Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Salute a Beloved, Tireless Champion of Classical Music in This City

Beethoven was just about to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon, but then Napoleon got too big for his britches, crowned himself emperor…and missed his chance to have a Beethoven symphony named in his honor. Last night at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s sold-out performance in the Lincoln Center complex, conductor Barbara Yahr dismissed the speculation of what unnamed “great man” the composer actually dedicated the mighty piece to after Napoleon went over to the dark side. “I’ve decided that it’s for the greatness in every one of us,” Yahr intimated, and with that, dedicated this concert to the orchestra’s late cellist and longtime publicist Trudy Goldstein.

We lost Trudy a couple of months ago. She insisted that the shoulder problems that brought an end to her performing career were caused by years of tuning cellos for her school students: she was that dedicated. Publicly, she was always first in line to champion young performers. Privately, she lamented the Sovietization and one-size-fits-all approach that’s become so commonplace in music education. Ever the individualist, Trudy wanted everybody to be themselves.

Where an awful lot of people on the business end of classical music tend to be stuffy and stand on ceremony, Trudy was a bon vivant. Her beaming smile, big hugs, unselfconsciously down-to-earth personality and infectious enthusiasm won her a wide circle of friends, but also paid dividends in terms of growing the fan base.

Big-hearted, determined and generous to a fault, Trudy’s biggest dream was to share the transcendence and thrills she’d experienced in a lifetime in classical music. She listened widely and voraciously: she was always up for hearing a new idea or interpretation. She loved everything oldschool about her city: diners, neighborhoods holding their own against an onslaught of gentrification, traipsing all over Chinatown and Greenpoint with her husband Sidney, an erudite and passionate devotee of jazz and fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. In her own sweet way, Trudy was a potent influence on an awful lot of people over the years, one of the real unsung heroes of classical music in New York in the late 20th and early 21st century. She is dearly missed.

She would have loved what the orchestra did with Beethoven this time out. His symphonies are all about punchy, catchy hooks and this might be the hookiest and punchiest of all of them. The constant rhythmic shifts are daunting, but the group negotiated these mini-mazes with a seamless grace. And this wasn’t a steamrolling performance: it was a translucent, nuanced one. The way Yahr held the orchestra in check through a deadpan, winking interpretation of the scherzo, where Beethoven is saying, “What on earth are we doing, getting our underwear all up in a knot over this guy,” was almost devastatingly funny. Likewise, the triumph of the coda was more ballet than ballroom blitz. There are some new faces in the brass section, crisp and clear and on their game. Let’s hope they stick around.

As good as that was, the Sibelius Violin Concerto was arguably even better, in context a requiem that packed a wallop. What a haunting tale this one told. Soloist Tosca Opdam painted a harrowing portrait of inconsolable sadness with her angst-fueled shivers, austere grey-sky harmonics and mournful cadenzas as the basses and timpani fluttered through the gloom below. And oboeist Jason Smoller hit a bullseye with his silky solo in a boisterous take of the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture to open the night.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s season last year was ambitious to the extreme, the centerpiece being Beethoven’s Ninth. This year is all about relevance and some heavy issues we’ve all had to deal with since last November. Their next concert is on December 2 at 7:30 PM, back at Good Shepherd/Faith Presbyterian Church at 52 W 66th St with Rachmaninoff’s poignant Vocalise, Michael Daughterty’s explosively kinetic Raise the Roof and Shostakovich’s savagely anti-fascist Symphony No. 10. Tix are $20/$10 stud/srs and considering that last night sold out, this concert probably will too.

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October 22, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colin Stetson Hauntingly Reinvents an Iconic Eulogy For the Victims of Genocide

What’s more Halloweenish than the arguably most evil event in human history? Friday night at the World Financial Center, saxophonist Colin Stetson led a twelve-piece jazz orchestra through his inventive, intensely immersive original arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s third Symphony, better known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” The Polish composer dedicated it to victims of the Holocaust and World War II; the 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw remains one of the very last classical recordings to sell a million copies worldwide.

Stetson pointedly remarked before the show that he’d remained true Gorecki’s original melodies, beyond extending or sustaining certain climactic passages, “Amplified for these times.” That ominousness rang especially true right from the start. The main themes are a solemn processional and a round of sorts, both of which rose to several mighty crescendos that were far louder than anything Gorecki ever could have imagined.

Spinning his axes – first a rumbling contrabass clarinet, then his signature bass sax and finally an alto – through a pedalboard along with his looming vocalese, Stetson anchored the dense sonic cloud. Bolstering the low end on multi-saxes and clarinets were Matt Bauder (of darkly brilliant, psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things) and Dan Bennett, along with cellist Rebecca Foon and synth players Justin Walter and Shahzad Ismaily. Violinists Amanda Lo and Caleb Burhans were charged with Gorecki’s most ethereal tonalities, while guitarists Grey Mcmurray and Ryan Ferreira got a serious workout, tirelessly chopping at their strings with endless volleys of tremolo-picking. It’s amazing that everybody got through this without breaking strings.

The addition of Greg Fox on drums resulted in an unexpected, sometimes Shostakovian satirical feel, adding a twisted faux-vaudevillian edge to a section of the second movement. Stetson’s sister Megan ably took charge of the Upshaw role with her dramatic but nuanced arioso vocal stylings. After the smoke had risen and fallen and risen again across the battlefield, the air finally cleared, an apt return to the stillness and meditative quality of the original score, matching the guarded optimism of the ending as much as the group had channeled the grief and muted anguish of the rest of the work. One suspects the composer – who toiled under a repressive Iron Curtain regime for much of his life – would have approved.

You’ll be able to hear this when the performance airs on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live on WNYC, most likely early in November.

October 17, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting One of the Most Haunting String Quartets of Recent Years

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. Hersch takes his inspiration from Michael Mazur’s 1960s series of etchings of grimacing, contorted, sometimes catatonic patients in a Rhode Island mental institution, lost in perpetuity in their own worlds. In a particularly tragic footnote, just when Hersch had finished his own sketches for this work and reached out to his old artist pal, Mazur died. So there’s a doubly elegaic quality to this music.

It’s very slow and ghostly in the purest sense of the word. Stark sheets shift and then evoke sudden and persistent horror, grounded by Felix Wang’s cello – Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 7 is a persistent reference point. A gentle, graceful dance brings a moment of nostalgia, only to fade mournfully toward black, awash in eerie close harmonies.

Moments where individual voices – Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard’s violins and John Kochanowski’s viola – enter or pair off outnumber passages where the whole quartet is in slow, ineluctably grim motion. Microtonal fragments flicker and then disappear just as suddenly. But when the quartet are going full steam, particularly through a surreal, phantasmagorical, cruelly ironic march before the final clouds descend, the effect is hair-raising.  That sense is amplified by Mazur’s drawings, several of them included in the cd booklet.

Innova Records still has this available, and it’s up at Spotify.

October 11, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Momenta Quartet’s Marathon Week Just Won’t Stop

If you’re regretting that you missed the Momenta Quartet’s marathon four-day festival that wound up last night, wait – there’s more! The indomitable string quartet are playing an all-Ursula Mamlok program to accompany Miro Magloire’s New Chamber Ballet performing Stray Bird, a tribute to the pioneering 20th century composer, tonight, Oct 5 and tomorrow night, Oct 6 at 7 PM. It’s happening at the German Academy New York, 1014 5th Ave. (between 82nd & 83rd Sts), and it’s free; an rsvp would be a good idea.

This year’s third annual Momenta Festival started on Sunday night at a classy Lower East Side black-box theatre and wound up in a dingy old church on the Upper West. Consider: doesn’t that mirror the career trajectory of how many thousand acts to play this city? Seriously, though, last night’s program might have been the most electrifying of all four nights (this blog was AWOL for the first one).

If you’re new to this page, each member of the quartet programs a night of music for the festival. The finale fell to violinist Alex Shiozaki to sort out, and he packed it with three acerbic, often chilling microtonal works and a favorite from the early third-stream canon. The theme (these are all theme nights) was the creation of the world, but destruction also played a part, to the point of being the night’s riveting centerpiece and arguable high point of the entire festival. 

The quartet celebrated the work of Danish composer Per Norgard last year; this performance revisited that otherworldly intensity, with a dynamic, white-knuckle version of his World War I-themed String Quartet No. 8. Awash in microtones, halftones and pretty much anything but the western scale, it’s a showstopper, and the group negotiated its barbwire thicket of harmonics, glissandos, eerie oscillations and brooding, sometimes macabre tonalities with a matter-of-factness that made it look easy.

Cellist Michael Haas’ coolly precise pizzicato contrasted with starkness, violist Stephanie Griffin echoing that dynamic while first violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron sailed and dove alongside Shiozaki through the similarly edgy leaps and steady pulse of another microtonal work, Hiroya Miura’s Singularity. Then to open the second half, Shiozaki played Joao Pedro Oliviera’s similar Magma, interspersed with electronics (mostly echo and reverb effects) that didn’t get in the way but were ultimately pretty superfluous. In fact, leaving Shiozaki alone with its big cadenzas punctuated by plenty of space would have ramped up the suspense. It was akin to a Berio Sequenza distilled to its basic hooks.

Joined by Shiozaki’s wife, pianist Nana Shi, the group closed with a jaunty take of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, a counterpart to Gershwin with its juxtaposition of late Romantic and ragtime tunesmithing. Milhaud mentored Dave Brubeck, so it was no wonder this brought to mind the jazz piano titan’s later, larger-ensemble works. There’s a sudden point about three quarters of the way through where the strings all of a sudden go off the rails together into a whirl of trouble, and the group didn’t miss a beat. In its own way, that strange and rather assaultive interlude was as radical and defiantly thrilling as anything else on the bill.

October 5, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

This Year’s Momenta Festival, Installment Three: Fun Night!

Even by the rigorous standards of the string quartet world, the Momenta Quartet have to assimilate an enormous amount of material for their annual Manhattan festival. Never mind the kind of stylistic leaps and bounds that would drive most other groups to distraction. This year’s festivities conclude tonight with a free concert at 7 at West Park Church at 86th and Amsterdam put together by violinist Alex Shiozaki. The centerpiece is Per Norgard’s mesmerizingly dark String Quartet No. 8, and reportedly there will be free beer. But the music will be better than the beer. What’s better than free beer? Now you know.

Each member of this irrepressible quartet programs a single festival evening. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron was in charge of night one, which was reputedly challenging and entertaining – this blog wasn’t there. Night two, assembled by violist Stephanie Griffin, was harrowingly intense and had enormous political relevance. Last night’s bill at Columbia’s Italian Academy auditorium, devised by celist Michael Haas, was the fun night – although the fun promises to continue tonight as well.

Last night’s theme was a tourists-eye view of Italy. Haas took that idea from the evening’s one world premiere, Claude Baker’s absolutely delightful Years of Pilgrimage: Italy. Baker found his inspiration in Italian-themed works by Liszt, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky, and there were jarring episodes interpolating snippets of some of those themes throughout an otherwise distinctively 21st century work. It wasn’t the easiest, segue-wise, but it was riotously funny. Otherwise, the piece didn’t seem to have much to do with Italy, from austere, minimalist insistence, to all sorts of allusive, enigmatic ripples and rises, a daunting and uneasily captivating microtonal interlude, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek glissandos and other only slightly less ostentatious uses of extended technique. The group had a great time with it: every string quartet ought to play it.

The party ended on a high note with Tschaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the quartet bolstered by their former teachers Samuel Rhodes and Marcy Rosen on second viola and cello, respectively. It was an unabashedly joyous, conversational performance: to the extent that this music can swing, the group swung it, through beery, punchy Beethovenesque riffage bookended by familiar Russian gloom.

It was as if Tschaikovsky was reassuring himself that it was ok to cut loose and have some fun. And did he ever. That buffoonish brass fanfare midway through, transposed for strings – whose doublestops and rat-a-tat phrasing are brutally tough to play, by the way? Check. That ridiculous faux-tarantella at the end? Doublecheck. Otherwise, the group reveled in nifty exchanges of voices as the mood shifted back and forth.

They’d opened with Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which was more of a vehicle for individual members’ technical skill than anything else. Gendron spun silky filigrees while Haas and Shiozaki  provided elegant, precisely pulsing pizzicato alongside Griffin’s plaintive resonance. But ultimately, the piece – a late work based on Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice – didn’t really go anywhere. Obviously, the group can’t be faulted for the composer electing for a “this is what I look like when I’m sad” pose over genuine empathy. That the opera is based on the Thomas Mann novel explains a lot.

October 4, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stunning, Harrowing, Relevant Night at This Year’s Momenta Festival

Who says music for string quartet isn’t as relevant in the here and now as, say, hip-hop? Who says classically trained professional musicians can’t improvise with the best of them? Could there be a better concert for Halloween month than a program of works written in opposition to tyrants?

Yesterday evening’s second installment of this year’s Momenta Festival at the Americas Society answered those questions decisively.

The Momenta Quartet stages this annual festival at venues across New York. Over the past three years it’s come to be one of the most amazingly eclectic, never mind herculean, feats attempted by any chamber ensemble in this city. Each group member comes up with an individual program. Night one, assembled by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron, featured a theremin and playful projections to go along with the music – this blog was absent. Last night’s program, put together by violist Stephanie Griffin, was a harrowing, fearlessly political mix of works by Schoenberg, Alvin Singleton, Agustin Fernandez, and one made up on the spot. Tonight’s installment, with works by  Britten, Tschaikovsky and Claude Baker, follows an Italian theme which dovetails with the venue: the Italian Academy at Columbia, at Amsterdam and 116th. Celist Michael Haas came up with that one; violinist Alex Shiozaki takes responsibility for the final night, tomorrow at 7 at West Park Church at the corner of 86th and Amsterdam. Its centerpiece is Per Norgard’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8. Oh yeah – all these shows are free, although an rsvp would be a good idea.

Griffin’s program explored themes including the struggle against tyranny, hope for a more auspicious future, and also the failures and pitfalls of revolution. The quartet opened with Singleton’s Marian Anderson-inspired Somehow We Can, juxtaposing tightly synched, clenched-teeth staccato pedal notes with austere, wounded washes that eventually took on a similar if more muted insistence. With its relentless intensity, it foreshadowed the direction Julia Wolfe would be going about ten years later.

That Fernandez’s String Quartet No. 2 would not be anticlimactic attests to its relentless power, and the group’s forceful focus. Pulsing with deceptively catchy, allusive minor modes, the triptych is a portrait of the 1970 uprising in Teoponte, Bolivia, and also references an ancient Incan curse against the conquistadors. With some otherworldly, challenging extended-technique passages midway through – including a twistedly oscillating interlude for high harmonics – it was the highlight of the evening, if perhaps only because it was the longest piece.

Guest bassist Hilliard Greene provided a deep-river anchor for a lingering duo improvisation with Griffin on the theme of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, viola leading the way toward a resolution that the two eventually sidestepped. Joined by pianist Christopher Oldfather and Cuban rapper Telmary Diaz, the quartet closed with Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte. Over a tireless, viciously sarcastic bustle, Diaz delivered a witheringly unrelenting, knowing critique of a revolutionary who got too big for his britches, via conductor Sebastian Zubieta’s dynamite new Spanish translation of the Byronic lament. As one concertgoer remarked, it was a performance that resonated all the way to the White House – although the chance that Donald Trump speaks a language other than English is awfully unlikely.

What’s the takeaway from all this? That other ensembles should aspire to be as relevant; that the rest of the festival is just as promising, and that this city needs an Agustin Fernandez festival. Maybe the Momenta Quartet can arrange that.

October 3, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist David Greilsammer Plays a Brave, Impactful Program in an Uptown Crypt

Pianist David Greilsammer addressed an intimate Harlem crowd last night with the utmost seriousness. He took care to explain that he typically never introduces the music on the bill since he wants it to speak for itself.

But this was an unusual program. He pondered the viability of playing organ or harpsichord works on the piano. He addressed the need to reaffirm classical music’s relevance, to be true to how historically radical and transgressive much of it is. Perhaps most importantly, he asserted, a performer ought to put his or her heart and soul into the music rather than maintaining a chilly distance.

That close emotional attunement came into vivid focus with the uneasy, insistent poignancy and emphatic/lingering contrasts of Janacek’s suite On the Overgrown Path, which Greilsammer interpolated within segments of works by Froberger, Mozart, C.P.E. Bach, Jean-Fery Rebel and a moodily dynamic world premiere by Ofer Pelz. Greilsammer averred that he’d been inspired to do this by a nightmare where he found himself stuck in a labyrinth.

Was this shtick? He considered that question too. As he saw it, that’s a judgment call. Mashing up segments of various composers’ works isn’t a new concept, but it is a minefield. An ensemble at a major New York concert space took a stab at a similar program last year and failed, epically. By the audience reaction – a standing ovation in the rich, reverberating sonics of the crypt at the Church of the Intercession – Greilsammer earned a hard victory.

Just the idea of trying to wrangle less-than-awkward segues between the baroque and the modern sends up a big red flag. But Greilsammer pulled it off! At about the midpoint of Janacek’s surreal, disorienting nightmare gallery walk, there’s a wrathful, exasperated low-lefthand storm, and Greilsammer didn’t hold back. Likewise, Froberger’s notes to the performer are to deliver the stately grace of his Tombstone suite with as much rubato as possible, and the pianist did exactly that, with a similar if vastly more subtle wallop.

That piece bridged the gap to thoughtful, purposeful, considered takes of the unfolding layers of Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor and C.P.E. Bach’s Fantasy in F Sharp Minor. The Pelz premiere made an ominously lustrous centerpiece. It was only at the end, where each coda took its turn, that the feel of dominoes falling away crept in: maybe next time, one coda would be enough, considering how decisively each of these pieces ends. Thematically, it all made sense, pulling bits and pieces of one’s life together on a long, tortuous path that finally reached a triumphant clearing.

The concert’s organizers’ url is http://www.deathofclassical.com (they’re held in a church crypt, get it?). There’s also food and wine, a very generous supply, at these shows, conceived to dovetail with the music. A firecracker 2014 Galil Mountain Viognier, from Galilee, with its sparkle on the tongue and lingering scorched-butter burn at the end, was the highlight. An impressively diverse date-night crowd seemed as content with it as they were with the music.

September 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leann Osterkamp Plays One For the History Books at Steinway Hall

A major moment in the history of classical music in New York took place last night at Steinway Hall, where Leann Osterkamp gave a breathtaking and often breathless performance of Leonard Bernstein works for solo piano. Had such a program ever been staged in this city? Definitely not in the last thirty years, possibly never. There have been thousands of all-Bernstein programs performed here over the decades, and Bernstein conducted a handful of those from the piano. But beyond playing for his friends and family, it’s not clear if the composer himself ever gave a solo recital here.

Even Osterkamp, whose new Steinway album comprises all kinds of rare Bernstein solo works which she unearthed during some herculean research at the Library of Congress, couldn’t solve that mystery. If this was in fact a first, it was one worthy of the composer. As Nancy Garniez has asserted, a composer’s private works can be even more interesting than those written for public performance, and some of these pieces were exactly that. One of the most revealing numbers was written for his daughter Jamie, who was in the audience. On one hand, Osterkamp reveled in its lively, balletesque passages, but she also gave every considered ounce of gravitas to its knotty, pensively workmanlike explorations in Second Viennese School melodicism.

That lighthearted/rigorous dichotomy pervaded much of the rest of the material. Many of the pieces were miniatures, including a concluding set of five of Bernstein’s Seven Anniveraries. Osterkamp revealed how rather than being written with specific friends in mind, Bernstein had devised them as a suite of neo-baroque dance numbers: they’d been kicking around his “song junkyard” for years before the composer started doling them out as presents.

Much of the material on the album has never been previously recorded. Who knew that Bernstein wrote a piano sonata? That he could actually play its jackhammer staccato and whirlwind curlicues at age twenty is impressive, to say the least, and Osterkamp held up her end mightily. There’s also a lingering deep-sky passage in the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from the final movement of the Quartet For the End of Time.

Wait – Messiaen hadn’t written that yet. Which speaks to the astonishing range of idioms Bernstein had assimilated by that time. Was this juvenalia? In the sense that it’s gratuitously cross-genre and showoffy, sure. But it was also a rewarding glimpse into the young composer’s mindset.

The rest of the program followed suit, from enigmatic twelve-tone-ish romps that recalled Bernstein’s contemporary Vincent Persichetti, to the briefest flicker of West Side Story riffage that flashed by in what seemed like a nanosecond. Osterkamp couldn’t resist telling the crowd to keep their eyes open for that one.

She played the concert on a Spirio, Steinway’s analog player piano which can deliver both perfect playback of what’s just been played on it, as well as dynamically nuanced versions of the hours and hours of digital “rolls” available. She left it alone to recreate Bernstein’s own interpretation of Ravel while video of the actual performance, from Paris in the late 50s, played on the screen overhead. For pretty much everyone in the crowd, it was as close to seeing Bernstein himself playing solo onstage as we’ll ever get.

September 26, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis,  which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

September 21, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment