Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Soar Through an Ambitious, State-of-the-Art Program at National Sawdust

To paraphrase Rebecca Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to hold a lot of beautiful voices. Last night at the newly opened and sonically exquisite National Sawdust in Williamsburg, approximately fifty of those voices performed an exhilarating, richly dynamic program of new works for choir and chamber ensemble by four of this era’s outstanding women composers. The singers’ average age, from the looks of it, was around sixteen. In case you haven’t seen them, director Dianne Berkun-Menaker has shaped the Brooklyn Youth Chorus into a magnificent, meticulous powerhouse of an ensemble. There are young women in this group who will be able to sing for a living, especially the two high sopranos on the far end, stage right. To the young blonde lady in the black suit and her bandmate in the peroxide pageboy and glasses: stick with this and you’ll never need a dayjob.

As if we need further proof that music doesn’t have to be dumbed down to appeal to younger musicians, this concert was it. These works were sophisticated, employed all kinds of intricate counterpoint, required considerable amounts of what an instrumentalist would call extended technique, and the group rose to meet those demands efficiently and expertly: they schooled the old people in the house. Caroline Shaw was represented by two works, Its Motion Keeps and Anni’s Constant. The former was pinpoint-precise, full of quirky staccato, dizzying polyrhythns, a delightfully dancing groove and the occasional playful, hair-raising accent leaping in unexpectedly. The latter took a comfortable, homespun folk tune and made an ecstatically swinging, sometimes stomping celebration out of it – with some hilariously goofy vocalisms midway through.

For Sarah Small‘s Around the Forest, A Youth Roams – an electrifying, bracing mashuup of Bulgarian folk and postminimalism – the paradigm-shifting composer/arranger and Balkan music specialist was joined by both the choir and her a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel with Shelley Thomas and Willa Roberts. The trio handled its challenging whoops, microtones and exotic ornamentation while the chorus grounded the piece with equal parts lushness and austerity, bolstered by Rima Fand’s darkly ambered string score.

National Sawdust impresario Paola Prestini joined the chorus to narrate the choral segments of her forthcoming multimedia work Aging Magician, a soberingly surreal collaboration with director Julian Crouch, with lyrics by Rinde Eckert. The pieces worked well as a stand-alone suite, sharing a trickily rhythmic and dynamically-charged playfulness with the Shaw works, but were both more pensive and more baroque-tinged in places. While it wouldn’t be fair to spoil Prestini’s occasional musical jokes, they were pretty hilarious. Throughout the program, the chorus were accompanied seamlessly by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Ben Russell and Caleb Burhans on violins, Hannah Levinson on viola and Clarice Jensen on cello, augmented by Dave Cossin on percussion, David Dunaway on bass and Geremy Schulick on electric guitar plus a pianist uncredited in the program.

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ next performance will also be alongside Black Sea Hotel to celebrate the opening of the new space at St. Ann’s Warehouse on October 17 featuring works by Shaw, Aleksandra Vrebalov and others plus world premieres from Mary Kouyoumdjian and Sahba Aminikia. There are two performances, one for free beginning at noon and another at 8 PM for $25.

October 7, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ACME Revisits the Holocaust, Memorably

Thursday night at the Morgan Library, in a program sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) played a wrenchingly powerful trio of requiems for victims of the Holocaust and World War II.  While there’s so much live music in this city that it’s never really safe to pick a particular concert as the year’s best, for 2013, this one was as transcendent as they get.

First on the bill was Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, Op. 18. The Polish composer had an extraordinarily prolific career as both a concert pianist and composer in the former Soviet Union, supporting himself mainly by writing scores for film and animation. He had musical roots: his mother was a pianist and his father ran Warsaw’s Jewish theatre. Both were murdered in the Holocaust. The cinematic aspect of Weinberg’s compositions is potently foreshadowed in this work, witten in 1944 when he was 25. It’s essentially a narrative about a cabaret gone horribly wrong. Its phantasmagorical menace, savage irony and gallows humor may reflect both Weinberg’s dread concerning the fate of his family, and also a contempt for the low-rent theatre types of his new digs in Tashkent, a safe if backwater haven where he ran the local opera company until the war’s end.

The piece has three main themes. Pianist Timothy Andres led the distantly macabre, title theme of sorts with a moody, nonchalant foreshadowing, setting up the series of twisted, tumbling circus interludes, the frantic horror of a couple of chase scenes and the funereal bell motif that eventually serves as its coda. In between there were twisted waltzes, a bit of a lurid stripper vamp and sarcasm in abundance, their edgy counterpoint delivered dynamically by violinists Ben Russell and Caroline Shaw, violist Nadia Sirota and cellist Clarice Jensen.

Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1992 Kronos Quartet commission, was next, quite the contrast with the savagery that preceded it. Taking its inspiration from an elegaic poem by Velimir Khlebnikov, it juxtaposes grief-stricken cumulo-nimbus ambience with a hushed, prayerful theme. Jensen probed sharply for plaintive tonalities and struck gold, Sirota bringing a similarly cello-like richness to the raw, austere passages where Gorecki spotlights the viola.

That Shostakovich’s 1944 Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 was almost an anticlimax speaks to the power of what preceded it. And this is Shostakovich at his most savage: the piece introduces a wounded klezmer melody that would reappear in his String Quartet No. 8, as well as a mincing, cowardly caricature in the warped, marionettish closing danse macabe. The composer never alluded to exactly who its target was: it could be Hitler, but it could also be Stalin. Pretty much every classical ensemble not specifically dedicated to a particular era claim to be advocates for new music, but ACME really walk the walk. That this adventurous collective would go as far back in time for this particular program is unusual; that they’d advocate so powerfully for the underrated Weinberg, and go as deeply into the rest of the program as they did is characteristic.

April 19, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Transcendent Song Cycles by Phil Kline at BAM

Thursday night at BAM’s Next Wave Festival was one of those magical evenings that sends you spilling out into the street afterward, every synapse invigorated, glad to be alive. It was the world premiere of Phil Kline’s lush new arrangement of his iconic Zippo Songs, plus an intoxicatingly enveloping new cycle, Out Cold, played and sung luminously by ACME with crooner Theo Bleckmann at the absolute top of his evocative game. The new Fisher Space black-box theatre was either sold out or close to it. The final performance is tonight, and it isn’t sold out as of this writing (early affernoon). If transcendence is what you’re looking for, get over to BAM by 7 or so. The show starts at 7:30; the space is not on Lafayette Avenue but on that short street that runs perpendicular to it up to the Atlantic Avenue mall.

The program began with three Rumsfeld Songs, three quotes from “the comic evil spirit, if there ever was one,” to quote Kline’s program notes. The dark levity started with the famous pseudo-ontological one about “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” set to a deadpan, mechanically circular tune that gave Bleckmann a platform for just a tinge of Teutonic grandiosity, making for cruelly delicious satire. The second song was a march, the third more restrained, leaving the Iraq war villain’s long-winded, disingenuous disavowal of mass murder to linger. They made a good setup for the Zippo Songs, Kline’s musical setting of aphorisms and poems inscribed on cigarette lighters by American combatants during the Vietnam War.

These songs hadn’t been staged in New York in eight years. The sparseness of the originals played up the cruel irony, bitterness and sheer horror of the soldiers’ words; the new arrangements turned out to be far more rich and sweeping than expected, yet without subsuming any of the lyrical content. The genius of Kline’s craft is simplicity: like his great influence Charles Ives, he pushes the envelope, but he knows a catchy motif when he hears it. Hide a hook in a haystack, turn Kline loose, and he will find it. Which is why the new charts worked as well as they did; ironically, the richer the orchestration, the more memorable the melodies became. Pianist Timothy Andres and vibraphonist Chris Thompson got the choicest intervals, as Kline’s tensely straightforward, gleaming phrases reached the top of their arcs, over pillowy, sustained, shifting sheets held aloft by violinists Caleb Burhans, Ben Russell and Keats Dieffenbach, yMusic violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, oboeist Michelle Farah, bassist Logan Coale and flutist Alex Sopp. As with the original versions, the music does not disavow the darkness of the lyrics, instead providing a distantly apprehensive backdrop.

The airiest of these, appropriately enough, was the first one, voicing the soldiers whose goal it was to stay high all the time. The most haunting was the warily pulsing fourth in the series: “If I had a farm in Vietnam and a home in hell, I’d sell my farm and go home,” Bleckmann intoned. The most pensive, atmospheric segment was the most disillusioned: “We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” Emma Griffin’s stage direction had Bleckmann nonchalantly changing costumes and assuming roles to go with them: somehow he was able to hold a perfectly unmodulated, resonant legato through a quick series of pushups and situps that would have had most people panting.

The trippy bossa beat of that song foreshadowed what was to come with Out Cold. Taking his cue from Schubert’s Kafka-esque Winterreise suite as well as the ethereal 1950s “suicide song” collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, Kline brought the broodingly hypnotic lushness up several notches and so did the ensemble and singer. Beginning with a low, raspy wash of strings and throat-singing and ending on a wistful, aptly elegaic note, these were torch songs for a new generation, blending the best of several previous decades’ worth. The bossa nova pulse returned memorably a couple of times, fueled by suspenseful woodblock, vibes and piano; the suite reached a high-point, volumewise with its most rocking number, Million Dollar Bill, noir Orbison chamber pop taken to understated heights of angst, tinkly David Lynch piano contrasting with the blue velvet wash underneath.

Bleckmann shuffled between tables in a darkened bar – One for My Baby in 3D – drinking from random half-empty glassses in A Final Toast, its insistent low strings reminding of Julia Wolfe in a particular intense mood. Where’s the Rest of Me, a creepily dreamy waltz, was followed by the slightly vaudevillian The Season Is Over, which grew dark fast and made a potent segue with To the Night, its noir lustre punctuated by uneasy close harmonies from the ensemble. In its own elegant way, the suite is as evocative a portrayal of loneliness and alienation as Joy Division. Kline has been writing eclectic, relevant music since the 80s; once again, he’s embraced a new genre and made it indelibly his own.

October 27, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laurie Anderson’s Requiem for New York Haunts Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Laurie Anderson played a requiem for New York, possibly titled Delirium. The nocturnal atmosphere settled in from the first few notes of Rob Burger’s accordion, the highly processed quality of the music giving it an air-conditioned chill. Throughout the suite, which went on for over an hour, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing, Anderson’s trio or a machine, but that was the point. All these machines we rely on so much distance us from a reality we can’t bring ourselves to face. This piece was all about denial – denial of reality, denial of impending doom, and in that doom, the death of a beloved city, by gentrification, by greed, and especially by denial. “This is the real New York,” was the mantra early on, spoken quietly, matter-of-factly, giving away nothing, Anderson letting her narrative’s fragmentary images speak for themselves against the lushly icy backdrop. She got it all – global warming (a recurrent allusion); mindless “if you see something, say something” paranoia; Fukushima; Wall Street swindlers getting rich on worthless paper (and then shredding it) while the rest of the world riots. Familiar city sights – fire escapes in midsummer; the San Gennaro Festival and its “onions marinara;” Madison Square Garden, a three-way oxymoron; crowds swiping their way into the subway on the way home from work – grounded the piece in an indelible New York milieu. Behind the narrative, sheets of strings, real and synthesized, rose and fell, sometimes with mechanical electronic percussion behind them, often with astringent, vividly wary lines by violinist Eyvind Kang and Anderson herself while Burger shifted from accordion, to simple piano lines, to more nebulous atmospherics. Creepy, occasionally sleepy, it reached with an elegant menace toward a fever dream, especially when a police siren wailed for close to a minute a block further west, slowly making its way uptown.

“‘Hard times,’ says the maid, as she begins her lawsuit against the next President of France, now known worldwide as a chimpanzee in rutting mode, his DNA in her spit on the carpet,” Anderson deadpanned. In this netherworld, technology nerds produce nothing more than speeches full of hot air and time-wasting gadgets; hotel rooms are indistinguishable from offices open 24/7; and, in one blackly funny vignette set to faux boudoir sonics, advertising makes us miss places we’ve never been. And while Anderson never said it directly, this is what our world has come to. How do we deal with it? Midway through, Anderson alluded to suicide, once. She didn’t go near it again.

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The funniest moment of many was when Anderson mocked the pseudo-sophistication of the usual Lincoln Center crowd driving down from Westchester, by reciting a litany of google map directions, straight to the parking garage on 62nd St. Clearly, Anderson is still downtown. She closed the suite by returning to a theme that had arisen earlier, that we tend to reinvent people we’ve lost by cutting them down to size, right or wrong, because once we’ve shed that emotional baggage, we can “travel lite.” By implication, this is how a generation of New Yorkers, maybe more than a generation, deal with the loss of the city where thirty years ago an opportunity existed for Anderson to springboard avant-garde ideas into a successful global career. An entire city park felt that, and was transfixed. The show ended with a coda where Anderson brought out her husband, Lou Reed to play fluidly atonal, biting yet graceful noiserock guitar as the overture swelled and then gently faded down.

Ex-Ethel violinist Todd Reynolds opened the show, first entertaining the crowd by building the animated title track to his new album Outerborough all by himself with a series of loops, from a simple beat to heated, virtuosic lead lines. He was joined a bit later by Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey – playing percussion on innumerable found objects – and a string section including Caleb Burhans, Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim Harris, Yuki Numata, Courtney Orlando, and Ben Russell. Together they made their way gently and hypnotically through a warmly thoughtful, somewhat minimalist Philip Glass-inflected piece by a composer friend from Michigan, as well as a couple of rousing songs straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog that were equal parts Balkan and blues. But where Anderson used the chill of technology to make a point, any point that Reynolds might have made with it was lost, especially when he brought out a “human beatboxer.” For decades, real hip-hop has pilfered rhythms from every other style of music ever invented, from jazz to funk to classical, so as to sidestep the mechanical monotony of a drum machine. The cold, unwavering beat managed only to sabotage the liveliness and goodnatured energy of Reynolds and his fellow musicians.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment