Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

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May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Powerful, Provocative and Playful Performances at the Opening of the New St. Ann’s Warehouse

If you could perform a Yoko Ono world premiere with the Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? That’s what the audience at the grand opening of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo did Saturday night…literally. It was a playful Pauline Oliveros-style improv: everybody got to be rain, and snow, and a momentary thunderstorm. It wasn’t on the bill: from the looks of it, those of us who knew about it beforehand kept that information to ourselves.

The rest of the program embraced the cutting-edge, the profound and the warmly familliar. Choir leader Dianne Berkun-Menaker guided a beefed-up take of Americana band the Wailin’ Jennys‘ One Voice, plus an easygoing audience singalong of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House. Accompanied by vibraphonist David Cossin, the chorus opened the show with Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s Bubbles, a deliciously entertaining suite juxtaposing droll water noises with achingly lush, neoromantic atmospherics. The composer smartly chose to end on a humorous note: even the most serious-minded performer would have had a hard time getting through this one without collapsing in laughter. Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps, reprised from the chorus’ earlier performance this month at National Sawdust, maintained the kinetic pulse with its dynamic shifts, quirky accents and challenging polyrhythms, all seamlessly performed.

The most cutting-edge moment of the program was when the groups were joined by pioneering Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, who reinvent Bulgaian and Macedonian folk themes, sometimes cutting largescale choral works to their stark roots, sometimes creating 21st century arrangements of ancient folk tunes. The chorus seemed turbocharged for this one, poised to provide waves of dark earthtone color, elegantly slow glissandos and plainchant-like precision behind the microtonally-spiced, eerie close harmonies of Willa Roberts, Shelley Thomas and Sarah Small. The piece itself, titled Around the Forest, A Youth Roams; The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, was composed by Small – whose repertoire extends to art-song, largescale ensemble works and tableaux vivants – in collaboration with Brooklyn Balkan icon and theatrical composer Rima Fand.

The most relevant pieces on the bill were both world premieres, Sahba Aminikia‘s Sound, Only Sound Remains, and Mary Kouyoumdjian‘s Become Who I Am. The former gave the quartet a stern and austerely waltzing arrangement, delivered with precision against multitracks of women singers in Iran along with a digitized copy of a hundred-year-old 78 RPM folk recording. In Iran, it’s illegal for a woman to sing unaccompanied by men; this expression of global solidarity spoke volumes. Likewise, the latter of the premieres incorporated a litany of increasingly cutting, sardonic spoken-word snippets from members of the chorus into its carefully crescendoing, plaintive sweep, contemplating ongoing challenges facing women inside and outside of music. Bottom line: the glass ceiling might have a few cracks, but it’s still there. And if you thought the pressure to conform – especially for girls – was bad when you were a kid, it’s brutal now.

About the new space: it’s gorgeous. Tiered seating offers clear sightlines, and the sonics are pristine. While you can hear a pin drop when it’s quiet, it’s not a completely dry space like Avery Fisher Hall. And the hot chocolate at the food stand out front was getting the thumbs-up from the chocoholics in the crowd.

October 18, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eclecticism Par Excellence at the Bulgarian Consulate

It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without mentioning the fascinatingly eclectic and intuitive performance that violinist Miroslav Hristov and pianist Vladimir Valjarevic put on at the Bulgarian Consulate this past Wednesday. Conceptually, the program featured composers from the Balkans and adjoining areas, from Italy all the way to Turkey, spanning from the Romantic to the 21st century. The musicians opened with the Petite Suite No. 2 for Violin and Piano by Nikos Skalkottas, shifting from lively astringencies to a quaint, wormwood-tinged surrealism, Hristov’s bracingly, vivid, occasionally searing sostenuto contrasting with Valjarevic’s matter-of-factness, casually swaying rhythm in almost ironic juxtaposition with the melodies’ bright harshness. Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Tre Canti for Violin and Piano took a casually strolling detour into neoromanticism, ending with a big cinematic theme.

Fazil Say’s Sonata for Violin and Piano was next. Part one, Melancholy, is a requiem, the plaintiveness of the violin veering into and back again from outright anguish as Valjarevic anchored it with an only slightly less apprehensive insistence. Part two, Grotesque came across as more of a parody of moody Romantic tropes including a macabre marionette’s dance with some jagged, grisly overtones from Hristov. About midway through, the duo left any thought of parody behind and went straight for the jugular. It was the night’s big, awestruck moment. The next work, Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Il Canto nell’ Infinito, reached for a more muted, dynamically-charged mysticism, followed by the pensive ballad Il Canto della Lontananza.

After a scampering take on Nino Rota’s Improvisso in D Minor for Violin and Piano, “Un Diavolo Sentimental” that managed to be jovial without losing sight of devilishness, Hristov and switched the mood radically for the richly hypnotic, glacially shifting, Messiaenesque tectonics of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Eastern Chapel Meditation. As an evocation of the stillness and mystical ambience of a chapel hidden at the back of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, it hit the mark – except for the electronic backing track, which mingled what may have been plainchant with swooshy atmospherics. But rather than enhancing the mood, it was a distraction, not unlike the crowds of tourists who’d rather yak at each other and eat crunchy snacks as they wander through the church, snapping random photos with their phones. The closing number was George Enescu’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, Op. 3, bristling with smoldering gypsy melodies, a brooding nocturnal gleam and a coda that gave both piano and violin a chance to spread their wings and go out on a biting, acerbically charged note.

It’s surprising that the most-monthly concert series here hasn’t outgrown the quaint, old-world second-floor space here. Which isn’t to say that the ambience is anything but enjoyable:  these concerts simply deserve to be far better known than they are. The next one is on May 9 at 7:30 PM with the winner (TBD) of their “Music and Earth Competition.”

April 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ana Milosavljevic’s New Reflections Album: Into a Pool Darkly

Serbian-American violinist/composer Ana Milosavljevic’s new album Reflections is a fascinating, austerely gripping collection of recent works by women composers, most of them of Eastern European origin. The strongest piece here is her own Reflections, a brooding, Satie-esque prelude of sorts featuring the matter-of-fact piano of Terezija Cukrov. It’s meant to be bittersweet, which it unquestionably is: as the melody shifts ever so subtly, it’s an unaffectedly wrenching chronicle of struggle that leaves some possibility for redemption at the end, on the horizon: hope doesn’t get any closer than that. The Spell III, by Aleksandra Vrebalov illustrates a folk tale about a fairy losing her powers after falling in love with a human. It’s a still, mostly horizontal piece, a handful of swooping violin accents eventually taking centerstage against the ebb and flow of the atmospherics with just a hint of disquiet. A tone poem, White City by Katarina Miljkovic portrays Belgrade as it wakes and starts to bustle with activity, briefly echoing phrases moving through the frame against a hypnotic, somewhat astringently droning ambience.

Meant to evoke a threatening, possibly apocalyptic milieu, Undertow, by Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy has the feel of a horror film score, rumbling low-register piano alternating with eerily sailing violin up to an ominously sustained interlude, the violin emerging wounded and limping. Milosavljevic’s own Untitled is a Balkan-tinged dance performance piece, austerely graceful motifs amid stillness or silence. Eve Beglarian’s Wolf Chaser, a heavily processed electroacoustic number, oscillates interminably until finally a catchy violin loop emerges about nine minutes into it. The album concludes with Svjetlana Bukvich-Nichols’ Before and After the Tekke, a memorably gypsyish mini-suite that evokes the hypnotic swirl of trip-hop string band Copal as well as Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score. It’s a valuable and compelling look at several composers who deserve to be better known than they are – one can only imagine how many others there are out there who deserve the kind of inspired performance that Milosavljevic offers here.

December 23, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ana Milosavljevic Plays a Compelling, Intense Program at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center, Serbian-American violinist Ana Milosavljevic treated what looked like a sold-out room to a performance that was as intense as it was subtle. Playing both solo and duet pieces, she showed off a meticulously expert command of the instrument’s intricacies, which made the drama of her occasional cadenzas or rapidfire solo flights all the more effective. She’d chosen a terrific program of recent works by composers from home or close to it, opening with Katarina Miljkovic’s 2008 piece White City, a portrait of a rather horizontal Belgrade. Playing along to a soundtrack of found sounds from the streets there along with loops of motifs she’d just played, she made it an early morning tableau. A playful, kaleidoscopic video played behind her: facades of buildings and public spaces were warped into a wraparound shape to appear as faces, one amusingly crossing its eyes again and again (was that city hall, maybe?). Milosavljevic’s astringent overtones mingled deftly with the atmospherics as the still, ambient tone poem unwound, a display of subtle dynamics and timbre shifts punctuated by terse phrases that moved hypnotically and dubwise through the sonic frame.

Like the first piece, it became hard to tell what was live or looped on the next one, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s The Spell II, and maybe that was the point. Based on an Eastern Serbian melody made famous by the female vocal group Moba, it was music to get lost in, playful swoops and acerbic staccato phrases in a sort of call-and-response with the playback of motifs that had appeared earlier, a seemingly endless series of minimalist permutations that managed to be both incisive and hypnotic. The showstopper was Milosavljevic’s own song without words, the title track to her new Innova cd Reflections, a duet with pianist Kathleen Supové. Milosavljevic explained beforehand that it’s an evocation of “sadness and hope all at once.” Together, the violinist and pianist gave its stunningly memorable, brooding Satie-esque changes an understatedly raw lyricism, depicting an incessant cycle of pain and disappointment while trying not to lose sight of something slightly brighter. It was absolutely devastating, finally rising to an approximation of a crescendo the third time through the verse but ending enigmatically. If there’s any justice in the world, someday it will be as well known as the Chopin preludes, whose intensity and emotional wallop it matches.

Milosavljevic returned to electroacoustic mode with the program’s final work, Svjetlana Bukvich-Nichols’ Before and After the Tekke, a slightly more vigorous piece that once again paired fluidly airy, steely motifs against a backing track including pulsing bass, breathing, running water and eventually a compellingly anthemic crescendo played by a small ensemble or approximation thereof. Watching Milosavljevic pair off against all of this was interesting; watching her alongside all of this live would have been vastly more so. Although it can be a disaster onstage, running water can also be great fun to work with!

November 11, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment