Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Summery, Psychedelically Loopy World Premiere to Brighten Your Winter

Contemporary music ensemble Wild Up’s world premiere studio recording of Julius Eastman’s Femenine – streaming at Spotify – is playful, upbeat, hypnotic and utterly surreal. Baritone sax – played alternately by Erin Rogers, Marta Tasienga or Shelley Washington – figures heavily as the lead instrument. Bells, played by seemingly the entire ensemble, often anchor a shimmery backdrop. The group perform Eastman’s suite as a contiguous whole, broken up into comfortable individual tracks, some going on for as much as twelve minutes. You could call this the b-side to Terry Riley’s In C.

The introduction, titled Prime, is a dreamy, hypnotic tableau, a series of slowly expanding cellular vibraphone and piano phrases over peaceful ambience akin to a choir of tree frogs. A warm, gospel-tinged melody slowly coalesces as the rest of the orchestra slowly flesh out the vibraphone’s loopy riffs.

The orchestra run a jaggedly syncopated staccato loop in the second segment, Unison as percussion and then baritone sax add occasional embellishments. The title of part three, Create New Pattern, is a giveaway that Eastman’s initial device will be come around again, this time as more of a celebration.

Immersive, churning riffage morphs out of and then gives way again to the initial syncopation in Hold and Return. A cheery, balletesque atmosphere takes over in All Changing, with bells, vibes and eventually flutes at the forefront. Flugelhornist Jonah Levy moves to the front with a carefree, soulful solo as the group dig into the rhythm in Increase, singer Odeya Nini pushing the top end with her vocalese. Eventually Jiji’s guitar gets to add grit over the chiming waterworks, followed by a blissful Pharaoh Sanders-inspired sax interlude.

The group morph into the next part, Eb, with big portentous accents in the lows, sax fluttering and flaring amid the orchestra’s steady circles. The energy picks up significantly in Be Thou My Vision/Mao Melodies, then exuberant echoes of the disco era that Eastman came up in rise in Can Melt.

An unexpected if muted discontent surfaces in the final segment, Pianist Will Interrupt Must Return, everyone fading back into the woods. This is a tenacious, dauntingly articulated recording by a cast that also includes pianist Richard Valitutto; cellist Seth Parker Woods; vibraphonists Sidney Hopson and Jodie Landau; violinsts Andrew Tholl and Mona Tian; violist Linnea Powell; cellist Derek Stein; bell players Lewis Pesacov and music director Christopher Rountree; horn player Allen Fogle; tenor saxophonist Brian Walsh; flutists Isabel Gleicher and Erin McKibben.

January 13, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Camerata Zurich Reinvent a Haunting Czech Classical Suite

The piece de resistance on Camerata Zurich‘s latest album of string orchesta pieces – streaming at Spotify – is Daniel Rumler’s arrangement of Janacek’s troubled, death-obsessed suite On an Overgrown Path. It’s gorgeously lush yet uncluttered music. Rumler subsumes much of the turbulence of the original piano version, switching out embellishments for emphatic melody. Group leader Igor Karsko opts for elegance and dynamics throughout the suite’s many picturesque interludes, broken down into 25 short segments here.

There’s also a spoken-word component. In her original French, poet Maia Brami reads the broodingly evocative text the orchestra had commissioned in 2017, imagining the composer reflecting on his life in a rather haunted woodland setting. There’s an English translation (but surprisingly, no original) in the album liner notes.

Wistfully lilting strolls rise to a sudden anguish, moody resonance alternating with gently animated phrasing to set the stage. The composer was haunted by the death of his daughter, who succumbed to illness at twenty, and the sense of loss is palpable throughout many twists and turns. Fond memories flicker into and then fade out of the mist. The carefully modulated echo phrasing in the brief ninth segment is especially striking.

The opening work, Josef Suk’s Meditation on St. Wenceslas sounds absolutely nothing like the Christmas carol that’s been repurposed for a million playground rhymes over the years. This piece rises with a steady pulse to a troubled intensity: when Karsko gets the ensemble to dig in just thisclose to a shriek, a little after the midway point, the effect is viscerally breathtaking, especially considering the lushness on the way there. Suk wrote it as a thinly veiled freedom fighter anthem for Czech independence from the Habsburgs; its solemnity and defiance are just as relevant now, in a considerably more global context.

The group bring the album full circle with Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major, giving it a similarly insistent, even anxious pulse in places. Karsko raises the distinctness of the interweave of voices into strikingly sharp focus, a sonic layer cake.

January 11, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Catchy, Entertaining New Orchestral Music Playlist

For the last few years, Navona Records has been advocating for new and contemporary composers with their ongoing series of Prisma compilations. Volume Five – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically colorful, diverse collection, played with as much of a sense of adventure as attention to detail by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Petrdlík. Every composer represented here is a first-class tunesmith: this is a very cinematic, translucent mix. Unexpected false endings figure heavily here.

The first work is the opening Adagio, “Of Times and Seasons” from Lawrence Mumford‘s Symphony No. 4, essentially variations on a song without words, with unhurried, warmly puffing phrases and contrasts between cheery high woodwinds and the density of the strings and brass below. There’s a Gershwinesque sense of contentment mixed with moments of bittersweetness and a counterpoint that goes back to Haydn in theory, if not idiomatically. As Petrdlík leads the ensemble upward, there’s a towering, Vaughan Williams-like pastoral solidity.

In Kevin McCarter’s All Along, the group shift between balletesque precision and a similarly verdant lushness. The palindromic architecture around the lull at the center is ingenious. They begin Samantha Sack‘s A Kiss in the Dark dreamily, then the high strings begin circling tightly as the low brass looms in and a hypnotically heroic theme ensues. The false ending is amusing: this, um, incident is just getting started!

Bustling drama mingled within passages of muted furtiveness introduce Bell and Drum Tower, by Alexis Alrich. It’s akin to a 21st century neoromantic take on the 1812 Overture as Angelo Badalamenti might have reimaged it, with an increasingly Asian sensibility fueled by precise piano cascades. The wistful bassoon solo midway through is one of the album’s highlights; from there, the composer’s edgy sense of humor starts to burst out.

There’s a similar, low-key furtiveness and even more of a sense of impending trouble in Nunatak, by Katherine Saxon, complete with an eerie twinkle from the bells amid pillowy strings. From there, Petrdlík shifts the group seamlessly toward more optimistic, envelopingly ambered terrain.

Is Anthony Wilson‘s 3 Flights of the Condor a reference to sinister deep-state meddling in Latin American affairs in the 1970s? Possibly. Sinister low rustles reach further into the lustre above as the tableau unveils. A dip to a moody exchange of low winds and horns rises to a Rimsky-Korsakovian nocturne

The album comes full circle with William Copper‘s This Full Bowl of Roses, Pt. 3, a second set of variations on a song without words, full of tension and release and baroque-tinged counterpoint. It’s a good vehicle for the orchestra to show off the dynamism of their brass section and aptitude for Beethovenesque exchanges.

January 9, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Liya Petrova Brings Familiar Beethoven and Mozart Favorites Into the Here and Now

“Beethoven…had integrated the ideals of liberty and emancipation born of the French Revolution. ‘There are and always will be thousands of princes; but there is only one Beethoven,’ he is supposed to have said. What an irony to celebrate his 250th birthday in a year when Europe has had to renounce its freedom to move around, to meet other people, to play together when you’re a musician!”

Insightful words from an insightful violinist. Liya Petrova recorded Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, op. 61 with the Sinfonia Varsovia, under Jean-Jacques Kantorow – streaming at Spotify – in the fall of last year. Interestingly, both she and the orchestra seem to dig in a little harder than most ensembles do in the lushly nocturnal first movement. Sign of the times, maybe? And yet, the marching, distantly bellicose steadiness seems somewhat muted in the face of Petrova’s recurrently wistful, silken approach, at least outside of the most intricate, balletesque passages. It’s an effective game plan.

Movement two is languid and feels a little slow, which dovetails with the mood, Petrova a graceful comet making her way across a sky dotted with clouds in places. The sheer liveliness of the conclusion and occasional folksy phrasing validates her vision of this piece as a celebration of hope (or maybe Viennese beer gardens brimming with patrons on a weekend night).

In her liner notes, Petrova mentions the question of provenance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D major, K271a/K271i. From this perspective, the quirky cheer, matter-of-fact counterpoint and sudden major-to-minor changes sure sound like the genuine item. What’s ingenious about this recording is that Petrova engaged composer Jean-Frédéric Neuburger to write cadenzas since Mozart (or his nameless, imaginative protege) didn’t include them in the original score. Whether stately or impetuous, they’re idiomatically spot-on: Mozart would no doubt approve.

Movement one has violinist and conductor playing up a jaunty internal swing, an unexpected and welcome touch. The pulse continues almost suspensefully behind Petrova’s sinuous legato and puckish pizzicato in the second movement. The pouncing flurries and playful interweave between soloist and orchestra in the third provide a pleasant payoff. Much as the Beethoven here is every-hour-on-the-hour on what’s left of classical radio these days, the Mozart isn’t, and pairing the two was a rewarding choice.

January 7, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mammoth, Deliriously Funny, Searingly Relevant New Recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide

Once one dismisses
The rest of all possible worlds
One finds that this is
The best of all possible worlds

So sings Sir Thomas Allen in his role as Dr. Pangloss, in the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’ epic new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s satirical opera Candide, streaming at Spotify.

When Lillian Hellman enlisted Bernstein and what would become a rapidly expanding cast of lyricists in this ridiculously funny parable of McCarthyite witch hunting, little did anyone involved with the project know how much greater relevance it would have in the months after March of 2020. Marin Alsop leads the orchestra and a boisterous allstar cast of opera talent in a massive double album culled from concert performances in the fall of 2018.

Tenor Leonardo Capalbo plays the title role. Soprano Jane Archibald is Cunegonde and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter plays the Old Lady, with a supporting cast of Thomas Adkins, Marcus Farnsworth, Katherine McIndoe, Carmen Artaza, Lucy McAuley, Liam Bonthrone, Frederick Jones and Jonathan Ayers in raucous multiple roles. Simon Halsey directs the choir.

Alsop and the orchestra have just as much fun as the singers. Bernstein’s score comes across as almost as satirical as the text. As a parody of centuries of European opera, it’s not quite Scaramouche doing the fandango, but it’s close. The coda of act one is priceless.

For the most part, the plot is consistent with Voltaire’s novel. As you would expect in an operatic context, the characters are infinitely more over-the-top. We learn early on what a horrible pair the credulous Candide and the bling-worshipping Cunegonde make. Innuendo flies fast and furious, and some of the jokes are pretty outrageous for a production first staged in the late 50s. The lyric book by itself is a riot – although it only has the songs, not the expository passages. Listen closely for maximum laughs.

Alsop perfectly nails Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek seriousness and good-natured melodic appropriation, through one stoically marching, bombastic interlude after another. There’s phony pageantry to rival Shostakovich. Swoony string passages and hand-wrenching arias alternate with the occasional moment where Bernstein drops the humor and lets the sinister subtext waft in. The most amusingly grisly part of the story is set to a parody of the climactic scene in the Mozart Requiem. Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade are recurrent reference points.

The most spectacular display of solo vocal pyrotechnics belongs to Archibald – in response to a hanging, appropriately enough. For the choir, it’s the Handel spoof early in the second act. Music this comedic seldom inspires as much repeated listening. And the political content, in an age of divide-and-conquer, speaks truth to what at this moment seems to be rapidly unraveling power.

January 6, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Muom Overtone Singing Choir Explore Vast, Rapturous Sonic Expanses

Few choral groups explore such a vast expanse of sound as the Muom Overtone Singing Choir. Their extended technique is breathtaking in the purest sense of the word. Neither the sepulchrally wispy highs nor the stygian lows they often reach at the same time exist in most music for the human voice, simply because most people can’t hit those notes. The ensemble’s magical new suite Terra – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first in a planned series of four. The late Maurice White would be delighted to know that the next two are explorations of wind and fire, water being the fourth element.

The suite, performed as a contiguous whole, begins with Eter, a single D note sung in unison until some of the choir reach a couple of octaves lower for a guttural anchor. By this point, harmonics are oscillating in the background. From there the group segue into Astral, slowly coalescing into an aptly drifting theme with gentle massed glissandos and long, sustained notes moving through the sonic picture, a graceful deep-space exchange of voices. Rhythm falls away to a cocooning, enveloping, uneasy morass, then the counterpoint rises again.

The group completely flip the script with Ardhi (Swahili for “earth”), with a joyously cantering, percussive west African groove, mens’ lows and spiraling overtones against the triumphant women overhead. They whisper their way out.

There’s a return to rapt, otherworldly stillness in Akasha (Sanskrit for “ether”). The men in the choir open Sa Mantra (sa being Tibetan for “earth”) with a low, growling chant, riffing on a phrase common to carnatic music and vocal warmup exercises. From there, they build a starkly bluesy minor-key theme.

A plaintively expressive solo by one of the men, like a muezzin’s call, takes front and center over allusively chromatic phrasing in the next segment, Ancestral, before the ensemble kick into a rousing, insistently rhythmic drive. Khörzün (“earth” in the Tuvan language) is where Central Asian choral traditions resonate the most here, via echoing layers of harmonics and a galloping trans-Siberian beat.

The choir close with Gea (the Greek earth deity), a starkly circling violin solo by group member Farran Sylvan James introducing a hypnotic downward drift. There hasn’t been any album like this released in the recent past, maybe ever, reason to look forward to whatever other magic the group can conjure in the next installment.

January 4, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Singularly Disquieting Electroacoustic Album From Pianist Peng-Chian Chen

On her latest album Electrocosmia – streaming at Spotify – pianist Peng-Chian Chen explores the intersection of new classical composition with electronics, as well as the many philosophical and real-world implications thereof.

She opens with a set of miniatures, Pierre Charvet’s Neuf Etudes aux Deux Mondes. Enervated motorik bustle, cautious strolls, spare dripping minimalism and a slow ramble through stygian depths are juxtaposed with and sometimes mingled within icy ambience or gritty industrial sonics. There’s sardonic humor as well: a plane crashing at takeoff and the nagging interruption of phone ringtones. Is the point of this that as much as we hate this techy shit, we might as well get used to it since we’re stuck with it? Or that even in the grip of a digital dystopia, there’s beauty in – or guarded hope for – the human element? Maybe both?

Next, Chen tackles Cindy Cox‘s spare, surreal Etude “La Cigüeña” for piano and sampler, its furtive upward flights and uneasy lulls set to a backdrop of what could be whalesong or birdsong. In Elainie Lillios‘ Nostalgic Visions – inspired by a Garcia Lorca childhood reminiscence – Chen throws off dramatic improvisational flourishes, goes under the piano lid for autoharp-like shimmer, chilly minimalism and a murky crush. Some of it gets flung back to her, through a sampler, darkly.

She concludes with Peter Van Zandt Lane‘s electroacoustic partita Studies in Momentum. Steady, glistening, circling phrases mingle with increasingly menancing close harmonies; a devious peek-a-boo theme meets its ghostly counterpart; a tongue-in-cheek, Charlie Chaplinesque march reaches the end at a cold reflecting pool. Chen’s stiletto articulation in the lickety-split, coyly altered third piece is the high point of the record, although the brooding tone poem that follows is just as tantalizingly brief.

December 31, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brieuc Vourch and Guillaume Vincent Bring Renewed Energy to Old Favorites

In the insightful liner notes to their new album of Franck and Richard Strauss sonatas, violinist Brieuc Vourch and pianist Guillaume Vincent quote the great conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt: “Security and beauty are not compatible.” In late 2021, that’s not just a radical statement. It would put the conductor on a terrorist watch list.

The point of that citation is that musicians have to take chances; to steal a line from Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in. The duo’s raison d’etre in making the record – streaming at Spotify – is not to make contemporary avant garde music out of this, but to go under the hood and evoke how cutting-edge it was for its time. Making an album of some of the classical world’s best-loved works, recorded innumerable times by iconic figures, is a daunting task…and a bold statement, if you can pull it off.

You could read this as a critical appreciation, in real time, by two guys who really understand this. Or just a couple of players having astute fun with a couple of pieces brimming with color and luxuriant melody. Either way, this is a very confident, masculine performance.

It’s clear from the opening movement of the Strauss sonata – a relatively early work – that this is a love song, a graceful pas de deux in the two’s elegant counterpoint. An expressive player with an understated old-world vibrato, Vourch is well suited to this repertoire, and Vincent’s glittering precision matches the mood. The duo follow an organic trajectory as the passion rises, wanes and rises again.

In this duo’s hands, movement two seems to be all about pulling apart and then reconnecting, particularly when the lower registers of both instruments converge. Vourch’s sepulchral resonance grounded by Vincent’s matter-of-factness about five minutes in is breathtaking.

The pianist revels in the suspense introducing the concluding movement, then cuts loose as Vourch lingers and flits overhead, setting up the triumphant gusts as the duo ride the waves on the way out to bring this dance full circle. There’s also a priceless, self-effacingly funny moment right before the end, but you have to listen closely to catch it.

As attractive as the Strauss piece is, the Franck sonata is the big hit, and for good reason. The duo’s decision to play the first movement as steadily and straightforwardly as they do, eschewing any High Romantic rubato, is brave. It also feels a little fast. The game plan here seems to be to sidestep any kind of cliche in favor of energy, downplaying the wistfulness which Vourch brings into full angst-fueled bloom in the second movement.

That’s where the duo really engage with gusty emotion, but just as much with 19th century gleam – to set up Vourch’s fanged attack, bristling with harmonics, as the movement winds up. The choice to back away and really let the third movement linger, even as the volume rises with a shivery intensity, validates how they launched the sonata.

The resoluteness of the final movement results in a big payoff from Vincent’s bright, dancing chords and Vourch’s decision to dig in hard for bittersweetness rather than sentimentality, enhanced by a clenched-teeth, brittle vibrato in contrast with a spun-steel calm in the quieter moments. Even if you’ve heard this hundreds of times, this version will wake you up.

December 30, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Éric Le Sage and a Colorful Ensemble Explore the Lesser-Known Side of a Film Music Icon

Although Nino Rota is best known for his evocative and often profound Fellini film scores, his other compositions share those sensibilities. On his most recent release Nino Rota: Chamber Music – streaming at Spotify – pianist Éric Le Sage and an inspired cast who’ve joined him before the lockdown at the Salon de Provence Festival air out a series of Rota works that deserve to be much better known. This is a colorful, very entertaining record: if you haven’t yet discovered Rota’s music that wasn’t intended for the silver screen, it might as well have been, and these performances bear that out.

They open with the Trio For Flute, Violin and Piano, shifting in a split-second between a rather furtive, lickety-split. chromatically-fueled romp and flickers of suspenseful calm. Le Sage holds the center somewhat mutedly as flutist Emmanuel Pahud and violinist Daishin Kashimoto cut loose with increasing agitation and then coalesce into an uneasy march. The noir atmosphere lingers and then reaches fever pitch in the coda: what a way to kick off the album!

There’s balletesque, bubbly woodwind-driven pageantry alongside hints at an underlying mystery which rise memorably to the surface, along with clarinet-driven nocturnal lustre (and a devious Moussorgsky quote) in the full group’s dynamically rich take of Rota’s Piccola Offerta Musicale, an early work. In Rota’s Nonet, from the peak of his career in Fellini film, the group parses heroic symphonic drama along with a similarly waltzing jubilation and a subtle turn toward unease before the good guys win: this is the fountains in the good part of Rome.

There’s a return to bustling disquiet and understatedly waltzing furtiveness of the Trio For Clarinet, Cello and Piano. The hauntingly elegant contrapuntal exchange between clarinet and cello in the second movement is an unexpected high point amid such lively, electric music.

Le Sage also indulges in cleverly rapidfire, light-fingered, music box-like phantasmagoria for solo piano.

December 29, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment