Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stormy Solo Cello Transcendence with Tamas Varga at Merkin Concert Hall

Last week at Merkin Concert Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Tamas Varga played a transcendent, majestic solo concert built around Kodaly’s Sonata for Violincello. Aaron Jay Kernis, who was in the audience, demurred that he’d never heard the piece before Varga had commissioned him and two others to write solo works to accompany the Hungarian composer’s “great masterwork,” as he called it. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s a symphony for solo cello, requiring all sorts of extended technique: harmonics, simultaneous pizzicato and bowing, and maddening metric shifts, among other things. But Varga dug in with relish. Complicating matters is that the two lowest strings are downtuned, something that the rest of the pieces on the bill shared. Varga cut loose churning rivers of low-register chords before rising to a regal theme that sounded suspiciously sardonic. Distantly Bartokian acidity and Romany-tinged flair were muted in the adagio section but burst into bracing focus in the climactic third movement, which ended cold and unresolved. Throughout the work, Varga’s pacing enhanced the suspense, through a couple of wry Beethovenesque false endings, stormy gusts, brooding lulls and finally the flames that leapt from his bow.

The new pieces were fascinating as well. Kernis’ Blues for Mr. Z was the most allusive yet most resonantly colorful of the three. The composer related that just as Kodaly had drawn on the folk music of his native Hungary, he’d decided to incorporate some austere minor-key blues, which turned out more often than not to be implied rather than explicitly evoked.

Varga opened with a meticulously altered stroll through Gregory Vajda’s Captain Hume’s Last Pavin for Violincello. Inspired by a seventeenth-century rant by British composer Tobias Hume, it built toward several possible resolutions that never arrived. Laszlo Vidovszky’s Two Paraphrases for Violincello Solo, based on two themes from the Kodaly work, built enigmatically ambered variations and ended with a shout out to the composer’s shape note system which is ubiquitous in Hungarian music education. Did Kodaly get the idea from the American shape note system, which was very popular in religious and choral music in the early 1800s? That merits further study.

Varga closed with a plaintive, calmly paced, Bach-influenced miniature written by his son, who couldn’t make it to the show…because he was in school. How many young composers have such a brilliant advocate for their work as Varga? And how many brilliant cellists have kids who can write as poignantly as Varga’s son?

This concert was part of the High Note Hungary series staged by the Hungarian Cultural Center, who have been putting on some incredible shows around town over the last couple of years. The best way to stay on top of what’s happening is to get on their email list: this one was a late addition to the calendar.

March 18, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last True Small Beast?

Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, creator of the Small Beast concert series at the Delancey – New York’s most cutting-edge, exciting and important rock event – played his final set at the club Monday night, since he’s moving to host another Small Beast in Dortmund, Germany. Sharing a characteristically rich bill with Wallfisch were ”cemetery and western” crooner Mark Sinnis, cello rockers Blues in Space and Wallfisch’s longtime co-conspirator Little Annie Bandez.

All of these acts get a lot of ink here. Sinnis played a terse duo show on acoustic guitar, backed by the reliably extraordinary Susan Mitchell on gypsy-tinged violin. His trademark Nashville gothic material went over as well with the crowd gathered at the bar as the blast of air conditioning flowing from the back of the upstairs space did. The two mixed up creepily quiet and more upbeat songs from Sinnis’ new album The Night’s Last Tomorrow along with older ones like the hypnotic, vintage Carl Perkins-flavored That’s Why I Won’t Love You.

Blues in Space featured composer/frontman Rubin Kodheli playing electric cello, accompanied by eight-string guitar and drums. Hearing their swirling, chromatically charged, metal-spiced instrumentals up close (the band set up on the floor in front of the stage) was like being inside a cyclotron, witnessing the dawn and decay of one new element after another. And yet the compositions were lushly melodic, especially an unselfconsciously catchy new one which was basically just a good pop song arranged for dark chamber-rock trio. Kodheli fretted afterward that he wanted to take special care not to sound “bombastic,” something he shouldn’t worry about. A little bombast actually wouldn’t have hurt.

After Blues in Space, Wallfisch made the long wait for his set worthwhile. Small Beast is his baby, and as much passion as he put into it, it obviously wasn’t easy to let it go. As much as he didn’t hold back – the guy is one of the most charismatic frontmen in any style of music – he also didn’t go over the top, letting his songs speak for themselves. And they spoke volumes: his glimmering solo piano arrangement of the Paul Bowles poem Etiquette, and his closing number, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, equal parts seduction and anguish. “One and a half years, it seems like a lifetime ago,” he mused, which makes sense: in that short span of time, Small Beast in its own way took its place in the history of music in New York alongside CBGB, Minton’s and Carnegie Hall.

In between, Little Annie joined him for flickering, torchy, regret-steeped versions of Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away (interrupted by a posse of drunken tourists barreling down the stairs and past the stage, oblivious to the moment), the reliably amusing anti-trendoid anthem Cutesy Bootsies, a genuinely wrenching requiem for a suicide titled Dear John, and an apt encore of It Was a Very Good Year. Annie is reliably hilarious; tonight she was just as preoccupied. And who can blame her (she goes on tour with Baby Dee in late summer/early fall).

As for the future of Small Beast, the Delancey’s Dana McDonald has committed her ongoing support (she’s no dummy – being known for running a club that books smart music is always a plus, no matter how much more moronic the world of corporate and indie rock gets). Vera Beren – a rare bandleader who can match Wallfisch pound for pound in terms of charisma – hosts next week’s Beast on July 12, featuring her band along with ambient, minimalist synth goths Sullen Serenade and ornate, artsy Italian/New York 80s-style goth band the Spiritual Bat.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment