Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

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February 28, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Compelling, Lushly Relevant Orchestral Works in Washington Heights

This past evening a string subset of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra played a lush, majestic, sweeping, potently relevant program of works by 20th and 21st century composers. The performance validated conventional wisdom in real estate bubble-era New York: the fringes are where the most cutting-edge artists are supposed to be. Ask yourself how many members of the Philharmonic actually walk to work: it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of this talented ensemble did.

The group echoed Music Director Chris Whittaker’s poise on the podium, at least with as much poise as a string section can maintain playing distinctly troubled music. The central theme was Japanese, comprising works by composers with Japanese heritage, setting up a harrowing look back at the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima wasn’t addressed, but it might as well have been, considering how plaintive and elegaic the overall ambience was.

Both the opening and concluding pieces, Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum and Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes opened with percussive rustles from the bass section, a neat pairing. The former was an alternately kinetic and stark interweave of 19th century gospel-inflected pentatonic melody and more distinctly Asian motives. Permeated with the call-and-response of chain gang chants, it spoke for itself as a reminder of how little has changed in over a century.

The showstopper was an understatedly aching, enveloping take of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem For String Orchestra. Moving gracefully from an austere pavane to stabbing close harmonies that foreshadow Julia Wolfe’s work, and then to to cellular Glass-ine phrasing, the group locked in on its relentless, overcast atmosphere.

Karen Tanaka’s Dreamscape suite often had a similarly circular but more distinctly nebulous effect, their group parsing its starry pointillisms and sparely memorable hooks with delicacy to match their lustre, harpist Tomina Parvanova and concertmaster Mark Chien tracing lively comet tails and deep-space bubbles.

Theofanidis’ piece was inspired by the Japanese tradition of making paper cranes. As the myth goes, producing a thousand of them allows for a wish to come true. That activity became a meme among those stricken with radiation poisoning and all kinds of other horrible illnesses after August of 1945.

The triptych is a hard piece to play, partly because it covers so much ground, emotionally speaking. There was unexpectedly calm jubilance in the opening overture of sorts, which disappeared as reality sank in. The group nimbly tackled the precisely dancing pizzicato section and then let the mournful washes afterward linger. The steady procession up to a decidedly unresolved ending was just as poignant.

The orchestra are staging monthly concerts  this spring: the next one is March 23 at 3 PM at at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, 729 W 181st St. just up the hill from the 1 train, with works by Korngold, Britten, Anna Clyne and Michael Torke. Admission is free; $25 gets you into the reception afterward and for the rest of the season as well.

February 23, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

Whether Russian orchestras actually play Shostakovich better, or French organists are best suited to perform the work of Louis Vierne, are debatable questions. What was indisputable last night was how vastly attuned the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were to their countryman Arvo Part’s somber, rapturous mysticism. It’s impossible to think of a more apt program for a New York series called Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

The concert was a confluence of unlikely serendipities. Beyond the rare opportunity to witness these two legendary ensembles together on American soil, the material on the bill was what many consider to be peak-era Part. Everything dated from1990 and later, with one of the arrangements a 2018 North American premiere. Better yet, the composer himself had suggested the inclusion of his soberly crescendoing, cell-like 2006 string orchestra piece, Fur Lennart in Memoria.

On a macro level, the performance was as meticulously serious as its overall gloom was pervasive and relentless. In particular, conductor Tonu Kaljuste made masterful use of the innumerable spaces that punctuated these works, leting the natural reverb of the high-ceilinged Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola resonate as profoundly as the music itself.

The ensembles only missed the big American costume-party holiday by a couple of weeks. To be fair, the only point where the sound reached fullscale horror was in the stalking pulse, gothic chromatics and brief series of muted, shrieking motives in the concluding suite, Adam’s Lament. The message, here as elsewhere, seemed to be that no human alone should have to bear the burden of being cast out of paradise, all alone in a hostile world.

The rest of the program was every bit as troubled and serious. Even celeste player Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann’s graceful comet-trail phrases and bittersweet starriness tended to simply mingle with the otherwise rather stygian, even creepy tones of Salve Regina. Mysterious bass drones anchored alternately moody and robust accents and call-and-response from the choir throughout an understatedly dynamic take of Part’s Berliner Messe, the oldest piece they performed. The string orchestra brought a gorgeous, Gorecki-like, hypnotically circling ambience to Silouan’s Song, rising to a windswept ethereality. And the Prayer, from Part’s Kanon Pokajanen suite, perfectly synopsized the concert’s slow, steady, spacious majesty, artfully developed variations on simple, emphatic phrases and lustrous contrast between highs and lows from both the singers and the strings.

The two ensembles are currently on US tour; the next stop is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. in Stanford, California; you can get in for $32, less if you’re a student. After more lighthearted holiday fare next month, Sacred Music in a Sacred Space’s programming keeps the intensity high with a performance by longtime St. Ignatius organist Renee-Anne Louprette with uilleann piper Ivan Goff on Jan 20 at 3 PM; tix are $25.

November 13, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obscure Treasures at the Opening Night of This Year’s Mise-En Festival

Before last night’s otherworldly, flickering “composer portrait” of the individualistic proto-serialist Klaus Huber to open this year’s Mise-En Festival, had there ever been an all-Huber program performed in New York? Actually, yes – by Ensemble Mise-En, a couple of years ago. Which comes as no surprise. For the past several years, the Brooklyn-based new-music group have been adventurous as adventurous gets, with a wide-ranging sensibility and fearless advocacy for undeservedly obscure composers from across the ages unsurpassed by any other chamber music organization in town.

While Huber’s work sometimes echoes the stubborn kineticism of Ligeti, the rapture of Messiaen, the poignancy of Mompou and the ethereality of Gerard Grisey, ultimately Huber is one of the real individualists of 20th century music. George Crumb was another contemporary who came to mind as pianist Dorothy Chan shifted from simple, lingering chords, to a sudden horrified flurry capped off by a giant crash, to wispy brushing on muted strings inside the piano in a methodically shapeshifting take of Huber’s trio piece, Ascensus. Alongside her, fluitist Kelley Barnett and cellist Chris Irvine worked slow, deliberate mutations on brief accents and bursts, The audience was spellbound.

Barnett and Irvine joined forces with oboeist Erin Lensing, trombonist Mark Broschinsky, violinist Maria Im and violist Carrie Frey for the night’s opening number, In nomine – ricercare il nome. It was akin to watching an illuminated Rubik’s Cube…or the deck of the Starship Enterprise in slo-mo as harmonies shifted back and forth between the strings and winds.

Im’s solo take of a very late work from 2010, Intarsimile für Violine came across as a less petulant take on a Luciano Berio sequenza, employing extended technique, wispy overtones and the occasional microtonal phrase for subtlety rather than full-on assault. Barnett serenaded the crowd from the Cell Theatre’s balcony with Huber’s 1974 solo piece Ein Hauch von Unzeit, whose trills and misty ambience became more of a lullaby,

Pianist Yumi Suehiro teamed with Barnett, Frey and percussionist Josh Perry for a methodically calm, somewhat benedictory coda, Beati pauperes, whose deep-space stillness brought to mind the awestruck, concluding expanses of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. Perry enhanced the mystery with spacious, distant booms on a big gong as the melody grew more warmly consonant, the group conducted with equal parts meticulousness and quiet triumph by founder Moon Young Ha.

This year’s Mise-En Festival continues through this Saturday, June 30 Tonight’s 8 PM Brooklyn program features solo works by Victor Marquez-Barrios, Patrick McGraw, Amelia Kaplan, Lydia Winsor Brindamour and an electroacoustic piece by Steven Whiteley, performed at the group’s Bushwick home base at 678 Hart St, #1B (at Marcy Ave). Admission is $15/$10 stud/srs; take the G to Myrtle-Willoughby and be aware that there’s no Brooklyn-bound service afterward.

June 28, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mesmerizing, Lushly Enveloping, Rare Maryanne Amacher Work Rescued From the Archives

Last night at the Kitchen nonprofit music advocates Blank Forms staged the first performance of Maryanne Amacher’s Adjacencies since a Carnegie Hall concert in 1966. A mesmerized, sold-out audience was there to witness a major moment in New York music history, performed by Yarn/Wire percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg.

The music shifted slowly and tectonically, from sepulchral flickers, to vast washes of sound punctuated by playful rhythmic accents, occasionally rising to an epically enveloping intensity that bordered on sheer horror and then fell away. The premise of the suite – the only surviving graphic score from Adjoins, a series the composer wrote while still in her twenties – is to subtly shift the sonic focus via quadrophonic speakers, mixed live with a meticulous, artful subtlety by Daniel Neumann and Woody Sullender.

The influence of Stockhausen – an early advocate for Amacher – and Edgar Varese (in a less wilfully assaultive moment, maybe) were apparent, but ultimately this piece is its own animal. Amacher’s score separates the passages into five specific tonal ranges, leaving the rest up to the performers. Greenberg was more or less in charge of bowing, Antonio with hitting, although they switched roles, at one point with considerable wry humor.

Both players stood amid a practically identical set of instruments: cymbals, twin snare drums, marimbas, gongs, circular bell tubes, propane canisters (presumably empty) and a big oil drum on its side. Coy oscillations contrasted with slowly rising, ominous low-register ambience. A pair of autoharps (the original score calls for concert models) were bowed, plucked and hammered in varying degrees for resonance rather than distinct melodies.

Familiar images – intentional or not – which came to mind included busy city traffic, distant conversations amid a bustling crowd, jet and electric engines, and a hailstorm or two. The most striking, creepiest moment came when Greenberg bowed the lowest tube on his marimba, channeling a murky discontent from the great beyond. A refrain eventually appeared, but from a different vantage point, at about the two o’clock mark if you consider centerstage to be high noon.

On one hand, it was tempting to the extreme to just sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the music. On the other, the constantly shifting action onstage was also a lot of fun to watch – the suspense never let up, finally coming full circle with a whispery unease. The performance repeats tonight, Sept 30 at 8; cover is $20. In a stroke of fate, this two-night stand equals the total number of times the piece was previously performed.

The next event at the Kitchen after this is on Oct 3 at 7 PM with rare footage of golden-age CBGB bands the Talking Heads, Heartbreakers, Tuff Darts and others filmed there by the Metropolis Video collective over forty years ago. Admission is free: get there early and expect a long line.

September 30, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leann Osterkamp Plays One For the History Books at Steinway Hall

A major moment in the history of classical music in New York took place last night at Steinway Hall, where Leann Osterkamp gave a breathtaking and often breathless performance of Leonard Bernstein works for solo piano. Had such a program ever been staged in this city? Definitely not in the last thirty years, possibly never. There have been thousands of all-Bernstein programs performed here over the decades, and Bernstein conducted a handful of those from the piano. But beyond playing for his friends and family, it’s not clear if the composer himself ever gave a solo recital here.

Even Osterkamp, whose new Steinway album comprises all kinds of rare Bernstein solo works which she unearthed during some herculean research at the Library of Congress, couldn’t solve that mystery. If this was in fact a first, it was one worthy of the composer. As Nancy Garniez has asserted, a composer’s private works can be even more interesting than those written for public performance, and some of these pieces were exactly that. One of the most revealing numbers was written for his daughter Jamie, who was in the audience. On one hand, Osterkamp reveled in its lively, balletesque passages, but she also gave every considered ounce of gravitas to its knotty, pensively workmanlike explorations in Second Viennese School melodicism.

That lighthearted/rigorous dichotomy pervaded much of the rest of the material. Many of the pieces were miniatures, including a concluding set of five of Bernstein’s Seven Anniveraries. Osterkamp revealed how rather than being written with specific friends in mind, Bernstein had devised them as a suite of neo-baroque dance numbers: they’d been kicking around his “song junkyard” for years before the composer started doling them out as presents.

Much of the material on the album has never been previously recorded. Who knew that Bernstein wrote a piano sonata? That he could actually play its jackhammer staccato and whirlwind curlicues at age twenty is impressive, to say the least, and Osterkamp held up her end mightily. There’s also a lingering deep-sky passage in the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from the final movement of the Quartet For the End of Time.

Wait – Messiaen hadn’t written that yet. Which speaks to the astonishing range of idioms Bernstein had assimilated by that time. Was this juvenalia? In the sense that it’s gratuitously cross-genre and showoffy, sure. But it was also a rewarding glimpse into the young composer’s mindset.

The rest of the program followed suit, from enigmatic twelve-tone-ish romps that recalled Bernstein’s contemporary Vincent Persichetti, to the briefest flicker of West Side Story riffage that flashed by in what seemed like a nanosecond. Osterkamp couldn’t resist telling the crowd to keep their eyes open for that one.

She played the concert on a Spirio, Steinway’s analog player piano which can deliver both perfect playback of what’s just been played on it, as well as dynamically nuanced versions of the hours and hours of digital “rolls” available. She left it alone to recreate Bernstein’s own interpretation of Ravel while video of the actual performance, from Paris in the late 50s, played on the screen overhead. For pretty much everyone in the crowd, it was as close to seeing Bernstein himself playing solo onstage as we’ll ever get.

September 26, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.

The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.

Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.

The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.

April 19, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philip Glass’ Agenda Remains the Same

“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.

It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.

Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.

The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.

Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.

What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.

January 31, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cutting-Edge, Elegantly Menacing Ben Johnston String Works from the Kepler Quartet

The Kepler Quartet – violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Stignitz, violist Brek Renzelman and cellist Karl Lavine – first joined forces to play some of the most amazing, extraordinary music you probably have never heard: the string quartets of microtonal composer Ben Johnston. It’s full of some of the most otherworldly riffs and hooks you’ll ever hum to yourself. The now-nonagenarian American composer should be vastly better known than he is, someone who was decades ahead of his time when he wrote his first string quarter in 1959. Few other composers use microtones – the intervals between the notes in a particular scale – as tunefully, and memorably, and impactfully as Johnston. The work of Per Norgard comes to mind, but Johnston is even more adventurous. A better comparison would be a similarly cutting-edge composer in a completely different idiom, the extraordinary “post-chromodal” jazz saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh.

The ensemble have recently released a three-quartet album comprising Johnston’s Quartets Nos. 6-8, completing the group’s epic cycle of the composer’s ten quartets. The entire project is an astonishing achievement. It’s one thing for a string player to get the western scale into muscle memory on a particular instrument; those who play Middle Eastern or Asian music, or jazz, have the additional challenge of halftones and quartertones, and blue notes. Johnston’s music requires a vast spectrum of variations per pitch, and the quartet have mastered all of them – and the meticulousness of these recordings bears that out.

Not all of these pieces are strictly microtonal: Johnston’s earliest work here draws on the Second Viennese School, and the playful spaciousness of John Cage, but with more dense, disquieting close harmonies. He also has a thing for English folk themes and Gershwin, both influences you would hardly expect to hear in this context. Johnston’s music can be as ethereal as it is rhythmic and balletesque: jaunty waltzes juxtapose with airy, horizontal interludes. He has a penchant for labeling sections as “impetuous,” “nervous, diving” or “vigorous, defiant” and then making good on those themes. Another of his favorite tropes is to diverge very slowly and almost imperceptibly from traditional western harmony, as he does most vividly in String Quartet No. 9, building an atmosphere that becomes grotesque and sometimes downright macabre. The ensemble tackles all of this with expertise, and verve, and gusto: they are clearly having a ball with this stuff, especially when his sense of humor is going full force.

Each of the string quartets here is worth hearing: the two pieces de resistance here are No. 5, from 1979, and No.10, from 1995. The former slices and dices an allusive Scottish folk-tinged ballad theme. Pitches and their doppler doppelgangers go further and further outside, taking on the ambered quality of a brass section. Flurries of pizzicato alternate with calmer gestures that remind of Gershwin more than, say, Beethoven, up to an intense, menacing coda and then a very subtly twisted cello-fueled outro.

The latter is a real stunner, with an ending that’s just the opposite of all the foreshadowing Johnston goes through – it’s far too good to give away here. Otherwise, it’s packed with neat touches: hints of medieval folk tunings, a lustrously dirgey canon, latin-tinged counterpoint, a long, thorny tumble through thickets of pizzicato and an ending that quietly packs more of a wallop than the loudest, most horror-stricken segments here, of which there are many.

Of the quartets on the new album, No. 6 is the most enigmatic, most statically hypnotic and least dynamic – and hardest to pin down – of the lot. A circling, Reichian, hypnotic sense gives way to starkly swaying unease and then a final segment with some ominous narration: “Your way begins on the other side,” Johnston intones. No. 7 opens with a shivery menace, shifting to an extremely devious, dizzyingly waltzing, pizzicato palindrome, then a series of variations, Johnston’s tonalities expanding with characteristic delicacy and a matching, offcenter menace.

No. 8 moves from a twisted minuet to a woundedly steady, canonical march and a scherzo that hardly seems funny, with a hazily swaying conclusion that shifts with somberly cello-fueled counterpoint to an austere, still outro. Much of this can be found on New World Records’ album page.

The cycle also includes dynamic performances of String Quartet No. 1, in a Schoenbergian vein; the stark, sobering, angst-ridden No. 2, a quantum leap in Johnston’s work and otherwise, No. 9, which warps elements of folk, Stravinsky and the neo-baroque; the brief No. 3, balancing spacious horizontality and more jaunty melody; and the windswept, stunningly echoey, harrowingly challenging No. 4. It’s safe to say that its own elegant way, there won’t be anything this wild or individualistic released in 2016, quite possibly for the rest of this decade.

July 9, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Momenta Quartet Illuminate Per Norgard’s Haunting, Pensive String Works

Per Norgard is iconic in his native Denmark, and deserves a global audience. The lucky crowd at Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue Friday night got to witness the Momenta Quartet turn in a purposefully flickering, often sepulchral, genuinely transcendent performance of string quartets, a suite of miniatures and a chilling violin/cello duet.

Norgard’s music is minimalist in the sense that everything counts for something, and that his melodies tend to be spare and follow a careful, meticulous path. But there’s a great deal going on, much of it rhythmic: constantly shifting meters, persistent wave motion and all sorts of oceanic and water imagery, unsurprising for someone from an archipelago nation. An unease on the brink of terror often lurks in the background, or in the distance. On the rare occasion that it takes centerstage – as in the coda of the duo suite Tjampuan, inspired by Balinese mysticism and waterways and performed with a hushed intensity by violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – the result can be spine-tingling, whichever way you want to imagine that.

There’s also a mathematical precision that sometimes brings to mind Steve Reich, but with vastly less playfulness and more foreboding. The awestruck terror of Messiaen’s most dramatic works also figures into the picture, if from a somewhat greater distance, as it did during the surreallistic time-warp of Norgard’s String Quartet No. 10. A contrast between calm if not exactly cheery harvest imagery, seemingly loaded with subtext, and a contemplation of time out of mind, it offered violist Stephanie Griffin a rare opportunity – at this concert at least – to vent, if only guardedly. There was no lack of cruel irony in how vexing such a concept can be to mere mortals, and Norgard seized on that.

His String Quartet No.3 – Three Miniatures, dating from 1959, juxtaposed brief, swinging, occasionally carnivalesque allusions with a dirge theme. Likewise, Playground, the suite of brief, flitting pieces, brought to mind a more mathematical, modernist take on Bartok’s Mikrokosmos etudes. The Quartet got to bring the most dynamism to the String Quartet No. 8- Night Descending Like Smoke, a World War I-themed piece based on a Norgard chamber opera, offering an offhandedly savage look at karmic payback to warmongers and their sympathizers. It’s characteristic of the relevance of Norgard’s repertoire, which really ought to be performed with this kind of meticulous attention far more often in this city.

One such performance to look forward to will be on July 29 at 8 PM when pianist Jacob Rhodebeck plays Norgard works at Mise-En Place, 678 Hart. St. in Bushwick. The other is by the Momenta Quartet June 23, with a delicious homemade vegetarian dinner at 6, show at 8 featuring Norgard’s String Quartet No. 3, Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi La Nuit and Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 135 on the fourth floor of 67 Metropolitan Ave. (Wythe/Kent) in Williamsburg. Sugg. don. is $20, BYOB, sharable food/drink are highly encouraged!

June 20, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment