Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Lushly Kinetic Album and a Chelsea Show by Inventive String Quintet Sybarite5

String quintet Sybarite5’s imaginative instrumental reinventions of Radiohead songs earned them worldwide acclaim, but their Thom Yorke fixation is only part of the picture. On their latest album, Outliers – streaming at Bandcamp – they bring their signature lush, kinetic sound to a collection of relatively brief, energetically balletesque pieces by some of their favorite indie classical composers. The result is part contemporary dance soundtrack, part 21st century chamber music: the connecting thread is tunefulness. They’re bringing that blend to a show at the Cell Theatre on Dec 7 at 8 PM; cover is $27.

The album opens with the catchy, punchily circling Getting Home (I must be…), by Jessica Meyer, the violins of Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney bustling tightly alongside Angela Pickett’s viola, Laura Metcalf’s cello and Louis Levitt’s bass.

Yann’s Flight, by Shawn Conley vividly echoes Philip Glass’ work for string quartet, right down to the dancing pizzicato from the bass and the cello’s stern counterpoint. As the group build the piece, hints of an Irish reel contrast with stillness, then more triumphantly rhythmic images of flight.

Eric Byers’ Pop Rocks is a playful, coyly bouncing staccato web of cell-like, Glassine phrasing. Dan Visconti’s triptych Hitchhiker’s Tales begins with the alternating slow swoops and momentary flickers of Black Bend, slowly morphing into a majestic blues with some snazzy, slithery, shivery work from the violins. The considerably shorter Dixie Twang gives the group a launching pad for icepick pizzicato phrasing, followed by another miniature, Pedal to the Metal, where they scamper together to the finish line.

They dig into the punchy, polyrhythmic scattato of Revolve, by Andy Akiho, with considerable relish; Levitt’s understated, modal bassline anchors the lithe theme, the violins eventually rising to a whirlwind of blues riffage. Mohammed Fairouz’s Muqqadamah, which follows, is the most pensive, airy, baroque-flavored track here.

The rest of the album is inspired by dance styles from around the world and across the centuries. The band expand deviously from a stark, wickedly catchy 19th century minor-key blues theme in Kenji Bunch’s Allemande pour Tout le Monde. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Kompa for Toussaint also builds out of a minor-key oldtime blues riff to some neat, microtonal hints of a famous Nordic theme, then an enigmatic mist. Sarabande, another Byers piece, slowly emerges from and then returns to a wistful spaciousness.

The album’s most shapeshiftingly catchy track, Michi Wiancko’s Blue Bourée blends blues, the baroque and a little funk. The final number is Gi-gue-ly, by cinematic violist/composer Ljova, a delicious, Balkan-inflected, trickily syncopated tune that grows to pulsing misterioso groove. It’s a party in a box, probably the last thing a lot of people would expect from a contemporary classical string ensemble.

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November 30, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The American Composers Orchestra Celebrates Cinematically Brilliant New Music

When the members of the orchestra outnumber the audience, that’s usually a sign of trouble. While that was the situation the sold-out crowd who’d been lucky enough to score early reservations for the American Composers Orchestra‘s annual Underwood New Music Readings found themselves in at the DiMenna Center Saturday night, there isn’t much room for anyone other than the orchestra in that space’s cozy confines. And much as sitting in the front row at an orchestral performance doesn’t typically offer much in the way of sightlines, it’s a sonic thrill, and this was a thrilling program. Conductor George Manahan cautioned the audience that this would be a working rehearsal, strictly a series of works in progress. But the ensemble’s passion and enthusiasm for the pieces, for which they’d had all of one previous rehearsal, was visceral. And it should have been: a mix of ACO-affiliated composers had chosen the program from scores of submissions from around the world, the culmination of their EarShot program, which pairs up-and-coming American composers with orchestras to refine and then perform their works.

The unifying link among new compositions by Harry Stafylakis, Andy Akiho, Jared Miller, Melody Eotvos, Kyle Peter Rotolo and Wang A-Mao was chase scenes. If this bill is an accurate reflection of what composers in general are doing, they’re after the same thing as their counterparts in the rock world: getting on a film soundtrack, preferably a big-budget action thriller. Most of the pieces being showcased shared a cinematic quality, dynamics turning on a dime from hushed to frenetic, replete with ebbs and swells that relied heavily on the orchestra’s percussion section. The rear of the orchestra was like the deck of an aircraft carrier under fire, switching up bells and timpani and marimbas and everything in their arsenal with an aplomb that was even more impressive under the circumstances.

Stafylakis’ Brittle Fracture, a turbulent, dramatic overture of sorts, opened the concert, ominously pulsing low brass contrasting with midrange resonance, its chase scene appearing midway through. Andy Akiho, a virtuoso steel pan player, included the instrument in the score of his similarly energetic, suspensefully picturesque Tarnished Mirrors, but blended it into the overall mix of timbres as the work rose from wave motion fueled by koto-like harp, to a lithe dance, a chase scene and a completely unexpected, warily atmospheric ending.

An “inherent sense of creepiness,” as Eotvos put it, permeated her quartet Beetles, Dragons & Dreamers. With its relentless unease and occasional explosiveness, it made for a sensationally good centerpiece. The opening theme, Draconian Measures, had a tense lushness, rippling cascades and then what was by now the expected pursuit segment. Lilith, Begone was both the most accessible and menacing piece on the bill, followed by a restless tone poem, The Inanimate Spider and then a lingering, knife’s-edge conclusion, Trojan Horse. Over and over, Eotvos punctured shifting, atmospheric sheets from the strings with sudden, jagged motives from throughout the orchestra to max out the suspense factor.

Composer Robert Honstein explained that Rise, his attempt at crafting a 21st century pastorale, was trickier than it would have been before the age of global warming. A trouble-in-paradise tableau, it artfully developed an increasing apprehension as it grew from a spectral, nebulous ambience to a coldly sarcastic march and a decidedly unresolved ending.

Imbued with considerable dry wit, Miller’s Contrasted Perspectives – a joint homage to Dali and Fellini – were a lot of fun. The first part, awash in surrealistic close harmonies, segued well out of Miller’s troubled ambience. The second echoed Prokofiev with its animated rhythms, phantasmagorical colors and shapeshifting trajectory spiced with hints of vaudeville and jazz.

Rotolo’s Apophis followed the trajectory of an asteroid on its way to a collision with Earth, a fluttering, frantic theme juxtaposed against an eerie, recurrent calm and then a split-second coda: a sort of Planet X from Holst’s suite. The concert wound up with Wang A-Mao’s Characters in Theatre, a deviously propulsive, explosively rhythmic male/female character study based on Chinese opera. Its lively, stagy bombast occasionally diverging to a resolute if infrequent calm, sensibility versus bluster, could be interpreted as a feminist reading of kabuki theatre. As little time as the woman got in the spotlight, she was a voice of reason to an oblivious if entertaining buffoon. If this is the future of classical music, we have no worries, at least on the composition side.

June 12, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The NY Phil’s Contact Series Hits a Couple of Bullseyes

It’s heartwarming to see an organization as estimable as the New York Philharmonic taking notice of young composers whose work they can deliver as only such a formidable ensemble can. One would think that every major orchestra would have the same agenda, but sadly that’s not the case. For every nineteen-year-old Shostakovich whose first symphony was premiered shortly after it was written, there are dozens of Iveses slaving away at the insurance company by day and directing the church choir on the weekend. So it’s good to have the NY Phil’s Contact series, focusing on chamber orchestra-scale works written mostly by emerging composers. Last night’s program at Symphony Space featured two rather stunning world premieres, a resonant suite of songs from a lion of the 20th century avant garde and a New York premiere, bravely played but less successful.

The stunner on the bill was the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s Oscillate, for string ensemble, percussion and piano, nimbly conducted by Jayce Ogren. Akiho is a percussionist whose unlikely main axe, at least in the classical music world, is the steel pan. There was nothing remotely calypsonian about this work: excellent and eclectic as Akiho’s debut album from last year was, this is the best thing he’s written. Inspired by Nicola Tesla (the title is an anagram of “Tesla coil”), it’s meant to illustrate an inventor or creator’s toil over a span of many sleepless nights, a battle to remain inspired as fatigue becomes more and more of a problem. Beginning with sirening strings against a restlessly mechanical pulse, shades of Julia Wolfe with hints of Bernard Herrmann, it took on an increasingly noirish, dissociative atmosphere, livened by a familiar Messiaen quote. A series of increasingly hallucinatory chase scenes driven by insistent staccato cellos finally gave way to uneasy ambience at the end: the triumph in question here seemed simply to be to get through a waking nightmare.

Another world premiere, Jude Vaclavik’s Shock Waves, for brass and percussion took rousing advantage of the vast expanses of sonics at the composer’s disposal, mutes being employed from time to time on virtually all of the wind instruments throughout the piece. Tuba player Alan Baer drew a round of chuckles as he nonchalantly stuck a huge mute the size of a couple of french horns into his instrument’s gaping bell. Inspired by the mechanics of sonic booms, the piece is built around a series of doppler-like swells that mutate, pulse,  blast and intermingle with a Stravinskian elan. Like Akiho’s work, the suspense was relentless: it was impossible to know what was coming, and what would be next.

Coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sang four Jacob Druckman songs from the 1990s: two ethereal but bracing settings of Emily Dickinson poems and two utilizing Apollinaire lyrics with considerably more unease. In both cases, her melismatic lower register was especially strong and vividly plaintive. The composer’s son Daniel Druckman played percussion as he had on the premiere of this particular chamber arrangement fifteen years ago.

The one piece on the bill that didn’t work was Andrew Norman’s Try, a portrait of a composer concocting and then nixing motifs one by one before he finally comes up with something he likes. While it wasn’t without wit, the ideas flew by in such a breathless, whizbang fashion that it was impossible to focus on any one of them until they were already gone. And the minimalist piano ending felt forced, and interminable. This work screamed out for shredding more of those ideas and maybe taking what’s left at halfspeed.

December 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Andy Akiho: Topnotch Pop Tunesmith In Disguise

Andy Akiho may be most closely associated with indie classical music, but underneath the cleverly shapeshifting arrangements on his new album No One to Know One beats the heart of a great pop tunesmith. Atonality may be all the rage (when, since about 1918, has it NOT been all the rage?) but this guy is all about melody. He has a long career in film scores staring him in the face if he wants it. The span from style to style on this record is a long and constantly unexpected one: bits of Middle Eastern music, reggae, noir jazz, Japanese folk songs and brooding 80s pop along with the bright, ringing soca tonalities you would expect from a composer whose axe is the steel pan. It’s a triumphant blend of cutting-edge creativity and accessibility.

The first six tracks here are from his Synesthesia Suite, and are color-coded (Akiho experiences specific pitches as colors). Hadairo (Beige) is the LAST thing you would expect beige to be – it inspired a bright, rhythmic, Balkan-tinged dance with a pointillistic bass solo, a potently dark interlude where the string section mimics the pans and then launches into a series of clever false endings (Akiho has a great wit and employs it generously here). Kiiro (Yellow) begins with a suspenseful music-box vibe enhanced by Maura Valenti’s harp, builds to carnivalesquely orchestrated atonalities and then a creepy waltz that takes on some jarring polyrhythms. Murasaki (Purple) alternates brooding reggae with shimmery glissandos from the harp and pans; Aka (Red) is the weak link here, although it could have been a massive pop hit back in the 80s – think Lisa Lisa or the”La-da-dee, La-da-da” song. Karakurenai (Crimson), a piece for solo prepared steel pan (with certain areas magnetized to shift the pitch downward) half-conceals what sounds like an old Japanese folk song amidst loopy atmospherics and accelerating polyrhythms. The last of the colors here is Daidai Iro (Orange), a trio piece for Akiho with bassist Samuel Adams and drummer Kenneth Salters, revisiting the pop undertone of Red but without the cloying 80s vibe.

The centerpiece here is to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem (read the toggle for subtext), a richly cinematic noir suite complete with simulated sirens and several chase scenes. It’s literally a movie for the ears: furtive polyrhythms, temporary respite at a safe house, strings rising and then screeching apprehensively and flurries of high woodwinds balanced against a relentless march and an ending which is pure menace. It was the hit of the Bang on a Can Marathon in 2008 and is just as much a showstopper here.

By contrast, The Ray’s End, a trio piece for pan, trumpet and violin juxtaposes a wary chromatic vamp with hypnotic ambience punctuated by Akiho’s judiciously spacious pan accents. NO one To kNOW one (read the toggle again) is another suspense movie, this one set in a disco invaded by Ian Rosenbaum’s vibraphone assault (he plays this one with chopsticks) and later an apprehensive, Middle Eastern-flavored dialogue between Akiho and Mariel Roberts’ cello. There’s a LOL-funny Beatles quote a little later on that’s too good to give away here. The album ends with 21, just pan and cello building loops that venture tensely into a thicket of interwoven melody and textural contrasts. These are just the highlights: to really enjoy all the entertainment this album has to offer, you need headphones and time alone. It’s out now on Innova.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment