Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Radical Cross-Pollination From Amir ElSaffar and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

The waves of melody slowly massing, leaping and often caressing the walls at Lincoln Center Friday night were less radical than they were a natural, spontaneous new invention. The premise: to mash up two often haunting, otherworldly traditions, Arabic maqam and Indian ragas, into a sometimes serene, sometimes turbulent, ultimately transcendent new element. Fresh off European tour, trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar joined forces with violinist Arun Ramamurthy and another five of the world’s leading creative musicians in Indian classical music and beyond, for a dynamic, characteristically epic performance. As far as single-band concerts in New York in 2017 are concerned, this might have been the best of them all.

There’s far less of a stylistic gap between Arabic music and its counterparts from the Hindustani subcontinent than some might assume. Both traditions are highly improvisational and rely on overtones outside the western scale. Among many other things, this performance underscored how closely the most chromatic Indian modes resemble those of the Middle East, and how resonantly hypnotic Middle Eastern music can be.

“We’re going to experience Indian music in a radical new way!” grinned Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal.  Ramamurthy enthused about how this show was an attempt to connect the “parallel lives” and shifting modes of Middle Eastern maqam with the Indian tradition’s slow upward trajectories, along with a heavy dose of improvisation.

The five-part suite hit a counterintuitive peak during the night’s first really lighthearted moment, a lively raga-based number fueled by tabla player Shiva Ghoshal’s increasingly animated beats. But even that grew overcast and wary to match the nebulous, distantly ominous sensibility that had pervaded the evening up to that point. Then sitarist Abhik Mukherjee took a gracefully bounding solo that was just short of imploring – and then Ramamurthy jumped in. This was too good to not be a part of. Everybody wanted a piece of it.. Bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, cellist Naseem Alatrash and finally the bandleader himself followed, building a bracing, acerbic mist with his trumpet..

As a composer, ElSaffar’s genius is how translucent and irresistibly catchy his themes are: he is to this era what Miles Davis was to the late 50s. Likewise, Ramamurthy is taking carnatic  themes to places no one ever imagined – like this. From the allusively angst-fueled opening theme and variations that rose on an ashen tide of sound, to the concluding number – built around a familiar riff that the Grateful Dead famously appropriated – these elegant, often wounded melodies lingered long after the show. Yet ElSaffar’s most electrifying moments here were not on trumpet, but on vocals and then santoor, methodically and incisively rippling and pinging, once in exquisitely pointillistic tandem with kanun player Firas Zreik. Perhaps the most haunting, stunning solo of all was Alatrash’s somber, intense pavane right after the first movement finally coalesced. 

And the audience was treated to a fullscale spectacle that went beyond the music. Mukherjee opened the show with a brief creation-myth narration that set the stage for the night’s looming, enveloping introductory sonic cocoon. Meanwhile, intricate, tectonically shifting projections by Nitin Mukul played on the screen over the stage. Depending on the music, or the individual tableau – a mudpuddle, planes in the clouds, mandala-like images – he’d slowly pour water into each slide for a kaleidoscopically dissolving effect. And midway through the set, ElSaffar read a passage from Rumi about how after humans are long gone from this planet, invisible instruments will still be playing. For that we can only hope.

Much as it’s going to be hard to top this, that’s the game plan for Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which seeks to radicalize and transform the Indian classical tradition for all sorts of innovations. Future artists who will be joined by Massive members here include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Raga Massive return to their weekly 8:30 PM Wednesday residency this month at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.  (at Washington Ave) in Ft. Greene. There’s a special guest every week, followed by a raga jam. Cover is $15; the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St.

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September 11, 2017 Posted by | Art, avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Piano Titan Vijay Iyer Scores a Harrowing Multimedia Performance

Last night at National Sawdust, pianist Vijay Iyer joined with bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan to create a somber, stunned, broodingly opaque and occasionally picturesque backdrop for Teju Cole‘s  allusively harrowing spoken word narrative, Blind Spot. Informed by history, portraiture, archaeology and Greek myth, Cole’s vignettes traced decades of humans being inhuman to each other, and how conveniently we forget.

Cole didn’t waste any time making his point. One of the first of the photo projections in his series of vignettes was a snapshot of a simple piece of poster graffiti in a Berlin neighborhood which once housed a gestapo torture complex. The message was simple. In black-and-white English, it said, “Sign here.” Cole related that when he returned a week later, the poster had been replaced by a billboard. “Darkness is lack of information,” he mused later during the performance. Is it ever.

Cole nonchalantly offered that his way of seeing had been radically changed by a blindness scare and then an apparently successful eye operation. The unseen seems to be as central to his work as the visible. An elegaic sensibility wove through his quietly provocative, interconnected narrative. Death – by torture, drowning, car accident, Klansmen and genocide – was a constant and pervasive presence.

The music matched the words and visuals. Iyer set the stage with a simple binary chord, a distant star against an obsidian sky. From time to time, the group improvisation became more programmatic – rushing water imagery and a sudden gust off a Swiss lake, for example. The most harrowing moment was when Cole related visiting the site of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and referenced both McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison’s roles in John Coltrane’s classic elegy for the victims, Alabama. Iyer and then Oh both quoted Coltrane’s pianist and bassist briefly – Oh’s sudden, frantic downward cascade might have been the night’s most stunning moment.

There were many others. Iyer began by working uneasy harmonies against a central tone, raga style, eventually building a Satie-esque menace while Brennan bowed her bells. As the night went on, Oh became more present, whether with an unexpected, circling series of harmonics that evoked Stephan Crump, or spare, emphatic accents moving with a slow but immutable defiance away from the center.

Brennan took the lead when Iyer went into Lynchian soundtrack mode, adding shivery chromatic phrases over macabre piano allusions that Iyer quickly embellished so as to keep the suspense from ever reaching any kind of resolution. The three finally reached toward closure with a concluding requiem, but even there the gloom didn’t lift. Earlier, Cole recalled a medieval painting that depicts Agamemnon offering his daughter as a sacrifice to the gods so that he could start a war with Troy: the anguished tyrant has his back to the viewer, unable to face what he’s just done. These days it looks more and more like the House of Atreus is us.

Iyer plays Tanglewood on July 13 with violinist Jennifer Koh. The next jazz event at National Sawdust – always a pleasure to visit and revel in the exquisite sonics  there – is on August 30 at 7 PM with perennially unpredictable guitar luminary Mary Halvorson; advance tix are $25.

July 9, 2017 Posted by | Art, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, photography, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Violinist Alexi Kenney Stuns the Crowd in Chelsea

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.

January 20, 2016 Posted by | Art, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Painter Razmik Poghosyan and His Pianist Daughter Kariné – “Artist and Muse”

by Shoshana Blau

GetClassical’s February 11 installment featured pianist Kariné Poghosyan’s performance at Louis Meisel Gallery on Prince Street in SoHo, in conjunction with the first solo New York exhibition of her father Razmik Poghosyan’s artwork. The gallery was packed when the pianist sat down at the antique Steinway grand amidst her father’s paintings. Seated concert style, the audience was soon enveloped by the younger Poghosyan’s expressivity throughout the first part of the program, ranging from Schuman and Stravinsky, Bach, Scriabin and Schubert to Albeniz and DeFalla.

After refreshments and a lot of inspired conversation among the audience members concerning Razmik Poghosyan’s paintings, the performance continued with masterworks by Liszt, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, ending with an especially ravishing rendition of the Adagio from Spartacus, by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian and an excerpt from Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No.1, Op.22. Building momentum with authority and vigor, these concluding pieces proved to the be the evening’s highlights. It comes as no surprise that the pianist is a leading advocate of Khachaturian’s works, with an exciting new all-Khatchaturian solo piano cd just having been released, so she was able to sign several new, hot-off-the-press copies for the crowd. The official New York release concert for the album takes place on April 19 at 2:30 PM at Greenfield Hall at Manhattan School of Music.

“I got inspired by my father’s artwork to choose my favorite pieces for this amazing concert,” says the Armenian-born pianist, an alumna and current member of the MSM piano faculty.

“When Kariné approached me to perform for a GetClassical concert event, perhaps at its new monthly classical series at the downtown jazz club Zinc Bar, I could not help but notice the passionate determination of this young pianist, enabling her to draw people into her performance. That special drive that motivates performers to express themselves and give it their all – it’s something that can’t be learned in the practice room,” says music journalist Ilona Oltuski, the founder and creative energy behind GetClassical’s concert events.

“When Kariné told me about her father’s artwork, we stopped by her house and I was taken by the graphic equivalent of that same vibrant, artistic spirit in his paintings. Stacked on top of each other on walls up to the ceiling and in every perceivable nook of this tiny Upper Westside apartment, the highly decorative motives form the theatrical world in a cubist-inspired style exuded vibrant joy and an inner world worth exploring,” explains Ilona, who also holds a PhD. degree in art history.

“As I took photos of Razmik’s paintings, it was clear to me that I wanted to show them in conjunction with his daughter’s pianism,” she adds. “With their subdued brightness, the paintings pulled you into their mystical drama and surrealist playfulness.”

“This is my life,” says the Armenian artist, describing his personal style as something that has never really changed, but simply comes from his deep love for beauty and joie de vivre. A former professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Yerevan, the artist has also created set designs for theatre productions broadcast on national television.

“Where some people associate the smell of freshly baked cookies with being at home, for me, when I was growing up, it was the smell of fresh oil paint,” says his daughter with a fond smile.

“When Louis Meisel, who is a great supporter of musical endeavors throughout the city, offered me his space to curate this concert and exhibit, I was thrilled to broaden GetClassical’s outreach into the arts scene,” Ilona explains. “GetClassical’s mission is to attract new audiences to classical music for a personal presentation of young and accomplished artists in unconventional venues, like the ‘cool’ Zinc Bar, the refined India House, the elegant Gramercy Park Rose Bar, and also to develop relationships with new venues like Midtown Live, a new club managed in association with Webster Hall. Partnership with WWFM allows GetClassical’s performances to be broadcast on the classical radio station, to share these intimate concerts with wider audiences.”

Enthusiastic about the talent she encounters as music journalist for her website GetClassical.org and by her friendships in the New York classical music community, Ilona Oltuski wanted to go a step further and join forces with select artists, presenting them in intimate concerts beyond her writing.  “GetClassical aims to further classical music presence within the New York nightlife scene in nontraditional concert venues,” she says. “But what that really means is a true collaboration with the artists. I find it greatly validating that artists return to collaborate with me, because, ‘I get them.’”

GetClassical’s next concert is at Zinc Bar on February 24 at 7 PM, where violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen perform an exciting program packed with premieres by contemporary composers.

February 16, 2015 Posted by | Art, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Philip Grossman Risks His Life to Document the Second Worst Disaster in Human History

Over the past several years, photographer/filmmaker Philip Grossman made several trips to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in Pripyat, Ukraine. Notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s bungling attempts to downplay the disaster and evacuate the area during the crucial first few hours of the April 26, 1986 meltdown at Reactor #4 there, considerable documentation of the disaster’s aftermath exists. Filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko took a camera into the disaster site in the days afterward: he was dead within the year. One hopes that Grossman either used an unmanned drone (as film footage he’s taken there seems to indicate), or that he at least had sufficient protective gear, if such a thing even exists. To say that the matter-of-factly haunting and foreboding full-color images he’s assembled are a heroic achievement is an understatement. Many of them, as well as a film of the area as it looked in the spring of 2011, are currently on display at the Wald and Kim Gallery, 417 Lafayette Street, 4th Floor through June 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 6 PM; ring the fourth-floor buzzer.

Grossman’s photos both underscore a familiar narrative and open frightening new ones. The army of half a million “liquidators” enlisted by the Soviets to secure the area and clean up the worst of the toxic wreckage may have actually amplified the disaster’s effects many times over by stripping metal from abandoned buildings and vehicles and selling it for scrap, effectively poisoning an unknown and probably significant amount of the Soviet steel and aluminum supply. Grossman’s shots, particularly of the interior of homes and municipal buildings in the area, reconfirm this deadly harvest. The same applies to the random bundles of metal beams and building materials lying around, seemingly for the taking (let’s hope that a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand years from now, when all this material is practically still as deadly as it is today, that people will know to leave it where it is).

But that’s been documented elsewhere. What Grossman has to offer that’s new is the disaster site as it exists today. The concrete “sarcophagus” built to contain the most toxic part of the reactor complex looks like a crack house, as if a good snowstorm would be enough to cave it in. Grossman’s shots of the skeleton structure for a fifth reactor, abandoned in the wake of the meltdown, are chillingly ironic. Even more chilling is a look at what’s left of the control room for Reactor #4, juxtaposed against another control room at the site that wasn’t consumed in the initial blaze. Cheapness and a cynical disregard for maintenance leap from the dust and fading plastic: how many other reactors like this are there in the world, and why haven’t they been shut down yet?

Grossman’s photos of the surrounding area show a ghost town. There are a couple of low-rent memorials; homes where the only things left are old shoes and beer bottles; a preschool full of decaying, murderously radioactive stuffed toys; an abandoned hospital, a recreation center and sleepaway camp for children. The implications are extreme: perish the thought that this could have happened in the summer and subjected even more children to the consequences. The official Soviet report of the health effects of the disaster mirrors the coverup of the early days: we’ll probably never know the full amount of casualties. The World Health Organization estimates that cancers caused by radioactive poisons released at Chernobyl killed a million people worldwide, a shocking number tempered by the WHO’s notoriously alarmist predictions. And yet, for the reliably pro-industry WHO to come up with such a staggering estimate could well indicate that the death toll so far may be even higher.

And will be in the decades and centuries to come. There are two “sons of Chernobyl,” as they’re called in Russia, on the way. The contaminants in the water table inching toward the Black Sea are expected to reach there in thirty years or so. There’s also the threat of forest fires in the area. Over the past decades, fire crews have routinely been sent into the forest there to hose down the soil to help prevent the kind of conflagration that could literally rekindle the catastrophe. Almost thirty years after Chernobyl, more than half of all wild mushrooms in Germany, thousands of miles away, remain too contaminated with nuclear toxins for human consumption. At least the Germans had the sense to make it illegal to harvest those mushrooms, or, for that matter, to sell wild game meat.

Meanwhile, the United States and other nations continue to allow the importation of vehicles and products from Japan. What’s even more troubling, of course, is that the Fukushima disaster released more lethal radioactive contaminants than every previous nuclear meltdown – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, LP-1 in Idaho and Oak Ridge in Tennesee – plus the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, plus every atom bomb test and nuclear leak in history, COMBINED. In simpler terms, the world became more than twice as deadly on March 11, 2011. Levels of nuclear contamination in Tokyo, a hundred miles from the Fukushima disaster site, are so high that if that the city was in the United States, it would be off limits not only to human habitation but also to human traffic: the danger of spreading those toxins via car and truck tires is considered too high to risk in this country.

The Japanese response to Fukushima in many ways was the same as the Soviets’ was to Chernobyl. According to an official Japanese government website that was abruptly taken down about a week after the Fukushima calamity, only forty people were killed by the meltdowns there. But while high levels of toxins as deadly as those released at Chernobyl continue to drain into the Pacific – whether the result of leakage, deliberate dumping, or both – the carnage left in the wake of Chernobyl may only be a small fraction of the toll Fukushima may ultimately claim. Can anybody say “global extinction event?”

June 11, 2014 Posted by | Art, Film, photography, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The First-Ever Full-Length NYC Subway Art Documentary Resurrected at BAM

What’s most heartbreaking about Manfred Kirchheimer‘s  practically dialogue-less 1981 documentary Stations of the Elevated is that all of the artwork featured in the film is gone forever. Some of it was sandblasted, some sent to the scrapyard and the rest of it is at the bottom of the Atlantic. Did you know that’s where most New York City subway cars have gone to their final resting place in recent years, ostensibly serving as artificial reefs, asbestos insulation and all? Fortunately, you can see all of the long-gone, distinctively New York-flavored guerrilla art immortalized when the film – the first full-length documentary on New York City subway art – screens on June 27 at 8 PM at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Advance tix are $25 and highly recommended. What’s also hard to believe is that this screening kicks off the movie’s first-ever theatrical run (it premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival but lacked the music licenses necessary for a fullscale release). As a special enticement, the Charles Mingus repertory ensemble Mingus Dynasty will perform beforehand – it’s a good assumption that they’ll be playing music from the film soundtrack.

How fortuituous for future generations of New Yorkers that the filmmaker was out trainspotting with his camera, catching subways (mostly on the 4 and 5 line) as they rolled past, or into the Dyre Avenue station. Without Kirchheimer, there’s be far less evidence of the haphazard talent of legendary graffiti artists like Lee, Fab 5 Freddy, Shadow, Daze, Kase, Butch, Blade, Slave, 12 T2B, Ree, and Pusher, all of whom are represented. Kirchheimer wisely chose to film from spots where the trains would be moving at little more than a walking pace, and his lens lingers. Yet the effect is often akin to a series of jump cuts, tantalizing the viewer. Obviously, Kirchheimer wanted to capture as much as he could in a limited amount of time (45 minutes): to say that he scored is an understatement.

Kirchheimer’s background, other than as a documentarian, is as a film editor, which served him well here. Juxtaposed with the languid, now rather quaint (and for New Yorkers of a certain age and sensibility, impossibly nostalgic) shots of the trains in all their spraycan glory are images of campy billboards (the smoking Marlboro Man is priceless) and an upstate prison that from above bears a remarkable resemblance to the MTA train yards. The sound editing mirrors the editing of the film itself, a handful of Charles Mingus compositions cut and pasted with a rather sardonic bass solo from the composer himself front and center. There’s also a long gospel refrain from Aretha Franklin as the film winds out.

Kirchheimer has been quick to admit that he knew little about graffiti art when he began work on the film, and that the project opened his eyes to what he has termed a “scream from the ghetto.” Ironically, much as many of the deaths heads, cartoon figures and hastily painted yet stunningly lavish car-length tableaux make for a perverse celebration of civic pride. New York may have been gritty in those days, but it was those artists’ New York. Shame on the powers that be for failing to realize that and for destroying it (a sick cycle that perpetuates itself – yesterday’s cover of Metro featured a gang of gung-ho volunteers hell-hent on eliminating graffiti and graffiti art completely throughout the five boroughs). And kudos to Kirchheimer for preserving it with such a wry, keenly aware sensibility.

June 10, 2014 Posted by | Art, Film, jazz, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bahar Movahed: Renaissance Woman

Bahar Movahed is one of this era’s most extraordinary voices. But she isn’t just a virtuoso singer of classic Persian and Kurdish songs. She can also operate on your teeth (she’s presently at the school of dental surgery at UCSF) and draw very funny pictures of you (her caricatures have been exhibited worldwide).  And she’s also a fashion model. She’s playing an intimate show at Symphony Space at 7:30 PM on April 17; tickets are still available as of today. If the poignant, emotionally rich music of Iran is your thing, this is a show not to miss. Movahed graciously took some time out of what must be a ridiculously hectic schedule to answer some questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You have a fascinating story. You are a dental
surgeon, an award- winning visual artist and a musician. Is there a common link
between these interests for you?

Bahar Movahed: Well, at first glance, they seem to be completely unrelated with no
common link, but the fascinating fact is that creativity is an essential and
inseparable link between all of them. Art is dead without new
works, and also without the creative soul of an artist. On one hand, if
you want to become a successful dentist, you should have the courage to
develop your own method of treating patients. In fact, in dentistry, you are
always creating a new tooth structure, and the more creative you are the
more successful you become. Sometimes I think it is contradictory that I
am shaping a tooth from a deformed structure into a beautiful new tooth that
looks normal, while in caricature art I deform a normal face and exaggerate
its form in a way that I end up with something funny and abnormal! But I love
what I do and enjoy every second. For years I have lived three different
lives trying hard and managing to be a professional in dentistry, music and
caricature art at the same time. It has never been easy, but it was my endless
love and passion for these interests that guided me and helped me get
through all the hardship.

LCC: Can I ask you how you got to the US, and to UCSF where you are
now pursuing medicine as a postdoctoral student? Why there and not
somewhere else?

BM: As I mentioned, my artistic work never lowered my enthusiasm for higher
education and success in my profession as a dentist. So, I always had
plans to pursue my studies at a world-class institute. When I was in Iran I
applied for an Advanced Implantology Preceptorship program at UCLA and
I was fortunate enough to get into the program, so I moved to the States.After
finishing the Implantology program I applied for an advanced standing dentistry
program which allows international dentists to work professionally in the US. I
was fortunate again to get accepted into some of the best dental schools in the US
and I chose to continue my education at UCSF School of Dentistry, which is truly
a dream come true for me. And I am hoping to pursue my postgraduate studies and
apply for a specialty program in the coming years.

LCC: You grew up in Iran after the fall of the Shah, and the Khomeini counter-
revolution. There was great repression there, and still is, especially for
women artists. What kind of music did you listen to as a young girl?

BM: The situation of those days may seem to be a bit strange for the people
that have not experienced such a social revolution or restrictions. I was
born a year after the revolution in Iran and my childhood was during the
Iran-Iraq war, a difficult time for my country with very limited time and
resources for anything beyond the absolute necessities of a household.
However, with my mother being a painter and my father an art enthusiast
I was very lucky to still be brought up in an art-loving environment. Even
growing up in post-revolution Iran, I was surrounded by cassette
tapes and LPs that my parents had treasured from earlier years. So, I
would mostly hear Iranian traditional music such as Banaan, Shajarian,
Parissa, etcetera as well as more pop-oriented Iranian songs by people such
as Googoosh, Farhad and Fereydoon Foroughi. Every now and then they
would also play western classical music such as Mozart or Bach and,
last but not least, the hit songs from bands like the Beatles! Another
unique and joyful experience from my childhood for me was the tapes
that my parents had recorded from a radio program from pre-revolution
years which played and talked about famous film scores of that time, from
movies such as Dr. Zhivago, West Side Story and Interlude. This all, I
believe, instilled the love of music in me from a young age despite the
difficult social conditions.

LCC: What came first for you, the tar or the voice? Have you always been a
singer?

BM: Actually, I began playing the  playing the piano when I was nine
years old. My father taught me basic notes and some popular songs.
Later, after the end of Iran-Iraq war, I had a piano teacher who
taught me the basics of music and some popular western classical
pieces. I started to learn to play Persian instruments like the
tanbur and tar in the years after and finally started my vocal training
when I was 18, initially only singing the lyrics for the pieces that had
words while I was playing the instruments. So I started with playing
instruments, and I became more seriously focused on singing later
on.

LCC: When did you realize that you had something special as a singer, that
you might be able to do this for a living?

BM: Whenever I was singing and playing, my family and
friends would usually encourage me and give me compliments. But
I decided to take professional vocal training when I listened to a
piece by Parissa accompanied by Hossein Alizadeh on tar. I’ll never
forget that piece, I got so intoxicated and mesmerized. And at that
moment, my soul was deeply touched by Parissa’s voice. It was at
that moment that I realized that I wanted to be a vocalist. I was not
too concerned with how good my voice was but I knew that I wanted
to create that feeling for an audience. I also want to add that I have not
chosen singing for a living because I wouldn’t be able to do so in
my country. It was not an option at all. I wanted to go for my passion
although I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow it as a career to make a
living from it..

LCC: What obstacles did you face as a young woman musician in Iran? Did
you experience opposition to what you were doing?

BM: There are no laws that prohibit women from studying music or
playing instruments in Iran as we have many prominent female
players on traditional instruments such as tar, khanun, santur, setar
as well as western instruments such as guitar and piano. There are,
however, specific regulations for female vocalists that make it quite a
difficult career for women to pursue music in Iran. For instance, as a female
vocalist you are completely prohibited from performing as a solo
singer. Technically, you can only perform alongside a male singer,
but your voice cannot be the main voice. That means that the man takes
the lead vocal, limiting women to backing vocals. The other option for women
is that they are allowed to perform in concert and sing as a solo
vocalist only for female audiences.  As you can imagine, this
greatly limits their audience and the extent of a woman artist’s work.
Either way, they still can’t produce solo CDs. I personally didn’t experience
opposition because I never went against the rules. I only played one concert, an
academic project by a university professor, Hossein Mehrani, and I
was singing alongside him. I have also done background vocals
on several albums as well.

LCC: What obstacles remain for women musicians there now? What would
have to happen there for you to go back?

BM: For female vocalists specifically, like I said, the most difficult obstacle
is being  unable to perform as a solo vocalist in public, and not being able
to produce meaningful and impactful works. Other than that, whenever a
female vocalist sings in a concert even as a harmony  or backing vocalist,
the media does not cover her because they don’t have the permission
to do so. For instance, I had sung in a piece and among the crew of 40 I
was the only classical female singer. Under those circumstances, one would
think that I would get more attention than the male singers. But what happened
was that music magazines that covered the piece wrote about everyone’s
voice except mine.. I felt like I was invisible! It’s a sad story, unfortunately.
For other musicians, instrumental players, I would say there is less
of a systemwide problem. As I said, there are a handful of remarkable
female musicians active even inside of Iran. But then again, the general
atmosphere is not exactly ideal for female musicians, mostly due to the
unfriendliness of the laws and the lack of proper exposure .About going back,
I think my case is a bit specific. As for my music, asI said, female vocal performance
is by governmental and Islamic lawprohibited in public, so most probably I will
always have that issue to deal with. I am investing alot in my profession as a dentist
in the US, so I think the chance of me pursuing both these careers here is much better
than back home.

LCC: To what extent is there an expatriate Iranian artistic community that
supports you and artists like you?

BM: There is a sizeable community of Iranian artists, writers
and thinkers spread around the globe, especially in the US and western
Europe. The community in general is supportive of one another, yet I don’t
think there is a systematic approach to it. The biggest problem I think is
that we don’t have a unified Iranian media outlet – like national tv, for
all Iranians outside of Iran. However, more popular Persian tv channels
broadcast outside of Iran, such as BBC Persian and Voice of America,
have played a great part in introducing talented Iranians to our compatriots
in the recent years.

LCC: Here in the US, or elsewhere, how do you communicate your music to
an audience that doesn’t speak Kurdish or Persian?

BM: The only way to communicate with them is to translate the lyrics in English
and give the audience those translations, although we have some obstacles here too.
Iranian literature is very difficult to translate into other languages if you don’t want
to lose its mystical meanings. So, it usually requires a professional who knows
both Farsi and English, as well as the literature, extremely well. Honestly,
this does not happen often in concerts and and it’s rare that brochures
include the lyrics. Personally speaking, I used the Farsi and English translation of
the Kurdish lyrics of my debut album “Goblet of Eternal Light” fpr the cd booklet.
What I’m hoping for  is that the sound of the music goes beyond the words and
reaches the audience regardless of their backgrounds. I believe that if a piece has a
theme of “eternal love”, the sound of the music and the feel and space of the piece
apart from the words) can bring the message home.

LCC: You could sing in English, or other languages as well, if you wanted.
Have you considered doing that? Maybe translating some of your songs?

BM: I can sing in Kurdish and Turkish as my parents’ roots go back to these
languages, and I am familiar with them. Also, I sang in Kurdish in
my first album released in the US, but I prefer to focus more on singing
in Farsi as it is my native language and I have been trained for Persian
classical singing. Non-native speakers often have strange, undesirable
accents.. That’s why, as of now,I don’t have much desire to sing in other
languages, but I will keep my options open.

LCC: What drove you to immerse yourself in Kurdish music? Did you end up
learning the language?

BM: I was familiar with the Kurdish language as my father is from a Kurdish
city but I was not considered a Kurdish speaker before singing on “Goblet
of Eternal Light”. I was so interested and passionate about learning
Kurdish maqams that I went to Maestro Ali Akbar Moradi to teach me
Kurdish songs and repertoire. I should mention that the Kurdish language
has different dialects itself and although I knew some Kurdish I couldn’t
understand many of the lyrics. Mr Moradi did a great job and taught me the
meaning of the poems and lyrics which later appeared on our album.

LCC: On Goblet of Eternal Light, you sing repertoire in various Kurdish dialects
that never would have been sung by the same person. Why is this? Why such a
difference in repertoire throughout the Kurdish world?

BM: Our album has a special focus which I think makes it quite unique: that is,
to act as a bridge to unite different Kurdish groups and tribes, which was
Maestro Moradi’s idea. The tanbur has been the original Kurdish instrument.
Tanbur songs accompanied Howrami poems; the tanbur has been mostly
associated with the Howrami dialect. This has kept non-Howrami
Kurds, particularly the Suran and Kormanj tribes, away from the tanbur. On this
album, we have used the work of other great poets such as Mahwi, Naali and
Guran with the hope of bring all Kurdish groups together, especially those
who were previously divided.

LCC: Do you still play the tanbur and the tar? How about in concert?

BM: I do not consider myself a professional tanbur or tar player. So, I do play
them every now and then, but not in public and never as a professional. I’d
rather focus on my work as a vocalist.

LCC: You have studied with some of the greatest artists in Persian music – Parissa,
who is thought by many to be the greatest singer in the Radif tradition, and
the great tanburist Seyed Amrollah Shah Ebrahimi. You’re on the Mandoo film
soundtrack, with the great oud virtuoso Negar Bouban, among others. This is
about as good as it gets in Persian music. Are there other achievements that you
have not yet reached, musically speaking? Any future plans we can look forward
to?

BM: I have been fortunate to have been on this long exciting journey, and I do
not consider it anywhere near finished yet. Studying voice with icons like Parissa,
Shahram Nazeri, Nourbakhsh and the legendary Shajarian has always been a source of
pride for me and Iconsider myself very lucky, but there is still a lot for me to achieve. I
want to reach a level of excellence in this area and find a style of my own and work with
great musicians, and basically keep learning and build my experience.

Recently I have been working with a young tanbur virtuoso, Mehdi Khani, and we
are planning to record and perform together in the near future. Mehdi Khani is a
writer and movie director and he is a great tanbur player too. He has composed
songs with roots deep in the sacred tunes of ancient Iran; these new pieces celebrate
music in its purest and simplest form. The combination of a solo instrument plus voice
has always been one of the most powerful types of music – especially if your intent is to
put a message across,or,  to be more specific, a universal message of peace and oneness
in the celebration of our true heavenly origins. As a vocalist, I’m so excited to work and
collaborate with him.

LCC: I’m curious  – you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to – how popular
is your music in Iran, or the Persian diaspora?

BM: I guess those people who follow classical music seriously are familiar with my
work despite the fact that I was not performing as a solo vocalist in Iran and my
previous work was as a harmony singer. It is totally a different situation
outside of Iran. Persian classical music draws a broader range of audiences in
Iran and I guess it is more appreciated there. The Iranian population
outside of Iran is more oriented to pop, jazz or rock

LCC: As a caricaturist, I understand your technique is pointillism. Are you
influenced by any of the western pointillists? Chuck Close?

BM: I was inspired by Norwegian illustrator Finn Graff’s technique when I was a teenager.
Although I was influenced by pointillism, I tried to find my own style
of exaggerating and drawing over the years and I think I’ve achieved it.

LCC: As intense as your music is, your portraiture is whimsical and funny. It’s not
what I expected at all. Is there a deliberate attempt on your part to keep the
drama and the fire in your music separate from the lighthearted wit and fun in
your visual art?

BM: This is exactly how you could describe me. I have been inspired by three
different interests and passions, which means living three different lives in parallel.
I intentionally keep these parts separate from each other, as I feel their nature
is different from one another. This is to give each of them their own character,
protecting their harmony from being affected by the other ones. On the
other hand, I can feel a mixture of drama and wit and fun inside me. Like anyone
else, I have many different feelings but as a professional I have to know when, where,
and how to use those feelings properly.

LCC: Tell us about the upcoming Symphony Space concert her in New York. You’re
playing with Ali Samadpour on tar. Just the two of you? What material can we
look forward to hearing?

BM: I will be performing with Ali Samadpour on tar and Navid Kandelousi on
tombak. Ali Samadpour is a very well-known musician and composer from Iran
and Navid Kandelousi is a great violinist and multi-instrumentalist from New York
who kindly agreed to play tombak with us. Ali has arranged classical songs from different
eras in Iran and I liked his ideas very much as they’re nothing like anything that has
previously been done with this repertoire. In western classical music, it’s
not unusual for a single performance to journey through different ages and
share the evolution of the music with the audience. I am thrilled that we will be
experimenting with this concept with our traditional music for the first time in
this concert, as it covers so many  different eras. Afterward we will perform some
of Ali’s songs, which are more stylistically modern. We will also perform one or two pieces
from Goblet of Eternal Light.

April 5, 2013 Posted by | Art, interview, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Substantial, Compelling Paintings by Andrea Cukier and Florencia Fraschina

by Rimas Uzgiris

The two-woman show by Andrea Cukier and Florencia Fraschina at the Argentine Consulate presents two contemporary Argentine painters whose work is deeply rooted in Argentina’s urban culture, albeit in entirely different ways.

Andrea Cukier, now a resident of New York City but raised and trained as an artist in Buenos Aires, is a painter of suggestive atmospheres. She paints light through mist, humid air, harbors and dilapidated shorelines. She takes inspiration from the painters of La Escuela de La Boca, a group of mostly Italian immigrants to Buenos Aires who often depicted sections of their working-class neighborhoods, including the nearby waterfront. Cukier’s “Broken Passage” is a masterful portrayal of a shattered, chaotic shoreline. The sense of mist and moisture pervades both sky and water so thoroughly that it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins. All things seem to be dissolving into the elements of earth, air and water. The painting is almost wholly abstract. And even though, on the one hand, entropy seems to dominate, on the other hand, there is a tremendous sensitivity to light, which suffuses the clouds and mist and water with a glow that feels almost redemptive, albeit earthy. Other works, notably “Late Storm” and “Evening Light”, may be more representational, but are equally intriguing, depicting the play of clouds, smoke and light in canvasses dominated by sky. Human civilization is suggested with no more than the rooftops of city buildings, barbed wire, and churning black smoke. There is always a threat looming in these subtly dramatic paintings, but there is hope as well—whether in the form of light, or in a fleck of black paint like a bird fleeing the looming darkness. One cannot look at her paintings without being entranced by the complex interplay of grays, whites and blacks. One might say that in her work we have the late Turner in 21st century New York City by way of an urban sensitivity cultivated in La Boca.

On the opposite side of this warm, wood-paneled room hangs the work of Florencia Fraschina, a painter based in Buenos Aires. Fraschina draws her inspiration from entirely different sources. If Cukier reminds us of Turner by way of La Boca, Fraschina’s work brings us the spirit of Hopper by way of Kahlo. Her paintings are a symphony of saturated colors, populated by voluptuous women, often in various states of undress. Like so many paintings by Hopper, they suggest stories. The depicted characters express complex emotional states, and their situations are often enigmatic, sometimes even sordid. The exceptional “El Descanso” depicts a man and a woman in a tub. The woman is enormous, and the man thin and frail. He nestles inside of her legs and breasts, smoking a cigarette, looking up at the ceiling. Is he satisfied, or a bit intimidated—even a bit scared? Is her expression motherly? Or is there the hint of a smirk? Fraschina does not give us easy answers about her characters’ inner lives. Their charm is in their mystery. The paintings shimmer with color—extraordinary blues, bright pink, serene green. One especially harmonious piece is “La Costurera”: a woman, also large, but fully clothed, sews. Her expression is calm and focused, a bit sad as well. The painting is a symphony of blue, yellow, and red, and it is peaceful in its domestic melancholy. Similarly domestic, and quite poignant, is “Almorzando con Mirta”, named after a popular Argentine TV program. An old woman, dressed in black (a nun?) sits at a table, eating (soup? gruel?) from a bowl. She faces a television whose screen shows a young woman with golden hair. In the otherwise drab apartment, the only other color highlight comes from the halo in the painting above the mantle—thereby uniting the old, kitschy painting with the modern television program in a provocative way. Other details also draw us in to this woman, her story, her emotional life: a pair of elephant figurines, a wedding couple statuette. Fraschina makes us yearn for the human, for the true connection to the other, even as she problematizes our ways of relating to self and other through her depiction of pop culture and religious symbols. It is rare to see such social commentary come through a painting so subtly, and with so much feeling for the simple and solitary human life.

This show is a reminder that profound and emotionally gripping art is still being made in an age of shallow postmodernism, and it is being made with talent, craft, subtle intelligence, and a connection to history that is both revealing and progressive.

Andrea Cukier and Florencia Fraschina: Paintings are on display at the Consulate General of Argentina in New York, 12 W 56th St. (5th/6th Aves.) through April 10.

March 22, 2012 Posted by | Art, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lisztmania Finally Starts to Make Sense

“All hands can play Liszt,” emcee David Dubal asserted in front of what appeared to be a full house Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall, introducing this season’s debut of pianist/impresario Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series.

“Yeah, right,” a fellow pianist in the crowd murmured to his friend. That opinion is widely held, often fueled by frustration at being unable to master the composer’s work, but also by the perception that Liszt’s notoriously challenging compositions are ostentatiously shallow. This year being the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, the Liszt tributes and retrospectives have been endless, and underwhelming. Which made this particular program such an eye-opener. Pianist Eric Clark also deserves credit for offering a revealing look at a different side of the composer a couple months ago; Joan’s take on Liszt was even more enlightening, especially since she played a handful of obscure pieces associated with the composer. Dubal may have had something to do with this, having been her teacher at Juilliard.

And he offered fresh insight into the program, providing a broader historical context as well as the history of the pieces themselves: Dubal is a big-picture guy, and a fearlessly unreconstructed Lisztian. The Valse-Impromptu that Joan opened with, he said, was a prototype for parlor music of its era. And it sounded like that, generically lively: it hasn’t aged well. But Joan has an ear for depth and a flair for the unconventional, so the choice of Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Fruhlingslaube was characteristically striking, a slowly expansive, meticulously paced pastorale. The Funerailles from Liszt’s Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, which followed, was a quiet, mournful knockout. Dubal reminded that this was a requiem for the freedom fighters who unsuccessfully fought in the Hungarian uprising of 1849. Restrained almost to the point of minimalism in places, fueled by a stark series of low lefthand riffs, it’s Chopinesque to a fault, rarely played, and Joan let it linger, powerfully: quiet as it is, it was the high point of the night. By contrast, she hit the Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor – which she segued into artfully – with a hard-hitting scamper.

Dubal nailed it when he said that Schubert’s Der Doppelganger was “literally schizophrenic” – Joan played up its spacious, mysterious aspects. And she gave Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor a precision that managed to be biting without losing sight of its warm cantabile resonance, another quality that doesn’t exactly spring to mind when thinking of Liszt. The Valse-Caprice No. 2 after Schubert’s Soirees de Vienne was warm and bright, if not much more than simply a testament to Liszt’s loyalty as an advocate of Schubert at a time when that wasn’t exactly cool.

The final composition was the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, “one of those crazy pieces,” as Joan alluded afterward, where any hope for any kind of interpretive insight bit the dust. Liszt’s arrangement is so elaborately showy that the opportunity to imbue it with soul, or poignancy – Joan’s signature traits – falls by the wayside. To simply get through it and get the notes all right is an achievement in itself. And that she did, an athletic feat made all the more impressive considering that the heavy action of the Bosendorfer she was playing probably would have given Art Tatum a workout. The result, predictably, was a series of standing ovations, ironic to the extreme considering the earlier part of the program was a far more noteworthy achievement. Should every pianist have some Liszt in his or her fingers, as Dubal suggested? A bit of the lesser-known Liszt, that Joan showcased so admirably here, couldn’t hurt.

And not only is Dubal a savvy historian, he’s also a painter, a very eclectic one. Adorning the walls here were a striking, El Greco-ish blue-green cathedral; a series of playful, glittery, Kandinsky-esque abstracts; an invitingly nebulous, colorful city tableau that could have been Paris’ Right Bank from the Pont Neuf; a couple of bucolic outdoors scenes with pre-medieval Asian tinges; an aggressively striking black-and-white work that could be a homage to Jackson Pollock; and even a handful of playful, simple drawings with a coy Keith Haring sensibility. Clearly, Dubal has watched as broadly and as deeply as he’s listened.

December 17, 2011 Posted by | Art, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Met’s Art of the Arab Lands Exhibit – Reopened At Last!

When’s the last time you spent time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arab Lands collection? If you knew it existed at all, that would have been sometime in 2003 or before then, when the museum mothballed it and then spent the next eight years giving it some major renovations. It’s open again, and it’s the kind of exhibit that often gets overlooked: other than some Manhattan building-sized carpets, and the interior of a Damascus home originally built in 1119 AD, it isn’t full of the kind of colorful or breathtaking objects that crowds typically come here to see. And for that reason, it’s very much worth your while to spend some quality time here when you next visit the Met.

Because the original collectors of this kind of art wanted objects which reaffirmed their own class status, you won’t get a look at how ordinary people in Iraq, or Iran, or Egypt, or Bangladesh lived centuries or millennia ago. Most of the objects whose origin is known – the utensils, jewelry, weapons, manuscripts, sculptures and Turkish suits of armor – have some sort of royal lineage. But if you pay close attention, you’ll encounter some irresistible treasures. There’s an incense burner large enough to intimidate a medium-sized dog (this was from the days before Lysol); a depiction of a crazy machine that proves that Rube Goldberg contraptions predated Mr. Goldberg by several centuries; and a manuscript very vividly illustrating a Hafez poem which celebrates drunkenness as a way to connect with the divine, something you might not expect to see in a gallery dedicated to art made by Muslims. Serious art history fans can follow the collection on a chronological path out of Egypt as it makes its way to South Asia, illuminating how much cross-pollination was going on (just tracing how much medieval and dark-age European tapestries were influenced by the levantine world, and how the influence then came full circle, is fascinating to witness). There’s a recreation of a major archaeological dig outside Teheran, astrolabes, at least one harpy, and overwhelming evidence that the Baghdad spice traders of a thousand years ago were just as obsessed with size and status as the Darien hedge fund traders are today. And thanks to new techniques developed by the Met’s preservationists, there’s a rotating series of rare paper and fabric objects and fragments dating from as far back as the fourth century AD

Along with several tours by Met staff, there’s an informative audio tour available for $7 (museum members get a discount). Museum hours are Tuesday–Thursday; 9:30 AM-5:30 PM; Friday and Saturday: 9:30 AM -9 PM, and Sunday: 9:30 AM-5:30 PM, holidays excepted.

By the way, there are a couple of excellent concerts – free with museum admission – coming up on Nov 4 and 5 at 5 PM at the Balcony Bar featuring the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble, an all-star Middle Eastern group including  George Ziadeh – oud, vocals; Tareq Abboushi – buzuq, vocals; Sami Shumays – violin, vocals; Johnny Farraj – riqq, vocals; Zafer Tawil – qanun, violin, vocals; and Amir ElSaffar – santur, vocals.

November 2, 2011 Posted by | Art, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment