Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Powerful, Provocative and Playful Performances at the Opening of the New St. Ann’s Warehouse

If you could perform a Yoko Ono world premiere with the Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? That’s what the audience at the grand opening of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo did Saturday night…literally. It was a playful Pauline Oliveros-style improv: everybody got to be rain, and snow, and a momentary thunderstorm. It wasn’t on the bill: from the looks of it, those of us who knew about it beforehand kept that information to ourselves.

The rest of the program embraced the cutting-edge, the profound and the warmly familliar. Choir leader Dianne Berkun-Menaker guided a beefed-up take of Americana band the Wailin’ Jennys‘ One Voice, plus an easygoing audience singalong of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House. Accompanied by vibraphonist David Cossin, the chorus opened the show with Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s Bubbles, a deliciously entertaining suite juxtaposing droll water noises with achingly lush, neoromantic atmospherics. The composer smartly chose to end on a humorous note: even the most serious-minded performer would have had a hard time getting through this one without collapsing in laughter. Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps, reprised from the chorus’ earlier performance this month at National Sawdust, maintained the kinetic pulse with its dynamic shifts, quirky accents and challenging polyrhythms, all seamlessly performed.

The most cutting-edge moment of the program was when the groups were joined by pioneering Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, who reinvent Bulgaian and Macedonian folk themes, sometimes cutting largescale choral works to their stark roots, sometimes creating 21st century arrangements of ancient folk tunes. The chorus seemed turbocharged for this one, poised to provide waves of dark earthtone color, elegantly slow glissandos and plainchant-like precision behind the microtonally-spiced, eerie close harmonies of Willa Roberts, Shelley Thomas and Sarah Small. The piece itself, titled Around the Forest, A Youth Roams; The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, was composed by Small – whose repertoire extends to art-song, largescale ensemble works and tableaux vivants – in collaboration with Brooklyn Balkan icon and theatrical composer Rima Fand.

The most relevant pieces on the bill were both world premieres, Sahba Aminikia‘s Sound, Only Sound Remains, and Mary Kouyoumdjian‘s Become Who I Am. The former gave the quartet a stern and austerely waltzing arrangement, delivered with precision against multitracks of women singers in Iran along with a digitized copy of a hundred-year-old 78 RPM folk recording. In Iran, it’s illegal for a woman to sing unaccompanied by men; this expression of global solidarity spoke volumes. Likewise, the latter of the premieres incorporated a litany of increasingly cutting, sardonic spoken-word snippets from members of the chorus into its carefully crescendoing, plaintive sweep, contemplating ongoing challenges facing women inside and outside of music. Bottom line: the glass ceiling might have a few cracks, but it’s still there. And if you thought the pressure to conform – especially for girls – was bad when you were a kid, it’s brutal now.

About the new space: it’s gorgeous. Tiered seating offers clear sightlines, and the sonics are pristine. While you can hear a pin drop when it’s quiet, it’s not a completely dry space like Avery Fisher Hall. And the hot chocolate at the food stand out front was getting the thumbs-up from the chocoholics in the crowd.

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October 18, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Album of the Day 9/22/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #860:

Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – Volume II

The 1985 debut by le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, or the Bulgarian Voices as they’re more popularly known, was one of the landmark albums in the history of recorded music and spearheaded a global phenomenon. Every choir and every woman who’ve ever sung this repertoire, especially those in the west, owe something to this long-running ensemble. First established in the early 1950s, their self-released 1975 album was issued worldwide ten years later. But this one, their first recorded for the 4AD label in 1988, is even better (we aim to be counterintuitive here). With its eerie ninth and eleventh intervals, strange, guttural trills and sepulchral ambience, these large-scale choral arrangements of traditional Bulgarian folksongs are nothing less than otherworldly, especially to western ears. The women perform them a-cappella with the exception of one which has an accordion on it. The high point is the insistently catchy folk tune Dragana I Slavei, memorably covered in a new arrangement for four voices by groundbreaking Brooklyn quartet Black Sea Hotel in 2008. You can hear the whole thing here: it’s still in print from Nonesuch. If you’re looking for a torrent, here’s a random one.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Zlatne Uste and Raya Brass Band at Drom, NYC 6/13/09

Big party at Dracula’s castle last night, were you there? Alone in a darkened room, The Count? Not exactly. While not quite the mobscene that the NY Gypsy Festival’s show at le Poisson Rouge was last month, the big Balkan brass band concert last night was well-attended and deliriously fun. It was something of a juxtaposition of the old guard and the young lions of the thriving but still largely under-the-radar New York Balkan underground. The dancing started before the bands did, the dj spinning an auspiciously diverse, pan-global mix of Mehanata-style stuff while a line formed and circled the room, growing longer by the minute. Then Zlatne Uste took the stage. The nine-piece Balkan brass juggernaut – four horns, trumpet, tuba, drum and two saxes – were the first of the New York Balkan brass bands, dating from way back in 1983. Their name means “golden lips,” definitely a boast, but they back it up. “Most of us are older than you are,” their trumpeter somewhat proudly told the crowd. A guy in the crowd kept yelling for them to play his favorite song, the Goran Bregovic hit Kalasjnikov. “Not now!” a fellow partyer grinningly advised. “They always do that later.”

They opened with their darkest number of the night, basically a murky two-chord chromatic dance vamp and then another that was even simpler, serving as a chassis for some darkly intense soloing from the trumpet and sax. Most of the songs were instrumentals, although several band members sang on the vocal numbers, sometimes sharing a line or trading off.  A few were marked by a noticeable shift, opening somewhat wary, the staccato pulse of the horns then growing bouncier and more carefree. As their long, exuberant set went on, the sea of dancers grew, through a bouncy, happy number in 4/4, a bracingly soulful cocek dance and several with far trickier, syncopated rhythms that didn’t phase the dancers a bit. One of the guys in the band sang a drinking song (rakia, the potent Balkan apple brandy featured prominently). The crowd – a diverse mix of expats and Americans – was clearly psyched to hear what were obviously some old favorites. As predicted, they finally did Kalasjnikov, a lickety-split vocal number, one of the horn players leading the crowd in an exuberant “one, two, three, OPA!” to wind up the chorus.

After a lengthy break, Raya Brass Band came out of the back room and secured a spot on the floor, quickly encircled by not one but two lines of dancers. There’s been a buzz about this band lately and it’s well-deserved. Where Zlatne Uste got the party going, these guys took it up a notch. Their sound is looser, far darker and they threaten to fly off the hinges at any second: this band is all about adrenaline, taking the intensity as high as it can go and then adding something on top of that. Clarinetist and sax player Greg Squared – also of the equally intense, somewhat more diverse Ansambl Mastika – is a pyrotechnic player in the Ivo Papasov mold, delivering an endless series of long, careening, wildly flurrying clarinet solos packed with lightning-fast melismas. On the sax, he backed off only a little. Yet it was his achingly terse, minimalist clarinet solo toward the end of the set that was the most intense of all. Trumpeter Ben Syversen is a kindred spirit, blazing through the songs’ eerie Middle Eastern scales while accordionist Matthew Fass (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar) held things together as much as he could, ominously and atmospherically. Sometimes the band would all blast through the same repetitive riff as an ensemble, otherwise barrelling along with the fat, undulating groove of the tuba and drum as trumpet, sax or clarinet cut loose, the songs going on for minutes on end without respite. Eventually, two of the women from the Brooklyn Balkan a-capella quartet Black Sea Hotel (who have a sensationally good debut album just out) joined in and belted a few choruses

By 2 AM, the drunk munchies were kicking in, and the kitchen was still serving food. By the way, these NY Gypsy Festival events are a surefire way to get away from tourists and trendoids. Tourists, if they knew this stuff existed, would think it’s weird and scary (a lot of it is); trendoids, if they knew anything about it, would ridicule it as declasse. There’s nothing more populist than when the band is on the dancefloor and either you’re in the band or you’re unable to escape being drawn into the joyous vortex of dancers around them.

Raya Brass Band is at Mehanata on 6/25 at 9; the 6/27 Turkish Woodstock at Central Park Summerstage at 3 featuring Mazhar-Fuat-Özkan, Painted on Water with Sertab Erener & Demir Demirkan plus the NY Gypsy All-Stars with iconic clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici is not to be missed, and afterward the organizers have kept things going with an afterparty at City Winery, Senlendirici playing with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials and more from the Gypsy All-Stars. Is this turning out to be a good summer or what?

June 14, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Black Sea Hotel’s Debut Album

Using only their voices, no autotune, synthesizers or computerized effects, Black Sea Hotel’s four singers – Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder – have created the most haunting and beautiful cd of the year so far. Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir, taking both ancient and more modern Bulgarian folk music to a lot of very otherworldly places. It would be easy to say that since they play most of their shows at rock clubs,  they’re sort of the punk rock version of le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, but that wouldn’t be giving them enough credit. Not only are the group extraordinary singers, they’re also arrangers. As the four members revealed in an enlightening interview here recently, they’re doing new things with an impressive repertoire of haunting old songs, paring down large-scale pieces for just their four voices, embellishing works for solo voice as well as folksongs typically played with instrumentation. The result ranges from chilling or hypnotic to downright psychedelic, gorgeous washes of sound panning across the spectrum, moving in and out of the mix, from one harmony to another in places. Sometimes all four voices harmonize. Sometimes they work in pairs, or a single voice against two or three in counterpoint. Between them, they cover the sonic spectrum from contralto to high soprano with an astonishing ability to go from the lowest to highest registers and vice versa in a split second, using Balkan and Middle Eastern scales, eerie microtones, magically precise melismas or sometimes just a pure, crystalline, fullscale wail. But rather than always going for the jugular with the wild whoops and embellishments for which le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares are best known, they choose theirs spots judiciously, saving the most elaborate and ostentatious ornamentation for when they really need it.

The cd mixes sixteen songs in both Bulgarian and Macedonian from literally across the centuries. There’s a polyrhythmic dance; a mysterious number about witchcraft with a quite operatic bridge; a dirge about a girl swept away in the river; a Middle Eastern-inflected cautionary tale; the sad story of a drunken pasha; a wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz; the suspenseful account of a singing competition between a young girl and nightingale; and an insistent taunt that with all four voices going full steam becomes practically a sonic lynching. If this album doesn’t end up making the top ten in our Best Albums of the Year list at the end of December, 2009 will have been the best year for music in recorded history. Not bad for a quartet of American women who probably never heard a word of Bulgarian until they were in their teens. Black Sea Hotel play the cd release show at Union Pool at 9 on June 4 on an excellent bill with Sxip Shirey, Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment