Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Turbulence with the Vijay Iyer Sextet at the Vanguard

Pianist Vijay Iyer and his sextet’s sold-out opening set of a weeklong stand at the Vanguard last night was an energetic yet saturnine suite – or a darkly glimmering jazz sonata. Iyer is not an ostentatious pianist: he makes his point, has some fun and then gets out, just like Thelonious Monk and Ellington before him would do. It’s a little early to enshrine Iyer alongside those two, but the esthetic is the same. His band provided alternately blustery and plaintive intensity throughout well over an hour and a half onstage. He’s back at the Vanguard tonight, July 17 through the 21st, with sets at 8:30 and around 10; cover is $35.

Other than band introductions, Iyer barely spoke to the audience, beyond asserting that he and the band stand against Trump’s bigotry and white supremacy, encouraging the crowd to keep fighting, since “The fight is far from over.” That’s the title of Iyer’s album with this crew, and he reminded everybody that it’s just as true today as when he released it back in 2017.

His gritty, sometimes grim modal focus contrasted with the turbulence of the horns. Tenor player Mark Shim began and ended the night crossing simmering, smoky terrain; in between, he soared and spiraled and chuffed in tandem with drummer Jeremy Dutton, the group’s junior member. A constantly recurring trope, the pairings of individual horns with  the full rhythm section, contrasted with Iyer’s relentlessness, sharply focused rhythm and hard-edged, often distantly latin-inflected melodicism.

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman built increasingly complex layers of hardbop, bouncing and even pogoing in place while Dutton distingushed himself as a connoisseur of New Orleans funk grooves. Graham Haynes played mournful wide-angle flugelhorn, switching to cornet for his more kinetic moments. Bassist Stephan Crump pulsed in tandem with Iyer, or, in one of the night’s most rapturous interludes, bowed sepulchral midrange wisps against the bandleader’s eerie belltone variations.

It was a night of innumerable transcendent moments, immersed in the sobering context of the here and now, where we have a bridge-and-tunnel ranter in the Oval Office whose hysterical antics only obscure the ongoing unraveling of the Constitution. The most rapturous of those musical moments was when Iyer worked extreme lows against extreme highs while Haynes built a shivery, Twin Peaks microtonal interlude on his flugelhorn. Likewise, Iyer’s clever shifts from refusenik low-register pedalpoint to increasingly tense, stabbing close harmonies while the horns blew clouds of steam. Every number segued into an other, Iyer seamlessly bridging the chasms between hard-swinging funk and distantly sinister majesty. As the pianist intimated, there’s no telling where the next set is going to go: they’re all different. And yet, they’ll all have singalong (or at least humalong) tunefulness balancing a persistent unease. No wonder the guy’s so popular.

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July 17, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epically Tuneful, Colorfully Cinematic Jazz from Linda May Han Oh and Her Killer Band at the Vanguard This Week

There was a point about midway through the first song of of bassist Linda May Han Oh’s first set last night at the Vanguard where tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel broke into a wide-mouthed grin, staring to his left. At that moment, guitarist Matt Stevens was perusing a gritty, spacious solo punctuated by several judicious pauses. What was he doing between phrases that had goosed Wendel so hard?

As it turned out, it was drummer Obed Calvaire’s long, leapfrogging, crescendoing polyrhythms that had grabbed him – and soon, pretty much everybody else within earshot. There were innumerable other “this is why we love jazz” moments throughout the night. She’s back there tonight, July 3 through 7, with sets at 8:30 and a little after 10; cover is $35 and worth it.

Oh has made waves in the past couple of years as sidewoman to the stars, but her own work is often her best, and this show was characteristic. When a band is having fun, that translates to the audience. Oh gives her crew – which also included her significant other, pianist Fabian Almazan, the not-so-secret weapon in this quintet – plenty to sink their teeth into. Like the best film and classical composers, she starts with the simplest materials – sometimes just a single-note rhythm – and subtly introduces variations that often go in completely unanticipated directions.

The most vivid showstopper of the night was a piece from a forthcoming film, portraying the moment when a young Brazilian woman is kidnapped into the sex trade. Oh’s wistful, insistent opening solo became considerably more plaintive the second time around, Almazan’s glittering chords elevated the constantly shifting ground to majestic heights, and the tropical milieu quickly took a backseat to a fond goodbye to happiness. As Oh saw it, this could have happened to anyone, anywhere.

The group opened with Blue Over Gold, a Rothko shout-out that built from a warily insistent, percussive bass phrase to a recurrent four-chord cluster punctuated by Wendel’s hardbop and finally Calvaire’s rumbling attack. Yoda, which Oh dedicated to her mentor of a sister (“She’s a lot prettier,” the composer grinned) began with even more tightly wound, syncopated, minimalist bass and rose to punchy heights on the waves of Almazan’s piano.

While she played most of the set on her usual upright model, Oh also pulled a beautiful, full tone from her Fender on a couple of numbers, especially when playing chords. It was a welcome change from the legions of slap-happy funkpapa cliche-heads playing Weather Report covers and such a few blocks south on Bleecker. It was also rewarding to see how much more she’s singing: her soaring vocalese compares with another rising star string player, guitarist Camila Meza.

The night’s funniest tune was Speech Impediment, a winsomely persistent portrait of a stuttering dude who nonetheless finds a way to get the girl. Wendel got the funniest arrythmic bits, but both the bandleader and Calvaire were close behind, with a deadpan wit that brought to mind the Dutch clown prince of jazz, Misha Mengelberg. They returned to close the set on a more acerbically kinetic note. Oh has grown significantly as a writer over the past few years, to become one of the most consistently interesting bassist-composers around; you should see her.

July 3, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

¿Que Vola? Put a New Spin on an Ancient Party Tradition at Lincoln Center

Saturday night, Lincoln Center was hopping with Afro-Latin sounds. Out back in the park, Los Hacheros said the hell with the threat of rain and gave the dancers a fiery launching pad for some serious moves. A couple of blocks to the south, winding up their debut US tour at Dizzy’s Club, ¿Que Vola? offered another direction for those ancient beats.

They’re a big, brassy newschool jazz group turbocharged by the whirlwind rhythms of three percussionists from Cuban ensemble the Osain del Monte Orchestra. One suspects that the trio are equally skilled at a brain-warping number of beats; at this show, their roles seemed clearly defined. Adonis Panter Calderon, seated in the middle, was the Secretary of Entertainment with his machinegunning flurries and live-wire crescendos, getting up at the end of the set to do a ritual dance as a shout-out to ancient spirits from the African motherland. To his left, Ramon Tamayo Martinez came across as the salsa maestro; to his right, Barbaro Crespo Richard served as a sort of bass player, holding down the center when things got crazy. And they did.

That didn’t seem to be the case as the group opened with massed, minimalist horns over a subtly shapeshifting intertwine of grooves. Until the individual voices loosened and solos began to appear, the sound was closer to indie classical than jazz. The rest of the night ranged between loosely contiguous Afrobeat and what sounded like boisterous old Yoruba shout-and-response chants transcribed for jazz instrumentation.

The biggest hits with the crowd were the percussion interludes. The three beatmasters played mostly on congas, shifting to the double-barreled bata for extra boom during one lengthy number. Martinez also had a cajon which he used sparingly. Meanwhile, bassist Thibaud Soulas played with the punch and stamina of a percussionist, running circular phrases over and over and taking the occasional stairstepping climb. Drummer Elie Duris was also having a great time using his rims and hardware for extra click and crash amid the booming torrent.

Alto saxophonist Benjamin Dousteyssier – one of several members associated with the French Orchestre National de Jazz – dazzled the crowd with his silvery, slithery glissandos and arpeggios. Tenor player Hugues Mayot and trumpeter Aymeric Avice shifted between incisive postbop and sometimes airy, sometimes turbulent Afrobeat. Behind them, electric pianist Bruno Rude’s Rhodes bubbled and rippled like a vibraphonist. With so many tightly interwoven rhythms bursting out from every corner of the band, it only made sense that he’d want to join the party.

July 3, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oliver Beer Repurposes Ancient Artifacts For His Brand New Sound Installation at the Met Breuer

Oliver Beer placed microphones inside a large assortment of bowls and vessels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections to find out what musical pitches they resonated to.

Then he assembled an organ out of them.

If those artifacts were to be auctioned off, it would be the world’s most expensive electric organ. Beer calls it the Vessel Orchestra, and the installation is on display at the Met Breuer starting today, July 2 through August 11. The way it works is that the mic inside each artifact is patched into an individual channel on a simple analog mixing board, and activated by a specific key on an electronic keyboard. Each object was chosen for its ability to resonate a single, perfect pitch in the western scale. Every day, the “orchestra” will play a simple, peaceful, preprogrammed melody by Beer. But the result will be different each time.

For one, there’s going to be bleed and quite possibly feedback from the mics, which will vary according to the level of crowd noise in the somewhat boomy, sonically uninsulated fifth-floor space. And as singer Helga Davis demonstrated yesterday (and encouraged the crowd to join her), singers who project loudly enough will hear their own voices joining the misty hum…or the looming swells of sound.

In addition, many musicians have been invited to play their own works on Beer’s creation, and experiment with it on Friday evenings. Only a portion of the schedule has been announced; it should fill up soon, and impromptu performances – beyond patrons of the museum raising their voices to be heard – seem likely. Some extraordinary and adventurous talent is already on the bill. Indian singer Roopa Mahadevan with her Women’s Raga Massive bandmates Trina Basu on violin, Amali Premawardhana on cello and Roshni Samlal on tabla will be there on July 26 at 6:30. On August 9 at 6:15, John Zorn will be joined by singer Sara Serpa – whose softly enveloping, crystalline voice is ideal for this configuration – along with percussionists Sae Hashimoto, Kenny Wollesen and Ikue Mori.

The objets d’art are a mixed bag, to say the least. At one end, there’s a 19th century German cast metal vessel in the shape of a bull, who at first glance seems to be decapitated. A closer look reveals that his head is the lid. At the other, there’s a goofy, pink, hollow phallic object: Italian artist Ettore Sottsass’ 1973 Shiva Vase, modeled after classical Indian iconography. In between them are containers in metal, wood, clay and ceramic from across the centuries and around the world. In a stroke of considerable irony, some of the most ancient and also most resonant objects are from Iran, whose musical tradition doesn’t utilize the western scale.

Beer’s creation is cross-cultural and cross-generational in the purest sense of the word – and by repurposing these objects, casts them in a completely new light. In addition, one of the museum staff quipped that his installation has brought a new sense of harmony to the Met’s famously territorial curators, many of whose collections Beer sampled and eventually plundered while piecing together this unlikely, magical instrument.

July 2, 2019 Posted by | Art, avant garde music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mise-En Festival; Arguably 2019’s Best New Music Marathon

There are several annual festivals dedicated to new orchestral and chamber music in New York, but no organization casts a wider net than Ensemble Mise-En. Over the past few years, they’ve championed some of the best obscure composers from around the world and resurrected others whose work has been undeservedly forgotten. Last night at Scandinavia House, an expanded edition of the group played a marathon conclusion to their annual festival. The first half was a characteristically rare treat.

The first piece of the night was the world premiere of João Quinteiro‘s Energeia, with Yoon Jae Lee conducting an octet of strings, winds and percussion. Assembled from a vast series of flitting, momentary motives, it became all but impossible to figure out who was playing what, Just when an idea hinted that it would coalesce, it was gone. The two percussionists, Josh Perry and Chris Graham, had a blast, their whirs and buzzes and a momentary, thunderous boom from a large collection of strikable items punctuating a dancing, flickering parade of fragmentary imagery. That put everyody in a good mood.

The night’s piece de resistance was the American premiere of Seoul-based Yie Eun Chun‘s Urban Symphony, Lee conducting a fifteen-piece ensemble throughout its striking, cinematic, whirlwind cinematic shifts. A portrait of the composer’s home turf, it evoked the noir bustle of Charles Mingus, the persistent unease of Messiaen, a little circular Steve Reich in the background along with Miho Hazama at her most majestic. Insistent, kinetic riffage that rose to frantic levels and a creepy chase scene midway through contrasted with tense, minimalist call-and-response over a pulse that began on the cowbell and then made its way through less comedically evocative instruments. It flickered out calmly at the end: peace had finally come to the city. It’s hard to imagine a more consistently thrilling new orchestral work played anywhere in this city this year: it deserves a vast audience.

Another consistently gripping if somewhat quieter composition was another American premiere, Peder Barratt-due‘s microtonal duet ldfleur. Violists Anna Heflin and Hannah Levinson brought its spare, determined unresolve into sharp, sometimes disquieting, sometimes jaunty focus with their dynamic interplay, down to whispery harmonics and then back.

The coda of the first half of the marathon – which was scheduled to run late into the night – was the world premiere of Martin Loridan‘s Concerto pour Piano et Ensemble. Windy, toneless gusts filtered in from the winds and horns, to the violins – watching Marina Im and Sabina Torosjan blow into their instruments was ridiculously funny, considering how meticulously they would articulate the composer’s calm, hovering lines afterward. Pianist Yumi Suehiro’s grim, fanged, revolving phrases, both on the keys and inside the piano, contrasted with that hazy sustain, first from the strings and then the rest of the full ensemble. If Reich had ever wanted to write theme music for a Halloween haunted house, this could have been it.

This was it for the Mise-En Festival, but the group maintains a year-round schedule, both at their home digs in Bushwick and points further from the dreaded L train.

June 30, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Get the Party Started at This Year’s Lincoln Center Midsummer Night Swing Festival

Smoky grey clouds trailed across the river from New Jersey amid spots of sun, a blanket of crushing humidity over Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center last night. Hardly optimum conditions for the opening of this year’s Midsummer Night Swing festival – but people came anyway. Who goes to these things? Millennials. And old people – Gen X and most of Gen Y seemed to be missing. Which in a way is strange, because it was Gen X who suppported the first wave of the oldtimey swing revival in New York back in the 90s.

Appropriately, New York’s kings of retro swing, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, were chosen to play opening night. The multi-instrumentalist bandleader recalled how his orchestra had played the festival thirty years ago, at a time when their main haunt was a lively (and long since vanished) cajun boite in Chelsea. In the years since, Giordano has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for all swing-related things: the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack is just one of many recent achievements.

The band didn’t seem the least phased by the heat. For Giordano,“We’re going to slow things down now” means midtempo; this was a dance party after all. On the other hand, the group’s vividness and attention to detail is astronishing, especially when you consider that a lot of the material in their first set was standards they’ve played over and over again. Maybe the change of venue, from the cozier confines of the Iguana, where they’ve held down a Monday-Tuesday residency for several years now, was a factor.

And Giordano is as much if not more committed to lost treasures as he is to standards. The set was a mix of both. With its tricky syncopation and klezmer echoes, Puttin’ On the Ritz was a big hit with the crowd. Moving from Detroit, to Kansas City, to Harlem and the south, the group painted a vast and eclectic panorama of the music that rose from the shadiest parts of town to become America’s default party soundtrack for decades.

They opened with Fletcher Henderson’s boisterous 1920s hit Stampede – which actually didn’t hit quite that velocity – and closed with the caffeinated dixieland of Rhythm Is Our Business, from about five years later. In between, they went into the Ellington catalog for a brisk early 30s obscurity as well as The Mooche, which Giordano called “highly seductive.” With its luscious, hazily lustrous chromatics, it was the high point of the set.

Throughout the orchestra, solos were incisive and tantalizingly brief – which they have to be if a band is limited to a single side of a 78 RPM record. Trumpeter Jon Kellso kicked off a relatively austere yet triumphant take of King Oliver’s West End Blues with a restraint that foreshadowed the song’s unexpected suspenseful quality: this was a night full of unexpected dynamics. On the more buoyant tip, Maurice Chavalier’s Isn’t It Romantic gave the group a chance to go full-steam symphonic. A simmering version of Moonlight Serenade later on also reached toward those mighty proportions.

Giordano’s residency at the Iguana continues next week; Midsummer Night Swing returns on June 29 at 7:30 PM with the fiery horn and electric tres textures of salsa group Los Hacheros. It’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

June 26, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

June 22, 2019 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic End the Season with a Turbulent, Epic Coda

In his Brooklyn debut this past evening in Prospect Park, conductor Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic through an electric, kaleidoscopically detailed, unselfconsciously transcendent version of Rachmaminoff’s Symphony No. 2. It’s impossible to think of a better way to introduce the orchestra to those across the lawn who either hadn’t seen the group before, or couldn’t afford to visit them at their Lincoln Center home base.

There’s a point in the second movement where a bassoon solo signals the symphony’s first bellicose theme. But van Zweden didn’t pull back the string section gratuitously. Resolute yet rather mysterious, it burbled just above the waterline amid a vast, extremely uneasy tide. The Red Sea didn’t part all the way: the orchestra gave this wanderer just enough room to make his way through without much stress. There were innumerable other moments like that throughout the rest of the evening.

The greatest composers like to keep orchestras on their toes and give audiences plenty of bang for their buck along with jokes and insider references for the diehards. Gloomy as most of it is, why is this symphony one of the most popular in the entire repertoire,? For all of those reasons. Rachmaninoff griped to his inner circle about how long it took him to orchestrate it, but as the dominoes fell one by one, the mosaic this orchestra created with it was viscerally breathtaking, in both scope and substance.

It’s a familiar theme in Rachmaninoff: the composer writing his way out of a very dark headspace. The opening movement bristled with a relentless, downcast intensity, livened with endlessly clever exchanges of riffs and a thematic interweave that finally paid off mightily, a wall of pictures at an exhibition, in the concluding movement. In between, the heartbreak of the third movement contrasted mightily with the anger of the fourth, which came across with more aggression than most orchestras tend to give it.

And that ho-ho-ho intro to the last movement? That’s an inside joke, one that may have completely evaded audiences for decades. It’s a reference to the opening motif of his Symphony No. 1, which was infamously performed only once in his lifetime – to a withering critical reaction that devastated him and left him unable to composer for three full years. After dazzling the crowd for the better part of an hour, Symphony No. 2 becomes Rachmaninoff thumbing his nose at anyone who thought he could never pull it off. For the record, the Rachmaninoff 1 is a frequently audacious work, which, had the composer decided to resurrect it during his lifetime, probably would have become a part of the classical canon much earlier than it did.

In front of the orchestra, van Zweden tends to bounce, but not a lot, as if he’s standing on a heavy truck spring that gives way ever so slightly As much strurm ung drang as this piece has, he didn’t exert himself much except when there was a jewel of a detail that had to be pulled from the storm in a split second. And when that happened, van Zweden seized those moments, one by one, whether fluttery ornamentation from the violins after the cartoonish laughter of the final movement, or a suddenly stark, martial stacccato from the cellos in the third. For all the calm in his body language, he’s exceptionally communicative with the orchestra. The audience afterward were marveling about the level of detail, range of dynamics and sheer freshness he and the orchestra had brought to a familiar piece they’d played several times just a few months ago.

There was other material on the bill: operatic buffoonery and jaunty orchestrated bluegrass, along with a couple of miniatures – one unexpectedly close to horizontal music, and the other very baroque – by a pair of gradeschoolers mentored in the orchestra’s Very Young Composers program.

But all that was just a warmup for the crowning jewel in a year that’s seen the ensemble revitalized like never before in this century. Not to be disrespectful to Alan Gilbert, a gifted conductor who in many ways set the scene for van Zweden to take the reins, but over the course of the past season, the Philharmonic’s programming and performances have been more ambitious and relevant than ever. What a great feeling it is to be excited about New York”s hometown orchestra again.

June 14, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.

June 12, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | Leave a comment

The Da Capo Chamber Players Unveil a Stunningly Diverse, Global Mix of Sounds at Merkin Concert Hall

The Da Capo Chamber Players have an enviable track record performing a vast stylistic range of lesser-known works that deserve to be heard on a much wider scale. Wednesday night at Merkin Concert Hall, the theme was global.

The coda was a richly noir, relentlessly shifting narrative that frequently resembled Bernard Herrmann’s best work. But Reinaldo Moya‘s Cronica de una Muerta Anunciada was much more of a horror soundtrack than a suspense theme. The full ensemble – Steven Beck on piano, Chris Gross on cello, Curtis Macomber on violin, Patricia Spencer on flute, Nuno Antunes on bass clarinet and clarinet, and Michael Lipsey on vibraphone and percussion – reveled as much as  a group can revel in a story about a grisly murder. Fleeting quotes from a couple of familiar wedding themes appeared early on. before a couple of chase scenes and a sharp, stomping finale illustrating the savage public stabbing immortalized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Aptly, a recurring, dancing riff for the violin and piano spelled out the name of the murder victim, Santiago Nasar, who’d been the illicit lover of a young woman in a rural Colombian village.

The opening piece – for cello, violin, flute and piano – was Chinary Ung‘s Child Song, interpolating several Asian modes around a lively pentatonic theme based on a surrealistic Cambodian nursery rhyme. The quartet wove a series of graceful exchanges punctuated by sudden dramatic bursts and a moody cello solo as the tonalities cleverly drifted further into western territory. Historically, this 1985 piece was a triumphant return to composition for Ung, who’d spent much of the previous ten years simply trying to stay alive in his native Cambodia while so many of his colleagues were murdered.

While Chou Wen-chung‘s Ode to Eternal Pine celebrates a Korean longevity archetype , it’s written in a western idiom. The ensemble rose from spacious, spare exchanges to a serene majesty in tribute to rugged mountaintop greenery, mysetrious ambience alternating with echo phrases and a sudden, striking coda.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s four-part suite Cuatro Bosquejos sent a shout out to now-vanished civilizations on the Peruvian and Colombian coast. Gross’ cello, in particular, stood out through acerbic chromatic passages in lively, shapeshifting depictions of an ancient, insistent group of flutists, the contrasting cascades in a portrait of a pre-Colombian man-bird, seaside calls into a desert wind, and a methodical disassembly of a panpipe-influenced tune.

Also on the bill were also a brief, elegant partita for solo flute by Noel Da Costa, and a persistently unsettled, steady, occasionally noirish Second Viennnese School trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Pablo Ortiz.

June 9, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment