Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

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April 12, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

December 25, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis,  which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

September 21, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kinan Azmeh’s Somber New Song Cycle Draws a Sold-Out Crowd at Symphony Space

In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.

Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.

The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.

Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.

The Songs for Days to Come album – streamng at Spotify – is the first in a series commissioned by Davis, with a second volume planned for the spring of next year.

November 20, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Kelly Winds Up His Memorably Tragicomic Performance Piece on Governors Island

The foreshadowing of Jarrod Beck‘s masterfully surreal, decaying, apocalyptic steampunk set design for John Kelly‘s latest performance piece, Love of a Poet, intimated a cruelly ominous fate for its protagonist. Based on Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle setting of lovelorn Heinrich Heine poems, Kelly’s piece is a grimly tragicomic study in self-absorption. In typical multimedia fashion, Kelly employed projections of an alter ego of sorts, ghostly images of a girl strolling through a black-and-white Blair Witch-style set, left and right of the stage while he sang and performed the suite with his usual nuance, operatic flair and lithely muscular grace.

Pianist Christopher Cooley opened with blackly menacing, minimalist motives, building to an aptly murky, riveting ambience from which Kelly arose, literally, from flat on his back, just beyond the sold-out crowd’s sightline. From there the two worked a dynamically rich tension, both singer and pianist sometimes veering into rubato, each following the other, raising the level of angst and fullscale alienation.

Kelly is an artist who likes to push himself to the limits of how he portrays a character, both physically and on an emotional level, and this performance was no exception. Tragic historical figures are favorites of his. This interpretation of the doomed poet offered suspense – was he going to bury himself alive, drown himself, stab himself, all of the above, or survive it all? – as well as Kelly’s signature wry humor. A brief, anachronistic bit involving a laptop was irresistibly funny. Even more so was the suite’s most vaudevillian number, a blackly droll little song whose gist was, in case any of you think that all this nonstop heartbreak is funny, it happens every day…and it’s gonna happen to you! There was a physical element to that which made it all the more priceless, but it’s too good to give away. Throughout the piece, Kelly worked from the soaring top to the eerily resonant bottom of his famously vast vocal range, singing in both the original German as well as in English, cautiously and then frantically weighing just how much torment an artist can take…or simply subject himself to.

Originally written to be performed at what is now the Governors Island ferry terminal, at the Battery, this new set took advantage of its new digs in the performance space on the lower level of the building just to the right of the Manhattan ferry landing on the island itself. The audience whisked themselves in, slowly, single file, being made to wade through gusty sheets of plastic. Was this more eerie foreshadowing? An immersive prelude to the struggle of the poor poet to maintain his santity?

Yesterday’s performance here was the final one, at least for now, although there are several other intriguing upcoming concerts on Governors Island, including the world premiere of a new large-scale composition by Serena Jost and Matthew Robinson for fifty-piece cello orchestra, outdoors on July 25 at 3 PM outdoors at the southwest corner of Fort Jay.

June 29, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ensemble Pi Commemorate the Iraq War with an Understatedly Harrowing Program

Even by avant garde standards, chamber group Ensemble Pi stand out not only for the adventurousness of their commissions and their repertoire, but also for their fearlessly political stance. Their annual Peace Concert at Subculture Wednesday night, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bush/Cheney war in Iraq, held to loosely interconnected themes of how language may be interpreted. Group leader and elegantly eclectic pianist Idith Meshulam joined with cellist Katie Schlaikjer and violinist Airi Yoshioka to premiere a Susan Botti song cycle, J’ai tant rêvé de toi, a setting of the famous Robert Desnos love poem that was inscribed posthumously on the Monument to the Martyrs of World War II in Paris. Soprano Kristin Norderval dedicated the performance to Eric Garner and his survivors – with its acidic tonaliites, the vocals, accompaniment and instrumental passages maintained a bracing, tense, precise walking pace punctuated by the occasional horrified cadenza.

It set the stage for an early Krzysztof Penderecki work, his Violin Sonata No. 1. Ostensibly written with the death of Stalin in mind, its harshness never wavered and eventually dissapated in endless if precisely played waves of twelve-tone acidity. Clarinetist Moran Katz then joined the trio for another world premiere, Laura Kaminsky‘s strikingly intense diptych, Deception. Katz’s moody, richly burnished low register in tandem with the cello built an air of mystery and foreboding, occasionally punctured by the piano. The second movement worked clever variations via individual voices in a very Debussy-esque arrangement that also offered a nod to Shostakovich and possibly Penderecki as well.

The evening’s funniest moment was when Norderval sang a brief Bryant Kong setting of Donald Rumsfeld doublespeak about known knowns and known unknowns and so forth: it brought to mind Phil Kline‘s Rumsfeld Songs, a lengthier and even funnier take. Jason Eckardt‘s Rendition, for clarinet and piano, made an apt segue, exploring the concept of rendition in both lethal and less lethal forms. It made for a portrayal of both the chillingly robotic, lockstep mentality that justifies the use of torture as well as its numbingly dehumanizing aspects. To close the program on a particularly chilling note, the ensemble switched out the cello for soprano Rachel Rosales, who sang selections from Shostakovich’s subversive 1967 suite Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok. Blok’s hundred-year-old poems celebrate the downfall of the Tsarist regime, but they also make good anthems for freedom fighters looking to destroy any evil empire: they’re hardly pacifist, and Shostakovich was keenly aware of that. And it was there that the horror of totalitarianism came front and center, Rosales’ dynamic delivery ranging from steely irony to fullscale terror over a backdrop that spoke of shock and awe, from the perspective on the receiving end.

December 19, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Week’s Most Entertaining Halloween Show Is Thursday at Merkin Concert Hall

There are some ominously intriguing Halloween shows coming up toward the end of the week. On Halloween, there’s a doublebill with doom-obsessed, gale-force singer Jessi Robertson and murder ballad purveyor Kelley Swindall at the American Folk Art Museum at 5. Trumpeter Pam Fleming’s Dead Zombie Band are doing their creepy big band jazz at a street fair in Ft. Greene starting around 6; pianist Michael Riesman is playing Philip Glass’ score to the remake of Dracula to accompany a screening of the original 1931 film at the Morgan Library at 7; and the Jalopy is putting on an all-murder ballad night at 8 with a cast of familiar Americana faces. But the creepiest show of the week might well be the night before, Oct 30 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall where the American Modern Ensemble, with guest conductor David Alan Miller, play George Crumb’s disquieting Music for a Summer Evening, David Del Tredici’s Dracula and a trio of macabre Robert Paterson pieces about dead soldiers, poltergeists and a full-blown nightmare. And the concert is free, but you need to rsvp to info@chambermusicny.org

Paterson, the world-class marimbist who directs the AME, has great talent for creepy cinematics. His most recent album, Winter Songs – streaming at Spotify – has a somewhat more subtle, muted unease. Although the album has impassioned performances by a crew of well-known singers, the star here turns out to be pianist Blair McMillen, who anchors the songs with a gravitas and a nimbly insistent attack to counterbalance the surrealism of several of the pieces. For example, baritone Jesse Blumberg sings a brief cycle of songs with lyrics taken completely from captchas: he and McMillen manage to keep everything dead serious even as the text gets stranger and sillier.

Wispy winter winds from the strings and woodwind section filter through McMillen’s icicle piano and Paterson’s own marimba in a theme and variations utilizing six texts by Wallace Stevens and others, sung by with an apt austerity by bass-baritone David Neal. Baritone Robert Gardner sings the viciously hilarious Eating Variations, a parody of food fixations and fads, with lyrics by Ron Singer. Like the captcha cycle, it’s all the more funny for the completely deadpan vocals even as the music grows more cartoonish.

The comedy hits a peak as soprano Nancy Allan Lundy gives voice to voicemail messages with varying degrees of absurdity and mischegas. The album winds up with tenor Dimitri Pittas singing Paterson’s cycle Batter’s Box, which imagines a rather trying day on the ballfield as experienced by former Mets allstar catcher Mike Piazza. Try and guess the pitcher and batter – one can’t find the plate with his breaking ball and the other can’t hit it – that Paterson alludes to!

October 25, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maria Schneider’s Lush, Atmospheric Winter Morning Walks: Beauty Triumphs Over Horror

If there’s one thing that defines Maria Schneider‘s work, it’s color. So why would this era’s most dynamic composer in any style of music want to make a monochromatic album? Maybe because it was a challenge. Although Schneider’s big band jazz can be lush and enveloping to the nth degree, writing for string orchestra as she does here gives her a chance to build lingering long-tone themes that would be less suited to the reeds and brass of her jazz orchestra. Both suites on her most recent, death-obsessed album Winter Morning Walks are sung by Dawn Upshaw, an apt choice of vocalist considering that she’s as at home in both the avant garde and in jazz – notably in her collaborations with Wynton Marsalis – as she is in the classical world.

The first suite is orchestrations of poems by Ted Kooser, which debuted on NPR and document his predawn strolls while battling through chemotherapy (which he happily survived). The second is Schneider’s orchestral scores of text by iconic Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The music of both is remarkably cohesive, and pretty much through-composed in keeping with the uneven meters of the poems: there’s very little repetition here. Upshaw is backed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the first and on the second by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra along with core members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra: pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and multi-reedman Scott Robinson on alto and bass clarinet.

Music inspired by impending doom has seldom been more gorgeous. An aptly drifting tone poem opens the initial suite, Upshaw’s clipped vocals growing more agitated against scurrying strings which then drive the music to a lull. Kimbrough’s steady, minimalist piano pairs with Robinson’s optimistic clarinet, then Upshaw delivers a mantra of sorts over a theme that grows uneasy despite the lushness underneath. A tender piano/strings interlude illustrates the point where Kooser’s wife joins him on one of his excursions. A calmly pulsing after-the-storm tableau gets followed by the menacing miniature Our Finch Feeder, with echoes of circus rock and noir cabaret, then a hopeful, crescendoing interlude. Nebulous, balmy orchestration gives way to a big bravura vocal crescendo on the final segment.

The de Andrade suite is more in the vein of Schneider’s extraordinarily vivid large ensemble jazz. The opening prologue sounds like an Ernesto Lecuona piece with lusher strings and English vocals – it gets creepier as it trails out. The Dead in Frock Coats, a plaintive, cello-fueled waltz in disguise, comes next, followed by the minimalist lullaby Souvenir of the Ancient World. The best song on the album, the absolutely chilling, majestically menacing Don’t Kill Yourself, blends hints of Arabic music with vintage Gil Evans Out of the Cool noir (which makes sense since Schneider was Evans’ greatest protegee). The album ends with an ominously throbbing vamp concealed in a cloud of strings. This is an album best enjoyed on your phone or your pod or your earphones – it’s best heard up close where Schneider’s intricacies can draw you into a reverie and then jar you out of it when least expected.

Now where else can you hear this album? Not at Spotify, or Instantencore (the classical counterpart to Bandcamp). Not at Schneider’s Youtube channel. However, Schneider streams much of her catalog at her site: you can get absolutely lost in the amazing stuff that’s up there.

May 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Personal As Political: Ulrich Hartung Uncovers the Hidden Meaning in Schubert’s Winterreise

If you’re in a quirky mood, or want to jumpstart your brain, you can always resequence album tracks. And if you’re tired, or just lazy, you can always hit “shuffle play.” But would you consider reversing the order of the movements of, say, a Beethoven symphony, in concert? As a joke, maybe.

But what if rearranging the order of an iconic suite brought a hidden meaning to light? That’s what baritone Ulrich Hartung did with Schubert’s Winterreise suite Friday night at the Liederkranz Society, revealing it as not only a classic of proto-existentialist tunesmithing but also as a thinly veiled political broadside. Over the years there’s been a tempest in a teaspoon over how the suite should be performed: in the order that Schubert followed (the traditional way), or in the original sequence of Wilhelm Muller poems that the composer set to music? Hartung chose the latter and let the songs validate his claim, in the process raising the suite’s already haunting intensity several notches. What became inarguably clear only a few songs into it was that Schubert’s music follows precisely the same trajectory as the lyrics.

We often forget the brutal repression that so many classical composers toiled under. In the extensive program notes for the concert, an excerpt from his doctoral dissertation, Hartung reminded that both Schubert and Muller were subject to routine censorship under the pre-1848 dictatorship. Was it possible that Schubert shuffled the deck a little to get it past the censors? It would seem so. Schubert hasn’t been remembered as a freedom fighter: one simple move by Hartung, and the numerous others in his camp, changes that view considerably.

The suite has come down to us tagged as a Herrmann Hesse-like depiction of alienation and lovelorn angst, and that’s how it reads on the surface. “Fremd bin ich einzegogen, Fremd zieh ich wieder aus [I arrived a stranger, I left a stranger]”, Hartung sang with elegant restraint but also haggard bravado to open the suite. By the end. he’d reached the point where Muller’s protagonist is out on the ice with the hurdy-gurdy man, pondering if he should beseech the guy – who’s probably drunk and homeless – to play these songs. Awash in moody nocturnal ambience, Hartung maintained a steely, resolute calm that he only rose from occasionally during the performance, singing and then playing crystalline, resonantly measured lines on alto sax at the end. The cruel surrealism was shattering.

The foreshadowing on the way there made that conclusion all the more powerful. Especially during the opening songs, a subtly sarcastic, anthemic sensibility rose to the surface, pianist Juan Pablo Horcasitas playing Stefan Kozinski’s arrangement with a gracefully deadpan matter-of-factness, joined by Eric Lemmon on viola, Lenae Harris on cello, Lis Rubard on horns and Shelly Bauer on reeds. A handful of suspiciously jaunty waltzes are interspersed among Schubert’s lustrously terse balladry, Hartung and Horcasitas teaming to raise their sardonic edge, letting the subtext and symbolism speak for themselves. Antiwar and antifascist imagery appeared everywhere, Hartung’s precise, cantabile diction especially helpful for those in the audience with limited command of German. In so doing, he gave every reason for reading the traveler’s exhaustion and emotional depletion as an exile in his own land railing against the occupation. The brief, next-to-last song in Muller’s sequence is Mut (Courage): on the surface, it reflects on abandonment, but on a political level it’s a call to arms. So many composers from throughout the ages have had to battle with repressive regimes: it’s time to acknowledge Schubert for his contribution.

April 11, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Festival of Song Transcends Category

For almost three decades now, the New York Festival of Song has staged many concert series around town that fall loosely under the category of art-song. Some of the material is on the operatic side, some veering toward cabaret, occasionally venturing toward art-rock or further to the edge of the avant garde. While the most recent one last week was staged at the National Opera Center, both the bill and the performance were characteristically eclectic.

Composition-wise, it was no surprise that the high point of the evening would be a triptych of text from Hamlet, brought to life with a vividly acidic austerity by Amy Beth Kirsten. Soprano Justine Aronson gave it an aptly grim, arioso rendition over brilliantly diverse pianist Thomas Sauer‘s haunting, bell-like resonance. The night’s funniest moment was a snarkily ridiculous portrait of a paparazzi (or someone who seems to want to be one) written by jazz piano luminary Fred Herschalso performed by Aronson and Sauer. Aronson later brought  richly nuanced, poignant vocalese to a setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem by composer Russell Platt, pianist Michael Barrett adding a nocturnal lustre.

Harold Meltzer, who’d organized the night, was also represented by an unorthodox series of chamber ensembles featuring both acoustic guitar and mandolin: his circular, Reichian riffs and spacious phrases were the bill’s most modern elements. Aronson and Sauer delivered a dynamically-charged, crescendoing triptych by James Matheson whose idioms spanned from the baroque to the neoromantic. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger took a Scott Wheeler setting of Wallace Stevens straight into grand guignol. And toward the end, Aronson again teamed with Barrett for a droll litany of “ark luggage” (flea powder and champagne included on the list) by David Lang.

The next concert in NYFOS’ current season is at Merkin Concert Hall on April 14 at 8 PM, a Spanish-inspired bill with music of Shostakovich, Taneyev, Wolf, Schumann, Granados and others, sung by soprano Corinne Winters and tenor Theo Lebow, with Barrett or Steven Blier at the piano. There’s also a spring gala at Carnegie Hall and the more informal, theatrically-infused ongoing series uptown at Henry’s Restaurant at 2745 Broadway.

April 3, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment