Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Soar Through an Ambitious, State-of-the-Art Program at National Sawdust

To paraphrase Rebecca Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to hold a lot of beautiful voices. Last night at the newly opened and sonically exquisite National Sawdust in Williamsburg, approximately fifty of those voices performed an exhilarating, richly dynamic program of new works for choir and chamber ensemble by four of this era’s outstanding women composers. The singers’ average age, from the looks of it, was around sixteen. In case you haven’t seen them, director Dianne Berkun-Menaker has shaped the Brooklyn Youth Chorus into a magnificent, meticulous powerhouse of an ensemble. There are young women in this group who will be able to sing for a living, especially the two high sopranos on the far end, stage right. To the young blonde lady in the black suit and her bandmate in the peroxide pageboy and glasses: stick with this and you’ll never need a dayjob.

As if we need further proof that music doesn’t have to be dumbed down to appeal to younger musicians, this concert was it. These works were sophisticated, employed all kinds of intricate counterpoint, required considerable amounts of what an instrumentalist would call extended technique, and the group rose to meet those demands efficiently and expertly: they schooled the old people in the house. Caroline Shaw was represented by two works, Its Motion Keeps and Anni’s Constant. The former was pinpoint-precise, full of quirky staccato, dizzying polyrhythns, a delightfully dancing groove and the occasional playful, hair-raising accent leaping in unexpectedly. The latter took a comfortable, homespun folk tune and made an ecstatically swinging, sometimes stomping celebration out of it – with some hilariously goofy vocalisms midway through.

For Sarah Small‘s Around the Forest, A Youth Roams – an electrifying, bracing mashuup of Bulgarian folk and postminimalism – the paradigm-shifting composer/arranger and Balkan music specialist was joined by both the choir and her a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel with Shelley Thomas and Willa Roberts. The trio handled its challenging whoops, microtones and exotic ornamentation while the chorus grounded the piece with equal parts lushness and austerity, bolstered by Rima Fand’s darkly ambered string score.

National Sawdust impresario Paola Prestini joined the chorus to narrate the choral segments of her forthcoming multimedia work Aging Magician, a soberingly surreal collaboration with director Julian Crouch, with lyrics by Rinde Eckert. The pieces worked well as a stand-alone suite, sharing a trickily rhythmic and dynamically-charged playfulness with the Shaw works, but were both more pensive and more baroque-tinged in places. While it wouldn’t be fair to spoil Prestini’s occasional musical jokes, they were pretty hilarious. Throughout the program, the chorus were accompanied seamlessly by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Ben Russell and Caleb Burhans on violins, Hannah Levinson on viola and Clarice Jensen on cello, augmented by Dave Cossin on percussion, David Dunaway on bass and Geremy Schulick on electric guitar plus a pianist uncredited in the program.

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ next performance will also be alongside Black Sea Hotel to celebrate the opening of the new space at St. Ann’s Warehouse on October 17 featuring works by Shaw, Aleksandra Vrebalov and others plus world premieres from Mary Kouyoumdjian and Sahba Aminikia. There are two performances, one for free beginning at noon and another at 8 PM for $25.

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October 7, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ACME Revisits the Holocaust, Memorably

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACME Unearths Rare Early 60s Sonics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concert Review: Simone Dinnerstein and ACME Play Bach at the Miller Theatre, NYC 1/30/10

A fearlessly iconoclastic, mostly successful attempt to reinterpret the cutting edge of three hundred years ago via the cutting edge of now. Pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s formidable chops are matched by a laserlike emotional intelligence – for her, playing Bach seems to be a treasure hunt. Last night at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Dinnerstein drew a gemlike, detailed map of the intimacies and intricacies within a selection of segments from the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Art of the Fugue as well as the D Minor and F Minor Concertos (BMV 1052 and 1056), accompanied by the estimable American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).

Among the joys of playing Bach is the challenge of bringing to life the incredible range of emotion in the compositions without jumping the rails, without falling back on the tricks of the Romantic trade, i.e. dynamics that weren’t typically utilized in the classical music of Bach’s era. Dinnerstein has famously topped the classical music charts with her warmly legato interpretations of Bach – this time out, she put more of an individual stamp on the music than she usually does, adding an impressive forcefulness to that legato and taking some judicious liberties with the time signature. Most of that was limited to intros and outros, but there were moments where Dinnerstein would add or pull back for a microsecond when a particularly poignant phrase or emotionally charged chord would resonate more strongly. It worked like a charm, notably in the Well-Tempered Clavier pieces: the plaintive midsection of the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C Sharp (BWV 872) and the glimmering, shadowy whisper-and-response of Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E (BWV 878). That even such subtle dynamics would be so impactful speaks equally to the quality of the performer and the material. Hubristic? Maybe, but not compared to, say, Yngwie Malmsteen.

New music titans ACME didn’t run up against any resistance that wouldn’t disappear with more rehearsal and familiarity with the material (although it’s impossible to get through Juilliard without being on relatively comfortable terms with Bach). The quartet of Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata on violins, Nadia Sirota on viola and ensemble leader Clarice Jensen on cello squared off as something of a string section backing Dinnerstein’s tersely and exquisitely voiced rock band on the D Minor Concerto. As the night went on, they loosened up – within an Art of the Fugue segment, the procession of textures from Kelli Kathman’s flute, to Alicia Lee’s bass clarinet, to Eric Huebner’s harmonium and then back to Dinnerstein were a rigorous yet joyously athletic game of hot potato. And the vibraphone, played with smart understatement by Chris Thompson, made a worthy out-of-the-box addition to the textural feast. At the end, on the F Minor Concerto, the string quartet cut loose with Dinnerstein from the first few bars, discovering a vivid tango melody, then in the third movement employing a playful and tremendously effective recurrent pianissimo accent at the end of a series of sprightly phrases to add considerable depth.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment