Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra Bring Their Epic, Ominously Cinematic Soundscapes to the Jazz Standard

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s debut album The Painted Lady Suite – streaming at Sunnyside Records – doesn’t concern a medieval femme fatale. The central seven-part suite portays the epic, over-the-North-Pole migration of painted lady butterflies from Mexico to North Africa. Even by the standards of Bernard Herrmann, whose work this album strongly resembles, its mammoth sweep and dark majesty is unrivalled in recent years. The band are bringing it to life with a two-night stand this July 17 and 18 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30.

Along with his singer sister Carolyn, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist bandleader is the rare child of musical talent (dad is bassist Jay Leonhart) who’s also produced noteworthy material. Beyond the jazz idiom, the vastness of the music echoes an army of influences as diverse as Pink Floyd, Brad Fiedel’s film scores, Steve Reich and Antibalas (some of whose members play on this album).

The big title suite begins lush and lustrous in the Mexican desert, tectonic sheets of brass alternating with a hefty Afrobeat groove anchored by the low reeds, punctuated by Donny McCaslin’s slashingly modal phrasing. From there the swarm moves north over El Paso in a wave of symphonic Morricone southwestern gothic, Nick Movshon’s shamanistic drums and Nels Cline’s menacing psychedelic guitar interspersed amid the big swells.

North Dakota big sky country is the next destination, Sam Sadigursky’s alto sax fluttering uneasily over ambient, ambered brass ambience in a brooding, Roger Waters-esque soundscape. A couple of ferocious “let’s go!” phrases from the whole orchestra signal a move further north to the wilds of Saskatchewan: Philip Glass as played by the Alan Parsons Project, maybe.

As the migration passes through the chill air high above the Arctic Circle, Movshon’s tersely dancing, staccato bass punctuates serene orchestration, then the circling bass melody shifts to the high reeds, Erik Friedlander’s cello and Pauline Kim’s viola peering through the ether.

The suite concludes with nocturnal and then daytime Saharan skyscapes. With its ominous, repetitive siren motives and the bandleader’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern muted trumpet, the first is awash in dread and mystery. The second builds from a cheerily strutting Afrobeat tune to a blazingly brassy, triumphantly pulsing coda – but the conclusion is too apt to give away.

There are three more tracks on the album. In the Kingdom of M.Q. features dancing, loopy phrases and a little dissociative swirl beneath a bubbly McCaslin solo. The sardonically titled Music Your Grandparents Would Like has a slow, steady sway, tense close harmonies, a crime jazz interlude and a bizarrely skronky Cline guitar solo. The final cut is The Girl From Udaipur, its enveloping wave motion punctuated by allusions to bhangra.

The orchestra lineup is just as epic as the music. The rest of the trumpet section includes Dave Guy, Taylor Haskins, Andy Bush, Carter Yasutake and Andy Gathercole. Ray Mason and Mark Patterson play trombones, with John Altieri on tuba. Matt Bauder, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Aaron Heick and Cochemea Gastelum round out the sax section, with Charles Pillow on bass clarinet and alto flute. Sara Schoenbeck plays bassoon; Mauro Durante plays violin; Erik Friedlander plays cello. A revolving drum chair also features Homer Steinweiss and Daniel Freedman. In addition to the bandleader, Joe Martin also plays bass, with Mauro Refosco and Leon Michels on percussion.

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July 10, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Shattering Performance of Iconic Classical and Film Music Uptown

In terms of pure thrills and chills, there hasn’t been a concert in New York this year more exhilarating than string ensemble Shattered Glass’ performance last night at the popular Washington Heights classical spot Our Savior’s Atonement. And that includes all of Golden Fest, trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s oceanically intense Middle Eastern mass improvisation in February at NYU, and cinematic noir trio Big Lazy’s shattering performance of mostly new material at Barbes later that month. This crew are like another popular conductorless string orchestra, ECCO…on steroids.

Just back from midwest tour, the fourteen-piece ensemble were clearly psyched to be back on their home turf. They played in the round, gathered in a circle under the church’s low lights. Between works on the bill, the group shifted positions so that everyone could get to see who was playing what. It was a transcendent program, kicking off with a relentlessly angst-ridden, percussive take of Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet. The sonics in the church enhanced the resonance of the pizzicato phrases to the point where they lingered almost like guitar chords. That effect would also help the delicately overtone-spiced, challenging extended technique required in Caroline Shaw’s concentrically circling Entr’acte to resound. It’s on Shattered Glass’ debut album; they’re the first group to record it.

Philip Glass’ diptych Company, its signature cell-like melody expanding deliciously outward, had distantly ominous chromatics that reminded of his Dracula soundtrack. It set the stage for what under ordinary circumstances would have been the night’s piece resistance, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings. The whole group got into the act on that lusciously chilling arrangement of the iconic horror film soundtrack. The sinuous menace of the central up-and-down staircase riff at its center, the machete attack of the shower scene, cumulo-nimbus buildups to icepick attacks and a final somber conclusion left the crowd breathless.

The group ended the night with a harrowing, dynamically epic arrangement of second Shostakovich piece, the String Quartet No. 3. The quartet of violinists Christina Bouey and Ravenna Lipchik, violist Michael Davis and cellist Max Jacob played the work as written, augmented with sinister force by the rest of the circle around them. Davis spoke passionately about how much the work means to them, and how wrenching it is to play, emotionally speaking. He didn’t say outright that there’s a psycho in the White House, or that wartime horror is that situation’s logical conclusion, but the piece spoke for itself.

And the group really nailed the narrative: the cynically lilting faux country dance that tries to come back valiantly but never does; the franticness, furtiveness but also the resilience and heroism of the second movement, Russians fending off the Nazi attackers; and the exhausted, mournful sweep of the concluding movements. It was as searing and relevant as any piece of music could have been in this country on this date.

Watch this space for Shattered Glass’ next performance. The next concert at Our Savior’s Atonement is on April 29 at 8 PM with the Jack Quartet playing a free program of “maverick American composers” TBA.

April 14, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil’s Contact Series Hits a Couple of Bullseyes

It’s heartwarming to see an organization as estimable as the New York Philharmonic taking notice of young composers whose work they can deliver as only such a formidable ensemble can. One would think that every major orchestra would have the same agenda, but sadly that’s not the case. For every nineteen-year-old Shostakovich whose first symphony was premiered shortly after it was written, there are dozens of Iveses slaving away at the insurance company by day and directing the church choir on the weekend. So it’s good to have the NY Phil’s Contact series, focusing on chamber orchestra-scale works written mostly by emerging composers. Last night’s program at Symphony Space featured two rather stunning world premieres, a resonant suite of songs from a lion of the 20th century avant garde and a New York premiere, bravely played but less successful.

The stunner on the bill was the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s Oscillate, for string ensemble, percussion and piano, nimbly conducted by Jayce Ogren. Akiho is a percussionist whose unlikely main axe, at least in the classical music world, is the steel pan. There was nothing remotely calypsonian about this work: excellent and eclectic as Akiho’s debut album from last year was, this is the best thing he’s written. Inspired by Nicola Tesla (the title is an anagram of “Tesla coil”), it’s meant to illustrate an inventor or creator’s toil over a span of many sleepless nights, a battle to remain inspired as fatigue becomes more and more of a problem. Beginning with sirening strings against a restlessly mechanical pulse, shades of Julia Wolfe with hints of Bernard Herrmann, it took on an increasingly noirish, dissociative atmosphere, livened by a familiar Messiaen quote. A series of increasingly hallucinatory chase scenes driven by insistent staccato cellos finally gave way to uneasy ambience at the end: the triumph in question here seemed simply to be to get through a waking nightmare.

Another world premiere, Jude Vaclavik’s Shock Waves, for brass and percussion took rousing advantage of the vast expanses of sonics at the composer’s disposal, mutes being employed from time to time on virtually all of the wind instruments throughout the piece. Tuba player Alan Baer drew a round of chuckles as he nonchalantly stuck a huge mute the size of a couple of french horns into his instrument’s gaping bell. Inspired by the mechanics of sonic booms, the piece is built around a series of doppler-like swells that mutate, pulse,  blast and intermingle with a Stravinskian elan. Like Akiho’s work, the suspense was relentless: it was impossible to know what was coming, and what would be next.

Coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sang four Jacob Druckman songs from the 1990s: two ethereal but bracing settings of Emily Dickinson poems and two utilizing Apollinaire lyrics with considerably more unease. In both cases, her melismatic lower register was especially strong and vividly plaintive. The composer’s son Daniel Druckman played percussion as he had on the premiere of this particular chamber arrangement fifteen years ago.

The one piece on the bill that didn’t work was Andrew Norman’s Try, a portrait of a composer concocting and then nixing motifs one by one before he finally comes up with something he likes. While it wasn’t without wit, the ideas flew by in such a breathless, whizbang fashion that it was impossible to focus on any one of them until they were already gone. And the minimalist piano ending felt forced, and interminable. This work screamed out for shredding more of those ideas and maybe taking what’s left at halfspeed.

December 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exciting, Cinematic New Sounds from Cadillac Moon Ensemble

Because of their unorthodox lineup, up-and-coming New York chamber quartet Cadillac Moon Ensemble basically have two choices when choosing their repertoire: they can either reinvent older works, or commission new ones. On their debut album, Atlas, violinist Patti Kilroy, flutist Roberta Michel, cellist Michael Midlarsky and percussionist Sean Statser have chosen to do the latter. The result: an auspicious collection of new compositions by contemporary composers that combines the fun and wit of rock and film music with the intensity and challenging sonics that have come to define the best of the New York indie classical scene.

André Brégégère’s Enroute is the first piece, cleverly caching what are essentially three variations- one each for violin, cello and flute – within an intricate architecture with deft exchanges of voices and wryly noirish percussion flourishes that make full use of pretty much every strikable target in Statser’s arsenal. The piece de resistance here is Shawn Allison’s Towards the Flame, a menacing, often macabre four-part suite on the theme of moths – creatures which throughout history have been associated with the supernatural. Michel’s trickily rhythmic, dancing lines snake between Kilroy and Midlarsky’s intricate harmonies on a bracingly acidic, opening miniature titled Tun’tawu, the Cherokee name for a pale yelllow moth said to originate from and then return to the fire. Part two, Death’s Head – a Silence of the Lambs reference, maybe? – is a creepy masterpiece worthy of Bernard Herrmann, driven on the wings of shivery, buzzing, murderously insectile strings, jagged incisions against ominous drones, sudden agitations, scurrying drums, and finally a coda where something seems to get killed. Whether it’s the bug or something else isn’t clear.

The album’s title track, Atlas – inspired by the world’s biggest moth – employs the instruments in vividly imagistic reconnaissance, looking for landing spots, with unexpected dynamic shifts on the part of all the voices, all of this anchored by a matter-of-fact series of percussion accents ranging from a steady prowl early on, to a big marching crescendo lush with sustain from the cymbals and jarring overtones ringing from both of the strings. The final segment is Crysalis, a brief tone poem punctuated by the occasional gentle swoop or dive from the violin or cello.

Erich Stem’s Revisited is a sonatina based on devices used in shakuhachi music (tone bending, dynamics and shifts in timbre or rhythm rather than rather than in pitch). It’s got a Prelude, livened by Michel’s alternately subtle and jarring tonal variations over creepy music-box accents from the percussion and similarly flitting notes from the rest of the ensemble. The second part, San’An packs a suspenseful drone, apprehensive Gil Evan/Bernard Herrmann bongos, conspiratorially spiraling exchanges of motifs and Michel’s sepulchral Asian temple melody into just two minutes. Zangetsu – based on a famous Japanese poem lamenting the brevity of human existence – is surprisingly lively and funky, driven mostly by the cello. It’s also a showcase for Statser, a clinic in how to max out the quietest tones available to a percussionist.

The closing cut is Edward RosenBerg III’s Galactic Mouthematics, a roughly ten-minute mini-suite influenced by 1960s sci-fi movie themes. Yes, there’s a Richard Strauss allusion, but there’s also a whole lot more: a whispered poem bookending terse noirish dialogues and three-way conversations, more film noir bongos, and an apprehensive chromatic cello riff that undergoes several costume changes but never loses its visceral unease. As dark as this piece is, it’s also genuinely funny: the faux Beethoven of the outro might seem a little obvious, but it’s spot-on.

There are two other brief pieces here, which are…um…an acquired taste. The shorter one seems to sample a local television news theme: if the melody isn’t a direct quote, it comes pretty close. That seems to be a signature trait of the composer. Some people find such irrepressibly cheery motifs, herky-jerky rhythms and wilful use of vocals to be playful and fun; to more sophisticated listeners, they’ll come across as cloying and whimsical, ad nauseum. Cadillac Moon Ensemble play the album release show at the DiMenna Center, 450 W 37th St. at 7:30 PM on Sept 30. Cover is $10; for a bargain of $20, you get the show plus a copy of the cd.

September 9, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fascinating Double Live Solo Album by Sumi Tonooka

Isn’t it ironic that if you’re absolutely inundated with music, the great tracks stand out even more? The other day, an absolutely bloodcurdling modal piano melody made its way through the space here. What was this deceptively simple, chromatically creepy masterpiece? A solo outtake from Frank Carlberg’s Tivoli Trio album? Christopher O’Riley exhuming a rare Bernard Herrmann track? Another Ryan Truesdell discovery of a previously unreleased Gil Evans piece? It could be any of the above, but it’s not. It turned out to be Sumi Tonooka playing her own composition Phantom Carousel (click here to watch it on vimeo), the most viscerally stunning of several originals on her intriguing and often unselfconsciously brilliant new double-disc set, Now, a live solo concert recording from last year at an upstate New York auditorium. Tonooka studied with Mary Lou Williams, and she covers Williams here, but she’s an utterly original player: there is no one who sounds like her. Grounded in the blues but with a flair for the unexpected and an ear for the avant garde, Tonooka includes both sets she played that night, unedited.

It’s not clear if the sequence of the discs matches the set lists, but it’s possible, as it opens with a casually coalescing take of I Hear a Rhapsody, its laid-back bluesiness giving way to a pinpoint, twinkling articulacy that sends it out on an upbeat note. From there, the covers are reinvented and sometimes disfigured, fascinatingly. Ellington’s Heaven is transformed with a spacious, distanced approach and coloristic ripples, while Jerome Kern’s I’m Old Fashioned, held up by matter-of-factly strange block chords, is so sideways and NOT old-fashioned it’s funny. A Mary Lou Williams medley opens with John Stubblefield’s Baby Man – a standout track in the Williams repertoire – done as part ragtime, part biting, stern minor-key spiritual. Williams’ Waltz Boogie becomes even more of a dirge than the version of Dirge Blues that Tonooka segues into. By contrast, Thelonious Monk’s Evidence is a playfully syncopated romp, followed by a hip, allusive, quote-infused take on Cole Porter’s All of You worthy of Bill Evans.

But it’s the originals that are the stars here. After setting a sepulchral tone with Phantom Carousel, Tonooka follows with a diptych of Sojourn I and then Uganda, her left hand coming to life slowly like a volcano emerging from dormancy – or McCoy Tyner circa 1972 – climbing slowly from shadowy, minimalist blues to rippling variations and a completely unexpected murky muddle that slips away gracefully. The tersely dancing Moroccan Daze, which follows, makes it a trilogy. That she would title the expansive, austerely mournful tune after that Mingus Mood attests to her appreciation for the guy who wrote Goodbye Porkpie Hat (which this piece references strongly). If the title of At Home is to be believed, home for Tonooka is warm but very lowlit, sort of Dave Brubeck but with a more pensively exploratory edge. The concert ends on a jaunty note with I’m Confessin’, Tonooka interspersing playfully leaping upper-register cadenzas into Eubie Blake’s genial ragtime tune.

All this again begs the question: why don’t more artists make live albums, considering how cost-effective they are compared to studio recordings? Maybe because jazz artists assume, often correctly, that jazz fans want a clean recording that sounds better than your typical mp3 bedroom recording? But maybe, in the age of the iphone, it’s time to revisit that assumption. As this album reminds, a recording from a good room is bound to sound great, whether the place is a club or a studio. Who needs overdubs, anyway? Or as Tonooka might have been thinking here, who needs a band?

July 3, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Intriguing US Premiere and Some Nordic Rarities

Classical music fans in New York looking something more interesting than the same old standards have numerous options. Among the best of these is the New York Scandia Symphony, who dedicate themselves to reviving interest in lesser-known Nordic composers as well as premiering new works by emerging composers from the upper reaches of that hemisphere. Last night at Victor Borge Hall in Murray Hill, the highlight of the night, performed by a twelve-piece chamber version of the orchestra, was the American permiere of contemporary Danish composer Anders Koppel’s Symphonie Concertante. A triptych, it’s a characteristically enigmatic and absolutely fascinating work, something to get lost in if not for the endless tempo and stylistic shifts. Conductor Dorrit Matson, a Dane herself, led the ensemble seamlessly through a wary, pulsing first movement that evoked Astor Piazzolla’s later work before engaging Steven Hartman’s clarinet and Andrew Schwartz’s bassoon in a long round of animatedly crescendoing rhythmic hijinks over the swells of the strings and eventually a labyrinth of polyrhythms. And yet, the jousting stopped abruptly during the early part of the second, Largo movement and turned to apprehension, reaching near-horror proportions via the chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque string motif around which the final Allegro appassionato movement was centered. A celebrity in his native land ever since his days in popular rock band Savage Rose, Koppel deserves to be much better known here.

Another highlight of the program was Symphony violist Frank Foerster’s Suite of Scandinavian Folk Tunes for string ensemble. Foerster is a very eclectic player and has a great wit – another suite of his, Summer in Fort Tryon Park, is a quintessentially New York tableau, packed with irresistible on-location references. This piece is more serious, a rugged hardanger fiddle-style sea motif linking a series of portraits of several of the Nordic nations: by this account, the Norwegians and Swedes are a serious bunch given to vivid dramatics, while the Finns and Icelandics are party animals. Opening the concert, Matson and the group took Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Haydn-esque Violin Concerto and tackled its rather rugged, stern underpinnings with a muscular sway beneath violinist Mayuki Fukuhara’s spun-silk swirls; a bit later, Hartman was featured in a velvety version of the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, Op. 11 of Bernhardt Henrik Crusell, a Swedish contemporary of Mozart. They closed with enjoyably jaunty yet precise takes on the Prelude and Rigaudon from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Concerts like this only add intrigue to the question: what have else we not yet heard from this particular part of the world that deserves to be known equally well over here – and when is this orchestra going to play it?

March 23, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz Connect the Unexpected

If you listen to NPR or watch PBS, this is old news, so here’s to all of you who’ve made the switch from the small screen to an even smaller one and might not have noticed that pianist Christopher O’Riley and adventurous cello virtuoso Matt Haimovitz have a new album out. It’s titled Shuffle. Play. Listen., and they’ll be touring it next year, with a stop at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Jan 22. Pianist O’Riley, host of the NPR/PBS program From the Top, is no stranger to making neoromantic instrumental albums out of rock and pop songs: this double cd makes three in a row. It’s a lively and often exquisitely good duo performance, simply the best thing O’Riley’s ever put his hands on.

To succeed with a music show, you ought to know something about connections, which is what the first cd is all about. Who knew how much Bernard Herrmann’s classic soundtrack to the equally classic Hitchcock film Vertigo had in common with works by Stravinsky, Janacek or Martinu? This guy, obviously. To make those commonalities crystal-clear, imaginatively potent new arrangements of parts of the Herrmann score are interwoven between the other pieces, a concept that might seem preposterous but works brilliantly. Haimovitz gets most if not all of the juiciest parts, perhaps logically since Herrmann’s score was heavy on the strings, and also because O’Riley has the good sense to stay within himself. His playing is distinguished by smartly thought-out dynamics, pacing and elegantly terse embellishments rather than pyrotechnics.

The first cd opens on a deliciously macabre note with Prelude from the Vertigo Suite, done here as a creepy waltz with artful, unexpected cello/piano overlays. The duo follow that with Leos Janacek’s Fairy Tale, which follows a similar trajectory: after the minimalistic first movement (with some striking, Kayhan Kalhor-style echo effects from Haimovitz), it grows more wary and winds up with an understated menace. The nightmare scene from Vertigo follows, impressively understated with its agitated cello flurries. Martinu’s Variations on a Slavic Folk Song makes an unexpected but rock-solid segue, growing from stark to forceful, with a suspenseful edge very similar to Herrmann’s.

They segue back to the Vertigo Suite for the hypnotic Carlotta’s Portrait, then take a detour for a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, its highlights being the sad waltz that precedes the dynamically-charged, surprisingly quiet Aria and then the Tarantella, which pushes the limits of how far and how fast O’Riley can go. The Scotty Tracks Madeline scene from the film gorgeously juxtaposes longing with blitheness and a rapt upper-register duo between Haimovitz – who can get tones out of his cello that no one else can – and O’Riley. From there, a spirited take on Piazzolla’s Grand Tango – with each instrumentalist assigned to cover a little of the ground that Piazzolla’s bandoneon did on the original – is spot-on. The disc concludes with the thinly disguised, mournful minuet that serves as the film’s love theme.

The second cd reverts to the random vibe of O’Riley’s two other classical-rock piano albums, with generally good results. There’s a marvelously successful instrumental version of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, right down to the cello winkingly spinning off a fade or a psychedelic riff straight off the record as O’Reilly rubatos the piano with just the right touch of suspenseful anticipation. And that band’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi gets a graceful, circular indie classical treatment, focusing on its subtle counterpoint, as does the almost unrecognizable version of A Perfect Circle’s Three Libras. A couple of Cocteau Twins tunes reach for a slightly less hypnotic atmosphere than the originals, while two Blonde Redhead tunes – Misery Is a Butterfly and Melody – run richly memorable hooks over and over for an approach that builds toward grand guignol. There are also two John McLaughlin compositions here – Dance of Maya, whose austere acidicism doesn’t stop it from matching up well with Herrmann as it morphs into a bitterly bluesy minor-key romp, and A Lotus in the Back Seat, done as Ravel might have orchestrated it.

Another Cocteau Twins track, the lightweight Heaven or Las Vegas, isn’t as well-suited to this kind of serioso treatment as the other tracks are, and the derivative faux-baroquisms of the first movement of the Stravinsky make for two minutes of what-are-we-doing-here. And as far as the two Arcade Fire covers here are concerned, the two players take an energetic stab at elevating them to Herrmann-ish grandeur, but ultimately, garbage in, garbage out: Arcade Fire is a boring band. But those are only small complaints about an otherwise mammothly successful effort. O’Riley also has a very cool, gospel-flavored free download available, Time of My Time inspired by Kris Saknussemm’s recent novel Reverend America.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 5/13/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #627:

Bernard Herrmann – The Film Scores: Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen

This 2005 reissue of an early 90s recording covers many if not all of the great film composer’s greatest moments, most of them from Hitchcock movies. It’s also maddeningly hard to find. At least it’s nice to see the guy who was arguably Hollywood’s foremost composer getting the full symphony orchestra treatment. The first track is the opening theme from The Man Who Knew Too Much, followed by most of the string quartet stuff from Psycho, notably the creepy intro, rainstorm scene, mommy getting offed and of course the shower scene. There’s also the stormy intro from Marnie, the even more ominously blustery North by Northwest theme, a ton of stuff from Fahrenheit 451, from the intro to the closing overture and the most noir moments from the Taxi Driver soundtrack. The one piece that really ought to be here but isn’t is the “concerto macabre” from Hangover Square, arguably Herrmann’s finest ten minutes – but the movie is obscure and the snobs probably felt it wasn’t well-known enough. A rigorous search didn’t turn up any torrents for this album, but you can download the Taxi Driver soundtrack, as well as the Marnie, Fahrehneit 451, NXNW, Torn Curtain and Vertigo soundtracks via The Cheerful Earfull.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lisa Bielawa’s In Medias Res Stuns and Lingers

Composers have been writing for their favorite performers and ensembles for centuries. Lisa Bielawa wrote much of the music on her lavish new double cd In Medias Res specifically for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Directed by Gil Rose, they return the gesture with a sweeping, potently attuned performance that does justice to the poignancy, and intensity, and playfulness of the four integral works and suite here. For lack of a better word, this is a deep album, a milestone in the career of a composer who deserves to be ranked as one of this era’s most powerful and compelling. It couldn’t have come at a better moment. It’s a lot more than Bielawa arriving in a cloud of dust to rescue the world of “indie classical” from the simpering, infantile whimsy that’s seeped in from the indie rock demimonde, but that’s part of the deal. Or at least we can hope so.

The first piece here is Roam, dating from 2001, on a theme of exile inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. It’s a marvelously suspenseful, ambient piece worthy of Tschaikovsky or Bernard Herrmann. A tone poem with unexpected and extremely effective digressions, it works the subtlest dynamics and a chromatic tug-of-war in lieu of any kind of overt consonance, crescendos rising slowly out of slow, plaintive tectonic shifts, wary and absolutely desolate in places. Bielawa wrote her Double Violin Concerto specifically for the solists here: Carla Kihlstedt, who sings an English translation from Faust (along the lines of “let’s get the hell out of here and find some peace”) while playing, and Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen. It’s another quiet stunner, plaintive with a vivid sense of longing, shades of Henryk Gorecki. Rapt, quiet, simple motifs diverge and converge austerely in the first movement. The second literally revolves around creepily circling violins as Kihlstedt channels Goethe in a soaring, unadorned high soprano; the third, inspired by the Lamentations of Jeremiah mixes suspenseful horizontality with a distantly Indian melody, which Jacobsen makes the most of, in the same vein of his work on Brooklyn Rider’s delicious new double cd of Philip Glass string quartets. The dance at the end becomes a danse macabre as the two violins close in on each other.

A cantata of sorts, Unfinish’d, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard II and his winter of discontent made summer. It packs a wallop in just short of nine minutes, austere and then blustery, and then suddenly down to a chilly expanse, Bielawa’s crystal-cutter soprano leading the way back to a breathless coda. In Medias Res, her concerto for orchestra, is a cinematic tour de force, swooping out of tune, building suspense with locomotive force, a creepily recurring waltz, starlit ambience straight out of the Gustav Holst playbook and a long, apprehensive, deeply satisfying crescendo out.

The second cd , titled Synopses, is a a series of miniatures and extended solo pieces for individual orchestra members. Some of these are actual motifs from In Medias Res; others foreshadow it, others seemingly allow for improvisation (particularly from trumpeter Terry Everson, who tackles it joyously). The most amusing piece is for drums and spoken word, done by Robert Schultz, whose accents are spot-on, but who could have used a voice like Kihlstedt’s or Bielawa’s to deliver a series of disturbingly or entertainingly allusive comments overheard on the street. All together, these pieces demand repeated listening. It was tempting to add this to our ongoing countdown of the thousand best albums of all time. We resisted. That might have been a mistake. Bielawa and an ensemble are playing several of the Synopses with choreography at New York City Center on 56th St. tomorrow, April 16th at 7:30 PM.

April 16, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment