Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis,  which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

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September 21, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious Portrait of Emerging Composers Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser

Student works by emerging composers get a bad rap because they’re so often like term papers, written to display a command of what’s been taught rather than any kind of individual vision. Last night at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, two young composers, Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser challenged that stereotype in an eclectic composer portrait concert of chamber works performed with verve by an inspired, talented cast of similarly up-and-coming talent.

The two have an enviable pedigree, mentored by two Bang on a Can luminaries: Evans with Julia Wolfe and Weiser with Michael Gordon. Evans proved to be influenced in a very good way by Wolfe’s relentless purposefulness and and often grim terseness, refusing to waste a single note. Gordon’s translucence, his gift for melody and also his wit were echoed throughout Weiser’s compositions.

The concert opened on an auspicious note with the trio Bearthoven – a band name so good that it hardly seems possible that it went unclaimed til now – slowly and meticulously swaying their way through the stygian whispers and then horror-stricken swells of Evans’ Shoaling, an illustration of long wave motion. Pianist Karl Larson, percussionist Matt Evans and bassist Pat Swoboda established a murky, minimalist ambience that grew and grew until those waves were about to dash the theme on a jagged, rocky shore. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly, as the wail of an ambulance echoed down Kingsland Avenue outside. Starkly ambitious and genuinely profound, it instantly put Evans on the map as someone to keep an eye on.

The composer herself played Augun, more or less a tone poem, solo on cello. It was basically a duet with herself, in tandem with a backing track featuring austere percussive accents and low-register washes, her subtle variations – derived from an Icelandic love ballad – pulling tensely against a central tone. A brief string quartet, Five, played by violinists Megan Atchley and Yu-Wei Hsiao, violist Alex Tasopolous and cellist Alexandra Jones, depicted the angst of the tedium of life in captivity, a marching canon eventually giving way to eye-rolling, seemingly exasperated glissandos and then a series of deft variations. In the end, there seemed to be optimism. Andplay, the duo of violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson, delivered a graceful take of Dogged, a series of variations on a four-note theme common in Neil Young-style rock that rose from austere building blocks to a warmly sustained conclusion.

Weiser and Evans share a fondness for emphatic, rhythmic motives for a foundation, but that’s where the similarity seems to end. Weiser likes to use a lot of space, especially while laying the groundwork for a piece. He’s drawn to the neoromantic and is a strong songwriter. The highlights among his works were a trio of songs done by Larson and soprano Charlotte Mundy. A distinctive, down-to-earth, disarmingly individualistic singer, she showed off a strong and conversationally direct low range throughout several a-cappella passages, no easy task. More than one person in the crowd remarked that the way she rose from a completely unadorned, intimate delivery to striking highs with just a tinge of gentle vibrato made it seem as if she was singing directly to everyone individually. The triptych’s opener, A Door, rose and fell on Larson’s glimmering waves; the second segment, Night Walk, developed artfully from spacious minimalism to a more lush, ominous nocturnal theme; the third, Marks, had a jauntily dancing flair.

The string quartet played Weiser’s Quake, meant to illustrate a tectonic system on the verge of completely coming apart, an insistently polyrhythmic, artfully dynamic exploration up to an agitatedly galloping coda. Bearthoven Roar, performed by that trio, turned out to be a droll pastiche of Beethoven-like motives interspersed among the instruments, flitting by in seconds. And the night’s concluding piece, Rumbling Waves, played by Larson and Matt Evans, was true to its title.

May 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment