Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Jack Quartet Play the Darkest Show of the Year

What was it like to hear the Jack Quartet play Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Iij. Noct.at the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown last night in more-or-less total darkness, as the composer intended? On the most prosaic level, the ensemble performed it in stereo, mirroring how the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony incorporated the audience into their stage plot for their performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony earlier this year. In this case, cello and viola (Kevin McFarland and John Pickford Richards) were behind the audience, violins (Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld) onstage, with only the occasional twinkle from a tiny overhead light (a CO2 alarm, maybe) and a couple of orange neon fire door lights, muted and obscured from much of the sold-out crowd. In any case, it was impossible to see the performers. Were they able to make out a shadow or two in the audience? That depends on how sharp their eyesight might be.

The performance was playful, and fun, and gripping, and full of surprises, and harrowing in places. The quartet, who’ve played it a couple of dozen times, at least, have it more or less in their fingers, although the score is mostly improvised, based on a series of riffs and a brief quote from Gesualdo which surfaced about three-quarters of the way in. What was most stunning was how meticulously the group made the slow slide downward, then upward, from basic major to minor triadic harmony and then back again. There were flickering, irresistibly fun hide-and-seek interludes, lots of austere, acidic atmospherics that required extended technique to sustain challenging overtones and harmonics, and a couple of chillingly insistent codas that reminded of Julia Wolfe.

One might think that hearing it in such relative sensory deprivation would be a solitary experience, but that turned out to be 180 degrees the opposite. Being in the dark enhanced the sense of everybody being in the same boat. Basic questions of urban diplomacy quickly posed themselves. Why didn’t that narcissist with her paroxysms and grossness just stay home instead of sharing her sickness? Does an oniony lunchtime falafel carry through the air like the homey scent of hand sanitizer coming in on the left? If anything, an experience like this reinforces how much a little compassion, or just plain common courtesy, really make a difference at a public event.

As far as hearing the music in near pitch-blackness, we’ve all done that, at least those of us whose windows face a shaftway rather than the street. If you’ve ever drifted off to sleep with something wafting from the boombox or the turntable rather thnn from the glow of a phone or a laptop, with, say, a cat or a girlfriend nestled in your arms, this was somewhat more impersonal but required no less attention to the consequences of disturbing the peace.

The Austrian Cultural Forum puts on a lot of adventurous shows like this. There’s another tomorrow night, February 26 at 7:30 PM at the Czech Center 4th floor ballroom at 321 E 73rd St. featuring works by Haas performed by members of the Talea Ensemble, including the world premiere of a piece for solo trumpet, dedicated to the memory of Eric Garner, to be played by Gareth Flowers.

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February 25, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Met Celebrates Sixty Intense Years of John Zorn

“When we did this at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months ago, they put us over in the corner,” John Zorn said with a smirk to the crowd massed in the Abstract Expressionism gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier today. “Here, they put us right in front of the Pollock.” Sure enough, right behind Zorn and his bandmate Milford Graves was Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (No. 30).

Zorn had already gotten a foot in the door as a composer in the downtown scene during a time when the idea of a Pollock painting at the Met would have raised some eyebrows, not to mention a free jazz saxophonist and drummer squalling and rumbling in front of it. Has uptown finally caught up with downtown? As Dylan said, maybe everything’s a little upside down in New York right now, Zorn being feted at the Met for his antiestablishment antics and vast body of often strangely beautiful work while down in his old Lower East Side digs, it’s mostly Jeff Koons and Miley Cyrus wannabes strutting their stuff in the galleries and onstage. That someone who sounds anything like John Zorn wouldn’t be likely to get a gig in that neighborhood anywhere other than the Stone – Zorn’s own hangout – speaks to the LES’s death by gentrification more powerfully than just about anything else.

But Zorn was at home here and he played to the crowd. An alto saxophonist for the better part of four, maybe five decades, his chops have never been more razor-sharp. This duo improvisation was a roller-coaster ride, a sizzling display of extended technique peaking midway through with an endless series of trills delivered via circular breathing as Zorn slowly and very emphatically made his way up the chromatic scale over Graves’ crepuscular rumble. As intense as Zorn’s music can be, people sometimes forget what a great wit he is, and there was plenty of that here as well: a trick ending, a squonk or two that Graves slapped back at with a cymbal crash, and puckish pauses when least expected. Graves may be best known for his groundbreaking work in cardiac medicine, music history and acoustic science, but at 72 he’s absolutely undiminished behind the kit. And this one was considerably unorthodox: three floor toms, kick drum, ride cymbal and hi-hat, with two snares of differing sizes situated in the very front, Graves leaning on his central tom with his left elbow when he went for the very occasional higher timbre. That persistent low, matter-of-fact approach was the perfect complement to Zorn’s upper-register whirls and shrieks sprinkled with the occasional terse, pensive, chromatic phrase.

Elsewhere throughout the museum, small ensembles performed works from throughout Zorn’s career. In a Halloween-themed room in the American wing, a trio comprised of violinist Chris Otto, violist Dave Fulmer and cellist Jay Campbell had fun with Zorn’s spritely All Hallows Eve. They made it a warily suspenseful game of hide and seek, closer to an alternately lively and wispy Walpurgisnacht among the cicadas than, say, the John Carpenter movie. A quintet of Jane Seddon, Sarah Brailey, Abby Fischer, Mellissa Hughes and Kirsten Sollek sang the alternately rapt and assaultive antiphons of Zorn’s Holy Visions in the considerably more spacious medieval sculpture hall downstairs. Cellist Erik Friedlander treated the crowd packed into a room in the Assyrian section to a judicious, meticulously phrased solo take of Volac, a poignantly pleading partita from Zorn’s Masada: Book of Angels. The highlight of the morning was at the Temple of Dendur, where guitarist Bill Frisell, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen and harpist Carol Emmanuel delivered a lushly gentle but incisively echoing version of the Gnostic Preludes and its warmly enveloping, hypnotic but anthemically interwoven, bell-like harmonies. And the museum opened with a sextet of trumpeters – Nate Botts, Wayne DuMaine, Gareth Flowers, Josh Frank, Stephanie Richards and Tim Leopold – premiering the brand-new Antiphonal Fanfare and its subtly crescendoingly, triumphant variations on a simple phrase a la Philip Glass. The reputedly prickly Zorn seemed anything but and during this piece was moved almost to the point of tears.

There were other performances later in the day for percussion, choir, oud, violin and finally the man himself at the museum’s venerable 1830 Appleton organ. What was all this like? After standing for five hours, with constant distractions from several millennia worth of fascinating stuff on the walls, it was time to call it a day. As the day went on, the crowds grew and everyone had their cameras out; there should be a ton of video out there if those people were generous enough to share it.

September 28, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The JACK Quartet and Ensemble Signal Play a Riveting Henryk Gorecki Tribute

What a rare treat it was to see a rare all-Henryk Gorecki performance last night at le Poisson Rouge, a tribute concert held on the first anniversary of the great Polish composer’s death. The club hasn’t been so packed, at least for music, since last year’s Winter Jazz Festival. This time, courtesy of the Polish Cultural Institute, the standing-room crowd got to witness intense, haunting versions of Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, played by the JACK Quartet, as well as the Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, Op. 66 by Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman.

Both pieces date from a couple of years before the recording of Gorecki’s Symphony #3 by the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw went platinum in the UK, and then became a worldwide sensation back in the early 90s. In a lengthy interview before the concert with one of the club’s personnel, the head of Nonesuch Records admitted that he’d made a “good deal” with the performers on that album, paying them only as musicians for hire, with no royalties. To his credit, when sales exploded – its status as the bestselling album of alltime featuring work by a living composer has yet to be surpassed- he cut both Gorecki and the musicians in on the deal. Gorecki was supposedly so flabbergasted that he carried his first royalty check around with him for a couple of years before he cashed it. The label head also noted insightfully how 1933 in Poland was auspicious for artists: not only Gorecki but also Jerzy Kosinski and Roman Polanski were born that year. And for all three, the defining moment seems to be their survival of Hitler’s terror, which may be one explanation for the enduring popularity of Gorecki’s plaintive, otherworldly music.

Both works contrast lush, hypnotic atmospherics with jarring, terrified passages, the String Quartet the more dramatic and intense of the two. Like the work of another chronicler of that era’s terror, Shostakovich, there are passages in both pieces that mock pageantry and bombast, and also the lockstep conformity of fascism (having also survived the Polish communist regime, Gorecki may also had that in mind when he wrote these). Despite some difficult operating conditions – the club had turned the air conditioning virtually all the way off, making it oppressively hot – the JACK Quartet turned in a raw, powerfully plaintive performance. Brooding and then somewhat warmer atmospherics quickly gave way to shocked, horrified staccato passages anchored by a cello pedal note; the second movement gave the ensemble a platform to grimly and inexorably build to an insistent crescendo of microtones, as Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld’s violins played starkly rhythmic harmonics against the menacing low notes of Kevin McFarland’s cello and John Pickford Richards’ viola. The melodies here don’t move around much: it’s all about dynamics, and foreshadowing, and frantic, horror-stricken panic, and the quartet vividly portayed each as it appeared.

Lubman led Ensemble Signal through the little requiem for a polka with dexterity and great respect for its spaciously minimalist architecture: the silences between the bells and piano in the opening movement, and the jarring increases in distance between string motifs later on, are very tricky rhythmically, but the group was as ready for them as anyone can really be: as random as they might sound, the effect is purposeful, and packs a punch. There’s another even more caricaturish faux-martial passage here, and the group sank their teeth into it. The piece wound out slowly, a requiem of slowly shifting string textures punctuated by distant, decreasingly frequent, minimalist bell accents, the funeral winding down pensively, one bitter memory at a time.

The Polish Cultural Institute regularly schedules an excellently yearly series of film, literary, dramatic and musical events, not only in New York but elsewhere in the United States and in Poland as well.

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

Concert Review: The Loki Ensemble at Music Mondays, NYC 4/26/10

It could have been billed as Schoenberg and His Descendents, a beautifully uneasy, otherworldly upper westside evening of art-songs and some austerely compelling instrumentals that more than did justice to the composer’s legacy. The Loki Ensemble’s mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer has developed not only a great affinity but also a strikingly resonant aptitude for Schoenberg’s paradigm-shifting Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 18, an otherworldly suite based on a series of heartbroken, imagistic poems by Stefan George. The group played four of those songs: on number two and eleven , pianists Jacob Greenberg and then Wes Matthews wrenched every brooding, moody atonality from the score as Fischer brought a remarkably visceral unease, longing and intensity to the vocals. In the stylized world of classical legit voice, individuality is not an easy quality to channel, but Fischer put her own steely, forcefully indelible stamp on everything she touched. To liven things up further, the group added their own instrumental improvisations, notably tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan (of marvelously creepy art-song practitioners Dollshot), whose precise yet breathy, baritone-like timbres matched the murk perfectly. Greenberg hinted at an McCoy Tyner bluesiness in his solo on song fourteen, number fifteen dramatically juxtaposing Fischer’s pyrotechnics against Matthews’ plaintive minimalism.

A very recent work for piano trio and vocals (based on an Octavio Paz text), Reinaldo Moya’s La Rima, with the JACK Quartet’s Christopher Otto on violin and Kevin McFarland on cello made a solid segue, strings swooping over a pensive piano rumble, building to a contrast between terse, incisive piano methodically punching against sostenuto atmospherics. A world premiere, William Cooper’s An Den Wassern Zu Babel was an intense and poignant interpretation of Psalm 137 (you may know it from Bach or the Melodians’ By the Rivers of Babylon). Cooper explained how affecting he found the end of the passage, which concludes with “Blessed are those who bash the bones of their children against the rocks,” and while the music, with considerable echoes of Bartok, never reached that level of violence, there was considerable anger and even more frustration. Over the course of seven movements, pianist Liza Stepanova worked the variations of a simple ascending progression lyrically and dynamically, through a sad, angry march, a hypnotically chilling, late Rachmaninovian-style passage and then the methodical, wounded sway of the final movement which ended sudden and cold.

The final piece, Nathan Shields’ Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking set text by Hart Crane and Walt Whitman to severe, sometimes acidic, evocatively wavelike piano played by Ed Neeman, Fischer speaking the final stanzas with a dramatic flair. The counterpoint between vocals and piano was both striking and hypnotic, the unease of the strings adding to the menace (the theme ponders the role of the ocean as both nurturer and destroyer), but as assured and engaged as the performers were, ultimately this was Horse Latitudes: awkward instant, and the first horse of many was jettisoned. What a treat it would be to hear this without the poetry – or with vocalese instead!

The popular, reliably adventurous Music Mondays at Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd and Broadway continues on May 31 with the Brentano Quartet.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment