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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.

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

Ear Heart Music Gets Off to a Flying Start at Roulette

A lot of musicians end up becoming impresarios, at least part-time. Violinist Gil Morgenstern’s Reflections Series is one of the most obviously successful; pianist Alexandra Joan’s eclectic Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall is also on the rise. Amelia Lukas, whose axe is the flute, started her series, Ear Heart Music, at the Tank. She’s moved it to Roulettte this year, with a formidable schedule of some of the creme de la creme of the indie classical world including Flexible Music and Cadillac Moon Ensemble. Last week’s opening party was a party in every sense of the word, with Build headlining.

Bandleader/violinist Matthew McBane is a gifted tunesmith. Much of the time he puts those hooks front and center and builds them cinematically (NPR uses the ensemble’s music a lot). Other times, he caches them in more complex architecture. This particular show higlighted both, alternating a brisk, biting early spring ambience with droll, deadpan humor. Bassist Ben Campbell and Universal Thump drummer Adam D. Gold – one of this era’s masters of dynamics – provided a deftly jaunty swing for the evening’s opening number, followed by a subtly orchestrated, slowly crescendoing piece with McBane and cellist Andrea Lee swooping against Mike Cassedy’s terse piano. McBane explained that the next composition would be more “mathematical,” and it was, with a richly snaky, intertwined counterpoint, once again rising to an insistent pulse.

McBane kicked off the next one with a wry pizzicato motif which quickly turned into a tongue-in-cheek chamber-rock parody of glitch-hop, or chillwave, or whatever the effete, trendoid flavor du jour is. From there Cassedy led them into the night’s darkest and most grpping piece, shifting from a moody, minimalist Satie-esque atmosphere to a more and more aggressively pounding crescendo where Gold backed off a little. He’d been feeling the room all night: did he think he might be playing too loud for the big auditorium? No – his kick drum was scooching across the stage. So Campbell calmly put down his bass, went over to the kit, adjusted it and then held it until the series of wallops was over. The group ended with a long, hypnotic piece that moved from warmly hypnotic to astringently atonal, All Tomorrow’s Parties as Julia Wolfe might have done it.

To open the evening, Dither Quartet guitarist James Moore played resonator alongside Redshift violinist Andie Springer for a brief series of relatively short works including a grippingly hypnotic, slowly sirening Paula Matthusen tone poem and a dancing, Appalachian-tinged Lainie Fefferman composition that eventually landed in more pensive terrain. As they played, artist Kevork Mourad drew a jagged, somewhat menacing series of tableaux that were projected behind the stage.

And it wasn’t all just music, either. There was a raffle, an afterparty, some pretty good New York State wine, and free food courtesy of a handful of boutique manufacturers of candy, syrups, jelly and pickles. The pickle people, in particular, provided a decent half-sour and some first-class, smoky pickled okra. But the stars of the show, foodwise, turned out to be best known for their music. Yarn/Wire – who’re playing here on Dec 18 – brought some homemade tomatilllo salsa that delivered an irresistibly lingering jalapeno/garlic burn. The next Ear Heart Music extravaganza at Roulette is on Oct 9 at 8 PM with Red Light Ensemble pairing off works by Satie, Cage and Grisey, among others, to accompany Melies silent films.

October 1, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

The NY Gypsy Festival Closes Summerstage With a Blast of Sound

Year after year, the NY Gypsy Festival remains one of New York’s most consistently exciting concert series. There are four shows remaining, all of them at Drom: flamenco band Espiritu Gitano on the 30th; eclectic world dance group Delhi 2 Dublin on October 1; ferocious Balkan brass with Veveritse Brass Band and Zlatne Uste on the 2nd, and the Django Reinhardt tribute on the 3rd with Stephane Wrembel and Balval. A festival pass is $32, which translates to $8 a show, or about six bucks a band. But a vastly more persuasive enticement for prospective concertgoers was put on display Sunday at Central Park, with upbeat and often deliriously fun performances by a global cast including Yuri Yunakov, Tecsoi Banda, the NY Gypsy All-Stars and Mahala Rai Banda.

Yunakov hails from Bulgaria, where he famously collaborated with the legendary Ivo Papasov. Wedding gigs there got out of hand when literally thousands of people would crash the party to see them. Running his alto sax through a glistening veneer of reverb and delay, his tone was so close to a string synthesizer at times that it was hard to differentiate between him and his two keyboardists. But when he’d light into a casually frenetic solo riddled with lightning, chromatic doublestops, there was no doubt it was him. In fact, everyone in the band made it look easy, including his sparring partner, clarinetist Salaedin Mamudoski and also his percussionist, who kept a smoothly sputtering clatter going throughout the set, adding a hypnotic edge. Chanteuse Gamze Ordule joined them as they introduced her with a tongue-in-cheek striptease theme and added a bracing, throaty insistence as she swayed and undulated out front. One of her vocal numbers bounced along on almost a reggae bassline; another was a punchy, cocek-style dance. For all the ominous, brooding minor keys and bracing chromatics, it was a party, as the growing line of dancers to the left of the stage made absolutely clear.

Tecsoi Banda had made their North American debut the night before at the Ukrainian National Home, but they hit the stage ready to party again. Like American blues musicians of the 1920s and 30s, they’re all-purpose entertainers. They’ll do a Russian Orthodox wedding, a Jewish one, it doesn’t matter: they’re sort of the ultimate Ukrainian roots band. With Joska Chernavets on accordion, Ivan Popovych on fiddle, Vassili Gudak sadly pretty much inaudible on his tsymbaly (a kanun-style hammered dulcimer), bass drum player/singer Juri Chernavets with his little plastic mouth flute that he’d occasionally squawk on like a Jamaican with a whistle at a reggae show, and American klezmer fiddler Bob Cohen sitting in and adding a brisk intensity, they ran through a mix of upbeat and more stately material. As far removed from Ireland and Appalachia as their music is, there were familiar licks and melodies that wouldn’t be out of place in an Irish reel or a bluegrass breakdown. They used a lot of dynamics, varying their tempos, going doublespeed and then back again. Their best numbers had a somber, minor-key klezmer tinge; they closed with a couple of scurrying Carpathian dances, the second one finally featuring a funny solo from the drummer’s mouth flute.

The NY Gypsy All-Stars had the most modern sound, which ironically gave them the most authenticity of any of the acts on the bill: their fusion-tinged bounce is the one you’ll find in clubs all the way around the Black Sea. Compounding the irony is that they kept it very terse: Jason Lindner’s electric piano and Pangeotis Andreou’s five-string electric bass never took it to Jaco-land. Frontman/clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski is one of this era’s giants of the instrument – check him out sometimes with the Grneta Duo +1 with Vasko Dukovski and intense pianist Alexandra Joan for his more austere, purist side. Like Yunakov, he has blistering speed, but he doesn’t make it look easy: there’s an untamed, feral side to his playing that contrasted well with guest Selim Sesler (a frequent sparring partner). Sesler may be known as the Coltrane of the clarinet but his style is closer to vintage Lee Konitz, or for that matter, Miles Davis, and he chose his spots to cut loose against Lumanovski’s barrages. The rapidfire rivulets flowing from Tamer Pinarbasi’s kanun added yet another layer of turbulence, a very good thing considering the slick sonics.

By the time the headliners, Mahala Rai Banda (which in Roma, the gypsy language, means “hot ghetto band”) hit the stage, the occasional drizzle had subsided and the arena was clearly filled to capacity, most everyone dancing. The eleven-piece Romanian brass orchestra may play traditional instruments, but their vibe is pure gypsy punk (Gogol Bordello, naturally) with a frequent ska beat and the occasional hint of reggae or hip-hop. And with all those horns, the sound is titanic: they use them the way Gogol Bordello use guitar, at full volume. Accordionist Florinel Ionita is their lead player, blasting through one supersonic, microtonal riff after another, Peter Stan style, with the pulse of the tuba and the drum skulking behind the horns’ chromatic assault. They even did a song with an oldschool disco beat – for whatever reason, the crowd decided that was the time to pelt the band with the cheap foam rubber frisbees that were being handed out (BAD idea). Another hitched an oldschool American soul feel to a dancehall reggae interlude. But the best was what they started with, three blistering, anthemic minor-key numbers that shifted tempo suddenly, hitting the crowd with a trick ending and then restarting when least expected. They ran out the clock until their last second of stage time with a long series of outros: the crowd wanted more but didn’t get them, sending this year’s Summerstage series out on a deliriously high note.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | concert, folk music, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Grneta Duo+ at Bechstein Hall, NYC 5/27/10

The concert was billed as something of a wild and crazy night, but it was as much about the strength and intelligence of the playing and the compositions as it was about raw excitement. The Grneta Duo+ dedicate themselves to preserving the dual clarinet tradition, which isn’t as uncommon as it might seem, particularly in eastern Europe. Clarinetist Vasko Dukovski won first prize at the International Woodwind Competition at Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, which in the clarinet world is sort of the equivalent of being named guitarist of the year at jambase. His fellow reedman and Juilliard pal Ismail Lumanovski is one of the world’s foremost improvisers in any style of music, perhaps most notably with the New York Gypsy All-Stars. The “+” in the group is pianist Alexandra Joan, a perfect addition with her edgy intensity, confidently wide-ranging virtuosity and also a degree of gravitas. It’s not hard to imagine her in rehearsal: “C’mon, guys, let’s get serious.” As much as this was an evening of sophisticatedly tongue-in-cheek fun, there were just as many moments of flat-out, riveting power.

The trio opened with Bartok’s Romanian Dances, a suite of fairly simple themes that gave the clarinets plenty of opportunity to playfully blend and bend their tones. Dukovski and Joan would revisit a similar suite, Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs later on, Dukovski airing out his upper register boisterously over Joan’s cantabile glimmer. The first of two world premieres, Gerald Cohen’s Grneta Variations very cleverly worked permutations of a cantorial theme (without any particular liturgical connotation, the composer explained beforehand). A recurrent fanfare with the clarinets grew with increasing degrees of disquiet, juxtaposed against a series of increasingly more comedic motifs; Joan handled her score’s tricky rhythms with a nimble aplomb worthy of Dave Brubeck.

Night at the Kafana, by Nicholas Csicsko was premiered by Lumanovski at Carnegie Hall last year. Interpolating several famous Balkan folk themes within a sometimes bracing, sometimes otherworldly architecture, it hinted at a dance, morphed into a big ballad and then a matter-of-factly nail-biting rondo that the duo of Lumanovski and Joan approached with a nonchalantly singleminded intensity.

Lumanovski then went off-program, leading Dukovski in an improvisation that awed the crowd: both clarinetists are Macedonian, so Dukovski was instantly, seemingly intuitively in on his bandmate’s sizzling, rhythmically dizzying flights, eventually moving from providing a pulse to join in the whirlwind of savage chromatic fun. The last two pieces were a study in contasts, Mohammed Fairouz’ Ughiat Mariam (another world premiere) stoically, stately and soulfully expanded on an understatedly brooding Arabic theme, while Serbian clarinetist/composer Ante Grgin’s Hameum Suite became a delightfully counterintuitive dialogue between two very distinct clarinet voices, Dukovski following Lumanovski’s most brilliantly blazing passage of the night with a suave deviousness, as if to say, “uh uh, that’s not how it’s done” and then picking up with the same lightning attack when least expected while Joan anchored the work with an unaffected plaintiveness. She’s a leading advocate of the music of George Enesco, and that influence could be felt strongly here.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and Alexandra Joan at Trinity Church, NYC 12/10/09

Cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and pianist Alexandra Joan wrapped up this year’s chamber music series here on a note that began fluidly and warmly and ended with riveting intensity, a performance that managed to be both cutting-edge and true to the spirit of the compositions, no small achievement. Throughout the hourlong concert, they displayed a remarkable chemistry, each musician clearly tuned in to the other. After a heartfelt, coloristic take of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, their keen sense of interplay became most evident on the show’s middle number, Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 69. It’s something of throwback to the baroque, a trio suite loaded with call-and-response that seems straight out of Haydn. When a boisterous pizzicato passage arrived for Thorsteinsdottir, she attacked it with a raw, percussive abandon that threatened to snap the strings on her 1790 cello. It was a lot more punk rock than early Romantic, and the fiery treble tonalities she achieved were marvelously effective. Alexandra Joan provided vivid, sustained rivulets alongside her, but there’s an undercurrent of darkness, even gravitas in her style and at the end of the allegro vivace that concludes the sonata, she let loose an insistent, impatient staccato, as if to say, bring on the night. And when the night came she made it her own.

And so did Thorsteinsdottir. Messiaenesque, defiantly neither major nor minor, unwilling to offer resolution and utterly inconsolable, Benjamin Britten’s Sonata in C, Op. 65 was bone-chilling and utterly impossible to turn away from, cello again slamming out against the darkness, particularly during the pizzicato scherzo that comprises the second movement. The duo encored with the second movement of the Janacek cello sonata, meant to evoke the occult, and it was a powerfully apt choice, maintaining the darkness but raising the energy level to the point where the crowd could exit under their own power. That’s how effective their rendition of the Britten was.  

Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir’s next New York concert is with the ACJW Ensemble on January 19 at Paul Hall at Juilliard, a Romantic bill featuring both Schumanns, Robert and Clara; one can also wish for a reunion with Alexandra Joan, playing something similar.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment