Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mary Ellen Childs’ Wreck: Tension and Terror Below the Waves

Imagine yourself trapped inside the last watertight container of a recently sunken ore boat  at the bottom of Lake Superior. Composer Mary Ellen Childs‘ new album Wreck hauntingly traces the narrative of that vessel and its crew, beginning with the first wave that punched a hole in it. The cinematic eighteen-part suite is all the more haunting for its relentless suspense: while there are moments of sheer horror, and even black humor, they take a back seat to tension. Childs wrote the distantly Indian-tinged theme and variations for chamber quintet as a score to a ballet by Black Label Movement. The Minnesota-based cast of musicians – Jello Slave cellists Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan, Sycamores violinist Laura Harada, clarinetist Pat O’Keefe and percussionist Peter O’Gorman – plays with an understated, singleminded intensity to match the music.

As the title theme unwinds, a searing, distant run down the scale on the cello hints at what’s in store, and it’s ugly; otherwise, this waltzing melody is more wistful than anything else. Beginning with low, ominous bass clarinet, the music picks up with a breakneck pace, an almost comedic sense of everything going wrong that possibly could – or laughter in the face of imminent doom. A heroic theme takes centerstage but is quickly interrupted, then the suspense sets in and pretty much takes over the rest of the way. Gently brooding long-tone meditations ponder what might lie after, austere string motifs moving slowly through the frame. There are occasional electroacoustic moments – a disturbing low speaker hum, flitting ghostly accents, a surrealistically Andriessen-esque, bell-like JamesPatrick remix of Kolokol, a previous Childs piece and a Lynchian soundscape assembled by Neverwas.

After a storm theme with the drums and cymbals crashing, a chilly calm sets in. Have the remaining crew been able to summon help? Or have they decided to meet their fate with a resigned stoicism, even finding the strength within them to console each other? The answer doesn’t make itself clear almost until the end, when the bass clarinet takes over one of Childs’ many intricate polyrhythms. As they diverge or converge, Childs’ haunting, terse melodies offer a quiet salute to courage in the face of unspeakable fear. It’s one of the best albums of the year in any style of music, out now from Innova.

March 13, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Vividly Graceful Ballet Score for Strings by Ljova

Eclectic film composer/viola virtuoso/gypsy rocker Ljova’s latest album, Melting River, is a ballet soundtrack commissioned by choreographer Aszure Barton and developed at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada. The composer calls this his most personal work and it’s without a doubt his most intimate. An alternate title could have been Dancing With Myself – woops, that one’s taken. Playing as a one-man string trio or quartet here, he multitracks and loops himself on two instruments, viola and the custom-made fadolin, a 6-string violin/viola/cello hybrid. The music is elegant but lively, pensive yet liquidly kinetic, anchored by looped or circular phrases in the lower registers as bright melodies sail overhead.

The lithely dancing initial cut, Album Leaf is the most modern, artfully embellishing a simple, circular pizzicato melody and adding voices, some of them electronically processed, until it’s almost as if there’s a brass section playing them. Likewise, There You Have It balances a series of gracefully dexterous, minimalist leaps against  austere swells and then finally variations on a bluesy Gershwinesque riff.

A blend of modernist and High Romantic, the title track, an early spring tableau, could be Philip Glass doing Gabriel Faure, building from hopeful to somewhat anxious as it appears the river has a ways to go before it melts. It ends atmospheric and unresolved. By contrast, a miniature titled Asha works a catchy contrapuntal theme in 7/4 time, spiced with banjo-like pizzicato.

Birds is another narrative, swooping and suddenly looming in anxiously before a wry seagull voice makes an appearance…and then the cycle begins again. Another track in seven, aptly titled 7-4 works some neat contrasts and thematic handoffs between voices and registers over more tricky syncopation, with a jazzier feel than anything else on the album. The final cut, Never is a Good Time, is a Russian gypsy melody at heart, cleverly expanded and given plenty of breathing room. The whole album is streaming at Ljova’s Bandcamp site, something more composers should be doing.

January 4, 2013 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alondra de la Parra Directs a Brilliantly Eclectic Performance at Lincoln Center

There’s a backstory here, and it’s an encouraging, even paradigm-shifting one. Conductor Alondra de la Parra and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas’ new album Mi Alma Mexicana not only reached #1 on the Mexican classical charts, it also reached #2 on the pop charts there. Ironically, that may not be quite as extraordinary an achievement as it would have been ten years ago. But it is compelling evidence that even in the age of downloading, people are still willing to pay for quality. The album seeks to revive interest in pieces by Mexican orchestral composers from the past 150 years or so. Last night, de la Parra and the orchestra treated a sold-out Alice Tully Hall crowd to a handful, opening with Carlos Chavez’ Caballos de Vapor. De La Parra introduced it as “the horsepower suite,” a ballet whose original costumes were created by Diego Rivera. Rarely recorded or played in concert, it’s a richly dynamic piece that deserves to be vastly better known. The intricately bustling mechanics of the first movement grew to a sort of dance of the behemoths, and it was here where de la Parra’s emotional intelligence and meticulous approach really struck home: the crescendo could have become florid, but she wouldn’t let it go completely over the top. Was this supposed to be satirical, a cautionary tale about falling too deeply in love with the Industrial Revolution? Certainly the mournful intensity of the dance themes that followed – a brooding Mexican sandunga that brilliantly mimicked a guitar timbre, a troubled, languid, pulseless tango and a bolero that went from shadowy to almost sepulchral – could be interpreted as its aftereffects. The ensemble played singlemindedly, de la Parra always maintaining plenty of open space for the many brief solo spots, the orchestra parting the waters with split-second efficiency when the moment arrived.

Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a case of lyrics surpassing the quality of the music beneath. Actor Chris Noth (of Sex and the City fame/notoriety) gave Abraham Lincoln’s own words of warning and love for democracy the gravitas the orchestra couldn’t, although they did the best they could with what they had. De la Parra did the opposite of what she’d just done so well with the Chavez as they latched onto pretty much anything of even remote interest in this obviously hastily cobbled together, western movie-tinged, folk song-speckled tone poem by the Norman Rockwell of 20th century music.

The concluding piece, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra was a showstopper, every bit as extraordinary as de la Parra hinted it would be. The conductor emphasized how this orchestra’s mission is to promote composers and soloists from the whole of North America, and sardonically noted the American composer’s mastery of “a form several composers have tried and done successfully, ha ha, some of them…” Percussive as the work is, it paired off terrifically with the Chavez. The first movement built to brisk, intense, percussive yet distantly suspenseful unison riffage; the second, seemingly a tribute to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, paired off the basses and violins playfully as lushness and pleasing, Romantically tinged rondo themes made their appearance. Then the fun began, a series of motifs with a quiet nocturnal flair, some of them wryly swooping, moving through the orchestra, building to lush sostenuto brass passages that wouldn’t have been out of place in Brahms. The unselfconscious sense of fun returned in even fuller effect with the fourth movement and its long, gently unstoppable crescendo for percussion, timpani and kettledrums that owed more to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix (Moby Dick and Machine Gun, specifically) than anything else. De la Parra held the careening polyrhythms tightly to the rails as they rattled through to a triumphant drum roll of a conclusion. The crowd reacted with the delirious enthusiasm of a rock audience: on their feet, they literally wouldn’t let the orchestra go, eventually rewarded for their strenuous efforts with Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo Garcia, a playful, increasingly ornately arranged suite of Mexican folk songs and then Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, variations on a genuinely haunting, ballet-tinged, minor-key theme in the same vein as the well-known folk ballad La Llorona.

October 30, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil Shows Their Mettle

Last night’s concert was a tough gig. The New York Philharmonic have played tougher ones, but this was no walk in the park (pardon the awful pun). And guest conductor Andrey Boreyko pushed them about as far as he could, on a Central Park evening where the air still hung heavy and muggy, helicopters sputtering overhead and, early on, the PA backfiring a little. During the sixth segment of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (the section where the two lovers finally get together), the strings led a long flurry of sixteenth notes and it was only there that any trace of fatigue could be heard. That they got through it with as much aplomb as they did – and then had enough in reserve to triumphantly pull off the roaring swells of the ominous concluding march – speaks for itself. The Russian conductor’s careful attention to minutiae is matched by a robust (some might say relentless) rhythmic drive. The Phil responded just as robustly, resulting in a mutually confident performance that often reached joyous proportions.

This wasn’t your typical outdoor bill of moldy oldies with a thousand forks stuck in them, either. The ensemble opened with fairly obscure Russian Romantic composer Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga, a witch’s tale. With a bit of a battle theme, an elven dance, suspenseful lull and something of a trick ending, it could be the Skirmish of Marston Moor (did Roy Wood know of it when he wrote that piece? It’s not inconceivable).

Branford Marsalis joined them for Glazunov’s Concerto in E Flat for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra, Op. 109. The textural contrast between his austere, oboe-like clarity against the lush, rich atmospherics of the strings was nothing short of exquisite, through the majestic ambience of the opening section, a couple of perfectly precise solo passages and the comfortable little dance that winds it up. He got the opportunity to vary that tone, shifting matter-of-factly through bluesier tinges on twentieth century Czech composer Ervin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonate. A smaller-ensemble arrangement, the suite ran from genial, Kurt Weill-inflected bounce to more complex permutations that could have easily been contemporary big band jazz (imagine an orchestrated Dred Scott piece).

The big hit of the night, unsurprisingly, was the Prokofiev. The ballet could be summed up as unease within opulence, a tone that resonated powerfully from the opening fortissimo fireball and the bitter, doomed martial theme that follows it, through its stately but apprehensive portrayal of Juliet as dancing girl, a richly dynamic take on the masked ball theme, the cantabile sweep of the two lovers parting, Friar Lawrence’s bittersweetly crescendoing scene, and the irony-charged intensity at the end. There were fireworks afterward, none of which could compare with what had just happened onstage – and which provided a welcome opportunity to beat the crowd exiting the park, and the storm that had threatened all evening but never arrived.

July 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment