Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Neave Trio Play Transcendent Works by Women Composers at Subculture

Earlier today, was the Neave Trio’s most sublime moment when violinist Anna Williams broke out an aching vibrato during a plaintive solo over a single raptly resonant Eri Nakamura piano chord? Or was it when Nakamura played a savagely sarcastic “charge” motif in the lefthand while whirling through evilly glittering circles with her right?

All that and a lot more happened during their performance of Rebecca Clarke’s 1921 Piano Trio. It’s a shatttering work, as good as anything Bartok or Shostakovich ever wrote at their most translucent. How rewarding it was to discover it on the group’s new album Her Voice, a collection of pieces by women composers. How much more of a thrill it was to see the group play it live at Subculture as part of the ongoing weekly GatherNYC series.

Built around a haunting minor-key chromatic riff, it was the one piece on the bill that gave cellist Mikhail Veselov the most time in the spotlight, particularly when he wove a battlefield haze of harmonies with Williams as Nakamura receded. An unexpectedly puckish coda to the second movement drew spontaneous applause; the danse macabre reprised at the end was even more chillingly vivid.

Likewise, disquiet remained at the forefront throughout most of another work from the new album, Amy Beach’s lushly cantabile Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 150, from 1938. Nakamura’s glimmering phrasing seemed both more crepuscular and muscular than on the album, up to a striking coda to wind up the first movement. The quasi-nostalgic waltz of the second and the echoes of Debussy and boogie-woogie woven into this shapeshifting nocturne at the end also had a welcome vigor.

As an encore, the trio rushed through a burst of Piazzolla, a momentary deviation from the album concept. Before the performance, Williams related how the trio were originally going to title the record 1.8, reflecting the percentage of women composers’ work being programmed by major orchestras  according to a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey. Things may have improved since then, but not enough.

There was also storytelling, a jarring interruption that brought to mind a song by a brilliant female composer who wasn’t on the bill, Americana tunesmith Karen Dahlstrom. The protagonist in the first number on her new album finds herself in a New Orleans bar, sitting across from a guy who unbuttons his shift to show her his jailhouse tattoos. She doesn’t say anything, but thinks to herself, “I’ve weathered storms worse than these.”

The Neave Trio’s next performance is Nov 16 at 7:30 PM at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 71 N Main St. in Randolph, Vermont, including these works along with music by Cécile Chaminade and Jennifer Higdon. Cover is $25.

Next week’s installment of the GatherNYC series at Subculture (downstairs from the Culture Project Theatre at the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette) is at 11 AM on Nov 17 with chamber brass ensemble the Westerlies. Seemingly modeled on Lincoln Center’s hourlong Sunday morning “coffee concerts” at the Walter Reade Theatre, there’s java and breakfast snacks (before the show rather than after)…and possibly storytelling as well. Cover is $20.

November 10, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cutting-Edge, Diverse Sonics and a Williamsburg Album Release Gig From the Dither Guitar Quartet

The big news about the Dither Guitar Quartet is that Gyan Riley is in the band. He’s the rare scion of a famous western musical legacy (son of iconic minimalist composer Terry Riley) who’s an individualistic artist in his own right. On the ensemble’s new album Potential Differences – streaming at Bandcamp – he makes a good fit with returning members Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes and James Moore. This is the band’s most accessible record to date: fans of psychedelic rock and metal who can handle strange and often troubling tonalies should check it out. Dither are playing the release show at the Frost Theatre at 17 Frost St. in Williamsburg on Oct 27 on a bill that starts at 2 in the afternoon and continues into the night. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but there are a bunch of interesting, individualistic acts on the bill including but not limited to singer Alicia Hall Moran and the Mivos Quartet, sort of a reprise of the New Music Bake Sales in Fort Greene and then Roulette a few years back.

The album’s first track is The Garden of Cyrus, by Eve Beglarian, a 1985 piece pulsing with steady, emphatic echo chords, the group quickly adding polyrhythms that shift in and out of the mix. The variety of timbres, the mix of familiar and odder harmonies and the reverb in the room give it a Sonic Youth vibe.

Riley’s The Tar of Gyu is a strangely shifting blend of buzzy volume-knob swells, delicate toy piano-like phrasing and hardbop. The gently ringing harmonics and rising chromatic menace of Paula Matthusen‘s But Because Without This provide considerable contrast.

The album’s centerpiece, the four-part Ones, by Jascha Narveson, offers comic relief. The opening segment, The Wah One, is a playfully hypnotic mashup of the intros from the Theme From Shaft and Pink Floyd’s One of These Days. Then there’s the distortedly circling The Driving One, The Warped One with its down-and-up tuning-peg goofiness and finally the clock-chime harmonics of The Floaty One.

The group shift from gritty late 70s Robert Fripp-style riffage to eerie spacerock bubbles, austere resonance, wry hints of Eddie Van Halen and back in Lopes’ Mi-Go. Moore’s Mannequin is a desolate, morosely howling soundscape. Candy, by Ted Hearne, takes awhile to get going but eventually develops coy humor and incisively paired harmonies between the guitars.

Renegade, a Levine composition, sets growling, increasingly dissociative menace and shred over a piledriver beat. The quartet wind up the album with James Tenney’s 1967 dronescsape Swell Piece. Many different flavors; this group rock harder than just about anyone in the avant garde.

October 21, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since this blog went live in 2007. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.

October 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.

Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.

In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.

The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.

In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.

After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan, and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?

It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.

The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.

October 16, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Da Capo Chamber Players Unveil a Stunningly Diverse, Global Mix of Sounds at Merkin Concert Hall

The Da Capo Chamber Players have an enviable track record performing a vast stylistic range of lesser-known works that deserve to be heard on a much wider scale. Wednesday night at Merkin Concert Hall, the theme was global.

The coda was a richly noir, relentlessly shifting narrative that frequently resembled Bernard Herrmann’s best work. But Reinaldo Moya‘s Cronica de una Muerta Anunciada was much more of a horror soundtrack than a suspense theme. The full ensemble – Steven Beck on piano, Chris Gross on cello, Curtis Macomber on violin, Patricia Spencer on flute, Nuno Antunes on bass clarinet and clarinet, and Michael Lipsey on vibraphone and percussion – reveled as much as  a group can revel in a story about a grisly murder. Fleeting quotes from a couple of familiar wedding themes appeared early on. before a couple of chase scenes and a sharp, stomping finale illustrating the savage public stabbing immortalized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Aptly, a recurring, dancing riff for the violin and piano spelled out the name of the murder victim, Santiago Nasar, who’d been the illicit lover of a young woman in a rural Colombian village.

The opening piece – for cello, violin, flute and piano – was Chinary Ung‘s Child Song, interpolating several Asian modes around a lively pentatonic theme based on a surrealistic Cambodian nursery rhyme. The quartet wove a series of graceful exchanges punctuated by sudden dramatic bursts and a moody cello solo as the tonalities cleverly drifted further into western territory. Historically, this 1985 piece was a triumphant return to composition for Ung, who’d spent much of the previous ten years simply trying to stay alive in his native Cambodia while so many of his colleagues were murdered.

While Chou Wen-chung‘s Ode to Eternal Pine celebrates a Korean longevity archetype , it’s written in a western idiom. The ensemble rose from spacious, spare exchanges to a serene majesty in tribute to rugged mountaintop greenery, mysetrious ambience alternating with echo phrases and a sudden, striking coda.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s four-part suite Cuatro Bosquejos sent a shout out to now-vanished civilizations on the Peruvian and Colombian coast. Gross’ cello, in particular, stood out through acerbic chromatic passages in lively, shapeshifting depictions of an ancient, insistent group of flutists, the contrasting cascades in a portrait of a pre-Colombian man-bird, seaside calls into a desert wind, and a methodical disassembly of a panpipe-influenced tune.

Also on the bill were also a brief, elegant partita for solo flute by Noel Da Costa, and a persistently unsettled, steady, occasionally noirish Second Viennnese School trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Pablo Ortiz.

June 9, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yelena Grinberg Rescues Rare Classical Treasures from Obscurity

For the last six years, pianist Yelena Grinberg‘s salon has become an Upper Westside institution. The lost treasures of the classical world couldn’t wish for a more enthusiastic, insightful advocate. The energy she put into finding them, and then bringing them back to life is astonishing. For context, she mixes in some of the more popular chamber works that you might see at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, although, realistically, all of this repertoire deserves such a wide audience. Grinberg is a generous hostess and fascinating to talk to. So many professional musicians are blase about their work. Grinberg is 180 degrees the opposite, a tirelessly passionate historian and interpreter of forgotten gems..

At Salon number 186 last weekend, Grinberg’s focus was on works for piano, flute and viola. She explained that she’d found exactly one, from an unexpected source: Tatiana Nikolayeva, best known as a virtuoso concert pianist and major interpreter of Shostakovich. Alongside that one, Grinberg added a piano/flute/viola arrangement of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp. There was also music for flute and piano, and flute and viola, delivered in high resolution. In addition to an extensive concert program, Grinberg gave the audience a detaiiled rundown of each work: she’s as entertaining a tour guide as the tour itself.

The musicianship was topnotch. Flutist Jessica Taskov played meticulously, from ripe, full-toned lows to sturdy swaths of sound and bright, sharply executed accents. This concert was also a rare opportunity to see the great violist Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin playing other peoples’ music: he’s been one of New York’s leading composer-performers for over a decade.

The highlight of the program was the Weinerg piece, opening with troubled, slowly unfolding exchanges between flute and viola over an ominous implied pedalpoint. Grinberg’s spiky accents and occasional glissandos energized the desolate call-and-response, up to what came across as a twisted parody of a klezmer dance. Clearly, the horrors the composer had survived, first from the Nazis, and then the Soviets, still lingered when he wrote it in 1979. Having witnessed the Philharmonic playing Corigliano’s terrifying Symphony No. 1 the previous night, this carried even more of a wallop.

Nikolayeva’s eight-part suite turned out to be as delightful a mix of flavors as a composer can possibly pack into about twenty minutes: baroque dances, a puckishly precise scherzo, moody contemplation from flute and viola, allusions to a Balkan bagpipe tune, a slow, starry waltz and finally a clever, Spanish-tinged variation that brought the music full circle. Was this a New York premiere? Or even a North American one?

Likewise, Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style for Violin and Piano (flute playing the violin part) explored familiar tropes from the baroque and onward: a lilting Sicilienne, a strutting ballet and n unexpectedly serioso duet with more than a hint of Mozart. The fugue was where Grinberg’s passion for Bach made itself the clearest, with perfect articulation on the keys that managed at the same time not to be fussy.

Grinberg characterized Alexander Zhurbin‘s piano and viola arrangement of the Waltz from his opera Doctor Zhivago, as “buoyant and passionate,” and she nailed its dynamic neoromanticisms in tandem with the younger Zhurbin (Ljova is Alexander’s son). The two closed with Anton Rubenstein’s Viola Sonata in F Minor, which as Ljova explained, is full of “macho energy.” The violist went deep into the composer’s rich low-register sonics, contrasting with the deviously sotto-voce harmonics of the third movement. And the piece is just as much of a concerto for piano, but Grinberg dug in for its cruelly challenging, stabbing, Schumann-style chordal runs.

The next salon is sold out; after that, Grinberg is offering a fantastic program on June 19 at 7 and the June 23 at 5 PM, with Rachmaninoff’s shattering Trio Elegiaque, along with the famous Arensky piano trio plus lesser known works by Tschaikovsky and Myaskovsky. The salon webpage accepts reservations; you can email the impresario for additional information. If you’re coming from outside the neighborhood, it’s about two minutes from the 96th St. stop on the 1/2/3 – exit at the front of the train.

June 4, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Perennial Relevance, Irrepressible Wit and Catchy Tunes From Meredith Monk at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, Meredith Monk sang a playful, relentlessly catchy, perennially relevant mix of songs spanning over forty years. Now well into her seventies, the iconic composer still has the same clarity and purity in her upper register that she had back in the 1970s when she first came to prominence as a young lioness of the avant garde. Since then, just about every quirky songstress, from Laurie Anderson, to Bjork, to Carol Lipnik, owes her a shout for blazing the trail.

Monk always looks like the cat who ate the canary, an outward calm masking an inner delight that she can’t resist sharing. Her leaps and bounds and sudden rhythmic shifts seem more seamless – and easy to sing – than they actually are, considering what a brilliant tunesmith she is. Bright, kinetic melodies from throughout the show lingered long after it was over. She opened solo, a-cappella with Wa-li-oh, a 1975 number from her Songs from the Hill collection, where she’d literally gone to the mountaintop for the inspiration to write them. Its subtle echo effects may well have reflected that milieu.

She delivered similarly dappled, sunspotted pointillisms in a couple of other numbers: the Xosa-inflected Click Song, from 1988, and later in a series of brief pieces from last year’s suite of Cellular Songs, the final puckishly titled Lullaby for Leaves. By then, she’d been joined by two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger, tall blonde valkyries flanking the modestly dressed, slender bandleader. The two womens’ harmonies, frequent upward flights and command of Monk’s frequently challenging counterpoint were the icing on the cake.

The night’s most memorable number was Scared Song, for organ and vocals, its macabre undercurrent reflecting its response to Reagan-era fearmongering. “Fear becomes violence when we don’t know it’s fear,” she advised.

Another starkly relevant moment was when the trio sang Memory Song, from Monk’s dystopic 1984 suite The Games, a calmly surreal evocation from the point of view of a quasi-griot enumerating lost cultural references, from the essential to the ridiculous. That’s why Monk’s work has always had such resonance beyond the cutting edge: there’s always something funny to lighten even the darkest points.

Monk related how she’d recorded the bittersweetly circling Gotham Lullaby in 1975, solo on piano on her debut album, and felt like she’d botched the take. Producer Manfred Eicher told he it was fine – she could do another take if she felt like it, but he’d be going out for coffee while she did. And he was right, she demurred: there was magic in its imperfections, although her take this time out certainly didn’t seem to have any.

The most operatic moment of the night was a song from her 2006 Impermanence suite. The most trickily rhythnic was Waltz in 5’s, from 1996’s The Politics of Quiet. The most enigmatic was her own solo rendition of Happy Woman, from last year. Monk’s everywoman narrator seems on the surface to be perfectly content, but it turns out she’s also troubled in almost innumerable other ways. At face value, she maintained a resolute calm, but the turbulent undercurent cuoldn’t be masked. In an era when state legislatures are falling like dominoes to a lunatic misogynist fringe, that song couldn’t have had more of an impact.

This was it for this spring’s series of concerts at the Jewish Museum sponsored by the Bang on a Can organization, but they typically do an outdoor summer series at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City as well. Meanwhile, the Museum’s must-see Leonard Cohen exhibit will be up through Sept 8, and trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s noir cinematic trio Sexmob are there for free on June 11 at around 6 as part of this year’s Museum Mile Festival.

May 25, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amy Owens and Michael Barrett Unearth Rare Treasures from the Leonard Bernstein Archive

Like all great singers, soprano Amy Owens gets asked to cover a lot of territory. In her case, that means more than just racking up the frequent flier miles: she’s as nuanced and breathtakingly powerful with soul and cabaret music as she is in the classical realm where she’s best known. Her latest album with pianist Michael Barrett, It’s Gotta Be Bad to Be Good: Songs of Leonard Bernstein is notable for plenty of reasons. Bernstein fans are going to want it because there’s previously unreleased material on it: after all these years, you’d think that the Bernstein archive would have been completely plundered.

But actually not. Barrett worked closely with Bernstein in his later years and was able to enjoy unprecedented access to the maestro’s work, including his lesser-known repertoire as a songwriter. Unssurprisingly, this material has the same vast eclecticism, unselfconscious emotion and often great wit of the rest of Bernstein’s oeuvre. The album is just out and hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet- watch this space.

If you’re wondering how the duo could pack a grand total of 26 songs onto a single cd, everything here, other than a big showstopping coda from Candide, is either a miniature or close to it, nothing beyond the three-and-a-half minutre mark and many clocking in at less than two

There’s a misterioso slink along with a sotto-voce glimmer in Barrett’s playing in the opening title track: Owens cuts loose with a little tantalizing vocalese at the end. That calm/dramatic dichotomy recurs often here, from The Madwoman of Central Park: My New Friends, to the dips and mighty operatic peaks of that big tour de force Glitter and Be Gay, from Candide.

Of the unreleased material here, there are two takes of My Baby’s Baby, a poignant, muted nenromantic waltz. And Re La Mi shifts from arresting chromaticism to Debussy-esque lustre in just over two minutes.

Three songs from Peter Pan are infused with longing, arioso angst, and Owens walking the line between propriety and romantic ache. The two edge toward phantasmagoria in the miniature Jupiter Has Seven Moons, one of the five short pieces in the irresistibly funny suite I Hate Music. That’s where Owens gets to indulge her brassy side.

The duo tackle challenging Messienic tonalities iand tricky rhythms in Little Smary. The contrasts in Dede’s Aria, from A Quiet Place, in particular, are sharp and striking. Barrett winds up the album with six of Bernstein’s Anniversaries: short instrumentals the composer accumulated and doled out to friends on special occasions, or employed as eulogies.

At a Manhattan house concert last month staged by writer Philip Howard, Owens and Barrett not only delivered electric versions of many of the album’s highlights: they may have made history. Bernstein was always having friends over to share songs, but has there ever actually been a show devoted exclusively to Bernstein songs and solo piano instrumentals anywhere in this city, at least in the last few decades?

Owens’ next East Coast appearance is on May 18 at 8 PM, singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra.

May 2, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lisa Bielawa Makes a Memorable Conducting Debut at the New School

To what degree is iit a blessing, or a curse, for a conductor to make her debut with three world premieres? On one hand, it could be an overwhelming challenge. Until another orchestra plays those works, yours is the definitive version, for better or worse. On the other, it’s a chance to really shine,. Wednesday night at the New School, Lisa Bielawa did exactly that, leading the Mannes String Orchestra through lively debuts of arrangements of a couple of her own powerfully relevant pieces plus similarly striking contemporary works by Jon Gibson, David T. Little and a joyously swinging, dynamic finale with Philip Glass‘ Symphony No. 3.

Of course, Bielawa is best known as a composer, and a singer. She related how she’d been blown away by that symphony, shortly after joining the Philip Glass Ensemble as a vocalist, more or less straight out of Yale, 24 years ago. So she had the inside track for what was obviously a dream gig, seizing that moment with the same kind of muscular meticulousness that defines so much of her work.

So much of Glass’ music has a rapturously unfolding beauty that orchestras tend to play up the lustre factor, gliding through all those mesmerizing, shapeshifting phrases. This performance was much more bright and emphatic, in about as high definition as an ensemble can play it. Individual voices were strikingly distinct, notably violinists Yeji Pyun and Ann-Frances Rokosa, among the group’s nineteen members.
They danced through the playful, baroque-tinged humor in the first movement, tackled some daunting extended technique, notably glissandos and microtonal haze in the second, and accentuated the frequently shifting contrast between celestial sweep and trouble lurking just around the corner as the counterpoint grew more complex and intertwining.

The opening numbers were just as fascinating to wattch unfold. The ensemble arrived in threes for the opening work, Jon Gibson’s elegantly crescendoing Chorales for Relative Calm, with phrasing and more than one riff that sent a shout-out to Glass. Bielawa seemed at ease in her new role in front of the orchestra with that one, and really worked up a sweat with a pulsing, turbulent take of her own piece, The Trojan Women, pulling individual voices and clusters out of the increasing storm with Nielsen-esque color and aplomb.
The string orchestra arrangement of David T. Little’s 1986 – another world premiere – was even more of a challenge as the music leapfrogged between centuries and idioms, imgued with plenty of sarcasm and allusions to other works, and Bielawa and the ensemble held up to the challenge. 1986 was a pretty horrible year for just about everybody other than the Mets, and this piece doesn’t seem to include them.

Soprano Rowen Sabala emerged from the wings to sing two excerpts from Bielawa’s dystopic sci-fi opera Vireo and dispayed steely intensity as well as breathtaking range and a rare ability to enunciate, lyrically, something a lot of bigtime voices can’t do. Playing the role of a teenage visionary who exists simultaneously in three different centuries, she channeled both cynical contentment at being locked away at Alcatraz, away from her tormentors, along with surreal, hallucinatory angst.

Big up to the New School for getting to the guy who’s arguably the greatest American composer of the late 20th and early 21st century and setting up the Philip Glass Institute. Bielawa being their inaugural Composer-in-Residence, there will likely be more like this happening in the weeks to come.

April 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment