Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Landmark Weeklong Celebration of Brilliant Women Composers at Juiliard

If you follow this page, you’re familiar with the ugly truth that as recently as 2015, this country’s major symphony orchestras were performing music written by women less than two percent of the time. For a lot of those orchestras, that’s about once a year. That 25% of the New York Philharmonic s programming this year will be writtten by women – as part of the orchestra’s Project 19 initiative – is enough to bump that dial significantly. It’s about time.

And just as significantly, Juilliard devoted the entirety of their Focus 2020 series, which wound up last week, to women composers. Just think: some of the rising-star talent there may take some of those pieces with them when they graduate. This blog was not present for the full seven days, but did devote an entire work week to discovering some of the most riveting rare repertoire played in this city this year.

You can’t find most of this material on youtube, or anywhere on the web, either. The amount of work that Juilliard’s Joel Sachs and his crew put into casting a net for more than a century’s worth of scores is mind-blowing. But a global network answered his SOS, and the result was not only a consistently strong mix of mostly undiscovered treasures, but also some very smartly conceived programming. As closing night last Friday at Alice Tully Hall proved, it was possible to pull together a whole night of percussion-driven, noir-tinged symphonic material, all written by women. That these works aren’t already famous testifies to the barriers their creators had to overcome.

Tragically, some of them didn’t. One of the festival’s most eye-opening and darkest works was the solo piano suite Pages From the Diary, a more brief but equally carnivalesque counterpart to Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1949 by Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky. We don’t know if it was ever performed in her lifetime; she died in obscurity in 1990. It was part of the Monday night program, played with dynamic verve by Isabella Ma. One has to wonder how many thousands of other Verdina Shlonskys there may have been.

Was the highlight of the Tuesday night program Vivian Fine’s Emily’s Images, a vividly jeweled suite of miniatures for piano and flute, or the saturnine blend of gospel gravitas and Gershwinesque flair in Florence Price’s Piano Sonata, played with steely confidence by Qilin Sun? It was hard to choose: it also could have been Young-Ja Lee’s dynamically bristling, subtly Asian-tinged, intriguingly voiced piano trio Pilgrimage of the Soul. The night ended with a couple of early Mary Lou Williams piano pieces, reminding that before she reinvented herself as a composer of gospel-inspired jazz and classical music, she was a big draw on the jazz and blues circuit, a formidable counterpart to James P. Johnson.

Without question, the high point of the Wednesday program was the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, violinists Courtenay Cleary and Abigail Hong, violist Aria Cherogosha and cellist Geirthrudur Gudmundsdottir working its meticulous hive of activity with barely repressed joy. Its subtly staggered mechanics have the complexity but also the translucence of Bartok; it may also be the most clever musical palindrome ever written.

Otherwise, pianist Keru Zhang voiced the Balkan-tinged edge of Viteslava Kapralova’s 1937 mini-suite April Preludes. Harpist Abigail Kent won a competition of sorts among Juilliard harpists to play Germaine Tailleferre’s jaunty, Debussyesque sonata. And the night’s great discovery was Australian composer Margaret Sutherland’s alternately angst-ridden and ebullient suite of neoromantic art-songs, sung with acerbic power by Maggie Valdman over Brian Wong’s elegant piano.

It was also hard to choose a favorite from Thursday night’s bill. The easy picks would have been Amy Beach’s Piano Trio in A Minor, a richly dynamic nocturne, or organist Phoon Yu’s lights-out savagery throughout Ruth Zechlin’s Fall of the Berlin Wall-era protest piece Against the Sleep of Reason. But pianist TianYi Lee‘s incisive, intense interpretation of Louise Talma’s often ominously biting Alleluia in the Form of a Toccata made a powerful coda before the intermission.

Also on the bill were Tiffany Wong’s graceful performance of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ solo Sonata for Harp, a picturesquely late Romantic trio of Lili Boulanger miniatures played by flutist Helena Macheral and pianist Ying Lee, and the rather sardonic, contrapuntally clever, carefully cached but no less vivid chamber work Des-Cantec, written by Romanian composer Myriam Marbe in 1986.

The big Friday night blowout was everything it could have been: stormy, explosive, often harrowing. What a thrill it was to witness the Juilliard Orchestra reveling in the wide-eyed, spooky percussion and foreboding Bernard Herrmann-esque swells of Betsy Jolas’ 2015 A Litlle Summer Suite. They echoed that with more distant Cold War-era horror in Grazina Bacewicz’ 1963 Cello Sonata No. 2, soloist Samuel DeCaprio drawing roars of applause for tackling its daunting glissandos and wildfire staccato.

The lush, epic Ethel Smyth seascape On the Cliffs of Cornwall made a good launching pad for wave after harrowing wave of Thea Musgrave‘s 1990 Rainbow.

Ironically, throughout the history of folk music, women have always played an integral role, from Appalachian balladry, to the Bulgarian choral tradition and the Moroccan lila ceremony. If Project 19 and Juilliard’s herculean efforts are successful in jumpstarting a nationwide movement, it will merely mean that we’ve come full circle.

Concerts and solo recitals at Julliard continue throughout the end of the academic year. The next installment of the Philharmonic’s Project 19 series is tonight, Feb 6 at 7:30 PM with a Nina C. Young world premiere alongside Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Mozart’s “Great” Mass. You can get in for $35, or if you’re feeling adventurous (no guarantees, good luck), you can try scoring rush tickets a little before curtain time.

February 6, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Low-Register Transcendence at Bassist Sigurd Hole’s Carnegie Hall Debut

In his Carnegie Hall debut on the third of the month, bassist Sigurd Hole played music to get absolutely lost in. From the most sepulchral, wispy high harmonics, to pitchblende lows, he used the entirety of the sonic spectrum, as is his style. Often he’d combine the two extremes at once, building keening, sometimes oscillating overtones while bowing steadily at the tailpiece. The effect was as hypnotic as it was intense. Drawing on material from his new double album Lys/Morke (Norwegian for “Light/Dark”), he transcended any concept of what solo bass can be.

Musicologists have long debated the influence of nature on traditions around the world. Hole may have recorded the album on a desolate island off the northern Norwegian coast, but his music had a windswept vastness long before he embarked on the project. There was a point midway during his first set where he built resonance to the point where his bass was literally humming with microtones, many of them no doubt beyond human hearing at both the low and the top end. In a more delicate interlude, he plucked out harmonics that evoked the ping of a West African mbira thumb piano.

Amother passage (Hole basically segued his way into everything) drew on the otherworldly oscillating folk singing known as yoiks, as did an understatedly joyous, circling dance theme. But it was his darkest, most nocturnal passages that resonated the most, a deep riverbed counterbalanced by the alternately busy and hazily lingering flickers at the surface.

David Rothenberg, who has visited that same island where Hole made the record, played in between sets, first alongside a recording of whale song, then solo on bass clarinet. At first the recorded whale seemed to be thrashing the busker, but then Rothenberg found a murky groove and hung with it throughout the mammal’s garrolous whistles and quasi-barks. As the multi-reedman explained, whale song is very poetically constructed, with A-sections, B-sections, C-sections and more.

Hole returned to join Rothenberg for a brief set of duos. It was here the two personalities contrasted the most, Rothenberg eventually switching to clarinet for some exuberant glissandoing as Hole held the center animatedly with his mutedly balletesque leaps and bounces.

February 5, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Serendipitous, High-Voltage Live Album and Crown Heights Appearance from Gerald Cleaver

A rabbi, a minister and an imam walk into a bar.

They’ve all had a bunch to drink. Jazz plays over the PA: it’s obviously a live recording, and the band are cooking. They have a loose, comfortable, solo-centric camaraderie, over a floating swing. The three holy men try to figure out who’s playing.

The trumpeter enters with a wild volley, then digs in, hard and bluesy. “Is that Woody Shaw?” the rabbi ponders. “He was Jewish, you know. Woody Schwartz!”

The rabbi is kidding. He doesn’t have a clue who this is. The sax player is more suave: at one point, the pianist goes down in the lows with a snarl to see if he’ll take the bait and get all gritty, but he doesn’t. The bass player walks the changes furiously; the drummer is colorful and has the whole kit resonating.

“This is one of those situations where we’ll never know who this was. It’s just some random night that somebody had the presence of mind to record,” the imam asserts. That’s a Muslim thing: the Prophet tells us to chill because some things are beyond our understanding.

The minister has other things in mind. He asks the bartender, who tells him that the record is Gerald Cleaver’s Violet Hour, Live at Firehouse 12 (for the sake of the story, let’s say he’s streaming the thing from Spotify). If you want to be like these three wise men of dubious sobriety but impeccable taste, you can see Cleaver lead a completely different but similarly incendiary trio with Brandon Seabrook on guitar and Brandon Lopez on bass at Bar Bayeux in Crown Heights tomorrow night, Feb 5 at 8 PM.

If you’ve scrolled down this far, you’ve figured out that this is a party record. The middle of the lineup is allstar caliber, and future Hall of Famer JD Allen, on tenor, isn’t even the cleanup hitter. That might be trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, or multi-reedman Andrew Bishop, who sizzles here. Chris Lightcap is the bass player, with Ben Waltzer on piano.

The first track, the one that the three holy men happened to walk in on, is aptly titled Pilgrim’s Progress, meant to illustrate triumph over adversity. After that, Bishop switches between genially smoky bass clarinet and some slashing moments on soprano sax over the syncopatedly dancing, allusively latin-tinged groove of The Silly One, the rest of the band following in a darker mood.

From there they segue into Tale of Bricks, a grim oldtime gospel tune cached amid a busily stairstepping drive. It’s Exodus, movement of jah people, deciding that Pharaoh was a Silicon Valley boss and that ‘s time to take their talent elsewhere. Over about twelve minutes, Pelt chooses his incisions and then wails, as Allen does later; Bishop’s bass clarinet shivers and combusts. Told you this was solo-centric.

Carla’s Day starts out with a moody, distantly Frank Foster-ish vampiness, the daily struggle making way for better times, speeding up, slowing down. It’s the album’s most contiguous number; Allen’s whirls and spirals and dissections might be its high point. The bandleader’s rumble and Lightcap’s looming chords make the bridge to the defiantly swinging, even catchier, Brubeck-tinged Detroit, a shout-out to Cleaver and Allen’s hometown, This isn’t music for people with short attention spans but it is very entertaining if you have a long one, half a dozen road warriors captured doing what they do best, in good company.

February 4, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Symphonic Lushness and Edgy Intensity from Wildly Eclectic Accordionist Simone Baron

Accordionist Simone Baron‘s debut album The Space Between Disguises, with her group Arco Belo – streaming at Bandcamp – has the lushness and epic sweep of classical music, the edge of the Balkans, the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the vividness of a film score. Just when you think it couldn’t get more eclectic,  she throws in brief interludes with loops and snippets of found sound in between songs. There are thousands of bands across Europe who mash up all these styles, but few here in the US.

The lush string overture introducing the album’s opening cut, Post Edit Delete, alludes to a famously overcast weekend song made famous by Billie Holiday. Then the group tipetoe through a Balkan-tinged violin theme. Baron plays piano on this particular number, dancing through the moody mist.

With its hazy swells and a coy bass/violin conversation, Angle of Incidence is more astringent, Baron’s accordion doubling bassist Mike Pope’s bubbly lines midway through. Who Cares is a gorgeously dark pastoral jazz vignette fueled by banjo player Mark Schatz’s enigmatic frailing. Dramatically incisive low-register piano, biting violin, austerely swirling strings, a bit of funk and warily unsettled accordion percolate throughout the epic mini-suite Passive Puppeteer.

The melancholic, singing quality of the strings and acccordion as the album’s title track gets underway is stunning; then all of a sudden it’s a loopy, marionettish dance that grows more haunting and lush. Baron reinvents Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Those Who Chant with an elegant gallop, then takes her time with the sweepingly plaintive Valsa, by Brazilian accordionist Tibor Fittel. The album’s concluding diptych, Buciumeana/Kadynja juxtaposes a gorgeous, klezmerish Moldovan theme with a Romanian folk dance appropriated by Bartók, complete with creepy music box-like piano and a killer handoff from accordion to violin.

A tour de force from a group that also includes drummer Lucas Ashby and the strings of Aaron Malone on violin and viola, Bill Neri on viola, Peter Kibbe on cello, plus violinists Nelson Moneo, Laura Colgate and Ellen McSweeney.

January 31, 2020 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Revelations from Women Composers at Juilliard

Dovetailing with the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 celebration of women composers and women achieving the right to vote in this country, the Juilliard School’s current Focus 2020 series features unprecedented, all-female programming this week. The big basement theatre there was about three-quarters full last night. If brilliant, obscure repertoire is your thing, or if you just like free classical concerts, you ought to be able to get in if you show up by about 7:15. Or you can pick up tickets at the box office during the day. The show tonight, Jan 28 starts at 7:30 PM with mostly piano-centric music by Vivian Fine, Florence Price, Young-ja Lee, Priaulx Rainier and Mary Lou Williams.

Last night’s performance was a revelation. It’s shameful that such sublime and powerful material has been largely ignored for so long, and it was clear from the program notes that a lot of sleuthing was required simply to track down the scores for much of it. Few of these women were fortunate enough to land a composer-in-residence gig, as Liu Zhuang maintained for two decades in her native China. Yet her own publisher was unable to provide the sheet music for her 1999 trio Wind Through Pines. A friend of Juilliard’s Joel Sachs had to be enlisted to supply a copy from his local library.

Rebecca Clarke broke the gender barrier as a hardworking symphony violist, yet was reduced to working as a nanny at one point. And Verdina Shlonsky, an early Israeli composer, had very few performances during her lifetime, dying broke and forgotten in 1990.

The concert was a rollercoaster ride, beginning and ending very darkly. Clarke’s 1941 Dumka, played with inspired, animated counterpoint by violinist Yaegy Park, violist Serena Hsu and pianist Jiahao Han, was a bitterly anthemic, Balkan-tinged theme and variations punctuated by jagged pointillisms and a forlornly lyrical viola solo.

Irish-English composer Elizabeth Maconchy’s 1938 String Quartet No. 3 was a broodingly and often grimly apt choice of concluding number. Cellist Erica Ogihara‘s deep pitchblende drive contrasted with the elegant exchanges between violinists Jeongah Choi and Haokun Liang and violist Leah Glick. Its uninterrupted variations foreshaded what Shostakovich would be doing twenty years later, all the way through to a macabre, slow gallop and flicker of a coda.

The night’s most breaktaking display of interpretive skill was pianist Isabella Ma’s vastly dynamic, sometimes muted and tender, sometimes explosive take of Shlonsky’s 1949 suite Pages From the Diary. The obvious precursor is Pictures at an Exhibition, coyly and fleetingly referenced toward the end. Icy belltones gave way to a marionettish strut that eventually resurfaced as fullscale phantasmagoria, only to flutter away gracefully at the conclusion.

Ruth Schonthal’s 1979 duo Love Letters, played by clarinetist Ashbur Jin and cellist Elisabeth Chang, was a matter-of-fact exchange that began somewhat warily and warmed to a casual stroll, more of a display of camaraderie than red-hot passion. Violist Sergio Munoz Leiva gamely tackled the knotty demands for extended technique throughout the short, sharp phrasing of Barbara Pentland’s solo Variations for Viola. And the trio of pianist Qu Xi, cellist Raphael Boden and flutist Audrey Emata emulated the alternately airy and otherworldly plucked, Asian-tinged pastoral phrasing of the Zhuang piece.

This week’s programming concludes with a big blowout at Alice Tully Hall this Friday, Jan 31 at 7:30 PM featuring works by Betsy Jolas, Grażyna Bacewicz, Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina with Raphael Vogl at the organ along with the Juilliard ensemble. Free tickets are currently available at the box office there.

January 28, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top-Quality, Sonically Pristine, Previously Unreleased John Coltrane

Here’s a special treat: the new John Coltrane record. That’s kind of a joke: over the years, there have been many “new” John Coltrane records, most of them field recordings of varying quality, some where the iconic saxophonist was little more than a special guest. But Blue World – streaming at Spotify – is the real deal, the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums laying down tracks for a 1964 Canadian film soundtrack that ended up never being used. The sound quality is excellent, heavy on the reverb. Although there’s nothing earth-shattering or new here, the performance is every bit what you would expect.

Trane plays exclusively tenor on this album. As with so many rare archival recordings from jazz’s golden age, there are multiple takes of the same song here. Is it worth sticking with three different versions of Village Blues? The band’s uncanny tightness reveals itself in the fact that they’re all almost identical in length. The variations in Jones’ deviously counterintuitive offbeats are as delicious as usual, the bandleader taking his time in purist blues mode. The first time around, with Tyner launching into a more majestically relaxed approach, Jones implying rather than shuffling the tune’s 6/8 groove, seems to be the charm. Still, it’s a lot of fun to see how these guys would tweak the material.

There are also two takes of Naima. Both are absolutely gorgeous; the second one’s more dynamic. The exchanges of roles between bandmates, from timekeeper to colorist, are a clinic in teamwork. The album’s tersely modal “title track” is so tight that it ticks; the bandleader is smokier and everybody cuts loose more, maybe because that’s what you have to do to keep what’s more or less a one-chord jam interesting. Jones’ thunderous rolls at the end are the funnest part of the record.

Like Sonny is a bossa-tinged platform for Trane’s playful Sonny Rollins-ish, mordent-like riffage. Garrison’s jaunty, solo second-line bubbles and chords introduce Traneing In, Tyner instantly turning it more circumspect and ambiguous as the band comes in, the bandleader’s uneasy blues and biting intensity reaffirming that almost sixty years later, these guys are still the gold standard.

January 28, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Picturesque Double Album and a Carnegie Hall Debut by Cutting-Edge Bassist Sigurd Hole

Sigurd Hole gets more sound out of his instrument than virtually any other bassist alive. He’s made a name for himself as a purveyor of brooding, envelopingly minimalist themes, but he also uses the entirety of what his instrument can produce. He has a picturesque, vastly dynamic new solo album, Lys/Morke, recorded outdoors on a desolate island off the coast of his native Norway. He’s making his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Hall on Feb 3 at 8 PM, performing many of these pieces. Cover is $25; the record hasn’t hit his Bandcamp page yet.

The first disc begins with the epic Lys. Over sounds of wind and water, Hole employs his bow for harmonics from across the audible spectrum, steady, hypnotic microtonal arpeggios, shivery shards, steady, peacefully minimalist washes and cautious, low-register footfalls.

That template describes much of what Hole does throughout the rest of the record, with frequent, bracing close harmonies, percussive moments and a pensive sketch or two. There’s a breathtaking display of extended technique that would make Charles Mingus proud, where Hole plays what’s essentially a bagpipe dance using high harmonics.

A lively, hypnotically circling theme evokes West African mbira music. In one of the album’s lighter moments, a lumberjack meets considerable resistance in the forest, or so it would seem. The most amusing vignette sounds like a reel of tape winding. Behind Hole, there are moments where the waves or the wind seem to pick up, adding to the general sense of desolation.

That really comes to the forefront as the second record coalesces. Increasingly otherworldly, eerily reverberating, pulsing variations on a stygian drone lead to more discernible, suspenseful melody, beginning with an unexpectedly catchy, gloomy chromatic theme. Hole goes down to his tailpiece for keening, scraping, brushy textures. Hypnotic echoes give way to slowly shifting cloudbanks, low/high contrasts, and a dirge of sorts that morphs into what could be Philip Glass.

Increasingly agitated, sawing phrases grow calmer and more enveloping. The slowly crescendoing vastness of the disc’s title track leads to a spare, spacious conclusion. This isn’t just a showcase for Hole’s fellow bassists to admire: fans of metal, the dark side of psychedelia and jazz improvisation ought to check out these strange and unique creations.

January 26, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Yoko Miwa Brings Her Purist Retro Sounds to Birdland

Artists who come from outside an idiom often have some catching up to do. In the process, some of them surpass others who grew up in that style. Yoko Miwa embodies a gritty, purist, 1960s take on jazz: the Japanese-born pianist’s music is a lot more about entertainment and tunes than insider snarkiness – or whatever it is that Snarky Puppy do. Her new trio album Keep Talkin’ is streaming at her music page. She’s playing Birdland on Jan 30 at 7 PM; you can get in for $20.

The album is a mix of originals and inventive covers, with a remarkable freshness and road-tested camaraderie: these expansive tracks really nail what she sounds like live. Miwa opens with the title cut, a vampy latin soul groove where she weaves in some uneasy Monkish harmonies toward the end. She’s a hard hitter, as she reaffirms in a dynamic, leaping take of In Walked Bud, focusing on Monk’s wary passing tones. Bassist Will Slater shifts between dancing melody and walking the changes hard as drummer Scott Goulding swings it toward New Orleans and then back.

Secret Rendezvous, a straightforward, syncopated clave tune is next, Goulding subtly pushing the beat with his tropical rimshots and a purposeful drum solo out. The Bill Evans-influenced, lyrical Sunset Lane manages to be ripplingly kinetic and bittersweet all at once. Miwa reinvents Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle as a stripped-down but no less turbulently bluesy showstopper.

She makes a diptych out of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers and You Never Give Me Your Money, sticking close to the originals while adding an unexpectedly starry solo, picking up with a rather crushing attack on the second tune. The trio work a spring-loaded pulse in the understatedly brooding, modally-charged, intensely crescendoing Tone Portrait: it’s the album’s darkest track.

Miwa draws on singer Maria Rita’s waltzing version of the Brazilian ballad Casa Pre-Fabricada for a striking, emotionally direct sparkle. The pianist reinvents Joni Mitchell’s Conversation as a dynamically bristling, absolutely exhilarating gospel anthem that brings to mind Fairport Convention as much as, say, Mulgrew Miller. It’s one of the finest things Miwa has ever recorded: if only she could have given it a proper ending instead of a fade out!

If You’re Blue is a cleverly bluesy, straight-up swinging paraphrase of Puttin’ on the Ritz with bracing Monk references. Miwa closes the album with the epic, wistful ballad Sunshine Follows the Rain, guest bassist Brad Barrett adding moody washes and subtly sinuous melody, Miwa drifting into stern gospel territory once again.

January 25, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surreal Mechanical Sounds and a Week at the Stone From Avant Garde Adventurers Yarn/Wire

The artists that John Zorn books into weeklong stands at the Stone are typically bandleaders improvising with various supporting casts. So it’s unusual that a full ensemble like perennially adventurous indie classical piano-and-percussion quartet Yarn/Wire – Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on bangable objects, Laura Barger and Ning Yu on pianos – would spend a week there, which they’re doing starting this Jan 29 at 8:30 PM; cover each night is $20. The most enticing installment is on the 31st with thoughtful, atmospherically-inclined bassoonist/composer Katie Young.

Yarn/Wire’s latest recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is Alex Mincek‘s sometimes bracingly insistent, occasionally comedic eight-part suite Images of Duration (In Homage to Ellsworth Kelly). Louis Andriessen’s adventures in analog similations of mechanical sounds seem to be an inspiration, along with Kelly’s landscapes.

The introduction, Points on a Spiral 1 begins ambiently, then the piano introduces an elegantly minimalist low-midrange theme against a high pianissimo echo in the far distance. Turn down the volume on your device for the sudden, jarring drumhits of Girls in Black and White and its assaultive industrial sonics.

Inviting low drones with slowly rising harmonic overtones drift through the sonic picture in Oblique, eventually receding for spare, serious piano figures: a pensively minimalist and then acerbically ringing, subtly microtonal conversation develops. Diagonal is a surreal blend of foreboding Asian temple theme, Terry Riley-ish ripples and churning steam piston-like sonics, cuisinarted and playfully reassembled at the end.

Trippily staggered, incisively chiming microtonal phrases grow more oddly mechanical in Vermillion Becomes Cobalt as wavelike gong washes and a growing low drone loom closer. Oxblood Becomes Orchid has anvil-like accents paired with mutedly bassy marimba responses, first as if through a wall, then more discernibly echoey. Way, way back in the distance, there’s a signature Black Sabbath theme, but once again Mincek pushes back the clouds with even more ridiculous comic relief.

Points on a Spiral 2 is a more somber variation on the earlier theme; the suite concludes with the brief, droll Quartz and Feldspar, Casper the Friendly Ghost monkeying around in the concert hall. Indie classical music doesn’t get much more psychedelic than this.

January 23, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is It Time to Trash Classical Piano Competitions? Some Insiders Say Yes

For the last several years, Ilona Olutski, founder of the Getclassical series, has been staging remarkably imaginative piano-centric concerts around town. She started at Zinc Bar and has expanded to several more sonically welcoming venues. Last night at Opera America, she put on one of her most entertaining programs yet, featuring insightful performances of Schumann and Brahms works followed by a righteously hilarious roundtable discussion which didn’t take long to reach the conclusion that piano competition in the digital age needs a complete overhaul if it’s going to have any real-world relevance.

“My passion is big Romantic sonatas,” pianist Daumants Liepins – winner of the Vendome Prize at last year’s Verbier Festival in Switzerland – told the crowd. Other pianists are not so lucky to get to indulge that passion to the extent that Liepins does. His interpretations of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F# minor and and Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor were insightful, as skilful as one would expect from a victorious competitor, and if they erred anywhere, it was on the side of elegance and good taste.

The Schumann came across as something of a pivot point where Bach meets Rachmaninoff. Liepins’ approach to the piece’s counterpoint was steady, but not to the point of rigidity. Throughout the work, there were several striking exchange of riffs that brought to mind a young Rachmaninoff parsing the score, thinking to himself, “I can distill this to three and a half minutes,” and then cranking out his famous G Minor Prelude. Throughout the piece, Liepins distinguished himself by walking a tightrope between the severe and the lyrical, reveling in the coda’s wry triumph.

His take of the Brahms had a vastly wider dynamic range, and that really saved the piece. This sonata isn’t typical, translucent (some would say facile) Brahms: there’s a persistent sense of struggle, the composer trying to get something onto the page at fortissimo volume and very seldom actually nailing it. But there is a lot of humor in it, and Liepins clearly couldn’t wait to romp through those grandiose flourishes, and a little strutting faux-pomp, with more than a bit of a smirk. Contrastingly, he really let the low lefthand murk toward the end resonate, raising the enigmatic factor. He’s recording those pieces for Steinway today, and the matter-of-fact confidence he showed here left no doubt that he’s ready for the studio.

Asked afterward if he felt that competitive playing had helped his career, he affirmed that it had driven him to sharpen his chops and then flex them. But later, after everybody else on the panel was pretty much done venting, he averred that he’d played just as well at competitions he didn’t win as at those he did, chalking up the final scores to judicial capriciousness

And did those competitions ever get a thrashing. Zsolt Bognar, host of Living the Classical Life, offered a withering bit of sports play-by-play, mocking the kind of nitpicking involved. Producer Joe Patrych questioned whether competitions have any positive career impact, reminding that Vladimir Horowitz only really came into his own after returning from twelve years out of music, having been typecast for years as strictly a mile-a-minute, speed-and-proficiency guy.

From the academic side, both Karlstad University’s Julia Mustonen-Dahlquist and Mannes piano department chair Pavlina Dokovska spoke to the need to open up juries to non-pianists – an idea everyone enthusiastically endorsed – and decried the conflicts of interest in judging one’s own students (that happens a lot). Composer Sean Hickey soberly reminded everyone that speed and technique are hardly the only reasons why audiences come out. There was also unanimous support for taking competitions offline: both Bognar and Liepins considered how a competitively-oriented mindset goes even further into the red when playing for an internet audience along with the judges.

What wasn’t addressed was how piano has come to be taught academically, and how competitions are often simply the logical end result. There’s no limit to the cynicism that can be extrapolated from how much speed-reading and technical proficiency are emphasized over interpretive skill: Cruella DeVille is very much alive, and now a career coach.

And there’s a sobering reality behind piano pedagogy as Kaplan class. One day you’re playing Stockhausen, the next day Schubert, and you have to be able to shift gears seamlessly if not with any particular attunement to content, subtext or emotional connection. As everyone seemed to agree, that’s precisely where great musicians differentiate themselves from the competition.

The next concert in this year’s Getclassical series is on March 17 at 7 PM at the Revelation Gallery, 224 Waverly Pl. featuring the Ekstasis Duo – pianist Eliran Avni and cellist Natasha Farni – playing a program TBA. Cover is $20.

January 21, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment