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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.

With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.

He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.

“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.

Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.

There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.

Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.

The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut

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September 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deep in the Catacombs, Harp and Strings Never Sounded More Menacing

You probably wouldn’t expect a concert in a graveyard to be particularly lively. But this past evening’s program deep in Green-Wood Cemetery was as intimately ferocious as it was macabre. With only candles and a couple of low-watt ceiling lamps illuminating the private catacombs there, impresario Andrew Ousley introduced Bridget Kibbey as “The dark gothic goddess of the harp.” That description no doubt reflected her decision to hang out by herself down there before the show and practice for a couple of hours, in the company of about 120 fulltime residents contained in thirty family crypts.

Obviously, not everything Kibbey plays is morbid, nor were there any dirges on this particular bill. But the performance had enough grimness and sheer terror for any respectable Halloween event. Joining forces with an allstar string quartet – violinists Chad Hoopes and Grace Park, violist Matthew Lipman and cellist Mihai Marica – Kibbey opened with Debussy’s Dances Sacred and Profane. Beyond the piece’s kaleidoscopic dynamics, what was most viscerally striking is how loud it was down there. For anyone who might assume that chamber music is necessarily sedate, this was a wild wake-up call.

The space’s resonance is just as remarkable: no matter how intricate Kibbey’s lattice of notes became, they all lingered, an effect that powerfully benefited the string section as well. And the sheer volume afforded a listener a rare chance to revel in Debussy’s echoing exchanges of riffs, not to mention his clever shifts in and out of Asian pentatonic mode, his jaunty allusions to French ragtime and occasional gargoylish motives.

As omnipresent and fiery as Kibbey’s volleys of notes were, the most adrenalizing point of the concert was Hoopes’ solo midway through Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie, robustly arranged by Kibbey for violin and harp. Careening like he was about to leave the rails for good, his notes lept and flailed with a feral abandon, grounded by Kibbey’s alterlnately sparkling and looming attack.

Likewise, her use of the harp’s low register was one of the most stunning aspects of her solo arrangement of Bach’s Toccata in D. In that context, it was fascinating to hear how much of that organ work’s pedal line she retained. As perfomance, it was pure punk rock. Kibbey confided that she’d come up with it on a dare – and that the dude who dared her remains a friend. At the very end, she abandoned Bach’s seesaw drive toward an end that’s been coming a mile away for a long time, then blasted through every red light and tossed off that otherwise immortal five-chord coda in what seemed like a split second. The effect was as funny as it was iconoclastic.

Lipman took centerstage with his alternately balletesque and plaintive lines in Kibbey’s cinematic duo version of Britten’s Lachrymae. As she explained it, the piece is far from morose – describing it as a tour of a mansion was spot-on. The group closed with a piece that Kibbey and Marica have had creepy fun with in the past, Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique. As it followed the grand guignol detail of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, the ensemble spun an uneasily rising and then suspensefully falling tapestry. They maxed out the trick ending, the 11 PM hour where the entitled types at Poe’s masked ball get a hint of a reality check. When death himself showed his face, the carnivalesque payoff was a mighty one. Despite temperatures in the pleasantly loamy-smelling catacombs being at least twenty degrees lower than they were topside, everybody was out of breath by the end.

Afterward, a refreshingly airconditioned shuttle bus returned to pick up anyone who had to rush for the train down the hill. Those not pressed for time had the option of taking a leisurely fifteen-minute walk back through the graves, lit only by the night sky and the occasional tiki torch.

This concert series began in a smaller crypt space in Harlem and has made a welcome migration to Brooklyn. Along with the music, there are always noshes and drinks beforehand as part of the package. This time it was small-batch whiskey: upstate distillery Five & 20, whose overproof rye glistens with the bite of five New York varietals, stole that part of the show.

If these mostly-monthly events intrigue you, be aware that the best way to find out when they’re happening is via the organizers’ email list. You can sign up at deathofclassical.com, unsurprisingly, tickets go very fast.

August 6, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Early Music Luminary Richard Egarr Makes a Long-Awaited Mostly Mozart Festival Debut

Fans of classical music may find it hard to believe that harpsichord virtuoso Richard Egarr is finally making his Mostly Mozart Festival debut at Lincoln Center this July 27 and 28 at 7:30 PM. The tireless leader of the Academy of Ancient Music records and tours relentlessly – one can only imagine that it’s his grueling schedule that’s kept him from being part of the festival until now. This time out he’ll join the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and flute soloist Jasmine Choi in a program that includes Handel’s Concerto Grosso and Sonata à Cinque plus portions of his iconic Water Music suite. There’ll also be iconic Bach on the bill: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, plus his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. As a bonus for those who can get to Lincoln Center early, guitarist Jiji opens the night at 6:30, playing works by Albeniz, Paganini, Marais and Bach. You can get in for $35.

Egarr plays with masterful baroque precision but also High Romantic ferocity. Those attributes are far from incompatible considering that the repertoire he’s so passionate about was radical in its day. To get a sense of his approach, give a spin to his epic double-cd recording of the Bach Partitas, BWV 825-830, streaming at Spotify. From the spiky curlicues of the ornamentation of the prelude that opens the first partita, to the majestic mathematics of the finale of the sixth, the way Egarr make the harpsichord sparkle and then whir is breathtaking. But Egarr doesn’t merely content himself with working up a storm on the keys. He’s gone inside the music to find the secret codes that the composer loved so much.

The most dramatic is the passion play in the sixth partita. As Egarr explains with considerable relish in the liner notes – after all, he’s solved the puzzle – Bach’s first clue is to provide the time signature as “perfect time” rather than a prosaic 4/4. The harpsichordist explains how the composer creates numerological Biblical imagery to illustrate a familiar tale that’s usually a very grim one – this ends with a triumphant flourish.

Within these bejewelled mazes of harmony, Egarr doesn’t limit himself to standard, metronomic rhythm, either, as you’ll hear in the lilting sarabande on the way to that big payoff. Although it’s less noticeable, he takes his time getting into the mighty anthem that opens the second partita before it goes scampering and brightens somewhat. And in the same vein as a jazz player providing a bonus outtake that was too hot to leave off the album, he offers two versions of the pouncing finale to the third partita. On the surface, a lot of this looks back to Bach’s mentor, Buxtehude, but the harmonic and rhythmic innovations are vastly more complex. For those with the cash, this weekend’s Mostly Mozart Festival program offers a real trip in time back to what was once  the world’s cutting edge in serious concert music.

July 23, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Johnny Gandelsman’s Album of Solo Bach Works for Violin: A Revelatory Magnum Opus

Johnny Gandelsman is the first violinist of one of the world’s most consistently interesting string quartets, Brooklyn Rider, advocates for some of this era’s most individualistic composers. As buyers of classical albums are probably aware, Gandelsman’s epic solo recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas – streaming at Bandcamp  topped the classical charts earlier this year, a more substantial feat than most people might realize. While the vinyl renaissance keeps gaining traction, it’s impossible to know just how many units are being moved since artists don’t typically report them. And keep in mind that the bestselling album of two years ago among all styles of music was a Mozart box set.  

For those who haven’t heard Gandelsman’s magnum opus, it’s everything anybody could want from a number one record. It’s arguably the most cantabile performance of these pieces ever recorded. Gandelsman approaches the material as a singer would, not only segment by segment – which run the length of the emotional spectrum – but seemingly line by line.

The secret to his technique is his legato. You can hear it in his work with Brookyn Rider, most strikingly in the group’s hauntingly lustrous take of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131, from their 2012 Seven Steps album.

Most musicians who play Bach tend to drift toward a mechanical rhythm. Then there’s a small contingent who decide that Bach’s steady note values don’t count for anything, and play rubato, with predictably befuddling results. Gandelsman doesn’t do either. Much of Bach has an inner swing – often, a shuffle rhythm – and he finds that wherever it exists. Other times, he lets the ornamentation serve as contrast to rhythmic steadfastness. And when he digs in with a razor’s edge staccato, as in the biting, leaping seventh movement of the Partita No. 1, the contrast is breathtaking.

This isn’t an album you can hear once and completely grasp. The more you hear it, the more of an ode to joy it turns out to be – but if the best you can do is play this in the background during dinner, you’re missing the point. What Gandelsman is going for here, beyond technical dazzle, is close emotional attunement. Bach loved stories, and secret codes – this is as close to a skeleton key as exists for this often wildly dynamic music.

It would be overkill to dissect each suite segment by segment. But there are innumerable interludes to get lost in (and if there’s any composer you can get completely lost in, it’s Bach). The way Gandelsman weaves through the ornamentation to introduce the opening adagio of the very first Sonata is as playful as it is stately – “charmingly antique” might explain how someone else would do it.

There are some dances here, but they don’t necessarily leap and bound. More likely than not, they flow gracefully, whether with the muted bittersweetness of the second movement of the first Partita, or the almost conspiratorial pulse of its presto finale. And even in the quasi-Vivaldi of the fourth movement, Gandelsman wrings as much sheer sound out of those volleys of eighth notes as any human not armed with an organ could possibly obtain.

Gandelsman parses the Sonata No. 1 from forlorn, to brooding, then determined and finally slithery – what a transformation! The build-down from suspense to partial resolution in Sonata No. 3 is also revelatory. The storm that rips at the chaconne that closes Partita No. 2 might be the both the album’s most technically challenging and adrenalizing moment.

Gandelsman doesn’t have any solo shows coming up, but popular young-ish orchestra the Knights, who often share band members with Brooklyn Rider, are playing the Naumburg Bandshell on July 17 at 7:30 PM with a program of works by Anna Clyne, Brahms and Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat.

July 12, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thrills and Rare Insight From Tosca Opdam and Victor Stanislavsky at Carnegie Hall Last Night

Last night at Carnegie Hall, violinist Tosca Opdam was one step removed from the hardest kind of performance a musician can deliver: a solo show. She settled for second hardest, a duo set with pianist Victor Stanislavsky that was both a guided tour of the innermost secrets of music stretching across four centuries…not to mention a lusciously tuneful ride.

There’s a point during the first movement of Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Harpsihcord, BWV 1016 where the rhythm takes a subtle shift behind a vastly more dramatic turn, as the melody leaves a calmly lively fugal motion for a sudden descent into the shadows. Over a hundred years later, Debussy did exactly the same thing – in a completely different idiom – in his only Violin Sonata. Did the godfather of Modernism know of his predecessor’s work? From how Opdam and Stanislavsky approached both of those moments, moving in unison with a judiciously wary, balletesque grace, the answer seemed obvious.

On one hand, that’s why Juilliard exists, to steep the next generation of serious concert artists in the tradition so they can make connections like these. On the other hand, programs like this too seldom do. For whatever reason, Stanislavsky played the Bach with a lilt, just a hair behind the beat, an unusual approach. Then again, Bach didn’t write for the piano, so there’s bound to be something unusual about anything by Bach played on it. The effect was well-suited to Opdam’s spun-silk filigrees, jaunty leaps and bounds and contrastingly plaintive washes.

Another parallelism later in the program was just as stunning. The second of two Korngold miniatures from his Much Ado About Nothing Suite built a rather twisted, carnivalesque, marionettish pulse. A similarly sardonic danse macabre recurred in the second movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D, Op. 94.5, and once again the duo brought out every bit of grimness and greasepaint.

And that’s where Opdam built what had already been a thrilling program to exit velocity. Violin sonatas exist first and foremost for showcasing dazzling technique, and up to this point she’d parsed the stately baroque, the wistful late Romantic and some playful phantasmagoria. As the concert built momentum, she allowed herself a smile after each piece was up – if you could have played these pieces like she did, you would have been smiling too. It wasn’t until a particularly slithery hairpin turn in the third movement of the Prokofiev that she allowed herself an unselfconscious bit of a grin midway through, a whispery of a “yesssss!”

There was also a new commission on the bill, introducing the Prokofiev with what was supposed to be a shifting seaside tableau, matched by Opdam’s lavish costume change, but which came across as more of a portrait of peevish obsessiveness. Stanislavsky, who excels particularly with the Romantics, seemed absolutely baffled as to how to approach it and he wasn’t alone. The duo seemed to be trying as hard as they could through some awkwardness and got some polite applause for their efforts. They’d be rewarded with three standing ovations after treating the audience to a warmly welcoming, neoromantic miniature of an encore by Dutch composer Henriette Bosmans.

Opdam’s next  concert is on her home turf at the Stedelijk Museum, Museumplein 10 in Amsterdam, on July 7. 

June 5, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fearless, Passionate, Revelatory Solo Performance by Pianist Remi Geniet

Playing earlier today at the Morgan Library, pianist Remi Geniet found striking common ground in a Bach chaconne, a Beethoven sonata and a twisted trio of pieces from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. But Geniet’s agenda, on a program staged by Young Concert Artists, seemed to be a lot more ambitious than merely assembling context to highlight how amazingly modern Bach’s harmonies could be. This show was all about contrasts… and conversations. Not simply one hand answering the other, but an intimately intense study in how composers alternate voices and develop dialogues – or, in the case of Prokofiev, eventually let a series of distinct and downright strange personalities into the picture.

Geniet brought all that into in hi-res focus: it was like getting a close-up of Beethoven’s eyes. Or Bach’s, or Ferrucio Busoni’s, which were responsible for the 1893 Bach transcription that Geniet played first. Dynamic shifts from a careful stroll to several crescendos of tumbling cascades, where the pianist threw caution to the wind and turned the afterburners on, were razor-sharp. The effect was the same with the conspiratorial whispers that led up to the stampede at the very end. Other pianists have probably played cleaner versions of this arrangement, but it’s hard to imagine one with more color and passion than this one.

The melodic development and tangents of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110 are more expansive, but Geniet’s approach was the same. The energetic twinkle that the composer works up in the first movement turned out to be more meteor shower than starry night. Likewise, the sense of loss and abandonment in Geniet’s austere, muted phrasing as the second movement slowly built steam was absolutely harrowing. And the sense of questioning in the gritty waltz after was no less uncompromising. The pianist’s relentless lefthand drive made a welcome change from the innumerable safe, cookie-cutter performances of this piece.

Closing with the Russian Dance and scenes from both Petrouchka’s cell and the shrovetide fair – a solo piano arrangement so difficult that the composer himself couldn’t play it – was the icing on this Halloween cake. As he did with the two previous pieces, Geniet didn’t settle for the kind of icepick staccato that would have enabled a smoother ride through this gleefully macabre ballet: he savaged the chromatics, and eerie close harmonies to let them resonate, even if that translated only in split seconds. In the same vein, that long vamp in Petrouchka’s cell, with spectres flickering and flitting overhead, became all the more menacingly hypnotic.

Stravinsky has great fun playing ever-increasingly sadistic puppeteer with these themes, and Geniet reveled in yanking an ever-increasing cast of personalities up, and down, and sideways, mercilessly. After all the dichotomies of the rest of the program – caution versus passion, despondency versus guarded hope – it was a chance to completely go for broke. The audience gave him a series of standing ovations for it.

Geniet’s next performance is on March 2 at 8 PM at Powell Hall in St. Louis with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, playing Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on a bill also including works by Schumann and Semetana; tix are selling out and it doesn’t look like anything more affordable than $33 seats are still left. And Young Concert Artists’ popular series of performances by a global cast of up-and-coming talent continues this Feb 28 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall with bassist Xavier Foley playing solo works by Bach, Sperger and Franck plus his own compositions; you can get in for as little as $10.

February 21, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Riveting Performance by One of the World’s Great Organists

About midway through the concert this past evening at St. Ignatius of Loyola, a sad, rustic Celtic air wafted from the organ console. For fans of Irish folk tunes – many of whom were in the audience – it was a familiar and probably comforting sound. But others were taken by surprise, notwithstanding that the piece was on the program. After all, it’s not every day that you can hear the plaintive microtones and otherworldly drones of uilleann pipes at a performance of classical organ music.

And it wasn’t organist Renee Anne Louprette who was playing those particular pipes. It was Ivan Goff. As his composition To Inishkea slowly built austere, funereal ambience, Louprette added calmly resonant chords whose harmonies were counterintuitive to the point where it seemed that this might have been a joint improvisation. Cornered after the show, she revealed that she’d actually written out her parts. Is she also a Celtic musician? Avidly so – she also plays uilleann pipes, and Goff is her teacher. If she’s a tenth as good as he is, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

That world premiere interlude – which also included a lively if sepulchral Irish air from 1852, a more subdued Swedish waltz and a traditional slide dance – was typical of the poignancy and innovation that Louprette is known for. The big news is that she’ll be premiering a new commission for all those pipes with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and if that we’re lucky, we’ll get her to air out the smaller ones all by herself sometime in the future.

She opened the concert with a confident, ultimately triumphant build through the long upward trajectories of two Bach organ pieces from the Klavierubung. The effect was heroism but not pageantry. At the reception afterward, more than one spectator commented on how Louprette does not let notes die on the vine – she lets them resonate for every millisecond of what the score requires. That issue is a big deal these days among string players, but it also applies to keyboardists.

Louprette’s steadiness and sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic dynamic shifts carried a theme and variations from French composer Nicholas de Grigny’s abbreviated but pioneering Livre d’Orgue. She took that energy to the rafters throughout Ad Wammes’ colorful Myto, from playful motorik rhythms, to what could have been the robust title theme from an action movie – Snowboarding the Matterhorn, maybe? – to sudden blasts of angst.

A transcription of a Nadia Boulanger improvisation made an aptly pensive introduction to the evening’s coda, a transcendent, often harrowing interpretation of Maurice Durufle’s Suite, Op. 5. As with the Bach, she built steam matter-of-factly through an epic with a chilling, stalking opening theme, towering peaks punctuated by clever echo effects, a ghostly dance on the flute stops and a deliciously icy interlude played with the tremolo way up before the mighty gusts began. Durufle was a friend of Jehan Alain, and was profoundly saddened by Alain’s death: the many plaintive quotes from Alain’s music leapt out precisely at the most prominent moments. Or at least that’s how Louprette played them. Beyond sheer chops and emotional attunement to the piece, Louprette knows this organ like the back of her hand, having been at St. Ignatius for several years beginning in the mid-zeros.

Louprette’s new album Une voix françaisee/A French Voice is just out; her next concert is March 18 at 3 PM at St. Joseph Memorial Chapel at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA  And the slate of organ recitals at St. Ignatius continues on March 21 at 8 PM featuring a lavish program of solo, choral and orchestral works by Bach. $25 tix are available.

February 18, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

December 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ACME Thrive on Routine – Seriously

For over  a decade, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble have relentlessly championed American composers, and the New York indie classical scene in particular. Since the mid-zeros, this semi-rotating chamber group – many of whose members are composers themselves – have recorded music as diverse as noir film themes, works for dance and a New York Mets themed song cycle (go Mets in 2017!).  The group are playing the album release show for their latest one, Thrive on Routine – streaming at WQXR – at 8 PM on Feb 13 at Roulette; $20 advance tix are still available as of today.

ACME member and violist Caleb Burhans’ string piece Jahrzeit, which opens the album, has an uneasy, lustrous haze that shifts through a series of changing meters. A requiem for his father, it comes across as a search to capture an image lost forever, a longing for a return to focus. Just as that clarity seems to be within reach, the music becomes more loopy and hypnotic.

Clarice Jensen plays the first of two Caroline Shaw pieces, In Manus Tuas, solo on cello. Inspired by a particular striking moment in a Thomas Tallis motet, the lingering mini-suite is a surreal mashup of a single, imaginary Elizabethan choral line and echoey, insistent minimalism, a pleasant Groundhog Day of sorts. Shaw is a singer, and a good one: there’s a strong, resonantly cantabile quality that’s often strikingly subsumed in a wash of overtones.

Timo Andres plays a second and similarly hypnotic Shaw piece, Gustave le Gray, solo on piano. Although the composer took her inspiration from Chopin’s A Minor Mazurka, the obvious comparison is the famous E Minor prelude. When it suddenly becomes untethered from an aching insistence, the effect is stunning.

Burhans, Jensen and violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell play the title track, an Andres string quartet inspired by Charles Ives’ predawn gardening and Bach obsession. It’s funny: tweety birds waking up in stillnes, a dazed man with a hoe, a bustling rush hour scene, oblique references to the venerable American transcendentalist and to Philip Glass eventually all make an appearance.

The final piece is John Luther Adams’ desolate and ultimately macabre tableau In a Treeless Place, Only Snow, the string quartet and Andres’ piano bolstered by Peter Dugan on celesta and the twin vibraphones of Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama. Its starry stillness brings to mind the vibraphone nocturnes of Robert Paterson. And its allusive themes of eco-disaster – and maybe eco-revenge – speak as strongly as his global warming-themed suite Become Ocean.

February 12, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Awestruck, Transcendent, Epic Grandeur from the Spectrum Symphony

One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.

Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.

Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.

Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.

Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,

November 6, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment