Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Lustrously Balanced, Cohesive Opening to the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s New Season

It was good to see a pretty packed house for the Greenwich Village Orchestra ‘s first concert of the 2013-14 season earlier this evening in the big, newly renovated auditorium cattycorner from Irving Plaza on lower Irving Place. They’ve been a downtown favorite since the 90s, serving up Carnegie Hall-class programming at considerably reduced prices (a $15 donation, which would get you a nosebleed seat, at best, on 57th Street, was all that was being asked, including a reception to follow). First on the bill was Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, one of those famous pieces that you know even if you think you don’t (classical radio stations often program it at about 45 minutes past the hour since it will take you pretty much all the way to the top). Early on, it was clear that this would be about pillowy nocturnal sonics contrasting with deftly pulsing insistence. There was a calm methodology but also an unselfconscious joy in conductor Barbara Yahr’s presence on the podium – and a twinkle in her eye when Beethoven’s signature humor made itself known, whether there and gone in a second, or in the when-is-this-going-to-end series of surprises as it wound out.

A slightly lesser-known work was next on the bill, the orchestra’s Raman Ramakrishan the featured soloist in Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor. Yahr and the ensemble gave it a seamless, matter-of-factly assured rendition. The work follows a familiar trajectory from apprehension to triumph with many stops in between, the orchestra reaching into its nuances, playing up the composer’s highly balanced approach. Lustrous winds and brass countered balmy strings, with Ramakrishnan taking more the role of a complementary player than front-and-center soloist. Which fit the piece perfectly: aside from some bracing Romany-tinged acrobatics for the cello, this particular role is more about melody and purpose than ostentation, embraced warmly by the whole group.

The piece de resistance was Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, a deftly and intricately orchestrated and altogether underappreciated work. From the unfettered angst fluttering from the cellos as it opened, this turned out to be a richly epic, minutely jeweled, darkly sweeping interpretation, a storm to get completely lost in. Franck’s main axe was the organ – his works for that instrument are some of the 19th century’s most memorable – and there are places in this symphony which hint that it might have been composed on that instrument, with particularly choice, tersely delivered moments from Phil Rashkin’s english horn, Margery Fitts’ harp, Phil Fedora’s bassoon and Shannon Bryant’s oboe. What’s most artful about this piece is that the composer juxtaposes two radically different main themes, one troubled, the other a series of rather cloying, sentimental, pastoral varations that gradually and almost imperceptibly become more enigmatic and ultimately triumphant – rags to riches, musically speaking. And considering the era this piece comes from, there would seem to be a temptation to go for schmaltz with them. But that wasn’t the case: again, calmly and matter-of-factly, Yahr brought them in at the end with an emphatic sense of victory. Depth had won out against what for a moment seemed would be difficult odds.

Yahr leads the orchestra again on November 17 at 3 PM with guest violinist Itamar Zorman playing Moshe Zorman’s Galilean Suite plus Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and the Brahms Violin Concerto at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, Irving Place at 17th St., $15 sugg don, reception to follow.

October 6, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Conductor Farkhad Khudyev Shares His Raison D’Etre

This coming Sunday, March 25, highly regarded up-and-coming conductor Farkhad Khudyev leads the Greenwich Village Orchestra in a 3 PM performance of Kachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Violin Concerto, and the Brahms Symphony No. 3. It looks to be an auspicious connection between like-minded, energetically-inclined purists. A child prodigy on the violin in his native Turkmenistan, Khudyev is Azeri by descent, educated at Interlochen, Oberlin and Yale, and has conducted several orchestras in central Asia and the United States. A thoughtful and passionately honest advocate for the music he performs, Khudyev took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about the concert:

Lucid Culture: Audiences often wonder how orchestras and conductors come together. How did this gig happen? Did you find the GVO or did they find you?

Farkhad Khudyev: Barbara Yahr [the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s conductor] contacted me after looking at my video materials, we met for a cup of coffee and had a lovely time talking about music and the conducting world.

LC: You come from an interesting background as an awardwinning young concert violinist – which was your ticket to a scholarship at Interlochen, the Juilliard of the midwest. How did you get involved with conducting? Has this always been an interest for you?

FK: Conducting has always been something incredibly special to me. I remember when I was studying violin and composition back at Interlochen, the desire to conduct was already coming to me then. Through this mystical and beautiful art I felt I could communicate the best that great artists have given us, while simultaneously bringing my own inner world into the music.

LC: Does conducting get in the way of the violin for you, or vice versa? Which do you prefer – or does it really matter to you?

FK: I try to find time for the violin as much as I can. Currently Australian pianist Stephen Whale and I have been performing as a duo, Duo Fondamento, where we try to bring out a fundamental approach to our interpretation of Beethoven, Brahms, as well as various other sonatas in our repertoire. I also often play with my two brothers, violinist Eldar Khudyev and clarinetist Emil Khudyev, who are fantastic musicians. We’ve done critically acclaimed concerts together at several venues throughout the world as the Khudyev Brothers. Conducting, playing the violin and composing are all closely related, I feel, and all three of these great art forms help me communicate what I have to say through music.

LC: You’re also a composer. How has does that inform your view of how to conduct an orchestra?

FK: Composing has helped me to understand instrumentation, orchestration and most of all I learned how to compose all the great works of great composers for myself again. In other words, I learned to rediscover music that I conduct and bring some fresh air into these great works.

LC: You’ve led a very diverse list of orchestras, from your native Turkmenistan, to Russia, to the USA. As a guest conductor, what’s the main challenge for you?

FK: As guest conductor, it is a challenge to bring all the musicians together and let them trust your own inner world. Once musicians see the truth and depth in your work, trust comes very quickly. I find that first rehearsal is very important. My goal is to inspire every musician in the orchestra so we all have a great experience working together and most importantly a meaningful performance. The GVO is a wonderful orchestra with such friendly and warm musicians. This month has been a great experience for me.

LC: To what degree can a conductor breathe new life into well-known works like these without completely twisting them out of shape – or should a conductor attempt such at thing at all?

FK: I think that a conductor can only attempt to breathe new life into these great works once the music has lived with him or her for a long time. The point where the music speaks through a conductor is the right time to attempt to bring it to life. These works are full of inner depth, and they require time and experience to be able to understand, and to breathe new life into them.

LC: I think you’re going to find this orchestra a joy to work with. Is there anything special that audiences should look forward to on the 25th?

FK: Since I am ethnically Azeri, from Turkmenistan, it’s very special for me to conduct Kachaturian’s music – its traits are similar to the culture I grew up in. This music is full of strength as well as ethereal warmth and softness. These two extreme sonic aspects are culturally meaningful in the Caucasus. Brahms’ Third Symphony is a great example of an artist’s love of freedom and longing for it, despite life’s bitter hardships. Brahms cherishes all kinds of wonderful memories with great tenderness throughout the symphony, immortalizing them in the music.

LC: Are you sick to death of getting tagged with the wunderkind thing, you know, “young conductor?” I mean, you’re in your twenties now, you’ve graduated from conservatory. Can we simply count you among your peers in the conducting world now? Is that what you’ve worked toward all along?

FK: Music is my life and it gives me a chance to express everything I have in my heart which I am strongly thankful for. Therefore I have never taken the “wunderkind thing” seriously, since it does not mean much to me. I know that as long as I live I will try to give everything to this divine gift. Music grants strength, sincerity, purity and joy to humanity, which is so essential in our world.

Farkhad Khudyev leads the Greenwich Village Orchestra in a performance of Kachaturian’s Sabre Dance, Violin Concerto and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, Irving Place and 16th St. in Manhattan at 3 PM on Sunday, March 25, $15 sugg. don., reception to follow.

March 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Thrill Ride with the Greenwich Village Orchestra

There’s no thrill like being right on top of a symphony orchestra as they stampede through a particularly energetic passage. It’s almost like standing too close to the tracks as a train goes by: you literally feel the music as much as you hear it. And at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concerts, you don’t have to have a hedge fund in order to get a front row seat (a $15 donation gets you in; as at Merkin Hall, seats are general admission). Their previous performance back in November looked to be pretty much sold out; their concert this past Sunday wasn’t, probably because the program was more obscure (and maybe because it was what has become unseasonably cold outside). As it turned out, nobody took those front-row seats this time, probably because the sightlines are better a little further back in the auditorium. Standing in for the orchestra’s music director Barbara Yahr, conductor Pierre Vallet led the ensemble through a joyous, often Christmasy program that began and ended on a celebratory note. Conceivably, this particular bill would have been an appropriate choice for the New York Philharmonic Society to play sometime in the winter of 1886.

The first piece was Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger. Although it’s hardly profound, it’s impossible not to pick up on the subtleties and get lost in the music if you’re only about fifteen feet from the stage. A cynic might say that the orchestra figured, ok, if we have to play this thing, we might as well have fun with it – and they did! It wasn’t quite unbridled lust, but it was close to it – and the piece’s artful little touches, like the tense, shivery strings leading up to a crescendo in the midsection (“Uh oh, is the singer up there going to blow it, or win the contest? This suspense is killing me!”) were undeniable. The opera it comes from is farcical – it’s an ancestor of American Idol – but this orchestra redeemed it, at least this particular excerpt.

German Romantic composer Max Bruch is best known for his plaintively powerful Kol Nidre Variations. The Orchestra played his four-part Scottish Fantasy suite, which isn’t quite as gripping, but it’s awfully close, particularly the lushly moody opening movement. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim was obviously enjoying herself as she made her way through meticulously bracing variations on the Scottish folk themes on which the piece is based. It’s a showcase for virtuoso fiddle-dance moves, and Kim made the most of them as the work picked up steam, its cinematics shifting from rugged Scottish coastline to country dance and then a triumphant battle theme, Vallet literally dancing on his toes on the podium as the orchestra swung through the changes with congenial majesty.

The concluding piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which is vastly underrated as Beethoven goes. The backstory here is that when he wrote this, Beethoven was in the midst of a particularly fertile period, even by his standards. He’d already started the Fifth Symphony, but then received a commission from a German nobleman (in those days, there were no foundations for the arts and no Kickstarter: you went straight to the one-percenters) who was a big fan of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Perhaps cynically, it seems the composer figured something like, “What the heck, I’ll knock off this one and then get back to my new magnum opus.” But he didn’t just phone it in – in its warm, comfortably glimmering way, this was a joy to hear. A well-oiled, perfectly balanced machine, the orchestra made their way through the suspenseful atmospherics of the opening movement, to a sudden, blustery gallop and then the buoyantly swaying minuet in the second, awash in the glimmering contentment of the high strings against warmly nocturnal, sustained brass and woodwind tones. After the stately, hypnotic, bass-driven pulse of the third movement, violinist/concertmaster Robert Hayden nimbly led the rest of the strings through the understatedly apprehensive flurries of chromatics that finally lit the fuse for several entertainingly Beethovenesque false endings. In the back, Yahr grinned in appreciation for the way her orchestra had bonded with Vallet, and vice versa. The GVO’s next concert is especially choice: March 25 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium on Irving Place, featuring Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Violin Concerto followed by Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 directed by up-and-coming conductor Farkhad Khudyev.

February 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning to Love Music: The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Annual Family Concert

by Serene Angelique Williams

I took my two-year-old daughter to the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Annual Family Concert this weekend, apprehensively not knowing if she would be able to make it through her first experience seeing a symphony orchestra without some sort of embarrassing meltdown. I had nothing to worry about. It was the perfect way to break her in to the glory of live music, and Barbara Yahr, the GVO’s music director and conductor, knows just how to appeal to young minds. Everything was geared to making the concert experience enjoyable for young people in a fun, non-stifling environment. The orchestra is tight, professional and technically brilliant, and the show, which consisted mostly of Christmas music, was a lively and well-executed medley of familiar selections from Tchikovsky’s “Nutcracker” along with works by Edvard Grieg, Aaron Copland, and no less than 12 variations on Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The auditorium at Washington Irving High School is gorgeous, and there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out. The kids were encouraged to participate with each piece by dancing, clapping, and even were invited to sit on stage with the musicians. I loved hearing these pieces live, and it was thrilling not to be stressed out and worried about my child misbehaving, or causing disruptions. To my surprise and overwhelming joy, she responded to everything enthusiastically, and there was not one moment when she seemed to lose interest.

After the show, there was a holiday party with many tasty goodies: plenty of wine for the adults, seltzer and cider for the kiddies. There was also an “instrument petting zoo” where the children were welcome to try out all of the instruments with very patient and encouraging instructors. I was amazed when my little one decided to try out the violin, and in less than 15 minutes, she had not only learned how to properly hold the child-size instrument, she was already beginning to play! The afternoon was well worth the $10 per family admission price, and I can’t wait to do it again. Next year I’ll be sure to bring along more friends, ones with or without kids. Everyone can enjoy this show, but it’s a particularly fine way to introduce very young people to the unadulterated joys of playing music, and the wonderfully varied world of instruments, with first-rate musicians and instructors.

December 12, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The GVO Gets Picturesque

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s most recent concert this past Sunday featured fresh, energetic, revealing takes on a couple of familiar favorites, bookending an unexpected interlude. Led by guest conductor Pierre Vallet, the ensemble opened with Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture: lush, dreamy beauty shifting to brighter and more energetic, with pinpoint French horn flourishes and a bouncy precision. Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Op. 37, the lesser-known follow-up to the Enigma Variations, were next, sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who showed off a full soprano’s range as the suite went on, a series of cinematic, coastal and nautical settings of British Romantic poems including texts by Elgar’s wife along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. From sweeping, craggy, windy bluster to more simple, catchy songcraft and then up with more drama – particularly the final song in the cycle, The Swimmer, considered by some to portend Robert Browning’s suicide at 39 – the orchestra gave Johnson Cano a lush backdrop for her vivid, turbulent evocation.

From seats close to the orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition turned out to be as close to an opportunity to get inside Maurice Ravel’s mind as is physically possible. There’s literally not a bad seat at the GVO home base on 16th Street, an unexpected bonus considering that the building is now a public high school. On one hand, it was impossible not to revel in how much fun Ravel had orchestrating Moussorgsky’s creepy suite. On the other, Ravel did it justice: ultimately, this is a requiem for Moussorgsky’s painter friend Victor Hartmann. And the GVO did them both justice, particularly in the darker passages, not to mention the brief refrains that punctuate the “pictures.” Conductor Barbara Yahr likened them to an inner journey, the composer remembering his dead pal, rather than simply a chronicle of the stroll from one end of the gallery to the other. “These aren’t filler,” she reminded the crowd before the piece began, and she wasn’t kidding: by the time she took them down into the Catacombs, what began as a fanfare had become a dirge. Themes familiar to every moviegoer became profound: the Gnome bellicose yet poignant; the Old Castle brooding with a nostalgic tone, the children dancing in the Tuileries quaint and somewhat courtly. The orchestra’s attention to the astringent faux-Orientalisms in the portrait of the two Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuely, alone made the trip worthwhile. And after the off-center menace of the Catacombs, the most macabre part of the suite, the orchestra maintained that atmosphere intensely even as the classical heavy metal of Baba Yaga’s Hut kicked in. If the Catacombs is Moussorgsky facing the fact that his friend’s not coming back, as Yahr mentioned, then maybe this is the rage afterward. The coda, The Great Gate of Kiev contemplates a mechanical marvel which was actually never built, a cruel irony for this towering, majestic ending to end all endings and its epic Beethoven allusions. Through two standing ovations, the mostly sold-out house seemed as out of breath as the musicians were.

November 23, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nine Questions for Maestro Barbara Yahr of the Greenwich Village Orchestra

The Greenwich Village Orchestra, as their name implies, draws on some of the finest classical talent from a neighborhood that’s been synonymous with artsy downtown New York for decades. They play a diverse and characteristically thematic program this Sunday, November 20 at 3 PM: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture; Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 16th and Irving Place. There’s a reception to follow: all this for a suggested donation of $15. The orchestra’s dynamic musical director, Barbara Yahr, took some time to answer a few lingering questions about this elite ensemble:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: The GVO seems to be one of New York’s hidden treasures. You get major grants, you’ve played innumerable world premieres and New York premieres by important current-day composers. You are held in high esteem especially by musicians – it seems that practically everyone at your concerts is one! I’ve been going to your concerts for over a decade at the auditorium at 16th and Irving Place.

Barbara Yahr: I’m so glad to hear that!

LCC: Has this become a comfortable home for you?

BY: This is a wonderful home for us…with fantastic acoustics!

LCC: Does this have anything to do with the fact that audiences can literally get on top of the orchestra and experience the rush you get from being so close to the beast? I remember being a kid at Carnegie Hall and sneaking down from the peanut gallery to the orchestra during intermission. Here, it doesn’t cost $100 to get a good seat for the entire show….

BY: Low ticket price is only one of the great things about the GVO experience – but it does make a difference. We love the fact that the audience is so close – at family concerts, we like to bring kids up on stage! The next one is December 11 at 3 PM.

LCC: You remember the uproar when Alan Gilbert increased the number of rehearsals per concert for the New York Phil? How many rehearsals does the GVO typically have per performance?

BY: We usually have six – not that many when you realize that most fulltime, professional orchestras only have four and occasionally five.

LCC: In what way if any does your orchestra’s somewhat less hectic workload impact the quality of your performances, by comparison to, say, the Philharmonic or the New York City Opera?

BY: We get to live with the music for several weeks, which is a delightful luxury. We can get into the inner workings of a piece of music, really take it apart and put it back together.

LCC: You like themes. I’m assuming that you’re the one responsible for coming up with with the November 20 program, right? And would you say that this particular one is more thematic musically, or narrative-wise?

BY: This program is only thematic in extra-musical terms. All of the pieces make use of imagery. This way of writing music, as opposed to an abstract symphony with no clear extra-musical idea, does affect the composers, but these are three – four if you count Ravel, who orchestrated the Mussorgsky – very different composers.

LCC: There’s obviously a lot of camaraderie in this ensemble. To what degree if any is this a democratic institution, for example, if an inspired member of the winds says, “We ought to do this a certain way,” for example. How do you as conductor handle that?

BY: I love it when a player has an opinion – and if I like it, or find it interesting or exciting, of course we go with it! If it’s something I don’t feel works musically, then we have a discussion. An orchestra cannot be a pure democracy but it’s not a dictatorship. It requires leadership, but in the end, the best performances are collaborative.

LCC: Dynamic contrasts and the desire to portray one thing or another via the music seem to be especially important to this orchestra. Among these pieces, are there parts that you’ve singled out specifically for the orchestra to focus on? For example, in the Mussorgsky, how creepy are you going to make The Gnome? Or are you going to see how quiet and mysterious you can get with The Catacombs?

BY: I think the Gnome is pretty darn creepy, and yes, this piece is full of contrasts…but the heart of the work is found in understanding the backstory, the friendship between Mussorgsky and the painter of the Pictures, Victor Hartmann. For me, we are there, with the composer, at the exhibition of his friends’ works, walking from picture to picture. At the end, after he has visits the Catacombs, he confronts and accepts the death of his friend and is perhaps celebrating his friend with the finale, the Great Gate. This is a personal interpretation but it is, for me, a meaningful narrative for the piece, and helps us to understand the work as more than just a series of attractive pieces depicting a set of paintings.

LCC: Are you recording this? Any plans to release any of this material in the future?

BY: We always record our concerts— stay tuned!

November 16, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 2/8/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #721:

The Greenwich Village Orchestra – Greatest Hits 2006-2008

Fifty years ago, orchestras in smaller cities all over the world consistently put out first-class recordings. Some of them still do. For almost fifteen years the Greenwich Village Orchestra, as you would imagine for an ensemble from a New York neighborhood that until the last decade was a hotbed of good music, has played with a flair and virtuosty on par with any other orchestra passing through town. Here conductor Barbara Yahr leads the group through a spirited version of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, a vigorous Firebird Suite that arguably outdoes the composer’s own version (see #878, Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky), and a dynamically rich, anguished take of Shostakovich’s Stalin-era, brutally narrative Tenth Symphony that may be unsurpassed by any other. After that, there’s the Elgar Cello Concerto and a Rossini overture for the opera crowd. This one hasn’t made it to rapidshare or megaupload as far as we can tell, but it’s still available at the orchestra’s site. Also recommended – the 2002-03 “greatest hits” album including works by Brahms, Handel, Grieg, the allegro non troppo from Franck’s D Minor Symphony and selections from Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From a Smile to a Scream: the Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays Brahms and Shostakovich

There were microphones placed prominently in front of the stage for the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concert this past Sunday at the Washington Irving High School auditorium. The room appears to date from the late 1800s, complete with organ pipes in the walls (who knows if it still works or if the console is even there anymore), and the acoustics are outstanding for orchestral music. They picked the right program to record: the Brahms Violin Concerto seemed to play itself, and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was as riveting and disquieting as its composer intended.

Although somewhat controversial in its day – Brahms’ contemporary, the violinist Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because he didn’t want to “stand around while the oboe played the only melody in the piece” – the big tripartite concerto is part of the standard repertoire, something that Duncan Pirney probably played to death on WQXR thirty years ago. But hidden in plain sight within the piece’s utterly predictable, stately, cozily nocturnal Teutonic architecture are some delightfully uncharacteristic treats, each of which the orchestra seized on as they appeared. It was like watching an elaborately staged treasure hunt. Among them are the first violin solo, a very difficult and exciting series of runs down the scale, punctuated with lightning-fast double stops, which guest violinist Yosuke Kawasaki played as if he’d been looking forward to the challenge. A close listen – which is what you get in this venue – also reveals plenty of playful rhythmic devices, such as one early on in the first of the concerto’s three moments where the woodwinds provide striking, warmly chordal counterpoint to a frenetic violin melody. The oboe tune that de Sarasate coveted appears in the opening of the second movement; it’s a pretty, nostalgic little melody, but nothing to match the complexity that Kawasaki had to deal with.

Toward the end, Kawasaki suddenly changed up his attack. He’d been playing with great precision, which is pretty much the only way to tackle this piece, but for one reason or another he suddenly dug in and let his phrasing blaze with a relaxed legato. At one point, he turned to conductor Barbara Yahr and smiled, as if to say, “Maestro, let’s drive this thing home.” Which they did. You can see the end coming a mile away, and the unbridled passion of the closing crescendo brought them in for a perfect landing.

At their most recent performance, the orchestra brought a remarkable joy and abandon to Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. There’s a great deal of sturm und drang in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, and considering that it’s ultimately about revenge, it must be tempting to go for broke and crank it up. But Yahr didn’t, reining in the piece, emphasizing every subtlety in this brutally powerful, deeply personal and political masterpiece. Shostakovich waited almost a decade between his Ninth and this symphony, waiting for Stalin to die. When the tyrant finally gave up the ghost, the composer had this ready shortly thereafter. It’s both a requiem for the dead and a call to action, and contains a surprisingly brief musical portrait of Stalin. Considering that Shostakovich saw many of his contemporaries murdered or imprisoned under the Soviet regime, he certainly would have been within his rights to write up Stalin for every crime against humanity he ever committed. But Shostakovich doesn’t torture the audience with it: the tyrant is summarily dismissed as a tinpot dictator. The composer recognized the banality of evil when he saw it, several years before Hannah Arendt codified it. He was more concerned with the six million plus souls murdered during the reign of terror, screaming in unison through the violins in the first movement, over and over again, as the piece builds to a thundering swell.

Shostakovich didn’t spare the regime’s ridiculous pageantry, though: in addition to the Stalin portrait, the second movement is full of twisted, macabre martial themes. But there’s hope, a recurrent French horn motif that eventually takes center stage as the sketchy hustling and bustling of the army and the party apparat retreat to the outskirts of the melody. He could have easily made the final movement gleeful: it’s a celebration of Stalin’s death, with an encoded message, the horns emphasizing a D-E flat-C-B progression that in a combination of Italian and German musical notation spells out Shostakovich’s initials. The phrase repeats again and again, but not joyously: glad though Shostakovich was to be rid of his nemesis, he remained horror-stricken. Memo to dictators and other censorious types: never mess with a composer. They always get even in the end. May the regime in this country today never need a Shostakovich to document such grotesque inhumanity.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra likes theme programs. This one was “Triumphant.” The next is “Enduring,” on March 30 at 3 PM here featuring Sibelius’ famous Valse Triste in addition to pieces by Hindemith and Nielsen.

February 12, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adrenaline for the Soul: The Greenwich Village Orchestra in Concert 11/18/07

It’s hard to believe that this world-class orchestra has somehow managed to fly so far below the radar. For a $15 donation, classical music fans can see reliably good, frequently exhilarating performances of both popular and obscure works, discover new composers and watch some of the best up-and-coming talent at the top of their game. Shows as good as this afternoon’s spiritually-themed program by the Greenwich Village Orchestra usually cost a hundred dollars or more at the Midtown concert halls. Plainly and simply, there is no better music value in New York.

While the afternoon’s theme (this orchestra LOVES theme programs) was spirituality, it would have been better put as a celebration of everything that makes life worth living, a frequently riveting, exuberant, passionate performance. They began slowly with two orchestral arrangements of Bruckner motets, the first a pretty generic, post-baroque melody, the second slightly more interesting but ultimately nothing more than a standard pre-Romantic Northern European piece, nothing Mendelssohn didn’t do a hundred times better.

But they brought out every bit of drama in the next piece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture. It’s a celebration of the Resurrection, opening all quiet and suspenseful but building quickly to a fiery, galloping, gypsyish folk dance in three movements. On the podium, Barbara Yahr spurred the orchestra to play with wild abandon, and they delivered.

In keeping with the spiritual theme, three representatives of New York spiritual communities each delivered a short introduction to a particular piece of music. Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah impressed the most by quoting influential civil rights crusader Rabbi Abraham Heschel on how prayer is by definition transgressive, that one’s spiritual life necessarily works against the status quo in seeking higher ground. It was an apt way to kick off Max Bruch’s heart-tugging Kol Nidrei, based on the prayer invoked the night before the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Guest soloist Eric Jacobsen played his part on the cello from memory with an intensity that made it look as if he was about to break strings. He’s a rising star, and for good reason, with a seemingly effortless vibrato and a sense of dynamics that doesn’t stop at fortissimo. His blazing interpretation burned away any trace of sentimentality that could have insinuated itself into this highly emotional composition.

The following work was a world premiere, young Hong Kong-born Angel Lam’s Her Thousand Year Dance. If this piece is typical of her other material, it instantly establishes her as a first-rate composer, blending the windswept, pastoral beauty of traditional Chinese classical music with western tonalities. Beginning abruptly with a few bursts from special guest Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi (an oversize Japanese wood flute), it rose to an ethereal, atmospheric yet rhythmically difficult altitude and pretty much stayed there for the duration, aside from a couple of breaks with light percussion. That the afternoon’s final piece, Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, would be anticlimactic speaks volumes about what preceded it. Yahr led the ensemble through a highly idiosyncratic yet extremely successful reading. Although there are no breaks written in the music, Strauss wrote this ultimately triumphant chronicle of struggle and redemption in four distinct parts. While the piece is frequently played with an emphasis on overall ambience, Yahr spelled out the dynamics in capital letters, putting teeth in both the ebbs and swells, an unexpected thrill ride to close what had to be the most exciting classical bill anywhere in town this week.

The media typically holds classical musicians to a higher standard than rock or jazz players (which is grossly unfair: everybody, even the greatest virtuosos, make mistakes). If there were any technical flaws in this afternoon’s performance, it would be the sluggishness of the horns early on in the Bruckner and some general weirdness (tuning issues?) in the violins early during the Lam. Otherwise, Yahr steered this careening unit directly into high winds and stormy seas and then brought everyone back into port unscathed, the crowd (on the docks, if you want to bring the metaphor full circle) all on their feet, roaring their approval. The GVO’s next concert is December 16, billed as a kid-friendly show featuring Saint-Saens’ witty, interesting, multi-part Carnival of the Animals (which gets pegged as a children’s piece even though it’s quite sophisticated), along with pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn.The GVO’s best deal is their series subscription, especially considering what lies in store: in addition to the December 16, the remainder of the season features works by Shostakovich, Bach, Brahms and others. The concerts continue to be held at Washington Irving High School auditorium as they’ve been for several years, considering the room’s excellent sonics (it seems to date from the 19th century and at one time even housed a concert organ, whose pipes still stand to the left and right of the stage).

November 19, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment