Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

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December 9, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, children's music, classical music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Carnival of the Animals Holds a Multi-Generational Family Concert Crowd Rapt at the Miller Theatre

The best kind of so-called “family concerts” are like the Simpsons: they’re fun on face value, for the kids, but also have multiple levels of meaning for the adults. Such was the case yesterday afternoon at the sold-out multimedia performance of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals at the Miller Theatre. The kids – as diverse a mix as can be found in this multicultural city – loved the surrealistic, more-or-less lifesize puppets designed by Lake Simons and paraded around the stage with suspenseful, vaudevillian flair by Kristen Kammermeyer, Brendan McMahon, Justin Perkins and Rachael Shane. The adults, as well as what seemed to be a large percentage of the children, responded raptly to an exquisitely detailed, unselfconsciously playful performance by a ten-piece chamber orchestra, the strings of the Mivos Quartet augmented by an all-star cast on piano, percussion and winds.

While Simons took her inspiration for this show from late 1800s’ toy theatres, which rivalled the most elaborate dollhouses of the era, her creations had a lo-fi charm: mops, brooms, dusters and other wood-and-fabric assemblages brought to life the menagerie in the composer’s well-loved score. The ensemble followed the stage direction seamlessly, and that was a lot more cleverly orchestrated than a simple procession. Lively interplay between the puppeteers extended down into the audience at one point, drawing all sorts of laughs.

The music pulsed along vividly: regal lions, sputtering chickens, buffoonish donkeys, birds of all kinds and even pianists tortured by a cruel parody of boring etudes all got a minute or two centerstage. What was most striking about this concert – from the perspective of an adult who was able to brush up on the music beforehand with a well-worn vinyl record – was how downright creepy it is. Pianist Ning Yu’s otherworldly glimmer reminded how often the suite’s portrait of fish underwater has been used in horror films…and how Philip Glass nicked it for his Dracula soundtrack. And the depiction of fossil bones – which, in a neat choice of dynamics, the ensemble slowed from a gallop to a slinky sway – is a rewrite of the composer’s famous Danse Macabre. Happily, that aspect of the music seemed to go over the kids’ heads.

Toy pianist Laura Barger and percussionist Russell Greenberg opened the concert with a sprightly dance by William Byrd, a familiar Tschaikovsky theme and a carol, all of which were performed intricately and conversationally, although this long intro left the kids restless. There was also narration, utilizing Odgen Nash doggerel originally recorded in 1949 by an ensemble led by Andre Kostelanetz, and that drew some chuckles from the oldsters but didn’t connect with the younger contingent either. Speaking of which, everyone from about age four on up was captivated by the spectacle, which wrapped up briskly in just under an hour. Predictably, the toddlers were not: it’s hard enough to get an eighteen-month-old in and out of the grocery store, let alone through an hour of sitting still in the midst of an audience who’ve bought their tickets expecting not to be annoyed. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to expect the most entitled contingent of the Upper Westside crowd here to respect the theatre’s no-toddlers policy.

December 20, 2015 Posted by | children's music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Les Nubians Charm the Kids and Their Parents Too at the French Alliance

What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.

French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.

Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.

Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.

Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.

The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.

December 6, 2015 Posted by | children's music, concert, folk music, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning to Love Music: The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Annual Family Concert

by Serene Angelique Williams

I took my two-year-old daughter to the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Annual Family Concert this weekend, apprehensively not knowing if she would be able to make it through her first experience seeing a symphony orchestra without some sort of embarrassing meltdown. I had nothing to worry about. It was the perfect way to break her in to the glory of live music, and Barbara Yahr, the GVO’s music director and conductor, knows just how to appeal to young minds. Everything was geared to making the concert experience enjoyable for young people in a fun, non-stifling environment. The orchestra is tight, professional and technically brilliant, and the show, which consisted mostly of Christmas music, was a lively and well-executed medley of familiar selections from Tchikovsky’s “Nutcracker” along with works by Edvard Grieg, Aaron Copland, and no less than 12 variations on Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The auditorium at Washington Irving High School is gorgeous, and there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out. The kids were encouraged to participate with each piece by dancing, clapping, and even were invited to sit on stage with the musicians. I loved hearing these pieces live, and it was thrilling not to be stressed out and worried about my child misbehaving, or causing disruptions. To my surprise and overwhelming joy, she responded to everything enthusiastically, and there was not one moment when she seemed to lose interest.

After the show, there was a holiday party with many tasty goodies: plenty of wine for the adults, seltzer and cider for the kiddies. There was also an “instrument petting zoo” where the children were welcome to try out all of the instruments with very patient and encouraging instructors. I was amazed when my little one decided to try out the violin, and in less than 15 minutes, she had not only learned how to properly hold the child-size instrument, she was already beginning to play! The afternoon was well worth the $10 per family admission price, and I can’t wait to do it again. Next year I’ll be sure to bring along more friends, ones with or without kids. Everyone can enjoy this show, but it’s a particularly fine way to introduce very young people to the unadulterated joys of playing music, and the wonderfully varied world of instruments, with first-rate musicians and instructors.

December 12, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Cop and Bad Cop Go See Songs for Unusual Creatures

Good Cop: It’s good to be back blogging again. When’s the last time we reviewed something here?

Bad Cop: December 09 I think, Jeff Hamilton’s trio album.

Good Cop: That poor guy deserved better than us. No wonder they put us in mothballs after that one.

Bad Cop: Yeah, I really love that album actually. Sorry, Jeff, it’s just my nature. I don’t know how to be good.

Good Cop: Did you ever review a concert before?

Bad Cop: Hell yeah! Foghat at Westbury Music Fair! [sings] “Fool fo the sitteh!”

Good Cop: Shhhhh! People will think you’re a crackhead or something.

Bad Cop: That’s the point, isn’t it?

Good Cop [ignores him]: So today we’re going to Barbes in Brooklyn to see Songs for Unusual Creatures. This quirky instrumental project is a creation of multi-instrumentalist composer Michael Hearst, who before this did Songs for Ice Cream Trucks.

Bad Cop: That was fun. I don’t like his main band though.

Good Cop: Would you please open your mind? You have no idea what this sounds like.

Bad Cop: OK, ok. Here we are. You want a drink? I want a drink.

Good Cop: No drinks for me. I’m on duty.

Bad Cop (looks around): Ewwwwww! Yuppie children! We gotta get out of here!

Good Cop: Don’t worry, they don’t look contagious, none of them are sniveling. Besides, what makes you assume they’re yuppies?

Bad Cop: They’re sitting still. Normal kids fidget during concerts.

Good Cop: Don’t stress. They won’t ruin the show for you.

Bad Cop: They’re sick, I just know it. Their brains are so fried by Prozac and Ritalin they don’t have the sense not to put their fingers in their eyes after using a public toilet.

Good Cop: Don’t forget, we’re on a mission. We have to turn in some copy here. Be a good sport, huh?

Bad Cop: Uhhh….ok, this band has a tuba, keyboards, trumpet, a guy with a claviola and a jazz drummer.

Good Cop: How do you know he’s a jazz drummer?

Bad Cop: He’s older than the rest of them, and he sits like a jazz drummer. Like he wants to play with brushes or something.

Good Cop: What’s a claviola?

Bad Cop: It’s a melodica with a fancy body. You blow into that tube and play the notes with the keys. Just like a melodica except probably more expensive.

Good Cop: OK, here we go. I like this first instrumental about a horned puffin. It sounds like klezmer but done with swirly space organ like a Ventures sci-fi tune.

Bad Cop: Good tune but tell me what the Ventures have to do with puffins. Or klezmer.

Good Cop: I dunno. It’s music. There are no rules.

Bad Cop: OK, ok. I like that creepy keyboard setting. This next song has the same kind of klezmer minor key thing going on except that it’s a bolero in disguise. And I like how it doesn’t just go verse-chorus over and over.

Good Cop: We’re not supposed to agree on things. This could get ugly.

Bad Cop: Oh, you know it will. Now this song is from the Music for Ice Cream Trucks record. It’s about that parking lot past the Gowanus Canal where they keep all the Mister Softee trucks, and it’s bouncy and fun. I just don’t understand how it relates to that slide projected up there on the screen behind the band, the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.

Good Cop: If you hadn’t distracted me I could give you an answer, I think the guy driving the truck is a bassoonist, and wrote it, or played on it, or something. I wish I could have had children’s music like this when I was a kid…

Bad Cop [does a doubletake, looks around, raises his eyebrows]: Oh my god, you just dragged me to a children’s music show. That explains the…

Good Cop: I know, isn’t it awesome? A children’s band that doesn’t treat their audience patronizingly. Mummenschanz, eat my ass!

Bad Cop: That’s supposed to be my line!

Good Cop: Too good to resist. Besides, you broke character earlier. You have to admit, this music is really good, isn’t it?

Bad Cop: It is, it is. I’m tapping my feet, I like how these songs are fun and clever, how you can be a kid or an adult and enjoy them for different if equally valid reasons. And especially how dark some of them are. This particular number they’re playing right now about a dugong sounds like a requiem for the poor things. But they’re not from Australia like the guy said. They’re from the Persian Gulf, they’ve been decimated starting with the first Gulf War…

Good Cop: Now the band’s front line have all switched to melodicas. If you were paying attention you would have discovered that this song was written for and recorded by the Kronos Quartet…

Bad Cop: They suck! Did you know that they play to a cd? Eighty percent of what you hear at a Kronos Quartet show is prerecorded, makes an ELO concert look pretty good by comparison…

Good Cop: That’s funny. Did you hear? The tuba player just asked the claviola guy if the Kronos Quartet recorded the songs in his bedroom?

Bad Cop: I don’t see what’s so funny about that. Besides, I don’t like the tuba player.

Good Cop: Why not? He’s funny!

Bad Cop: Tuba players are funny by definition. Besides, this guy dissed a friend of mine.

Good Cop: And your friend couldn’t stick up for himself?

Bad Cop: She’s a girl. A pretty girl.

Good Cop: And your pretty girl…um…acquaintance couldn’t stick up for herself?

Bad Cop: It’s a guy thing, you wouldn’t understand. Chivalry.

Good Cop: OK. Let’s get out of here before your chivalry gets your butt kicked.

Bad Cop: Yeah, that kid just stuck his finger up his nose. Is there a liquor store around here?

Good Cop: I shouldn’t tell you. Follow your intuition.

Bad Cop [exiting]: Ghetto. Or what’s left of it. Fifth Avenue, downhill. Past the mattress store and the pizza place as I recall…

February 26, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment