“Enjoy yourself,” Gil Scott-Heron would tell people. “If you can’t enjoy yourself, what the hell CAN you enjoy?” Pianist Ron Stabinsky seems to be doing exactly that on his new solo album, Free for One, streaming at Spotify. Being a Pennsylvanian with a sense of humor, it’s only logical that he would fall in with the Mostly Other People Do the Killing crowd (“We’re not satirists” – yeah, right). He’s playing the album release show at 8 PM on Nov 15 at Roulette, with bassist Tom Blancarte opening the show solo. $20 advance tix are recommended for those who gravitate toward similarly vivid, classically-inspired improvisers like Jean-Michel Pilc and Kris Davis.
Or Monk – who Stabinsky resembles in terms of judiciously and purposefully expanding on a theme, if not necessarily melodically – throughout the sardonically titled opening number, After It’s Over. The album’s second cut, 31, has Stabinsky setting playfully clustering, rapidfire upper righthand spirals against a sort of altered stride in the left. On one hand, Viral Infection sounds like a sketch for a brooding ballad; on the other, it’s a pastiche of wry quotes and allusions that Stabinsky alternates with a spinning, slice-and-dice attack.
Gone Song follows a desolate, somber, stygian tangent that looks back to Rachmaninoff: searching righthand, coldly anchoring lows in the left. Then Stabinsky flips the script with For Reel, its droll Flight of the Bumblebee references and rapidfire game of leapfrog. It’s over in less than two minutes. From there, Stabinsky doesn’t waste any time launching into the album’s most epic improvisation, Not Long Now Long Now: tasty, emphatic, uneasy close harmonies and oddly knotty rhythmic loops give way to more darkly spacious explorations.
Rapture begins as a study in trick intros. A swing shuffle? Ragtime? Neither. Persistence, maybe, at least as far as low, loopy lefthand is concerned. Stabinsky closes the recording with Once But Again, the closest thing here to a more-or-less straight-up ballad. The esthetic is much the same as the intro to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which is essentially a field recording, . “Aw, we were just noodling around,” one of the musicians captured by Gaye’s stealth recorder tells him. “Well, you noodle exquisitely,” Gaye answered.
“This is extremely sarcastic, cynical music,” conductor Barbara Yahr explained, introducing the selections from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije suite that she’d chosen to open the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert last night. “Particularly apt for our time, I think,”she added, alluding to the upcoming events this Tuesday. The crowd chuckled knowingly. Beyond simply bringing the music to life, Yahr usually has a way of focusing on its most relevant aspects.
The five segments she’d chosen illustrate something completely different: the ineptitude of of the Soviet army and its bureaucracy. The joke is that the officer in the suite’s title doesn’t officially exist, and his eventual death has to be covered up: otherwise, there would be paperwork to deal with, and who really wants to fill out a death certificate, anyway? Yet as broad as the satire is, the music came across as surprisingly subtle – other than a completely over-the-top passage from the high woodwinds, portraying the army as a ragtag little regiment that can barely keep up with itself. Which was a stretch for this ensemble: ragtag is not their thing. Sleekness and formidability are more like it.
Both of which came to the forefront during the phony pageantry that followed: taken out of context, absent a few funny cadenzas from the trumpets and a little little over-the-top squonkiness from the bass trombone, the music almost could have passed for a particularly sophisticated soundtrack to a Thanksgiving parade making its way down Central Park West. Then there’s that silly, famous sleigh ride scene, as pointillistically precise and deadpan funny as it could have been.
Next on the program was a similar mini-suite taken from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Yahr introduced the selections as a sort of synopsis of the plot. Does a more venomously emveloping introduction – illustrating the bad blood between the Montagues and the Capulets – or a more lushly sensual interlude – the two lovers on the balcony – exist in classical music? Maybe not. Yahr had the ensemble working every inch of the sonic picture, from top to bottom, as she typically does.
Although she did just the opposite with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which came across as lush and luscious rather than static. A lot of orchestras play it like an early classical piece, or like chamber pop: piano backed by a string section, more or less. But it’s actually the opposite of that, and Yahr seized the opportunity to meet the towering, glittering angst that soloist Imri Talgam was channeling, from his first harrowing, haggard steps out of the shadows. As stormy as the symphonic arrangement is, most of it is pretty straightforward and simple, as opposed to the rapidfire virtuosity required of any pianist with the nerve to tackle it in public.
There’s a slithery cascade downward early in the second movement where the composer basically says, “OK, pity party is over, it’s time to party for real.” If you know the piece, you know the backstory: it’s as good advertising for the benefits of therapy as anyone has ever written. Basically, Rachmaninoff’s therapist told him, “Repeat after me, ‘I’m gonna write something great!’” And a pretty full house got to revel in that epic sweep and rewarded both orchestra and soloist with several standing ovations.
The concerto is about being hurt – to the quick, to the core – and eventually being pulled off the ledge. Or maybe pulling oneself off the ledge. Which goes a long way in explaining its perennial appeal. Talgam played the most poignant passages with an intuitive restraint, often with a genuine tenderness, acutely attuned to context. As a young composer, Rachmaninoff was regarded as erratic, if capable of moments of brilliance; the dismissive critical reaction to his Tschaikovsky-esque First Symphony, which is actually a decent if derivative piece of music, crushed him. This was his big comeback, after which there was no looking back for the man many consider to be the greatest classical pianist of all time and the unrivalled king of Russian Romanticism. Talgam kept a steely focus through one challenging stampede and cadenza after another while Yahr kept the orchestra front and center in tandem with the piano, a welcome and ultimately exhilarating change from how this piece is so frequently performed.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is their annual family show December 4 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 17th St. and Irving Place featuring some of the talented youngsters from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Suggested donation is $20/$10 stud/srs, reception to follow.
One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.
Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.
Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.
Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.
Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,
When he’s not running a loft – where for a couple of years he backed just about every A-list jazz singer on this continent – this cat is the great unsung hero of jazz guitar in New York City. An economy of notes and laser-like purpose define Saul “Zeb” Rubin, sideman to the stars. While there’s no hip bebop voicing that’s off-limits in his book, where he excels with such consistency and understated power is when he goes deep into the dark, grittier side of his own picturesque, shadowy compositions, bristling with suspense and implied menace. In that sense, he’s the missing link between Gene Bertoncini and Bill Frisell. He gets props for writing charts and playing guitar in the Roy Hargrove Big Band, and he’s a regular Sonny Rollins sideman. But his best material ultimately might be his own. His new album, his third, is titled Zeb’s Place, a shout-out to the second-floor Chelsea studio space where he held court and brought in a parade of talented singers to rival the Vanguard. He’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Nov 6 at 7:30 at Smalls with his “Zebtet” – trumpeter Josh Evans, alto saxophonist Lummie Spann, tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard, trombonist Frank Lacy, bassist Jonathan Michel and drummer Brandon Lewis.
It’s a mix of both originals and standards with pretty much the same band plus some special guests. Rubin distinguishes himself as a multi-instrumentalist, playing both electric bass, piano and keyboards on several of the numbers here. The bandstand-burner Android opens the album with a bright four-horn frontline, purposefully brief solos all around, Rubin’s own terse, boisterously witty cascades at the center. Those same horns give a lowlit lustre to the slowly swinging, funk-tinged Oh God Show Me the Way, Dillard’s enigmatically strolling lines building a lattice before Rubin himself delivers a pensive three-way conversation, on guitar, bass guitar and string synth.
The first of four standards here, Billy Reid’s The Gypsy is a rapturous duet with Hargrove, Rubin’s judiciously voicing his chords and the spaces around them in tandem with his longtime collaborator’s airy flugelhorn melody. Rubin opens the eerily cinematic diptych Mean Old Joe/Darkness on piano, building to a brooding crescendo spiced with Lewis’ spare cymbals; then the arrangement expands with moody, noir horns, up to a harrowing Evans trumpet cadenza. Dillard shifts to brighter terrain over angst-fueled flurries as the piano carries the theme to its darkly latin-tinged conclusion.
The group does Thomas Chapin’s Who? as a briskly resonant bossa, Dillard and Evans each following a a tenderly melismatic trajectory up to Rubin’s understatedly impactful, fluttering tremolo chords and hammer-on lines. Rubin’s own slinky stroll Cobi Narita gives tenorist Ned Goold a platform for spaciously lowdown prowling matched by the guitarist’s pensive, low-key chordal attack and shadowy solo.
Rubin goes to the well for a couple of standards, making an epically furtive, haunting bossa and then shadowy swing out of All or Nothing at All in a trio setting with Neal Caine on bass and Charles Goold on drums. Rubin’s starkly direct, solo take of Autumn in New York draws a straight line back to Joe Pass and Jim Hall, a rapt kaleidoscope of shifting harmonies. The final number is Rubin’s own coy Halal Falafel, a funny, surreal, hip-hop flavored tribute to New York Middle Eastern street food. There will no doubt be plenty of uneasy urban tableaux, purist sophistication and babaganoush-fueled wit onstage at Smalls tomorrow night.
For those who gravitate toward towering, majestic sonics, it’s hard to imagine anything more exciting than the Spectrum Symphony‘s upcoming concert tomorrow, Nov 4 at 7:30 PM at St. Peter’s Church at Lexington Ave. and 54th St, where they’ll be playing the first program devoted exclusively to music for organ and orchestra staged in this city this year. In fact, this might be the first concert of its kind staged in this city in this CENTURY. Admittedly, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, symphonic repertoire that also incorporates organ is hard to find. Whatever the case, history will be made when conductor David Grunberg leads the enterprising ensemble through Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra along with the world premiere of Hungarian composer Balint Karosi‘s new Concerto with organ soloist János Pálúr. Suggested donation is $25/$15 stud/srs.
Since 2016 is the Ginastera centenary, it was no surprise that the orchestra would conclude their spring 2016 season on the Upper West Side with a concert highlighted by a meticulously dynamic, uneasily thrilling performance of Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, with special guest harpist Melanie Genin. A sort of synthesis of the early neoromantic Ginastera and his chilling, Messiaenesque later works, it’s a surrealistically riveting mashup of eras and idioms, making it hard to shift gears between them. Grunberg and the orchestra pulled it off with an impressive seamlessness.
They opened quietly with uneasily terse, moonlit glimmer from the harp and strings. The suite grew to a somber, meticulously lowlit lustre that gave way to a sudden, striking trumpet cadenza and then a swirling ballet theme of sorts. There was both precision and irresistible fun as the spiraling woodwinds wound up the opening movement.
From there, austere strings rose with eerie close harmonies to a warmly lush nocturnal, neoromantic interlude. The orchestra followed a spare, brooding oboe solo over a richly misty backdrop More of those uneasy close harmonies shifted to the brass as the fourth movement built, followed by vividly acidic violin. Slowly looming horns in counterpoint with the winds and a hushed passage with strings and harp gave not the slightest hint of how triumpantly pulsing the piece’s triumphantly Stravinskyian coda would be, with its shivery strings and stilletto brass. If this performance is any indication, the energy will be through the roof (or the pavement – the space is below ground) tomorrow night.
Inside the Town Hall last night, the atmosphere was not quite as dark and stormy as the unseasonable torrents pelting the midtown streets. Out of the rain, a robust, enthusiastic, mostly Russian-speaking crowd were engaged by some of the most otherworldly sounds resonating on any New York stage this year. Music from the Republic of Georgia is instantly recognizable – there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. While the twelve men of the eclectic and often electrifying choir Ensemble Basiani sometimes echoed the solemn, brooding quality of the Russian tradition, as well as a couple of interludes of lustrous polyphony in the same vein as Palestrina or Monteverdi, most of their music was strikingly and unmistakably distinctive.
Singing completely from memory, the choir seamlessly aligned an endlessly shifting series of uneasy close harmonies, when they weren’t firing on twelve individual cylinders’ worth of wry, sometimes droll call-and-response. Much of the material in their repertoirs dates back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, yet those harmonies are so strangely sophisticated that they’re avant garde: music that old suddenly becomes new again. Stravinsky took melodies like those from further north on the Russian continent and turned them into the Rite of Spring – nobody knew at the time how much he was simply appropriating ancient village themes.
There wasn’t a lot of the ornamentation found in Ukrainian, Baltic and Balkan music in this set, but when there was, the choir worked those effects for all the deadpan humor they were worth. One number pulsed along with an emphatic “huh” refrain worthy of James Brown. The opening and closing pieces featured one of the tenor voices leaping around, utilizing a device that came across as half yodel, half chirp. And he was very good at it!
Likewise, the group worked the dynamics up and down, from insistent, rhythmic agrarian chants, to rapt hymns, to a handful of slowly crescendoing, hypnotic themes which a couple of guys in the ensemble accompanied with bandura lutes. Another number featured a larger-body lute to match the heft of the music. One of those songs, possibly the biggest hit with the audience, was recognizable as a larger-scale arrangement of an ancient folk tune memorably recorded by the duo of acclaimed American singers Eva Salina and Aurelia Shrenker on their classic AE album. The audience finally came out of their trance and began a spontaneous clapalong; at the end of the concert, they wouldn’t let the group go and after several standing ovations were treated to three encores. Ensemble Basiani’s next stop on their American tour is November 1 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S Goodwin Ave in Urbana, IL; tix are $33.
As far as New York concerts this year go, the most irresistibly yet understatedly macabre Halloween music played on any stage in this city was Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell‘s duo performance of Holmes’ Conqueror Worm Suite at Barbes on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s lurid 1843 poem, it’s a disturbing, grimly picturesque, many-segmented work – just like Poe’s flesh-eating insect.
A catchy, low-key trumpet figure with allusions to oldtime African-American gospel matched by moody, suspenseful low-register accordion opened the suite before Holmes picked up the pace, pensively and optimstically. The trumpeter narrated the first verse as Farrell’s accordion shifted into a morosely staggered waltz rhythm, Holmes’ brooding lines overhead echoing the Balkan music he’s been immersed in over the years, especially at this venue.
The poem follows the same plotline as Poe’s better-known short story The Masque of the Red Death. a high-society party turned into a nightmare – in 2016 political terms, there might be some symbolism here. Holmes put his mute in for a plaintive, rustically bluesy minor-key theme as Farrell held down a brooding, resonant anchoring ambience. From there the duo shifted unexpectedly from a momentary interlude of sheer, rapt horror to a bouncy Balkan dance, the trumpet soaring over Farrell’s rat-a-tat pulse; then the two switched roles and intertwined like..well, a giant worm and its prey.
After a briefly scampering detour, Farrell took centerstage with his big, evil, Messiaeneaque chords as Holmes did a Frankenstein sway several octaves higher. Since we know how the poem ends, it’s probably fair to give away the ending: only here did Holmes let terror flutter through his valves. The duo wound it up with a morose march. According to esteemed photographer and Barbes music room honcho Kate Attardo, this was the second time the work had been performed in its entirety here. Attardo knows a thing or two about good Balkan and brass music, and strongly affirmed that as good as the debut was, this performance was even better. There’ll be a “best concerts of 2016” page here at the end of the year, and this one will be on it. Holmes’ next gig is on Nov 5 at 10 at Barbes with mighty, exhilarating Sionaloa-style ranchera brass orchestra Banda De Los Muertos. Farrell’s next New York show is on Nov 28 at 6 PM with klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals‘ sizzling band outdoors at the triangle at 63rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side.
Ask any dedicated Halloween fan what they think of for a soundtrack for their favorite holiday, and a lot of them will scream, “Organ music!” Thankfully, here in New York we have Patrick Allen to supply that soundtrack a little in advance.
Allen is the tireless organist of Grace Church on Broadway just south of 11th Street. In addition to his extensive work with church services and the choir, Allen plays Bach Tuesday through Friday at twenty minutes past noon, sharp. These “organ meditations,” as he calls them, are free of charge, although you are encouraged to bring canned goods for the church’s food pantry.
Allen is a connoisseur of Bach. Not only does he perform the standard repertoire of preludes and fugues, and passacaglias, and hymns, but he also uncovers all sorts of obscure treasures like pastorales and folk dance themes in liturgical disguise. Playing expertly on the mighty 2013 Taylor and Boody organ, enhanced by the historic 1846 edifice’s magnificent natural reverb, his four-times-a-week performances are a gothic treat that every New Yorker should play hooky from work or school at least once in a lifetime to enjoy.
Beyond the general association, what do Allen’s performances have to do with Halloween? Right around this time of year, he breaks out Bach’s Toccata in D. It’s arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, it’s been a staple of horror film for almost a century, and Allen always lets his phrases linger with just a little extra grand guignol menace right about now. Stop by the church today or tomorrow if you’re in the neighborhood because you may be in for a real treat. The trick is to get here on time or you might miss it.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of the deliciously enveloping duo set that violinist Sarah Neufeld and multi-saxophonist Colin Stetson played this past evening at the World Financial Center atrium. If you missed it, good news: it’ll be rebroadcast on a date TBA on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live program on WNYC.
Neufeld and Stetson did a memorable duo album, Never Were the Way She Was, last year; since then, she’s released another solo effort, The Ridge. This show revisited both recordings: it was a performance to lean back and take in with eyes closed and get absoutely, completely lost in.
Neufeld opened solo with some assistance from her trusty loop pedal, building steady rhythmic variations on a stately three-note descending riff. Her second number rose out of canon-like, fluttery flurrying, a call-and-response of extended phrases. It was hard to tell what was in the pedal and what Neufeld was playing herself, but she was working up a sweat. Brisk broken chords and allusions to Romanticism appeared and were subsumed by sirening banks of sound.
Stetson joined her and supplied a rippling, almost subsonic idling-diesel drone, then introduced minutely stygian shifts as Neufeld played terse, wary, minimalistic washes overhead. Together they built a microtonal mist heavy at both ends of the register, Neufeld’s swipes and swoops against Stetson’s digeridoo-like rumble. The two slowly wound the epic down at the end with what could have beeen whale song translated to the two instruments: a deep, endangered ocean.
It was here that it became obvious that the two musicians had figured out the timing of the sonic decay in the boomy atrium space: in their hands, it became an integral part of the instrumentation as the echoes bounced off the walls. Memo to musicians looking to capitalize on that: it’s a fast echo, only about a half a second.
Stetson’s work on tenor sax was just as hypnotic, and expertly rhythmic, as his rumbling bass sax attack, the kind of masterfully metronomic series of live loops that he does with his live techno. A warmly nocturnal vamp and all sorts of otherworldly warping textures – including some ethereal vocalese from Neufeld filteried through the mix. They lost the crowd for a bit with a dancing, flitting number with a lot of pizzicato violin but pulled them back in, ending on as anthemic a note as such vast, spacious music can conjure. As the show wound up, Neufeld stomped her foot for a trancey percussive loop and pushed Stetson to his murkiest depths. What a refreshing, revitalizing experience in the middle of a week that really screamed out for one.
Meanwhile, throughout the show, a jungly loop of birdsong fluttered behind the mix, audible in the quietest moments. At first it was cute, but the shtick wore thin. Juan Garcia Esquivel would have faded it out thirty seconds in.
The premise of the Greenwich Village Orchestra, along with the other community orchestras throughout the five boroughs of New York, is that there isn’t enough room in the New York Philharmonic for all the first-rate classical players in town. This year marks the GVO’s thirtieth anniversary, half of that under the direction of maestro Barbara Yahr. And it’s their most ambitious season ever, in fact, arguably the most ambitious season of any orchestra in New York this year For example, their next concert, on Nov 6 at 3 PM includes the hauntingly immortal “Rach 2,” the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with Imri Talgam as soloist, along with some highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet as well as his Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Further down the road, they’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, along with a more playful Broadway-themed program that will probably be heavy on Leonard Bernstein.
The opening concert of the orchestra’s 2016-17 season was similarly ambitious: an all-Dvorak bill that began with a tightly focused romp through the first of his Symphonic Dances. On one hand, it was a signal that the orchestra wasn’t going to waste auy time bringing the energy to redline. Yet, Yahr’s calmly unassailable direction gave the piece a balletesque precision in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a more elegant take on a centuries-old folk tradition.
They followed with Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Adele Anthony. As the program notes alluded, this piece has a funny backstory. The composer wrote it for Joseph Joachim, one of the 19th century’s greatest violinsts…who refused to play it, probably because it isn’t flashy enough! And flash is the last thing in mind Dvorak had in mind for it: at its ravishing heart (to quote one particularly astute, veteran GVO supporter), it’s a love story. And it’s noteworthy for how contiguous and integral the solo violin is within the context of the whole lush picture. For what it’s worth, Anthony played her cards close to the vest, an appropriate choice considering how intricately her part is woven into the work’s lavish and lively exchanges.
The orchestra closed with the most dynamic performance of the New World Symphony ever witnessed by this blog – and if you stick around the New York classical scene long enough, you see a bunch of them. One thing that made this special was that Dvorak very likely wrote part of the symphony on the very spot – 17th Street and Irving Place – where the orchestra performed it. Dvorak taught for a couple of years at the conservatory which remained there until it was razed in the early 1920s. What was equally special was how Yahr and her ensemble pulled it off. She is passionate and meticulous about details, particularly the most minute ones that a composer will hide away just to see if anybody gets them. In this case, it was the momentary, surreal dream-state rondo of an interlude that flashes by in maybe forty seconds in the symphony’s final movement, a secret key that seems to resolve every previous theme if you listen closely. After going deep into the score, Yahr had it sussed out: “I think this is about memory,” she asserted. “ And maybe Dvorak remembering his life in Bohemia, and being homesick.”
And the orchestra responded. It would be facile to explain the vast expanse they tackled, and conquered, by saying that Yahr started everything out hushed and sotto voce to give the musicians as much headroom as possible later on. What came into clearest focus – another point that Yahr emphasized – was that as much as Dvorak seized on African-American blues and spiritual themes, this is an indelibly European piece of music. Everybody who had to be on his or her game was. Horns, first and foremost, scouts surveying the terrain and foreshadowing the bellicosity in their path, were absolutely flawless, along with percussion and the tight-as-a-barrel string section. Other NewYork orchestras release every performance: a grab bag, to say the least, including the Philharmonic’s own performances. For the GVO, this was one for the ages.
While we’re at it, here’s an alternate interpretation, one that Yahr might or might not agree with. Dvorak was definitely in memory mode – memory of conflict, and fear, and maybe war. Repression was a fact of daily life in the Hapsburg Empire, something that might well have factored into the volleys and frantic retreats that provide an understatedly chilling contrast with the earthy themes that recall Swing Low Sweet Chariot – and which both George Gershwin and Paul Simon would rip off years and decades later. Dvorak might well have had an ulterior motive to take up a New York society matron’s offer of residency here: to stay out of harm’s way for a bit.