Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Dragon Quartet Tackle a Harrowing, Transgressive Masterpiece and Other Russian Works

Today it’s time to salute transgression, and freedom fighters, and one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written.

Is it transgressive for a Chinese string quartet to play play popular and less popular but underated Russian repertoire? That probably depends on who you ask, and where you ask that question.

The Dragon Quartet – violinists Ning Feng and Wang Xiaomao, violist Zheng Wenxiao and cellist Qin Liwei – released their second album in the spring of last year. It’s streaming at Spotify; the centerpiece is Shostakovich’s chillingly immortal String Quartet No. 8. Having outlived Stalin, who had murdered so many of his friends, the composer wrote this piece in less than a week, fearing that he might not live to finish it since the tyrant’s successor, Krushchev, had gone on the warpath against artists again. If you know classical music, you undoubtedly know this one, where the composer inserts his initials thousands of times into the score (in German). If you don’t, you are in for a treat.

The slow, sheer despondency of the first movement is an especially severe contrast with the haggard chase scene (and sarcastic Wagner quotes) in the second. The dynamics of the marionettish dance of death in the third enhance the relentlessly sinister quality, particularly its ghostly swirls.

The fourth movement is where the gestapo knock on the door, one of the most iconic sequences in all of classical music. The quartet really dig into the lushness and desperation that follows: Ning’s muted lines as hope runs out pack a wallop, quietly, as does the resonance of the conclusion and Qin’s stark, solemn cello.

Mieczyslaw (Moishe) Weinberg was for several years Shostakovich’s neighbor and drinking buddy, and a vastly underrated, wildly prolific composer. He’d escaped the Holocaust only to be jailed by Stalin: although Shostakovich advocated for him, it was Stalin’s death that saved his life. Here the group play his String Quartet No. 2, which he wrote in 1945. It makes a good segue.

Ning soars uneasily over moody, sometimes insistent lows, with the group supplying vividly aching low/high contrasts as the piece gets underway. They give the second movement a fin-de-siecle, Debussy-esque wistfulness but also a marching cynicism and then flurry vigorously yet very warily through the third. The melodies hypnotically circling over the ghostly backdrop of the fourth movement are another higlight of the album. The group find a melancholy song without words and then get their hands dirty with the bracing round-robin counterpoint of the concluding movement.

Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 is an attractive piece of music, played expertly and thoughtfully, but it’s not going to blow you away like Shostakovich. It’s a love song to Borodin’s wife that ends as the happy couple go on a brisk stroll together. Before that there’s clever, Haydn-influenced counterpoint and shadowing, old world pensiveness, some stately waltzing, balletesque grace, and hummingbird-like speed from Feng when the conclusion calls for it.

May 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ambitious Take on Some Familiar Challenges by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

It’s often overlooked how changes in one field of music often mirror those in another. The rise of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into a reliably bonafide vehicle for first-class classical performance mirrors how the demise of the big record labels has relegated the realm of rock and other amplified original music to independent artists. Other volunteer New York orchestral ensembles – the well-loved Greenwich Village Orchestra, the innovative Chelsea Symphony and the fearlessly individualistic new Queensboro Symphony Orchestra – deliver quality programming, but in the past several months especially, none of them have surpassed their Park Avenue colleagues. Nor, it seems, has the New York Philharmonic.

Conductor David Bernard never made a connection he didn’t want to share with the world, an especially ambitious goal at the Park Avenue group’s concert this past Saturday night. First on the bill was a spine-tingling take of Borodin’s Polyvestian Dances. As a curtain-lifter, it was a whale of a challenge, but the maestro’s clenched-teeth, “we’re going to pull this off come hell or high water” presence pulled every available ounce of energy and impassioned playing out of the musicians onstage. A few years back, this group’s weak spot was the high strings, which would lag sometimes or fall out of sync. No more. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear the shivery, staccato cascades of this rampaging Russian dance suite fly with equal parts abandon and minute focus from stage right.

The intensity continued courtesy of guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who stunned the crowd with a fiercely and similarly impassioned, marathon run through the fortissimo torrents and machinegunning virtuoso volleys of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. While the dynamically rich, goosebump-inducing High Romantic swells and dips through triumph and angst and finally more triumph in the end were centered in the piano, the orchestra is also highly engaged rather than a backdrop, and the lushness and frequent solo passages from throughout the group were robust and assured.

Concluding the program was a particularly ambitious multimedia performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, with violinist Bela Horvath in the solo spotlight with his silken, often downright plaintive resonance. There were also projections, and narrator Peninnah Schram in the role of “storyteller.” Many times an orchestra will provide a program listing the various points in a piece that illustrate one thing or another; Schram, with her precise, rhythmic cadences, kept perfect pace with the music as she related the story, a triumph of feminist pacifism over a power-and-grief-crazed tyrant.

Here’s where things got crazy, and not because the orchestra and Schram weren’t locked in, because they were. When the narration was audible, the effect was a refreshing change from, say, flipping through the program like you might do with a paperback edition of Shakespeare at Shakespeare in the Park to follow along with the plotline. Trouble is, it wasn’t always, and this was neither the fault of the orchestra – which Bernard kept on a steady, dynamic pace through the work’s famously austere, ambered quasi-orientalisms – nor Schram either. The problem was that the speakers she was running through were placed too close to the stage, and facing the crowd rather than, say, facing each further back, along the sidelines where sonic competition with the mighty group onstage wouldn’t have been an issue. And this wouldn’t even have been a factor had the orchestra been playing Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, both venues where they’ve performed before with richly good results.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is December 6 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, focusing on a theme of innovation and paradigm shifts, pairing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Ted Rosenthal alongside Bartok’s challenging, high-voltage Concerto for Orchestra.

October 29, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment