Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Deep in the Catacombs, Harp and Strings Never Sounded More Menacing

You probably wouldn’t expect a concert in a graveyard to be particularly lively. But this past evening’s program deep in Green-Wood Cemetery was as intimately ferocious as it was macabre. With only candles and a couple of low-watt ceiling lamps illuminating the private catacombs there, impresario Andrew Ousley introduced Bridget Kibbey as “The dark gothic goddess of the harp.” That description no doubt reflected her decision to hang out by herself down there before the show and practice for a couple of hours, in the company of about 120 fulltime residents contained in thirty family crypts.

Obviously, not everything Kibbey plays is morbid, nor were there any dirges on this particular bill. But the performance had enough grimness and sheer terror for any respectable Halloween event. Joining forces with an allstar string quartet – violinists Chad Hoopes and Grace Park, violist Matthew Lipman and cellist Mihai Marica – Kibbey opened with Debussy’s Dances Sacred and Profane. Beyond the piece’s kaleidoscopic dynamics, what was most viscerally striking is how loud it was down there. For anyone who might assume that chamber music is necessarily sedate, this was a wild wake-up call.

The space’s resonance is just as remarkable: no matter how intricate Kibbey’s lattice of notes became, they all lingered, an effect that powerfully benefited the string section as well. And the sheer volume afforded a listener a rare chance to revel in Debussy’s echoing exchanges of riffs, not to mention his clever shifts in and out of Asian pentatonic mode, his jaunty allusions to French ragtime and occasional gargoylish motives.

As omnipresent and fiery as Kibbey’s volleys of notes were, the most adrenalizing point of the concert was Hoopes’ solo midway through Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie, robustly arranged by Kibbey for violin and harp. Careening like he was about to leave the rails for good, his notes lept and flailed with a feral abandon, grounded by Kibbey’s alterlnately sparkling and looming attack.

Likewise, her use of the harp’s low register was one of the most stunning aspects of her solo arrangement of Bach’s Toccata in D. In that context, it was fascinating to hear how much of that organ work’s pedal line she retained. As perfomance, it was pure punk rock. Kibbey confided that she’d come up with it on a dare – and that the dude who dared her remains a friend. At the very end, she abandoned Bach’s seesaw drive toward an end that’s been coming a mile away for a long time, then blasted through every red light and tossed off that otherwise immortal five-chord coda in what seemed like a split second. The effect was as funny as it was iconoclastic.

Lipman took centerstage with his alternately balletesque and plaintive lines in Kibbey’s cinematic duo version of Britten’s Lachrymae. As she explained it, the piece is far from morose – describing it as a tour of a mansion was spot-on. The group closed with a piece that Kibbey and Marica have had creepy fun with in the past, Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique. As it followed the grand guignol detail of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, the ensemble spun an uneasily rising and then suspensefully falling tapestry. They maxed out the trick ending, the 11 PM hour where the entitled types at Poe’s masked ball get a hint of a reality check. When death himself showed his face, the carnivalesque payoff was a mighty one. Despite temperatures in the pleasantly loamy-smelling catacombs being at least twenty degrees lower than they were topside, everybody was out of breath by the end.

Afterward, a refreshingly airconditioned shuttle bus returned to pick up anyone who had to rush for the train down the hill. Those not pressed for time had the option of taking a leisurely fifteen-minute walk back through the graves, lit only by the night sky and the occasional tiki torch.

This concert series began in a smaller crypt space in Harlem and has made a welcome migration to Brooklyn. Along with the music, there are always noshes and drinks beforehand as part of the package. This time it was small-batch whiskey: upstate distillery Five & 20, whose overproof rye glistens with the bite of five New York varietals, stole that part of the show.

If these mostly-monthly events intrigue you, be aware that the best way to find out when they’re happening is via the organizers’ email list. You can sign up at deathofclassical.com, unsurprisingly, tickets go very fast.

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August 6, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Repartee and Revelations From Young Concert Artists on the Upper West

Is it fair to a duo act to say that the highlight of their show involved only one of them? In this case, that’s a reflection of the material on the bill rather than the performance. The piece was Tonia Ko’s mesmerizing Waves and Remains for Solo Violin; the player was Benjamin Baker, at Merkin Concert Hall this past evening.

The composer introduced it as an illustration of how clouds passing across the sky metaphorically reflect the transitory nature of home, and whether it’s actually possible to go back. Strumming, she explained, reminds her of her Hawaiian childhood, and that’s how Baker opened the work, tersely, then shifted to steady, circling phrases that interpolated pizzicato accents within them. The device can be maddeningly difficult to play, cleanly – Baker made it seem effortless. Ko’s increasingly uneasy series of waves and echo devices rose to a very amusing, atonal paraphrase of a well-known nursery rhyme at the end.

Baker and his frequent tourmate, pianist Daniel Lebhardt, also had great fun with Britten’s Suite for Piano and Violin, Op. 6. Their playful jabs during the call-and-response of the opening march segment were matched by the more lingering, lyrical camaraderie that the composer artfully shifts to in the second movement, and also in the third, almost a parody of a minuet.

There were two other pieces on the bill as well. The duo opened the show with the slow upward trajectory of Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 934, Lebhardt attacking the recurrent series of rapidfire, tremoloing phrases with remarkable restraint, leaving the floor to Baker for a display of pensive grace and silken, high harmonics. And yet, Baker couldn’t resist sliding just a hair toward the feral blue notes of Hungarian folk music when Schubert’s faux-Romany dance kicked in.

They closed with the predictable High Romantic angst of Elgar’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E Minor, a post-World War I reflection that’s hardly the match for, say, what Bartok or Ullmann had to say about it, but the crowd enjoyed the whole thing. The takeaway from this show, staged by Young Concert Artists, seemed to be “these guys are going to do pretty much everything a classical musician is required to do in 2018.” This performance ultimately revealed as much about a professional friendship as it did the two musicians’ formidable chops.

The Young Concert Artists series has helped launch the careers of a similarly formidable list of players, including but not limited to Pinchas Zuckerman, Richard Goode and Dawn Upshaw. Ko happens to their latest composer-in-residence: based on this piece, they chose spectacularly well. The next performance on this season’s schedule is at the Morgan Library at noon on Feb 7 with oboeist Olivier Stankiewicz and pianist Jonathan Ware playing an all-French program of works by Poulenc, Dorati, Saint-Saens and Sancan; cover is $20 including museum admission.

January 31, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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