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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

This Year’s Momenta Festival, Installment Three: Fun Night!

Even by the rigorous standards of the string quartet world, the Momenta Quartet have to assimilate an enormous amount of material for their annual Manhattan festival. Never mind the kind of stylistic leaps and bounds that would drive most other groups to distraction. This year’s festivities conclude tonight with a free concert at 7 at West Park Church at 86th and Amsterdam put together by violinist Alex Shiozaki. The centerpiece is Per Norgard’s mesmerizingly dark String Quartet No. 8, and reportedly there will be free beer. But the music will be better than the beer. What’s better than free beer? Now you know.

Each member of this irrepressible quartet programs a single festival evening. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron was in charge of night one, which was reputedly challenging and entertaining – this blog wasn’t there. Night two, assembled by violist Stephanie Griffin, was harrowingly intense and had enormous political relevance. Last night’s bill at Columbia’s Italian Academy auditorium, devised by celist Michael Haas, was the fun night – although the fun promises to continue tonight as well.

Last night’s theme was a tourists-eye view of Italy. Haas took that idea from the evening’s one world premiere, Claude Baker’s absolutely delightful Years of Pilgrimage: Italy. Baker found his inspiration in Italian-themed works by Liszt, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky, and there were jarring episodes interpolating snippets of some of those themes throughout an otherwise distinctively 21st century work. It wasn’t the easiest, segue-wise, but it was riotously funny. Otherwise, the piece didn’t seem to have much to do with Italy, from austere, minimalist insistence, to all sorts of allusive, enigmatic ripples and rises, a daunting and uneasily captivating microtonal interlude, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek glissandos and other only slightly less ostentatious uses of extended technique. The group had a great time with it: every string quartet ought to play it.

The party ended on a high note with Tschaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the quartet bolstered by their former teachers Samuel Rhodes and Marcy Rosen on second viola and cello, respectively. It was an unabashedly joyous, conversational performance: to the extent that this music can swing, the group swung it, through beery, punchy Beethovenesque riffage bookended by familiar Russian gloom.

It was as if Tschaikovsky was reassuring himself that it was ok to cut loose and have some fun. And did he ever. That buffoonish brass fanfare midway through, transposed for strings – whose doublestops and rat-a-tat phrasing are brutally tough to play, by the way? Check. That ridiculous faux-tarantella at the end? Doublecheck. Otherwise, the group reveled in nifty exchanges of voices as the mood shifted back and forth.

They’d opened with Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which was more of a vehicle for individual members’ technical skill than anything else. Gendron spun silky filigrees while Haas and Shiozaki  provided elegant, precisely pulsing pizzicato alongside Griffin’s plaintive resonance. But ultimately, the piece – a late work based on Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice – didn’t really go anywhere. Obviously, the group can’t be faulted for the composer electing for a “this is what I look like when I’m sad” pose over genuine empathy. That the opera is based on the Thomas Mann novel explains a lot.

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October 4, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roger Nierenberg’s InSight Concert Provides a Rapturous, Under-the-Hood Look at a Symphony Orchestra

What was it like to be seated between the basses and the kettledrums at conductor Roger Nierenberg‘s InSight Concert at the DiMenna Center Saturday night? For those who gravitate toward the low registers, pretty close to heaven, when those instruments were part of the sonic picture. The rest of the audience was interspersed between various other orchestral sections…and then were encouraged to move to a new spot for the second half of the evening’s program. Not a brand-new idea – the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony played a revelatory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this same configuration last winter – but in any event, a memorable one.

Nierenberg has carved a niche for himself helping corporate clients employ orchestral-style teamwork, and the orchestra’s performance of a very smartly chosen program made a striking reminder just what a monumental feat it is to pull off a successful symphonic performance – the primary difference between a musical ensemble and a corporate environment being that backstabbing musicians have very short careers. To get a piece of music to work, everyone playing it has to trust each other.

On the podium, Nierenberg personified purpose and clarity, and a sense of call-and-response, delivering an agenda that the ensemble made good on. As a bonus for concertgoers, he invited them onto a big platform behind him, to watch over his shoulder for a conductors-eye view of the concert throughout a dynamic reading of Kodaly’s Galantai Tancok. It was the third and most vivid of a trio of folk-themed suites on the program, alternating between upbeat airs and more brooding Balkan themes, oboe and clarinet delivered crystalline, minutely nuanced solos front and center.

Britten’s Suite of English Folk Dances came across as sort of an etude for orchestra, packed with all sorts of high/low dichotomies that kept audience heads turning as the focus shifted in a split-second from the flutes, to the low strings, to percussion and then brass. Nierenberg’s own Playford Dance Suite, drawing on the very same folk melodies that Britten appropriated for his, packed considerably more emotional impact, and was much more clearly focused as well.

As many conductors do, Nierenberg also had the orchestra pull illustrative quotes from the program’s concluding numbers, Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – a birthday wake-up present from the composer to his wife, the conductor explained – and Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet. Again, the contrasts – balmy atmospherics versus kinetic phantasmagoria – were striking to the point where the crowd was left with a takeaway that most likely lingered long after the concert. If Nierenberg gets his way, it’ll leave a much more lasting impact: mission

September 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Explosive Finale to the One World Symphony’s Season

“When’s the last time you went to a symphonic concert and looked at the program and didn’t see a single date of death?” conductor Sung Jin Hong asked the Chelsea crowd assembled at the One World Symphony‘s concluding concert of the 2013 season this past May 20. Hong had a good point: it’s not often that an established fullsize orchestra programs a whole bill of living composers. Hong designed this one to go out on an explosive note and succeeded spectacularly. While he didn’t address the concert’s politically charged content, the program did: “American Affairs: Great • Atomic • Desire.”

This orchestra is known for surprises, and there were a couple early on that raised the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the bill. Soprano Adrienne Metzinger went deep into noir cabaret mode for a lurid take of Benjamin Britten’s Funeral Blues, backed with a stalker’s intensity by pianist Gulnara Mitzanova and the orchestra’s first chair bassist, Justin Lee. Soprano Sonya Headlam had a hard act to follow, but ended up raising the roof with a spine-tingling take of Gershwin’s Summertime, the orchestra lush and balmy behind her as she went to the top of her register, adding a tingling mix of overtones and blues as she brought the song to redline with a triumphant crescendo.

Spring-loaded, catlike and looking somewhat feral on the podium, Hong ran the rest of the concert as a suite – he has a Leonard Bernstein-like aptitude for making connections between what at first glance might seem like completely unrelated pieces. Over the evocative, bittersweetly orchestrated ragtime of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, Headlam continued with a more subtly vivid song, Where Is the Old Warm World, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s doomed Daisy offering some wistful foreshadowing. Mezzo-soprano Eva Sun then gave voice to the character Myrtle’s plaintive ache as the backdrop grew more contemplatively atmospheric.

Soprano Ashley Becker aired out the moody intensity of two songs from Andre Previn’s score to A Streetcar Named Desire: the uneasy Sea Air, and a sultry take of I Want Magic. From there they segued into two selections from John Adams’ chilling Robert Oppenheimer-inspired Doctor Atomic, Mitzanova returning for a broodingly opaque turn in front of the orchestra singing Am I In Your Light, the atomic scientist’s wife’s lament.

Baritone Douglas Jabara got the most spectacular of the vocal numbers and made the most of it with a gut-wrenchingly intense, anguished take of Batter My Heart, channeling what the composer felt to be Oppenheimer’s dread for the death and destruction his invention was about to cause (and for his legacy no less, it seems) via text from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV. Offstage before the concert, Jabara said that he believed that Oppenheimer knew the sonnet, and he sang it with that kind of bitter certitude, dashing offstage with a dramatic self-effacement as it ended. From there the orchestra took the Bernard Herrmann-esque horror to a logical, shattering conclusion via a bridge written by Hong as a showsstopping percussion feature with the timpani, gongs and bass drum exploding and then lingering in a firestorm of waves for what seemed minutes on end. It captured the catastrophic horror of the explosion over Hiroshima, not to mention the horrific loss of civilian life, more evocatively than words could possibly have expressed.

Hong programmed the world premiere of his own Edge immediately afterward, a bold and potentially suicidal choice given the previous work’s pyrotechnics. That the conductor’s equally haunting narrative – a setting of Sylvia Plath’s final poem, loaded with vengeful Medea references – wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to its power, and the orchestra’s commitment to it. Soprano Sara Paar had only been given a week to learn it, Hong told the crowd, but she brought it to life with a clenched-teeth, angst-fueled focus against shivery layers of glissandos from the strings. Even when the work lightened toward the end – Plath wasn’t going to kill her kids, after all – the mortally wounded atmopshere lingered. Few orchestras would take such a gamble by ending their season on such a dark note; then again, this ensemble has no fear of taking chances.

May 23, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments