Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Springtime Blossoms in Boston With a Concert of Vivid World Premieres

Last night at the Multicultural Art Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Juventas New Music Ensemble played eight verdant world premieres celebrating the Frederick Law Olmsted bicentennial. In a spot-on example of post-March 2020 programming, the bill was titled Lungs of the City. It was a breath of fresh air on many levels.

A subset of the ensemble – which comprised flutist Wei Zhao, clarinetist Wolcott Humphrey, horn player Anne Howarth, violinist Ryan Shannon, cellist Minjin Chung, violist Lu Yu and percussionist Thomas Schmidt – went off script to open with a sober arrangement the Ukrainian national anthem. With the stark cello introduction, it seemed like more of an elegy than a celebration of solidarity. Such are the times we live in.

The first piece on the program was The Forest and the Architect, by Christina Rusnak. The Portland, Oregon tableau began with elegantly cheerful passages spotted with moments of more somber reflection, moody clarinet over a gently emphatic march and a visceral sense of relief. Burred woodwind timbres and a dancing, enigmatic, circular theme quickly gave way to a lush pastorale and then a dance kicked off by woody flute tones. A terse interweave with lower pitches developed to mingle with the initial theme: this music breathed, deeply.

Ryan Suleiman‘s still, meditative Piece of Mind was inspired by Olmsted’s Brookline home workshop, as well as the Japanese concept of a park coexisting with nature rather than being imposed on its milieu. Subtly breathtaking long tones and circular breathing from the wind players were first punctuated by momentary sprouts in the ether, then the group slowly unfolded a calm series of harmonies. Like a muezzin, Chung’s cello sounded a bracing trill before the whole group returned to calmly shifting tectonic sheets.

That work’s minimalism was echoed more playfully by Libby Meyer‘s diptych Beauty of the Fields. Butterfly weed was brought to life by minutely oscillating overtones from Schmidt’s vibraphone behind a minimalistically balmy flute theme sailing on the breeze. With echoey percussion through a buzzy haze, evocations of muted insect activity and birdsong, her portrait of milkweed just might have involved somebody plucking a ripe stalk and blowing it on an unsuspecting neighbor.

Ayumi Okada‘s tantalizingly brief partita Golden Hour Walk at Fort Tryon Park traced the Washington Heights composer’s 2021 winter solstice stroll through her favorite spots there just as the sun was about to go down over the Hudson. It was characteristically evocative, beginning as a wistful pavane and growing more animated, with Carl Nielsen-esque echo phrases bouncing from voice to voice. Baroque inflections, elegantly intertwined horn and flute, and colorfully squirrelly pizzicato rose to a lushness that contrasted with shivery strings and silken flute lines. The final sunset theme became a gently wafting, Dvorakian singalong.

Composer Justin Ralls related that prior to creating parks, Olmsted worked as an undercover journalist chronicling the horrors of slavery in the American south, and that those experiences informed the democratic aspect of his designs. Ralls’ Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations reflected the bustle of the landscape assembled around Seattle’s Lincoln Reservoir. Somewhat akin to Peer Gynt taking a stroll in the garden, the group’s long tones coalesced from echoes of a familiar, sunny morning theme to a rather triumphant, steady, circular pulse fueled by the highs. Tight polyrhythmic counterpoint receded to a reflective, echoing quiet signaled by Schmidt’s lingering vibes.

The most unselfconsciously catchy piece on the bill was Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Indian-flavored mini-suite Olmsted Gardens. Anticipatory sprouts of melody pushed up, to a cheery carnatic flute theme followed by a deliciously coy, suspenseful interlude with film noir bongos, furtive individual voicings having devious fun in the shadows. The group took it out with an anthemic return to the initial dance.

Also on the bill were an unhurried, warmly crescendoing Oliver Caplan ballad without words, and a similarly fond summer pageant by Nell Shaw Cohen bookended around a cautious dance.

Those who missed the concert can catch the video of the entire performance here. Juventas New Music Ensemble’s next scheduled concert is June 5 at 6 PM at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts. Tickets are $18, ages 4-12 get in for $12.

March 27, 2022 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rising Star Composer Ayumi Okada Brings Her Vivid, Picturesque, Cinematic Sounds to Upper Manhattan

Pianist/composer Ayumi Okada writes vivid, cinematic songs without words. Her music is full of stories, and humor, and unselfconscious depth. Much as her sense of melody is appealingly consonant, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a neoromantic: she’s most at home in the borderlands with Debussy and Ravel. A composer-performer, she’s premiering a new piano quintet with a first-class chamber ensemble including star cellist James Waldo on March 10 at 7:30 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 20 Cumming St. in Washington Heights. The group will also play music of Dvorak, Bach, Johann Goldberg, Caroline Shaw and Doug Balliett; admission is $15/$10 stud. Take the 1 train to Dyckman St.

Okada’s debut album is Here, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins – streaming at Spotify  – a beguiling mix of chamber works. It opens with Okada’s String Quartet No. 1 a steady, bittersweetly theme with echoes of Dvorak and baroque-inflected counterpoint that gives way to a stormily dancing pulse which she elegantly ends up bringing full circle. There’s an arthouse film with a philosophical poignancy that needs this for when the main titles roll, a strongly voiced performance by Waldo, violinists Karen Dekker and Meredith Ezinma Ramsay and violist Rose Hashimoto.

The second work, Cape Roca has a similarly picturesque sweep, Waldo’s austere lines against resonant glimmer and then gracefully ornamented neoromanticism from pianist Alyona Aksyonova. The miniature A Walk in the Park is a showcase for Okada’s playful sense of humor, Aksyonova’s devious leaps and bounds in tandem with peek-a-boo clarinet from Yumi Ito bookending a momentary cloud passing across the sky.

Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the standard orchestration of piano, violin and cello hints at chromatic Shostakovian menace in between stately Piazzolla-esque passages and hints of late Romanticism. The album concludes with a triptych, the Light Princess Suite. Aksyonova plays a majestically enigmatic, emphatically waltzing theme over Waldo’s austere washes in the first movement. The second, where the rest of the strings join in, is awash in moody high/low, still/kinetic contrasts in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s more airy chamber works. Once again, Waldo’s starkness grounds the piano’s dancing, Debussyesque figures as the suite winds out, artfully shifting meters. It’s Okada at her most colorful and picturesque: this intrepidly dancing  creature takes a lot of detours, but she can’t be stopped.

March 8, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Introducing Ayumi Okada

One of the unfortunate repercussions of the 12-tone revolution is that narrative often ended up taking a backseat to structure. For a composer, the decision to deliberately avoid any kind of melodic consonance makes it considerably more difficult to create a portrait or relate a story other than “life is painful and chaotic.” True as that may be, it’s only part of the picture. That’s where composers like Ayumi Okada come in. Saturday, as part of the up-and-coming Listen Closely chamber music series in Inwood, Okada’s vivid, painterly neoromantic compositions and their influences got a meticulous, detailed workout via a series of group and solo performances. Cellist/impresario James Waldo paired a matter-of-fact take on the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor with Okada’s naturalistic tableau In the Ancient Forest,  the woods bursting into life with playful activity, making a memorable dichotomy with the piece’s rapt, underlying ambience. Flute virtuoso David Ordovsky followed a colorful, wryly entertaining take on Debussy’s Syrinx for Solo Flute with Okada’s 2010 partita Daydreams for Solo Flute. Utilizing the entirety of the instrument’s register, Ordovsky worked the same kind of lively/still contrasts as the cello piece, moody suspense giving way to catchy, animated motives that reminded of the work of Robert Paterson.

But the most gripping pieces on the bill involved multiple instruments. Waldo described Okada as someone whose music manages to be both “tonal, but fresh and new,” and he’s right on the money. An all-too-brief single-movement String Quartet No. 1 , from 2009, blended a poignant sense of longing into stately baroque counterpoint, shifted to an animated, suspensefully bustling atmosphere and then a warmly dreamy song without words. Violinists Yijia Zhang and Jacqueline Jove joined Waldo and violist Rose Hashimoto for a precise yet lush interpretation.

The other real stunner on the bill was Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, Waldo and Zhang teaming up with pianist Alyona Aksyonova. Uncluttered and brightly lyrical, it was the only work on the bill where the Kyoto-born Okada referenced any Asian tonalities, and even here she cached them within a thicket of western chromatics. Graceful exchanges of voices throughout a strong, cinematic theme led to marvelously stilletto, spacious piano motives, a quick upward sweep and a sudden ending. All together, this was a tantalizing introduction to a composer whose distinctive, colorful voice is making a strong contribution to new music in New York.

As a bonus, it turns out that Hashimoto has a side gig as a pastry chef. Her hand-dipped chocolate cookies are delicious.

April 22, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment