Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

One of Brooklyn’s Best Jazz Acts Returns to Playing Live with a Vengeance

One of the first bands at the very front of the pack getting busy on the live circuit again is fronted by the guy who might be the best guitarist in Brooklyn. From the mid to late teens, Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized played a careening, highly improvisational but also wickedly tuneful blend of pastoral jazz and psychedelia, with frequent detours into the noir. Their distinctively drifting live album of Twin Peaks themes is an obscure treasure from the peak era of the Barbes scene. The group survived their bandleader’s brush with death (this was long before any so-called pandemic) and have emerged seemingly more energized than ever. Csatari didn’t let all the downtime during the past fifteen months’ lockdown go to waste: he wrote three albums worth of songs. He calls it the Placebo Trilogy, and it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

Their next show is June 26 at 8 PM at the new San Pedro Inn, 320 Van Brunt St. (corner of Pioneer) in Red Hook. You could take the B61 bus but if you’re up for getting some exercise, take the F to Carroll, get off at the front of the Brooklyn-bound train and walk it. Nobody at this blog has been to the venue yet but it gets high marks from those who have.

All three records are Csatari solo acoustic, often played through a tremolo effect. The first one, Placedo-Niche has a couple of numbers with a distantly Elliott Smith-tinged, hazily bucolic feel, the first steadier, the second more spare and starry. Csatari packs more jaunty flash and enigmatic strum into D’art in less than a minute thirty than most artists can in twice as much time: one suspects that this miniature, like everything else here, was conceived as a stepping-off point for soloing.

Morton Swing is an increasingly modernized take on a charmingly oldtimey melody. And Extra could be a great lost Grateful Dead theme – who cares if this singalong doesn’t have lyrics.

The second record, Placebo-ish begins with Fresh Scrabble, Csatari’s gritty, nebulous chords around a long, catchy, descending blues riff. As it unwinds, he mingles the same kind of finger-crunching chords into a southern soul-tinged pattern, explores a moody Synchronicity-era Police-style anthem, then sends a similarly brooding variation through a funhouse mirror. The most John Fahey-influenced number here is titled Sad-Joy, both emotions on the muted side.

The last album is Placebo-Transcendence. The gentle, summery ambience of the opening track, Valentino, suddenly grows frenetic. Sugar Baby vamps along, warm and hypnotic. The wryly titled Civilized is…well…exactly that: it sounds like Wilco. The funniest song title (Csatari is full of them) is Silicone Transcendence (Tryin’ to Transcend), the closest thing to Twin Peaks here.

There isn’t a jazz guitarist alive who gets as much mileage out of a chord-based approach than Csatari, and there aren’t many people writing tunes as hummable as these in any style of music. Yet they tease the ears at the same time. If you want to learn how to write using implied melody, there isn’t a better place to start than these records.

June 22, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A High-Voltage, Colorful, Historically-Inspired Big Band Jazz Suite From the Wilds of Saskatchewan

At the end of December, 2019, the Saskatchewan All Star Big Band played bandleader and keyboardist Fred Stride’s colorful, cinematic, historically-infused Saskatchewan Suite at the Casino Regina – and had the foresight to record it. It would be the last show they would play for quite awhile…but hopefully not forever. Canada may be locked down in perpetuity – the Chinese commies undoubtedly eying Canada’s vast water resources – but resistance there is growing fierce.

In the meantime, we can enjoy this high-voltage performance, streaming at Spotify. Flickers from Dylan Wiest’s vibraphone, a wash from Miles Foxx Hill’s bass, and ominous lows from the brass kick off the night’s first number, The Place. Tentative brassy steps signal the first human incursions into the prairie. Guitarist Jack Semple’s soaring, Gilmouresque lines and pianist Jon Ballantyne’s subtle flourishes lead the group intrepidly into balmier territory. A dip to fleeting individual voices – local fauna? Indians on the lookout for same? – rises with invigorating but wary swells as Ballantyne plays folksy blues. Alto sax player PJ Perry gets to fuel the cheery, Dixieland-tinged conflagration at the end.

Portentous swells over an insistent, shamanistic beat signal further arrivals in the second movement, The First, the group artfully shifting toward a cabaret-tinged ba-bump beat as the brass and reeds swirl and intertwine. The determined, striding cheer seems satirical, lightly spiced by Semple’s spare slide work, Perry choosing his spots in a solo and a coda that seem to echo the more strenuous side of setting up roots in unfamiliar territory.

Movement three, The Newcomers, begins with Perry’s unexpectedly plaintive lines awash in Ed Minevich and Cam Wilson’s violins and the lustre of the reeds. Ballantyne bounces brightly for a bit and then some; the violins signal a bulked-up Irish reel. The jaunty Celtic theme continues in the fourth movement, The In-Between, Perry leading the charge upward with a series of rhythmic shifts as Stride builds tension.

September 1905, the date of Saskatchewan provincehood, is an eventful time, ablaze with brass and tightly clustering, rhythmic rhythms, Ballantyne’s scampering solo handing off to trombonist Shawn Grocott’s blustery cameo; that little quote at the end is irresistible. The sixth movement, Saskatchesport…hmmm…could that be Ballantyne’s piano flicking the puck into an empty net? This turns out to be a suite within a suite. In the most humorous interlude, trumpeter Dean McNeill’s megawatt articulacy fuels a brightly undulating cheer. There’s also wide-angle atmospherics punctuated by drummer Ted Warren’s tricky two-handed dribbling and Perry spinning down from the clouds as the orchestra punch and dodge behind him.

Thank You, Mr. Douglas – a shout-out to longtime NDP leader and Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas – is a low-key, resonantly ambered ballad, Hill’s bass swooping down and bubbling over Ballantyne’s pensive chords and the orchestra wafting overhead. They wind up the suite with Saskatchejazz, which vigorously debunks the longstanding myth that once you leave New York, the quality of the musicians goes down a notch. Veering from quasi John Philip Sousa, to the early swing era, soulful late-night Ellingtonianisms, jump blues, bossa nova, electric faux-Miles, and what could be Buddy Rich, they cover all the bases.

June 21, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mike Neer’s Brilliant, Imaginative New Album Reinvents Jazz Classics for Lapsteel

Lapsteel player Mike Neer‘s previous album was a reinvention of Thelonious Monk classics. His latest album Keepin’ It Real – streaming at Bandcamp – is an absolutely brilliant, occasionally unsettling mix of material imaginatively arranged for what Neer calls a “faux Hawaiian trio” of steel, bass and ukulele, all of which he plays himself. Recorded during the lockdown, it also features cameos from an allstar cast.

It wouldn’t be overhype to compare the opening number, Duke Ellington’s African Flower, to Big Lazy. Neer’s steady ukulele in the beginning is a red herring: his ominously chromatic steel lead follows a  swinging quasi-bolero beat. It brings to mind a certain Brooklyn psychedelic cumbia band’s take on Erik Satie.

Nica’s Dream, a Horace Silver tune, shifts from hints of bossa nova to a jaunty swing, then clouds pass through the sonic picture, guest vibraphonist Tom Beckham adding a steady, latin-tinged solo over Neer’s uke flurries before he hits a deviously Monk-inflected steel solo.

Neer’s take of McCoy Tyner’s Passion Dance – has a jaunty, bubbling, riff-driven cheer and a series of dazzling, rapidfire Beckham solos. Melodica player Matt King adds a layer floating over Neer’s steel in their amiably pulsing bossa take of Pensativa.

An aptly furtive, stalking take of Stolen Moments features Anton Denner taking tensely bluesy flight on alto flute. West Coast Blues comes across as what could have been a Bob Wills demo, Neer contributing both a terse bass solo and a romping, irrepressible bop steel solo.

Will Bernard guests sparely, incisively, and subtly ferociously on guitar in the allusively modal, vamping Witch Hunt. Accordionist Ron Oswanski kicks off Peace with a lush intro, Neer adding warmly, sparely pastoral melody over a slow, trip-hop-like sway

Fun fact: before Neer became New York’s foremost jazz lapsteel player, he did some time as lead instrumentalist with Hawaiian swing stars the Moonlighters, an influence that obviously stuck.

June 20, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yelena Eckemoff Goes Deep Into the Secret Life of Plants

Pianist Yelena Eckemoff‘s best work is typically her quietest material. Over the years, she’s explored a wide range of sounds, but where she really stands out is with her slow, wintry, often Messiaen-esque tunes. Yet her lavish new double album Adventures of the Wildflower – streaming at Spotify – is her most colorful and arguably best release yet. Stevie Wonder may have beaten her to the concept of the secret life of plants forty years ago, but the music here is as fascinatingly diverse as the floral kingdom itself. And the central flower here, eerily named Columbine, does not fade. Much as these plants send out pollen and fragrance, and even converse, what they do most of the time here, it seems, is battle the elements. This is a LONG album: hang with it and you will be rewarded.

The opening track, The Ground, sets the stage, Jarmo Saari kicking it off with an operatic swell on his theremin, later adding spare, resonant guitar chords over Eckemoff’s steady forward drive, while bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Olavi Louhivuori slowly emerge from the shadows. Vibraphonist Panu Savolainen’s starry solo backs away for the band to bring everything full circle, mysteriously.

Germination begins as an icy, deep space-scape, Savolainen’s glimmer signaling a bit of bustling swing before the twinkling chill returns: pushing up through this icy ground is scary. Eckemoff portrays Weeding the Garden as swinging between the baroque, a jaunty, surrealistic shuffle and a darkly bluesy vamp, Saari and eventually the rest of the band taking a wry hands-on approach. Soprano saxophonist Jukka Perko introduces Dog Chasing a Mouse, whose liveliness and humor is laced with phantasmagoria: poor mouse!

Likewise, Rain has a frequently gorgeous bittersweetness, Eckemoff supplying neoromantic crush but also verdant cheer in tandem with Savolainen. The swooping triangulation that opens Home By the Fence is foreshadowing: this homey pastoral scene turns out to be totally Lynchian. Then the band go into carnivalesque mode for Chickens, which is a lot closer to a picture at Moussorgsky’s dead friend’s exhibition than, say, Link Wray.

Is the lingering, fugal counterpoint of Drought a portrait of the garden scheming how to weather a dry spell? If so, desolation and struggle seem to take over. The thundershower that winds up the first half of the record takes awhile to get going, the band romping triumphantly out of the suspense, Perko’s Balkan-tinged solo setting up a roaring guitar-fueled peak.

The second disc opens with the slowly swaying Winter Slumber, Eckemoff’s languid, expansive solo at the center: the interweave between vibes and piano as it brightens is absolutely luscious. Individual voices push upward and begin to bound around in Waking Up in the Spring, a subtle jazz waltz.

Interestingly, there’s an elegaic quality to the baroque interplay of Buds and Flowers: it’s the album’s most conflictedly captivating track. The inner soul ballad in Butterflies, piano paired once again with the vibes, could be the album’s most unselfconsciously lyrical moment, the theremin adding a surreal touch.

Gently rhythmic belltone piano and vibes holding the bouncy Hummingbirds together, with echoes of pastoral Pink Floyd. The wistful, Russian folk-tinged waltz Children Playing with Seed Pods could be called Milkweed at a Funeral, at least until Perko pulls the song into cheerier territory. The scene where Columbine finally goes the way of all garden plants has a stately, bolero-ish sway and encroaching echoes of the macabre from both guitar and vibes, assembled around an energetic polyrhythmic interlude.

But all hope is not lost. Another Winter is the most echoey, improvisational segment here, Perko leading the sprouts up from hibernation. In the end there are Baby Columbines, and undulating wee-hours contentment from the band to match.

As a bonus, Eckemoff includes a charmingly hand-drawn 33-page fable in the cd booklet, further illustrating Columbine’s arduous tale of struggle and renewal. That we should all be so tenacious at this pivotal moment in history.

June 18, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Clever, Deviously Picturesque Themes and an Upper West Side Album Release Show by the Daniel Bennett Group

One icy Sunday in Manhattan about six months ago, the Daniel Bennett Group were busking on the sidewalk, out in front of a shuttered computer repair store and a vacant barbershop.

It was about ten in the morning.

That’s a typical kind of stunt for Bennett. Why play later and compete with the likes of Jeremy Pelt or Chris Potter? All of them elite jazz musicians who appear at major venues and festivals. All reduced to playing on the street or in the park for spare change at one point or another this past fifteen months.

That’s what happens when live music is criminalized.

Being one of the great wits in jazz no doubt helped Bennett stay sane through the lockdown. He emerged with a characteristically sly new album, New York Nerve, streaming at Bandcamp. He also has – gasp – a real-life album release show this June 26 at 7 PM at the Triad Theatre, 158 W 72nd St. between Broadway and Amsterdam. Cover is $20; be aware that the venue has a two-drink minimum as well.

The album is a suite, a theme and variations. The opening number is titled Television. It’s a steady, suspiciously cheery, motorik rock tune, percolating over an endless series of gritty guitar changes, Bennett driving it forward with his steady alto sax and then clarinet. It sets the stage for the rest of the record.

The Town Supervisor, as Bennett sees him, is a folksy, wistful kind of guy, bassist Kevin Hailey and drummer Koko Bermejo maintaining a muted 6/8 beat as guitarist Assaf Kehati jangles and bubbles and exchanges verses with Bennett’s alto.

The group return to the brisk pulse of the opening track in Gold Star Mufflers, Bennett’s keening organ fueling an increasingly subtle disquiet beneath the busy pulse and occasional cartoonish touch. Likewise, Human Playback is a subtly altered reprise of the opening theme, Kehati hitting his distortion pedal for a sunbaked, resonant solo, Bennett’s electric piano tinkling and rippling. Then he shifts back to sax for a surreal, floating, spacy outro.

Bennett and Kehati burble and intertwine arrythmically over a deadpan, steady beat as Rattlesnake gets underway, sax pulling the theme together with a catchy, biting minor-key intensity. The group go back to pastoralia to wind up the album with The County Clerk, who comes across as more brooding than his boss (presumably that’s the Town Supervisor). The humor in Bennett’s songs without words always comes across most strongly onstage: these guys are probably jumping out of their shoes to be able to play indoors again without having to do it clandestinely.

June 18, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Classical and Rock Acts Shake Off the Rust at the Naumburg Bandshell

It was weird seeing a rock band onstage at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night. There hasn’t been any rock there since the early teens, when some promoter put on a stupefyingly awful disco night. Then again, it wasn’t always unusual for rock acts to play there: it happened a lot back in the 90s.

Twenty years earlier, the Grateful Dead did a show there. Now that must have been weird.

There were other aspects relating to yesterday evening’s show that seemed weird. But most of them were welcome, and reason for guarded optimism at a time when we desperately need it.

The rock band onstage was singer/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan and her low-key rhythm section. She was joined by a chamber orchestra subset of the Knights for a tersely symphonic, imaginatively arranged take of what seemed to a suite inspired by early 20th century suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt. Although O’Donovan’s roots are in Americana, and she was playing acoustic, the songs had more of a classic 60s pop feel, sometimes in a Jimmy Webb or Lee Hazelwood vein. O’Donovan’s work has never been more political, or relevant than this, another welcome development.

A number that quoted from a letter to Catt from then-President Woodrow Wilson had a mutedly rich, brass-infused chart. O’Donovan then led the ensemble into syncopated, Joni Mitchell-esque territory and closed with a more enigmatic, indie rock-flavored number. O’Donovan has obviously done her homework and is encouraging everyone to rise up and fight: a rousing amen to that.

The Knights shook off the rust of over a year of inactivity with conductor Eric Jacobsen leading them through a haphazard take of his arrangement of Kayhan Kalhor‘s exhilarating, Kurdish-tinged theme Ascending Bird. The way the low strings emulated the starkness and shivery intensity of an Iranian kamancheh was a tasty touch. The (presumably) new presence of brass and woodwinds seemed forced, and extraneous to the music’s ecstatic trajectory.

The orchestra left the bumps in that road behind for a sleek and empathetic version of George Walker’s Lyric For Strings, whose canonic cadences evoked the Barber Adagio with less angst, more fondness, and somewhat more modernist tonalities.

Violinist Gil Shaham joined them for the night’s coda, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 from memory. This may have been just another day at the office for him, but the technique he put to use was just plain sizzling. Which is not to say that this piece sizzles per se: it’s a carefully orchestrated celebration. Needless to say, Shaham’s quicksilver vibrato, the quartz crystal solidity of the endless volleys of high harmonics, and his unassailably confident attack in the most robust moments reaffirmed his vaunted stature.

The first movement seemed fast, at least in the beginning, the orchestra clearly relishing the opportunity to reconnect with their soloist since they’d recorded this together a couple of years ago. The second movement was unusually muted and practically a lullaby in places. The conclusion, with its rounds of triumphant, anthemic riffage, ended the night on an aptly ebullient note. There was no encore.

In a stroke of serendipity, this was the day when Andrew Cuomo apparently caved to the pressure to relinquish some of the dictatorial powers he’d seized in the March 16, 2020 coup d’etat – presumably to give a last-gasp shot of hydroxychloroquine to a political career that’s on a vent and flatlining. The details are still shaking out. It’s not unreasonable to worry that the psy-op squads at the World Economic Forum, the Gates Foundation and the Bloomberg cartel, who have been pulling Cuomo’s strings over the past sixteen months, will attempt to sneak all sorts of New Abnormal surveillance or divide-and-conquer schemes into any so-called reopening plan.

Because the concert was arranged before yesterday’s unexpected events, the organizers had been giving out free tickets online. Trouble was, the ticketing system didn’t work. An anxious message at their webpage timidly asked for proof of needle of death or meaningless PCR test, presumably to satisfy Cuomo’s office: this isn’t the kind of demand the Naumburg organization, who have always been the epitome of genteel, would typically impose on an audience.

While ticketed patrons were being let into the seats – which never came close to reaching capacity – there was clearly no surveillance going on. As far as muzzle-mania goes, oxygen-deficient people generally took the seats, those of us breathing normally situated mostly in back. Standing five feet to the left of this blog’s owner was one of the world’s great cellists: she wasn’t muzzled, nor was one of the world’s great violists, a couple of paces behind her. Sea change, or sign of imminent New Abnormal apartheid? We’ll find out next time.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on June 29 at 7:30 PM when the Ulysses and Emerson String Quartets team up for music by Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss and others. Since tickets for the performance have already been issued, rushing to the space early to score a seat – a winning strategy in years past – may not be worth the effort. You will probably be better off standing, taking a place on the benches immediately to the south, or on the lawn to the west where the sound is still reasonably audible. Bring a picnic and some wine!

June 16, 2021 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Playful, Inventive, Outside-the-Box Romany-Inspired Jazz and Reinvented Classical Themes

Violinist Gabe Terracciano‘s album Three Part Invention – streaming at Bandcamp – is a lot of fun, with very inventive arrangements and ideas springboarding off a very familiar three-piece Romany jazz setup: guitar, violin and bass. Guitarist Josh Dunn has his Django Reinhardt parts down cold but also gets to indulge in some nimble classical guitar and other styles while bassist Ian Hutchison holds the center, even when he’s in rapidfire mode.

Throughout the record, there are some welcome and unexpected interludes for solo bass, particularly in Dance for Jimmy a bluesy strut with less obvious Romany jazz influence and spare, surrealistically descending solos from guitar and violin

The most obvious Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli influence is in the trio’s take of Crazy Rhythm. Violin and guitar double each other in the undulating but motoring Fleche D’Or, with some breathtakingly shivery violin work from Terracciano.

The piece de resistance here is the austerely airy, lingering, tantalizingly brief arrangement of Erik Satie’s iconically haunting Gymnopedie No. 3. They rename the famous baroque tune Invention No. 4 as “Beautiful Love,” moving from a rapid stroll to fugal exchanges between guitar and violin, Terracciano taking Bach to Belleville.

A lot of people have taken Beethoven’s Pathetique to new places; this one is a mashup of the baroque with distant Celtic tinges.

Terracciano switches to viola for a stark, spacious take of Alex North’s love theme from the 1960 movie Spartacus, leaving behind waltzing nostalgia for more incisive terrain and an all-too-brief, poignantly dancing bass-guitar interlude. And Sweet Chorus comes across as an emphatic, strolling take of Sweet Sue with biting violin, expansively chordal guitar

June 16, 2021 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revelatory Philip Glass and Schubert From the Irrepressible Simone Dinnerstein

After the lockdown devastated the performing arts in general, Simone Dinnerstein was one of the few who seemed to have been particularly energized in the time since Cuomo’s fascist takeover of this state. Maybe it helps that she’s a pianist, accustomed to playing solo. Undeterred, she keeps putting out good albums. One particularly noteworthy release is A Character of Quiet – Schubert and Glass, streaming at Spotify.

It’s actually not nearly as quiet as the title implies. Dinnerstein opens the record with Philip Glass’ Etude No. 16, No. 6, a disarmingly catchy but characteristically brooding piece built around close-harmonied chords with a rather odd, possibly intentional resemblance to a familiar indie rock guitar progression. Dinnerstein offers smart contrast between slightly muted lefthand and an emphatic right, following a long rainbow arc to its reward.

Etude No. 6 is cruelly difficult, its stabbing righthand alternating with the moody, similarly staccato chords in the left. It’s a good study in how to play Glass in general, and Dinnerstein’s even-handed attack is breathtaking when you consider the challenges she has to meet. Her background playing idiosyncratic (many would say hubristic) Bach repertoire on the piano strongly informs her alternatingly floating and crushing technique.

The final Glass etude is No. 2, played with a wary hesitancy yet attuned to the piece’s inner hypnotic quality. Dinnerstein closes with a revelatory, Rosetta Stone take of Schubert’s symphonic-length Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. Shifting between baroque reserve and a strikingly articulated, puckish staccato in the first movement, she finds cynical humor and unexpected flickers of pathos where others just barrel through. This is serious musical sleuthing.

She builds a deep-sky panorama and then approaches the burgeoning anthem in the second movement with considerable restraint. The way she laughs through her fingers in the scherzo of a waltz afterward is just plain common sense, she seems to be telling us. A persistent tension slowly becomes a balance between reserve and jubilation in the concluding movement as she brings the piece full circle.

June 15, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Magical, Mystical, Profoundly Relevant New Hildegard Recording By Seraphic Fire

Seraphic Fire‘s new recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum – streaming at Spotify– couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time. It’s a parable of good versus evil. The Virtues and the Devil battle over a soul; eventually the Virtues win. At the most pivotal moment in world history, as the voices of reason struggle against a genocidal, needle-wielding cabal of tech oligarchs, this celestial, otherworldly, stark music offers considerable solace and inspiration.

The central riff in the introit is an aptly solemn, desolate, seven-note phrase in the blues scale. It occurs here and there in British folk music and has been appropriated by the occasional classical composer in the centuries since. The rich natural reverb in the space where this was recorded enhances the feeling of isolation – something the world has suffered in unprecedented proportions since March 16 of last year.

The choir take their time with the prologue, the syncopation livening its hypnotic melody. As Anima, the embattled soul, Luthien Brackett sings with understated drama and optimism. Clara Osowski portrays Humility, Queen of the Virtues with a calm tenacity. James K. Bass plays the role of the Devil, the lone male character in the narrative. Hildegard refuses to give him a melody, so all he can do is bluster and bellow: feminism, 12th century style.

The men and women of the choir sing the rest of the roles, conducted with masterful attention to detail by Patrick Dupre Quigley. After the devil makes his entrance, we get a tantalizing bit of close harmony from the women. Long, understatedly imploring solos interchange with a sneering, diabolical presence.

A whispery, sepulchral drone lingers beneath the women’s voices as the soul returns. The final two passages, where the devil gets tied up and then sent back to hell, are tidy and bright: if only salvation was this easy!

June 15, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax’s New Beethoven Album: A Party in a Box

If classical music is party music for you, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax‘s new all-Beethoven album Hope Amid Tears – streaming at Spotify – is a party in a box. It’s two old friends playing familiar material in a very defamiliarized way. You think you know Beethoven’s music for cello and piano? If you’ve listened to Beethoven for any length of time, you probably know at least the first couple of sonatas; the three sets of variations for cello and piano have not withstood the test of time so well. Throughout this collection, the fun these guys are having is irresistible, finding all sorts of hidden gems, and jokes, and poignancy. What’s more, they play the sonatas chronologically, so you can follow Beethoven’s development as a composer, cautiously emerging from Haydn’s shadow to become the crazed genius he was by the end.

This is a long record, a real feast: to fully appreciate it, you probably will not want to try to digest it all in a single setting. The highlights are too numerous to chronicle. The recording levels vary somewhat in places: Ma is serendipitously high in the mix, especially in Sonata No. 1 where he doesn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight, so that’s a big plus.

There’s a lot of space in this disarmingly intimate music. Moments that others might play as straight-faced pageantry are sly or just plain goofy here. Likewise, Ma and Ax linger here in calmer interludes that less seasoned musicians might gloss over, emotional context is everything. If you thought this was comfortable, routine wine-hour music for the World Economic Forum types of the early 19th century (not that such a thing existed – oligarchs back then hadn’t figured out how to conspire), these two prove definitively otherwise.

If you’re not a classical music fan but might be curious enough to check this out, start with Sonata No. 3. By that point in his career, Beethoven had moved on from endless sequences of clever chord changes to writing with more reckless abandon. And at this point, the cello has become much more than a mere support instrument for flash from the piano. That hymnal theme in the first movement is far more restrained and rustic than is the custom, and that absolutely gorgeous initial tradeoff between cello and piano really sings. The pogo-sticking introduction to movement two – essentially a country dance – is just plain ridiculous. And the third movement, where Ma soars free of the cello’s midrange for the first time, is packed with dynamic subtleties.

By the time we get to Sonata No. 4, Beethoven has grown into himself (and his obsession with false endings, some more devious than others). Nocturnal lustre interchanges with dark heroics, and Ma gets to sink his fingers and bow into more regal, symphonic parts. You could make a strong case that No. 5, saturnine triumph bookending an elegy, is the album’s title track.

The first two sonatas are more predictable but hardly without moments of joy or solemn discovery. The sheer matter-of-factness of No. 1, the crescendos far from florid, the dips far from languid, makes for steady fun. Ax’s decision to let the upper-register ornaments in No. 2 flit away, while using their counterparts in the lows as integral to upward cascades or arpeggios pays off strongly. Ma opting to hang just a bit behind the beat in the beginning of No. 2, before the two join in a memorably commingled rumble, is another insightful touch.

The three sets of variations are the closest thing to wine-hour sonic wallpaper for oligarchs here, although the sudden change to minor-key plaintiveness in the first is unselfconsciously striking, as is the subtler shift toward a similar atmosphere in the variations on a rather prayerful Handel theme in the second.

June 14, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment