Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stormy Solo Cello Transcendence with Tamas Varga at Merkin Concert Hall

Last week at Merkin Concert Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Tamas Varga played a transcendent, majestic solo concert built around Kodaly’s Sonata for Violincello. Aaron Jay Kernis, who was in the audience, demurred that he’d never heard the piece before Varga had commissioned him and two others to write solo works to accompany the Hungarian composer’s “great masterwork,” as he called it. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s a symphony for solo cello, requiring all sorts of extended technique: harmonics, simultaneous pizzicato and bowing, and maddening metric shifts, among other things. But Varga dug in with relish. Complicating matters is that the two lowest strings are downtuned, something that the rest of the pieces on the bill shared. Varga cut loose churning rivers of low-register chords before rising to a regal theme that sounded suspiciously sardonic. Distantly Bartokian acidity and Romany-tinged flair were muted in the adagio section but burst into bracing focus in the climactic third movement, which ended cold and unresolved. Throughout the work, Varga’s pacing enhanced the suspense, through a couple of wry Beethovenesque false endings, stormy gusts, brooding lulls and finally the flames that leapt from his bow.

The new pieces were fascinating as well. Kernis’ Blues for Mr. Z was the most allusive yet most resonantly colorful of the three. The composer related that just as Kodaly had drawn on the folk music of his native Hungary, he’d decided to incorporate some austere minor-key blues, which turned out more often than not to be implied rather than explicitly evoked.

Varga opened with a meticulously altered stroll through Gregory Vajda’s Captain Hume’s Last Pavin for Violincello. Inspired by a seventeenth-century rant by British composer Tobias Hume, it built toward several possible resolutions that never arrived. Laszlo Vidovszky’s Two Paraphrases for Violincello Solo, based on two themes from the Kodaly work, built enigmatically ambered variations and ended with a shout out to the composer’s shape note system which is ubiquitous in Hungarian music education. Did Kodaly get the idea from the American shape note system, which was very popular in religious and choral music in the early 1800s? That merits further study.

Varga closed with a plaintive, calmly paced, Bach-influenced miniature written by his son, who couldn’t make it to the show…because he was in school. How many young composers have such a brilliant advocate for their work as Varga? And how many brilliant cellists have kids who can write as poignantly as Varga’s son?

This concert was part of the High Note Hungary series staged by the Hungarian Cultural Center, who have been putting on some incredible shows around town over the last couple of years. The best way to stay on top of what’s happening is to get on their email list: this one was a late addition to the calendar.

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March 18, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching Up on Recent Shows by Some Brilliant Usual Suspects

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without a tip of the hat to some of the groups who’ve received ink here before, and continue to play concerts that range from the rapt to the exhilarating. Self-conducted string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (a..k.a. ECCO) seem to have a special place for edgy, emotionally resonant music. Their previous appearance at the wildly popular Upper Westside Music Mondays series featured  Shostakovich’s Sinfonia, Op. 110 (based on the String Quartet No. 8, a requiem for victims of the Holocaust, World War II and fascism in general), along with Ginastera’s Concerto Por Corde, which rose from delicate atmospherics to a scream. Their most recent concert here opened with a matter-of-fact take on Mozart’s Divertimento for Strings in F Major, K. 138. From there they aired out the strikingly forward-looking, modern tonalities in a couple of Purcell fantasias, following with a stormy, slithery, darkly dancing, minutely detailed take of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. They took it out on a high note with a menacingly dancing, sweepingly intense, enveloping version of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, its many voices alternating murmurs within an incessent, brooding tension.

Austria’s Minetti Quartett made a couple of Manhattan stops last month, including one downtown at Trinity Church. While the obvious piece de resistance was a steady but nuanced performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major with Andreas Klein at the piano was an unexpected treat. The second movement, reputedly a requiem for Bach, doesn’t make much of a segue with the rest of the piece, but in this group’s hands it got a spacious, vividly intense workout and was arguably the higlight of the concert. It’s always refreshing to see an ensemble go as deeply into a piece of music and pull out as much raw emotion as this group did here.

Wadada Leo Smith has gotten plenty of press here, most recently for his magnum 4-cd Civil Rights era -themed opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year for 2012) and for the opening night of his three-night stand at Roulette last week. Having seen all three nights, it’s an understatement to say that this series of concerts was a major moment in New York music history. Smith took considerable pride from the visceral reaction on the part of several key players of the movement to the live debut of these works earlier this year in California, where the Mississippi-born trumpeter and composer now resides. A finalist in this year’s competition for the Pulitzer Prize in music, it’s probably safe to say after seeing this that he has an inside track. Of the other finalists, Aaron Jay Kernis has won before, and there isn’t much precedent for multiple winners, and Caroline Shaw, talented as she may be as a violinist, composer and singer, is still in her twenties. And Smith has almost a half a century on her.

Much as Smith can be playful and great fun in an improvisatory context, his compositions are rigorously thought out. He told the crowd this past Thursday night that “a lot of White-Out” went into the suspensefully sweeping, dynamically rich, spectrally influenced string quartet premiered with a knife’s-edge sensitivity by Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello. While his suite portrays considerable struggle, the triumphant moments took centerstage on the second and third night of the stand, from the eclectic, spacious. blues and gospel-charged vistas of America, Parts 1, 2 and 3 to the stalking, shatteringly explosive Martin Luther King tableau that wound it up, with alternately soaring and elegaic tributes to the Freedom Riders, Medgar Evers and the crusaders who walked for miles to their voting stations during the early Missisippi voter registration drives. “Freedom isn’t when you’ve strugged and reached here,” he pointed, chest-high. “Freedom is here,” he pointed to his heart, “Knowing that you have the power to act.” The triumph was bittersweet, and as Smith made clear, this struggle is still ongoing after all these years.

May 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Hit for Music Mondays

The most recent Music Mondays concert on the upper west side reaffirmed that the cat is out of the bag: the eclectic monthly series isn’t under the radar anymore. In January, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra drew a standing-room crowd; last Monday, the Jasper String Quartet’s performance was pretty much filled to capacity. Reason to make it to the church on time, next time. The Jaspers’ previous New York appearance was playing Georgyi Ligeti at le Poisson Rouge; this time out they wrapped Beethoven and Brahms around two stark, intense segments from Aaron Jay Kernis’ 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning String Quartet No. 2. And despite a fascinating rendition of Beethoven’s String Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3 and the unselfconsciously warm familiarity of Brahms’ String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2, it was the Kernis that stunned the crowd. The quartet have a long relationship with the composer, and that affinity translated potently.

Kernis’ liner notes offered the surprising news that his piece was inspired, if not quite directly, by J.S. Bach suites. But the only resemblance to Bach was in the architecture, and in places, in the rhythm. Kernis’ acidic, astringent, troubled tonalities, anchored by Rachel Henderson Freivogel’s cello, began atmospherically in the second movement, titled Sarabande Double, and then alternated austere stillness with frenzied, anguished crescendos. Unsurprising, considering that it’s a requiem for one of Kernis’ most avid supporters. At the end, the quartet took it down as quietly as they could and let a long pause linger; the audience waited for more, but the elegy was over.

The rest of the program wasn’t nearly as dark, but it was interesting, and when there were places to have fun, the quartet latched onto those moments. In hindsight, Beethoven’s third published string quartet is actually the first one he wrote, and if it doesn’t foreshadow the tormented glimmer of the late quartets, it’s still cutting-edge for 1800: no mere Haydn ripoff, this one! Violinist J Freivogel’s whirling glissandos over strongly assertive cello and the viola of Sam Quintal lit up the opening Allegro, contrasted by a very serious Andante, a bustling, vivid Allegro and then an offhandedly playful romp through the conversational concluding Presto, violinist Sae Chonabayashi joining in the precise, deadpan interplay. After the white-knuckle, harrowing Kernis piece, was the closing Brahms quartet anticlimactic? Not if the group wanted to send the audience home on a happy note. Henderson Freivogel, who made the most of her many opportunities to shine, grabbed onto the nifty pizzicato of the opening Allegro non troppo; the whole ensemble followed in the same vein with the bright Vivaldiesque Andante moderato, the cozily predictable rondo in the Quasi Minuetto and the ebullient, triumphant finale. To 21st century ears, it’s a frustrating piece: it’s so attractive, yet so predictable, except for the occasional cadenza or suspenseful motif that the composer threw in as if to see if everyone was paying attention. In this case, they were.

Music Mondays’ next concert at the two-congregation church at 93rd St. and Broadway, is April 18 at 7:30 PM with fascinatingly eclectic all-female German recorder quartet QNG (Quartet New Generation), who typically bring a small U-Haul truck’s worth of recorders of various sizes along with a repertoire that spans the centuries.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NYFA Collection – Best Album of 2010?

The new NYFA Collection, just out on Innova, aims to be the Rosetta Stone of cutting-edge new music in New York, a goal that may be as impossible to achieve as it is admirable to shoot for. But by any standard, this massive five-cd set is extraordinary, a genuine classic. It’s the new music equivalent of the Harry Smith albums. In over six hours of recordings, 52 composers are represented, most of them not more than once, the well-known outnumbered by those who deserve to be. Stylistically, it runs the gamut: vocal, chamber and large-scale works, the avant garde alongside the Romantic. Very impressively, the compilation does not ignore jazz – there’s a whole cd’s worth, and it’s choice. On the other hand, rock is represented only once, and maybe just as well, because the lone rock/pop song here is a dud. Nor is there a lot that falls into a non-western tradition, nor any hip-hop at all. But any perceived shortcomings are literally dwarfed by the collection’s strengths: it’s a brain-warping, provocative feast for the ears, a triumph of smart curating and reason for absolute optimism for this generation’s composers. Not everything here is genius, but a lot of it is.

The premise of the collection is new(er) works by composers who’ve been on the receiving end of NYFA music fellowships since the grants were established in 1983 (talk about taxpayer money put to good use!). CD one is has an emphasis on percussion, and various flutes feature prominently. It’s the most hypnotic, and best-suited one for sleeping or thinking about it. The second emphasizes slightly larger-scale pieces; the third is jazz, the fourth wins hands-down for scary intensity, and the fifth is mostly large ensembles. Although this is all over the map stylistically, the compilers have very cleverly juxtaposed similar works as sort of mini-suites, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to tell when one ends and another begins.

The collection opens with a playfully warped, percussive waltz by Annie Gosfield. The rest of the cd includes a gamelanesque miniature by David van Tieghem; gamelan interludes on the factory floor by Joseph Bertolozzi; a shakuhachi tone poem by Bruce Germo; ambience versus bustle assembled by Lukas Ligeti; a mystery movie in space for theremin by Jed Chadabe; and an acidically crescendoing chamber-metal piece by Iconoclast.

The highlight of cd two is a work for solo faucet by Eric John Eigner. It’s pretty amazing – who knew how many eerie textures a simple plumbing fixture could create, whether bowed like a cello, used as percussion or for the groan of the pipes as the water runs? Other points of interest here include pianist Anthony de Mare’s elegant arrangement of Meredith Monk’s Urban March; a John Morton music box piece deftly processed to mimic a gamelan; a brooding, tangoish string duo by Monteith McCollum; Daniel Goode’s Tuba Thrush, done by Flexible Orchestra with effectively jarring switches between warm Romanticism and boisterously playful noise; and a texturally ingenious version of an apprehensive Annea Lockwood piano piece played both on and inside the piano by Sarah Cahill.

Diverse jazz styles, both traditional and modern, are represented on cd three: a revolutionary suite by Fred Ho and ensemble dedicated to the survivors of the Golden Venture immigrant smuggling ship; a brief and very funny foghorn piece called Blob, by Robust Bog; a balmy yet boisterous ballad by Rudresh Mahanthappa; a brightly lyrical romp by Laura Kahle featuring Jeff “Tain” Watts, JD Allen and Yosvany Terry; a wistful, carillonesque piano work by Angela Read Thomas played by Nicola Melville; a jaggedly funky late 60s style small combo piece by Howard Prince featuring the late John Stubblefield; and a bracing New Orleans second line drum solo by Newman Taylor Baker.

CD four is a feast of ominous melodies, motifs and tonalities. Andy Tierstein conducts the Interschools String Orchestra of NY in a horror movie soundtrack for boys’ voices and strings, then Bora Yoon evinces some deliciously creepy sounds out of singing bowls in a performance recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mary Jane Leach’s Night Blossoms, performed a-cappella by Eileen Clark, Karen Goldfeder, Gregory Davidson and Jared Stamm offers distantly operatic, sarcastic menace. The highlight of the entire collection is the University of Wisconsin River Falls Concert Choir and Percussion Quartet’s sepulchrally disembodied, absolutely macabre performance of Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Pattern and Tropes for mixed chorus and percussion, a feeling echoed with slightly less intensity by the chamber choir Volti’s eerily shifting version of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditation. With a nod to David Gilmour, guitarist Joel Harrison virtuosically evokes a wrenching anguish in a duet with percussionist Paul Motian plus string quartet. There are also a couple of vivid nocturnes, a rich, chromatically charged one by Judith Sainte Croix played by Oren Fader on guitar plus Andrew Bolotowsky on flute, plus an absolutely beautiful one by Ray Leslee played by Ashley Horne on violin and Barbara Bilach on piano, a black-and-white early 30s sound movie.

The final cd reaches majestic, epic proportions. Raphael Mostel’s Night and Dawn effectively signals a bad summer day about to begin. Far more aggressive than Erik Satie, George Tsontakis’s own Gymnopedies range from bubbly, Bernard Herrmann-esque tension to Debussy-style austerity. Randall Woolf’s Romantically-tinged Franz Schubert is less homage than cleverly rhythmic, circular mood piece; Jay Anthony Gach’s concerto La Vita Autumnale offers darkly dramatic Rachmaninovian ripples and intensity, followed by Peter Golub’s aptly titled, tense Less Than a Week before Xmas featuring choir and orchestra. The collection winds up with the astringent circularity of The Gathering, from Neil Rolnick’s Extended Family suite; the uneasy atmospherics of Lisa Bielawa’s Trojan Women, and Joan Tower’s towering, magnificent Tambor, ablaze with thundering, ominously portentous percussion. There are literally dozens of other artists here who at this moment in time may be somewhat less known, but whose work is no less important or captivating. Thankfully, this collection represents them. It wouldn’t be a difficult choice for best album of 2010: check back with us in about a month and see where it ends up on our list.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, experimental music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments