Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Grand Finale From One of This Century’s Most Fearless String Quartets at the Met

How does a string quartet go out in style?  By grabbing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 by the tail and speeding it up at the end, a practice considered treyf in traditional classical circles, but a fearlessly stunning way to cap off an eighteen-year career.

Or by joining a bill spiced with the stern, stygian, somber sonics of a sextet of men in monks’ outfits singing variations on Gregorian chant. ‘

Or with the New York premiere of a major work by the timelessly vital Philip Glass.

In their final major performance, the Chiara String Quartet did all this and more, bowing out at the absolute peak of their powers on familiar turf at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the early zeroes, they’ve championed obscure composers, brought standard repertoire to crowds in bars and jails, and played and recorded one of the most strikingly intuitive Bartok cycles ever released. Violist Jonah Sirota told the crowd soberly that everyone in the group found this concert moving beyond words – the three standing ovations at the end underscored this group’s potency and relevance. What a run they had.

They opened with Nico Muhly‘s Diacritical Marks, an impressively artful, distantly Balkan-tinged theme and variations that eventually circled back on itself – things coming full circle was a major theme throughout this show. Sirota, cellist Gregory Beaver, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon juggled between flickering and starkly resonating motives as tectonically rhythmic variations rose and fell.

Making a dramatic march from the back of the auditorium, the Axion Estin Chanters delivered an alternately severe and triumphant triptych, working permutations on the same Gregorian melody on which Glass based his Annunciation piano quintet. At first, that piece came across as a magically direct, lushly glittering, Lynchian piano concerto – until Glass’ steady arpeggios shifted to the quartet, and then back and forth. The quartet really dug in for the triumph of the outro against pianist Paul Barnes’ incisively liquid cadences.

Sirota introduced Beethoven’s famous late quartet a the kind of crazy piece that “makes a person want to become a musician.” That made sense, considering how cohesive yet individually focused the performance was. Sirota’s insight into how the lachrymose, prayerfully changing melody of the third movement echoed plainchant and foreshadowed Glass’ work was spot-on. He also alluded to how utterly bizarre the shifts were between those variations and what in this context seemed to be the sheer snark of a courtly dance that leaps further and further toward satire. They took it out with sheer abandon at the end and contrasted with the encore, a mutedly elegaic take of the third movement of the Debussy string quartet. How much fun these four must have had onstage…and how sad that the ride together is over.

All four have plans that dovetail with their pioneering work together. Sirota’s Strong Sad album, examining themes of everyday loss, is due out early this summer. Fischer is moving on with The Afield, a new multidisciplinary duo project with visual artist Anthony Hawley. Beaver and Yoon’s careers continue as educator and impresario, respectively.

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May 12, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Intense, Riveting Album and a Midtown Show by the Sirius Quartet

The Sirius Quartet  – violinists Gregor Huebner and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman – play seriously exciting, tuneful, sophisticated music. They’re the rare chamber ensemble who can strike a chord with fans of heavy rock, psychedelia and jazz in addition to the indie classical crowd. They’re playing on an intriguing twinbill, with special guest violinist Tracy Silverman, tonight, Jan 5 at around 9:30 PM at Club Bonafide that makes more sense thematically than you might think. Longtime Astor Piazzolla collaborator and nuevo tango pianist Pablo Ziegler and his ensemble open the night at 7:30, cover is $15 and the club’s webpage notes with some relish that you’re welcome to stay for both acts at no extra charge.

The Sirius Quartet’s latest album Paths Become Lines is streaming at Spotify,  opening with its title number, a pedal note shifting suspensefully between individual voices, pulsing with a steely precision as the melody develops elegantly and tensely around them. The darkly bluesy, chromatically-charged exchanges that follow are no less elegant but absolutely ferocious.

The second number, Ceili, is a sharp, insistent, staccato piece, in a Julia Wolfe vein. Plaintive cello interchanges with aching midrange washes; it grows more anthemic as it goes on. Jeff Lynne only wishes he’d put something this stark and downright electric on ELO’s third album.

Racing Mind builds to a swinging jazz-infused waltz out of a circular tension anchored by a bubbly cello bassline that gets subsumed almost triumphantly by tersely shifting and then spiraling riffage. Spidey Falls! is a cinematic showstopper, a frenetic crescendo right off the bat giving way to a harrowingly brisk stroll that’s part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann and part Piazzolla, then an acerbically circling theme in a 90s Turtle Island vein before the cell digs in and a violin solo signals a return to the turbocharged tarantella. String metal in 2017 doesn’t get any more entertaining than this.

The next piece is a fullscale string quartet. Slow, austere, staggered counterpoint gives way to an insistent chase theme that calms slightly and goes marching, with a hint of tango. The second movement, Shir La Shalom is slow and atmospheric, a canon at halfspeed that builds to a wounded anthem. The third opens with stern, stark cello but quickly morphs into a syncopated folk dance and increasingly rhythmic variations. The breathless, rather breathtaking conclusion mashes up Piazzolla at his most avant garde, early Bartok, swing jazz and furtive cinematics.

Get In Line, a staggered, chromatic dance, veers toward the blues as well as bluesmetal, spiced with an evil, shivery glissandos and tritones, suspenseful pauses and an allusively marionettish cello solo. The album winds up with its most expansive number, Heal and its series of variations on a hypnotic, pizzicato dance theme that finally rises, again in a tango direction, to fearsome heights. Other than the Chiara String Quartet‘s relevatory Bartok By Heart double-cd set, and the Kepler Quartet‘s concluding chapter in their wild Ben Johnston microtonal quartet series, there hasn’t been a string quartet album this exciting released in many months.

January 5, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chiara String Quartet Play Bartok By Heart: A Harrowing, Landmark Achievement

There’s an argument that Bela Bartok’s string quartets are the holy grail of that repertoire. Sure, Beethoven wrote more of them, and so did Shostakovich, and others, but in terms of unrelenting, harrowing intensity, Bartok is unsurpassed. And the Bartok cycle is as daunting to play as it is darkly exhilarating to hear. On one hand, that the Chiara String Quartet would be able to play all six Bartok quartets from memory isn’t as staggering a feat as it might seem, since plenty of other world-class ensembles could do that if they put the time into it. It’s how this ensemble does it that makes their forthcoming double album Bartok By Heart, and their continued performances of these works, such a landmark achievement.

As Chiara cellist Gregory Beaver has explained, the group’s purpose in memorizing all this sometimes cruelly difficult material is to bring the composer’s themes – many of them inspired by or pilfered from North African, Middle Eastern and Romany music – back to their roots. In the process, the group discovered how conversational – some might say folksy – much of it actually turns out to be. New York audiences are in for a treat when the quartet play all six pieces over two nights to celebrate the album’s release at National Sawdust. The August 30, 7 PM concert features Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5; the following night, August 31 features Nos. 2, 4 and 6. Advance tix are $20, and considering how expensive chamber music of this caliber has become in this city, that’s a bargain.

How do these recordings stand out from the rest of the pack? In general, the convivial quality of the composer’s counterpoint – echoing the call-and-response of so many of the original folk themes – comes to the forefront. Dynamics are also front and center, but this interpretation is especially noteworthy for how vigorous the quieter passages are. Bartok’s later quartets, in particular, rely heavily on all sorts of extended technique, high harmonics, ghostly glissandos and sardonically plucky pizzicato, and the group really sink their teeth into them. Passages like the second movement of Quartet No. 3, with all its sepulchral strolls, rises from unease to genuinely murderous heights. Yet, when they have to play their cards closer to the vest, as in the slithery foreshadowing of the twisted dance that develops in the first movement of No. 5, the ensemble revels in that mystery as well.

Emotional content becomes more inescapable within the context of interplay between individual instrumental voices. Bartok saw himself as an exile, and was horror-stricken by the rise of fascism in Europe in the wake of World War I. So it’s no surprise how much of a sense of alienation, abandonment and loss – from Bartok’s point of view, culturally as well as personally – permeates these performances. That, and a grim humor: for example, the wide-angle vibrato of violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon against the plaintive presence of Jonah Sirota’s viola, as they bring to life the the anguished, embittered Quartet No. 1 and its unvarnished narrative of love gone hopelessly off the rails. As underscored in the liner notes by Gabriela Lena Frank  a longtime Chiara collaborator – all this makes the ensemble’s take on this music every bit as relevant now as it was during the waves of displacement, and nationalist terror, and genocide that coincided with the Great War that was supposed to end them all

August 24, 2016 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chiara String Quartet Bring Their Hauntingly Intuitive Bartok Cycle to Bargemusic

What was the crowd like at the Chiara String Quartet‘s exhilarating, intuitive performance of the first half of the Bartok cycle at Bargemusic Friday night? Lots of young people. For that matter, the audience skewed young and old: twentysomethings and fiftysomethings, Generation X being more or less absent. Then again, that’s not surprising: the best legacy that demographic’s been able to muster is “hipster irony.” And the concert sold out, quickly, reaffirming that if Lincoln Center was in Brooklyn, it would be a hotspot. The more simpering, insipid twee-ness poisoning the neighborhood, the greater the backlash, and there is no more satisfying emotional home for that backlash than the music of Bela Bartok.

Ironically (in the genuine sense of the word), Bartok came from a ruling-class background. His music doesn’t critique speculation or gentification: to be antiwar and antifascist was more than enough fuel for his inimitably bleak vision. Gregory Beaver, the Quartet’s passionately eloquent cellist, shared his personal appreciation for Bartok’s own passion as a musicologist, someone who wasn’t content to merely appropriate peasant melodies: he went straight to the source, even if that meant all the way to Morocco. Beaver had a digitized copy of one of Bartok’s North African field recordings in his phone and played it for the audience, telling them to keep an eye out for it in the third movement of String Quartet No. 2. Sure enough, there it was for violinist Rebecca Fischer to voice with a vigorous but wary precision.

How did this performance compare with other ensembles’ interpretations? Those same qualities reaffirmed themselves again and again. As reference points, the Borromeo Quartet’s performance of Bartok’s String Quartet No.4 at Jordan Hall in Boston, and the Calder Quartet’s take of No. 6 (both of which were also on the bill here) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year each had a more anthemic quality than this group’s more intimate, minutely crafted versions. Then again, it’s possible that observation may be colored by the fact that Bargemusic is an intimate venue and those other two are not, and that the groups there may have been playing to those rooms’ sonics. Even so, it was riveting to watch Fischer’s and Hyeyung Julie Yoon’s violins build a marvelously mysterious, distant dust-storm ambience on the third movement of Quartet No. 6, or or to witness the ambered blend that Beaver and violist Jonah Sirota created in the final movement of No. 4. And the way the group negotiated the spiky, pungee-trap pizzicato of the third movement of No. 4 was a treat worth every penny of the $35 cover.

Speaking of which, the Chiara String Quartet return to Bargemusic on October 17 at 8 PM to play Bartok’s String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5, which promise to be every bit as riveting. By the time the doors opened for last week’s performance, there weren’t a lot of seats available: since Bargemusic began selling tickets online, they go fast. Get ’em now while there are still some left – students and seniors both get a discount.

October 2, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chiara String Quartet Revisit a Moment of Terror

One can only imagine the emotional challenge the Chiara String Quartet faced when they premiered Robert Sirota’s 9/11-themed Triptych on September 26, 2002 at New York’s Trinity Church. Sirota was in New York on 9/11, and the Quartet also belong to this city: to evoke such themes as this piece explores must have been nothing short of overwhelming, notwithstanding the year that passed between the tragedy and the premiere. As an evocation of terror and dread, the Triptych ranks with any other work in the classical or avant garde repertoire, including any of the Shostakovich symphonies or string quartets. Again at Trinity Church last night, the Quartet revisited the premiere with a riveting performance of that piece along with another 9/11 requiem of sorts, Richard Danielpour’s String Quartet No. 6, “Addio,” from 2009.

Both works combine narrative and more abstract themes, Danielpour’s being the more melodically accessible. The crash of the planes is alluded to, but the frantic activity in the wake of the impact gives way to a vividly cinematic chase scene of sorts, desperate footfalls across the bridges leading out of Manhattan, perhaps? It was a showcase for the entire quartet and particularly violist Jonah Sirota, whose biting, often fierce pizzicato lit up a surprisingly rock-influenced second movement, alongside cellist Gregory Beaver’s funereal, sometimes aghast, wounded inflections that made a stark contrast with violinists Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon’s eerily shimmering, often stratospherically high atmospherics. Several warm, gently contemplative passages gave way to foreboding and fear and eventually terror. As with Sirota’s piece, it closed with a quietly pleading ambience, reaching for solace but fully aware that for those who have lost loved ones, very often there is no consolation: the pain may recede, but it’s always there, always a millisecond away from returning with a paralyzing intensity.

Behind the Quartet, artist Deborah Patterson’s gray-tinted Triptych – which Sirota meant to interpret with this piece – stood in chilling relief against the back of the church. The first panel depicts one of the towers through a plume of smoke; the second, NYFD chaplain Mychal Judge – one of the first victims of the disaster – being attended to by members of his department; and the third sort of a black-and-white Turner painting, light beaming down eerily on the smoking hole at Ground Zero. Sirota unforgettably depicts all that via frenzied tritones, an evocation of a hellish choir of car alarms, several sirens and their doppler effects, and a bit later, a handful of trucks making their way through a silent desolation. That stricken stillness packed a quiet wallop in contrast to the incessant, rapidfire attack of jarring atonalities that prededed it. This is a cruelly difficult piece to play, but the Quartet rose to the challenge, all hands on deck, with a visceral intensity.

Sirota’s second movement offers brooding, morose, absolutely depleted ambience followed by more anxiously shifting, interwoven segments that were delivered delicately, receded and eventually rose to the most grief-stricken point of the night. As with Danielpour’s piece, Sirota’s concludes on a quietly anguished, prayerful note. As if on cue, the second the piece was over, a siren began to wail outside the church, making its way up Greenwich Street. Perhaps as stunned by this strange stroke of fate as by the music, the audience waited until the sound began to fade before breaking out into applause. Was this the best concert of 2011? Possibly: without a doubt, it was the most intense.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment