Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Deviant Septet’s Boisterously Entertaining Debut

It’s an auspicious sign any time a good band sells out a room. In the case of new music ensemble Deviant Septet’s debut performance Thursday night at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, a wired young audience found its perfect match onstage. The Deviants’ signature piece is Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat; their raison d’etre is to play that piece and, hopefully, new commissions for unorthodox mini-chamber orchestra. Featuring members of Alarm Will Sound, the Knights and Metropolis Ensemble, Deviant Septet comprises Bill Kalinkos on clarinet; Brad Balliettt on bassoon; Courtney Orlando on violin; David Nelson on trombone; Doug Balliett on bass; Mike Gurfield on trumpet; and Shayna Dunkelman on drums and percussion.

The first half of the performance was the Stravinsky. It’s not one of his major works, but it is a lot of fun. It’s sort of Stravinsky for kids, in a good way: it’s very entertaining. The story, a surreal, wryly Russian update on the Faust myth, was energetically directed by Rafael Gallegos, with Sean Carvajal lending a deadpan, sardonic, hip-hop edge to the character of the soldier, bassist Balliett serving as Greek chorus of sorts, with bassoonist Balliett playing the role of the Devil and Dulce Jimenez subtly developing the role of the Princess from guileless to femme fatale. Interpolating the story within musical passages that pulsed along on the tireless good cheer of the bass (Doug Balliett got a real workout but held up his end mightily), the group shifted amiably from martial bounce, to plaintive austerity, to the bracing astringencies of the final theme where it seems that the composer decided to dig in and get serious. It was the most intense passage, it was worth the wait, and the ensemble took it out on a high note.

The second half of the program began with the world premiere of Dutch composer Ruben Naeff’s For the Deviants. Meant to illustrate another deal with the devil – in this case, concessions to the right wing made by the Rutte administration in Naeff’s home country – it came across as the kind of piece written more to appeal to those who play it than those who have to hear it. Based on one of those circular themes all the rage in new music circles, the ensembled opened together against a drone, then took turns individually sending out bits and pieces of permutations, one by one. Toward the end, there was a passage with some semi-contrapuntal vocalese. Trying to keep her blippy ba-ba’s together, Orlando couldn’t keep a straight face and backed off, a reaction that was as completely honest and appropriate as it could have been.

They amped up the fun factor with another world premiere, Stefan Freund’s The Devil Dances with Tom Sawyer, a mashup of the Stravinsky with the classic rock radio stinkbomb by Rush. That song offers endless possibilities for comedy: Freund chose the high road, rather doing anything with lyrics like “He gets high on you!” and “Catch the spit!” Taking both pieces out of context, the Stravinsky took a backseat to the satire, the group opening it with a deadpan Dixieland feel, trombone playing Geddy Lee’s silly bassline. What became obvious from the first minute or so is what a boring song it is: after giving it a spirited thrashing and having fun rearranging its most hobbity aspects, they let it go. The group finished with Frank Zappa’s Titties and Beer, a funk-metal update on the Stravinsky, sung with sardonicism and soul-drenched relish, respectively, by Matt Marks and Mellissa Hughes, Doug Balliett switching to electric bass to fatten the slinky low end. It was a good way to bring the arc of the concert up as high as it could go – and the crowd screamed for more.

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May 30, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ECCO Resounds Intensely on the Upper West Side

Lately we’ve been scoping out little-known neighborhood enclaves for first-class live music. Music Mondays is not one of them. Despite temperatures in the teens last night, the church at 93rd St. and Broadway quickly filled to standing-room capacity, testament to the popularity and vitality of this ongoing monthly series. Sixteen-piece string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, a.k.a. ECCO rewarded the house full of brave souls with a genuinely transcendent, unflinchingly direct, rawly emotional performance.

The conductorless group opened with a warmly nocturnal take of Janacek’s Suite for String Orchestra. Within its comfortably glimmering cantabile and cirrus-cloud atmospherics, they focused on wistfulness and wariness, notably in the song without words that comprises its first adagio movement, and the searching overture that brought it up to end on a hopeful note. They followed with a performance of Shostakovich’s Sinfonia, Op. 110, based on his String Quartet No. 8, which literally stunned the crowd. Composed three years after his elegaic Eleventh Symphony, like so much of Shostakovich’s post-Stalin era work, it’s a requiem. From the quietly stumbling anguish of the opening solo violin figure, the ensemble left no doubt as to how harrowing this would get, as much a homage to those who managed to survive Stalin’s years of terror as to those who didn’t. Like the Eleventh Symphony, its opening funeral scene is interrupted by a series of salvos and a crushing stampede, contrasting mightily with the suspensefully macabre, carnivalesque dance that follows. This interpretation let the composer’s depiction of complete emotional depletion speak for itself, through the whispery, exhausted anguish of the concluding atmospherics, solo violin or cello rising just to the point of serving as witness to unspeakable evil. The audience – an impressively knowledgeable bunch, from all appearances – didn’t know what hit them.

The rest of the program was anticlimactic, but not by much. Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 10 in B Minor essentially pairs off two themes, a mostly breezy waltz versus darker martial shades, the group emphasizing the latter. They closed with another real stunner, Ginastera’s Concerto Por Corde, Op. 33. Like the Shostakovich that preceded it, this has long, stampeding passages, except that these don’t let up – and like Shostakovich, there’s considerable angst, here finally rising to a scream as the piece wound up after several false endings. To say that this was a workout for the musicians is quite an understatement: they played as if it was the triumphant marathon (albeit a bitter one) for which they’d been feverishly training. For a group that typically limits itself to a few performances per year since all the members have busy careers as soloists and with other ensembles, they displayed a remarkable singlemindedness.

The next concert in the Music Mondays series is February 21 at 7:30 PM featuring the Enso Quartet at the multipurpose, multicommunity church at 93rd and Broadway: early arrival is very strongly advised.

January 25, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The New York Scandia String Symphony 2/11/10

Going to see a concert by the New York Scandia Symphony is something akin to being a member of a secret society. They are an organization after our own heart. The NY Scandia dedicates itself to popularizing Scandinavian works from over the centuries, some of which are well-known or even iconic on their native turf but completely obscure here. You can also count on them for at least one US or New York premiere at every show. Thursday night in the comfortable Victor Borge Auditorium at Scandinavia House in midtown they brought their smaller String Symphony chamber ensemble for a program that even by their exacting standards was riveting.

They took their time opening up with Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Flute Concerto, whose highlights were a handful of dexterously ornamented yet understatedly precise solos by Lisa Hansen. As a composition, it shows its age, fugal and predictable, yet the ensemble lit into it with such insistent gusto that it was impossible not to believe: they completely sold it. By contrast, the largo from early 20th century Danish composer Poul Schierbeck’s song cycle I Was Born in Denmark was nothing short of transcendent. Schierbeck was an organist, and the string arrangement is unsurprisingly a lush blend of subtle textures, a perfect match for the stately longing and distant anguish of the melody. A piece by Norwegian Romantic composer Johan Svendsen contrasted with its attractive, comfortably steady ebullience.

Making his North American debut, hotshot Danish accordionist Bjarke Mogensen joined the ensemble for a richly genre-blending, emotionally intense yet frequently very playful US premiere of Anders Koppel’s Concerto Piccolo. Koppel began his career as a rock musician while still in his teens, playing psychedelic pop with popular Danish export Savage Rose, but in the following years he moved to film music. This three-part suite proved as fascinating as it was well-played, leaping from jazzy, bass-driven Mingus-esque suspense to macabre Bernard Herrmann atmospherics to a surprisingly upbeat, subtly amusing conclusion. Mogensen matched a whirlwind attack through a knotty thicket of accidentals to several wrenchingly beautiful, minimalistically ambient passages while conductor Dorrit Matson worked overtime but didn’t break a sweat. They closed with another string piece, Frank Foerster’s Suite for Scandinavian Folk Tunes, the composer himself the featured soloist on viola, a similar feast of contrasting emotions, timbres and attacks. The piece interpolated a series of rousing hardanger-style fiddle dances meant to symbolize the five Scandinavian nations against a haunting, ominous “song of the sea” theme that cleverly worked variations on a minor sixth arpeggio. In the depths of the sway and the swells of the string section, the heart of a very inspired noir garage band – or Norwegian surf band from the sixties – had come alive, in a very subtle way. The Scandia Symphony’s next full-orchestra concert is on March 9 at 1 (one) PM at Trinity Church playing yet another premiere-packed program.

And by the way, Scandinavia House’s cute, lowlit cafe makes a good date-night spot – the organization’s dinner-and-a-movie and dinner-and-concert packages are quite the bargain and the regionally-themed cuisine (notably: fish, berries and fresh greens) turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

February 13, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment