Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ben Holmes Brings His Darkly Tuneful Naked Lore Project Back to Barbes

Trumpeter Ben Holmes has been a mainstay of the Barbes scene practically since the beginning. With roots in klezmer, Balkan music and postbop jazz, he will often shift between all three idioms in the course of a single song…or even a single solo. Blasting away with endless volleys of notes is not his thing: his full, resonant tone, which comes out especially when he’s on the flugelhorn, pervades his dark chromatics, moments of sardonic humor and unselfconsciously poignant lyricism. Over the years he’s played the Park Slope hotspot with all sorts of bands, from legendary pianist Pete Sokolow’s Tarras Band to the Yiddish Art Trio, and most recently, with Big Lazy.

That iconic noir trio have experimented with horns many times over the years, but Holmes is the one trumpeter who really gets their ilngering menace. He sat in with the band after a more distantly uneasy set with his Naked Lore trio at the end of August and held the crowd rapt with his spacious, enigmatic lines and occasional stalker-from-the-shadows burst. Big Lazy guitarist/frontman Steve Ulrich likes to employ horns to max out the suspense in his crime jazz themes, and Holmes picked up on that in an instant. He also added spicy hints of Ethiopian style to a couple of more recent, rather epic Big Lazy numbers which look back to the group’s days of deep, dark dub exploration in the early zeros. Big Lazy’s next gig is at 8:30 PM this Dec 6 at Bar Lunatico.

Holmes’ set with Naked Lore to open that August Barbes gig was a chance to see how tightly the trio have refined their sound over the past several months. Guitarist Brad Shepik had cut the fret finger on his left hand – and was playing acoustic. Was he going to be able to pull this off? Hell yeah – even when that meant running tricky, syncopated cyclical phrases over and over, as he did on one recent number, or chopping his way through fluttery tremolo-picked passages. Was there any blood? Not sure – Shepik played the set seated next to drummer Shane Shanahan, and the venue was crowded, so it was sometimes hard to see the stage.

What’s become obvious lately is how prolific Holmes has been, and how vast his catalog of unrecorded material is. The best song of the set was a diptich of sorts that he’d begun as an attempt to write a pastoral jazz tune, but then he “Lapsed into freygish mode,” as he put it, drifting into biting Middle Eastern microtones as the melody grew more overcast. Naked Lore are back at Barbes on Dec 8 at 8 PM on a typically excellent if bizarre Saturday night bill. Trombonist Ron Hay’s fascinating Erik Satie Quartet – who reinvent works by Satie and other early 20th century composers as pieces for brass and winds – open the evening at 4 PM; bizarro, unpredictable psychedelic salsa revivalist Zemog El Gallo Bueno plays afterward at 10.

And catching the debut of Holmes’ brand-new trio earlier this month, again at Barbes, was a revelation. The not-so-secret weapon in this band is pianist Carmen Staaf. Among the sort-of-new, “rising star” generation of New York pianists, only Arco Sandoval can match her in terms of consistent edge, imagination and tunefulness. In fact, the best song of the night, built around a clenched-teeth, circling minor-key riff, might have been hers. Holmes’ own picturesque, pensive tunes gave her a springboard for plenty more of that. While Shanahan’s playing with Holmes is spacious, terse and part of a close interweave, this group’s drummer, Jeff Davis romped and thumped behind the kit, raising the energy at the show several notches. They closed with a funky, catchy number of his. Where Naked Lore is all about close attunement and interplay, this group is just the opposite: three very different personalities in contrast. Let’s hope this trio stay together and reach the depths that Naked Lore have been able to sink their chops into.

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December 2, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leila Bordreuil Cooks Up Murk and Mysticism at the Kitchen

That Leila Bordreuil could sell out the Kitchen on Thanksgiving eve testifies to the impact the French-born cellist has had on the New York experimental music scene. After a long residency at Issue Project Room, she keeps raising the bar for herself and everybody else. This past evening she led a six-bass septet through her latest and arguably greatest creation, the Piece for Cello and Double Bass Ensemble II. To call it a feast of low tonalities would be only half the story.

At the concert’s stygian, rumbling, enveloping peak, it was impossible to tell who was playing what because the lights had been turned out. In the flicker of phones, backlit by the soundboard’s glow and the deep blue shade from the skylight, six bassists – Zach Rowdens, Sean Ali, Britton Powell, Greg Chudzik, Nick Dunston and Vinicius Ciccone Cajado – churned out a relentless low E drone. As they bowed steadily, keening flickers of overtones began to waft over a rumble that grew grittier and grittier, eventually shaking the woofers of the amps. Yet only Bordreuil seemed to be using a pedalboard, first for crackling cello-metal distortion, then grey noise, then flitting accents akin to a swarm of wasps circling a potential prey. Still, the overall ambience was comforting to the extreme, a womblike berth deep in a truly unsinkable Titanic, diesels at full power behind a bulkhead.

The rest of the show was more dynamic,and counterintuitive. Bordreuil didn’t begin to play until the bassists had gradually worked their way up from a stark drone, Ali and Dunston introducing fleeting high harmonics for contrast. Beyond that, the six guys didn’t move around much individually. The second movement began with the composer leading a pitch-and-follow sequence of slow midrange glissandos, then she deviated to enigmatic microtonal phrases over the somber washes behind her. The final movements were surprisingly rapt and quiet – and much further up the scale, a whispery, ghostly series of variations on high harmonic pitches.

Methodically working a series of mixers and a small keyboard, opening act Dylan Scheer turned in an entertaining, texturally diverse, industrially icy set of kinetic stoner soundscapes. Flying without a net is hard work, and Scheer made it look easy, dexterously shifting from an echoey, metallic drainpipe vortex, to gamelanesque rings and pings, starrily oscillating comet trails and hints of distant fireworks followed by allusions to a thumping dancefloor anthem that never materialized. That the set went on as long as it did – seemingly twice as long as the headliners – could have been intentional. It was also too loud. The Kitchen is a sonically superior space: sounds that get lost in the mix elsewhere remain in the picture here. So there was no need to blast the audience with almost supersonic highs which gained painfully, to the point that the earplugs the ushers were handing out became necessary.

Bordreuil’s next show is at Jack in Fort Greene on Nov 29 at 8 PM with her trio with Ali and violist Joanna Mattrey.

November 21, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

Whether Russian orchestras actually play Shostakovich better, or French organists are best suited to perform the work of Louis Vierne, are debatable questions. What was indisputable last night was how vastly attuned the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were to their countryman Arvo Part’s somber, rapturous mysticism. It’s impossible to think of a more apt program for a New York series called Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

The concert was a confluence of unlikely serendipities. Beyond the rare opportunity to witness these two legendary ensembles together on American soil, the material on the bill was what many consider to be peak-era Part. Everything dated from1990 and later, with one of the arrangements a 2018 North American premiere. Better yet, the composer himself had suggested the inclusion of his soberly crescendoing, cell-like 2006 string orchestra piece, Fur Lennart in Memoria.

On a macro level, the performance was as meticulously serious as its overall gloom was pervasive and relentless. In particular, conductor Tonu Kaljuste made masterful use of the innumerable spaces that punctuated these works, leting the natural reverb of the high-ceilinged Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola resonate as profoundly as the music itself.

The ensembles only missed the big American costume-party holiday by a couple of weeks. To be fair, the only point where the sound reached fullscale horror was in the stalking pulse, gothic chromatics and brief series of muted, shrieking motives in the concluding suite, Adam’s Lament. The message, here as elsewhere, seemed to be that no human alone should have to bear the burden of being cast out of paradise, all alone in a hostile world.

The rest of the program was every bit as troubled and serious. Even celeste player Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann’s graceful comet-trail phrases and bittersweet starriness tended to simply mingle with the otherwise rather stygian, even creepy tones of Salve Regina. Mysterious bass drones anchored alternately moody and robust accents and call-and-response from the choir throughout an understatedly dynamic take of Part’s Berliner Messe, the oldest piece they performed. The string orchestra brought a gorgeous, Gorecki-like, hypnotically circling ambience to Silouan’s Song, rising to a windswept ethereality. And the Prayer, from Part’s Kanon Pokajanen suite, perfectly synopsized the concert’s slow, steady, spacious majesty, artfully developed variations on simple, emphatic phrases and lustrous contrast between highs and lows from both the singers and the strings.

The two ensembles are currently on US tour; the next stop is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. in Stanford, California; you can get in for $32, less if you’re a student. After more lighthearted holiday fare next month, Sacred Music in a Sacred Space’s programming keeps the intensity high with a performance by longtime St. Ignatius organist Renee-Anne Louprette with uilleann piper Ivan Goff on Jan 20 at 3 PM; tix are $25.

November 13, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a different solo instrument, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.

November 11, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Years of Celebrating Howard Zinn and Freedom Fighters at Lincoln Center

This past evening was the fourth annual Lincoln Center celebration of freedom fighters from across the decades, inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. A partnership with Manhattan’s High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, the night featured an all-star cast from years past along with some new high-profile artists lending their names to the festival, a mix of readings plus soaring oldschool soul and gospel staples delivered by mighty crooner Zeshan B.

It was a way “To continue to think about way to hope and improve and make our own impact… I think we saw that on Tuesday with so many people coming out and voting,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh reaffirmed, introducing Staceyann Chin’s defiant reading of Marge Piercy’s colorful arithmetic concerning how to start a movement. Chin brought the night full circle at the end with Angela Davis’ remarks at the first Women’s March on Washington, reminding that “History cannot be deleted like webpages.”

Akema Kochiyama – daughter of Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama – read fifteen-year-old telephone operator Michiko Yamaoka’s harrowing account of the Hiroshima bombings: “People couldn’t scream, even when they were onfire…I wonder what kind of education there is in America about atomic bombs. They’re still making them, aren’t they?” Kochiyama’s mom’s account of Japanese-Americans sent to concentration camps during World War II was just as insightful if less outright chilling: “How little you learn about American history: you learn only what they want you to know.” 

Brian Jones delivered Jermain Wesley Loguen’s famously dismissive letter to his former slavemaster, whose demand that he return to the plantation set the bar Bushwick-level high as far as entitlement is concerned. Later Jones recounted Martin Luther King’s 1967 remarks to the SCLC on the inevitability of taking the Civil Rights Movement to the ne xt level, fighting economic injustice.

Trisha Johnson brought plenty of fire to Frederick Douglass’s 1852 anti-slavery address to a group of upstate New York ladies. Leta Renee-Allen channeled righteous rage in Susan B. Anthony’s address to the court who convicted her of illegally voting, Jones relishing the role of the clueless sentencing judge who constantly interrupted her. The correlation between the civil disobedience of Underground Railroad freedom fighters and the women’s suffrage movement went over big with the crowd.

Imogen Poots got the part of Lowell Mills striker Harriet Hanson Robinson, in her account of how many decades of struggle and resistance preceded the eventual workers’ hard-earned victory. “Whoever heard of these eight-hour days? No one expected decent wages,” Poots reminded later, in the words of Depression-era organizer Rose Chernin, whose battle against ruthless landlords and profiteer shopkeepers resonates mightily today. After fighting fire with fire, metaphorically at least, “Within two years we had rent control in the Bronx.”

“If there’s any national anthem we should stand for, it’s this one, Zeshan B said, introducing his soaring solo vocal-and-harmonium take of James Weldon Johnson’s Raise Every Voice and Sing: the crowd agreed. Later he raised the roof with a Sam Cooke Civli Rights-era staple. Another calmer but no less rousing musical piece was Eva Davis‘ take of a popular, starkly gospel-infused Bernice Johnson Reagon protest song.

Renee-Allen returned to the mic for Genora Dolinger’s gutsy, plainspoken account of the 1930s General Motors sitdown strikes. Wallace Shawn was aptly cast as a perplexed Howard Zinn contemplating cognitive dissonance in late 1960s politics: Daniel Berrigan behind bars while J. Edgar Hoover got to roam free, the National Guard firing on students at Kent State who were subsequently arrested.

Jessica Pimentel brought a straightforward articulacy to Assata Shakur’s description of life on Rikers Island: “American capitalism is in no way threatened by the women on Rikers,” eighty percent of who were there because of drugs. “They have taken away our gardens and our sweet potato pies and have given us McDonalds, dope and televisions as culture.” 

And in somewhat more recent developments, she voiced Standing Rock activist Julian Brave Noisecat’s sardonic insight as to how much the project continues an ugly tradition of American colonialism.

The atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is pretty much unrivalled in midtown for relevant programming. The multimedia performance by catchy, anthemic janglerock band No-No Boy – who explore the history and aftereffects of Japanese-American internment during World War II – on Nov 15 at 7:30 PM promises to be especially insightful. The show is free; get there early if you’re going.

November 8, 2018 Posted by | drama, gospel music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Relevant Grand Finale to This Year’s Momenta Festival

Over the past four years, the Momenta Festival has become one of New York’s most exciting annual events. Each member of the irrepressibly daring Momenta Quartet takes his or her turn programming a night. The festival usually ends on violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron’s birthday. This year’s grand finale, Friday night at the Tenri Institute, happened to be cellist Michael Haas’ birthday: he and the group celebrated by going starkly deep into a program centered around Bartok’s harrowing String Quartet No. 4. As he explained succinctly before the show, it’s a piece he’d been scheming to play ever since joining the ensemble five years ago.  As was the case last year, admission was free, and there was high-grade craft beer afterward, also courtesy of the hosts. What more could a concertgoer possibly want?

They opened with Eric Nathan’s diptych Four to One, from 2011. Interestingly, this was the only contemporary work on the bill. It set it the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the evening, notwithstanding the iconic Bartok quartet immediately afterward. Right off the bat, it became a harried, relentless, microtonal rollercoaster ride, the group holding fast to the counterpoint amidst the storm. Violist Stephanie Griffin’s plaintive assertions were particularly striking, as was Gendron’s turn in the rather cruel spotlight over a menacing wash in the second part. Haas’ cello was also stark yet prominent: it’s not hard to see why he’d want to program this. It reminded a lot of Michael Hersch’s recent, troubling microtonal work.

The performance of the Bartok turned out to be one of the very best of many witnessed by this blog or its owner over the past couple of decades. The persistent sense of doom the quartet parsed with razorwire intensity had particular resonance in this post-2016 election era. Menacingly emphatic gestures leapt from the dark interweave of the first movement, danger drawing ever closer. The circle dance in the second was just as macabre, especially with the exchanges of voices between instruments. Haas’ plaintive cavatina, echoed incisively by violinist Alex Shiozaki, brought the longing and if-only atmosphere of the third to a peak: it was impossible not to think of Shostakovich being influenced by this when writing his String Quartet No. 7. Both the savagery and after-the-battle emotional depletion of the final movement were just as indelible a reminder of the perilous consequences of fascism. The more things change…

Augmented by the Argus Quartet – violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, cellist Joann Whang and guest violist Rose Hashimoto – the Momentas wound up the program with a triumphantly anthemic take of Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C Major. The young composer wrote it at nineteen in a rather successful attempt to outdo Mendelssohn at teenage octetry. The main theme has a suspenseful Andalucian feel, which grew to echo the Ravel bolero in places: together, the group reveled in the dramatic foreshadowing, even if it grew facile in places. A more mature composer might have written it half as long, but even so, when the synopsis of the final movement finally circled back, there was no denying how much of a party this merry band had brought.

The Momenta Quartet are currently on tour: their next gig is tomorrow night, Oct 24 at 7:30 PM playing works by Agustin Fernandez, Roberto Sierra, Eric Nathan, and Philip Glass at Santa Teresa Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Argus Quartet’s next New York show is on Nov 13 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, playing an excellent, diverse program including Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” along with works by Haydn, Ted Hearne, Juri Seo and Christopher Theofanidis. Cover is $25/$15 stud.

October 23, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Avalon Jazz Band Fuel the Revelry at Symphony Space

On one hand, it was mystifying to see a sold-out crowd sitting sedately through the first three songs of the Avalon Jazz Band’s sold-out show at Symphony Space Thursday night. On the other, it was validating to see the group earning appreciation as a first-class jazz act. Too few swing bands get props for their chops.

This show was the second in a weekly series here called Revelry. Musically speaking, it’s the most exciting thing to happen to the Upper West Side in a long, long time. There were never many venues in the neighborhood to begin with and there are even fewer now. So Symphony Space is really filling a need by booking all sorts of artists who’ve probably never played this far north.

This Thursday, Oct 25 at 8 PM the venue has Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a polymath on oldtime blues guitar, banjo and piano who may be the single most talented musician in all of New York. Ticket buyers 30 and under get in for $20, which is ten bucks off the regular cover charge. The downstairs bar stays open during the show and afterward; last week, ushers were grinningly handing out wristbands which entitled concertgoers to 20% off at the bar. All this is a different kind of return to the venue’s glory days in the late zeros and earlier in this decade when they were booking a ton of global talent in addition to the usual classical and jazz acts.

Last week, it was a four-piece version of Avalon Jazz Band. They opened with a charming, chirpy, playfully conversational take of the old French standard Coquette, frontwoman Tatiana Eva-Marie shimmying and teasing cartoonish riffs – and an irresistibly droll bass solo – from her bandmates. By the night’s third number, people of all ages were beginning to leave their seats and heading down in front of the stage to cut a rug. The snazziest dance moves of the night came from a couple who looked to be in their seventies, clearly old pros at swing dancing.

After starting in Paris, the singer led her quartet to Romany territory – Tatiana is half French and half Romanian – then to New Orleans and finally brought the music full circle. Guitarist Vinny Raniolo aired out his vast bag of riffs, from punchy Django Reinhardt swing, to warily resonant Chicago blues, fleet postbop and some eerie, tremoloing Lynchian resonance capped off with tremolo-picking that was sometimes fluttery and sometimes an icepick attack.

Violinist Gabe Terracciano showed off similar chops, from jaunty Bob Wills-style western swing, to airy Stephane Grappelli-esque phrasing, lots of sabretoothed Romany riffs and stark blues as well. Bassist Wallace Stelzer was amped pleasantly high in the mix, serving as the band’s Secretary of Entertainment with his wry sense of humor, the occasional tongue-in-cheek quote and solos that echoed the guitar.

The songs in the set were just as diverse. They’d played this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival, so that was still on their minds. The highlight of the set was a brooding, saturnine take of Hoagy Carmichael’s New Orleans, with new English lyrics by a Crescent City friend of Tatiana’s. Her original, There’s Always a Moon Over New Orleans made a brisk contrast, inspired by the fact that when the band were down there, they never got up until after the sun went down. They mined the repertoire of Charles Trenet and Charles Aznavour for wistfulness, then went scampering up Menilmontant toward the end of the set. Afterward the crowd filed out to the bar, just as Tatiana – who by the end of the set had drained most of a sizeable glass of whiskey – had been encouraging all night. 

October 22, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drifting Through Dystopia and the Classics with Max Richter

This past evening at the Town Hall, pianist/composer Max Richter joined forces with a string quintet subset of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for a night of elegiacally enveloping, meticulously unfolding themes contemplating the apocalypse and the aftershock of a deadly terrorist attack. To careful listeners, the often hypnotically circling performance was also a guided tour of Richter’s big influences.

The paradigm for composing film music these days is akin to a mathematical proof in reverse, to start from simplest terms and build steadily from there toward whatever drama the script calls for. The sighing two-note riff that Angelo Badalamenti employed to open the Twin Peaks title theme is probably the most effective example. Richter is one of the great masters of that craft, a minimalist who can get maximal if the director needs it.

This was a night of generally very dark music, enhanced by the two cellos – ensemble leader Clarice Jensen and Paul Wianco – alongside violinists Laura Lutzke and Yuki Numata Resnick, and violist Caleb Burhans. The program paired a sonata of sorts, Richter’s 2008 work Infra – arguably the least kinetic ballet score ever written – with theme music from the dystopic sci-fi tv series The Leftovers

The former, a dynamic and often very still piece written to commemorate the July 7, 2005 London tube bombings mashed up Philip Glass and Brian Eno (with a few nods to a Schubert piano trio). The Leftovers score reinvented Bach and also referenced night-sky Beethoven – although the most egregiously clever quote was lifted verbatim from Cesar Franck.

Other than a dissociatively hammering, very effective interlude in the early part of Infra, any third-year piano student could have played Richter’s slow, steady, methodical variations on simple major and minor arpeggios. The brilliance was how judiciously he pieced accidentals into the fabric, from ultraviolet gleam to pitchblende finality. He occasionally switched to electric piano in the music’s starriest moments, particularly during the second half when he used a setting very close to the phantasmic tinkle of a toy piano.

The strings wove Richter’s rises and falls through increasingly complex, Renaissance-inflected counterpoint with similar dexterity. The high point of the night may have been in the early part of Infra, distant comet trails of harmonics sparkling from the strings and anchored by Richter’s simple, emphatic accents and block chords. Jensen’s vigorous propulsion beneath Resnick’s keening flickers brought to life similarly tasty contrasts. When the Leftovers score finally decayed from a dirge to defeated, lingering low-register horizontality, the devastation was visceral.

As vivid as the affinity was between the piano and string section, this was an electroacoustic performance. The lighter, glitchier electronic touches were a minor distraction; the louder ones subsumed the band. Obviously, the economics of touring make it impractical for a group that isn’t funded by all kinds of corporate or nonprofit money to bring along a full choir and low brass section. Considering how much reverb the sound engineer had put on the strings during the second half of the show, witnessing this music stripped to just Richter and the quintet would have been a lot more interesting simply because everybody could have been heard. And these are great musicians. Having to dig in and fight with a recording may have robbed them of the opportunity to play with the extraordinary nuance they’re known for. In those moments, it was impossible to tell.

October 14, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Perfectly Macabre Halloween Month Extravaganza at Green-Wood Cemetery

This past evening, in the the private catacombs buried away in the center of Green-Wood Cemetery, a woman’s high heels echoed over a murmur of sepulchral voices.

Those persistent footfalls belonged to an employee there. But the hushed swirl of voices weren’t coming from cemetery workers. While those sounds were on the quiet side, they were also very lively: the electricity of a sold-out crowd who’d gone deep into the realm of the dead to witness the first of three nights of the grand finale of the series called the Angel’s Share.

Drawing on classics by Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, pianist Gregg Kallor and cellist Joshua Roman built a relentlessly turbulent ambience, less classic horror film score than mashup of postbop jazz, the Second Viennese School and a little Olympian Rick Wakeman bombast. Yet this performance of pieces from Kallor’s current work in progress, a Frankenstein opera, as well as his epic oratorio The Tell-Tale Heart were ultimately less about instrumental pyrotechnics than vocal ones. And what voices these were!

The greatest achievement of Kallor’s scores turned out to be the contrast between the stubborn unresolve of the music and the sheer anthemic catchiness of the vocal melodies. Yet with all the tension and often outright suspense between the two, they were hardly easy to sing. Emerging from (and then eventually skulking back into) the Herrmann family’s private crypt, baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave the Frankenstein monster dignity and gravitas, along with a crushing solitude that rang starkly true to Shelley’s novella. Tenor Brian Cheney, as Dr. Frankenstein, channeled intransigent denial, but his angst grew more harrowing as the dialogue with his creation grew more emotionally charged. The takeaway from Kallor’s interpretation of the story seems to be that if you create monsters, be careful lest you become one. As the suite wound up, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano also offered resolute poignancy as the doctor’s fiancee and quasi-foil.

Kallor then delivered another world premiere, solo, playing The Answer Is Yes, a dedication to Leonard Bernstein (who according to the program notes is a permanent Green-Wood resident). The title is a typically exuberant Bernstein quote from a series of Harvard lectures, and rang true as Kallor methodically shifted gears between distantly Stravinskian, balletesque leaps and bounds, saturnine lustre and a little bittersweet blues. So many other composers  inspired by Bernstein end up aping him. Kallor did nothing of the sort.

Cano then pulled out all the stops in The Tell-Tale Heart. Kallor and Roman edged closer to straight-ahead, chromatically slashing grand guignol as she gave voice to what appeared to be the entire short story. It was a dynamic tour de force that ultimately demanded every bit of available firepower and range-stretching technique. In between those extremes, she delivered furtive puzzlement, and grisly determination, and finally a knockout portrait of sheer madness. Whether modulating her soul-infused vibrato or belting with a crypt-shaking power, she put on a clinic in just about every emotion that could be evinced from this creepy character.

Without spoiling anything else, the costuming and lighting are spot-on and add immensely to the performance’s tension and suspense. Sometimes less is really more: in staging this, the crew really had to become intimate with the space.

The program repeats tomorrow and Friday, Oct 11-12 and is sold out. However, there is a wait list. In their inaugural season, this series became a huge hit with neighborhood folks, so if you are one of them, and ghoulish sounds are your thing, head up the hill to the cemetery and you might just get in.

Maybe you’ll even be able to take a refreshingly shadowy ten-minute walk back from the crypt, through the tombstones, afterward…despite this past evening’s crushing humidity, that stroll was as magical as the concert.

October 10, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Edgy Preview For Bigtime European Creative Music in Deep Brooklyn

Every year, the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland draws European fans from across the continent, along with plenty of American travelers. It’s one of the major European jazz festivals and routinely sells out. For the last few years, there’s been a brief New York edition of the festival as well. It was fun to catch a trio of festival acts last year at Jazz at Lincoln Center – but word on the street has been that the really wild stuff is at the series of house concerts scattered around town over the course of a weekend. Saturday’s show in a comfortable second-floor Lefferts Gardens space – part of the adventurous Soup & Sound series – validated that.  Creative music in 2018 doesn’t get much better than this was.

That the propulsively glimmering trio of guest alto saxophonist Ned Rothenberg with pianist Piotr Orzechowski and drummer Łukasz Żyta weren’t anticlimactic speaks to the levels of spontaneous magic reached by the rest of the acts on this characteristically impromptu bill. The overall theme seemed to be variations on uneasy circular themes: tense close harmonies, taut and then more elastic push-pull against a center that veered in and out of focus, simple repetitive figures growing into double helixes that eventually produced brand-new musical species. 

The mystery guests were a couple of bassists, one of them playing a Fender, building a tersely intertwining lattice of textures that rose from the shadows to let in dapples of light from the upper registers. Rothenberg switched to clarinet for a two-reed frontline with Waclaw Zimpel and a second pianist for a hypnotically pointillistic electroacoustic set that evoked vintage Brian Jones loopmusic before veering back and forth toward a steady, swinging stroll and some jousting between the horns.

Orzechowski then returned to the keys, drummer and host Andrew Drury having all kinds of fun shifting between playfully tricky polyrhythms, allusive swing and extended-technique washes of sound from his kickdrum heads. Alto saxophonist Kuba Wiecek built a muted strobe effect over the thick, murky hammerklavier river underneath. Then the sax and rhythm exchanged roles, a hornets’ nest in both frenetic daytime and ominously nocturnal modes.

The Jazztopad Festival begins on November 16; trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar, among other current-day masters, will be there on the 24th.

October 9, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment