Is there any logic at all to be willing to take a bullet for Dolly Parton, or to at least give Madonna a push out of harm’s way…or to offer that level of allegiance to Lady Gag, or Mariah Carey instead? Is that just a matter of personal taste? Or a matter of growing up while Ed Meese was assembling the world’s largest porn collection at taxpayer expense…or in an era remembered best for the radiation poisoning known as Gulf War Syndrome …or during the Obama years, when drones were blowing up Islamic wedding parties in the desert?
Or is this just scraping the bottom of the barrel, any way you look at it?
Obviously, you can tell whose side this blog is on. Early Tuesday evening, before any of us were called home for Valentine duty, all-female french horn quartet Genghis Barbie packed the Miller Theatre uptown for a goodnaturedly amusing display of fierce chops and wicked new reinventions of otherwise pretty cheesy material.
Back when your parents or grandparents were kids, they used to call shows like this “pops concerts.” Orchestral musicians would catch a break playing easy charts for instrumental versions of the radio hits of the day. This usually happened at places like the Brooklyn Prom or Coney Island. What differentiated this concert from that kind of schlock wasn’t so much the material as the arrangements and the musicianship.
Genghis Barbie played with an intuitive chemistry and a boisterously contagious camaraderie. Somebody to Love, by Queen – Freddie Mercury’s mashup of doo-wop and opera buffo – got a neat baroque arrangement and an even funnier singalong round at the end led by Leelanee Sterrett, a.k.a. Cosmic Barbie, and then Rachel Drehmann, a.k.a. Attila the Horn. Likewise, the deadpan, steady exchange of voices in Without You – written by Badfinger’s Peter Ham, turned into a hit by another doomed Brit, Harry Nilsson and then tepidly reprised by Carey about a quarter century ago. The quartet – who also include the similarly sardonic, talented Danielle Kuhlmann, a.k.a. Velvet Barbie, and Alana Vegter, a.k.a. Freedom Barbie, went deep into Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach to reveal its inner oldschool disco goddess. A little later, the group took a Lady Gag number to the Balkans and made a quasi-cocek out of it. They took a detour into the opera world, then jumped forward a century and a half to the Disney autotune era once again. Colorfully yet effortlessly, they switched between bubbly Balkan phrasing and orchestral lustre.
The highlight of the show, at least from this perspective, was a vivid Spanish-tinged instrumental take of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene. The low point was a cover from the catalog of a saccharine California pop group from the 60s who got their start ripping off Chuck Berry and then did the same to the Beatles. For much of that time, one of that extended family band was hanging out with another family – the Mansons. You can read about it in the Vince Bugliosi classic Helter Skelter.
The next concert at the Miller Theatre features the work of hauntingly atmospheric, sometimes shamanic Japanese composer Misato Mochizuki played by amazingly eclectic indie classical ensemble Yarn/Wire on March 2 at 8 PM; $25 tix are available.
It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.
This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.
Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.
Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.
It took until about the halfway point in Bing and Ruth’s album release show last night at the Greene Space before the brunette in the front row finally rested her head on the shoulder of the adjacent sweaterboy. New Yorkers have been cocooning a lot lately: it’s hard to think of a more apt, or possibly more hopeful soundtrack for quiet reflection than the ensemble’s new record No Home of the Mind – available on vinyl and streaming at WNYC – which they played from start to finish.
Pianist David Moore has scaled down the original scope of the band from almost a dozen members to the current five, in the process further concretizing his signature blend of minimalism, indie classical and electroacoustic trance music. As the group’s instrumentals segued from one into another, they brought to mind acts as diverse as Anton Bagatov, Dawn of Midi without the thump, George Winston without the sentimentality, or even Bruce Hornsby if he’d gone into minimalism after his time with the Grateful Dead.
What was most impressive was how little the group relies on electronics. Other acts would take Moore’s looping phrases and have a pedal do all the heavy lifting. Not Moore: it’s one thing to play his gnomic clusters, and elegant arpeggios, and Philip Glass-ine phrases once with perfect timing; Moore did it over and over, with unwavering intonation and touch and rhythm and made it seem easy. Much of the time, he had his eyes closed. Clarinetist Jeremy Viner, who supplied subtly shifting shades enhanced by a pedalboard, might have opened his once during about 45 minutes onstage. The two bassists – Greg Chudzik and Jeff Ratner – took different roles, one anchoring the music with a series of low drones, the other playing higher up the fingerboard and adding the occasional, understatedly emphatic slow glissando. Mike Effenberger sat stage left, running the sound through a series of mixers, sometimes for minute timbral shirts or oscillations, occasionally for dramatic low-versus-high effect. Moore began with his most energetic phrasing, segued down toward enigmatic ambience, took a turn into minor keys for the night’s most acerbic moments and ended on a warmly nocturnal note.
Considering that Bing and Ruth usually play much larger spaces, it was something of a shock to see that the intimate Greene Space – a former deli about the same size as Hifi Bar – wasn’t sold out. Then again, everyone’s cocooning these days. Bing and Ruth’s next New York show is on April 10 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th St in Williamsburg, time/price TBA.
Just for the record, there is nobody with either the name Bing or Ruth in Bing and Ruth. There’ve been thousands of illustrious Ruths over the centuries; beyond a crooner of cheesy 1930s pop hits, a baseball executive, and the world’s most useless search engine, there haven’t been too many Bings. Here’s to this group for redeeming the name.
Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”
An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.
Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.
Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.
The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.
That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?
In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known
The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.
In terms of majestic sweep, cinematic scope and clever outside-the-box humor, it’s hard to think of a more interesting group in big band jazz than the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra. They’re playing Brooklyn’s home of big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab on Feb 22 at 9 PM. Another excellent ensemble, violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, opens the night at 8. Cover here is usually in the $10-15 range and has yet to be determined by the venue, at least according to their concert calendar.
The most recent (full disclosure: only) time this blog was in the house at one of the jazz orchestra’s shows was on a muggy night in September of 2015 at Shrine up in Harlem. Since that was a long time ago, it’s reasonable to expect their set to be somewhat different. While it’s overly reductionistic to characterize Baker’s work as marked by tectonically shifts and Seguine’s by picturesque narratives and sardonic, sometimes dark humor, those qualities factor heavily into their respective writing. Here’s what happened at that show many months ago.
An uneasily steady, insistent piano melody gave way to lustrous atmospherics with wordless womens’ voices sailing overhead. As the piece went on, it shifted further toward the macabre: Darcy James Argue seems to be a big influence on this one. A trumpet fluttered and finally flared as the enigmatic lustre grew and the rhythmic drive rose, then the piece finally went down an echoey rabbit hole into fullscale terror as the piano anvilled sardonically through the mist.
The next number on the bill began by building a stately, steady, similarly enigmatic atmosphere that went in just as much of an ominous direction as the first, an apprehensively bending tenor sax solo over grimly massed sustain from the orchestra; then they pounced along, sax going full steam, over a beat that was practically ska. They ended it quietly and suddenly with more of that insistent piano riffage.
A stormy brass-and-vocalese intro kicked off the tune after that, but then the band pulled back quickly in favor of a hypnotic, resonantly pedaled piano melody, vocalese hovering overhead. A cascading piano melody over moody modal changes kicked off the next lush series of waves, up to a mighty crescendo, a surreal drums-and-vocals interlude, a stuck car horn-like passage, a bit of a pause and then a return to calm moodiness. Looking back, this was a pretty dark set!
From there the group took a slow, relentless series of upward climbs in the next piece, punctuated by a fluttering and eventually wailing tenor sax solo, then a slowly strolling, saturnine lustre that made a long launching pad for a trombone solo that eventually fell away mournfully. The carnivalesque, latin-tinged theme that followed had to be a Seguine composition: nobody writes like her, and this was a blazing good time spiced with wry, evil cartoon trombone, a pirate’s-boot strut, twisted nickelodeon piano and more than one peek-a-boo ending. And that was just the first set.
Considering how much time has passed since this show, it’s hard to picture just who, out of a handful of familiar faces, was in the group, other than Baker on reeds and Seguine conducting out in front of the group with a confident grace. The ubiquitous Ben Kono on alto sax, probably, and Scott Reeves on valve trombone, maybe. Seguine and Baker’s compositions are so much fun to play that they always get top-tier talent for their infrequent gigs: if big band jazz is your thing, miss this one and be sorry later.
“They’re amazing,” the friendly retiree whispered to her brand-new concertgoing pal, a New York City firefighter in his 20s. A couple of rows closer to the Carnegie Hall stage, two women in their forties, a married couple, quietly affirmed that. And after the mighty voices of the New York Choral Society had wound up their triumphant performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass there last night, a teen in the third row dressed like one of the rappers in the 80s group Kid ’N Play gave them a standing ovation. The accolades on the ensemble’s press page run on and on; this concert attested that just about every demographic in this city shares those feelings.
Spontaneous applause had broken out after the first movement, possibly triggered by how meticulously and seemingly effortlessly way the sopranos in the group had followed soprano soloist Vanessa Vasquez’s exuberant flurries of glossolalia with their own, in perfect unison. If you think that’s hard to do by yourself, imagine the challenge of having to match your bandmates’ cadences with that kind of split-second precision.
This piece got its nickname after the story spread that the composer had been inspired by a British admiral’s pursuit of Napoleon. That might well be true, considering that Haydn was an Anglophile. What it also sounds like is that he wanted to write something so glorious that it would earn him a follow-up commission. Beyond being a flamboyant birthday present for a Hungarian princess, its raison d’etre as a “mass for troubled times” doesn’t really make itself apparent until after the opening festivities. This long party for churchgoing late-18th century one-percenters ran its course before getting switched out for more formidable gravitas. The rest of the soloists – tenor Zach Borichevsky, bass Sava Vemic and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer – locked in on Haydn’s signature humor, as did the choir and orchestra, who took it out in a decisively boisterous, precise yet comfortably fluid series of volleys.
The original program had that piece first on the bill, followed by Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, Op. 9. Flipping the script and putting the Durufle first was logical in that it’s much quieter and has none of Haydn’s fireworks. But it’s a vastly more profound piece of music, and the ensemble delivered it that way. The program notes alluded to the composer following Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, but other than a muted sense of grief, the two pieces have little in common. And this one is hardly easy to sing, with its so-ancient-they’re-new-again Gregorian chant themes and shapeshifting, uneven meters. But musical director David Hayes led the singers through an impeccably balanced rendition that offered guarded hope, something that’s been gravely in need over these past three weeks or so.
The orchestral performance was as sublime as the voices. Durufle, longtime organist of Notre Dame, peppers the work with poignant cameos: distant terror from a tritone riff or two on the organ; ghastly shivers from the low strings, uneasily starry resonance from the harp and a moment where first violist Ronald Carbone took centerstage in his section in the piece’s most harrowing if understated cadenza. Fischer got a solo as well and channeled deep, wounded soul in vivid contrast to her untethered ebullience in the Haydn.
The New York Choral Society sing the New York City premiere of James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion at St. Bartholomew’s Church on April 8 at 8 PM with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and organist Jason Roberts.
As yesterday’s wryly named Super Bolus at Footlight Bar in Ridgewood got underway, it felt strange just to sit and watch Typically, improvising musicians all end up playing with each other. Fifteen minutes into the show, that moment appeared. The long trip to the Cloisters a couple of weeks ago to jam a Pauline Oliveros chorale turned out to be useful practice!
After a duo set with trumpeter Daniel Levine, where Rallidae tenor saxophonist Angela Morris had introduced a jaunty Mardi Gras theme of sorts and the two had gracefully intertwined with it, eventually taking it down to misty ambience and then back, she left the stage and went into the crowd.
Drawing us closer to her, she led what seemed for a minute to be a ditzy yoga mantra – “Beauty is above me, below me, around me,” that sort of thing. Instead, it turned out to be a round where she encouraged everyone to sing either a specific part or a sustained note. The resulting web of voices and close harmonies that converged on a warm center was as otherworldly as it was fun to be part of. In moments like this, there’s no thinking involved. Anyone can do it: the music tells you what it needs, all you have to do is pay attention. That’s pretty much what everybody on this often rapturously fun bill did in over three hours of music.
Anne Rhodes of Broadcloth joined voices with Anais Maviel, who anchored Sam Sowyrda’s virtuosic vibraphone work on the evening’s next improvisation with her minimalist pulse on a small-scale kora lute. Rhodes’ full, emotive soprano contrasted with Maviel’s more low-key nuance and extended technique, trombone and trumpet-like sputters included, while Sowyrda rippled and pinged and bowed his bells for sepulchral textures, at one point taking the music so far down that it was almost imperceptible. That, or he was just messing with the audience.
Kills to Kisses leader and bassist Lisa Dowling blended haunting Middle Eastern allusions and fiery but terse flamenco riffs into a dynamic set of Kate Bush-inflected art-rock loopmusic. Arguably the high point of the show was when oboeist Dave Kadden, of Invisible Circle, played volleys of microtonal tension against a central tone, his diabolical. virtuosically jajouka-esque phrasing manipulated by a guy with a laptop, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. By itself, the echo effect wasn’t ultimately even necessary, although admittedly it did add a deliciously dark resonance. This was a relentlessly searching, imploring call to arms. Amir ElSaffar played a very similar one of these solo on trumpet at a gig earlier in the year and this was every bit as inspiring. Clearly, it’s a meme among players of wind instruments.
Singing and playing guitar, Ruder – joined by Dowling and saxophonist Erin Rogers, on soprano – had fun with a number about being unable to move in a straight line, literally and metaphorically. Solo on accordion, Brian McCorkle sang a dadaesque, viciously sarcastic Rogers suite on a love-versus-money theme, and had a great time chewing the scenery: the audience loved it. In contrast, the trio of Morris, Sowyrda and keyboardist Ellen O ended the show with a raptly Eno-like ambient soundscape.
This show was typical of the Gold Bolus stable. Many of the artists lean toward the theatrical or performance art; their home base is the Panoply Performance Lab space in Bushwick. And Dowling is at the Gateway, 1272 Broadway in Bushwick on Feb 23, time TBA. Take the J to Gates Ave.
Last night at Drom Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif played one of the most exhilarating and sophisticated shows of the past several months in this city. Fiuczynski might be the best guitarist in the world: he is without the doubt the most individualistic. His musical language is completely his own. If it had words instead of notes, it would be part Hindi, part French, part Arabic and part Korean, with some Chinese and plenty of English too. His double-necked, microtonally fretted guitar enables him to play in microtonal scales without bending notes, as well as in the standard western scale. His 2012 album Planet Microjam is one of this century’s half-dozen most innovative and arguably best releases. His latest microtonal project, Flam! Blam! Pan-Asian MicroJam may not have the subtlest title, but the music continues Fiuczynski’s epic quest to find the most magical places in between the notes, drawing from just about every musical tradition around the globe.
This was a trio show. Fiuczynski opened with the Simpson’s Theme, which he proceeded to spin through a trippy prism of scales that exist only on Planet Microjam, along the way firing off energetic Indian sitar riffage, some wildly bent phrases typical of Korean gaegeum music, and even a flurry or two of rapidfire postbop American jazz. Fiuczynski’s songs are slinkier than they are funky, and his low-key rhythm section kept a serpentine groove going throughout the set with the occasional rise to a four-on-the-floor pulse when the bandleader would hit a peak with a burning series of distorted rock chords. Throughout the set, the drummer stayed pretty chill while the bass player occasionally flavored a song with woozy textures via a wah and an octave pedal, in a subdued P-Funk vein. He also contributed one of the night’s most straight-up numbers, which the bandleader took further out toward Indian raga territory and then spiced with Asian phrasing, into territory that only Fiuczynski knows well.
After opening with the twisted tv theme, they sliced and diced a Russian klezmer melody into offcenter tonalities, with the occasional unexpected leap back toward the original minor key. Opening act Jonathan Scales joined the band during one of the later numbers and played vividly ringing Asian licks against Fiuczynski’s austere, uneasy microtonal chords and otherworldly, Messiaenic ambience. Throughout these epic themes, with their innumerable dynamic shifts, the atmosphere shifted artfully from austere and starlit to raw, stomping triumph. The best song of the night might have been Mood Ring Bacchanal, with its leap from resonant, allusively bent Asian phrasing to a tongue-in-cheek, emphatic oldschool disco interlude. The night’s last song blended wah-wah sitar licks, Orientalisms and slow spacerock with echoes of roots reggae.
Fiuczynski is a legend on the jamband circuit and will no doubt be making the rounds of summer festivals this year. Watch this space for future NYC dates.
“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.
It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.
Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.
The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.
Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.
What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without a mention of the Times Arrow festival of 20th and 21st century music, a roughly ten-day celebration of the 250th anniversary of St. Paul’s Chapel downtown at Broadway just south of Vesey Street featuring a diverse cast of the classical and indie classical talent associated with its sister venue Trinity Church. It’s not clear if George Washington ever slept at the chapel. But he was a parishioner there, and if the sermons were boring, that could have happened at some point during his days as President.
The festival’s music was very forward-looking: new settings of Edgar Allen Poe phantasmagoria, the premiere of Laura Schwedinger’s opera Artemisia, about Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi…and the Bach Christmas Oratorio performed in two parts.
While catching every one of the concerts would have been a real marathon, the most enticing and rewarding show featured Sandbox Percussion and pianist Erika Dohi, backing soprano Elspeth Davis in a mesmerizingly psychedelic, often utterly chilling performance of George Crumb’s American Songbook. Crumb’s reinvention of old Appalachian folk tunes began with one of the percussionists furiously cranking what looked like a giant music box cylinder to create a whistling wind effect early in the sepulchrally spacious interpretation of Poor Wayfaring Stranger. Dohi’s similarly ghostly, starlit restraint in Crumb’s creepy recasting of the lullaby All the Pretty Little Horses was just as impactful. As the suite went on, gongs were employed and a dusky, doomed ambience prevailed. Dohi is tackling a much more physically taxing piece, a Luciano Berio Sequenza this afternoon, Jan 29 at 3 PM at Spectrum on an eclectic solo piano triplebill. Joseph Liccardo plays Bach; Lisa Moore plays Martin Bresnick; cover is $15
It was fun to kick off the new year at one of the festival’s first installments, watching Chris Reynolds circle around a thornily and vividly, perplexingly repetitive Caroline Shaw solo piano number. Finally, finally, there came a point where there was a big, almost chaotic breakthrough, all the more potent for the meticulousness he had brought to the piece up to that point. And it was just as rewarding, midway through the festival, to witness soprano Sarah Brailey and pianist Lynn Baker negotiate the stylistic shifts and emotional dynamics of art-songs by Schoenberg, Kurt Weill and Charles Ives, a lustrously uneasy version of the iconic The Housatonic At Stockbridge as a centerpiece.