Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

ACME Revisits the Holocaust, Memorably

Thursday night at the Morgan Library, in a program sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) played a wrenchingly powerful trio of requiems for victims of the Holocaust and World War II.  While there’s so much live music in this city that it’s never really safe to pick a particular concert as the year’s best, for 2013, this one was as transcendent as they get.

First on the bill was Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, Op. 18. The Polish composer had an extraordinarily prolific career as both a concert pianist and composer in the former Soviet Union, supporting himself mainly by writing scores for film and animation. He had musical roots: his mother was a pianist and his father ran Warsaw’s Jewish theatre. Both were murdered in the Holocaust. The cinematic aspect of Weinberg’s compositions is potently foreshadowed in this work, witten in 1944 when he was 25. It’s essentially a narrative about a cabaret gone horribly wrong. Its phantasmagorical menace, savage irony and gallows humor may reflect both Weinberg’s dread concerning the fate of his family, and also a contempt for the low-rent theatre types of his new digs in Tashkent, a safe if backwater haven where he ran the local opera company until the war’s end.

The piece has three main themes. Pianist Timothy Andres led the distantly macabre, title theme of sorts with a moody, nonchalant foreshadowing, setting up the series of twisted, tumbling circus interludes, the frantic horror of a couple of chase scenes and the funereal bell motif that eventually serves as its coda. In between there were twisted waltzes, a bit of a lurid stripper vamp and sarcasm in abundance, their edgy counterpoint delivered dynamically by violinists Ben Russell and Caroline Shaw, violist Nadia Sirota and cellist Clarice Jensen.

Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1992 Kronos Quartet commission, was next, quite the contrast with the savagery that preceded it. Taking its inspiration from an elegaic poem by Velimir Khlebnikov, it juxtaposes grief-stricken cumulo-nimbus ambience with a hushed, prayerful theme. Jensen probed sharply for plaintive tonalities and struck gold, Sirota bringing a similarly cello-like richness to the raw, austere passages where Gorecki spotlights the viola.

That Shostakovich’s 1944 Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 was almost an anticlimax speaks to the power of what preceded it. And this is Shostakovich at his most savage: the piece introduces a wounded klezmer melody that would reappear in his String Quartet No. 8, as well as a mincing, cowardly caricature in the warped, marionettish closing danse macabe. The composer never alluded to exactly who its target was: it could be Hitler, but it could also be Stalin. Pretty much every classical ensemble not specifically dedicated to a particular era claim to be advocates for new music, but ACME really walk the walk. That this adventurous collective would go as far back in time for this particular program is unusual; that they’d advocate so powerfully for the underrated Weinberg, and go as deeply into the rest of the program as they did is characteristic.

April 19, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ACME Unearths Rare Early 60s Sonics

Composer Joseph Byrd is best known for his work in film, and for his role as leader of pioneering chamber pop/psychedelic band the United States of America in the late 60s. But the wildly eclectic guy responsible for the CBS Evening News theme got his start in the avant garde, palling around with Yoko Ono and her minions in New York in the early part of the decade. Byrd’s quirky, hypnotically minimalist early works have recently been resurrected on a playful album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble a.k.a. ACME and released by Brooklyn’s New World Records. Wispy and skeletal as many of these pieces are, there’s also a subtle humor here. This was music made for and quite possibly by people who were smoking pot and laughing a lot: it was the 60s, after all.

The first tracks have a deadpan, winking mechanical feel, a clockwork arrythmia. Clarice Jensen’s hypnotic cello bassline blends with the distant piledriver of Timothy Andres‘ prepared piano, the coy accents of Caleb Burhans‘ and Caroline Shaw’s violins and Nadia Sirota’s viola, with an unexpectedly agitated pots-and-pans interlude from Chihiro Shibayama’s marimba and Chris Thompson’s vibraphone, both instruments muted for a strangely muffled effect.

Loops and Sequences mirrors what Luciano Berio was doing around the same time, a study in negative space. A tantalizing hint of melody bobs to the suface in a couple of piano miniatures, followed by a long-tone piece with the viola at its peaceful center, interrupted by the occasional wry blip, evocative of the later work of Eleanor Hovda (subject of an often rapturously still retrospective from Innova that came out a couple of years ago, the enhanced cd’s including both scores and exhaustive liner notes).

Byrd’s String Trio employs keening overtones and spaciously swooping, doppler-like motifs. The most captivating piece here, Water Music, sets percussionist Alan Zimmerman’s  gamelanesque phrases and cymbal ambience over a low tape drone, gradually building to an unexpectedly uneasy nebulosity.

As often happens with oddities from the 60s, there’s some bizarro randomness here as well: a dadaist spoken-word collage and a party joke involving the slow deflation of rubber balloons which made its dubious debut at one of Yoko’s loft extravaganzas and was assuredly never meant to be repeated: one suspects that the original cast didn’t tone down the flatulence as the ensemble does here. Who is the audience for this? Beyond fans of vintage esoterica, anyone with a taste for quiet, calming sounds. This album has become a favorite at naptime here at Lucid Culture HQ – to put that in context, other albums that work well in that capacity are Brooklyn Rider’s set of Philip Glass quartets, a bootleg concert recording of Renaissance choir Stile Antico, and the recent BassX3 album for two basses and bass clarinet.

March 2, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment