Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And she picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

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March 8, 2018 Posted by | folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alicia Svigals and Marilyn Lerner Steal the Show at Lincoln Center

Last night violinist/composer Alicia Svigals debuted her new score to the 1918 German silent film The Yellow Ticket to a sold-out house at Lincoln Center,  accompanying a screening in tandem with jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner. The movie isn’t much. A screwball tragi-comedy starring nineteen-year-old future Hollywood siren Pola Negri, it casts Polish Jews as the unlikely protagonists in a family drama concerning a question of parentage. The pro-Jewish angle was undoubtedly less of a decisively progressive move than an excuse to paint the WWI enemy Russians as cruel and discriminatory (which they were, actually). The film, newly restored, has historical value for including rare footage of Warsaw’s Jewish district – and little else. But Svigals’ score is exquisite.

In practically an hour of music, the former Klezmatic and Itzhak Perlman collaborator  blended somber klezmer themes with vivid, plaintive neoromantic melodies that echoed Tschaikovsky and Ravel, particularly in one of the soundtrack’s most chilling passages, piano joining the violin in adding ominous close harmonies to a variation on the steady, pensive, minor-key title theme. The score’s dynamics turned out to be pretty straightforward, other than a brief, furtive suspense interlude and a couple of shivery, overtone-generating solo violin cadenzas that only hinted at the raw firepower that Svigals can generate in concert.

Svigals’ themes unfolded and shifted shape cleverly and memorably. A moody, apprehensive hora early on, introduced during a broad sequence where Negri’s character fends off a would-be suitor, romped back in later as a joyous freilach. The soaring blue-sky interlude illustrating Negri’s train passage to what would ostensibly be a new life as a student in St. Petersburg turned ominous and chilling in a split second, to match a jump cut. Lerner’s understatedly haunting, resonant block chords and elegant arpeggios made a poignant and intuitive backdrop for Svigals’ highly ornamented phrasing, sometimes tense and nuanced, occasionally channeling fullscale horror. Svigals has a forthcoming album of Osvaldo Golijov works recorded with clarinet powerhouse David Krakauer due out this year; this deserves to be immortalized every bit as much.

Svigals and Lerner will be touring the score along with the film, with screenings and live performances on February 17 in Vancouver, March 3 in Miami and April 29 in Boston, among others.

January 11, 2013 Posted by | concert, Film, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 9/9/10

Happy 5771 everybody! Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #873:

The Klezmatics – Possessed

The most celebrated if not exactly the first of the klezmer revival bands, the Klezmatics brought a gentle but firm punk rock sensibility to ancient Jewish songs that frequently got them in hot water in more conservative circles but won them a wide following outside the klezmer shtetl. This 1997 album is their darkest, a mix of gypsy-inflected dances, jazzy improvisation and a long suite which served as the score to the popular Tony Kushner drama, The Dybbuk, based on the famous ghost story of the same name. There’s a mournful forebearance to most of this, although the group raise the ante when least expected, particularly on a rousing, klezmer-jamband ode to marijuana: every day is Shabbos when you’re stoned. The individual Klezmatics: reed player Matt Darriau, drummer David Licht, star trumpeter Frank London, bassist Paul Morrisett, frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and fiery violinist Alicia Svigals all went on to do great things as solo artists and sidemen/women after the band broke up; they recently reunited, with a Brooklyn show coming up on 9/19 at Galapagos. This album was reissued in 2005 as a twofer with their far more upbeat debut Jews with Horns. Here’s a random torrent.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | folk music, lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Alicia Svigals’ Klezmer Fiddle Express at St. Marks Church, NYC 7/16/09

“In case you have any simchas coming up, we’re available for bar and bas mitzvahs, talk to me after the show,” Alicia Svigals grinned. The Klezmatics co-founder, original violinist and her four-piece band – rhythm section and first-call accordionist Patrick Farrell – definitely brought the simcha (party). This was one of those only-in-New-York moments, a casually brilliant, frequently transcendent show played to a neighborhood lunchtime crowd on the steps of Second Avenue’s St. Marks Church courtesy of the folks at the Third St. Music School Settlement. Besides being a blazing player, Svigals brings an impressive social consciousness and historical awareness to her music, not particularly surprising since, as she told the crowd, her immersion in classic Jewish folk and liturgical music was fueled by seders at the Workmen’s Circle. She sang a particularly tongue-in-cheek yet forcefully populist one of those numbers and got the crowd going on its playful, “oy, oy, oy” chorus.

Otherwise, the show was a trip through worlds both lost and found. She delved into the Moisey Beregovsky archive of stark, rustic, ominously atmospheric pre-Holocaust Ukrainian Jewish repertoire along with her own composition, the Healthy Baby Girl hora which she said she’d pieced together from a documentary film soundtrack she’d done. Farrell got a couple of chances to take center stage and as usual, made the most of them with mordant wit and blistering speed. Svigals is a world-class player who matches precision to a raw, unselfconsciously emotional edge and a frequently devious sensibility – she’s recorded with Itzhak Perlman and similar luminaries. She saved her wildest playing for the series of dizzying freilachs at the end of the show, finally taking off with some wild trills and flights to the uppermost registers, playing off her bandmates and bringing the energy to redline. They closed with a similarly upbeat number from the renowned catalog of the Hoffman Watts family of Philadelphia, drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts and her trumpeter daughter Susan Hoffman Watts continuing the tradition their ancestors brought over from the Ukraine over a hundred years ago. One of the factors that gives klezmer such a poignant, frequently biting edge is that like American blues musicians, not only were klezmers (Jewish musicians) outsiders in society as a whole but also frequently within the more pious sectors of their own Jewish communities. Which translates richly into both the pain and the joy of so much of what Svigals and her band of hellraisers played.

In addition to the weekly free concerts that the Third Street Music School Settlement puts on during the school year, they also host the June-July series of which this show was a part. The concluding concert is this Thursday with Cheres playing traditional Romanian, Ukrainian and Moldavian music.

July 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments