Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mohammed Fairouz’s Chamber Works Defy Categorization

Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz, the composer’s debut collection, came out on Sono Luminus last year. WQXR did a little piece on it: they didn’t really get it. The album title is something of a misnomer: while there is considerable rigor in Fairouz’s work, he also happens to be one of the great wits in contemporary composition. But his wit is biting and edgy, sometimes caustic, qualities that elevate even the most obvious pieces here (and there are a couple) above the frivolity that defines so much of what’s considered “indie classical.” The rest of the album, a remarkably diverse collection of works for wind quartet and bass, violin-and-sax duo, solo piano, guitar and string quartet, imaginatively and utterly unpredictably blends postminimalism, neoromanticism, bracing atonalities and occasional satire. In places, it’s harrowing; elsewhere, it can be hilarious.

The opening composition, Litany, performed by bassist James Orleans and a wind quartet of Claire Cutting on oboe, Jonathan Engle on flute, Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and Thomas Fleming on bassoon could easily be titled “Pensively Apprehensively.” A sense of longing pervades as the ensemble strolls plaintively with chilly, fanfare-ish counterpoint and a rondo of sorts; it ends unresolved. The title’s Critical Models are violin/sax duos, two questions,each followed by a response. The first, Catchword: A Modernist’s ‘Dilemma,’ employs a bustling, anxious semi-conversation between Michael Couper’s alto sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. If this is to be taken at face value, it will. Its rejoinder employs tersely quavery microtonal intricacies and a stillness-vs-animation tension, inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A satirical faux-bellydance theme with actually quite lovely violin, Catchword: An Oriental Model illustrates a hideous anti-Arab screed by British Victorian playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer; its vividly optimistic response, inspired by Edward Said, has Couper playing the voice of reason via mystical, airy microtones, and when Ahn gets the picture, she grabs it with both hands.

Pianist Katie Reimer plays six delicious miniatures with a potently precise understatement: she clearly also gets this material. The first is an uneasy, distantly Ravel-esque etude of sorts; the second, a creepy phantasmagorical march; a bustling, ragtimish variation on that theme; an exercise in creepy faux operatics; an obvious but irresistible exercise in descending progressions; and a minimalist, spacious nocturne.

The Lydian String Quartet play a diptych, Lamentation and Satire. The first part builds from mingling, dissociative funereal voices to a rather macabre crescendo, followed by austere, brooding solo viola and foreboding cello passages. The second seems to be a cruel parody of funereal music, with sarcastic rustles, a snide martial passage and a predictable if still quite moving solo cello passage to end it. Reimer and Couper than team up for Three Novelettes: the first, Cadenzas, cleverly interpolates satirical motifs within a moody architecture; the second, Serenade, has to be the saddest serenade ever written and is the most haunting work on the album; and a simply hilarious Dance Montage that has to be heard to be appreciated.

The album concludes with four works for solo classical guitar, played with deadpan clarity by Maarten Stragier. Baroque rhythms and tropes get twisted up in modern tonalities, tongue-in-cheek staccato stomps alternate with skeletal Italianate melody; the suite ends with a slowly spacious work that Fairouz calls a toccata, with seemingly snide, offhand references to both Bach and Elizabethan guitar music. Eclectic to the extreme and very successfully so, it’s an accurate portrait of where Fairouz is right now. Unsurprisingly, his latest project has him branching out into opera: last week, his first, Sumeida’s Song, based on a classic Tawfiq El Hakim play, debuted at Carnegie Hall. It’s something of an understatement to say that he’s a composer to keep your eye on.

April 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Thomas Piercy and Vilian Ivantchev’s Cafe Album

A collection of brilliant segues. For a casual listener, this is the perfect rainy day album, pleasantly pensive with a balance of melancholy and more upbeat material, especially toward the end. For more adventurous fans, it’s a smartly innovative concept that works all the way through. Clarinetist Thomas Piercy and acoustic guitarist Vilian Ivantchev link fourteen pieces together as a suite, beginning with the French late Romantics, taking a detour into the German baroque before following the gypsy path to Brazil and from there to Argentina, where the trail ends on a note that threatens to jump out of its shoes with joy. It’s a very subtly fun ride.

Having worked with both Leonard Bernstein and KRS-One, Piercy is diversely talented. He’s as strong in his upper register, with a buoyant, flute-like presence on Telemann’s A Minor Sonata, or soaring with bandoneon textures on the Piazzolla pieces here that close the album, as he is mining the darker sonorities of Bartok’s Roumanian Folk Dances suite, or Erik Satie’s Gnossienne or Gymnopedie No. 1. Ivantchev displays almost superhuman discipline, restraining himself to terse, rock-solid chordal work or precise arpeggios, with the exception of the Piazzolla where he gets to cut loose a little more – but not much. Ultimately, this album is all about connections, and the duo make them everywhere. Debussy’s Le Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (The Blonde Girl) follows so seamlessly out of Satie that it could practically be the same piece. Likewise, following the last of Bartok’s gypsy dance transcriptions with Villa-Lobos’ Modinha is so logical that it’s almost funny when you think about it. The duo close the album with two brief arrangements of songs by vintage Argentinan tanguero Carlos Gardel (Mi Manita Pampa and Sus Ojos Se Cerraron) into a stripped-down yet melodically rich version of Piazzolla’s four-part suite Histoire du Tango and then, seemingly as an encore, Jacinto Chiclana which ends the album on a note equally balmy and bracing. Piercy’s viscerally intuitive feel for the tension-and-release of tango lets the guitar hold things together this time, giving him a chance to launch into some quiet rejoicing. Piercy plays the cd release show for this album at Caffe Vivaldi on June 19 at 8:15 PM with his trio: live, they are considerably more boisterous.

June 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Duel Amid the Pews

“Is there anyone else who needs to leave?” grinned classical guitarist Bret Williams, “Like the guy in the back there?” He was referring to the screaming rugrat who’d erupted in rage at the end of the La Vita/Williams Guitar Duo’s first song, an anonymously springtimey piece by Brazilian composer Sergio Assad. As welcome as it is to see classical music on a program outside of the usual midtown concert halls, the infant slowly wheeled outside by a lackadaisical mother never would have made it past security at Carnegie Hall. Apparently, the church fathers at St. Paul’s Chapel today were too nice to turn her away. And this was somebody who obviously wasn’t homeless. Memo to parents: you had a choice, you had the kid, now you pay the price. No concerts for at least four years (for the kid, anyway).

What started inauspiciously got good in a hurry. Duetting with Williams was Italian guitarist Giacomo La Vita, whose fluid, brilliantly precise playing made a perfect match for Williams’ lickety-split yet subtle fingerpicking. The two ran through two pieces by Manuel de Falla, the romantic, flamenco-inflected Serenata Andaluza and the swaying, 6/8 Danza Espanola, then did two Scarlatti pieces that La Vita had arranged himself. In music this old, the emotion is in the melody, not the rhythm, and both of them dug deep into the stateliness of the tunes to find it.

The high point of the show, and probably the drawing card that got the audience in here on a cold, rainy Monday was Astor Piazzolla’s 1984 Tango Suite, another original arrangement for guitar. It’s unclear if the pantheonic Argentinian tango composer actually knew Charles Mingus personally, but the third piece in the suite definitely had the same kind of defiant scurrying around that the great American jazz composer was known for, beginning with a chase scene, running through all kinds of permutations to arrive at a fiery chordal ending. The two parts which preceded it began darkly reserved, then became expansively jazzy.

“We usually have an intermission, but we have to get up to the Upper West Side to teach,” explained Williams. “To a bunch of kids who probably haven’t even practiced. We’ve got to be there at 2:30!” And with that they burned through yet another of their own arrangements, this for De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, an orchestral piece every bit as volcanic as the title would imply. An impressively good crowd, especially for the time of day and the drizzle outside, responded with a standing ovation. Obviously, fans of acoustic guitar music will like these guys best, but they cover vastly more terrain than most of their colleagues, a savvy move because it will earn them more of an audience. One hopes enough to eliminate the need to rush off to a midafternoon private-school teaching gig after they’ve finished playing a great set.

April 28, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bach Has Been Reformed!

That’s right. Good old Johann Sebastian has finally discovered syncopation, dynamics and standard tuning! And it’s rumored that he’s become an atheist. OK, enough of that joke.

Bach ReformedRob Moose alternating between tenor guitar and mandolin, accompanied by violinist Dana Lyn – played last night at Barbes and earned a roaring ovation from a surprisingly full house, especially for an early show. This isn’t the latest scheme to market classical music to a rock crowd: it’s new interpretations of Bach that breathe fresh energy into the music while remaining impressively true to its original passion and intensity. Both players have a smooth, legato style, a unique approach that works because they make the music fluid without actually swinging it.

The emotion in Bach is not in the rhythm: done right, it’s metronomic and mechanical. But as anyone in the Bach cult (it’s hard to think of a real Bach fan who isn’t completely hardcore about it) is aware, the melodies span the entire spectrum of human emotion, from the subtle to the extreme. Tonight’s show alternated between wistfulness and ebullience, as the duo ran through almost an hour’s worth of their own arrangements of several pieces including the Partita in D Minor for Violin, an E Major cello piece that they’d transposed to G (it works better that way on guitar, without all the open strings that have to be muted), and a six-part cello sonata.

Moose is also an occasional composer, and the two played an air that he’d written a couple of years ago, whose slightly nostalgic feel (with some indie rock chords snuck in for extra volume) fit perfectly with the rest of the program. Lyn, who plays a lot of Irish music, played one of her own pieces (“127 bars,” noted Moose) that started very Celtic, then took a striking detour with a somewhat drastic tempo change and a lot of eerie dissonance before getting all pretty and upbeat again. They closed with a jig and a bourree, Moose playing from memory, very impressively. The two didn’t completely nail every single change: “Check out this really cool intro!” Moose encouraged the audience, as he’d missed his cue seconds before. But the passion and fun of the performance far overshadowed any slight imperfection.

“We decided to talk to the audience tonight,” revealed Moose. “All this Bach just makes us more introverted.” Throughout the show, they shared amusing, off-the-cuff insights into how this piece or that was especially difficult, or interesting, and why. Lyn told a long joke with a limerick whose punchline involves screwing up the limerick. And she screwed it up even further, which actually made it even funnier. Bach Reformed will dispel any ill-founded notions you might hold after being subjected to NPR fund drives or WQXR’s programming for the entirety of December: in their hands, Bach is all about the fun (and the dance: remember, that’s what jigs and bourrees are for). Whether you’re hardcore, or just discovering how beautiful and intense Bach’s music is, you should see these guys sometime.

April 9, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment