Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Cellist Hee-Young Lim Channels the Highest of the High Romantic

Cellist Hee-Young Lim‘s new album Russian Elegie with pianist Natalia Milstein – streaming at Spotify – is as evocative as you could possibly want from a collection of some of the most gorgeously emotional music ever written. Yet the two don’t overdo it. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s performances of his own work had a remarkable restraint, and the two seem to base their interpretations on that model.

They start with the iconic Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G minor: brief plaintive exchanges, a hint of gospel, bustling piano and a melody very close to the quiet section of the famous G minor prelude, also more than hinting at the Piano Concerto No. 2’s more scampering riffage. There are striking contrasts between the glitter and energy of the piano and the cello’s brooding cantabile, and a welcome, understatement when the music calms, in contrast with Lim’s vigorous pizzicato in places.

There’s a devious noir cabaret energy to the second movement, but the gentle High Romantic ballad at the center is completely straightforward and gives both musicians some of their most vividly expressive moments. The same rings true with the lingering, nocturnal third movement, a rare love song that isn’t mawkish or cliched. By contrast, they really nail the conclusion’s symphonic grandeur yet draw the listener in with the stunning intimacy of the next-to-last theme, one of the most unselfconsciously beautiful moments in the entire classical canon.

Next on the bill is Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major. It’s more enigmatic and maybe for that reason the duo approach the first couple of movements more emphatically and vigorously, particularly in Lim’s ferocious pizzicato chords and the second’s triumphant, bell-like false ending. The coyly carnivalesque third movement is irresistbly funny in these two’s hands; the majesty that follows comes as quite a surprise, as does the wistfulness in the final movement.

They close the album with an especially lithe interpretation of Vocalise, another iconic Rachmaninoff piece. It seems a little on the fast side, which actually works out well considering the duo’s light-fingered, remarkably subtle approach, sidestepping weepiness for a very matter-of-fact delivery. How lucky listeners are if they discover this repertoire via this particular album.

September 9, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cinematic, Impactful, Insightfully Catchy New Album by Saxophonist Dave Pietro

Before the lockdown, music fans in New York had innumerable opportunities to see some of the best players in town work up their new albums in front of an audience. Watching the Dave Pietro Group run through a considerable portion of the picturesque, Ravel-inspired material on the saxophonist’s new record Hypersphere at a relatively intimate theatre show last year was a good omen – for the album at least. Fast forward to more than a year later: it’s out, it’s excellent and streaming at Bandcamp…and it’s illegal for the band to play that venue now. Feel like you’re living in communist China?

Pietro may be best known as a lyrical soloist and a first-call player for big bands, but he’s also a strong tunesmith with a sharp political awareness and a great sense of humor. He wrote the album’s opening track, Kakistocracy before the lockdown – yet, at a time when the corporate media have nothing but shrill masker paranoia on loop 24/7, it resonates even more potently. Over a brooding Gary Versace piano figure, he orchestrates a tense triangulation with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and trombonist Ryan Keberle, the latter subtly ushering in a serpentine groove. Johnathan Blake’s insistent flurries behind the drum kit are another highlight; the final conversation between the horns is irresistibly funny.

Likewise, the early part of Pietro’s solo early on in Boulder Snowfall, which is more lustrously wary than wintry, Blake and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller adding bounce as the scene warms up to some triumphant flourishes from Versace.

Versace switches to organ for Gina, a lush, pillowy, catchy ballad which Pietro dedicates to his wife. The album’s title track, with its echo phrases and incisive Versace piano chords, makes a good segue. Sipiagin takes a flurrying first solo; Pietro bounces around at the top of his range; Blake’s colorful volleys drive it home.

Incandescent is exactly that, a triumphantly soaring and glimmering jazz pastorale of sorts. Pietro’s carefree but slightly smoky solo is matched by the other two horns in turn, exploratory and lyrical. Quantum Entanglement, a cha-cha with Versace opening on blippy electric piano, is a carefree platform for dancing sax and piano solos.

The understatedly moody, modally-tinged Tales of Mendacity has steadily wafting, distantly ominous harmonies and Pietro’s edgiest, most incisive solo here. The jaunty disco crescendo is suspiciously blithe: this would fit well in the Darcy James Argue catalog. Pietro closes the record with Orison: the pensively dancing bass solo is an unexpectedly cool way to open this bright chorale with its increasingly animated French Late Romantic-inspired atmosphere.

September 9, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy, Slinky, Lusciously Allusive Middle Eastern Jazz From Enrique Haneine

Drummer Enrique Haneine writes an ambitious, individualistic and often very captivating blend of succinct riffage, Middle Eastern-inspired themes and grooves. The lineup on his album Unlayered – streaming at Bandcamp – reflects that individualism, a three-horn frontline over a steady, bouncing rhythm section, facilitating lushnesss but more often than not a series of cleverly interpolated individual voices. Which means there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. The obvious comparison is the (otherwise pretty incomparable) Brooklyn chordless trio Ensemble Fanaa. If you love jazz and Middle Eastern music, this will push all your buttons.

The hypnotic opening track, Behind the Missing Whisper has a tasty, mysterious slink and artful, conspiratorially triangulated harmonies between Catherine Sikora’s tenor sax, Thomas Heberer’s trumpet and Christof Knoche’s bass clarinet over the undulating pulse from Haneine and bassist Jay Anderson.

The band put on the Ritz with a vampy mashup of Steve Coleman, salsa jazz and circular indie classical in the album’s second number, Luculent Jiggle (these titles seem generated by Google Translate in 404 mode), with trumpet, sax, bass clarinet and bass alluding to the Middle East in turn, but never quite going there.

A staggered, suspiciously deadpan quasi-funk drive propels Thriving Ring, Sikora taking an allusively chromatic solo. Queen of the Underground makes a good segue, a circling, bouncy, syncopated groove and an enigmatic trumpet loop underscoring brooding sax and bass clarinet solos, down to a steadily strolling bass interlude

Dance of Endless Encounter is a pulsing, Egyptian-tinged number with a lusciously modal sax solo, more straightforward trumpet and a priceless moment where the bass clarinet…well…disappears, because the rest of the band decide to jump back in! Likewise, Seldom Disguise has a subtly crescendoing, serpentine groove, building to a biting, rather cynical three-way conversation between the horns

The Sweetest Finding is built around enigmatic variarions on a sober but emphatic chromatic theme, with a droll, completely deadpan bustle and triumphant chaos. Likewise, the deadpan humor in Illustrious Bickering: some people want to bring this optimistically Middle Eastern-spiced theme to its logical conclusion, but there are diversions, a sax battle with the rhythm section and an irresistibly cartoonish coda: an Israeli wall parable, maybe?

The band revert to staggered, staccato synopcation in Oust No More, a vehicle for fiery extended-technique solos for the horns. There are hints of qawwali in the subtle but direct exchanges of voices in What of What We Are: Heberer finally goes for the grit that’s been waiting to bust loose here. The slow Ellingtonian lustre of Once, Knoche’s Lebanese blues at the center, comes as a shock until you realize the band have been building up to this understatedly gorgeous payoff all along. A stealth contender for best jazz album of 2020

September 8, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colorful, Entertaining Reinventions of Famous Classical Themes From the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra‘s new album Urban(e) – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most genuinely orchestral jazz records ever made. On one level, it’s all about imaginative, outside-the-box arranging and playing. On another, it’s part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating tunes from every style imaginable: Bach writing variations on country dances; southern preachers making hymns out of old blues songs; the Electric Light Orchestra making surf rock out of a Grieg piano concerto. Here, Fahie takes a bunch of mostly-famous classical themes to places most people would never dare. It’s closer to ELO than, say, the NY Philharmonic.

Is this hubristic? Sure. Fahie addresses that issue in the album’s liner notes, assuring listeners he’s tried to be true to the intrinsic mood of each particular piece. The group’s reinvention of the third movement from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 – from when the composer was still more or less a Late Romantic – is a trip. Guitarist Jeff Miles gets to have fun with a few savage flares before Fahie makes chugging art-punk out of it, trombonist Daniel Linden’s blitheness offering no hint of how much further out the group are going to from there, through Vegas noir, a deliciously sinister Brad Mason trumpet solo, and more. It’s fun beyond belief.

To open the record, the group tackle Chopin’s iconic C minor prelude, beginning with a somber, massed lustre, bassist Pedro Giraudo and pianist Randy Ingram offering the first hints of revelry, Miles adding a word of caution. From there Fahie expands the harmonies many times over and the group make a latin-tinged romp out of it.

Tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas steps into the aria role in an easygoing remake of a piece from Puccini’s opera. There’s plenty of tasty suspense as Fahie’s epic suite of themes from Stravinsky’s Firebird coalesces from lush swells and glittery piano, through more carefree terrain, to a pensive yet technically daunting duet between the bandleader’s euphonium and Jennifer Wharton’s tuba.

Hearing Fahie play the opening riff from Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin on trombone is a revelation: that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! So much for musical appropriation, right? The rest of Fahie’s punchy, lustrous arrangement comes across as vintage, orchestral Moody Blues with brass instead of mellotron.

Fahie turns the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony into a jaunty Swan Lake set piece, with a wistful solo from alto sax player Aaron Irwin and a more sobering one from trombonist Nick Grinder.

The group close the record with a lavish, nocturnal take of a brooding section of Bach’s Cantata, BWV 21. The theme is basically “troubles, troubles, troubles” – from Fahie’s clear-eyed opening solo, the counterpoint grows more envelopingly somber, up to some neat rhythmic inventions and a return back. This inspired cast also includes saxophonists Anton Denner, Quinsin Nachoff and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Brian Pareschi, David Smith and Sam Hoyt; tombonist Matthew McDonald and drummer Jeff Davis.

September 7, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Live Music at Lincoln Center Again: #exhale?

What a beautiful, heartwarming experience it was to be walking past Lincoln Center in the early evening of August 7, right at the moment when a fifteen-piece brass ensemble was premiering a newly commissioned Anthony Barfield piece.

That’s not to imply that there hasn’t been plenty of live music all over New York during the lockdown. But lately a lot of it is restaurant gigs. On one hand, it’s great to see musicians being able to get at least a little paying work. But there’s no need for reportage on background music that hungry crowds with cabin fever are bound to talk over.

And much of the rest has been been fraught with anxiety. What if somebody on the invite list is a collaborator? Are we being too loud and obvious? Are we going to end up in some hideous new Auschwitz somewhere in the wilds of Arkansas if a sinister, nameless squad in riot gear shows up and catches us sitting a comfortable two or three feet from one another? The Afghani people dealt with issues like that under the Taliban. A wide swath of population from the Black Sea to the Danube dealt with similar situations under the Ottomans. Who knew that we ever would under Cuomo.

Which is why Barfield’s brand-new Invictus – latin for “unconquered” – was so uplifting to witness. He’d obviously sussed out the sonics on the Lincoln Center plaza to maximize the natural reverb that bounces off the opera house and back past the fountain, the musicians spaced at least ten feet apart in a semi-ellipse. The work itself is a guardedly optimistic, circular series of variations on a catchy three-note riff, with more than an echo of Philip Glass. The group played it twice, with some impromptu rehearsing in between. You can watch the final take at Lincoln Center’s streaming page. Introducing it, the composer explains that it reflects both the hope of the Black Lives Matter protests as well as the grim uncertainty of the lockdown.

Looking toward the center of the campus from the street, was that New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi in the hat? Actually not. The group, a mix drawing from several Lincoln Center ensembles, played with dignity and seamlessness. Hats off to trumpeters Marcus Printup, Marshall Kearse, Raymond Riccomini, Christopher Martin, Neil Balm and Thomas Smith; trombonists John Romero, Colin Williams, David Finlayson, Dion Tucker and Zachary Neikens, horn players Anne Scharer, Richard Deane and Dan Wions, and tuba player Christopher Hall.

There’s likely to be more like this in the weeks to come; you will probably have to be in the neighborhood to catch it live. And the Philharmonic are sending a truck featuring various small groups around the five boroughs for impromptu performances. They’re not disclosing where they’ll be for fear of drawing crowds. If such a beloved and life-affirming institution as the New York Philharmonic are that worried, you know we’d better be too.

September 2, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tireless Pianist Howard Shelley Resurrects a Pair of Brilliant Obscurities

If brilliant, overlooked High Romantic classical music is your thing, you could spend a large proportion of your life getting lost in Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series. Over a grand total of eighty releases, they’ve resurrected many lesser-known works which are every bit as memorable as the famous pieces that get played over and over again in classical halls around the world (or used to get played there, before the lockdown, anyway). Much of this music falls into the haunted-castle-in-a-thunderstorm category, which is an accurate if overly reductionistic way to describe the latest edition in the series, Volume 80 – which hasn’t hit any of the usual online spots yet – where pianist Howard Shelley does double duty conducting the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen in a couple of obscure treasures by Belgian composers Auguste Dupont and Peter Benoit.

The first piece is Dupont’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in F Minor, which the composer debuted in 1882. Beethovenesque bluster contrasts with proto-Rachmaninovian glitter and some genuinely stunning, bittersweetly cantabile tunesmithing in the first movement: it’s shocking that this music isn’t better known.

Likewise, the hush of the horns and strings versus Shelley’s moody forward drive in the rather reserved, nocturnal second movement is particularly striking. His romping, ascending phrases and cascades take centerstage in the triumphant concluding movement, whose counterpoint looks straight back to Beethoven.

Benoit was an early advocate for Flemish music. His darkly colorful mid-1860s Symphonic Poem, Op 43 is a tableau centered around the ruins of a castle in the composer’s hometown of Harelbeke.

On one level, it’s amusing to see how the composer – a pianist, no less – will cap off one crescendo after another with extended trills rather than the kind of virtuosic cadenzas you expect in this kind of music. Which explains why, in the late 1890s, pianist Arthur De Greef came up with his own arrangement to beef it up. For the record, Shelley and the orchestra play the original Benoit score.

A simple, stalking pizzicato riff from the cellos sets up the first variations on the starkly vivid initial folk-inspired theme. As the music warms, grows more stately and heroic, it prefigures Dvorak at his most dramatic. Listen closely to the slow, hushed introduction to the “Bardic Song” of a second movement and you’ll hear a wistful folk ballad, which Shelley and the ensemble shift elegantly to memorably, anthemic Romantic longing.

The finale is particularly interesting since the piano is so strongly present in the foreground in the initial exchanges with the orchestra, really keeping their distance here. Numerous fleetingly unexpected figures leap from the ensemble; there’s also a strange moment about two minutes in where the composer may have made a mistake and forgot to go back and tweak the harmonies. The phantasmagoria as the piece reaches the end is a long-awaited payoff.

September 1, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Allstar Jazz Crew the Analog Players Society Slink Into Psychedelic Territory

The Analog Players Society live up their name in a way: they definitely are players. Check out this lineup: Donny McCaslin on tenor sax, Orrin Evans on piano, Dezron Douglas and Ben Rubin splitting the bass duties and Eric McPherson on drums. With officially sanctioned gigs hard to find outside of Sweden, they’ve joined the brave few making new records these days. Their three-song ep Tilted – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first in a planned two-part series and it’s actually like nothing you would expect from this an allstar cast. Is this lounge music? Psychedelia? Trip-hop? Acid jazz? Postbop? All of the above – and it’s not totally analog either.

They open it with a twelve-minute version of Jobim’s One Note Samba. McCaslin starts out airy and wary over Evans’ judiciously expanding modalities, then brings his echo pedal into the mix while McPherson introduces some slinky funk. They bring it down to a mutedly dancing, hypnotic bass solo while McPherson edges into trip-hop, Evans suddenly breaking the mesmeric mood with tinkling phantasmagoria. One of those “this is why we love jazz” moments.

Evans opens the second number, a wry reinvention titled Epistrophe, on toy piano, as McPherson more or less loops a New Orleans funk riff. McCaslin figures out echo effects both analog and digital over the circular groove. Evans’ restraint and commitment to keeping the mood going with just a handful of sudden “are you awake” riffs is pretty amazing for a guy with his chops. Taking Monk tunes apart and reducing them to most basic terms is fun!   

For now, the final cut is Freedom is But a Fraction of Humanity, the quartet fading up into misterioso, triangulated piano/bass/drums polyrhythms before McCaslin expands beyond uneasy loopiness, only to back away for Evans’ darkly glittery cascades. Everything coalesces over a spring-loaded, rumbling groove: then everybody backs down for a whispery bass solo as McPherson finds the clave with his woodblock and Evans pedals his upper-register chords. This is a very fun and often very funny album.

August 29, 2020 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rare, Individualistic Indian-Inspired World Premieres from the ARC Ensemble

In recent years the ARC Ensemble have made an extraordinary commitment to rescuing the works of relatively unknown but brilliant Jewish composers from obscurity. The latest in their series is the world premiere recording of Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann, streaming at Spotify. Kaufmann, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1907, fled Prague for the seemingly unusual destination of Mumbai in 1933, just ahead of the Nazis.

The choice of Mumbai was more than just an attempt to find a safe haven: as a student, Kaufmann had fallen in love with Indian music, and that passion would eventually lead him to become one of the foremost European-born authorities on it. After almost a century, his 1936 violin piece based on Raga Shivaranjani remains Air India’s main theme.

This fearlessly individualistic album features string quartets as well as pieces for smaller and larger ensembles (Kaufmann also wrote symphonies and operatic works), all composed during Kaufmann’s time in India. The first work here, played by violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe, is the String Quartet No. 11. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before. A somber cello drone anchors an enigmatic, whole-tone-centric raga melody that the quartet take dancing in the brief, five-minute opening movement.

The searching quality of the second movement is visceral; the wistfulness afterward evokes both Indian and Celtic music. The four musicians follow the warmly fleeting third movement to a triumphantly strutting coda.

Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat open the Sonata No. 2, Op. 44 for Violin and Piano in the poignant netherworld where carnatic music meets the blues scale, and follow a much livelier tangent: listening to the tracks here in sequence, it becomes clear that Kaufmann doesn’t like to stay in one place very long. Ahfat’s motives ring sparely and spaciously behind Raum’s lyricism in the second movement; the two pick up the pace to bring the piece full circle.

String Quartet No. 7 is basically a raga for strings. It begins lustrously and more chromatically charged, with an uneasily bustling sway and clever echo effects that add unexpected Iranian flavor. The contrast between somber foreshadowing and shivery intensity in the second movement is intense; the stark third movement brings to mind Bartok if he had taken his recording rig across the Indian Ocean instead of the Mediterranean. The group wind it up with a jaunty, acerbic final two movements that Kaufmann manages to wrap up in one big, bouncy ball.

Ahfat and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas play a clarinet arrangement of the Sonatina No. 12  for Violin and Piano, its broodingly hypnotic ambience punctuated by eerie chimes and more than a distant shadow of klezmer music. The two hit an unexpected romp and ending with a pastorale that’s the most distinctly European interlude here.

Violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join Ahfat and the string quartet for the album’s concluding work, the Septet for Three Violins, Viola, Two Cellos, and Piano. Rimsky-Korsakovian glitter and phantasmagoria pulse through its dynamic shifts, the strings serving as rhythm section much of the time.

Kaufmann was an interesting guy, but sadly his early success in Europe did not springboard the same kind of acclaim elsewhere, and his father and many relatives were murdered by the Nazis. He composed for Bollywood and the radio; became the first conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony (and drew an impressive amount of European talent there); played piano alongside a promising violinist named Albert Einstein; and ended his career at the University of Indiana. Fans of pioneering cross-pollinators like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, and innovative violinists like Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu, will love this music.

August 28, 2020 Posted by | classical music, indian music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fearlessly Kaleidoscopic, Diverse Album of Modern Harpsichord Music From Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani bristles at the idea that his instrument could possibly be archaic, or that its usefulness is limited to music from the Renaissance or before. In the liner notes to his paradigm-shifting new album Musique, he credits “One perhaps unlikely source of inspiration…the people who, over the years, booed, cat-called and/or walked out of halls worldwide in anger and confusion (in other words, fear) during the live performances of these and many other modern and contemporary works. Be assured, my friends, that much more of this is on its way.”

If fearlessness is your thing, this album – streaming at Bandcamp – is for you. Esfahani plays a custom-made 2018 model by Jukka Ollikka, with an additional soundboard which essentially turbocharges the sustain – and Esfahani uses all of it. The album’s first piece is Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming, Esfahani’s steady, precise, eerily twinkling close harmonies contrasting with spare, pensive phrases. The washes of overtones reverberating from inside are nothing short of otherworldly: this piece alone proves Esfahani’s point about the harpsichord’s enduring vitality.

Henry Cowell wrote his Set of Four in 1960, twenty-six years before Takemitsu’s piece. The first, a rondo, is a disquietingly flamenco-inflected number with big, splashy glissandos and crashing, reverberating chords intermingled within shifting, stairstepping phrases. The ostinato of a second movement is a darkly bristling twelve-tone baroque invention that gives Esfahani a chance to take some jubilant leaps out of its otherwise rigid, brisk counterpoint. The third movement, a chorale, comes across as both homage to and devious parody of Bach. The conclusion blends quasi-Chopin with more conventional twelve-tone exchanges and a fleetingly deliciously chugging low lefthand attack

Kajia Saariaho‘s Jardin Secret II, written in the same year as Takemitsu’s work, is a rapidfire, minimalist electroacoustic piece with electronics by the composer herself: the contrast between organic and robotic is striking. A swordfight ensues: it’s not clear who wins.

Gavin Bryars‘ 1995 partita, After Handel’s “Vespers” is a rhythmically shifting exploration of baroque gestures, alternating methodically between harmonic worlds old and new, minimalism and medieval loquaciousness.

Esfahani has his hands full with the pointilllistic needles and epic, organ-like crush of Anahita Abbasi‘s 2018 Intertwined Distances, but his attack is unrelenting, the cumulo-nimbus ambience amplified by light electronic enhancements. A distant carillon effect is a clever touch.

He closes the record with Luc Ferrari’s 1972 Programme Commun – Musique Socialiste?, which could be a sardonic commentary on Pompidou-era French politics, or a prescient attempt to replicate the staccato sound of a Fender Rhodes elecric piano via one of its most venerable predecessors. This is the album’s most overtly amusing and pulsingly accessible piece, Esfahani reveling in how it seemingly inevitably falls apart, held together only by a pulsing electornic drone.

It’s a good bet that even the most diehard devotees of new music have never heard timbres or textures anything like this, especially not over the length of a whole record. Let’s hope Esfahani lives up to his vindictive promise in the album booklet, many times over.

August 27, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Niv Ashkenazi’s Lyrical Debut Album Celebrates Obscure Composers Imperiled or Murdered During the Holocaust

On a musical level alone, Niv Ashkenazi’s debut album Violins of Hope with pianist Matthew Graybil – streaming at Spotify – is a work of extraordinary beauty that reflects the vast scope of Jewish music throughout history. The backstory is even more inspiring. On one hand, this is a collection of both virtually unknown and relatively obscure repertoire by Jewish composers who were either driven from their homes or murdered during the Holocaust, along with a couple of famous pieces from the classical and film music canons.

Ashkenazi’s axe is one of dozens of violins played by Jews during the Holocaust, rescued by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein and detailed in James A. Grymes’ book, which shares its title with this album. This particular European model, crafted sometime between 1900 and 1929, has a remarkably warm tone and a Star of David inlay in mother of pearl on the body. It may have been played in the death camps, or one of the ghettos: no one knows for sure. The purpose of the project, and this album, is to return both the music and these instruments to their rightful place in our culture.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade, a song without words, is the cellist-composer’s only surviving work. Graybil’s lightly acerbic staccato and Ashkenazi’s aching lyricism echo both Schubert and Rachmaninoff. Dauber – son of jazz violinist Dolf Dauber – wrote it while imprisoned at Terezin. He died in captivity at Dachau in 1945.

Ernest Bloch’s 1923 Nigun features Ashkenazi soaring, spiraling and trilling against a drone over Graybil’s alternately hypnotic and rippling chromatics, a theme and variations on a gorgeous, dramatic medieval cantorial melody. John Williams well-known, klezmer-inspired Theme from Schindler’s List gets apt contrast between Graybil’s austere piano and Ashkenazi’s wounded, almost imploring intensity.

Julius Chajes’ 1939 piece The Chassid slowly rises to a triumphant strut in the Middle Easter-tinged freygish mode, the composer obviously inspired by the short time he spent in exile in the Holy Land before settling in Detroit.

Rising from hypnotic minimalism to a vigorous, neoromantic peak, contemporary composer Sharon Farber’s Bestemming: Triumph celebrates Dutch Resistance hero Curt Lowens, who saved not only scores of Jews but also a pair of downed American airmen during the war. The composer joins Graybil at the keys; Tony Campisi speaks Lowens’ own words, watching the survivors make their escape.

Szymon Laks’ resolute spirit shines through in his 1935 work Trois Pièces de Concert. The composer and Holocaust hero saved several of his fellow musicians from death at Auschwitz, survived the death camp and continued his career after he was liberated. Here the duo shift from a carefree baroque dance to unexpectedly marionettish riffage, a balmy barcarolle, and a lively conclusion which comes across as an update on Corelli.

The Ukrainian-born George Perlman taught violin in Chicago until his death at 103. His 1929 Dance of the Rebbitzen is a beautifully lilting miniature in freygish mode. As its title implies, pioneering Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s tenderly waltzing 1945 Berceuse Sfaradite looks back to Sephardic traditions.

The well-known classical number here is Kaddish, from Ravel’s Deux Melodies Hebraïques, in a terse, crystalline 1924 arrangement by Lucien Garban. The duo conclude the album with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words, a partita from 1952. They follow a steady upward trajectory through the brooding opening pavane, to a similarly wary Ballad and conclude with a Sephardic Melody that echoes the composer’s early immersion in European neoromanticism.

August 23, 2020 Posted by | Art, classical music, klezmer, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment