Lucid Culture


A Choice Performance by the American String Quartet Uptown

The classical music world is just like the rock world, in the sense that the most interesting shows usually take place outside the big concert halls. Case in point: the American String Quartet at Manhattan School of Music uptown Sunday afternoon. The Borden Auditorium there has excellent acoustics and accommodated a pretty full house who had come out to see a decidedly non-stodgy program for an attractive $15. What gives? The American String Quartet are in residency there. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that their name wasn’t taken until the original members made it theirs in 1974 while still students at Juilliard; on the other, there was still plenty of snobbery in the old European guard at that point. The Quartet’s 37 year history since then speaks for itself.

This time out they played a slightly offbeat, absolutely fascinating program of Richard Strauss and Beethoven, opening with the sextet from Capriccio, the 1941 Strauss opera, augmented by Karen Dreyfus on viola and Alan Stepansky on cello. The concept is late Romantic orchestration of a baroque-style theme, sort of Strauss’ equivalent of Rachmaninoff beefing up late Renaissance Italian chamber works. It’s probably more interesting from an architectural point of view than it is to hear, although for that reason it’s probably a lot of fun to play. And that’s what the Quartet had with it, but with plenty of old world vibrato and careful attention to the endless exchanges of voices. Violist Daniel Avsholomov seized the chance to fire off some deliciously shivery filigrees early on; Stepansky got to burn plenty of high-tension, low-register amperage as the piece went on.

The other Strauss work was an eye-opening septet arrangement of the Metamorphosen. With Metropolitan Opera bassist Timothy Cobb joining the ensemble, would this alternate version, posthumously discovered in 1990 in a sketch by the composer, be starker and darker than the fullscale tone poem for string orchestra? Not really. The overall balance and the alternate voices of the seven strings delivered a pillowy lushness that sounded like a considerably larger group, credit being due to both the composer and the ensemble. The piece, written as bombs were falling on Germany, is a requiem of sorts for a cosmopolitan Europe (or at least the romantic notion of a cosmopolitan Europe) gone forever. What metamorphosis there is develops very subtly, pulsing with a hypnotic swirl, finally quoting Beethoven as it reaches the brief dirge that ends it. It was a feast of minute timbral contrasts: violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney worked tones with such depth and clarity that it seemed as if there were a couple of oboes in the group.

Is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130 the greatest of all works for string quartet? Some would say that: it’s also cruelly difficult to play. But this group first completed their Beethoven cycle decades ago, and they have it in their fingers, going deep into it for an especially revealing, emotionally charged performance. They let the rather tongue-in-cheek initial movements speak for themselves with a matter-of-factness which gave away absolutely no inkling of the fireworks in store. The little German dance that’s been used as a backdrop for a million PSA’s on NPR was delivered with an unexpected tinge of Teutonic gravitas. By contrast, the famous Cavatina was anything but weepy: its hushed somber restraint packed a quietly mighty wallop. And then they dug into the original conclusion, the Grosse Fugue, with its maze of interwoven polyphony and jarring tonalities that sound almost as radical now as they did in 1822. Nobody got offstage without breaking a sweat after this one, especially cellist Wolfram Koessel, leaping across the fingerboard with equal parts fire and aplomb. It falls to the violist to blaze through the highest point of the concluding crescendo: Avshalomov didn’t allude to it visually, but there’s no doubt that he was grinning inside.

These Manhattan School of Music concerts are a bargain (they have a whole slate of jazz as well as chamber and orchestral music), and they’re easy to get to (straight uptown on the 1 train to 125th Street; exit the back of the train if you’re coming from downtown and walk three blocks back to 122nd). Don’t rule out another similarly exciting program from the American String Quartet there this season.


September 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old Ideas, New Insight from the American String Quartet

At the American String Quartet’s concert last night at Merkin Hall, a small handful of Bach practice pieces threatened to upstage a late Beethoven quartet and then Bartok’s immortal String Quartet No. 6. That at first might seem like a sure sign of trouble, but let’s let violist Daniel Avshalomov explain. From his program notes: “Despite the luxury of our repertory, if we don’t borrow Bach we never get to play it – not to mention that the composer himself constantly rearranged music of his own and of others.” Avshalomov was referring to his arrangement of three preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which the ensemble played with flair, unselfconscious intensity and extraordinarily fresh insight. Avshalomov was right on the money by making the case for those works as being ideal for string quartet. Today, most of us who know these pieces think of them as organ works. However, Bach probably didn’t write them for the organ: instead, it’s more likely that he intended them for the harpsichord, since most of the organs of his era were already tuned to something different than even intonation, i.e. the modern piano scale that Bach championed, to which a harpsichord can be tuned – or not. Yet a harpsichord can’t sustain the pieces’ longest notes. Not only does a string quartet have what’s essentially infinite sustain: a string arrangement allows for subtleties of attack and timbre that a harpsichordist or organist can only dream of.

So with a not-so-simple shift from single instrument to quartet, these pieces took on a whole new life. The Prelude and Fugue for 4 Voices in F (BWV 857) suddenly had unanticipated, dancing liveliness…and stark grandeur from cellist Wolfram Koessel, as he carried what would be a pedal line in an organ arrangement. By contrast, the Prelude and Fugue for 5 Voices in B-flat Minor (BWV 867) had a plaintive Vivaldiesque gravitas; the Prelude and Fugue for 4 Voices in G Minor (BWV 885) offset jaunty precision with apprehensive call-and-response. Can someone please commission some more of these? Avant-garde ensembles jump through hoops with electronics and everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to breathe new life into works like these, when in this case all it took was an ambitious violist and his like-minded compatriots to appropriate them and make them indelibly their own.

How did they do Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op. 135? Briskly and confidently, yet with meticulous attention to dynamics. They’ve done this piece, and for that matter the whole Beethoven cycle, umpteen times, yet this performance was bright and crisp and obviously a labor of love. The lively pulse of the opening Allegretto reached a high point with the end of the scherzo that closes the second movement, vivid to the point where the entire audience got the joke. Conventional wisdom is that the chilling, anguished series of tritones and their permutations in the concluding movement are also a joke, albeit an inside one. An alternative viewpoint, reinforced by this performance, is that they’re a cruel and possibly deathly irony: “Must we? Yes, we must.” And things don’t look good.

Things got even more bleak with the Bartok. It’s a shattering piece of music, one of the darkest gems in the string quartet repertory; like the Beethoven, this group knows it well. Spine-tingling moments abounded: understated savagery when the sarcastic, somewhat OCD march theme of the second movement reappeared in the third, or its chilling minimalist modernism as violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney played dissonant microtones off each other, Carney sometimes reaching for a pianissimo so ethereal it was almost inaudible. Koessel’s matter-of-factness with the elegaic, closing pizzicato riff underscored its early WWII-angst with a quiet mournfulness that was impactful to the extreme. Fans of acclaimed ensembles like the American String Quartet tend to take them for granted. But we shouldn’t: there were actually some empty seats in the hall last night.

May 2, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/23/11

Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album was #495:

Robert Sirota – Triptych – The Chiara String Quartet

Arguably the most powerful, intense musical response to the horror of 9/11, composer Sirota’s anguished, horror-stricken suite for string quartet draws on artist Deborah Patterson’s triptych depicting the detonation of one of the towers, the death of NYFD chaplain Mychal Judge and the sky over the smoking hole at Ground Zero. The Chiaras premiered this at New York’s Trinity Church, barely two blocks away, in October, 2002. The frenzied horror of the first movement attempts to replicate sirens, a devil’s choir of car alarms and the chaos following the crash of the planes; the second is a grief-stricken lament; the third reaches for some sort of peace or closure. The only audio for this that seems to be on the web seems to be at cdbaby, where the album is still available, but terrific performances of this piece by the American String Quartet have made it to youtube in three segments, here, here, and here.

September 24, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The American String Quartet with Natsumi Kuboyama at the Fabbri Library, NYC 5/12/10

Eighteen-year-old Japanese pianist Natsumi Kuboyama, the winner of all sorts of competitions and a performer since the age of six, opened last night’s program at upper East Side hideaway the Fabbri Library with the Sinfonia from Bach’s C Minor Partita. With a surprisingly forceful attack in the opening measures, she showed some moxie that otherwise never made itself known during the rest of her solo performance. Instead, she showed off a turbo-hydramatic legato and world-class articulation throughout perfect if perfectly safe renditions of two Chopin works, the Ballade in F, Op. 38 and the Andante Spinato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, a schlocky Japanese rock ballad and then, most strikingly, the bracingly modernist, otherworldly, Toru Takamitsu-esque Prelude by Kunihiro Nakamura.

To fans of classical and new music alike, the American String Quartet needs no introduction, combining an avant garde enthusiast’s passion and counterintuitive intelligence with a historically-informed purism and a seemingly effortless technical skill. Effortless, possibly, because, as violist Daniel Avshalomov opined, they play the most exciting repertoire anywhere. Last time we caught them they were tackling the abrasive intensity of Irving Fine along with Robert Sirota’s anguished, haunting 9/11 Triptych. This time out, they ran through a pleasantly familiar program with special flair and an unaffected sensitivity to joy. The highlight was the Schubert Quartetsatz in C Minor, D. 70s, which as Avshalomov reminded was as close to a complete string quartet as Schubert ever wrote (he left behind only this first movement). Ablaze with unpredictable counterpoint and gemlike melody, it left no doubt as to how much fun it is to play: it is a team effort with star turns for everyone. When cellist Wolfram Koessel’s delightfully casual, growling undertones led the rest of the ensemble into the final series of little exchanges, it was nothing short of exquisite.

They also brought Kuboyama out of her shell with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat, Op. 44. Avshalomov explained the piece as Schumann’s unabashedly delighted response to having discovered what a piano and a string quartet can do together – it gave Kuboyama the chance to take her game up a level, notably throughout its many nocturnal, cantabile ripples and bends, towards which she seems to have a natural inclination. The rest of the ensemble romped through the call-and-response volleys of the opening Allegro Brillante, gave the swells of the second movement’s march an apt epic grandeur, barrelled through the playful dance of the Scherzo and made the most of the brilliant bittersweetness of the finale.

They closed with the first of the “late” Beethoven Quartets, Op. 127 in E-flat. “After the first part, you might imagine all the lights turned off, especially in this room,” Avshalomov suggested, which considering the medieval wood-paneled ambience, made sense. After they’d negotiated the tricky waves of the Maestoso Allegro, the Adagio provided a warmly cantabile architecture for violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney to embellish with a silvery vibrato, Avshalomov and Koessel each enhancing the plaintiveness in the lower registers. After all that, the symphonic crescendos of the Scherzando Vivace and the sterner, somewhat heroic Allegro finale were delivered with equal amounts spot-on precision and gusto. The crowd snapped out of their reverie and hoped for an encore, but by now it was ten in the evening and time for wine and snacks. The American String Quartet’s next two concerts are at Bargemusic on May 15 at 8 PM, repeating on May 16 at 3 PM with music of Mozart and Shostakovich along with Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” This is it for the Fabbri Library’s season, a sonically and visually delightful (and refreshingly friendly) space whose concert series will continue in the fall.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Concerts in New York in 2009

Of all our year-end best-of lists (the 100 Best Songs of 2009 and 50 Best Albums of 2009 included), this is our favorite, because it’s the most individual (everybody has a different list) and it’s closest to our raison d’etre, live music in New York. Last year’s was difficult enough to narrow down to twenty; this year’s is criminally short. We could have put up a top 100 concerts list and it would be five times as good. 

This was the year of the Beast – Small Beast at the Delancey, New York’s most exciting weekly rock event. We caught onto this slowly – the concert series ran for about a month before we discovered it – but when we did we were there almost every week. Occasionally someone will ask, since you have a music blog, why don’t you start booking shows? With Small Beast, there’s no need: it’s your weekly chance to discover the edgiest, smartest rock-ish talent from Gotham and across the globe. You’ll see a lot of those shows on this list.

Yet 2009 was a weird year for us – running a New York live music blog and not being in town much of the time made it problematic, to say the least. Week after week, we watched from a distance, enviously as half the city got to see stuff we never did. In August, the Brooklyn What did a killer triple bill with Palmyra Delran’s garage band and amazing latin ska-punk-gypsy rockers Escarioka at Trash Bar, but we weren’t there. The second night of the Gypsy Tabor Festival just a few weeks later looked like a great time, but we missed that one too. As the year winds down and we finally (hopefully!) start to reap the rewards of a whole lot of hard work, it appears, pending some absolutely transcendent show exploding onto the radar, that this is it for our Best Shows of 09 list. Needless to say, we can’t wait for 2010.

Since any attempt to rank these shows in any kind of order would be an exercise in futility, we just listed them as they happened:

The Brooklyn What at Fat Baby, 1/15/09 – since we’d just reviewed a couple of their shows in the fall of 08, we didn’t even review this one, fearing overkill. But on what was the coldest night of the winter up to that point, they packed the club and burned through a characteristically fun, ferocious set, maybe fueled by the knowledge that one of their idols, Ron Asheton, had left us.

Kerry Kennedy at Rose Bar, 1/21/09 – the noir chanteuse was at the absolute top of her game as quietly resilient siren and southwestern gothic bandleader.

Paul Wallfisch and Larkin Grimm at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/9/09 – the Botanica frontman (who books Small Beast) turned in a typically fiery set, followed by the avant-chanteuse who battled and finally lashed out at a crowd of clueless yuppie puppies who just didn’t get what the show was all about.

Kotorino at Pete’s Candy Store, 4/13/09 – the quietly multistylistic, gypsyish band filled the place on a Monday night and kept the crowd riveted as they all switched instruments, beats and genres over and over.

The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 4/23/09 – Boston’s best new band blazed through an early 80s inflected set of edgy powerpop.

Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich-Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/23/09 – after Wallfisch had set the tone for the night, Big Lazy’s Steve Ulrich and Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler played hypnotic, macabre guitar soundscapes followed by the ferociously lyrical retro 60s chamber pop of Joe McGinty and Ward White.

The American String Quartet playing Irving Fine and Robert Sirota’s Triptych at Bargemusic, 4/26/09 – a sinister ride through works by one of the leading lights of the 1950s avant garde followed by a haunting, intense performance of contemporary composer Sirota’s 9/11 suite.

Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/30/09 – after Wallfisch got the night started, Beren roared and scorched her way through a pummeling, macabre set. Then Spottiswoode impressed with a subtle set of nocturnes, setting the stage for Wynn, playing together with his friend and ex-lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in several years, a feast of swirling, otherworldly guitar overtones.

The Friggs and the Chrome Cranks at Santos Party House, 5/8/09 – a triumphant return for the popular 90s garage girl rockers followed by the equally triumphant, reinvigorated, snarling sonic attack of another one of NYC’s best bands of the 90s.

The French Exit at Local 269, 5/13/09 – NYC’s best new dark rockers playing one of their first shows as a four-piece, rich with reverb, tersely incisive piano, haunting vocals and defiant lyricism.

Chicha Libre on the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Boat, 5/15/09 – definitely the best party of the year that we were party to, a swaying excursion through psychedelic, surfy cumbia music, past and present.

Paul Wallfisch, Darren Gaines & the Key Party and Alice Texas at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/4/09 – Wallfisch kicked it off, Gaines and a stripped-down trio impressed with gutter-poet, Lou Reed/Tom Waits style rock and then Alice Texas turned in a swirling, incandescent, gently assaultive show that reminded how much we miss Tonic, the club where she used to play before it was torn down t0 put up plastic luxury condos.

Paul Wallfisch, Marni Rice and the Snow at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/22/09 – another Wallfisch night, this one featuring the great LES accordionist/chanteuse/cabaret scholar and then Pierre de Gaillande’s clever, haunting art-r0ck crew.

Ian Hunter at Rockefeller Park, 6/24/09 – the former Mott the Hoople frontman, at age 70, has simply never written, played, or sung better. This show was a real revelation.

Daniel Bernstein at Sidewalk, 7/9/09 – the underground songwriter/lyricist/tunesmith casually burned through one haunting, haunted, ridiculously catchy tune after another.

Randi Russo and the Oxygen Ponies at the Saltmines, 7/10/09 – another haunting show opened with the absolute master of the outsider anthem, who did double duty playing in Paul Megna’s equally dark, intense, lyrical indie band.

The Main Squeeze Accordion Festival: Musette Explosion, Suspenso del Norte, Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet, the Main Squeeze Orchestra, Roberto Cassan and John Munatore, Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica and Peter Stan at Pier One, 7/11/09 – squeezebox heaven.

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Damrosch Park, 8/5/09 – cutting-edge Middle Eastern-inflected jazz followed by one of the great ones, undiminished and still inventive at 89.

Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/19/09 – the panstylistic rock goddess played several good New York shows this past year, but this one with Matt Kanelos on piano and glockenspiel and Billy Doughty on drums and melodica was pure transcendence.

Carol Lipnik, Bonfire Madigan, Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 11/23/09 – what seems at this point to be the single best show of the year (if only because it’s the most recent one on the list) matched Lipnik’s phantasmagoria to Madigan’s equally artful chamber pop, Garniez’ irresistible charisma and ferocity, Beren’s contralto classical punk assault and then Ward White took over where the sirens had been and sang what could have been his best show ever.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The American String Quartet Plays Robert Sirota, Irving Fine and Others at Bargemusic, Brooklyn NY 4/26/09

The American String Quartet had played the Brooklyn debut of Manhattan School of Music President Robert Sirota’s 9/11-themed Triptych suite the previous night. Looking across the river at Manhattan from inside the barge the following afternoon, the Twin Towers’ absence became more and more striking as the first movement built to a frantic, chaotic, horror-stricken crescendo of tritones and dissonance. From an audience perspective (particularly as witnessed by someone who was three blocks away when Tower Two blew up), the music was viscerally harrowing. Lucid Culture puts up a year-end “best New York concerts” list, and while being far from definitive, you can bet this performance will be on it.


Sirota was in New York on 9/11 and over the following months, writing the suite in tandem with Deborah Patterson’s painting of the same name – the artists’ intent was for the music to reinforce the painting and vice versa. To say that both are impactful would be a ridiculous understatement. The suite’s first movement, Desecration began with a shock, immediately followed by frenetic anguish that eventually fell apart, leading to a mournful solo by violinist Peter Winograd and eventually an evocation of car alarms (Sirota imagined that the destruction of the towers would have set off every one of them in Manhattan, an insult added to injury that thankfully didn’t occur) followed by a brief, single siren played on violin, fading into the distance.


The second movement, Lamentation began stark and modernist, growing more insistent, anguish finally turning to outrage, the impossibility of being able to fathom the enormity of the event intensely and vividly captured by a tentative cello line eventually passed to the other instruments, ending with a simple, defeated fade to solo violin. It’s not known how deeply the composer was able to investigate the mystery surrounding the tragedy, or whether this is simply a rendering of the city’s collective emotional state.


At last, some consonance appeared in the final movement, Prayer, reaching for solace and not finding it, interestingly with less of a feeling of communion and inclusiveness than there was at the time. While the months afterward brought out in many respects a beautiful and unforgettable period of camaraderie and compassion among New Yorkers, the conclusion of Sirota’s work rightfully maintains a persistent and unavoidable sense of loss. As riveting and heartbreaking as the piece is to witness in concert, one can only imagine how difficult it must be to play, especially for a New York group such as this, but the musicians didn’t let on.


The rest of the bill was a thicket of knotty cerebrality, but the Quartet accentuated its emotion and also its frequent good humor. They’d opened with Irving Fine’s 1952 String Quartet, an astonishing and powerfully Stravinskian work delivering many of the tropes of Romanticism in a completely different language, jeweled with suspense, horror-movie cadences and complete defiance in places. Winograd related an amusing anecdote about how his father, also a noted musician, knew Fine, who was notoriously prickly. After hearing the piece, the story made perfect sense. The ensemble also tackled Henry Cowell’s strange and often boisterously witty, improvisationally-driven String Quartet No. 3, the “Mosaic,” named for its interwoven, deceptively simple themes designed to be repeated as the performers see fit. They closed with Walter Piston’s String Quartet No. 1, another work which cast numerous codas and cadenzas straight out of Brahms or Beethoven straight into the drink where they landed dazed. Did Mingus know Piston’s work? One would think so from hearing this piece.


Shock of shocks, the barge wasn’t sold out, either. Fault of the depression? Maybe. The challenging nature of the program? That would be strange – Ives and his ilk don’t usually scare the crowds off. From the looks of it these days, Bargemusic could be something you could decide on at the spur of the moment, a wonderfully romantic idea.

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment