Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

In Her First New York Solo Show, Seungmin Cha Invents a Riveting, Brand New Kind of Music

It’s impossible to think of anyone other than Seungmin Cha who could make a tiny dinner bell sound more menacing than she did at her first-ever New York solo concert last weekend. Or for that matter, who could get as much sound as she did out of a single Korean daegeum flute, sometimes serene and verdant, other times acidic or even macabre.

“Can I check out your rig?” an interested concertgoer asked her before the show.

“Sure,” she replied. On the floor in front of her were a couple of large pedalboards’ worth of stompboxes, hardly limited to reverb, delay, disortion, chorus, flange and an envelope filter. Hardly what you would expect a virtuoso of a centuries-old folk instrument to be playing her axe through.

“This is a guitar rig,” the spectator observed. “Is that a volume pedal?” 

“It’s a total guitar rig,” Cha smiled. “That’s a distortion pedal. For my vocals.”

But this wasn’t a rock show. Instead, Cha invented a brand new kind of music right there on the spot. This particular blend of ancient Korean folk themes, western classical, jazz improvisation and the furthest reaches of the avant garde might have only existed for this one night.

She began by slowly making her way in a circle around the audience. It took her a good fifteen minutes, playing subtle, meticulously nuanced variations on a gentle Korean pastoral theme. On one hand, this might have been a welcoming gesture, a comfortably lulling interlude. More likely, Cha was getting a sense of the room’s acoustics for when she really cut loose.

Which she did, eventually. At one point, she was getting two separate overtones out of the flute, without relying on the electronics. As it turned out, she’d been talking shop with her special guest, clarinetist Ned Rothenberg, before the show and he’d shown her a couple of overtones. Which, maybe half an hour after learning them, she incorporated into the show. Can anybody say fearless?

As Cha built her first improvisational mini-epic of the night, a mist of microtones wafted through the space, sometimes light and tingling, sometimes mysteriously foggy. Slow, judicious bends and dips flowed through a mix that she eventually built to a dark deep-space pulse, the flute’s woody tone cutting through like a musical Hubble telescope somewhere beyond Pluto but unwilling to relent on its search for new planets. Yet when she sang a couple of resigned “my love’s gone over the hills” type ballads, her vocals made a contrast, low and calm – until she hit her pedal to raise the surrealism factor through the roof.

As it turns out, Cha can also be very funny. She began an improvisation inspired by a snakelike Alain Kirili sculpture on the floor in front of her with a sort of one-sided Q&A…then decided to pick it up and play it as if it was a flute. Grrrr!! This thing is evil!

Rothenberg joined her for a lively duet to close the show: he tried goosing her with a few riffs early on, and she goosed back, but it became clear that she wanted to take this in a more serious direction and he went with it, adding judicious, mostly midrange, confidently bubbling motives while Cha took a slow, similarly considered upward path. It was a playful way to close what had been an intense and sometimes harrowing journey up to that point. You’ll see this on the Best Concerts of 2017 page here later this year.

Cha flew back to her home turf in Seoul the next day, but a return to New York is in the works: watch this space.

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October 8, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Momenta Festival, Installment Three: Fun Night!

Even by the rigorous standards of the string quartet world, the Momenta Quartet have to assimilate an enormous amount of material for their annual Manhattan festival. Never mind the kind of stylistic leaps and bounds that would drive most other groups to distraction. This year’s festivities conclude tonight with a free concert at 7 at West Park Church at 86th and Amsterdam put together by violinist Alex Shiozaki. The centerpiece is Per Norgard’s mesmerizingly dark String Quartet No. 8, and reportedly there will be free beer. But the music will be better than the beer. What’s better than free beer? Now you know.

Each member of this irrepressible quartet programs a single festival evening. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron was in charge of night one, which was reputedly challenging and entertaining – this blog wasn’t there. Night two, assembled by violist Stephanie Griffin, was harrowingly intense and had enormous political relevance. Last night’s bill at Columbia’s Italian Academy auditorium, devised by celist Michael Haas, was the fun night – although the fun promises to continue tonight as well.

Last night’s theme was a tourists-eye view of Italy. Haas took that idea from the evening’s one world premiere, Claude Baker’s absolutely delightful Years of Pilgrimage: Italy. Baker found his inspiration in Italian-themed works by Liszt, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky, and there were jarring episodes interpolating snippets of some of those themes throughout an otherwise distinctively 21st century work. It wasn’t the easiest, segue-wise, but it was riotously funny. Otherwise, the piece didn’t seem to have much to do with Italy, from austere, minimalist insistence, to all sorts of allusive, enigmatic ripples and rises, a daunting and uneasily captivating microtonal interlude, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek glissandos and other only slightly less ostentatious uses of extended technique. The group had a great time with it: every string quartet ought to play it.

The party ended on a high note with Tschaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the quartet bolstered by their former teachers Samuel Rhodes and Marcy Rosen on second viola and cello, respectively. It was an unabashedly joyous, conversational performance: to the extent that this music can swing, the group swung it, through beery, punchy Beethovenesque riffage bookended by familiar Russian gloom.

It was as if Tschaikovsky was reassuring himself that it was ok to cut loose and have some fun. And did he ever. That buffoonish brass fanfare midway through, transposed for strings – whose doublestops and rat-a-tat phrasing are brutally tough to play, by the way? Check. That ridiculous faux-tarantella at the end? Doublecheck. Otherwise, the group reveled in nifty exchanges of voices as the mood shifted back and forth.

They’d opened with Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which was more of a vehicle for individual members’ technical skill than anything else. Gendron spun silky filigrees while Haas and Shiozaki  provided elegant, precisely pulsing pizzicato alongside Griffin’s plaintive resonance. But ultimately, the piece – a late work based on Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice – didn’t really go anywhere. Obviously, the group can’t be faulted for the composer electing for a “this is what I look like when I’m sad” pose over genuine empathy. That the opera is based on the Thomas Mann novel explains a lot.

October 4, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stunning, Harrowing, Relevant Night at This Year’s Momenta Festival

Who says music for string quartet isn’t as relevant in the here and now as, say, hip-hop? Who says classically trained professional musicians can’t improvise with the best of them? Could there be a better concert for Halloween month than a program of works written in opposition to tyrants?

Yesterday evening’s second installment of this year’s Momenta Festival at the Americas Society answered those questions decisively.

The Momenta Quartet stages this annual festival at venues across New York. Over the past three years it’s come to be one of the most amazingly eclectic, never mind herculean, feats attempted by any chamber ensemble in this city. Each group member comes up with an individual program. Night one, assembled by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron, featured a theremin and playful projections to go along with the music – this blog was absent. Last night’s program, put together by violist Stephanie Griffin, was a harrowing, fearlessly political mix of works by Schoenberg, Alvin Singleton, Agustin Fernandez, and one made up on the spot. Tonight’s installment, with works by  Britten, Tschaikovsky and Claude Baker, follows an Italian theme which dovetails with the venue: the Italian Academy at Columbia, at Amsterdam and 116th. Celist Michael Haas came up with that one; violinist Alex Shiozaki takes responsibility for the final night, tomorrow at 7 at West Park Church at the corner of 86th and Amsterdam. Its centerpiece is Per Norgard’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8. Oh yeah – all these shows are free, although an rsvp would be a good idea.

Griffin’s program explored themes including the struggle against tyranny, hope for a more auspicious future, and also the failures and pitfalls of revolution. The quartet opened with Singleton’s Marian Anderson-inspired Somehow We Can, juxtaposing tightly synched, clenched-teeth staccato pedal notes with austere, wounded washes that eventually took on a similar if more muted insistence. With its relentless intensity, it foreshadowed the direction Julia Wolfe would be going about ten years later.

That Fernandez’s String Quartet No. 2 would not be anticlimactic attests to its relentless power, and the group’s forceful focus. Pulsing with deceptively catchy, allusive minor modes, the triptych is a portrait of the 1970 uprising in Teoponte, Bolivia, and also references an ancient Incan curse against the conquistadors. With some otherworldly, challenging extended-technique passages midway through – including a twistedly oscillating interlude for high harmonics – it was the highlight of the evening, if perhaps only because it was the longest piece.

Guest bassist Hilliard Greene provided a deep-river anchor for a lingering duo improvisation with Griffin on the theme of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, viola leading the way toward a resolution that the two eventually sidestepped. Joined by pianist Christopher Oldfather and Cuban rapper Telmary Diaz, the quartet closed with Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte. Over a tireless, viciously sarcastic bustle, Diaz delivered a witheringly unrelenting, knowing critique of a revolutionary who got too big for his britches, via conductor Sebastian Zubieta’s dynamite new Spanish translation of the Byronic lament. As one concertgoer remarked, it was a performance that resonated all the way to the White House – although the chance that Donald Trump speaks a language other than English is awfully unlikely.

What’s the takeaway from all this? That other ensembles should aspire to be as relevant; that the rest of the festival is just as promising, and that this city needs an Agustin Fernandez festival. Maybe the Momenta Quartet can arrange that.

October 3, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist David Greilsammer Plays a Brave, Impactful Program in an Uptown Crypt

Pianist David Greilsammer addressed an intimate Harlem crowd last night with the utmost seriousness. He took care to explain that he typically never introduces the music on the bill since he wants it to speak for itself.

But this was an unusual program. He pondered the viability of playing organ or harpsichord works on the piano. He addressed the need to reaffirm classical music’s relevance, to be true to how historically radical and transgressive much of it is. Perhaps most importantly, he asserted, a performer ought to put his or her heart and soul into the music rather than maintaining a chilly distance.

That close emotional attunement came into vivid focus with the uneasy, insistent poignancy and emphatic/lingering contrasts of Janacek’s suite On the Overgrown Path, which Greilsammer interpolated within segments of works by Froberger, Mozart, C.P.E. Bach, Jean-Fery Rebel and a moodily dynamic world premiere by Ofer Pelz. Greilsammer averred that he’d been inspired to do this by a nightmare where he found himself stuck in a labyrinth.

Was this shtick? He considered that question too. As he saw it, that’s a judgment call. Mashing up segments of various composers’ works isn’t a new concept, but it is a minefield. An ensemble at a major New York concert space took a stab at a similar program last year and failed, epically. By the audience reaction – a standing ovation in the rich, reverberating sonics of the crypt at the Church of the Intercession – Greilsammer earned a hard victory.

Just the idea of trying to wrangle less-than-awkward segues between the baroque and the modern sends up a big red flag. But Greilsammer pulled it off! At about the midpoint of Janacek’s surreal, disorienting nightmare gallery walk, there’s a wrathful, exasperated low-lefthand storm, and Greilsammer didn’t hold back. Likewise, Froberger’s notes to the performer are to deliver the stately grace of his Tombstone suite with as much rubato as possible, and the pianist did exactly that, with a similar if vastly more subtle wallop.

That piece bridged the gap to thoughtful, purposeful, considered takes of the unfolding layers of Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor and C.P.E. Bach’s Fantasy in F Sharp Minor. The Pelz premiere made an ominously lustrous centerpiece. It was only at the end, where each coda took its turn, that the feel of dominoes falling away crept in: maybe next time, one coda would be enough, considering how decisively each of these pieces ends. Thematically, it all made sense, pulling bits and pieces of one’s life together on a long, tortuous path that finally reached a triumphant clearing.

The concert’s organizers’ url is http://www.deathofclassical.com (they’re held in a church crypt, get it?). There’s also food and wine, a very generous supply, at these shows, conceived to dovetail with the music. A firecracker 2014 Galil Mountain Viognier, from Galilee, with its sparkle on the tongue and lingering scorched-butter burn at the end, was the highlight. An impressively diverse date-night crowd seemed as content with it as they were with the music.

September 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maria Pomianowska Brings Moody Medieval Polish Themes and Instruments Into the 21st Century at Lincoln Center

Early in her set last night at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse, Maria Pomianowska held up her handmade fiddle, called a suka in her native Poland. “It doesn’t translate well,” she grinned. Since the 1990s, when she singlehandedly rescued this once-ubiquitous folk instrument from obscurity – basing her initial design on a rare depiction in an 18th century painting – it’s enjoyed a resurgence. Its rich, starkly resonant sound explains why.

Pomianowska took care to remind that her goal isn’t merely to lead a period-instrument ensemble playing ancient repertoire: she wants to take the instrument into the here and now. What stood out most in her quartet’s performance was how hard this band jams. That made sense in context: watching her stretch the limits of her alternately stately and joyous compositions, along with several medieval themes, evoked images of rolling hills, windswept fields and circles of line dancers being pushed further toward ecstasy.

Pomianowska played a five-string Biłgoraj suka – named for the city in northeastern Poland where it originated – for most of the show. With a body carved from a single block of wood, its range is similar to a viola, but with a low string that Pomianowska employed to anchor the melodies, or for a drone effect. That was bolstered on the low end by Iwona Rapacz, who switched between elegantly plucked basslines and austere washes on her four-string bass suka.

Playing the regular proto-violin suka, Aleksandra Kauf often doubled Pomianowska’s lines as well as her poignantly rustic, ambered high harmonies on the vocal numbers. Some of this was akin to Bulgarian folk music, but stripped to its brooding minor-key essentials. Percussionist Patrycja Napierała provided an often Middle Eastern-tinged groove on daf frame drum, at other times using her brushes on a similarly boomy hand drum for a spot-on impersonation of a tabla. That final ingredient proved to be one of the main keys to Pomianowska’s cross-cultural, cross-centuries style.

The group began austerely and carefully in the fourteenth century, moved forward more kinetically to the sixteenth and then took a leap into this one. While Pomianowska took the lead on the folk jams – a handful of dances and a hypnotic dirge – the rest of the band contributed subtly, and not so subtly when Kauf suddenly took one of the slower numbers warpspeed. Pomianowska’s own pieces were, predictably, the most cinematically shapeshifting, from a slowly mutating Nordic fjord tableau, to a couple of jauntily circling interludes with a Celtic-tinged flair, to a suspensefully crescendoing nocturne based on an Indian raga that proved to be the night’s most rapturous work. The group’s response to a rousing ovation was an encore that went straight to pastoral Chopin plaintiveness.

The most auspicious of all the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival shows is this Saturday night, July 29 at 8 at John Jay College’s Lynch Theatre, 524 W 59th St., where haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. $30 tix are still available.

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

Maria Pomianowska Brings Her Magically Shapeshifting Polish String Sounds to the Lincoln Center Festival

Maria Pomianowska‘s axe is the Biłgoraj suka, a medieval Polish forerunner of today’s violin, which she’s responsible for literally reconstructing and rescuing from obscurity. Leading her chamber ensemble, she’s playing her own hauntingly eclectic, classical and folk-influenced repertoire for the instrument this Tuesday, July 25 at 8 PM at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center as part of this year’s the Lincoln Center Festival. Tix are steep – $35 – but this is a rare chance to see this magical Polish artist.

Pomianowska’s’s latest album – streaming at Bandcamp – is The Voice of Suka, an aptly titled series of pastoral themes. It’s sort of a wider-angle, more panoramic take on what Vivaldi did with the Four Seasons, although there’s surprisingly less wintriness here than in the chilly coda to the Italian composer’s suite. Maybe it’s natural for a Polish composer to wish for summer, and for an Italian to crave a little frost.

Pomianowska’s  Biłgoraj suka (named for its city of origin) has a ripe resonance enhanced by the natural reverb of the room where the album was recorded. The core of her period-instrument ensemble comprises Aleksandra Kauf on vocals, Bilgoraj suka and mielec suka; Iwona Rapacz on bass suka, and Patrycja Napierała on percussion. The album’s title track, Step has a steady pulse that also proves true to its title, a deceptively simple series of echo phrases from the strings over syncopated clip-clop percussion, with a windswept Nordic flavor. Wind, a breezy, lilting, baroque-tinged dance, is grounded by long, sustained, drony bass suka lines.

Rainbow begins as a lush. graceful waltz and then Pomianowska picks up the pace; it ends cold. By contrast, Ocean has a dancing bass suka vamp holding down a deeper, darker pulse, a bouncy one-chord groove with Pomianowska’s bouncy eighth notes and rustic melismas overhead. Valley is even darker, a melancholy, starkly memorable Slavic pavane for choir and strings, Pomianowska deftly building it to a baroque swirl. She echoes that later on in River, with its stern choral arrangement.

The album’s most intense, shapeshifting track, Island, bridges the gap between Middle Eastern and Celtic modes, from a steady Nordic pulse to a brooding waltz out. Pomianowska goes in the opposite direction with Fjord. its hazy summer ambience punctuated by incisively flickering suka lines, up to a somber stroll in the same vein as her earlier valley theme. Forest is more shady and shadowy than verdant as the ensemble waltzes resolutely with uneasy Balkan tinges.

Desert, the most mysterious track here, has an enigmatically catchy, Balkan-tinged melody and variations anchored by a dark, distantly boomy Middle Eastern daf drumbeat, up to a breathtaking trick ending. It makes a good good segue, and an even better parallel, with the slowly crescendoing, epic Monsoon, slowly rising with Indian tabla rhythm and similarly uneasy modal variations. The album closers somberly with a wistful song without words, Sluzytem Ja Tobie (I Brought This to You). This music will resonate with a lot of people: fans of classical and Hardanger fiddle music and also the moody folk sounds of the Balkans and further east.

July 23, 2017 Posted by | classical music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Up-and-Coming Verona Quartet Bring a Vivid Program to MOMA Summergarden This Sunday

Among urbane hot-weather New York traditions, nothing beats a trip to MOMA Summergarden on a Sunday evening. The thematic programming that they used to have here has given way to a more eclectic series of acts. Doors open at 6 on the 54th Street side; the music starts at 8 and getting there on time is always a good idea. This Sunday, July 23, the auspicious young Verona Quartet, who got their start at Juilliard just a year ago, play US premieres by a global cast of contemporary composers: Japan’s Teizō Matsumura, Costa Rica;s Alejandro Cardona and Poland’s Elżbieta Sikora. Admission is free.

The quartet’s concert last month at WNYC’s Greene Space was a showcase for their close emotional attunement and versatility. The only questionable choice they made was the sequence of works. On one hand, it makes total sense to open with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 7 and then follow it with Ravel’s String Quartet in F, which is more physically taxing. And maybe the group didn’t want to send the crowd home on a down note – although the Ravel concludes enigmatically. Whatever the case, the program packed a wallop,

The Shostakovich is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. It’s a requiem for the composer’s first wife, who left him, then he persuaded her to come back, then she left him again for keeps. As the quartet portrayed her, she was graceful and elegant…and fatally flawed. “If only…:” Is the central theme. Violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky and cellist Warren Hagerty channeled that with a spare, poignant intensity, from its elegaic, balletesque introduction, through moody circles foreshadowing the danse macabre and eventual, sepulchral defeat that followed – and itself foreshadowed the hunted grimness of the composer’s next quartet.

Their performance of the Ravel was fueled by precise gearshifting between idioms – written on the cusp of late Romanticism and early Modernism, you can hear Cesar Franck’s calm amidst the Parisian bustle, but also Debussy’s Eureka moment when he saw the  gamelan for the first ttime.  The quartet simmered the balmy lustre in the opening movement, then made a meticulous, surgically precise run through the sharp, emphatic pizzicato of the second movement and the carnivalesquely waltzing variations that followed.

It was on the third movement that they really dug in. Ravel wrote this piece very generously – everybody gets time in the spotlight, and this is where the viola and cello get called on to lead the trail out of a revisitation of the summery first movement as it takes a turn in a far darker direction, and Rojansky and Hagerty both rose to the occasion. Likewise, Hagerty didn’t hold back as he anchored the shivery flurries and uneasy, often aching waltz of the concluding movement. The material this Sunday is completely different, but it’s fair to assume that the quartet will go just as deeply into it.

July 20, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast, Intricate, Awe-Inspiring Oceans of Sound Downtown

What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.

The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.

The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was  even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.

Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.

So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda.  Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.

It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New  York this year.

Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.

May 19, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s MATA Festival of New Music: As Challenging and Inspiring As Ever

It’s been nineteen years since Philip Glass and his circle decided to begin programming the scores that people around the world were sending him. Since then, the annual MATA Festival has grown into an annual celebration of cutting-edge, and these days, increasingly relevant new music from around the world. In recent years, they’ve found a comfortable home at the Kitchen in Chelsea, where the festival continues nightly at 8 PM through Saturday, April 29; tix are $20; To keep the momentum going, the organizers are also staging a series of shows this summer featuring new chamber music from the Islamic world, as well as intimate house concerts (take THAT, Groupmuse!).

Night one of this year’s festival began with humor and ended, ok, humorously, if your sense of humor extends to unlikely sonic snafus onstage. Festival honcho Todd Tarantino proudly announced that the pieces selected for five nights worth of music were chosen from among works by 1159 composers from 72 countries. In their North American debut, Danish indie classical ensemble Scenatet tackled a dauntingly eclectic program from seven composers and acquitted themselves with equal parts spectacular extended technique and meticulous, minimalist resonance.

Their countryman Kaj Duncan David’s Computer Music was first on the bill, performed by the octet on matching laptops, each reading from a graphic score calling for the musicians to punch in on random heartbeats, more or less. The results created a pulse of light in addition to sound, an aspect that drew inadvertent winces from the performers until they’d become accustomed to a little blast of light from the screen. As it grew from spare to more complex, it got a lot funnier: a bad cop role (or a boss role) was involved. As an electronic music parable of The Office, maybe, it made a point and got the crowd chuckling.

German composer Martin Grütter’s Messer Engel Atem Kling called for some squalling, bow-shredding extended technique from violinist Kirsten Riis-Jensen and violist Mina Luka Fred as they worked an uneasy push-pull against the stygian anchor of My Hellgren’s cello. Yet as much as the high strings pulled away from the center, the harmonies stayed firmly nailed in. Part cello metal, part Zorn string piece, it was a clever study in contradictions – a depiction of a composer struggling to break free of convention, maybe?

Murat Çolak’s electroacoustic Orchid, an astigmatic mashup of eras, idioms and atmospheres, blended grey-sky horizontality, hazily uneasy percussion and shards of brooding, acerbically chromatic Turkish classical music. What would have been even more fun is if there’d been a second ensemble for the group onstage to duel it out with instead of doing haphazardly (and cruelly difficult) polyrhythms with the laptop, clarinetist Vicky Wright front and center. In a similar vein, Japanese/Dutch composer Yu Oda’s Everybody Is Brainwashed blended a simple, cliched EDM thump with live cajon and a simple, rather cloying violin theme that more than hinted at parody.

Like the opening piece, Eric Wubbels’ mini-suite Life-Still – one of several world premieres on the bill – had an aleatoric (improvisational) element, its simple, carefully considered, resonant accents gradually building into a distantly starlit lullaby. For the final movement, string and reed players switched to bells and brought it down to a comfortable landing.

Daniel Tacke’s Musica Ricercata/Musica Poetica for viola, clarinet and vibraphone. followed a similarly starry, nocturnal trajectory, a fragmentary canon at quarterspeed or slower, inspired by the motion of voices in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Putting two such rapturously calm pieces back to back made for a quietly powerful anti-coda. A final number was derailed by technical difficulties, a rare event at this festival: watching it was like being in an iso booth in a recording session with bad headphones and wondering what everybody else was doing. 

Tonight’s show at the Kitchen continues the festival’s vast global sweep with music for piano, viola and percussion. Thursday’s lineup promises to be more lush and expansive; according to Tarantino, Friday’s looks inward, deeply. The final night, Saturday, features all sorts of unusual instruments in addition to those typically employed by chamber orchestra Novus NY. If you happen to miss these, the summer programming is something to look forward to.

April 26, 2017 Posted by | avant garde 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