Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Entertaining, Dynamic New Classical Orchestral Works on the Latest Polarities Compilation

The second volume of the Polarities compilations of new orchestral music – streaming at Spotify – came out last summer and is very much worth your time if you like colorful, translucent, robustly performed sounds. To open the album, Pavel Šnajdr conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in Margaret Brandman‘s Spirit Visions, a “symphonic tone poem.” It’s variations on a catchy, folksy theme straight out of Nashville circa 1972. Brandman sends it goodnaturedly around the orchestra: everybody gets to indulge, especially the brass.

The orchestra’s second contribution here is Kamala Sankaram‘s 91919, playful flourishes contrasting with a nebulous density that no doubt draws on her time working with Anthony Braxton’s large ensembles. Natalia Anikeeva’s terse, astringent viola stands out resolutely against the smoky backdrop and occasional deviously twinkling accent or drumroll. Sankaram’s signature sense of humor comes to the forefront as a goofy march ensues.

The second piece on the album is Beth Mehocic’s Tango Concerto, played in striking high definition by the Zagreb Festival Orchestra under Ivan Josip Skender, with Charlene Farrugia on piano and Franko Božac on accordion and bandoneon, Don’t let the strangely tremoloing strings make you believe that there’s something wrong with the recording: the two keyboardists’ regal introduction quickly brings the first movement down to earth, right up to what could be a sly allusion to a famous Led Zep song.

Movement two has an elegant pas de deux between accordion and piano over increasing deep-sky nocturnal lustre. The muscularly pulsing third movement is where the inevitable Piazzolla comparisons arise, but Mehocic chooses her spots and packs a lot into not much time – around thirteen minutes. It’s inspiring to hear a piece like this that matches the iconic Argentine composer’s outside-the-box sensibility without being imitative.

Stanislav Vavřínek conducts the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in the album’s three other works. Echo figures filter in over drifting suspense in Larry Wallach’s Species of Motion, rising to a flurrying agitation as the main theme coalesces and winds animatedly through the ensemble. From there the piece is calm without losing brightness. Everybody has a good time with this one – what a fun piece to play!

Does Mel Mobley‘s Labored Breathing allude to a recently ubiquitous divide-and-conquer technique? Probably not, although this ominously colorful piece quickly escalates from brooding resonance to a bellicose intensity that sometimes borders on the macabre. A desolate, fugally-tinged interlude sets the stage for the next skirmish; from there, the suspense doesn’t let up. It’s the most distinctly noirish and most memorable piece on the program.

The final work is Brian Latchem’s picturesque, Dvorakian Suffolk Variations, a relatively brief (ten-minute) viola concerto. A wistful canon sets the stage, soloist Vladimír Bukač following a steady, restrained, baroque-tinged upward trajectory. There’s a rustic, rather lushly dancing passage and then a wry crescendo before the orchestra bring it full circle. Spin this for anyone who might feel daunted finding their way around the new classical scene: it’s as good a place to start as any.

January 12, 2022 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jeanne Golan Explores Allusive Tango-Inspired Piano Pieces

n her latest album It Takes One to Tango – streaming at Spotify – pianist Jeanne Golan explores new and obscure solo piano music more influenced by tango than it actually embodies the form. In a mix of works by composers imperiled by (and sometimes murdered in) the Holocaust, and also several contemporary pieces, Golan reaches effortlessly between the High Romantic and the modern, with tinges of jazz in places. It’s often a very entertaining ride.

There are a lot of dances here. Golan opens the album with three short pieces by Pablo Ortiz. The first, Bianco, is a Romantic miniature with a suspicious resemblance to a famous Beethoven etude. She follows with a similarly glittering, attentively spacious take of Piglia, and then The Shady Side, a coyly dancing game of peek-a-boo. The tango rhythm in each of these is more implied rather than actually stated.

Next on the program is Reverie d’Automne, by Wanda Landowska. a wistful quasi-waltz: Golan’s bell-like crispness in the upper registers is bittersweetly spot-on. Wilhelm Grosz is represented by his Tanzsuite, beginning with a “foxtrot” which sounds like Gershwin through a japanned glass in places. Golan creeps carefully toward Debussy and waltz time with the second number, Boston (which is also a dance). Grosz’s Tango here is a devious mashup of bits of themes, Golan luxuriating in its more resonant moments. She follows with Shimmy, which is just as clever a blend of mid-century modern, music-box tableau and morsel of tango. Golan mines a similar irony and humor, wryly marching through the concluding movement, Quasi Fivestep. This music is great fun: Grosz, who died young in 1939, deserves to be better known.

Chester Biscardi’s Incitation to Desire is an altered ballad that straddles the line between comfortable consonance and more enigmatic tonalities. Pacita’s Lunch, by Theodore Wiprud is more kinetic, a dynamically shifting dance across the constellations.

Erwin Schulhoff’s five-part suite Etudes de Jazz in many ways prefigures Piazzolla. Golan begins with the Schoenbergian ragtime of his Charleston and then slows down for a blues that isn’t close to real blues, but does have an ominous deep-sky gleam. The third segment, Chanson, echoes the opening number’s dichotomies, more spaciously, while the tastily twisted tango is the only real item in that genre here. The cat never shows its face in the concluding Toccata and Kitten on the Keys, but this edgy ragtime is both playful and a little disquieting.

Golan closes the album with Toby Twining‘s An American in Buenos Aires, a charmingly Gershwinesque piece featuring both grand and toy piano.

December 19, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yet Another Dynamic, Funky, Multistylistic Album From Protean Guitarist Will Bernard

Will Bernard is the rare musician who can write about what he does with as much articulacy as he plays. Now, that could be taken two ways, but Bernard is a guitar polymath who seems to have just as much fun in the worlds of straight-ahead jazz, Booker T style soul grooves, psychedelia, and slinky, funky organ lounge sounds. His latest album Ancient Grains – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – pushes the envelope as far as that last category is concerned. It was tempting just to plagiarize his descriptions of the tracks, but that would be cheating. This album is a party in a box. Here we go!

Bernard calls the opening number, Dry Land Tourist, a cruising song. That’s an interesting way to look at it. Unless you listen closely from the beginning, it’s hard to find the beat – although drummer Donald Edwards’ rhythm is rock-steady, it’s almost like everything is on the “one.” Bernard and organist Sam Yahel play sparely and incisively: this is dance music.

Bernard is very good with titles. To what extent does the album’s title track reflect the nutritional value of heirloom grains like, say, tef or hominy? It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this tightly swinging quasi-shuffle is soul food, although bacon and home fries come to mind more than yemesir wat. But maybe that’s just a cultural association, considering that this style that originated in the south and midwest.

The trio play Five Finger Discount – a triumphantly percolating salute to the joy of thievery – with a shuffling 5/4 beat. Then they hit a lithe, brisk pulse in Pleasure Seekers, a California Highway 1 tableau. The George Benson that Bernard alludes to here is the young, hungry, edgy version; Edwards mists up the car windows with his solo.

With the fond, gospel-tinged, panoramic ballad Stone Valley, Bernard sends a shout-out to his dad, who built the family home in what was then very rural California. The guitarist calls Trilobite a ” mood piece for a rainy carnival day.” which nails the contrast between the jaunty Brazilian beat and the moody, resonant changes.

The lone cover here is a Monk tune, Boo Boo’s Birthday, Bernard giving the melody line some extra bite, Yahel having fun shifting the rhythm over Edwards’ practically defiant forward drive. Likewise, there’s a hard swing to Mazurka Tree, distantly inspired by Chopin, whose Slavic dances Bernard would play on piano in his younger days.

Edwards gets to volley and chew the scenery in Temescal, a lickety-split salute to Bernard’s old Bay Area stomping ground. Ironically for a party album, the most gripping track is the gorgeously drifting Right As Rain, awash in cumulo-nimbus organ and Bernard’s spare, sitar-like slide guitar. The group close the record with Wake Up Call. “This song doesn’t sound difficult but it requires a certain alertness to play it,” Bernard confides. Actually…yeah, the syncopation in this part-boogaloo, part brooding reggae-inflected tune is tricky, but the trio keep the slinky groove rolling close to the ground.

December 13, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New York’s Great Champion of Undeservedly Obscure Classical Repertoire Shares These Treasures at Her Magical Salon Series

Pianist and impresario Yelena Grinberg is New York’s greatest advocate for undiscovered and unorthodox classical repertoire. Her Upper West Side salons, founded in the Fall of 2013 as a monthly soiree, have since expanded to two thematic programs per month, and have become legendary. The Russian music site Etazhi calls them “Musical Salons for the Guinness Book.”

Grinberg graciously took some time away from her rigorous schedule of playing and teaching to give New York Music Daily the inside scoop into a New York phenomenon.

New York Music Daily: You’ve archived the programs going all the way back to Salon #1, where you played rarely-heard music by Charles-Valentine Alkan. Ever since I talked to you, I’ve been listening nonstop to his music. It’s mind-blowing. Now, I have a pretty decent exposure to lesser-known repertoire, and I have my favorite niches too, and I have vague memories of hearing one of Alkan’s organ works once. But hearing his piano music, thanks to you, has been life-changing. He sounds like nobody I’ve ever head before: Chopin and Beethoven mashed up with otherworldly old Jewish melodies, but also a rhythmic sensibility that reminds me of Hovhaness. And from a hundred years earlier! I owe you huge for this! I can’t imagine how much fun it must have been for you to play that program!

Yelena Grinberg: It was a fascinating undertaking to do all the research and perform Alkan’s unjustly neglected music. I was struck by the transcendental difficulty of the keyboard writing as well as the originality and the richness of his musical ideas. I programmed his demonic Grand Duo Concertante in F# minor, whose second movement, is entitled L’enfer  – “Hell”- for a good reason! I also played his epic Sonate de concert in E Major for cello and piano, which is among the most devilishly difficult works in the entire Romantic chamber music repertoire.

For my solo Alkan-inspired program, I performed selections from his evocative 24 Preludes, Esquisses, his enchanting Barcarolle and one of his last wild works, Toccatina. At some point in the future, I would love to program his never-heard Piano Trio.

NYMD: And he’s just one example of the innumerable lesser-known but amazing composers whose work you’ve championed. How did you discover Alkan and what drew you to his music?

YG: I can’t recall if there was one particular inspiration. I do recall that I came across an Alkan CD by Raymond Lewenthal and Marc-Andre Hamelin in the Fall of 2013, when I first began my salons, it marked the 200th anniversary Alkan’s birth, so I made him the focal composer for that season.

NYMD: Long before it became all the rage to resurrect forgotten treasures by, say, black composers, you were unearthing material that hadn’t been played in New York, maybe anywhere in the world, in a hundred years or more. I am amazed by your dedication to the cause. It must take an enormous amount of energy and sleuthing. What is your motivation, what drives you? Is this because you want to be the queen of niche, or that you’re sick of standard repertoire, or that you get bored fast? Or that you’re rewriting history to set the record straight?

YG: I was getting weary of overplayed standard repertoire and wanted to program music that was hard to find and fresh to the ear. Luckily I learn very quickly, which enables me to cover a lot of new repertoire in a short span of time. I typically build each season’s programs around the  anniversary of a celebrated or an unjustly neglected composer’s birth, for example, Charles-Valentin Alkan or Carl Czerny. I like to balance out the program with a work that everyone loves, like Franck’s Violin Sonata, along with lesser-known repertoire.

NYMD: At your salons, you always like to share insights on the material on the program . You seem completely immersed in the lore of classical music, with all the colorful characters and endless drama. With you, it’s a big epic movie. Most artists just get up and play but you seem to have as much fun engaging with the history of the music as the music itself. Is this just a performance shtick – look, Yelena is the pianist who always finds the great stories! – or do you have a more ambitious agenda here?

YG: I especially like to engage with the audience in a lecture-performance format, and I love the Q&A afterward. The majority of the people who come to my salons are not musicians, so they bring their individual interests and professional backgrounds to the conversation. The guests often tell me they appreciate the commentary, the history, they may not know a certain musical term but they enjoy the historical background and find the listening experience richer as a result.

Over the years, I’ve had some fascinating visitors at the salon such as Ruth Slenczynska, the last living pupil of Rachmaninoff, who attended my solo Alkan program back in 2013.

NYMD: As I understand it, your salons started exactly the same way a lot of regular classical series started: friends getting together to read chamber music. That’s how ICE started, how Kettle Corn New Music evolved. At what point did you realize that you were doing something that nobody else was? Was there a moment where you realized that in your own unique way, you were making New York music history?

YG: Initially, I did not expect that my salons would blossom into a regular concert series, and that I would showcase 230-plus salon programs up to this point. The initial salons were attended mostly by a handful of family members and close friends, and by word of mouth, they grew to a much larger audience over the years. I didn’t know how frequently I would end up doing these concerts. I was excited to recreate the refined, European style “hausmusik”, which is how much of this music was meant to be enjoyed in its original conception.

NYMD: Can we talk about where you find your material? For example, your most recent sold-out event featured duo works for piano and guitar. Can I ask you, are you also a fan of classical guitar? How much of this repertoire actually exists? And of the material you discovered, how much of it turned out to be worth playing? Obviously, you discovered a lot!

YG: For the lesser-known repertoire I do more extensive research to see which libraries or stores have it, and a lot of what I find comes from Europe. Thankfully, I have close connections to the music librarians at Columbia University, the Juilliard library, and the Brooklyn College library, who have been very helpful over the years in obtaining rare editions for my research and performance.

Initially, I chose the topic or the focal composer for the entire season. Then, I thoroughly research all the solo and chamber music repertoire by that composer and think of creative interconnections with the composers who were in his or her close circle of friends, pupils, and fellow composers. For instance, this year I am presenting a series inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s belated 250th birthday, and have programmed works by such lesser-known composers as C.P.E. Bach, Ferdinand Ries, Ignaz Moscheles and Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn.

This summer, I presented an Enchanting Evening for Guitar and Piano – the first time I featured a guitar in my series. Turns out, there is very little music originally written for piano and guitar, and a lot of it obviously shines the spotlight on the piano. Aside from rarities like Hummel’s Potpourri for Guitar and Piano and Tedesco’s Fantasia, the majority of other works are arrangements or transcriptions. It turned out to be a kaleidoscopic program and everybody loved it. I designed it to cover 250 years – from Vivaldi to Piazzolla.

In the past, I’ve programmed music by seldom-represented women composers such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Cecile Chaminade, Ethel Smythe and Pauline Viardot.

And over the last few years, every February, I present an Aquarian Genius program featuring three composers born under the sign of Aquarius, namely Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert.

NYMD: That makes sense, if anybody understands Aquarian genius, it’s probably you, considering you have the same birthday as Mendelssohn!

YG: Thank you! I’m truly honored to share my birthday with Felix Mendelssohn.

NYMD: OK. Have you ever tried to come up with a program that didn’t get off the drawing board because enough material for it didn’t exist?

YG: I never had that quandary. When I come up with a program, it’s partly analytical and partly intuitive. I do these concerts so frequently, so my mind has to stay focused. I do very extensive research, and I always find enough repertoire to make for what, I hope, is a satisfying salon program.

NYMD: How about commissioning contemporary artists? I don’t see a lot of 20th century, let alone 21st century material on your programs. You’ve played Satie, and Piazzolla, but not much that’s more current. Is that just not your thing?

YG:  My area of interest lies in the music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. I prefer to play the music that I find intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding, that speaks to me and challenges me. That’s not to say that I’m not open to including some works from the 20th century. For instance, I will be including Gyorgy Kurtag’s atmospheric Three Pieces for violin and piano, from 1979, at my November 7 and 10 salons.

My salons are meant to be a throwback to the music of the Enlightenment so it makes sense that the material relates to that time period. I think there’s a certain joy for people to be able to anticipate the sound of a piece from a particular era, even if they don’t know that specific work. There’s a lot to be said for historical context.

NYMD: Let’s talk about your collaborators. You have a duo project with an absolutely brilliant violinist, Emilie-Anne Gendron of the Momenta Quartet. She’s pretty high-profile. Where do you find all these people to play with? Or is this just being part of the classical scene here and having a good sense of who might be a good fit for a particular bill?

YG: It’s a combination of those factors. Either a musician is recommended to me, or it is someone I’ve known and collaborated with from my years at Columbia University and Juilliard. I also consider who might be a good fit for a particular program. Interpersonal chemistry is key. In a sense, playing chamber music together is like being in a relationship. Emilie and I have been playing together since 2003, since we were both students at the Barnard-Columbia-Juilliard program.

NYMD: Can we talk about you as an artist, start at square one and work forward? You were born in Moscow, started playing piano at an early age. Your mom plays, right?

YG: Yes, my mother was my first piano teacher. She went to the Gnessin Institute, and I began my professional music study at Moscow’s Gnessin School for Gifted Children at age 5.

NYMD: You had famous teachers at the Gnessin school. You were a sixth grader when you came here. Did you have your sights on being a famous pianist, or were you just a kid who liked playing?

YG: I was studying professionally, and that was probably going to be my professional path, but of course I didn’t know how my life would ultimately play out. I always had great intellectual curiosity, I wanted to expand my horizons and was very social. I knew music would always be my path but I was not sure of what I would do more of, teaching versus performing. Today, I combine both, along with coordinating my salon series…which is nearly a full-time job in and of itself [laughing].

For a long time I was fascinated by biology. I was very keen on becoming a biologist, but between the lab work and music, I chose the latter, which was my true calling. But my love of science definitely informs my salon programming. I’ve adopted a scientific approach to the way I conduct the research for the repertoire and the way that I select my programs, pair the works thematically, etcetera. This intellectually rigorous approach appeals to me much more to me than a purely emotional one.

NYMD: Can we talk about the difference between music education in Russia, and here? Was there anything that struck you immediately when you first got here?

YG: I would say that teachers’ expectations were much higher in Russia, coaches were to be obeyed and greatly admired. In US, the emphasis is much more of consumer-oriented. For instance, a student can request that he or she wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, even though they may not be at that level.. In Russia, teachers typically get more respect, and students are much more obedient. But a lot of that has to do with the political landscape – freedom of speech, for example, which we did not have in Russia.

NYMD: Obviously, you never stopped playing, but I see your undergraduate degree from Columbia is not in music but in English literature. You’re a Shakespeare scholar. Was this a departure from your career path, or were there other reasons involved?

YG: I always enjoyed Shakespeare – the brilliance of his writing, his razor-sharp wit, the wonderful paradoxes in his language, and the universality and timelessness of the characters in his plays. Obviously, English isn’t my first language, but I always enjoyed the subtlety and the witty banter in Shakespeare. Which you find in the music of Haydn, for example, or Schumann: the use of extra-musical narrative, the different fictional characters which remind me a lot of the Shakespearean world, Mendelssohn, of course – the way the music feeds off literature and poetry, and vice versa. I was always drawn much more to Schumann as opposed to Chopin, for example, because of the literary richness and multifaceted humor in Schumann’s music which appeals to my personality. In fact, my doctoral dissertation at Juilliard was on Late Schumann.

NYMD: Have you ever merged those two passions? Say, a Shakespeare-themed program?

YG: I have not yet… but that’s a great idea!

NYMD: Since your Columbia days, you’ve done all the usual career-track things that every other classical pianist wants to do. You studied with even more famous pianists – Richard Goode among them – and you got your doctorate from Juilliard. You played competitions and did well, you played Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and all the usual places. But you followed your own muse, off the beaten path. Was this something that just evolved or did you have a plan?

YG: The way it’s happened with the salons, I guess my path in life has always been kind of off the beaten path. I don’t concertize too much like a lot of other musicians and my home base is here in New York. I strive for balance between stability and variety. I enjoy having my own enterprise, and not having anyone to report to. And I love that I can program whatever composers that suit me for my salons. That would be much different if I had to fill a thousand seats. In an intimate salon setting, I can afford to exercise my creative license when it comes to programming,, etcetera. Luckily in New York, there are a lot of intellectually sophisticated, open-minded individuals who are drawn to the lesser-known repertoire that I present, and they enjoy coming to my salons for the enlightenment and novelty.

NYMD: As you know, I love getting a scoop, covering artists who are underrepresented in the media. I have a thing for rugged individualists. But I also have a larger agenda and that’s much more ambitious – and goes against the current corporate zeitgeist. I’ve always advocated for live performance because it gets people off their screens, back into reality, where real communities are born. I get the sense that the raison d’etre behind your salons dovetails with my agenda, at least to some extent. Am I on to something here?

YG: In a sense, yes. My salons hark back to the old tradition of “hausmusik” since the day of the Enlightenment. I wanted to revive this old and elegant tradition of music-making and thereby create a community on the Upper West Side and beyond, that would go against the current trend of increased robotization and commercialization in our society. The salons enable a lively and stimulating dialogue between the performer and the audience, in an intimate setting that, I think, is highly precious during this day and age.

NYMD: How much, if any audio exists from your salons? Is there an archive? Where can we hear it, or when will we be able to?

YG: Yes, I audio-record each salon for my own personal archive.

NYMD: You are aware that hundreds of years from now, your audio and sheet music libraries will be referred to as the “Grinberg Collection” and will be both a resource and a record of a major achievement in music history, right?

YG: You are too kind.. Should that ever happen, I would be very honored, indeed.

NYMD: Can I ask you, what’s your musical fallback? You have such a wide range of musical interests, wider than just about anybody I know. Who do you play just for you? When nobody else is listening, or for your family, or loved ones? What sets your synapses on fire more than anything else?

YG: Undoubtedly, it would be Bach. I’ve always had a special affinity for Bach’s music, which is sublime and transcendent. That’s not to say I don’t love Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, just to name a few, but Bach for me is No. 1. In the early stages of the lockdown I just kept playing Bach. His music is inspiring, empowering, and therapeutic like that of no other composer. I typically perform an all-Bach program every January. In 2016, I presented an Italian Bach program, featuring his Italian-style works, in 2018, I performed all his French Suites; in 2019, all English Suites, and in 2021, showcased seldom-heard Preludes, Fugues and Fantasies, which I entitled Rare Bach. And I am hoping to get to perform his complete Partitas in January 2022!

NYMD: What do you think the future holds for your salon?

YG: It’s so hard to even think of the future right now. I hope that my salons will continue to bring joy and meaning to people’s lives, and that more people get to discover them!

Yelena Grinberg’s next salon (No. 239), entitled The Leuzer Sonata, is Sunday, November 7 at 5 PM, repeating on Wednesday, November 10 at 6:30 PM. showcasing a colorful program where she’ll be joined by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron. They’ll be playing Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A Major for violin and keyboard, BWV 1015, Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Kurtag’s Three Pieces for violin and piano, and the piece de resisteance is Beetehoven’s iconic “Kreutzer” Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin. This not-to-be-missed salon is a short walk from the 1/2/3 train at 96th St. To learn more and to register, email her.

October 24, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

High Romantic Angst and Insight From Pianist Zixiang Wang

Pianist Zixiang Wang has a passion for the Romantics. And who brews up more of an emotional storm than the Russians? Interestingly, Wang’s new album First Piano Sonatas: Scriabin and Rachmaninoff – streaming at Spotify – is hardly all fullblown angst, although there is some of that here. Rather, this is a very thoughtfully considered recording, bravely made in Michigan in the fall of 2020 despite grim lockdowner restrictions. This record is not the place to go to gear up for battle with demons, personal or otherwise. But if you want to hear Scriabin riffs that Rachmaninoff would later seemingly appropriate, or watch the stories in this music slowly unfold, Wang offers all that and plenty more in high definition.

He hits the first movement of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 1 hard, and then backs away. A heroic, martial quality develops and recedes in waves, but Wang keeps a tight rein on the rubato until the end, where muting those staccato chords and then stretching out the rhythm really drives this troubled theme home.

He gives movement two a slightly hesitant, almost prayerful undercurrent anchored by a steely but supple lefthand. The aggressive, balletesque parts of the third movement are pure proto-Piazzolla; Wang’s choice of subsuming the righthand melody with lefthand murk suddenly makes perfect sense when he reaches the crushing false ending. Likewise, his restraint with the funereal lows in the dirge of a fourth movement – a requiem for the composer’s short-lived career as a virtuoso performer, derailed by a hand injury.Wang’s approach to Rachmaninoff’s first Piano Sonata is similar, opting for clarity and detail rather than the kind of opulence that, say, Karine Poghosyan would give this music. Amid the cascades in both the right and lefthand, those fleeting little Debussyesque curlicues, that aching reach for a tender moment and its subsequent, surprisingly irrepressible variations are strikingly vivid, even if the more animated interludes seem a little on the fast side.

The second movement gets a delightfully calm lilt. genteel glitter and a handful of devious references to Rachmaninoff’s very contemporaneous Symphony No. 2. The sheer liquidity of Wang’s lefthand early on in the third will take your breath away, particularly in contrast with the rather stern quality he follows with. And yet, the moments of black humor that pop up are plenty visible. If this is to be believed, the devil gleefully walks away, needle in hand, at the end.

Wang concludes the album with a rarely performed version of Rachmaninoff’s F Major Prelude, a dreamy student work which the composer turned into his duo for piano and cello, Op. 2 No. 1.

March 17, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Richly Disquieting Music From Nomi Epstein

Pianist Nomi Epstein writes magical, otherworldly, spacious music that sometimes brings to mind Federico Mompou, other times Messiaen. The piano pieces on her new album Sounds – streaming at Bandcamp – linger with an often mournful, sparse belltone ambience. These works are deceptively minimalist: the way Epstein slowly shifts between relentlessly unsettled harmonies is artful to the extreme. She keeps the pedal down for maximum resonance.  If there was any sound tailor-made for the unreality and immersive angst of the lockdown, this is it.

The first composition is Till For Solo Piano, played meticulously by Reinier van Houdt. The obvious antecedent seems to be Satie’s Vexations; the way Epstein subtly shifts harmonies while maintaining a creepy, bell-like ambience is as masterful as it is hypnotic.

Solo for Piano part I: Waves is aptly titled, its graceful series of low lefthand rumbles building a picturesque portrait of water washing a beach at night, and slowly brightening from there. The minute dynamic shifts in the brooding, steady conversation between left and righthand in the uninterrupted, eighteen-minute part two, Dyads are more celestially captivating. Again, Satie’s Vexations comes to mind

Van Houdt returns to the keys for the concluding number, Layers for Piano, with its contrasts between stygian reflecting-pool resonance in the lefthand with slowly shifting, spare, unsettling close-harmonied accents in the right. Occasional flinging gestures in the the upper registers dash any hope of a persistent, meditative state.

There are also two chamber works here. For Collect/Project, a hazy, lighthearted electroacoustic piece featuring vocalist Frauke Aulbert with Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute is ridiculously funny in places. And the composer herself plays the album’s sparest piano on the title track, Eliza Bangert’s flute and Jeff Kimmel‘s bass clarinet providing nebulous wave motion and a mist of overtones behind her. What a stunningly individualistic and often haunting album: let’s hope Epstein can continue build on what promises to be a brilliant body of work.

February 10, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Unspooled

Jazz trio Unspooling‘s debut album Scot Free– streaming at Bandcamp – is ambitious bordering on hyperactive: pianist Julia Chen is tireless to the nth degree. This isn’t your typical trio album, either. There aren’t a lot of big solo moments, and the rhythm section – bassist Matt Adomeit and drummer Nate Friedman – aren’t frequently engaged in a particularly colorful way. Yet this is sophisticated music, the group have a sense of humor and reach for a wide expanse of ideas and moods. Getting there is sometimes a work in progress.

They open it with Shrimpy, a persistent, steady tune, at least in the sense that there are either tightly triangulated polyrhythms or a steady clustering forward drive. It also doesn’t breathe: a musical airshaft or two wouldn’t have hurt.

The album’s title track is a suspiciously blithe stroll, with echoes of Donald Fagen and some wryly cascading flourishes. Chen’s piano manages to escape a pervasive, toxic, heavily processed cloud of bass to give Bad Morning some obviously long-awaited, sober closure. The three go back to tricky, interwoven rhythms in Immaculate Conception, Chen skirting blues and gospel allusions.

The eerie, stairstepping close harmonies as she introduces the somber ballad Big Misunderstanding are a cool touch, as is the bass/piano interweave in the pastorally-tinged Moose Trial (they’re good with song titles). Cultural Appropriation is a slyly catchy salsa-jazz strut, while the group shift up the metrics in the distantly Monk-tinged Barman.

Chen moves to Rhodes over a steady swing shuffle for the blippy Soymilk Savior. The band’s eponymous epic track finally coalesces around a welcome detour down to the catacombs and then an even creepier, music box-like finale: this is where the trio really excel at creating an atmosphere.

Back on Rhodes for Second Chance, Chen builds bright latin soul ambience over Friedman’s steady clave and playful offbeats. The album’s strongest overall number is perhaps ironically its simplest, most lingering one, Just Fine, a syncopated Rhodes soul tune. They close with the hypnotically minimalist New and Old. There’s genuine talent and promise here: giving the music a little space would be a good jump-off point.

July 12, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooding Rainswept Minimalism from Michael Attias

Michael Attias’ new album Echos la Nuit – streaming at Bandcamp -evokes an iconic midnight Manhattan of the mind: rain-soaked streets, sax player on the corner alone, desolate phrases echoing into the darkness.

What’s different about the record – Attias’ first solo release – is that he plays both alto sax and piano, often at the same time. But where so many horn players will tickle the ivories a little while soloing, just to show off, Attias pairs the instruments for misterioso moods. It’s amazing how seamlessly he makes it work. A biting bhangra riff and variations are central to the brooding ambience. He’s playing the album release show on April 6 at 7:30 PM, with a solo set and then with his quartet at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $20/$15 stud.

He opens the album with the title track, that catchy, arresting bhangra horn phrase and variations over still, starry, minimalist piano, followed by a pensive solo sax passage which he ices with cautious piano harmonies. The minute deviations in tone and pitch throughout the somewhat hesitant sax/piano harmonies in Trinite add a deliciously uneasy tinge.

Attias sustains his notes further in Grass, a solo sax piece with some acidic duotones and an unexpected return to that opening bhangra hook. Autumn I, the first piece of a triptych, is a synthesis of the album’s earlier tropes, but without the Indian spice. But Attias brings it back, calmly, in Autumn II, juxtaposing flutters and resonance, then winds it up with Fenix III, Satie-esque piano contrasting with melancholy, circling, enigmatically agitated modal sax.

His solo sax in Circles shifts from echoey minimalism to a long, catchy, cantering crescendo. Attias follows the playful, insistent bhangra variations of Rue Oberkampf with Wrong Notes, a coy miniature.

The album’s most epic number, Song for the Middle Pedal, seems to employ that useless thing in between sustain and damper, although it’s mostly carefully spaced, allusive sax phrases. Attias finally decides to work a grim low/high dynamic between piano and sax in Sea in the Dark, the album’s most dynamic and intricate piece. He closes with Echoes II Night, hinting at a bluesy ballad but never quite going there. Although this record doesn’t remotely offer any hint of Attias’ formidable chops, it may be the most vivid album he’s ever made.

March 24, 2019 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Playful, Quirky Indie Classical Sounds at Lincoln Center

“We are home to free year-round programming that is as eclectic as you are this evening.” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal grinned as she introduced Sugar Vendil’s Nouveau Classical Project this past evening in the Broadway atrium space. “A project that we’ve been dreaming about having for a long time,” Dugal confided: “One thing that’s very unique about this ensemble is that these pieces were all commissioned by the band.” Co-sponsored by the Asian-American Arts Alliance, this performance was a rare opportunity to hear a first-class group of instrumentalists tackle some quirky, playful material which is pretty much exclusive to the ensemble right now, as Dugal pointed out.

Clarinetist Mara Mayer kicked off Olga Bell’s Zero Initiative against samples of banal crowd conversation, flutist Laura Cocks dancing over the staccato strings of violinist Maya Bennardo and cellist Thea Mesirow. Pianist Vendil joined the dance and then backed away as the music decayed to calm washes, then leapt back in. Onstage, the piece seemed both more dynamic and more hypnotic than the version on their new album Currents – but that’s a vey subjective observation. A flitting riff that the band quickly disassembled seemed lifted from Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, no surprise considering that Bell originally hails from Russia.

The second piece on the bill was Isaac Shankler’s Artifacts, whose maddeningly tricky opening rhythms and expectant upward trajectories also seemed more frenetic and bustling than the bubbly recorded version. Light electronic touches filtered through the mix behind emphatic, catchy, cell-like phrases, which fell away for enigmatically crescendoing ambience punctuated by delicate flickers from the winds. The tongue-in-cheek disco pageantry midway through was mostly confined to the laptop.

David Bird’s Cy Twombly homage, simply titled Cy, had a similarly ambient intro, the ensemble’s momentary microtonal motives creating a pervasive restlessness that eventually verged on terror. Clarinetist Eric Umble led them safely underneath, at least until Mesirow dug in hard on her glissandos and scrapes.The music came across as less horizontal than a brisk limo ride over a series of speed bumps.

They closed with Gabrielle Herbst’s Where Is My Voice – which as it turned out was on the laptop as well, the group’s calm resonance anchoring flitting samples of vocalese and labored breathing. Then they picked up with a hammering, Julia Wolfe-like insistence before Cocks’ agitated spirals and Vendil’s catchy lefthand riffage provided a cloudburst. Moody Satie-esque themes and syncopated circular hooks, led by Mayer’s luscious bass clarinet, punctuated the stillness of the rest of the work. Everybody in the group rocked custom-made stagewear by Jenny Lai: it’s classy, and it’s not all black.

The next concert in the mostly-weekly series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Dec 13 at 7:30 PM with wildly eclectic virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin leading a series of colorful ensembles. Get there early if you want a seat.

December 6, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment