Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gail Archer Brings Concert Organ Music Back to New York with a Rare, Fascinating Ukrainian Program

Gail Archer is not only a trailblazing organist and rescuer of undeservedly obscure repertoire. She’s also been responsible for some of the most entertaining and often rewardingly unorthodox organ music programming in this city in recent years. So it was no surprise to see her back at the console Saturday afternoon, playing what has to be one of the first, quite possibly the very first organ concert for a public audience in this city since Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator. While the turnout at St. John Nepomucene Church just west of Tudor City was very sparse, this being Rosh Hashanah, Archer and the church’s very personable staff deserve immense credit for their commitment to bringing back the arts.

What was most immediately striking about the program – essentially a reprise of Archer’s new album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – was how loud it was. She took full advantage of the 1956 Kilgen organ and the space’s impressive amount of natural reverb throughout a robustly seamless performance of mostly rather midrangey material.

Ukraine has a deep tradition of choral music, but less so with the organ, and as a result most of the works on the bill were 20th century vintage. Much as it was glorious to simply be able to see an organ concert in Manhattan again, this was a pensive glory. There was no Lisztian ostentatiousness, nor much reliance on the many more colors that composers from where the organ has more of a history might have brought into the music. Rather, the similarity of the timbres and registrations made for plenty of strong segues. And it’s a fair bet that Archer was premiering much of this material, whether simply for New York, or for all of North America.

What stood out from hearing Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare live rather than on the album? The echo effects – a favorite concert device for Archer – and the prominence of the lows. His Benedictus: Song of Zachariah seemed much more distinctly Romantic, by comparison. The initial, blustery foreshadowing of Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements brought to mind Charles Widor; its stormy bursts over lingering resonance later on evoked the work of contemporary composer Naji Hakim.

Archer surpassed her already colorful album version of Viktor Goncharenko’s Fantasia with a steady dynamism, and later brought out more of a lilt in the cadences of Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona. The remaining two pieces on the bill were the most rapturous, beginning with the dark, slowly expanding majesty of Mykola Kolessa’s Passacaglia. Iwan Kryschanowskij’s arguably even more mysterious, symphonic Fantasie was an enveloping yet relentlessly restless choice of coda, Archer building starry ambience and broodingly stairstepping intensity amidst the swirl and pedalpoint, to a deliciously articulated series of chromatic themes right before the end.

The monthly series of organ concerts at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. continues on Oct 17 at 3 PM with a performance by Austin Philemon.

September 21, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parker Ramsay Reinvents Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the Harp

Among the brave and the few who have tackled solo Bach on the harp lately, Bridget Kibbey is joined by Parker Ramsay, who traded in playing the concert organ under Stephen Cleobury and now runs a blog, Harping On: Thoughts from a Recovering Organist. As if playing Bach on the organ isn’t difficult enough, Ramsay has transcribed the complete Goldberg Variations for the instrument he learned from his mom. The result is a revelation and is streaming at Spotify,

Ramsay has unimpeachable cred as a baroque musician. In November of 2016, he played a thoughtful, sensitively voiced program of works by Buxtehude, Sweelinck and Scheidt on the Gernan-colored rear organ at New York’s St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue.  What’s most artistically resonant here is that Ramsay isn’t doing this as an ostentatious side project. On one hand, his use of space builds rapturous ambience, bringing out resonant lows seldom heard front and center on this instrument. There’s plenty of natural reverb at the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, where this album was recorded, so there are places where ornamentation in the lowest registers actually gets lost sometimes – although that doesn’t affect the highs.

The best comparison to this new arrangement is the Goldberg Variations for organ, ironically enough. What works as long as you hold down the pedal with all stops out turns out to work just as well for this delicately incisive axe – although there are moments where it’s not always immediately recognizable as such. When Ramsay has his pedal down in places, it could be a harpsichord.

However, there’s plenty new that comes into view here, particularly the viigor of the counterpoint as Ramsay alternates between hands. You could say that this interpretation reduces the music to its most basic and lucid terms. Ramsay’s dynamics are lyrical, his tempos on the slow side. And he leaves room for flourishes most commonly associated with the harp.

There’s the occasional creepy music-box effect, eye-opening emphasis on basslines when they bubble toward the surface, and poignant pointillisms everywhere. If you’re one of the millions who have beens swept away by the Goldberg Variations over the years, this album will significantly deepen your appreciation of their beauty as well as the challenges they pose for those who play them.

September 18, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare, Fascinating Program of String Quartet Music by African-American Composers at Bryant Park

Every year, this blog (and its predecessor) has chosen both a Brooklyn and Manhattan space as best venue of the year for each borough. In 2018, not wanting to settle for the obvious (i.e. Carnegie Hall and the Village Vanguard) and frustrated by the closure of so many small clubs, the pick for best Manhattan venue went to Bryant Park. Home to an annual, multi-night accordion festival as well as plenty of jazz festivals, chamber music and global sounds over the years, the space had earned it. In a long-awaited and highly auspicious return to live classical music there last night, a quartet featuring members of the American Symphony Orchestra played a rich, rare mix of music by African-American composers.

They opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Spirituals For String Quartet, which quickly took on a gently benedictory ambience as the four musicians joined in unison in a lullaby theme. Cellist Alberto Parrini gave it a delicate pizzicato pulse, the group rising to distantly blues-tinged variations over an increasingly vibrant, dancing drive.

Violinist Phillip Payton, who’d put together this fascinating program, played first chair for that one and then switched positions with the ASO’s concertmaster, Cyrus Beroukhim for Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 piece Voodoo Dolls. Parrini and first-chair ASO violist William Frampton dug in with their bandmates for a recurrently grim, staccato pedalpoint, akin to Julia Wolfe at her bluesiest. Bracingly glissandoing chords set off a suspenseful lull, then the group bowed hard and swooped through the finale. Payton made no secret of how much he loved that piece: it was the big hit of the night with the audience, a relatively sparse but raptly attentive crowd of maybe sixty people scattered across the space behind the library.

Next on the bill were movements one, three and four of Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. The quartet matter-of-factly worked steady, Mozartean exchanges as the music shifted from a pensive, old-world minor-key theme to a more warmly enveloping atmosphere that seemed to draw as much on the French Romantics (Faure most noticeably) as the African-American gospel tradition.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as Payton explained, bridged a lot of genres. He played in Max Roach’s jazz group and later arranged for Marvin Gaye. His String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary, ” contained “A lot of notes we’re not expected to play,” Payton grinned,, “Very jazzy harmonies!” He wasn’t kidding. Steady, rapidly strolling bluesiness quickly receded for more chromatic, brooding passages, like Bartok at his most unadorned. From there the ensemble followed a counterintuitive downward arc, from shivery counterpoint, a tease of a big swell and then crepuscular, flickering pianissimo textures that gently filtered away. The final movement, with its wickedly catchy cello lines, delivered a triumphant, anthemic payoff.

Trevor Weston’s Juba for String Quartet, the newest piece on the bill, seemed to be a study in how far from the blues a series of variations can go. In this group’s hands, that meant pretty far, and involving some extended technique, but also not so far that the center was lost. Terse, spare riffs were spun through a kaleidoscope and then back, through numerous dynamic shifts and ghostly harmonics.

William Grant Still’s first symphony, Payton explained, was in its time the most-played orchestral work by an American composer. His three-movement Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends), from 1960, was the final piece on the bill. The composer’s eclecticism was front and center here, more than alluding to Romany swing after a fondly Romantic song without words to open the triptych, later finding common ground between Indian carnatic music and the blues. Quasi-microtonal flickers added depth to the incisively minor-key, jubilantly emphatic conclusion and its coyly Beethoven-ish series of false endings.

The quartet encored with Price’s heartwarmingly familiar variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The organizers behind the music at Bryant Park seem to be determined to help this city get back to normal; their long-running series of solo shows on the park’s electric piano continues on several weekdays into next month. This string quartet return there on Sept 21 at 5:30 PM with a program including works by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota.

September 15, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organ Adventurer Gail Archer Rescues Rare Ukrainian Works From Obscurity

Organist Gail Archer is the first American woman to perform the complete Messiaen cycle. Witnessing her play some of the best of it on the mighty Kilgen organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral back in 2008 was a visceral thrill. But Archer’s passion seems to be rescuing the work of obscure composers. In the ensuing years, she turned her attention to American composers, then to little-known Russian works. Her latest album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – streaming at Spotify – celebrates an even lesser-known part of the repertoire.

While just about every Western European city is filled with pipe organs, the instrument is much harder to find in Russia and even more so in Ukraine. But Archer went to the well and came up with a fascinating playlist of mostly short works, the majority by contemporary composers. Interestingly, she had to go outside the Russian Orthodox tradition for the organ she performs on here, a Riegger-Kloss model in the Armenian Catholic Church in Chernivtsi with particularly strong, French midrange colors.

The first piece is Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare: Archer plays this decidedly ambiguous piece with steadiness but also restraint, rather than trying to make it a fullscale celebration, which it definitely is not. The second Kotyuk work here is Benedictus: Song of Zachariah. It’s an interesting piece of music, beginning as a similarly enigmatic fanfare and warming to a chuffing rondo requiring precision as pointillistic as it can possibly get on this instrument: Archer rises to the challenge.

Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements begins with a rhythmically dissociative introduction with prominent pedal work, grows steadier with a more airy, meditative midrange passage and then morphs into a pavane. Archer follows the brief, robust processional third part with more of a defiantly unresolved fugue, with some lusciously austere tremolo. She wraps it up with a brief, emphatic chorale and some well thought-out echo effects: this obviouly isn’t just a piano piece shifted to the organ, as one might expect coming from this part of the world.

The Fantasia, by Viktor Goncharenko echoes the off-kilter rhythms of the album’s opening piece, but with many more stops out, at least until a rather desolate passage and then a coolly insistent conclusion. Mykola Kolessa, who died in 2006 at age 103, is represented by an allusively chromatic, waltzing, artfully crescendoing and often outright suspenseful Passacaglia: what a discovery!

Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona makes a good segue, a blend of swirling old-world grace and modern austerity. Archer closes with Iwan Kryschanowskij’s hauntingly symphonic Fantasie, its variations on stairstepping riffage and a long build to macabre resonance. Although the music calms, the theme continues to circle around a foreboding center until an anthemic variation on the introduction. At last, Archer takes those steps all the way down into the abyss, only to rise to a guarded triumph.

Until the lockdown, Archer maintained a busy schedule not only as a performer but also as an impresario. And she’s taking the brave step of scheduling an album release concert for this record at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. at 1st Ave. on Sept 19 at 3 PM; admission is free.

September 12, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Subtly Harrowing, Incredibly Timely Musical Parable From David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford

In the west, extrasensory perception has typically been associated with women. Those believed to be clairvoyant were typically shunned or banished….or worse. Among women in Europe in the Middle Ages who weren’t gruesomely murdered for ostensibly possessing a well-developed sixth sense, one option was to be walled up inside a church. Townspeople could come and consult the mystic through a small window, her only connection with the outside world. In their new cantata The Anchoress – streaming at youtube – composer David Serkin Ludwig and poet Katie Ford relate an incredibly timely and understatedly disturbing narrative about one woman so confined.

In the title role, soprano Hyunah Yu demonstrates as much remarkable clarity as range: she’s not one to let the challenges of hitting the notes get in the way of telling a story. Behind her, the looming resonance and mysterious microtones of saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet contrast with the lively flurries of Renaissance ensemble Piffaro. Informed by minimalism and spectral music as much as the baroque works he frequently quotes here, Ludwig’s themes are dynamic and dramatic if usually on the quiet side.

Priscilla Herreid‘s dancing, leaping, occasionally shrieking recorder is a persistent contrast with the sustained clouds of massed saxes. Terror is more of an omnipresent threat than actually front and center, for the most part, although when it is Yu and the ensembles make that ineluctably clear. Ford’s tale begins as Yu’s stricken narrator starts to come to grips with the prospect of never again being part of the outside world. It ends as you would expect, considering the circumstances. Some details are left to the listener to fil in, because Ford has built ommissions into the text, as if it had been censored, in “A time of great mortality.”

A theft, an injury while making an escape, and an angry mob are involved, or at least alluded to, through sudden swoops and dives over a more-or-less persistent calm. Ludwig and Ford wrote this before the lockdown, so this isn’t specifically a parable of the perils of being unmasked in a world of psycho maskers. But it’s hardly a stretch to read it that way.

After the story has run its course, the ensembles conclude with an instrumental triptych: puffing winds in contrast with stillness, a cantabile Debussy-esque interlude and an increasingly ghostly conclusion. As accessible and profoundly relevant as this is, it should reach an audience far beyond the avant garde.

September 10, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cellist Hee-Young Lim Channels the Highest of the High Romantic

Cellist Hee-Young Lim‘s new album Russian Elegie with pianist Natalia Milstein – streaming at Spotify – is as evocative as you could possibly want from a collection of some of the most gorgeously emotional music ever written. Yet the two don’t overdo it. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s performances of his own work had a remarkable restraint, and the two seem to base their interpretations on that model.

They start with the iconic Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G minor: brief plaintive exchanges, a hint of gospel, bustling piano and a melody very close to the quiet section of the famous G minor prelude, also more than hinting at the Piano Concerto No. 2’s more scampering riffage. There are striking contrasts between the glitter and energy of the piano and the cello’s brooding cantabile, and a welcome, understatement when the music calms, in contrast with Lim’s vigorous pizzicato in places.

There’s a devious noir cabaret energy to the second movement, but the gentle High Romantic ballad at the center is completely straightforward and gives both musicians some of their most vividly expressive moments. The same rings true with the lingering, nocturnal third movement, a rare love song that isn’t mawkish or cliched. By contrast, they really nail the conclusion’s symphonic grandeur yet draw the listener in with the stunning intimacy of the next-to-last theme, one of the most unselfconsciously beautiful moments in the entire classical canon.

Next on the bill is Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major. It’s more enigmatic and maybe for that reason the duo approach the first couple of movements more emphatically and vigorously, particularly in Lim’s ferocious pizzicato chords and the second’s triumphant, bell-like false ending. The coyly carnivalesque third movement is irresistbly funny in these two’s hands; the majesty that follows comes as quite a surprise, as does the wistfulness in the final movement.

They close the album with an especially lithe interpretation of Vocalise, another iconic Rachmaninoff piece. It seems a little on the fast side, which actually works out well considering the duo’s light-fingered, remarkably subtle approach, sidestepping weepiness for a very matter-of-fact delivery. How lucky listeners are if they discover this repertoire via this particular album.

September 9, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Live Music at Lincoln Center Again: #exhale?

What a beautiful, heartwarming experience it was to be walking past Lincoln Center in the early evening of August 7, right at the moment when a fifteen-piece brass ensemble was premiering a newly commissioned Anthony Barfield piece.

That’s not to imply that there hasn’t been plenty of live music all over New York during the lockdown. But lately a lot of it is restaurant gigs. On one hand, it’s great to see musicians being able to get at least a little paying work. But there’s no need for reportage on background music that hungry crowds with cabin fever are bound to talk over.

And much of the rest has been been fraught with anxiety. What if somebody on the invite list is a collaborator? Are we being too loud and obvious? Are we going to end up in some hideous new Auschwitz somewhere in the wilds of Arkansas if a sinister, nameless squad in riot gear shows up and catches us sitting a comfortable two or three feet from one another? The Afghani people dealt with issues like that under the Taliban. A wide swath of population from the Black Sea to the Danube dealt with similar situations under the Ottomans. Who knew that we ever would under Cuomo.

Which is why Barfield’s brand-new Invictus – latin for “unconquered” – was so uplifting to witness. He’d obviously sussed out the sonics on the Lincoln Center plaza to maximize the natural reverb that bounces off the opera house and back past the fountain, the musicians spaced at least ten feet apart in a semi-ellipse. The work itself is a guardedly optimistic, circular series of variations on a catchy three-note riff, with more than an echo of Philip Glass. The group played it twice, with some impromptu rehearsing in between. You can watch the final take at Lincoln Center’s streaming page. Introducing it, the composer explains that it reflects both the hope of the Black Lives Matter protests as well as the grim uncertainty of the lockdown.

Looking toward the center of the campus from the street, was that New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi in the hat? Actually not. The group, a mix drawing from several Lincoln Center ensembles, played with dignity and seamlessness. Hats off to trumpeters Marcus Printup, Marshall Kearse, Raymond Riccomini, Christopher Martin, Neil Balm and Thomas Smith; trombonists John Romero, Colin Williams, David Finlayson, Dion Tucker and Zachary Neikens, horn players Anne Scharer, Richard Deane and Dan Wions, and tuba player Christopher Hall.

There’s likely to be more like this in the weeks to come; you will probably have to be in the neighborhood to catch it live. And the Philharmonic are sending a truck featuring various small groups around the five boroughs for impromptu performances. They’re not disclosing where they’ll be for fear of drawing crowds. If such a beloved and life-affirming institution as the New York Philharmonic are that worried, you know we’d better be too.

September 2, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tireless Pianist Howard Shelley Resurrects a Pair of Brilliant Obscurities

If brilliant, overlooked High Romantic classical music is your thing, you could spend a large proportion of your life getting lost in Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series. Over a grand total of eighty releases, they’ve resurrected many lesser-known works which are every bit as memorable as the famous pieces that get played over and over again in classical halls around the world (or used to get played there, before the lockdown, anyway). Much of this music falls into the haunted-castle-in-a-thunderstorm category, which is an accurate if overly reductionistic way to describe the latest edition in the series, Volume 80 – which hasn’t hit any of the usual online spots yet – where pianist Howard Shelley does double duty conducting the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen in a couple of obscure treasures by Belgian composers Auguste Dupont and Peter Benoit.

The first piece is Dupont’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in F Minor, which the composer debuted in 1882. Beethovenesque bluster contrasts with proto-Rachmaninovian glitter and some genuinely stunning, bittersweetly cantabile tunesmithing in the first movement: it’s shocking that this music isn’t better known.

Likewise, the hush of the horns and strings versus Shelley’s moody forward drive in the rather reserved, nocturnal second movement is particularly striking. His romping, ascending phrases and cascades take centerstage in the triumphant concluding movement, whose counterpoint looks straight back to Beethoven.

Benoit was an early advocate for Flemish music. His darkly colorful mid-1860s Symphonic Poem, Op 43 is a tableau centered around the ruins of a castle in the composer’s hometown of Harelbeke.

On one level, it’s amusing to see how the composer – a pianist, no less – will cap off one crescendo after another with extended trills rather than the kind of virtuosic cadenzas you expect in this kind of music. Which explains why, in the late 1890s, pianist Arthur De Greef came up with his own arrangement to beef it up. For the record, Shelley and the orchestra play the original Benoit score.

A simple, stalking pizzicato riff from the cellos sets up the first variations on the starkly vivid initial folk-inspired theme. As the music warms, grows more stately and heroic, it prefigures Dvorak at his most dramatic. Listen closely to the slow, hushed introduction to the “Bardic Song” of a second movement and you’ll hear a wistful folk ballad, which Shelley and the ensemble shift elegantly to memorably, anthemic Romantic longing.

The finale is particularly interesting since the piano is so strongly present in the foreground in the initial exchanges with the orchestra, really keeping their distance here. Numerous fleetingly unexpected figures leap from the ensemble; there’s also a strange moment about two minutes in where the composer may have made a mistake and forgot to go back and tweak the harmonies. The phantasmagoria as the piece reaches the end is a long-awaited payoff.

September 1, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rare, Individualistic Indian-Inspired World Premieres from the ARC Ensemble

In recent years the ARC Ensemble have made an extraordinary commitment to rescuing the works of relatively unknown but brilliant Jewish composers from obscurity. The latest in their series is the world premiere recording of Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann, streaming at Spotify. Kaufmann, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1907, fled Prague for the seemingly unusual destination of Mumbai in 1933, just ahead of the Nazis.

The choice of Mumbai was more than just an attempt to find a safe haven: as a student, Kaufmann had fallen in love with Indian music, and that passion would eventually lead him to become one of the foremost European-born authorities on it. After almost a century, his 1936 violin piece based on Raga Shivaranjani remains Air India’s main theme.

This fearlessly individualistic album features string quartets as well as pieces for smaller and larger ensembles (Kaufmann also wrote symphonies and operatic works), all composed during Kaufmann’s time in India. The first work here, played by violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe, is the String Quartet No. 11. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before. A somber cello drone anchors an enigmatic, whole-tone-centric raga melody that the quartet take dancing in the brief, five-minute opening movement.

The searching quality of the second movement is visceral; the wistfulness afterward evokes both Indian and Celtic music. The four musicians follow the warmly fleeting third movement to a triumphantly strutting coda.

Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat open the Sonata No. 2, Op. 44 for Violin and Piano in the poignant netherworld where carnatic music meets the blues scale, and follow a much livelier tangent: listening to the tracks here in sequence, it becomes clear that Kaufmann doesn’t like to stay in one place very long. Ahfat’s motives ring sparely and spaciously behind Raum’s lyricism in the second movement; the two pick up the pace to bring the piece full circle.

String Quartet No. 7 is basically a raga for strings. It begins lustrously and more chromatically charged, with an uneasily bustling sway and clever echo effects that add unexpected Iranian flavor. The contrast between somber foreshadowing and shivery intensity in the second movement is intense; the stark third movement brings to mind Bartok if he had taken his recording rig across the Indian Ocean instead of the Mediterranean. The group wind it up with a jaunty, acerbic final two movements that Kaufmann manages to wrap up in one big, bouncy ball.

Ahfat and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas play a clarinet arrangement of the Sonatina No. 12  for Violin and Piano, its broodingly hypnotic ambience punctuated by eerie chimes and more than a distant shadow of klezmer music. The two hit an unexpected romp and ending with a pastorale that’s the most distinctly European interlude here.

Violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join Ahfat and the string quartet for the album’s concluding work, the Septet for Three Violins, Viola, Two Cellos, and Piano. Rimsky-Korsakovian glitter and phantasmagoria pulse through its dynamic shifts, the strings serving as rhythm section much of the time.

Kaufmann was an interesting guy, but sadly his early success in Europe did not springboard the same kind of acclaim elsewhere, and his father and many relatives were murdered by the Nazis. He composed for Bollywood and the radio; became the first conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony (and drew an impressive amount of European talent there); played piano alongside a promising violinist named Albert Einstein; and ended his career at the University of Indiana. Fans of pioneering cross-pollinators like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, and innovative violinists like Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu, will love this music.

August 28, 2020 Posted by | classical music, indian music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Niv Ashkenazi’s Lyrical Debut Album Celebrates Obscure Composers Imperiled or Murdered During the Holocaust

On a musical level alone, Niv Ashkenazi’s debut album Violins of Hope with pianist Matthew Graybil – streaming at Spotify – is a work of extraordinary beauty that reflects the vast scope of Jewish music throughout history. The backstory is even more inspiring. On one hand, this is a collection of both virtually unknown and relatively obscure repertoire by Jewish composers who were either driven from their homes or murdered during the Holocaust, along with a couple of famous pieces from the classical and film music canons.

Ashkenazi’s axe is one of dozens of violins played by Jews during the Holocaust, rescued by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein and detailed in James A. Grymes’ book, which shares its title with this album. This particular European model, crafted sometime between 1900 and 1929, has a remarkably warm tone and a Star of David inlay in mother of pearl on the body. It may have been played in the death camps, or one of the ghettos: no one knows for sure. The purpose of the project, and this album, is to return both the music and these instruments to their rightful place in our culture.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade, a song without words, is the cellist-composer’s only surviving work. Graybil’s lightly acerbic staccato and Ashkenazi’s aching lyricism echo both Schubert and Rachmaninoff. Dauber – son of jazz violinist Dolf Dauber – wrote it while imprisoned at Terezin. He died in captivity at Dachau in 1945.

Ernest Bloch’s 1923 Nigun features Ashkenazi soaring, spiraling and trilling against a drone over Graybil’s alternately hypnotic and rippling chromatics, a theme and variations on a gorgeous, dramatic medieval cantorial melody. John Williams well-known, klezmer-inspired Theme from Schindler’s List gets apt contrast between Graybil’s austere piano and Ashkenazi’s wounded, almost imploring intensity.

Julius Chajes’ 1939 piece The Chassid slowly rises to a triumphant strut in the Middle Easter-tinged freygish mode, the composer obviously inspired by the short time he spent in exile in the Holy Land before settling in Detroit.

Rising from hypnotic minimalism to a vigorous, neoromantic peak, contemporary composer Sharon Farber’s Bestemming: Triumph celebrates Dutch Resistance hero Curt Lowens, who saved not only scores of Jews but also a pair of downed American airmen during the war. The composer joins Graybil at the keys; Tony Campisi speaks Lowens’ own words, watching the survivors make their escape.

Szymon Laks’ resolute spirit shines through in his 1935 work Trois Pièces de Concert. The composer and Holocaust hero saved several of his fellow musicians from death at Auschwitz, survived the death camp and continued his career after he was liberated. Here the duo shift from a carefree baroque dance to unexpectedly marionettish riffage, a balmy barcarolle, and a lively conclusion which comes across as an update on Corelli.

The Ukrainian-born George Perlman taught violin in Chicago until his death at 103. His 1929 Dance of the Rebbitzen is a beautifully lilting miniature in freygish mode. As its title implies, pioneering Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s tenderly waltzing 1945 Berceuse Sfaradite looks back to Sephardic traditions.

The well-known classical number here is Kaddish, from Ravel’s Deux Melodies Hebraïques, in a terse, crystalline 1924 arrangement by Lucien Garban. The duo conclude the album with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words, a partita from 1952. They follow a steady upward trajectory through the brooding opening pavane, to a similarly wary Ballad and conclude with a Sephardic Melody that echoes the composer’s early immersion in European neoromanticism.

August 23, 2020 Posted by | Art, classical music, klezmer, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment