Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pianist Alexandra Joan Brings Her Imagination and Intuition to a Solo Show at Bargemusic

On one hand, it’s risky to call a classical pianist an individualist. In some circles, that might imply that the artist takes liberties which could range from debatable, to suspect, to completely unwanted. On the other hand, pianist Alexandra Joan has such fearsome technique that she’s able to interpret whatever emotion she can evince from the material in front of her. And when that’s unexpected, as it often is, it’s a revelation. Classical musicians are expected from their earliest days at conservatory to be all things to all people and all music, and Joan’s performances in the recent past have reflected those demands. With that in mind, there’s no question that she likes the Romantics, yet she’s also a great advocate for new music and especially the protean and colorful Mohammed Fairouz. And she likes a challenge, which is exactly what she’ll tackle this Friday, December 11 at 8 PM at Bargemusic where she’ll contend with a program including works by Bach, Arvo Part, Elliott Carter, Kaija Saariaho and Schumann’s famously difficult Etudes Symphoniques. Cover is $35/$30 srs/$15 stud., and early arrival is advised; Joan is popular.

Her most recent solo album is titled Dances and Songs. Interestingly, the most striking piece on it isn’t the physically taxing Liszt works, or the richly enigmatic Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; it’s Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor. She plays it as if she was playing a harpsichord, giving full weight to the ornamentation and grace notes, proportionate to the rest of the score rather than lettting them just flit off the page. It’s a neat trick, and one that requires vastly more lightness of touch and completely different technique than if she was playing an actual harpsichord. And then, she finds the one part of the suite where she can make the greatest contrast with what, up to then, has been just short of lickety-split, and the effect is explosive. At that point, she hits a dirge tempo, so slow that it seems that the rhythm has fallen conpletely out. Essentially, she looked for the one place where she could wring every ounce of contrast (and raw, unvarnished angst) out of it, and pulled it off.

The album opens with a precise, emphatic take of Valse-Caprice No. 6 from Liszt’s Soirees de Vienne; she’ll return to waltzing Liszt at the end of the program to bring the album full circle. As the Ravel picks up steam from a stately tempo, Joan lets the distant gleam shine through, seemingly allowing the cascades to tumble from her hands rather than evoking a climb in one direction or another. It seems effortless even though it’s not.

After the intensity of the Bach, Liszt’s take of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman offers a dynamically shifting emotional respite. However, Joan’s muted approach at the end sets up another far more moody performance, Lizst’s arrangement of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger. Such segues are typical in her repertoire: she can’t resist making a connection where she can find one. The album isn’t up at any of the usual streaming spots, although Joan’s performances are well represented on youtube and at Instantencore.

Advertisements

December 7, 2015 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan Sings Through Her Fingers at Bargemusic

“Just about every piece of music that we can play is a song,” pianist Alexandra Joan nonchalantly told the audience at her luminous performance Thursday night at Bargemusic. That pretty much explains everything you need to know about her. Matter-of-factly and meticulously, she built a dynamically rich program with lyrical, cantabile, highly individualistic interpretations of a diverse program. from Bach to early Modernism, most of the works taken from her new album Dances and Songs.

She explained to the crowd that while not everything on the album is a dance per se, the material on it shares a kinetic character. She began the evening with a suite of Chopin mazurkas that aren’t on the album, but they turned out to make an apt opening salvo, Joan giving the audience a sort of guided tour via ample but judicious amounts of rubato, as if to say, “Watch this, here comes a really good one!”

Her take of Bach’s English Suite in G Minor, BWV 808 was especially gripping, not only because it’s an interesting piece of music, but because of how she accented the work’s rigorous and challenging ornamentation, awash in grace notes and trills. That made Bach’s tight rhythm all the more of a suspenseful contrast – and the plaintiveness of the second movement all the more affecting. Likewise, the high point of the night was Liszt’s solo piano arrangement from Schubert’s Der Doppelganger, vividly giving voice to a guy who can’t figure out if he’s himself or someone else and is completely lost as a result.

The program lightened from there, but just a little, with an edgy, acerbic run through Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, drawing a straight line back to the Schubert suite that inspired them even if the tonalities were from a completely different idiom (and radical enough in Ravel’s day to get him slammed by the critics). Joan ended the night on a celebratory note with the “champagne bubbles” of a couple of lighthearted if cruelly challenging Liszt pieces, the Valse Impromptu and then his whirling arrangement of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Which in turn made her careful, plaintive Debussy encore all the more astringently gripping. Joan is also an impresario, so the idea of going from Bach to Romantic to Modern and linking it all together is less unlikely (and less ostentatious) for her than it would be for a lot of other pianists. She’s appearing next with the fantastic Grneta Ensemble performing Gerald Cohen’s Sea of Reeds at le Poisson Rouge on Nov 11 at 6 PM; advance tix are $15 and very highly recommended.

October 25, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan Tackles Mohammed Fairouz and Wins

“When Alexandra told me she was going to do a homage to me, it weirded me oout,” Mohammed Fairouz told the crowd at Friday’s opening installment of pianist Alexandra Joan’s reliably eclectic Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall. That made sense, considering that previously featured composers included Brahms and Liszt. But Fairouz is one of this era’s most important, and astonishingly eclectic composers. That, and the fact that Joan probably just wanted a chance to play a lot of his music, which can be cruelly challenging, but is also great fun. This particular program featured a series of miniatures, songs and two towering piano sonatas.

Informed by a deep historical awareness, frequently imbued with edgy, dark humor, Fairouz’s music is unusually representational: seldom if ever has he written anything particularly abstract. So it was no surprise that this program featured poetry, from Keats and Wordsworth and also Wayne Koestenbaum, who served as narrator in between instrumentals, and two suites of songs delivered by Philip Stoddard. The baritone projects an ambered, cello-like resonance that he wields with great nuance: he is the antithesis of a cookie-cutter singer . At the end of a triumphantly anthemic, practically art-rock setting of Yeats’ The Stolen Child, he let the lyric trail off almost to silence, letting its ominous aspect linger. A little later on, he rose to the challenge of a series of more avant garde treatments of Koestenbaum poems and somehow managed to imbue the melodies’ knotty leaps and bounds with an actual singing quality. Throughout the songs, he worked the lyrics to match the mood, whether hushed and nocturnal, or wry and playful.

Joan opened the program with ten direrse, alternately intense and coyly romping miniatures A trio of menacingly chromatic, Satie-esque themes; a vividly wave-borne homage to Bargemusic, the Brooklyn chamber music haven; a jaunty tribute to Liberace; a sublimely ridiculous lefthand study in obviousness, and a wickedly incisive, Rachmaninovian prelude were some of the highlights.

She also played Fairouz’s Piano Sonata No. 1, Reflections on Exile, and Piano Sonata No. 2, The Last Resistance. The former is an ambitious triptych including an allusively elegiac homage to Fairouz’s mentor Edward Said – a talented pianist in his own right – along with a brooding, acid-washed interlude, Between Worlds, and a boisterous homage to Michael Gandolfi. The latter was a genuine showstopper and one of the most thoroughly enjoyable pieces of music to come out of anywhere in the past year. It’s a reflection on the Bush regime’s reign of terror in the wake of 9/11. “Dick Cheney was real – that actually happemed,” Fairouz took care to remind the crowd beforehand. Joan hit the chromatically-fueled opening theme with equal parts plaintiveness and fire, and then then brought out every bit of exasperation with a series of insistent F acccents (guess what that stands for) over ironic boogie-woogie, and then a savage caricature of Donald Rumsfeld which brought to mind Shostakovich’s portrait of Stalin in the Symphony No. 9. After the levity and diversity of the earlier part of the program, the stark minimalism of Freud Goes to Abu Graib and the rippling, alternately triumphant and apprehensive finale sent the crowd out on an exhilarating yet chilling note. Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series continues at WMP on Nov 2 at 7:30 PM in a duo performance with violinist Virgil Boutellis, featuring music of Brahms, Schumann and Paganini.

October 1, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lisztmania Finally Starts to Make Sense

“All hands can play Liszt,” emcee David Dubal asserted in front of what appeared to be a full house Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall, introducing this season’s debut of pianist/impresario Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series.

“Yeah, right,” a fellow pianist in the crowd murmured to his friend. That opinion is widely held, often fueled by frustration at being unable to master the composer’s work, but also by the perception that Liszt’s notoriously challenging compositions are ostentatiously shallow. This year being the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, the Liszt tributes and retrospectives have been endless, and underwhelming. Which made this particular program such an eye-opener. Pianist Eric Clark also deserves credit for offering a revealing look at a different side of the composer a couple months ago; Joan’s take on Liszt was even more enlightening, especially since she played a handful of obscure pieces associated with the composer. Dubal may have had something to do with this, having been her teacher at Juilliard.

And he offered fresh insight into the program, providing a broader historical context as well as the history of the pieces themselves: Dubal is a big-picture guy, and a fearlessly unreconstructed Lisztian. The Valse-Impromptu that Joan opened with, he said, was a prototype for parlor music of its era. And it sounded like that, generically lively: it hasn’t aged well. But Joan has an ear for depth and a flair for the unconventional, so the choice of Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Fruhlingslaube was characteristically striking, a slowly expansive, meticulously paced pastorale. The Funerailles from Liszt’s Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, which followed, was a quiet, mournful knockout. Dubal reminded that this was a requiem for the freedom fighters who unsuccessfully fought in the Hungarian uprising of 1849. Restrained almost to the point of minimalism in places, fueled by a stark series of low lefthand riffs, it’s Chopinesque to a fault, rarely played, and Joan let it linger, powerfully: quiet as it is, it was the high point of the night. By contrast, she hit the Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor – which she segued into artfully – with a hard-hitting scamper.

Dubal nailed it when he said that Schubert’s Der Doppelganger was “literally schizophrenic” – Joan played up its spacious, mysterious aspects. And she gave Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor a precision that managed to be biting without losing sight of its warm cantabile resonance, another quality that doesn’t exactly spring to mind when thinking of Liszt. The Valse-Caprice No. 2 after Schubert’s Soirees de Vienne was warm and bright, if not much more than simply a testament to Liszt’s loyalty as an advocate of Schubert at a time when that wasn’t exactly cool.

The final composition was the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, “one of those crazy pieces,” as Joan alluded afterward, where any hope for any kind of interpretive insight bit the dust. Liszt’s arrangement is so elaborately showy that the opportunity to imbue it with soul, or poignancy – Joan’s signature traits – falls by the wayside. To simply get through it and get the notes all right is an achievement in itself. And that she did, an athletic feat made all the more impressive considering that the heavy action of the Bosendorfer she was playing probably would have given Art Tatum a workout. The result, predictably, was a series of standing ovations, ironic to the extreme considering the earlier part of the program was a far more noteworthy achievement. Should every pianist have some Liszt in his or her fingers, as Dubal suggested? A bit of the lesser-known Liszt, that Joan showcased so admirably here, couldn’t hurt.

And not only is Dubal a savvy historian, he’s also a painter, a very eclectic one. Adorning the walls here were a striking, El Greco-ish blue-green cathedral; a series of playful, glittery, Kandinsky-esque abstracts; an invitingly nebulous, colorful city tableau that could have been Paris’ Right Bank from the Pont Neuf; a couple of bucolic outdoors scenes with pre-medieval Asian tinges; an aggressively striking black-and-white work that could be a homage to Jackson Pollock; and even a handful of playful, simple drawings with a coy Keith Haring sensibility. Clearly, Dubal has watched as broadly and as deeply as he’s listened.

December 17, 2011 Posted by | Art, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan Stuns and Surprises at WMP Concert Hall

There are innumerable cookie-cutter classical pianists out there. They do as their teachers tell them and play it safe. Most of the time, they succeed with what’s put before them, since the composers they play knew how to enable just about anyone with sufficient chops to get the job done, more or less. Then at the other extreme there are players who say, “To hell with dynamics, this is MY interpretation, my way or the highway!” Alexandra Joan is neither, and she doesn’t fit the middle ground either. What she does is distinctive, and stunningly intuitive, as her solo program Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall so vividly reaffirmed. Joan is not only a musician, she’s also a scenemaker. Her ongoing Kaleidoscope Series – this season’s final concert is June 1 – brings together music, and sometimes art, and people, a diverse mix much younger than the typical Lincoln Center crowd. If this is one of classical music’s many possible futures, it’s something to look forward to.

This program’s theme was music by French composers, “Unconventional ways to feel or convey French culture,” Joan explained (she’s Romanian-French; she lives here). Focusing on the auspicious moment where Romanticism was busting out of its cocoon into Modernism, she opened with Faure’s Theme and Variations in C Sharp Minor, Op. 73. It’s a lot harder to play than it sounds, especially as the rather poignant, cantabile theme expands. Joan let its glittering moodiness speak for itself: the theme itself draws a straight line all the way back to Haydn, and she let that history resound, particularly throughout the expansive passage of high/low contrasts about three-quarters of the way in.

Enesco’s Sonata in F Sharp Minor, Op. 24, No. 1 was a showstopper, and an eye-opener. Joan is a leading advocate for the late Romantic composer who shares her heritage, “A visionary,” as she put it. Playing from memory, she took on its tense astringencies and restless unwillingness to resolve as if they were her own. In the repetitive, bruised pulse of the lefthand attack in the opening allegro, the twisted, staccato dance that builds to a galloping intensity in the second, presto movement and the walk through Monet’s back garden in the final andante, she gave it an otherworldly gravitas worthy of Debussy. The crowd was stunned.

The waves of intensity, if not the intellectual rigor, lifted for a minute with a handful of miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, who was in attendance. Still relatively young (he’s in his twenties) and amazingly prolific, Fairouz is a wide-ranging thinker with several considerably powerful, unselfconsciously deep works to his credit – and he can also be very funny. Joan assembled a set that was both amusing and captivating: an attempt to make an etude interesting, in a very successful, Schumann-esque way; a challenge to write a piece containing no dissonances (it was mostly arpeggios); a joke that began way up the scale and ended way down; an austere twelve-tone piece and a brief, vividly autumnal requiem.

She closed the concert with Ravel’s rippling Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, written as a homage to Schubert, explaining that the wit and diversity of these pieces would make a good segue with Fairouz, and she was right. The suite is emotionally diverse, from balminess to poignancy to turbulence, with a comfortable sense of resolution missing from the rest of the program, a rather triumphant way to wrap up the concert. The audience wouldn’t let her go without an encore, so she treated them to a sparkling, bustling excerpt from Ravel’s Ondine.

Also worth a mention is Raphael Haik’s witty, pun-laden photo exhibit held in tandem with the concert. Toddlers in a fierce wrestle portrayed as “speed dating;” an airhead Eiffel Tower; park chairs arranged in several clever configurations, and an enigmatically bemused traveler who just missed his commuter train  delivered quietly provocative questions and plenty of laughs.

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series concludes its 2011 spring season at WMP Concert Hall, 31 W 28th St. on June 1 at 7:30 PM with a diverse program that includes both original works and improvisations, featuring jazz guitar virtuoso Peter Mazza, saxophonist Timothy Hayward and bassist Thomson Kneeland.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series: Fearless Otherworldly Beauty

Just as the most exciting things in rock music are happening in the small clubs rather than in stadiums, the most exciting classical and chamber music these days typically happens off the beaten path. On and off, over the past several months, we’ve been peering into some of these dark but fertile corners: pianist Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall in Murray Hill may the most exciting of them all. Wednesday night she and her cohorts – cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and violinist Erno Kallai – tackled a program that was as diverse as it was individualistic, and frequently exhilarating. “Thank you for not watching American Idol,” Joan laughed.

First up was Brahms’ Trio in A Minor (Op. 114). Dating from 1891, it’s one of his final works. With its characteristic melodic beauty and alternating wary/warm passages, it follows a straight line back to Beethoven. There’s also some Brahms thinking outside the box, the gypsy passage at the beginning of the concluding allegro section being the most notable. This may be overly reductionistic to say, but essentially it’s a piece with assigned roles: the clarinet pensive, the cello mournful and the piano providing the energy and lighter contrasts. Joan, Thorsteinsdottir and Dukovski took those roles and gave them flair and personality.

For anyone who might have found that piece too predictable in its unselfconscious, pensive beauty, Bartok’s Contrasts, from 1938, was a feral, snidely joyous, jazzy treat. As Joan and Dukovski explained beforehand (they do that a lot, with a genuine passion for the music, which helps more than any pedantic program notes ever could), it was commissioned by Benny Goodman as a way to get Bartok an American visa just as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was looming. The concept was to get the composer to deliver something sufficiently short to release as a 78 RPM single: for whatever reason, Bartok didn’t exactly comply. What he did was shoot a savagely gleeful spitball right in Der Fuehrer’s face. Joan has a vividly acute emotional intelligence, and she went on the assault from the beginning behind Kallai’s slashing incisions while Dukovski got to demonstrate the “mellow tone” mentioned in his bio (he’s actually an electrifying player, as he would remind a bit later on). Warped Romanticism made way for lurid ragtime, a feast of creepy atmospherics and a conclusion delivered with the glee of an escapee from certain death. Kallai put down his Strad and picked up the house Guarneri for that one since the violin part is out of tune: the vicious humor in his tritone-packed solo was viscerally delicious.

The quartet then took on the formidable challenge of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written in a Nazi prison camp for piano, clarinet, violin and cello because those were the instruments that the musicians captured with Messiaen happened to play, it was premiered there on the same day that the clarinetist made a failed escape attempt yet sufficiently charmed his captors with his playing, Dukovski related, so that he escaped what would otherwise have been a summary execution. To say that it is harrowing is an extreme understatement. As with so much of Messiaen, its movements correspond to Catholic liturgy: beforehand, Joan encouraged the audience to experience it for its universality. Which makes perfect sense: Messiaen may well have written it primarily as an illustration of the coming of a heavenly eternity, but its subtext screams out defiantly, an anthem for escape from and victory over the Nazis.

Which is where interpretations of Messiaen differ: where some hear otherworldliness and mysticism, others hear the macabre. Clearly, Messiaen found the prospect of heavenly rest nearly as daunting as being murdered by the Nazis, and horror is everywhere in this piece, from the ominous early-morning exchange of birdcalls that open it, to the stunned, jagged, wounded cadenzas that punctuate the tense stillness, to the seemingly endless, almost horizontal clarinet solo that may be its most riveting point. Dukovski pulled that off without a hitch: with its endless sostenuto wash, it requires an almost interminable sequence of circular breathing, and is extraordinarily difficult to play as a seamless whole, but that’s exactly what Dukovski turned it into. Like her collaborators, Thorsteinsdottir is a fearless player who will rise to any intensity required, and she dug in with a mighty vibrato. A final cry for rescue was followed by still, judicious piano that signaled an eventual if hardly unscathed victory over the demons. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the musicians clearly felt the music as overwhelming, intense and cathartic as the crowd did. Alexandra Joan’s next Kaleidoscope Series concert at WMP Concert Hall (31 E 28th St. between Madison and Park Avenues) is on April 27, a characteristically intriguing program featuring piano works by Enesco, Ravel and Mohammed Fairouz.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment