Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the bar from a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Been a Typically Eclectic Year at Upper Manhattan’s Home for Adventurous New Classical Sounds

If new classical music is your thing, don’t let any possible twee, gentrifier associations scare you away from the Miller Theatre‘s series of so-called “pop-up” concerts. For almost a decade now, Columbia’s comfortable auditorium at the top of the stairs at the 116th St. stop on the 1 train has been home to an often spectacularly good series of free, early evening performances of 21st century works along with the occasional blast from the past. The name actually reflects how impromptu these shows were during the series’ first year, and while the schedule now extends several months ahead, new events still do pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes there’s free beer and wine, sometimes not, but that’s not the main attraction, testament to how consistently solid the programming here has become.

This past fall’s first concert was a revelatory world premiere of John Zorn’s new JMW Turner-inspired suite for solo piano, played with virtuosic verve by Steven Gosling; that one got a rave review here. The October episode, with indie classical chamber ensemble Counterinduction playing an acerbic, kinetic series of works by their charismatic violist Jessica Meyer, was also fantastic. Various permutations of the quintet, Meyer joined by violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, clarinetist and bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland and pianist Ning Yu began with the dappled shades of I Only Speak of the Sun, then brought to life the composer’s many colorful perspectives on Guadi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in a dynamic, high-voltage partita. The most bracing number of the evening, Meyer explained, drew on a David Foster Wallace quote regarding how “ the truth will set you free, but not until it lets you go,”

There were many other memorable moments here throughout the past year. In February, Third Sound played an assured but deliciously restless take of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 along with a mixed bag of material from south of the border. A month later, pianist Marilyn Nonken parsed uneasily lingering works by Messiaen and Tristan Murail.

Then in April, Rebecca Fischer delivered a fascinating program of solo violin pieces along with some new solo arrangements. The highlight was a solo reinvention of Missy Mazzoli‘s incisively circling Death Valley Junction. Fischer also ran through an increasingly thorny, captivating Paola Prestini piece, along with brief, often striking works by Lisa Bielawa, Gabriela Lena Frank and Suzanne Farrin.

Last month, Tak Ensemble tackled elegantly minimalist chamber material by Tyshawn Sorey and Taylor Brook. And December’s concert featured firebrand harpist Bridget Kibbey, who played the Bach Toccata in D faster than any organist possibly could, then slowed down for simmering, relatively short pieces by Albeniz and Dvorak among others.

The next Miller Theatre “pop-up” concert on the calendar is next January 21 at 6 PM with violinist Lauren Cauley.

December 23, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dreamy, Hypnotic Holiday Celebration with Roomful of Teeth and Tigue at the Guggenheim

Last night Roomful of Teeth sang a cocooning, dynamically pulsing, brilliantly conceived site-specific program, beneath and sometimes on the rotunda at the Guggenheim Museum. Conductor Brad Wells marveled at the space’s natural reverb, whose benefits were bolstered by the presence of percussion trio Tigue on several numbers.

The night’s most striking and hauntingly memorable song was Sarah Riskind‘s 2016 Hanerot Halalu, based on a stark melody in the chromatic Jewish freygish mode. Tynan Davis introduced that one from the second level of the balcony, the rest of the octet gathered on the ground-floor stage, Esteli Gomez eventually tossing the melody back up to her with similar elegance. Counterintuitively, the choir reconvened and followed with Gustav Holst’s wistful, folksy 1906 song In the Bleak Midwinter.

To open the evening, Tigue held the ground floor with their subtle, snowy accents while the choir, gathered four flights up on the balcony, delivered an emphatic, minimalistic new arrangement of Praetorius’ 1609 motet Lo, How a Rose. Caroline Shaw, who seems to have become the ringleader of this merry band, explained that the night’s bill was “A mix of the familiar and the unknown, by design,” works selected to rise up and ripple around the space. The two ensembles would come full circle at the end with more stately, reverent Praetorius, Tigue up on the balcony this time with handbells to add delicate tingle to the mix.

The night’s most dramatic, dynamically charged piece was Caleb Burhans‘ 2010 partita Beneath, ascending and falling with catchy, simple riffs punctuating slowly crescendoing, tectonic layers. Shaw described the world premiere of On Snow, which the Guggenheim’s Works and Process series (of which this concert was a part) had commissioned from her, as being “Music of the 17th century melting bit by bit.” The ensemble couldn’t conceal the fun they were having with the music’s coy, loopy, swoopy motives, bolstered by an elegant, slow crescendo by Tigue, from a ripple to a rumble.

Jeremy Faust’s Jubilo came across as a purposeful blend of minimalism and Renaissance polyphony. The choir followed the dreamy counterpoint of the 16th century Coventry Carol with the steady wave motion of Wells’ 2014 composition Render. Then Tigue built a matter-of-fact yet playful thicket of polyrhythms, the choir eventually interpolating airy swells and gentle gusts.

After the rhythmically pulsing variations of Judah Adashi‘s 2014 Bjork-inspired piece My Heart Comes Undone, the whole crew – also including baritone Jason Awbrey, bass Cameron Beauchamp, tenor Eric Dudley, baritone Jeffrey Gavett, sopranos Abigail Lennox  and Sarah Brailey – seemed to relish the wryly dipping, undulating quasi-mordents of Shaw’s Sarabande, from her Pulitzer Prizewinning 2011 suite.

This was the final concert at the Guggenheim this year. The museum’s events series continues next year with plenty of dance, opera and theatre as well.

December 17, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Gravitas and Playful Beats with the Karuna Trio at Lincoln Center

This past evening at Lincoln Center, the Karuna Trio shifted between nocturnes and space jams. The nocturnes were intense and brooding, sometimes bordering on the macabre; the space jams ranged from starry effervescence to deep-nebula murk. Considering how many Euro-tourists pass through Jazz at Lincoln Center on any given night, free jazz like this would go over well at a space that so rarely programs it.

But it was great to see the trio of percussionist Adam Rudolph, drummer Hamid Drake and pianist Alexis Marcelo spinning all those sounds out of thin air, a couple of blocks to the north. Creative music tends to be all or nothing: when it’s good, there’s really nothing better. But free jazz also attracts some of the most annoyingly self-indulgent, pretentious players around. You know the type: they only play free jazz because if, perish the thought, they might actually have to say something meaningful, or acknowlege, let alone converse with their bandmates, that might limit their precious self-expression. So watching these three pros teaming up to build a majestic series of waves, and then ride them, was redemptive to say the least. Not to mention a lot of fun.

This was a leisurely, thoughtful performance, the three players leaving plenty of space for each other to think out where they’d go next, or respond to an idea that someone had thrown into the mix, and that empowered the audience just as much. Which made sense, considering Drake’s opening remarks that the spectators are just as integral to a concert as the musicians.

Marcelo played both the role of anchor and outlier. Opening with flickering, light-dappled phrases, then shifting to ominously resonant, vampy chromatic themes often enhanced by or echoing from a synthesizer perched above the keys, he was the dark knight of this soul. Other times, it was clear that the two drummer buds were going to lock in on a long series of subtly interwoven polyrhythms, with Marcelo adding color and texture, and after knocking at the door with one long hammering phrase, finally pulled the two percussionists back out of the sun and into the shadows.

There was also a playful, salsa-tinged interlude initiated by Marcelo; rippling echoes of Satie and the neoromantics; a pause for trinket noisemakers, an unselfconsciously funny one for singing bowls; hints of birdsong and deep-forest wildlife; and a final gnawa-influenced interlude with Rudolph on sintir and Drake on daf frame drum that was beside the point. Anyone in the house who was at this same space a couple of years ago to witness some of Morocco’s great maalems of gnawa music would have recognized that for the ersatz groove that it was. But the depth, and rapture, and generous interplay of the first four-fifths of the show lingered after the trio had left the stage.

Rudolph and his Go Organic Orchestra team up with the Brooklyn Raga Massive to create a monstrous, improvisational forty-person raga orchestra tomorrow night, Dec 13 at 7 PM at CUNY’s Elebash Hall at 365 5th Ave. just north of 34th St.; cover is $25. This year’s final free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on Dec 19 at 7:30 PM with Los Rumberos del Callejón bringing their oldschool salsa dura sound out of the alley. The salsa dance concerts here are insanely popular; showing up a half hour early wouldn’t be a bad idea

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

An Exhilirating, Revelatory Carnegie Hall Debut by the Aizuri Quartet

In their Carnegie Hall debut last night, the Aizuri Quartet played an exhilarating, “wonderfully quirky” program, as violinist Miho Saegusa grinningly characterized a lively, animatedly conversational performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 64, no. 2. And that wasn’t the highlight of the night. The suite of Komitas’ Armenian folk songs, via a colorful Sergei Aslamazian arrangement, were often gorgeously poignant. And Paul Wiancko‘s 2016 triptych Lift, an “ode to joy,” as violist Ayane Kozasa put it, was a thrilling, ceaslessly bustling, distinctly urban choice of coda. Wiancko is a cellist by trade: his work for strings takes maximum advantage of all those instruments can offer.

The theme of the night was “locally sourced” music inspired by the composers’ home turf that also resonated with the group members. Cellist Karen Ouzounian explained that the night’s five dances collected by Komitas – a Near Eastern musical polymath and proto Alan Lomax– were “a musical link for a lot of families in the diaspora to a distant home…a tiny window into Armenia.” Growing up in Toronto, she’d developed a passion for the repertoire, something the group clearly share.

The wistfully waltzing song without words they opened with set the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the night, lit up with Saegusa’s sparkling pizzicato. They’d revisit that plaintiveness with the third piece, a distantly Viennese-tinged waltz, Kozasa adding aching intensity with a solo toward the end. In between, a kinetic, celebratory number featured forceful call-and-response and a nimble pizzicato bassline from Ouzounian. The acerbic fourth tune, with its uneasy, Iranian-tinged modalities and stormy gusts, morphed into a jauntier waltz that set the stage for a bounciy vamping conclusion.

In the Haydn, violinist Emma Frucht got to indulge in some unusual single-string voicings that the composer had written for a string-playing buddy. The group reveled in the occasional puckish, peek-a-boo moment and coy instants of anticipation: they’d really taken the quartet apart to find all the best jokes. Dynamics were very hushed in the quietest passages, so that when the group really dug into the Romany-inspired minor-key phrases that Haydn would inevitably smooth out, the effect was all the more striking. Deft handoffs of neatly interwoven counterpoint between the instruments became more animated as the music grew more straightforwardly triumphant, to a playful coda.

Wiancko’s triptych had a cinematic restlessness, a hive of activity built around several intriguing thematic variations. The ensemble kicked it off memorably with a shiver of harmonics, quickly hitting a bustle that brought to mind Charles Mingus’ mid-50s work. Seemingly tongue-in-cheek rounds of pizzicato gave way to circular, Philip Glass-ine phrasing and some of the night’s most unselfconsciously lustrous harmonies between the violins. As the piece went on, lively swoops and dives along with a long series of short, colorful solo spots for each of the instruments mingled with hazy atmospherics, Debussy-esque echoes of ragtime and a return to a frenetic cityscape to tie up any possible loose end. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd exploded with a series of standing ovations.

The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York gig is Dec 15 at 11 AM at Subculture, playing a program TBA; cover is $20, which includes coffee and breakfast snacks. Concert Artists Guild, who sponsored this show, also have a characteristically innovative series of performances from future stars of the serious instrumental music world. Their next one is Feb 11, 2020 at 7:30 PM back at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with pianist Yi-Nuo Wang playing works by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Brahms, Chen-yi Lee and Liszt; tix are $30.

December 5, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High Voltage Latin Jazz with Dayramir Gonzalez & Cuba enTRANCe at Lincoln Center

It would probably be overhype to call pianist Dayramir Gonzalez the missing link between Eddie Palmieri and McCoy Tyner. But at his thundering, intense show last week Lincoln Center, Gonzalez and his booming ensemble Cuba enTRANCe strongly brought to mind both of those two icons. With a crushing lefthand attack, stampeding the entire length of the keys, Gonzalez’s intensity never relented. Nobody knows better than he does that the piano is a percussion instrument.

If that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez made sure he had plenty more torrential beats on hand, with both drums and congas in the band: each player got plenty of time in the spotlight and used it explosively. Contrastingly, Gonzalez’s bassist – playing a five-string model with an extra B on the low end – held the center, tersely and calmly, with his judicious, resonant slides and the occasional chord to drive a big crash home.

The quartet opened with a shapeshifting, majestic jazz waltz, introducing the calm/frenetic bass/piano dynamic that would last the duration of the night. The second number, Moving Foward, was a bristling, modally-charged epic, the thunder punctuated by Gonzalez’s glistening cascades and a couple of more moody, suspenseful interludes where the rhythm dropped back.

He explained that as a kid, he’d followed his mom’s advice that “Una sonrisa abre puertas,” building on that idea with Smiling, a more pointillistic, leaping number. He brought it down afterward with a solo ballad from his debut album, Grand Concourse, which was party salsa jazz and part late Beatles. The rest of the set was just as dynamic: loopy, catchy riffage over polyrhythms; more glistening, darkly vamping tableaux that were part salsa and part Chopin; sad boleroish balladry and pouncing, carnaval-esque party themes. Gonzalez spoke eloquently to the similarities between the refugee crisis in Europe and the one further south on this continent; he even sang a little. The crowd clapped along, hitting a salsa groove without any prompting. Right now, Gonzalez seems to be better known in Europe than he is here, and that’s a crime. His next gig is on Dec 4 at 8 PM at Vibrato Grill Jazz, 2930 N Beverly Glen Cir in Los Angeles; cover is $30.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues tonight, Dec 2, with an earlier, 7 PM show featuring Strings & Skins, who combine Colombian and Haitian dance grooves. There are also many other performances in the neighborhood until 9; if you can handle the cold, follow the sound.

December 2, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fresh New Interpretations and Dazzling Technique from Conrad Tao at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Conrad Tao delivered a performance that offered a glimpse of an unselfconscious bon vivant sensibility along with daunting, world-class chops and and frequently astonishing insight into a very diverse program.

Tao played with such precision and and evenness of attack that even the night’s most staccato passages had fluidity. He leveraged the thrill factor with an old orchestral trick, beginning pieces or developing themes from a whispery pianissimo so that when things got loud, they seemed even louder. But what was most impressive is that he’d spent a lot of time under the hood with these works, figuring out exactly what makes them purr…or roar.

He opened with David Lang‘s Cage [sorry dude, titles are capitalized around here], a brisk study in single-note counterpoint and a shout-out to the famously silent American composer. Tao’s matter-of-factness and exactitude enhanced the music’s hypnotic feel: others might not have played this as a nocturne, and that’s their loss.

Others also definitely would not have played Bach’s Tocccata in F Sharp minor, BWV 910 with as much spaciousness, and dynamics, and probably with less or even none of the judicious rubato that Tao would return to again and again throughout the evening. But in so doing, he revealed the love ballad at the heart of the work, its fondly jubilant righthand melody cleverly cached amid the composer’s outwardly morphing phrases. Obviously, Bach on the piano is inevitably going to be iconoclastic: this was as rewarding to hear as it must have been fun to play, Tao gritting his teeth and raising his eyebrows as the web grew more complex.

Another work that got even more time under the microscope, as far as extracting every ambitious flicker of modernity, was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2. Harmonically, it’s almost shockingly more adventurous than the rest of those relatively brief High Romantic iano pieces, most of which he wrote in the 1890s. This one dates from 1917, foreshadowing where he’d go with the Third Piano Concerto and its incessantly shapeshifting jazz-influenced rhythms and flourishes.

Tao delivered Julia Wolfe‘s Earring with acerbity and meticulous, often pointillistic rhythm. There seemed to be a man-versus-machine narrative prefiguring her John Henry suite; here, the machine grew more and more human, with a belltone poignancy. To close the first half of the evening, Tao returned to Lang for another 1990s composition, Wed, an increasingly plaintive, restless, frequently carrilonesque ballad written as a salute to a couple who got married while the bride lay dying in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the second half of the program was a breathtakingly expressive and fresh performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Counterintuitively, the high point was also the quietest section, awash in resonant, lingering phrases, the contrast even greater considering how fast Tao had scampered, if not particularly loudly, through the introduction. Lilting cantabile passages stood out amid minor-key unease and a dance that seemed not only rather Russian but almost phantasmagorical, as Tao worked the dynamics up and down, all the way through to a puckish coda.

There were a couple of misfires too. It’s one thing to program a study in spastic/resonant contrasts, but two? At least the Jason Eckart piece eventually wound down to a blackly suspenseful reflecting pool…but getting there, as the rhythm was epileptically jerked around any time the music could have coalesced, was torture. Which is not to say that ugly music can’t be meaningful or impactful, but this could have made its point in a tenth the time, never mind the Elliott Carter piece it was paired with. And the mawkishly inept freak-folk of Daniel Johnston is no less artless or awkward at Carnegie Hall than it would be on open mic night at any grungy, overpriced Bushwick beardo bar.

November 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Picturesque Brilliance and Rare Treasures at Vasco Dantas’ New York Debut

“Feel free to create your own story for each of these preludes,” pianist Vasco Dantas encouraged the big crowd who’d come out for his New York debut at Carnegie Hall yesterday. Playing from memory for the better part of two hours, he gave them a panoramic view from five thousand feet. The music didn’t need titles or explanations: whatever was there, he brought out in stunning focus.

The most highly anticipated part of the program comprised a very rarely performed, pentatonically-spiced suite, Portuguese composer Luis de Freitas Branco’s 10 Preludios. Interspersing these World War I vintage pieces with five from Debussy’s 1910 Book 1 might well seem ludicrous on face value. But in a particularly sharp stroke of programming, Dantas had rearranged them so that, at least for those familiar with the French composer, there was never a question as to who was who.

And Branco’s music in many ways is more Debussy than Debussy himself: what a discovery! An Asian influence, often gamelanesque, sometimes mystical, was ubiquitous, as were close harmonies that sometimes reached an aching unresolve. Taking his time to let the narratives unfold, Dantas revealed a lullaby cached inside the ripples of Branco’s first prelude, followed by the vigorously waltzing, chiming incisiveness of the second.

The first of the Debussy works, The Sunken Cathedral, was also a revelation in that the pianist bookended its opulent languor and nebulous mysticism around a sternly rhythmic midsection: this was one striking edifice rising from the depths! Other delightful Debussy moments abounded, particularly the deviously blithe song within a song in What the West Wind Saw, and the momentary fish out of water amidst the sun-splattered ripples of Sails.

The rest of the Branco preludes glittered with minute detail. Spare, wintry impressionism moved aside for sharp-fanged, modally-tinged phantasmagoria and a slightly muted mockery of a march. The most dramatic interlude was in Branco’s Modern Ride of the Valkyries, its grim chromatics bordering on the macabre. The most technically challenging was the Preludio No. 5, Branco’s own relentlessly torrential counterpart to Debussy’s famous hailstorm shredding the vegetation.

Dantas brought equally telescopic brilliance to an old favorite of the Halloween repertoire, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet not once did he go over the line into grand guignol: he left no doubt that this was a requiem. Who would have expected the carnivalesque creepiness of The Gnome to be dignified, and balanced, with just as much quasi-balletesque grace? The Old Castle may be a familiar horror theme, but Dantas’ insistently tolling low pedal notes left no doubt that this was in memory of a most original friend.

There were a few points where Dantas brought the menace to just short of redline – those were truly mad cows! – but otherwise, this was about poignancy and reflection. Dantas’ unwavering, perfectly articulated, otherworly chattering phrases in Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks were spine-tingling. The contrasts between the elegant Samuel Goldenberg and his lumbering namesake from the boondocks were striking yet sympathetic. Similarly, the grief in Dantas’ vast, desolate interpretation of The Catacombs was visceral, as was the unexpectedly distant horror of Baba Yaga. And he drew a straight line all the way back to Beethoven with the long crescendos and false endings after the whirling, evilly gleeful peasant dance in The Great Gate of Kiev.

After a series of standing ovations, he encored with his own gleaming, moodily Chopinesque arrangement of the Burnay Fado, from his home turf, complete with sparkly ornamentation mimicking a Portuguese twelve-string guitar. Let’s hope this individualistic rescuer of obscure and forgotten repertoire makes it back here soon.

November 18, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caroline Shaw and the Attacca Quartet Rock Their New Classical Sounds at Lincoln Center

Why did the Attacca Quartet‘s performance of an all-Caroline Shaw program at Lincoln Center last night seem so much more vibrant, and ablaze with color, compared to a meticulous concert of much of the same material at National Sawdust back in 2016? This time out, the group seemed to size up the sonics and decided to go for broke – the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is much more of a “live room” than the Williamsburg venue.

The fact that they’ve had so many months in between to get the music in their fingers was obviously a factor. And the composer was out in front of the ensemble, singing, channeling a jubilant rapport together that comes from years of collaborating.

Introducing the group, Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Leigh entreated the audience to stay off their screens and get lost in the music. And this was a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd; it’s as if the hordes of people who come out for the monthly salsa dance concerts here had come out for this one too. Anybody who thinks that classical music is dead wasn’t here.

The quartet opened with Valencia, a shout-out to a particularly juicy orange, an increasingly intricate interweave of subtly morphing, circular phrases contrasting with warmly emphatic riffage, a lot of spiky pizzicato handoffs between group members – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee,

Shaw then joined them for a couple of art-songs: Stars in My Crown, where they pushed the boundaries of a calmly wistful Appalachian ballad further and further toward the edge, and Cant Voi L’aube, a stately, increasingly complex reinvention of a medieval French minstrel tune with a “forget me not” theme. Shaw has sung here before, as part of energetic indie classical choir Roomful of Teeth, and she was electrifying then. But getting to see her singing lead out in front of the quartet was a revelation. What a powerful, expressive, nuanced voice, completely in command as the harmonies grew more adventurous and the volume rose and fell. She was good when she used to play with Robin Aigner‘s oldtimey Americana band at Barbes back in the zeros; she’s a force of nature now.

She hinted that the seven-part suite Plan & Elevation – a guided tour of Washington’s Dunbarton Oaks garden – would be a thrill ride: “It gets pretty attacca,” she deadpanned. It’s a modern-day DC counterpart to Respighi’s Fountains of Rome: wild and crazy things seem to happen there, as Shaw seems to see it, juxtaposed with moments of hushed, verdant rapture.

She returned to the mic for a plaintive reinvention of the old hymn I’ll Fly Away: the poignancy in her delivery as she sang, “Take these shackles from my feet” was shattering. The song after that sliced and diced riffs from a couple of unfamliar top 40 songs beneath a familiar, rosy Gertrude Stein quote, a friend of Shaw’s joining the ensemble and playing daunting counterrhythms on a bowl of water tuned just a hair off, enhancing the persistent unease.

The quartet danced through the joyous anticipation and technical challenges of Entr’Acte, with plucks and harmonics and the occasional devious glissando. They closed the concert on a counterintuitive note with And So, fading down to an extended hush.

The Attacca Quartet are playing the album release show for Schram’s new electroacoustic record at the second-floor space at 1 Rivington St. on Nov 23 at 8 PM; cover is $20/$10 stud/srs. The next concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space is tonight, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM with percussionist Edwin Bonilla and his oldschool salsa band. Get there early if you want to get in and dance.

November 15, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, children's music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Neave Trio Play Transcendent Works by Women Composers at Subculture

Earlier today, was the Neave Trio’s most sublime moment when violinist Anna Williams broke out an aching vibrato during a plaintive solo over a single raptly resonant Eri Nakamura piano chord? Or was it when Nakamura played a savagely sarcastic “charge” motif in the lefthand while whirling through evilly glittering circles with her right?

All that and a lot more happened during their performance of Rebecca Clarke’s 1921 Piano Trio. It’s a shatttering work, as good as anything Bartok or Shostakovich ever wrote at their most translucent. How rewarding it was to discover it on the group’s new album Her Voice, a collection of pieces by women composers. How much more of a thrill it was to see the group play it live at Subculture as part of the ongoing weekly GatherNYC series.

Built around a haunting minor-key chromatic riff, it was the one piece on the bill that gave cellist Mikhail Veselov the most time in the spotlight, particularly when he wove a battlefield haze of harmonies with Williams as Nakamura receded. An unexpectedly puckish coda to the second movement drew spontaneous applause; the danse macabre reprised at the end was even more chillingly vivid.

Likewise, disquiet remained at the forefront throughout most of another work from the new album, Amy Beach’s lushly cantabile Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 150, from 1938. Nakamura’s glimmering phrasing seemed both more crepuscular and muscular than on the album, up to a striking coda to wind up the first movement. The quasi-nostalgic waltz of the second and the echoes of Debussy and boogie-woogie woven into this shapeshifting nocturne at the end also had a welcome vigor.

As an encore, the trio rushed through a burst of Piazzolla, a momentary deviation from the album concept. Before the performance, Williams related how the trio were originally going to title the record 1.8, reflecting the percentage of women composers’ work being programmed by major orchestras  according to a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey. Things may have improved since then, but not enough.

There was also storytelling, a jarring interruption that brought to mind a song by a brilliant female composer who wasn’t on the bill, Americana tunesmith Karen Dahlstrom. The protagonist in the first number on her new album finds herself in a New Orleans bar, sitting across from a guy who unbuttons his shift to show her his jailhouse tattoos. She doesn’t say anything, but thinks to herself, “I’ve weathered storms worse than these.”

The Neave Trio’s next performance is Nov 16 at 7:30 PM at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 71 N Main St. in Randolph, Vermont, including these works along with music by Cécile Chaminade and Jennifer Higdon. Cover is $25.

Next week’s installment of the GatherNYC series at Subculture (downstairs from the Culture Project Theatre at the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette) is at 11 AM on Nov 17 with chamber brass ensemble the Westerlies. Seemingly modeled on Lincoln Center’s hourlong Sunday morning “coffee concerts” at the Walter Reade Theatre, there’s java and breakfast snacks (before the show rather than after)…and possibly storytelling as well. Cover is $20.

November 10, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment