Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

May 22, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast, Intricate, Awe-Inspiring Oceans of Sound Downtown

What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.

The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.

The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was  even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.

Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.

So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda.  Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.

It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New  York this year.

Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.

May 19, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trombonist Michael Dease’s Latest Album: How Many Flavors Can You Handle?

Trombonist Michael Dease‘s latest album All These Hands – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is an ambitious jazz travelogue. The title is a characteristically wry reference to the fact that he’s got so many people on it. On one hand, it’s a chance for the bandleader to show off his command of a whole bunch of regional styles: lookit me, I’m in New Orleans! Now I’ve gone back to the Delta to visit Robert Johnson’s grave! But what’s consistent, beyond the relevance and the sometimes grim historical references throughout this vast, diverse collection, is the tunesmithing. Riffs jump out at you from all over and have you humming them afterward despite yourself. No wonder all these big names want to play with him: the core band on the album has Renee Rosnes on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Steve Wilson doing his usual multi-reed thing, with Etienne Charles on trumpet and Randy Napoleon on guitar. Dease is leading most of this band over a weekend stand on May 26 and 27 at 10:30 PM at Smalls.

Before we leave town here, what does Dease’s portrait of Brooklyn sound like? Kenny G? A trombone with a drum machine? A virtual trombone? Wait, those are Notbrooklyn things, as we say around these parts. Set to Nash’s steady, flickering clave groove, Dease’s Brooklyn is latin, and full of light/dark contrasts and hints of early Steely Dan – Brooklyn knows the charmer under this guy. In fact, it’s one of the album’s best songs, with a deliciously slippery bass solo from guest Rufus Reid.

The rest of the album measures up strongly. The opening number, Creole Country is balmier and more bossa-tinged than the name might imply, the beat loosening into a shuffle artfully and imperceptibly, Rosnes anchoring Dease and Wilson’s airy lines. Delta City Crosssroads is a sagely animated conversation between Dease’s muted, tongue-in-cheek character and Napoleon’s rustic slide man. There are two similar blues duets later on: the Detroit shout-out Black Bottom Banger, between Dease and Cannon, and Memphis Fish Fry, Dease pairing off jauntily against Rosnes’ Fender Rhodes.

The Dizzy Gillespie-inspired Good & Terrible is another catchy clave tune, Rosnes again grounding Dease’s purposeful, airy solo, Cannon taking a wry tiptoe tangent. Territory Blues is as straight-up as a swing blues can get, with purist solos from Cannon and Napoleon – whose presence on what sounds like a National steel guitar is an unexpectedly welcome touch. Benny’s Bounce is another swing tune with a long series of handoffs: Dease’s bubbly solo to Wilson’s more airy tenor, Rosnes’ clusters and Cannon finally hitting that Benny Golson-influenced bounce.

The band goes back to the default clave for the album’s most epic track, Downtown Chi-Town, which could just as easily be Spanish Harlem, Wilson’s spiraling flute handing off to the bandleader, percolating as he chooses his spots and then giving Wilson the floor for some enigmatically modal explorations on tenor. Everybody gets into the act at the end.

Dease opens Gullah Shout Ring with a long, allusively bluesy solo and then holds the center as guitar and bass flutter and stab at the perimeter – it’s the freest number here, at least until they pull it together into another swing blues with an implied Heartbreak Hotel vibe. Muted suspense and chirpy trombone-and-trumpet riffs punctuate the goodnatured Chocolate City, a diptych of sorts that goes completely in the opposite direction, fueled by Rosnes and Dease: it’s a riveting piece of music with a real payoff. Guest bassist Rodney Whitaker makes the most of a solo piece to end the album, mashing up the blues with a moody, ragaesque quality. It’s awfully rare that you hear an album with so many flavors which is as this solid as this one is all the way through. Count on Dease to pull out just as many over Memorial Day weekend.

May 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sam Sowyrda Brings His Relentless, Spectacularly Hypnotic Percussion Pieces to Trans-Pecos

Percussionist Sam Sowyrda has a thing for dynamics. He likes to build his compositions almost imperceptibly, giving himself an enormous amount of range to explore when he wants to get really loud – or just sort of loud. That’s where the MalletKAT (electronic vibraphone) player from trippy quirk-instrumentalists Cloud Becomes Your Hand ends up about three minutes into the more than twenty-minute A-side of his debut solo album Luminous Horizons, streaming at Gold Bolus Recordings and also available on cassette. He’s airing out that material and probably a lot more at the release show on May 13 starting at around 3 at Trans-Pecos. Cover is $10; wild avant garde marching band Ashcan Orchestra (of which he is also a member) follow his opening set, then Sowyrda eventually closes the evening at around 5:30. Hallowed Bells, a synth duo who seem to be shooting for some kind of postrock/cinematic thing, play before his second set.

Vibraphone iis his main axe, but here he plays a custom-built dulcimer made from a piano soundboard. After rising to a hammeringly precise pitch that brings to mind Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, he lets the sound fall away to the occasional, resonant hit on what sound like temple gongs. Then, slowly and methodically, he builds toward a crescendo again with a calm, focused, gamelanesque approach that brings to mind Susie Ibarra. Is that a tremolo-picked guitar? A mbira? It’s just nuanced enough to give away the fact that it’s Sowyrda’s tireless fast-twitch muscles that are playing rapidfire volley after volley, rather than letting a laptop or a loop pedal do the work. The one-man orchestra effect that develops is as mesmerizing as any recent Michael Gordon percussion piece.

The B-side is the vibraphone piece Occidental Error, clocking in at a whopping 33 minutes plus, follows a similar tangent. It starts louder but a lot simpler, creating more of a hypnotic effect with very subtle polyrhythmic shifts and then the album’s gentlest, most envelopingly resonant moments. For the hell of it, here’s how Sowyrda’s Bandcamp page is tagged: “experimental acoustic ambient beautiful noise drone textural New York.” Spot-on.

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

Stunningly Eclectic Singer Sofia Rei Radically Reinvents Violeta Parra Classics

Conventional wisdom is that if you cover a song, you either want to do it better than the original, or make something completely different out of it. The latter usually makes more sense, considering that if a song is worth covering at all, the original is probably hard to beat. Merle Haggard as shambling free jazz; Gil Scott-Heron as hard bop; Pink Floyd as dub reggae – all of those unlikely reinterpretations ended up validating the outside-the-box creativity that went into them. On the brand-new album El Gavilan (The Hawk), streaming at Bandcamp, pan-latin singer Sofia Rei – who’s never met a style she was afraid to tackle – puts a brave new spin on the songs of Chilean icon Violeta Parra. The Argentine-born songstress is currently on tour; her next New York concert is this coming June 2 at 8 PM at the Neighborhood Church, 269 Bleecker St. at Morton St. in a duo with the incomparable, more atmospheric Sara Serpa, her bandmate in John Zorn’s Mycale a-cappella project. The show is free.

On one hand, artists from across the Americas have covered Parra. On the other, it takes a lot of nerve to reinvent her songs as radically as Rei does. The album’s opening number, Casamiento de Negros begins as a bouncy multitracked a-cappella number, like Laurie Anderson at her most light-footed; Ribot tosses off a tantalizingly brief, Hawaiian-tinged slide guitar solo. It’s a stark contrast with Parra’s allusive narrative of a lynching. 

Parra’s stark peasant’s lament Arriba Quemando El Sol is a march, Ribot opening with an ominous clang, then echoing and eventually scorching the underbrush beneath Rei’s resolute, emphatic delivery. It’s akin to Pink Floyd covering Parra, but with more unhinged guitars and more expressive vocals. She does Una Copla Me Ha Cantado as a starlit lullaby, killing softly with the song over Ribot’s spare deep-space accents.

Her wryly looped birdsong effects open a pulsing take of Maldigo Del Alto Cielo that rises to swoopy heights, spiced with wisps of backward masking, a curse in high-flying disguise. By contrast, the muted, bruised pairing of Rei’s vocals with Ribot’s spare chords gives La Lavandera the feel of a Marianne Dissard/Sergio Mendoza collaboration as it reaches toward a simmering ranchera-rock sway.

Rei makes a return to atmospheric art-rock with the lament Corazón Maldito, Ribot rising from shivery angst to menacing grey-sky grandeur, Rei parsing the lyrics with a dynamic, suspenseful, defiant delivery like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones. 

The album’s epic title track clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes plus, opening with atmospherics and Ribot taking a rare turn on acoustic, warily and airily. From there he switches to electric for cumulo-nimbus, Gilmouresque atmospherics behind Rei’s frantically clipped, carnatically-influenced delivery, following Parra’s anguished tale of abandonment.

The ambient Enya-like concluding cut is Run Run se Fue pa’l Norte, an apt song for our time if there ever was one, echoing with more Pink Floyd guitar from Los Tres‘ Angel Parra, Violeta Parra’s grandson. Whether you call this art-rock, jazz, or state-of-the-art remake of Chilean folksongs, it will leave you transfixed, especially if you know the originals.

It’s open to debate if the Trump administration would let an artist like Rei into the country these days, considering his commitment to kissing up to the non-Spanish speaking lunatic fringe.

May 8, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tenor Saxophonist Tom Tallitsch Puts Out His Best, Most Darkly Intense Album

Tom Tallitsch is one of the major composers in jazz right now and a dynamic force on the tenor sax as well. As a radio host, he’s also advocated for under-the-radar artists from the New York jazz scene. His latest, excellent album Gratitude is streaming at Posi-Tone Records; he’s leading a quartet this Saturday night, May 6 at Minton’s, with sets at 7 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10; if you want a table, there’s a two-item minimum.

This is a very emotionally charged record; the unifying theme is sad departures and welcome arrivals. The opening track, Terrain, is a sonic road trip. Jon Davis’ piano anchors an allusively Middle Eastern intensity as drummer Rudy Royston flurries and spirals, the bandleader leading the charge into a more-or-less free interlude that this era’s great extrovert behind the kit pulls back onto the rails,

Tallitsch and bassist Peter Brendler double the melody as the tricky metrics of Kindred Spirit sway along over an implied clave, the bandleader’s bristling, smoke-tinged solo giving way to a deliciously suspenseful one from Davis and then a broodingly modal one from the bass.

The group’s reinvention of a generic old Fleetwood Mac song isn’t even recognizable until the first chorus; the wayDavis’ gold dust piano spins into blues, eerie passing tones and then back is a revelation, as is Talitsch’s magically dynamic, shivery, nuanced solo that follows as guest Brian Charette’s organ swells behind him.

The briskly swinging Refuge brings to mind Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Charlie Parker-fixated material, Davis’ scampering solo at the center. The uneasily modal Northeast is just plain one of the best jazz songs released in recent months, fueled by Tallitsch’s soberly cinematic drive, Davis’ masterful fugal tradeoffs and Brendler’s aching bends as Royston rattles the traps.

The album’s most epic track, Alternate Side is a rapdifire swing shuffle, a long launching pad for Tallitsch chromatics and a scurryingly droll Davis solo. More bands should cover the Beatles’ Because (you should hear Svetlana & the Delancey Five play Rob Garcia’s New Orleans funeral march chart for it). These guys’ version is similarly elegaic but more spare.

The broodingly funky, swaying Rust Belt aptly evokes a gritty post-industrial milieu with more tasty Tallitsch modalities, echoed by Davis and Brendler as Royston puts the torch to the remaining brickwork. The album’s title track is a gospel-infused pastoral jazz waltz and arguably its catchiest number. It’s definitely a new style for Tallitsch, but he nails it.

Oblivion isn’t anywhere near as disconsolate (or intoxicated) as the title would imply, but it’s got bite, Royston’s fierce drive straightening it out as Davis and the bandleader parse its modalities for anger and irony. The album winds up with a comfortably, loosely swinging take of Led Zep’s Thank You, Charette and Davis taking the band to church. Not only is this Tallitsch’s best album, iIt’s hard to think of a more ceaselessly interesting, tuneful jazz release over the last few months.

May 3, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ken Fowser’s Now Hear This: A Clinic in Postbop Tunesmithing

As straight-ahead postbop jazz tunesmithing goes, tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser has few rivals. His compositions are catchy without being dumbed down, and challenging without being self-consciously harsh or awkward. His albums on the Posi-Tone label are refreshingly free of the “OMG, the clock is ticking, rush rush rush to get this in the can’ vibe that plagues so many jazz releases these days. His latest one, Now Hear This – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – bristles with the conversational energy of a live set. It’s Fowser’s most latin-influenced release to date, and one of his best (Little Echo, from 2011, with vibraphonist Behn Gillece is his career benchmark so far). Fowser’s next gig is this Friday, May 5 at 8 PM at the Django, in the basement of the new shi-shi hotel at 2 6th Ave. just north of Canal in SoHo; your best bet is to head for the bar where it’ll only cost you $10 to get in.

A bustling blues riff opens the album’s first cut, the brisk, aptly titled swing shuffle Blast Off.  Fowser prowls amid the lows, a little smoky; trumpeter Josh Bruneau bubbles and then pianist Rick Germanson walks on coals over the hypercaffeinated drive of bassist Paul Gill and drummer Jason Tiemann. Bruneau gets the slam-dunk at the end.

Here and Now has an early 60s Verve latin noir undercurrent: terse, pensive solos from the horns, brooding swing backdrop, workmanlike stairstepping from Germanson. A little later on, The View From Below follows the same pattern: moody, judicious modal melody anchoring an almost frantic swing, Germanson at the center. By contrast, Blues For Mabes has a disarmingly catchy latin go-go bounce: it could be a Dizzy Gillespie tune, lit up with some tasty passing tones from the bandleader, energetic flurries from Bruneau and a similarly fun mashup of gospel, blues and go-go from Germanson.

The pianist opens the jazz waltz Still Standing with a neoromantic majesty before its dancing On Broadway riff kicks in. One and Done, a bossa, is a genial, send-em-home-with-a-smile wee hours number: you can hear the anticipation of the end of the night’s last set, and a drink at the bar (or finally some sleep) in Bruneau and Fowser’s solos, and finally some clenched-teeth levity from Tiemann.

The album’s title track makes a return to almost furtively fast, tiptoe-tapping swing: Germanson’s wry quotes and Bruneau’s volleys of blues are highlights. On one hand, the midtempo swing number Fair to Middlin’ has a troubled undercurrent, notably in Fowser’s moody lines and Gill’s all-too-brief solo, but there’s also a tongue-in-cheek resemblance to a famous Miles Davis tune.

The album’s most expansive and arguably catchiest cut, Transitions opens with some LOL call-and-response between Fowser and Bruneau, then gives everybody in the band a launching pad for good-natured soloing. A Few Blocks Down blends nocturnal bossa nova and nocturnal Afro-Cuban tinges over Germanson’s simmering, tense lefthand attack and Gill’s similarly dancing lines. The album comes full circle with a final upbeat swing shuffle, Ready the Mops, another very possible choice of closing number after a couple of high-voltage sets in a crowded West Village basement amidst the tourists and the diehards. If that’s you, give this a spin.

May 1, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Explore Harrowingly Diverse Reactions to War at the French Institute

Last night at the French Institute, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble sang a sometimes understatedly somber, often outright harrowing program that was as hubristic as it was relevant. Interspersing imaginatively arranged Civil War folk songs and hymns in between movements of Poulenc’s dynamic and rarely performed World War II-era Figure Humaine, the fifteen-piece choir voiced affectingly disparate reactions to wartime terror and the stress of living under siege.

Other choirs have mashed up iconic works from the classical repertoire with other styles, or with lesser-known pieces, with mixed results. Seraphic Fire‘s iconoclastic performance of the Mozart Requiem last year at Trinity Church, incorporating new compositions, worked swimmingly well. An attempt by another group to interpolate rather unrelated material into a dark and troubling Frank Ferko chorale, later in the year further uptown, was jarring and problematic.

In this case, the segues between calm, stoic American hymns or strikingly ornate arrangements of 19th century folk songs with Poulenc’s alternately starkly kinetic and acidically lustrous, Stravinskian themes didn’t make for easy transitions. But Poulenc probably wouldn’t have wanted any of this go to over smoothly: as a survey of human reactions to suffering, it packed a wallop, segues be damned.

Poulenc wrote his suite clandestinely with the hopes that it could be performed after an Allied victory. Turbulent, defiant cadenzas alternated with uneasy close harmonies and brooding atmospherics, all the way through to a triumphant coda fueled by soprano Sarah Moyer’s resolute intensity, just thisclose to a scream. She’d been tipping that pitch all evening long, the flicker of a smile often breaking into almost a smirk as she stood centerstage: she knew what was coming and reveled in it.

The rest of the group shone brightly in the Civil War material, as strikingly reflective of its time and place as Poulenc’s. In attempting to establish a distinctly American repertoire, choirs of that period often souped up folk tunes with elaborate and challenging arrangements. Some of these, like the stark rendition of Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye – the original Scottish version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home – date from then. Conductor Matthew Guard’s own arrangements –  a stately, hazily optimistic version of When This Cruel War Is Over, a plaintive take of Soldier’s Memorial Day and finally a Battle Hymn of the Republic that transcended schoolyard mockery – were true to the spirit of the times.

Likewise, the choir brought emotion, whether the savage cynicism – “Ridicule! Ridicule!” – in the Poulenc, or the funereal nebulosity of the hymn Abide with Me, into sharp focus. Crescendos were vivid and affecting: tenor George Case got plenty of time in the spotlight and rose to the occasion. Likewise, baritone Glenn Billingsley and the rest of the low voices offered endless, steady washes of circular breathing, lowlighting a couple of the folk tunes. Ultimately, the group delivered a message of hope: as much as we have suffered, even World War II didn’t last forever. In times like these, that message resonates just as powerfully.

This was it for this season’s characteristically eclectic series of concerts at the French Institute, but their similarly eclectic film series continues through May; there are also wine events, and a big Bastille Day bash this summer.

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

This Year’s MATA Festival of New Music: As Challenging and Inspiring As Ever

It’s been nineteen years since Philip Glass and his circle decided to begin programming the scores that people around the world were sending him. Since then, the annual MATA Festival has grown into an annual celebration of cutting-edge, and these days, increasingly relevant new music from around the world. In recent years, they’ve found a comfortable home at the Kitchen in Chelsea, where the festival continues nightly at 8 PM through Saturday, April 29; tix are $20; To keep the momentum going, the organizers are also staging a series of shows this summer featuring new chamber music from the Islamic world, as well as intimate house concerts (take THAT, Groupmuse!).

Night one of this year’s festival began with humor and ended, ok, humorously, if your sense of humor extends to unlikely sonic snafus onstage. Festival honcho Todd Tarantino proudly announced that the pieces selected for five nights worth of music were chosen from among works by 1159 composers from 72 countries. In their North American debut, Danish indie classical ensemble Scenatet tackled a dauntingly eclectic program from seven composers and acquitted themselves with equal parts spectacular extended technique and meticulous, minimalist resonance.

Their countryman Kaj Duncan David’s Computer Music was first on the bill, performed by the octet on matching laptops, each reading from a graphic score calling for the musicians to punch in on random heartbeats, more or less. The results created a pulse of light in addition to sound, an aspect that drew inadvertent winces from the performers until they’d become accustomed to a little blast of light from the screen. As it grew from spare to more complex, it got a lot funnier: a bad cop role (or a boss role) was involved. As an electronic music parable of The Office, maybe, it made a point and got the crowd chuckling.

German composer Martin Grütter’s Messer Engel Atem Kling called for some squalling, bow-shredding extended technique from violinist Kirsten Riis-Jensen and violist Mina Luka Fred as they worked an uneasy push-pull against the stygian anchor of My Hellgren’s cello. Yet as much as the high strings pulled away from the center, the harmonies stayed firmly nailed in. Part cello metal, part Zorn string piece, it was a clever study in contradictions – a depiction of a composer struggling to break free of convention, maybe?

Murat Çolak’s electroacoustic Orchid, an astigmatic mashup of eras, idioms and atmospheres, blended grey-sky horizontality, hazily uneasy percussion and shards of brooding, acerbically chromatic Turkish classical music. What would have been even more fun is if there’d been a second ensemble for the group onstage to duel it out with instead of doing haphazardly (and cruelly difficult) polyrhythms with the laptop, clarinetist Vicky Wright front and center. In a similar vein, Japanese/Dutch composer Yu Oda’s Everybody Is Brainwashed blended a simple, cliched EDM thump with live cajon and a simple, rather cloying violin theme that more than hinted at parody.

Like the opening piece, Eric Wubbels’ mini-suite Life-Still – one of several world premieres on the bill – had an aleatoric (improvisational) element, its simple, carefully considered, resonant accents gradually building into a distantly starlit lullaby. For the final movement, string and reed players switched to bells and brought it down to a comfortable landing.

Daniel Tacke’s Musica Ricercata/Musica Poetica for viola, clarinet and vibraphone. followed a similarly starry, nocturnal trajectory, a fragmentary canon at quarterspeed or slower, inspired by the motion of voices in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Putting two such rapturously calm pieces back to back made for a quietly powerful anti-coda. A final number was derailed by technical difficulties, a rare event at this festival: watching it was like being in an iso booth in a recording session with bad headphones and wondering what everybody else was doing. 

Tonight’s show at the Kitchen continues the festival’s vast global sweep with music for piano, viola and percussion. Thursday’s lineup promises to be more lush and expansive; according to Tarantino, Friday’s looks inward, deeply. The final night, Saturday, features all sorts of unusual instruments in addition to those typically employed by chamber orchestra Novus NY. If you happen to miss these, the summer programming is something to look forward to.

April 26, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.

The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.

Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.

The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.

April 19, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment