night at the DiMenna Center, unlike any other. Placing musicians on the perimeter of an audience is both an old theatrical trick and an experience common to anyone who’s ever seen a marching band or a drum corps competition. But placing a crowd within various sections of a symphony orchestra is something new and exciting.
Conductor David Bernard was candid about the challenges posed by working with such an unorthodox configuration. “I found myself looking for people and not finding them,” he grinned during a lively Q&A with the crowd after the performance. “And you looked back at me,” he told the audience, “And said, ‘Don’t look at me, I don’t come in yet.’”
This audience was a particularly sophisticated and engaged one. Concertgoers marveled at the difficulty of sustaining vibrato, especially in unison with an entire string section; that the players, many of them estranged from the usual stage plot, had to be especially on their toes for cues; and the simple fact that a symphony orchestra performance requires several dozen musicians to be simultaneously at the top of their game, in sync. Compounding the basic challenge of pulling off a famous Beethoven symphony that pretty much every classical fan knows well, if not by heart, was the slight doppler effect created by having musicians separated so far from each other – an aspect that the audience was aware of. That the orchestra was sensitive to such minute rhythmic shifts and responded as well as they did speaks to the quality of this ensemble’s musicianship.
Bernard has boundless enthusiasm and can’t resist sharing it, a useful quality considering that he was wearing his impresario’s hat as well as his conductor’s one. Getting to watch him from the perspective of an orchestra member reinforced earlier perceptions: his relationship to the musicians was a constant push-pull, a friendly but firm “Gimme!” and then a beaming “yessss” when the orchestra delivered. Playing music is like acting; you have to trust the people you’re onstage with, and Bernard’s unassailable confidence has obviously filtered down to this crew.
What was the experience like? Those in the audience who were willing to cop to not having seen much classical music (a lot wouldn’t admit it), unsurprisingly, seemed the most thrilled, as people tend to be after their first exposure to this symphony. From the perspective of having grown up with it – first a comfortable friend wafting in from WQXR atop the family fridge, then later being transfixed by it both in concert and by close, uninterrupted listening on a Sony walkman (remember those?) – this was still a revelation.
First of all, depending on where audience members were situated, certain voices would be elevated or would even drown out others. One element that came into stunning focus was how subtly yet stunningly Beethoven shifts meters. Another was the sophistication of the counterpoint (many in the crowd marveled at that). Bernard addressed the grimness and black humor of the opening movement by explaining that he saw it as a relentless tug-of-war between energy and restraint, one that should leave both performers and listeners spent by the time it’s over. But the rest of the symphony is often uproariously funny. That buffoonish faux-patriotic march in the second movement, the point where an elegant waltz suddenly becomes a stilted Punch-and-Judy theme, and the shlemiel sentry of a bassoon on the perimeter, crying wolf…or maybe not? It was hard to resist laughing out loud, and disrupting the musicians. What was more impressive was how the orchestra managed to get through those passages, and similar LMAO moments, with a straight face.
Taking the audience out of their element and challenging them to watch, and listen, literally immersed in the music, could become this orchestra’s shtick…or at least one among many. It could make them very, very popular. One older gentleman in the crowd explained that at last he understood the thrill his son experienced onstage with his rock band. This was like being in that band, multiplied a dozen times over. After all, who wouldn’t want to be onstage performing Beethoven’s Fifth?
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 21 at All Saints Church on 60th St. just west of First Ave. featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the fantastic Inbal Segev as soloist, plus Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.. It’s not known how traditionally or untraditionally Bernard might stage it. That prospect alone makes it enticing.
The New York Philharmonic may get more press than the other orchestras in town, and a lot of that is deserved. But many of those other orchestras are doing great things as well. The Greenwich Village Orchestra plays tremendous theme programs, are family-friendly and don’t shy away from relevant issues beyond the music. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony have a towering Philadelphia Orchestra-like presence and sweep. The Queensboro Symphony are drawing musicians out to the middle of nowhere in Flushing because everybody wants to play for their conductor. And it’s hard to believe that the Chelsea Symphony are only ten years old; they’ve become an institution on the West Side. They distinguish themselves with their consistent support of new music, constantly premiering one thing or another. They also have a fondness for theatrics, a sense of humor that goes with that, and a penchant for very distinct, articulate playing. You don’t go to the Chelsea Symphony to get lost in a haze of sound: you go for the excitement of hearing an assembly of clear, individual voices working together.
Friday night’s program was typical. They opened with the world premiere of Hope for Two Voices and Orchestra, by their first-chair bassist Tim Kiah, who’s been more or less a composer in residence for the last few years. Beginning as a lustrous, more or less horizontal tone poem, soprano Emily Eagen and her baritone counterpart joined the ensemble in taking it almost imperceptibly to warmer, more Romantic territory, bringing the title to life. Obviously a reflection on current events, it resonated strongly.
Overcast low-midrange sonics lingered and soared throughout an equally vivid performance of Max Bruch’s famous Kol Nidre variations. Based on somber medieval Jewish themes, cellist Susan Mandel evoked a wounded, almost-imploring, cantabile quality above the strings’ grey-sky ambience.
That the next piece on the bill would upstage a genuinely picturesque performance of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition speaks to the orchestra’s sense of adventure. Conductor Matt Aubin explained that mid-20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck lived a block away in the London Towers complex with her husband, who played with the Philharmonic. Her Sonata in C# Minor for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, with Rob Wilkerson in the role of dynamic soloist, turned out to be parade-ready. Part blustery late Romanticism replete with all sorts of innovative voicings and playful yet purposeful, Nielsenesque orchestration, part jauntily bustling, cinematic theme and variations, it foreshadowed Leonard Bernstein. Was Bernstein aware or, or influenced by the composer? Hearing this music, you have to wonder. Why is she not better known?
Reuben Blundell took over the podium for Moussorgsky’s venerable blockbuster, reveling in its Ravel arrangement. To early 21st century ears, it evokes dozens of old horror films and dramas as much as it does the composer’s friend’s eerie tableaux of tormented gnomes, menacing witches, ghostly catacombs, and a concluding megalith that brings to mind a giant prison door rather than the gateway to a bustling metropolis. It’s easy to find cartoonish ideas in this music, but, true to form, the orchestra parsed it for portraiture and restless angst. Standout soloists included but were not limited to horn player Adam Schommer, oboeist Phil Rashkin, tuba player Ben Stapp and the entire high string section, who when required – and this happened a lot – were seamless to the point of being a single voice.
The Chelsea Symphony’s next performance is their family concert on February 21 at the Brooklyn Music School, 126 St Felix St in the Atlantic Yards area (any train to Atlantic Ave; the closest is actually the G at Fulton), repeating on February 27 at the orchestra’s usual stomping ground, St. Paul’s German Church at 315 W 22nd St. in Chelsea with a program including Peter & the Wolf, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and a Seth Bedford world premiere for kids. Both start at 2 PM; suggested donation is $20.
A Brilliant Valentine’s Afternoon Big Band Show in Gowanus With Miho Hazama’s Darkly Amusing, Cutting-Edge Epics
What’s the likelihood that five of the world’s most happening composers in big band and chamber jazz would be Japanese-American women from New York? And what’s the chance that they would all converge for an afternoon in the middle of Gowanus, Brooklyn? Believe it, it’s happening on February 14 at 4 PM when the 17-piece Sakura Jazz Orchestra plays material by Miho Hazama, Asuka Kakitani, Migiwa Miyajima, Meg Okura, and Noriko Ueda at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15, and there are other more expensive options with perks for those with the means of supporting the artists on a patronage level. A night out on Valentine’s Day may be a no-fly zone for both those of us with sweethearts and those without, but this show’s early start time enables you to get home in time for snuggling…or to get away from the weirdos.
Edgy violinist Okura, leader of the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, is the senior member of the composer contingent. Bassist Ueda has lately split her time between playing big band gigs and leading her own purposeful, tuneful trio, while pianist Miyajima focuses more specifically on big, powerful, enveloping compositions. While it might seem farfetched to imagine an album any more lustrous or rhythmically shapeshifting than Kakitani’s magnificent 2012 debut album Bloom with her Big Band, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that about Hazama’s debut from the same year, Journey to Journey, streaming at Spotify and recorded with her 13-piece ensemble M-Unit.
It’s a landmark of largescale composition, one of the most counterintuitively and imaginatively arranged releases of this decade. It’s as ambitious a debut big band jazz album as anyone’s ever recorded. It instantly put Hazama on the map alongside Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue and Erica Seguine. Hazama’s erudition across many, many idioms is astonishing even in this era when you can youtube pretty much anything. And she can be hilarious, often with a sarcastic or occasionally cruel streak.
Hazama is a wild storyteller, and in those epic narratives she does pretty much everything you can do with, or would want from a large jazz ensemble. Instruments are paired and arranged unexpectedly, and hardly anything ever repeats. Drama and surprise are where you least expect them. Hazama engages a string quartet for melody and color as much as she employs the brass and reeds. She loves textures, particularly strange and unnerving ones, fueling the impression that she has even more of a dark side than she lets on. And the musicians, a cast of allstar and rising star talent, have a ball with this music.
The opening cut, Mr. O portrays a garrulous amusement park owner, with all kinds of droll conversation between various band members, and sections, plus plenty of neat echo phrases, chattering between voices and a bit of unexpectedly woozy surrealism. Tokyo Confidencial shifts from bustling, airconditioned clave to hints of a classic by the Doors, diverges toward reggae and eventually emerges as a rather beautiful neoromantically-tinged anthem. Blue Forest beefs up genially bluesy Nat King Cole phrasing with ambitoiusly expansive Gil Evans colors.
The title track never settles in groovewise even while it shifts in many directions, as Kakutani likes to do. Droll solo spots contrast with underlying, toweringly cinematic unease; there’s a charmingly coy, marionettish exchange, hints of Afro-Cuban melody and a very intense, agitated coda, the kind that you seldom hear in jazz. Paparazzi, which is just as sweeping and even funnier, opens hilariously as it mimics the “this won’t play” sound from a computer. Furtive stalkers too easily pleased do not get off well on this track, at all, and Hazama is very specific and articulate about thas. Hazama returns to fullscale angst bordering on horror with Believing in Myself, which should come with a question mark, a harrowing chamber-jazz number with a relentless ache and inner turmoil, her own Monk-tinged piano rippling moodily through it up the least expected cartoonish interlude ever written. Does she go as far over the top with you think she might? If you haven’t heard it, no spoilers.
She follows the simply titled Ballad – a fragmentary tone poem of sorts – with What Will You See, which mingles allusions to funk and Jim McNeely newschool swing with devious permutations on a chattering horn theme. That and the easygoing final cut, Hidamari are the closest things to the kind of large-ensemble stuff you typically hear at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, but even here, Hazama can’t resist pulling away from contentment as her divergent voicings take centerstage when she winds it up.
By contrast, the album’s followup, last year’s Time River – which doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, at least in English – seems like a grab bag, if a grab bag from a really good party. It seems aimed at a more trad jazz audience, the arrangements are simpler and there’s an interlude which what sound like set pieces from films – good ones, admittedly. And there are still plenty of the kind of delicious moments that pepper Hazama’s work. Muted Brazilian-flavored drums add unexpected color to the rather trad postbop of The Urban Legend. The tremolo effect on James Shipp’s vibraphone and a gritty soul detective theme give Cityscape as vast a panorama as the title calls for. Hazama employs Gil Golstein’s accordion for a lengthy, harmonically edgy excursion to rival Astor Piazzolla at his most avant garde in the tango-inspired Under the Same Moon, while the ensemble gallops over an altered qawwali beat with all kinds of playful handoffs up to a tricky false ending and explosive coda on Dizzy Dizzy Wildflower.
After the surrealistically warping, oscillating string piece Alternate Universe, Was That Real? Hazama’s furtive piano introduces her chamber-jazz Fugue – an early composition n that already showcases her irrepressible wit as well as her penchant for stormy intensity. The epic title track is the only one that really reaches for the debut album’s titanic majesty, building out of an uneasily circling, Philip Glass-tinged riff, through brashly charging swing passages to the unease that Hazama so often confronts, ending unresolved after a frantically sailing peak. After that, making swing out of an 80s goth-pop hit by A Perfect Circle seems an afterthought, tacked on to end the album on an upbeat note. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this demanding but richly rewarding material the orchestra can handle on the 14th.
One of the most individualistic and stylistically diverse bands on the New York oldtime swing scene, the Fascinators call their music “old jazz for the New Depression.” What distinguishes them from the legions of lickety-split shufflers out there is their originals, bandleader/guitarist Lenny Molotov’s wryly amusing, corrosively clever lyrics, and their distinctive blend of purist, bluesy Ellingtonian style and jaunty, Django-inspired Romany sounds. They’re bringing all this to Sidewalk at 8 PM on February 5.
This blog caught them most recently back in October. Beyond Molotov and his longtime collaborator, bassist JD Wood, the band has a shifting cast of characters. This time out, in place of another similar deep blues purist, Queen Esther on vocals, they had the torchy, dramatic Carrie Jean Sooter. Jazz drummer Art Lillard propelled the unit, which also included a second guitarist who added several edgy blues-infused leads. They opened with a swaying, unexpectedly desolate, practically Lynchian take of Stardust, then Lillard pushed them into sunnier territory with his playful cymbal splashes throughout a pulsing take of Pennies from Heaven. Then they took their time behind Sooter’s brassy resilience in When the Sun Comes Out. But all that was just a warmup.
Molotov’s period-perfect 1940 vernacular matched Sooter’s saucy delivery in their new version of the Ink Spots’ Java Jive, which was a lot funnier than the original, at the expense of the French and others (including Molotov himself, who doesn’t drink coffee). Then they built a broodingly dusky Old Depression ambience with another Molotov original, Chicago Special. Sooter brought the energy up again as Lillard tumbled and spun through an unexpectedly brisk, fun Blues in the Night, then the drummer gave a wry latin spin to the band’s version of the old New Orleans standard Junco Partner (which the Clash famously covered as a reggae tune).
From there, Sooter brought the lights down with a chilling, doomed, slowly shuffling mashup of Memphis soul and Jimmy Reed blues. They scampered their way out from there, hitting a peak by putting an irresistibly funny political spin on Count Basie’s Topsy, punctuated by a tapdance solo by Sooter. It’s hard to imagine any other swing band in town with as many flavors as these guys and girls have – and you can dance to all of them.
By the way, if you’re wondering what a fascinator it, it’s one of those over-the-top Prohibition-era flapper hats with some kind of garish centerpiece.
The most intriguing big band concert of this new year isn’t happening at the Vanguard, or Birdland, or the Jazz Standard or even Brooklyn’s home to exciting new large ensembles, Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus. It’s happening January 27 starting at 6 PM when the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra play two sets uptown at Shrine. There’s no cover, and it’s happy hour. What more could a jazz fan possibly want, cheap drinks and some of the most individualistic, colorful charts you could hear in 2016?
On one hand, it’s a miracle that the big band jazz demimonde still exists. It’s hardly a moneymaking venture for artists (although venues love it since it draws a crowd). Yet composers persist in keeping the genre alive. Mot big bands play either standards, or the repertoire of a single composer (the Mingus Orchestra and related bands, for example), or their bandleader. The Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra divide their time between the work of their two distinctive composers. It would be overly reductionistic to say that Seguine defines herself with cleverness and eclecticism and Baker with singleminded intensity, but those qualities assert themselves throughout each composer’s work.
Seguine, who conducts the ensemble, distinguishes herself with her vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts….and her sense of humor. It’s hard to think of another composer whose work can take such amusing twists and turns as as hers does. She also likes to incorporate other genres, from spaghetti western to Romany jazz and carnivalesque themes, into her music. And she likes to swing, hard. Saxophonist Shannon Baker’s compositions tend to be more specifically focused and defined by tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric cresecendos and long panoramic stretches that provide a launching pad for the band’s individual voices. Yet there’s crossover between the two: they’ve been a good influence on each other.
The orchestra’s music page features audio and video from both. Seguine’s pieces begin with a coyly erudite tango-jazz arrangement of a Bach Adagio which develops into a shapeshifting, multi-segmented epic with plenty of room for solos throughout its kaleidoscopic sweep, Steve Kortyka’s thoughtful and playful tenor sax solo at the center. A segment from her Phases of Water suite builds around a suspenseful pulse straight out of Holst’s The Planets,with eerie chromatics channeled via an agitated trombone solo, mighty swells juxtaposed within its spacious charts, and balletesque hints of Tschaikovsky.
Baker is first represented by The New Day Bends Light, a suspenseful tableau where a choir of voices comes in wordlessly toward the end, then Sonia Szajnberg takes the mic. “We shall not succumb to the shadows” is her mantra. Ed Wood Goes to the Beach takes one of Baker’s signature moody, spacious expanses and fills it up with blazing electric guitar over a careening surf beat. That’s just for starters.
Their most recent show at Shrine was this past September, an exuberant and tight performance from the massive eighteen piece group which included two familiar standouts from the New York big band jazz scene, alto saxophonist Ben Kono and trombonist Scott Reeves (also leader of his own distinctive big band). Considering how tightly the orchestra was packed into the lowlit back room, it was hard to tell who else, other than Baker, was playing. In practically two hours onstage, they aired out a lot of new material, the most stunningly serpentine number being a phantasmagorical suite of sorts by Seguine that warped in and out of a furtive Balkan-tinged theme. If a trip uptown on the 2 or 3 express to 135th seems daunting, the group will be the centerpiece of a massive big band triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on March 8 at 7:30 PM for $15.
In an exciting new development for Upper Westsiders, the Spectrum Symphony has migrated uptown and has found new digs at Broadway Presbyterian Church at 114th and Broadway, just steps from the 1 train. Sure, it’s not much of a shlep down to Lincoln Center or Carnegie, but what this orchestra plays is close enough to what you can get there to make staying in the neighborhood worthwhile, if lush symphonic sounds are your thing. And the Miler Theatre, with their adventurous series of free “pop up” concerts, is just up the block!
Last night conductor David Grunberg led the ensemble through a comfortable, confident program of mostly familiar Beethoven amd Mozart material from the WQXR playlist, along with an unexpected new treat. It was a lustrous, workmanlike performance, more European than American in its matter-of-factness. There was a comforting, homey quality to the music: it was like being at the concerts or recording sessions that QXR typically plays, but present and immersed in the music rather than multitasking as it wafts in the background.
And much as most of the program enabled calm and quiet reverie, the orchestra nailed all of Beethoven’s signature “is anybody listening” tropes, one by one, with verve and good cheer. That slithery chromatic climb toward the end of the Leonore Overture? Check. The series of speed bumps that the composer throws into the orchestra’s path right before the coda of his Symphony No. 1? Doublecheck. Grunberg brought an uncluttered precisoin to those moments as well as the gleaming interweave and exchange of short phrases that dominated much of the rest of the two works.
Clarinetist Vadim Lando took centerstage in a surprisingly brisk, adrenalized version of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. If you grew up in the pre-youtube era with QXR on your parents’ radio, or on yours, you know this piece and the Beethoven too. The extra jolt of energgy – Lando really working up a sweat in the final volleys – encouraged attentive listening rather than simply drifting along with the composer’s joyous and then suddenly grim narrative: you mean that it’s all over, this soon? But it’s been so much fun…and the party was just getting started!
As enjoyable as these old favorites were, the highlight of the program was the world premiere of film composer Russell J. Courter‘s Atmospheres, a trumpet concerto of sorts backed by an uneasy tone poem. Soloist Christopher Scanlon set the tone with his tersely moody resonance as the orchestra rose from tense ambience to a cautious round-robin of exchanges and finally an anguished swell. Grunberg may have sensed a similar unease in the audience, as far as new music is concerned, and addressed that by reminding that there’s really no difference in listening, whether to something familiar or brand-new: you just do it. And when the piece was over, he led the orchestra through it a second time, which worked because it’s only about five minutes long – and a second go-round was even more rewarding, and might have been a little more amped up.
Just four beats into the last of the Beethoven, Grunberg stopped the music and turned to the crowd, encouraging them to join him and the orchestra at a bar down the block after the show. Which made sense: Beethoven would have done the same thing. For that matter, he was known for not waiting until the end of the show. Watch this space for upcoming Spectrum Symphony performances – all of which will have free admission for the rest of the 2015-16 season.
Cantata Profana Blend Renaissance Drama and Twentieth Century Austerity with Fun and Relevance at Symphony Space Tonight
The lights went down in the disused Roebling Avenue storefront, and then members of Cantata Profana – harpsichordist Daniel Schlosberg, theorbo player Arash Noori, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, violinist Jacob Ashworth, tenor Jonathan Blalock and baritone Jonathan Woody – launched into Monteverdi’s brooding kiss-off anthem, Interotte Speranze. What do you do the night before a big Symphony Space gig? Book a Williamsburg show…and pack the place. And then treat a mostly twentysomething crowd to mulled wine, Oreos and a surrealistically edgy, irresistibly fun performance that makes unexpectedly vivid connections between Renaissance vocal music and Twentieth Century austerity. As if we need more proof that there’s a young, engaged audience that’s clamoring for serious concert music but has been priced out at the establishment venues, this is it. If the idea of pairing hauntingly resonant Webern vocal works with proto-parlor-pop and proto-opera appeals to you, Cantata Profana are reprising last night’s entertainment at Symphony Space tonight at 8 PM; tix are $25/$10 stud.
Cantata Profana are a prime example of how versatility is the new specialization, across the musical spectrum these days: it’s the revenge of the utility player over the high-priced allstar. The ensemble – a core of singers and players surrounded by a semi-rotating cast – proved as at home with acidic Second Viennese School tonalities as with elegant medieval Italian balladry. The piece de resistance at this show is American composer George Rochberg’s Contra Morten et Tempus, with its hair-raising dynamic shifts and various quotes from Ives, Berio and other contemporaries. Another similarly bracing number on the program is Luigi Dallapiccola’s’ Due Liriche di Anacreonte, a showcase for tersely considered interplay between mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken Kelsey and among the supporting cast at well. And the juxtaposition between a partita by Renaissance Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, rising from a rather haunting, almost klezmer introduction to more easygoing Mediterranean tones, against the twelve-tone acerbity of Webern, was an example of shared ambition, an unexpectedly smooth segue.
To wind up the bill, the group employs a rather mystical diptych by Guido Caccini to set up Monteverdi’s famous early operatic piece Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, sung with appropriate drama by tenor Samuel Levine with support from Woody and scintillating sopratno Emma McNairy (whose raw power, unleashed in the small Williamsburg space, provided the night’s most adrenalizing moments). Like the rest of the earliest music on the bill, it makes an unanticipatedly good pairing alongside the serialist works – it’s hardly arioso, considering that the vocal line doesn’t really move around that much, leaving the cruel irony of the deadly duel between the knight and his crush-in-diguise all the more resonant. Especially in our era of global conflicts which are no less logically twisted.
After violinist Alexi Kenney‘s solo performance last night, Concert Artists Guild president Richard Weinert enthused that it was one of the best he’d ever seen: high praise from someone who gets to see an awful lot of concerts. And by any standard, it was pretty transcendent – and no surprise that despite this being the coldest night of the year so far, there was a full house at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea.
Kenney opened with Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006. On a surface level, it’s a dynamically shifting suite of variations on what might well have been pilfered folk dance themes. Playing from memory, Kenney went way below that surface for a minutely jeweled interpretation that quickly became a showcase for his quicksilver legato. We talk about having a fluid, legato approach, but this guy’s is so unwavering that if it was a sine wave, it would be flat. Which made all the more contrast when the music became more lilting and kinetic, Kenney establishing a trope he’d fall back on frequently throughout the performance, adding just a wisp more bow at the end of a phrase if he thought it needed the emphasis.
The showstopper was Kenney’s masterful take of Erwin Schulhoff’s Sonata for Solo Violin, WV 83. Part feral post-Schoenberg savagery, part richly apprehensive late Romantic angst, it bristles with sudden cadenzas and overtones and requires all sorts of extended technique. Kenney didn’t necessarily make it look easy, but he was clearly at home with it both technically and emotionally, something you don’t see that often. By contrast, the purposeful arpeggios of a fantasia by Nicola Mattheis – a precursor to Bach – made a comfortable segue into the cirrus-cloud atmospherics of Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne.
Kenney closed the concert, making a wrenchingly heartfelt return to Bach with what seemed like the entirety of the Partita No. 2 in D Minor (the program listed just the chaconne section, but it was music to get lost in). The wounded opening theme, and its foreshadowing, were genuinely harrowing, which made the epic climb to more optimistic territory all the more impactful. The sonics of the gallery were serendipitous, to the point of becoming part of the performance: spaces with natural reverb like there is here should host more solo shows. And the music made a good counterpart to the art on display, Ran Ortner‘s uneasily photorealistic tableaux of yellow-grey waves roiling in a sunset current. They have little in common thematically with Edward Hopper’s work but have a similarly raptutous use of light and shadow. It would be fascinating to see how the artist builds it, layer upon layer of paint.
These Concert Artists Guild gigs are a great way to discover new talent: that, after all, is the purpose of the organization. The next one is Bric Arts, down the block from BAM at 647 Fulton St. in Brooklyn on February 9 at 7 PM featuring dazzlingly eclectic harpist Bridget Kibbey and the Amphion String Quartet playing music of Bach, Debussy, Haydn and Caplet; admission is free.
On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities
The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.
The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.
The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.
The Gregorio Uribe Big Band Air Out Their Mighty, Slinky Cumbia Sounds at Two Shows This Coming Week
The Gregorio Uribe Big Band are one of those groups whose music is so fun that it transcends category. Is it cumbia? Big band jazz? Salsa? It’s a little of all that, and although it’s a sound that draws on a lot of traditions from south of the border, it’s something that probably only could have happened in New York. For more than three years, the mighty sixteen-piece ensemble has held a monthly residency at Zinc Bar. They’ve also got two enticing upcoming shows: one at Winter Jazzfest, on their regular home turf at twenty minutes before midnight on Friday, January 15 (you’ll need a festival pass for that), and also at about 10:30 PM on January 18 as part of this year’s South American Music Festival at Drom. That lineup, in particular, is pretty amazing, starting at 7:30 PM with magically eclectic singer (and member of Sara Serpa’s dreamy Mycale project) Sofía Rei, slashingly eclectic Pan-American guitarist Juancho Herrera and band, singer Sofía Tosello & innovative percussionist Franco Pinna’s hypnotic new folk-trance duo Chuño, then Uribe, then the psychedelic, surfy, vallenato-influenced art-rock groovemeisters Los Crema Paraiso and extrovert percussionist Cyro Baptista’s group at the top of the bill sometime in the wee hours. Advance tix are $20.
Frontman Uribe leads the group from behind his accordion, and sings – it’s hard to think of another large ensemble in New York fronted by an accordionist. Those textures add both playfulness and plaintiveness to Uribe’s vibrant, machinegunning charts. The group’s debut album, Cumbia Universal – streaming at Sondcloud – opens with Yo Vengo (Here I Come), with its mighty polyrhythmic pulse between trombones and trumpets, all sorts of neat counterpoint, and Uribe’s accordion teasing the brass to come back at him. They take it doublespeed at the end. ¿Qué Vamos a Hacer Con Este Amor? (What Are We Going to Do with This Love?) is a funny salsa-jazz number spiced with dancing exchanges of horn voicings, a duet between Uribe and chanteuse Solange Pratt. She has lot of fun teasing him in his role as a chill pro, trying to resist her temptations.
El Avispao (The Cheater) isn’t about infidelity – it’s a bouncily sarcastic commentary on the corruption that plagues Latin America, with a sardonic tv-announcer cameo and faux fanfares from the brass. The intro to Goza Cada Dia (Enjoy Yourself) has one of the most gorgeous horn charts in years, expanding into individual voices as it goes along: there are echoes of Memphis soul, Afro-Cuban jazz and classic 70s roots reggae, but ultimately this is Uribe’s triumph. Ruben Blades duets with the bandleader on the album’s title track, a jubilant mashup of Caribbean and Pacific coastal cumbia, with a dixieland-tinged solo from Linus Wynsch’s clarinet and a more wryly gruff one from baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi.
¿Por Qué Se Ira Mi Niño? portrays the anguish of losing a child – Uribe’s native Colombia has a higher infant mortality rate than this country, perhaps three times worse. Matt McDonald’s brooding trombone underscores the sadness of the vocals on the intro, then the band takes it toward salsa noir territory. The soca-flavored Caribe Contigo offers upbeat contrast, anchored by stormy brass and capped off with sailing clarinet. Welcome to La Capital, a bustling Bogota street scene, brings to mind the psychedelic lowrider soul of early 70s War, Ignacio Hernandez’ guitar sparkling amid the endless handoffs among the horns.
The cumbia cover of the Beatles’ Come Together is just plain hilarious – and the way the original vocal line gets shifted to the brass isn’t even the funniest part. The album winds up with the unexpectedly bristling, hi-de-ho noir cumbia jazz of Ya Comenzó La Fiesta (The Party Starts Here). Crank this in your earphones as you try to multitask, but expect people to be looking at you because you won’t be able to sit still.