A gusty, unexpectedly chilly February night in a boomy, barewalled basement-level public space hardly makes for optimum conditions for an up-and-coming string quartet to debut their new collaboration with a similarly irrepressible, cutting-edge concert harpist. But Bridget Kibbey and the Amphion String Quartet – violinists Katie Hyun and David Southorn, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Mihai Marica – defied the elements and made a strong impression Tuesday night, notwithstanding the gusts of wind, ganja smoke and a hi-tech coffeemaker working hard in the background during quieter moments. Kibbey took it all in stride, no surprise considering that she made her way up with shows in rock clubs and loft spaces, and the quartet were just as game. Watching them pull everything together made the prospect of seeing them in more comfortable surroundings all the more enticing.
Hyun wore knitted armwarmers for the first number, Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1036. She took them off afterward – playing first-chair violin, you work up a sweat even if it’s cold. Meanwhile, Kibbey negotiated the composer’s rapidfire runs with a harpsichord’s precise, even articulation, hardly an easy task. The group followed by nimbly negotiating Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane with a dynamic performance from stately gamelan-inspired phrasing to more kinetic, traditionally western ballet territory.
For whatever reason, the one piece that seemed the hardest to tackle under the circumstances was its least challenging one, Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 77, No. 1. As Hyun told the crowd, she was happy it “made the cut” for the program, maybe just under the wire, because the group had to battle their way into the graceful opening movement before coming together with an energetically friendly chemistry as the piece rose and fell, spiced with bits of humor and drollery in the same vein as early Beethoven. As Hyun explained, this made sense considering that the quartet was published just a year after Beethoven’s first, a point where there was about to be a changing of the guard…but Haydn wasn’t going to let it happen, at least not yet.
It would seem that the stoners in the house, or outside of the house would have been most entranced by the circling riffage of the Bach or the elegant maze of counterpoint in the Haydn, but instead it was the murderously acidic danse macabre of Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique that got them huffing and puffing. The piece follows the narrative of Edgar Allen Poe’s Mask of the Red Death, a cruelly populist parable that in the age of ebola scares seems especially relevant. Southorn took over first violin part as the group lept and bounded while Death skulked in the background and then tiptoed in over the castle walls. After the bloodbath subsided, the ensemble took it out on an aptly sepulchral note.
This concert was staged by the Concert Artists Guild, whose raison d’etre is to springboard the careers of up-and-coming artists. One especially enticing upcoming CAG-sponsored bill is at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on March 22 at 7:30 PM, where trumpeter Brandon Ridenour, pianist Rachel Kudo and the ensemble Useful Chamber perform works by Gershwin, Ravel, Debussy, Paganini, Bartok, Saint-Saens and Vivaldi.
After violinist Alexi Kenney‘s solo performance last night, Concert Artists Guild president Richard Weinert enthused that it was one of the best he’d ever seen: high praise from someone who gets to see an awful lot of concerts. And by any standard, it was pretty transcendent – and no surprise that despite this being the coldest night of the year so far, there was a full house at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea.
Kenney opened with Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006. On a surface level, it’s a dynamically shifting suite of variations on what might well have been pilfered folk dance themes. Playing from memory, Kenney went way below that surface for a minutely jeweled interpretation that quickly became a showcase for his quicksilver legato. We talk about having a fluid, legato approach, but this guy’s is so unwavering that if it was a sine wave, it would be flat. Which made all the more contrast when the music became more lilting and kinetic, Kenney establishing a trope he’d fall back on frequently throughout the performance, adding just a wisp more bow at the end of a phrase if he thought it needed the emphasis.
The showstopper was Kenney’s masterful take of Erwin Schulhoff’s Sonata for Solo Violin, WV 83. Part feral post-Schoenberg savagery, part richly apprehensive late Romantic angst, it bristles with sudden cadenzas and overtones and requires all sorts of extended technique. Kenney didn’t necessarily make it look easy, but he was clearly at home with it both technically and emotionally, something you don’t see that often. By contrast, the purposeful arpeggios of a fantasia by Nicola Mattheis – a precursor to Bach – made a comfortable segue into the cirrus-cloud atmospherics of Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne.
Kenney closed the concert, making a wrenchingly heartfelt return to Bach with what seemed like the entirety of the Partita No. 2 in D Minor (the program listed just the chaconne section, but it was music to get lost in). The wounded opening theme, and its foreshadowing, were genuinely harrowing, which made the epic climb to more optimistic territory all the more impactful. The sonics of the gallery were serendipitous, to the point of becoming part of the performance: spaces with natural reverb like there is here should host more solo shows. And the music made a good counterpart to the art on display, Ran Ortner‘s uneasily photorealistic tableaux of yellow-grey waves roiling in a sunset current. They have little in common thematically with Edward Hopper’s work but have a similarly raptutous use of light and shadow. It would be fascinating to see how the artist builds it, layer upon layer of paint.
These Concert Artists Guild gigs are a great way to discover new talent: that, after all, is the purpose of the organization. The next one is Bric Arts, down the block from BAM at 647 Fulton St. in Brooklyn on February 9 at 7 PM featuring dazzlingly eclectic harpist Bridget Kibbey and the Amphion String Quartet playing music of Bach, Debussy, Haydn and Caplet; admission is free.
Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall was the Classical Recording Foundation’s annual awards night, and to their credit, they keep blazing a trail. Keeping an eye on the arists that producer/engineer/violinist Adam Abeshouse’s nonprofit is championing is one way to stay in touch with some of the best things simmering just under the radar in the world of classical music these days. Auspicious things are happening with the foundation as well: if all goes according to plan, they’ll have new digs in Williamsburg for both recording and live shows, complete with bar and restaurant, by 2014.
The concert celebrated centuries-old traditions as it saluted new ones. The star of this particular evening was harpist Bridget Kibbey. While the classical concert harp probably isn’t the first instrument that you would think of as being badass, Kibbey makes it that way. Praised for her DIY esthetic, she lends her unorthodox virtuosity and powerful attack to a nonstop series of new commissions: much as the Imani Winds are doing for wind ensembles, she’s singlehandedly springboarding a new repertoire for her instrument. This time out she began with latin jazz, which is a good fit for her rhythmic, hard-hitting style since the one contemporary instrumentalist that she sometimes evokes is Colombian jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda. While she didn’t go deep into the funk like he can, Weill Hall doesn’t really have the acoustics to accommodate that. But the moody intensity of a Paquito D’Rivera diptych, a shapeshifting partita by David Bruce and the rapidfire circularity of a Kinan Azmeh piece were more than sufficient to wow the crowd.
The old guard was first represented by harpsichordist Gerald Ranck, who deserves a special shout since he’s the man in charge of music at the perennially eclectic New York Society for Ethical Culture. He’s also an intense and intuitive player: at one point during his all-Bach program (from an upcoming recording of the entire Well-Tempered Klavier, on harpsichord, piano and organ), he hit one particular low chordal sequence in the G Minor Fugue, BWV 885 so hard that the assistant turning pages beside him broke into a grin: no doubt he was doing the same inside. Likewise, his take on the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWE 847 was hair-raising, one of the most lusciously invigorating performances of Bach in recent memory.
Representing for the 19th century were Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Barbara Govatos and pianist Marcantonio Barone, who delivered a passionate, dynamically rich, suspensefully spacious version of the first movement from Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 47 from their new Beethoven sonata cycle cd. To close the night, soprano Elizabeth Futral sang a brief series of Philip Lasser songs backed warmly and tersely by pianist Margo Garrett. Lasser’s signature update on the French High Romantic in this case served primarily as a showcase for Futral’s stunning range while keeping the theatrics in check on the piano side. And when the lyrics – a series of French texts from across the ages – took a sudden turn into darkness and angst, Lasser illuminated the words (a Louise de Vilmorin poem) with a sudden, Debussy-esque, wary lustre.
Music awards ceremonies can be funny, and not in a good way – for example, when’s the last time you watched the Grammies? A better question would be, have you ever watched the Grammies? At their 2011 awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall Monday night, the Classical Recording Foundation chose the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio to receive their “collaborative artist award,” named in honor of Samuel Sanders, the longtime Itzhak Perlman collaborator and a sensitive pianist. Other than that they have excellent taste – and that maybe they should call this award the Classie – what does this say about the Classical Recording Foundation? Do celebrated pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson deserve yet another award? Without question, yes, as they reminded when they played a fresh, cliche-free take of the opening Allegro Moderato from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1, acerbic and sometimes stingingly direct where they could go in that direction, redemptively cheery when that path wasn’t an option. This was especially impressive considering that they’ve probably played this piece hundreds if not thousands of times. But do they need this award? At this point in their career, having debuted as an ensemble at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural, they have their choice of concert halls worldwide and audiences who will fill them and walk away afterward in awe – and tell everyone about it.
If that particular award set the bar, the others upheld it. The first of two “composers of the year” was Robert Paterson. The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Paterson compositions, Star Crossing, is one of 2011’s best and most richly enjoyable albums, a feast of noir flourishes, accent on flutes and percussion, from someone who’s a somewhat unlikely combination of percussionist and composer. Imaginative, often magical trio Maya got to play several selections from Paterson’s considerably more lighthearted but equally original new Book of Goddesses album. Paterson’s keen sense of melody and remarkable eclecticism were evident throughout the four pieces on the bill. The first, Aphrodite, took on a bracing Middle Eastern edge with Sato Moughalian’s full-throated flute, Bridget Kibbey’s characteristically lithe, incisive harp and percussionist John Hadfield’s slinky levantine groove. After an ersatz Andean folk tune, Oya was a showcase for Kibbey, who switched effortlessly from percussive fire to funky rhythm and back, while The Muses gave the group a chance to work their way with a casual elegance from the ancient Middle East to current-day downtown New York. The other composer of the year, Arlene Sierra, was represented by piano duo Quattro Mani, whose pianists Susan Grace and Alice Rybak merged singlemindedly on the otherworldly Wuorinen-esque atonalisms of her 1997 composition Of Risk and Memory, which gave way to a cruelly difficult, insistent, staccato rhythmic attack and then extrapolated on both themes.
Young Artist of the Year went to Metropolitan Opera star Susanna Phillips, who delivered Debussy’s six Ariettes Oubliees, pianist Myra Huang getting the enviable assignment of playing them, turning in a richly sustained, spacious interpretation that essentially got the max out of the composer’s otherworldly minimalism. Phillips is a force of nature and sang like one, but the songs wouldn’t have had the same impact without Huang.
Awards are just a small part of the Classical Recording Foundation’s agenda (to an outsider, this concert felt like an exclusive party: everybody seemed to know each other, with several famous or least semi-famous faces scattered throughout the crowd). The Foundation’s agenda is to raise funds for important recordings, without regard to commercial appeal. The roster of acclaimed artists they’ve worked over the years includes such familiar names as Simone Dinnerstein, Donald Berman and Ann Marie McDermott. The CRF also has an ongoing collaboration with the Library of Congress and Bridge Records, both fortuitous relationships for an organization clearly not afraid to take risks in the spirit of making our era’s important works and performers available to future generations.