Pianist/composer Ayumi Okada writes vivid, cinematic songs without words. Her music is full of stories, and humor, and unselfconscious depth. Much as her sense of melody is appealingly consonant, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a neoromantic: she’s most at home in the borderlands with Debussy and Ravel. A composer-performer, she’s premiering a new piano quintet with a first-class chamber ensemble including star cellist James Waldo on March 10 at 7:30 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 20 Cumming St. in Washington Heights. The group will also play music of Dvorak, Bach, Johann Goldberg, Caroline Shaw and Doug Balliett; admission is $15/$10 stud. Take the 1 train to Dyckman St.
Okada’s debut album is Here, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins – streaming at Spotify – a beguiling mix of chamber works. It opens with Okada’s String Quartet No. 1 a steady, bittersweetly theme with echoes of Dvorak and baroque-inflected counterpoint that gives way to a stormily dancing pulse which she elegantly ends up bringing full circle. There’s an arthouse film with a philosophical poignancy that needs this for when the main titles roll, a strongly voiced performance by Waldo, violinists Karen Dekker and Meredith Ezinma Ramsay and violist Rose Hashimoto.
The second work, Cape Roca has a similarly picturesque sweep, Waldo’s austere lines against resonant glimmer and then gracefully ornamented neoromanticism from pianist Alyona Aksyonova. The miniature A Walk in the Park is a showcase for Okada’s playful sense of humor, Aksyonova’s devious leaps and bounds in tandem with peek-a-boo clarinet from Yumi Ito bookending a momentary cloud passing across the sky.
Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the standard orchestration of piano, violin and cello hints at chromatic Shostakovian menace in between stately Piazzolla-esque passages and hints of late Romanticism. The album concludes with a triptych, the Light Princess Suite. Aksyonova plays a majestically enigmatic, emphatically waltzing theme over Waldo’s austere washes in the first movement. The second, where the rest of the strings join in, is awash in moody high/low, still/kinetic contrasts in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s more airy chamber works. Once again, Waldo’s starkness grounds the piano’s dancing, Debussyesque figures as the suite winds out, artfully shifting meters. It’s Okada at her most colorful and picturesque: this intrepidly dancing creature takes a lot of detours, but she can’t be stopped.
As if we need more proof that Monday is the new Saturday night, on March 6 at 6:30 PM there’s an enticing indie classical performance on the Lower East Side. It’s free with a rsvp, and there’s a reception afterward. The main enticement is that violinist Kristin Lee, concertmaster of the Metropolis Ensemble will be playing the release show for composer Molly Joyce’s intense, acerbic ep Lean Back and ‘Release (streaming at Bandcamp). As a bonus, the composer will also premiere her new work for toy organ and electronics, ominously titled Form and Deform. The show is at the new gallery space that just opened at 1 Rivington St. just off Bowery. It’s about equidistant from the 2nd Ave. F stop and the J/M at Bowery.
There are just two tracks on this edgy little album, performed by violinists Adrianna Mateo and Monica Germino with unobtrusive electronic touches. The title cut, clocking in around seven minutes, is a stinging study in tension slowly unwinding. built around a rather haunting chromatic riff, descending from icy, airy heights to a nebulous swirl and an eventual, rewarding calm. Getting there isn’t easy: it’s hard to turn away from.
The other track follows a similarly dark but ultimately triumphant trajectory, a human-versus-machine tableau built on variations on an octave. All the more impressive considering that this is Joyce’s debut release. Fans of cutting-edge, intense string music would be crazy to miss this. What else are you doing after work on a Monday night, anyway?
Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”
An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.
Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.
Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.
The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.
That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?
In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known
The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.
For over a decade, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble have relentlessly championed American composers, and the New York indie classical scene in particular. Since the mid-zeros, this semi-rotating chamber group – many of whose members are composers themselves – have recorded music as diverse as noir film themes, works for dance and a New York Mets themed song cycle (go Mets in 2017!). The group are playing the album release show for their latest one, Thrive on Routine – streaming at WQXR – at 8 PM on Feb 13 at Roulette; $20 advance tix are still available as of today.
ACME member and violist Caleb Burhans’ string piece Jahrzeit, which opens the album, has an uneasy, lustrous haze that shifts through a series of changing meters. A requiem for his father, it comes across as a search to capture an image lost forever, a longing for a return to focus. Just as that clarity seems to be within reach, the music becomes more loopy and hypnotic.
Clarice Jensen plays the first of two Caroline Shaw pieces, In Manus Tuas, solo on cello. Inspired by a particular striking moment in a Thomas Tallis motet, the lingering mini-suite is a surreal mashup of a single, imaginary Elizabethan choral line and echoey, insistent minimalism, a pleasant Groundhog Day of sorts. Shaw is a singer, and a good one: there’s a strong, resonantly cantabile quality that’s often strikingly subsumed in a wash of overtones.
Timo Andres plays a second and similarly hypnotic Shaw piece, Gustave le Gray, solo on piano. Although the composer took her inspiration from Chopin’s A Minor Mazurka, the obvious comparison is the famous E Minor prelude. When it suddenly becomes untethered from an aching insistence, the effect is stunning.
Burhans, Jensen and violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell play the title track, an Andres string quartet inspired by Charles Ives’ predawn gardening and Bach obsession. It’s funny: tweety birds waking up in stillnes, a dazed man with a hoe, a bustling rush hour scene, oblique references to the venerable American transcendentalist and to Philip Glass eventually all make an appearance.
The final piece is John Luther Adams’ desolate and ultimately macabre tableau In a Treeless Place, Only Snow, the string quartet and Andres’ piano bolstered by Peter Dugan on celesta and the twin vibraphones of Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama. Its starry stillness brings to mind the vibraphone nocturnes of Robert Paterson. And its allusive themes of eco-disaster – and maybe eco-revenge – speak as strongly as his global warming-themed suite Become Ocean.
Like most composers these days, Paula Matthusen gets commissioned to write for all sorts of projects, from film and video to dance. Maybe for that reason, her latest album Pieces for People – streaming at Spotify – is very eclectic. Much of this you could call ambient; minimalism works too. It’s a clinic in how to have maximum fun with getting all sorts of different textures out of a single note or simple phrase. If you’re around this weekend or just back from the march on Washington and need to chill out, Matthusen and woodwind player Terri Hron are doing an electroacoustic set at Spectrum at 3 (three) PM on Jan 22. It’s a fair bet that they’ll do some of the material from the album, and there’s a reception afterward. Cover is $15.
The opening number, Sparrows In Supermarkets, features Hron’s playfully flitting lines reprocessed and spun back as a percussion instrument of sorts; as the piece goes on, it develops into a warmly enveloping Brian Eno-esque soundscape. James Moore plays the distantly Asian-tinged, microtonal Limerence solo on banjo: as with the previous piece, Matthusen uses an echo effect as a percussion track. It builds to a toweringly hypnotic peak in the same vein as much of Moore’s work with the Dither guitar quartet.
Jamie Jordan provides tenderly nuanced, melismatic vocalese on The Days Are Nouns, backed by Mantra Percussion‘s echoey, vibraphone-fueled resonance. The first half of a diptych for the Estonian National Ballet, AEG (movements III & IV) features pianists Kathleen Supové and Yvonne Troxler mingling uneasy, loopy, increasingly insistent piano phrases. Vocalists Molly Shaiken and Tiit Helimets exchange droll spoken-word nonsequiturs in English and Estonian over backward-masked long-tone motives in the second part.
Organist Wil Smith plays another Eno-esque diptych of sorts, Of Architecture and Accumulation, a feast of timbres: airy, keening, smoky and distorted, and subtly oscillating, gently spiced with ominous close harmonies. Then Smith pulls out all the stops for a mighty, strolling, slo-mo fugue before winding down gracefully.
Wim Boerman conducts the Orkest De Ereprijs playing Corpo/Cage. A funny rainscape sequence and playful variations on brassy loops eventually get mashed together, more or less: it’s the album’s most epic track. The final piece is the elegaic In Absentia, Troxler’s broodingly spaced, plaintively plucked phrases over violinist Todd Reynolds‘ atmospherics. Turn on, tune in, get lost.
Considering that string players ought to be ideally suited to writing string quartets, Caroline Shaw is not only a capable violinist but also a strong singer with a background in choral music. So the cantabile quality and sheer catchiness of her string quartets were hardly a surprise when the Attacca Quartet played a grand total of five of them at National Sawdust Sunday evening.
Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for a piece whose ambition trumped content. The works on this bill made for a far more accurate and rapturously entertaining survey. The Attaccas chose well in championing her, and she deserves champions as committed to and capable of tackling her often dauntingly challenging if reliably tuneful and ever-growing repertoire.
The influence of Bach shone clearly throughout several of these pieces, but through the prism of Philip Glass, in terms of elegantly circling, hypnotic, subtly shifting motives and arpeggios. Distant echoes of late Beethoven and a “nested Bach cantata,” as Shaw grinningly put it, were present. There were also flickers of composers as diverse as Kaija Saariaho and Per Norgard, particularly during the music’s most shimmery, atmospheric moments, most of them a setup for Shaw’s next surprise. None of these pieces followed the traditional four-part mold. The most expansive was Plan & Elevation, an uninterrupted, seven-part suite inspired by the greenery at Dunbarton Hall, a Washington, DC area landmark. The shortest and most overtly triumphant was Valencia, the concluding number, its lithe, loosely tethered, balletesque flourishes celebrating the virtues of a particularly juicy orange, bursting with flavors both sweet and acidic.
Shaw writes very generously for string quartet. Second violinist Keiko Tokunaga got plenty of time in the spotlight, as did first violinist Amy Schroeder and violist Nathan Schram, as Shaw’s kinetic phrasing lept from voice to voice. She makes maximum use of a cello’s most stygian resonances, delivered exuberantly by cellist Andrew Yee. The opening work, Entr’acte, featured all sorts of hushed, muted harmonics, microtones and the occasional devious glisssando. Each member of the quartet seemed pushed, if quietly, to the limits of their extended technique with volley after volley of pizzicato, in addition to gentle doppler or siren effects.
One number explored a Roland Barthes concept about the perception of a particular tone. Punctum, the next-to-last piece, Shaw averred, means both “point” in Latin and also the opening of a tear duct: it turned out to be more of a pensive pavane than a cavatina. The sold-out audience was drawn in raptly and finally exploded in applause: nobody knew when the concert was going to end since there was no program printed or online, at least at the venue’s page. It’s hard to think of an ongoing string quartet cycle that’s going to be more fun to keep in touch with than this one.
The Attacca Quartet’s next New York concert is on January 20 at 7:30 PM featuring Beethoven’s String Quartet No 10, Op 74, “Harp” in E-flat Major, and String Quartet No 9, Op 59 No 3 in C Major, plus Michael Ippolito’s Big Sky, Low Horizon, at Church of the Holy Trinity, 3 W. 65th St.
In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.
Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.
The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.
Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.
From this perspective, crowds at concerts have been even more sparse than usual since the election. Monday night at the new Steinway Hall just around the corner from the Town Hall, a surprisingly robust turnout for an early weeknight got to witness a thrilling, dynamic performance by the Transatlantic Ensemble: clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Evelyn Ulex, joined by a couple of similarly electrifying special guests, Lara St. John on violin and JP Jofre on bandoneon.
The group’s raison d’etre is to expand the range of serious concert music beyond the usual parade of dead white guys. Lots of ensembles are doing this, but few more excitingly than this semi-rotating cast. Adam got to treat the crowd with her joyous, technically challenging leaps and bounds as the group bookended the program with a couple of Paquito D’Rivera pieces, Benny@100 – a tribute to famed jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman – and a pulsing Venezuelan-flavored waltz.
In between, Ulex explored a similar dynamism and nuance. She’s one of the pianists Steinway selected to record for their digital player piano, the Spirio, which not only plays the notes but with a very close approximation of an individual player’s touch and phrasing. With the Spirio, you have your choice of your favorite music along with a variety of interpretations. If there’s no room in your apartment or your budget for such a big piece of equipment, the Steinway label has just put out the Transatlantic Ensemble’s new album Havana Moon – streaming at Spotify – whose release the group was celebrating.
The premise of the album, Adam revealed, was to celebrate the work of some of the group’s favorite composers from their global circle. The night’s biggest thrill ride was a tango by Miguel del Aguila, whom Adam described as “impetuous,” and she wasn’t kidding. Ulex attacked the tune with both graceful precision and unleashed passion as Adam provided cleverly dancing counterpoint, and St. John added her own high-voltage flurries and spirals. The group hit a similar peak later on when joined by Jofre for a rousing performance of his composition Primavera, which came across as more of a wild midsummer festival on the Argentinian pampa.
Del Aguila’s Silence, as Adam averred, was hardly silent: a requiem, it gave her the evening’s lone opportunity to cut loose in an anguished torrent of notes, and she made the most of it. The duo also elegantly parsed the subtleties of D’Rivera’s neoromantically-tinged Habanera, a wistful Roaring 20s Parisian waltz by Villa-Lobos and a surprisingly astringent, modernist lullaby by Jofre.
Manhattan was like a mausoleum yesterday evening, where most likely the smallest crowd ever to witness a Ken Thomson album release show gathered under low, somber lights at the Poisson Rouge. Between the steady downpour outsde and the sobering news that defied the exit polls, New Yorkers were stunned, processing, asking themselves and each other some gravely fundamental questions – such as, should we stay or should we go?
On one hand, the two suites on Thomson’s darkly compelling new vinyl release made an aptly elegaic soundtrack for post-election shock and horror. On the other, both pieces are imbued with a sardonic, even playful wit along with plenty of gravitas. Thomson took a couple of moments onstage as emcee for the night, himself in something of a state of shock. The night’s opening triptych, Me Vs., was played with dynamism and a vivid austerity by pianist Karl Larson, Thomson explained that it had taken on new meaning as “We Vs.” and that he was perfectly ok with that.
Larson gave meticulous attention to its broodingly colorful details. Emphatic, trickily polyrhythmic, exasperatedly minimalist insistence early on gave way to an achingly overcast Satie-esque resonance and then a return to a steady, ominously rhythmic drive, a sort of mashup of Mompou belltones and the outro from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The acidically climactic final movement alluded to the baroque, shifted to stormy neoromantiv cascades, then through more subtly shifting polyrhythms, with a triiumphant coda.
Cellist Ashley Bathgate joined Larson for the second half of the program – and the album – the four-part, aptly tilted Restless. As the moody, low-register first moment slowly brightened and picked up steam, there was a subtle change of roles, the cello taking on more of a rhythmic propulsion while the piano moved futher toward lowlit background color. The duo wove a tight, balletesque lattice, with lots of friendly chemistry and interplay throughout the second movement, then took an uneasy, syncopated stroll that dipped into creepily clustering, murky depths in the third. Bathgate returned to the wounded vibrato she’d employed strongly in the opening movement over Larson’s eerie, close-harmoined chimes, winding up the suite with some enigmatically energetic glissandos, an unexpected end to a rather harrowing journey.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of the deliciously enveloping duo set that violinist Sarah Neufeld and multi-saxophonist Colin Stetson played this past evening at the World Financial Center atrium. If you missed it, good news: it’ll be rebroadcast on a date TBA on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live program on WNYC.
Neufeld and Stetson did a memorable duo album, Never Were the Way She Was, last year; since then, she’s released another solo effort, The Ridge. This show revisited both recordings: it was a performance to lean back and take in with eyes closed and get absoutely, completely lost in.
Neufeld opened solo with some assistance from her trusty loop pedal, building steady rhythmic variations on a stately three-note descending riff. Her second number rose out of canon-like, fluttery flurrying, a call-and-response of extended phrases. It was hard to tell what was in the pedal and what Neufeld was playing herself, but she was working up a sweat. Brisk broken chords and allusions to Romanticism appeared and were subsumed by sirening banks of sound.
Stetson joined her and supplied a rippling, almost subsonic idling-diesel drone, then introduced minutely stygian shifts as Neufeld played terse, wary, minimalistic washes overhead. Together they built a microtonal mist heavy at both ends of the register, Neufeld’s swipes and swoops against Stetson’s digeridoo-like rumble. The two slowly wound the epic down at the end with what could have beeen whale song translated to the two instruments: a deep, endangered ocean.
It was here that it became obvious that the two musicians had figured out the timing of the sonic decay in the boomy atrium space: in their hands, it became an integral part of the instrumentation as the echoes bounced off the walls. Memo to musicians looking to capitalize on that: it’s a fast echo, only about a half a second.
Stetson’s work on tenor sax was just as hypnotic, and expertly rhythmic, as his rumbling bass sax attack, the kind of masterfully metronomic series of live loops that he does with his live techno. A warmly nocturnal vamp and all sorts of otherworldly warping textures – including some ethereal vocalese from Neufeld filteried through the mix. They lost the crowd for a bit with a dancing, flitting number with a lot of pizzicato violin but pulled them back in, ending on as anthemic a note as such vast, spacious music can conjure. As the show wound up, Neufeld stomped her foot for a trancey percussive loop and pushed Stetson to his murkiest depths. What a refreshing, revitalizing experience in the middle of a week that really screamed out for one.
Meanwhile, throughout the show, a jungly loop of birdsong fluttered behind the mix, audible in the quietest moments. At first it was cute, but the shtick wore thin. Juan Garcia Esquivel would have faded it out thirty seconds in.