Lucid Culture


A Rare Treat from the Harlem Quartet at Lincoln Center

Ironically, the Harlem Quartet haven’t played New York much lately. That’s because they have a ongoing London residency when they’re not on international tour. Last night at Lincoln Center, the ensemble – violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky – reaffirmed how much Manhattan’s loss is the rest of the world’s gain.

“I don’t want you to run away!” Gavilan grinned. He was referring to Walter Piston’s String Quartet No, 3, which as he explained has “A bit of a mathematical approach.” Much as the piece is a study in the counterpoint the composer was famous for, the quartet found a surprising amount of lyricism lurking within, particularly throughout the “grey and rainy” second movement, as Gavilan put it.

Soul battled with math through a Russian-tinged chase scene, austerely acidic washes grounded by viola and cello and a lively steady/dancing dichotomy to close: twelve-tone harmonies, lively classical gestures.

That the Debussy string quartet wasn’t the highlight of the concert attests to the strength of the rest of the program. This was a robust version, awash in wistful French proto-ragtime allusions: another great New York quartet, Brooklyn Rider, recorded a very similar take a few years back. Umansky reminded the crowd how much Debussy wanted to break free of the heavy German influence in the repertoire, so there was a sense of triumph – if often a bittersweet one – throughout the spirited flutters of the opening movement, the spiky pizzicato of the second and then finally a foreshadowed Twin Peaks theme at the end.

Gavilan’s dad, Guido Lopez Gavilan, was represented on the bill by his Quarteto en Guaguanco, which came across like Piazzolla with especially clever, shifting contrapuntal voicings. The group dug in hard, Umansky plucking out nimble basslines up to an interlude where everybody tapped out an altered salsa beat on their instruments.

The best number of the night was the encore, Take the A Train. Hearing a great string section play the blues is always a treat, this one elevated to even greater heights on the wings of the group’s dramatic flourishes and sparkles as they swung it – and maybe even improvised a little – Umansky again playing the role of bassist.

Much as the programming at Lincoln Center’s atrium space has a global scope, there’s an ongoing series of string quartet shows reflecting the organization’s original agenda. And all of these shows are free! The next one is with the brilliant Heath Quartet – whose latest album is an epic recording of the Bartok cycle – on March 22 at 7:30 PM, playing works by Haydn and Tschaikovsky. Get there early if you want a seat.


February 23, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fearless, Passionate, Revelatory Solo Performance by Pianist Remi Geniet

Playing earlier today at the Morgan Library, pianist Remi Geniet found striking common ground in a Bach chaconne, a Beethoven sonata and a twisted trio of pieces from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. But Geniet’s agenda, on a program staged by Young Concert Artists, seemed to be a lot more ambitious than merely assembling context to highlight how amazingly modern Bach’s harmonies could be. This show was all about contrasts… and conversations. Not simply one hand answering the other, but an intimately intense study in how composers alternate voices and develop dialogues – or, in the case of Prokofiev, eventually let a series of distinct and downright strange personalities into the picture.

Geniet brought all that into in hi-res focus: it was like getting a close-up of Beethoven’s eyes. Or Bach’s, or Ferrucio Busoni’s, which were responsible for the 1893 Bach transcription that Geniet played first. Dynamic shifts from a careful stroll to several crescendos of tumbling cascades, where the pianist threw caution to the wind and turned the afterburners on, were razor-sharp. The effect was the same with the conspiratorial whispers that led up to the stampede at the very end. Other pianists have probably played cleaner versions of this arrangement, but it’s hard to imagine one with more color and passion than this one.

The melodic development and tangents of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110 are more expansive, but Geniet’s approach was the same. The energetic twinkle that the composer works up in the first movement turned out to be more meteor shower than starry night. Likewise, the sense of loss and abandonment in Geniet’s austere, muted phrasing as the second movement slowly built steam was absolutely harrowing. And the sense of questioning in the gritty waltz after was no less uncompromising. The pianist’s relentless lefthand drive made a welcome change from the innumerable safe, cookie-cutter performances of this piece.

Closing with the Russian Dance and scenes from both Petrouchka’s cell and the shrovetide fair – a solo piano arrangement so difficult that the composer himself couldn’t play it – was the icing on this Halloween cake. As he did with the two previous pieces, Geniet didn’t settle for the kind of icepick staccato that would have enabled a smoother ride through this gleefully macabre ballet: he savaged the chromatics, and eerie close harmonies to let them resonate, even if that translated only in split seconds. In the same vein, that long vamp in Petrouchka’s cell, with spectres flickering and flitting overhead, became all the more menacingly hypnotic.

Stravinsky has great fun playing ever-increasingly sadistic puppeteer with these themes, and Geniet reveled in yanking an ever-increasing cast of personalities up, and down, and sideways, mercilessly. After all the dichotomies of the rest of the program – caution versus passion, despondency versus guarded hope – it was a chance to completely go for broke. The audience gave him a series of standing ovations for it.

Geniet’s next performance is on March 2 at 8 PM at Powell Hall in St. Louis with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, playing Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on a bill also including works by Schumann and Semetana; tix are selling out and it doesn’t look like anything more affordable than $33 seats are still left. And Young Concert Artists’ popular series of performances by a global cast of up-and-coming talent continues this Feb 28 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall with bassist Xavier Foley playing solo works by Bach, Sperger and Franck plus his own compositions; you can get in for as little as $10.

February 21, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Riveting Performance by One of the World’s Great Organists

About midway through the concert this past evening at St. Ignatius of Loyola, a sad, rustic Celtic air wafted from the organ console. For fans of Irish folk tunes – many of whom were in the audience – it was a familiar and probably comforting sound. But others were taken by surprise, notwithstanding that the piece was on the program. After all, it’s not every day that you can hear the plaintive microtones and otherworldly drones of uilleann pipes at a performance of classical organ music.

And it wasn’t organist Renee Anne Louprette who was playing those particular pipes. It was Ivan Goff. As his composition To Inishkea slowly built austere, funereal ambience, Louprette added calmly resonant chords whose harmonies were counterintuitive to the point where it seemed that this might have been a joint improvisation. Cornered after the show, she revealed that she’d actually written out her parts. Is she also a Celtic musician? Avidly so – she also plays uilleann pipes, and Goff is her teacher. If she’s a tenth as good as he is, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

That world premiere interlude – which also included a lively if sepulchral Irish air from 1852, a more subdued Swedish waltz and a traditional slide dance – was typical of the poignancy and innovation that Louprette is known for. The big news is that she’ll be premiering a new commission for all those pipes with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and if that we’re lucky, we’ll get her to air out the smaller ones all by herself sometime in the future.

She opened the concert with a confident, ultimately triumphant build through the long upward trajectories of two Bach organ pieces from the Klavierubung. The effect was heroism but not pageantry. At the reception afterward, more than one spectator commented on how Louprette does not let notes die on the vine – she lets them resonate for every millisecond of what the score requires. That issue is a big deal these days among string players, but it also applies to keyboardists.

Louprette’s steadiness and sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic dynamic shifts carried a theme and variations from French composer Nicholas de Grigny’s abbreviated but pioneering Livre d’Orgue. She took that energy to the rafters throughout Ad Wammes’ colorful Myto, from playful motorik rhythms, to what could have been the robust title theme from an action movie – Snowboarding the Matterhorn, maybe? – to sudden blasts of angst.

A transcription of a Nadia Boulanger improvisation made an aptly pensive introduction to the evening’s coda, a transcendent, often harrowing interpretation of Maurice Durufle’s Suite, Op. 5. As with the Bach, she built steam matter-of-factly through an epic with a chilling, stalking opening theme, towering peaks punctuated by clever echo effects, a ghostly dance on the flute stops and a deliciously icy interlude played with the tremolo way up before the mighty gusts began. Durufle was a friend of Jehan Alain, and was profoundly saddened by Alain’s death: the many plaintive quotes from Alain’s music leapt out precisely at the most prominent moments. Or at least that’s how Louprette played them. Beyond sheer chops and emotional attunement to the piece, Louprette knows this organ like the back of her hand, having been at St. Ignatius for several years beginning in the mid-zeros.

Louprette’s new album Une voix françaisee/A French Voice is just out; her next concert is March 18 at 3 PM at St. Joseph Memorial Chapel at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA  And the slate of organ recitals at St. Ignatius continues on March 21 at 8 PM featuring a lavish program of solo, choral and orchestral works by Bach. $25 tix are available.

February 18, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Uneasily Stunning Program of Works for Oboe and Piano at the Morgan Library

The repertoire for oboe and piano isn’t as vast as for, say, violin and piano, but there are plenty of gems out there.The duo performance by Olivier Stankiewicz and Jonathan Ware on Tuesday in the magnificent sonics at the Morgan Library was a feast of amusing trick endings, vivid color, stunning clarity and a program that offered a series of salutes, some more subtle than others, to the Ravel Bolero.

References to that work, both oblique and obvious, traced a path straight from Antal Dorati’s Duo Concertante for Oboe and Piano, from 1983, back to Pierre Sancan’s 1957 Sonatine for Oboe and Piano, and finally a late Poulenc work, the 1962 Sonata for Oboe and Piano. Beyond flamenco allusions, eerie Satie-like close harmonies and belltones permeated all three pieces. Ware’s attack on the piano had an emphatic, purposeful drive to match his icepick precision, while Stankiewicz’s oboe rose from striking, perfectly precise spirals and volleys to a stark, burred, woody tone in the closing number: it was almost as if Stankiewicz was playing Poulenc on a duduk, or a Turkish zurla.

A persistent sense of suspense pervaded Sancan’s piece, alternately jaunty and funereal, a Hitchcock film overture of sorts. Dorati’s work was a showcase for Ware’s vigorous clarity and Stankiewicz’s seemingly effortless command of rapidfire trills, matched by long, airy, plaintive phrasing. The Poulenc gave the duo even more of a launching pad for bright contrasts between a neoromantic nocturnal calm and heroic swells with more than a hint of sarcasm…and wry quotes from Ravel and La Vie En Rose. The second movement, with its frequently droll conversational repartee, was particularly entertaining.

They’d opened with Saint-Saens’ Sonata in D Major, a predictably pleasant way to spotlight Stankiewicz;’s lyricism: the piano is a supporting instrument in that one. This concert was staged by Young Concert Artists as part of their ongoing noontime series at the Morgan. Impressively, the house was close to sold out, and while there were plenty of retirees, the audience demographics were unexpectedly diverse:. Clearly, word is out about the series, whether among those in the gig economy or neighborhood folks who may have snuck away from school or the dayjob. The next concert here is Feb 21 at noon with pianist Remi Geniet playing works by Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky; cover is $20.

And YCA’s next concert after that, at Merkin Concert Hall at 8 PM on Feb 28, is especially enticing for those of us who love low-register sonics. Bassist Xavier Foley plays solo works by Bach, Sperger and Franck plus his own compositions; you can get in for as little as $10.

February 9, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Telegraph Quartet Channels a Hundred Years of Vigorous, Dark, Relevant Revelry

In their sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall last night, the Telegraph Quartet took one of the richest sources in the history of music and traced how profoundly it could resonate in the here and now.

They started in the middle, then leapt into the precarious present with the world premiere of Robert Sirota’s harrowing String Quartet No 3: Wave Upon Wave. Closing with Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor might have been the respectful thing to do – or simply a decision to end the night with equal amounts fun and fire. Either way, the cutting-edge thread that Schoenberg first spun off with that 1905 work gave the group a strong seam from which to weave their magic.

As the night went on, commonalities among the works broke the surface forcefully: tonalities, riffs, humor and sarcasm. All that, and an intuitive camaraderie within the ensemble, as well as the quartet’s close attunement to the music. From the first smoldering cello notes and then the snarling introduction of Leon Kirchner’s riveting String Quartet No. 1, they had come to conquer.

It’s a shattering piece of music, and a showcase for chops, whether the slithery harmonics of violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, Chin’s plaintive tradeoffs with violist Pei-Ling Lin, or cellist Jeremiah Shaw’s deep washes of grimness and sometimes sheer wrath. They made a case that eerie close harmonies, subtly wafting microtones and an elegant roller-coaster ride through its dynamics were to be reveled in rather than shunned for their harshness and relentlessness.

Sirota’s quartet was just as relentless, and drove the vector home – he studied with Kirchner, and Schoenberg was Kirchner’s mentor. Of the three works on the bill, it was the most chillingly cinematic. Terror growing amidst bustling crowds, a sinisterly marching fugue of sorts, lingering funereal ambience and a cruelly reharmonized snippet of a Presidential anthem brought to life Sirota’s search for hope within the human soul in an era “rife with threats of tyranny, environmental catastrophe and the human potential for evil,” as the composer’s liner notes put it. The incessant dynamic push-pull and inventive pairings between voices mirror Kirchner’s work: he would be proud of this. It doesn’t have the sheer terror of Sirota’s unforgettable Triptych, his 9/11-themed first string quartet, but it’s close.

Schoenberg’s quartet came across as a sardonic celebration of a paradigm shift – and maybe an audience being dragged against their will into it. What a crushingly sarcastic piece of music…or at least that’s how the quartet played it. Proto-Shostakovian faux-pageantry and a mockery of a dainty minuet were highlights, but hardly the only moments when the group seemed to be saying, “To hell with these antediluvian conventions: let’s party!” In their hands, even the surprising calm of the final movement seemed tacked on, an afterthought: “After all you’ve been through, ok, you deserve a little lullaby.” The long procession through precise, expertly coordinated contrasts between serene and agitated, stolid placidity and the ache to bust loose more than validated that unlikely payoff. The crowd rewarded them with three standing ovations.

February 7, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Repartee and Revelations From Young Concert Artists on the Upper West

Is it fair to a duo act to say that the highlight of their show involved only one of them? In this case, that’s a reflection of the material on the bill rather than the performance. The piece was Tonia Ko’s mesmerizing Waves and Remains for Solo Violin; the player was Benjamin Baker, at Merkin Concert Hall this past evening.

The composer introduced it as an illustration of how clouds passing across the sky metaphorically reflect the transitory nature of home, and whether it’s actually possible to go back. Strumming, she explained, reminds her of her Hawaiian childhood, and that’s how Baker opened the work, tersely, then shifted to steady, circling phrases that interpolated pizzicato accents within them. The device can be maddeningly difficult to play, cleanly – Baker made it seem effortless. Ko’s increasingly uneasy series of waves and echo devices rose to a very amusing, atonal paraphrase of a well-known nursery rhyme at the end.

Baker and his frequent tourmate, pianist Daniel Lebhardt, also had great fun with Britten’s Suite for Piano and Violin, Op. 6. Their playful jabs during the call-and-response of the opening march segment were matched by the more lingering, lyrical camaraderie that the composer artfully shifts to in the second movement, and also in the third, almost a parody of a minuet.

There were two other pieces on the bill as well. The duo opened the show with the slow upward trajectory of Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 934, Lebhardt attacking the recurrent series of rapidfire, tremoloing phrases with remarkable restraint, leaving the floor to Baker for a display of pensive grace and silken, high harmonics. And yet, Baker couldn’t resist sliding just a hair toward the feral blue notes of Hungarian folk music when Schubert’s faux-Romany dance kicked in.

They closed with the predictable High Romantic angst of Elgar’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E Minor, a post-World War I reflection that’s hardly the match for, say, what Bartok or Ullmann had to say about it, but the crowd enjoyed the whole thing. The takeaway from this show, staged by Young Concert Artists, seemed to be “these guys are going to do pretty much everything a classical musician is required to do in 2018.” This performance ultimately revealed as much about a professional friendship as it did the two musicians’ formidable chops.

The Young Concert Artists series has helped launch the careers of a similarly formidable list of players, including but not limited to Pinchas Zuckerman, Richard Goode and Dawn Upshaw. Ko happens to their latest composer-in-residence: based on this piece, they chose spectacularly well. The next performance on this season’s schedule is at the Morgan Library at noon on Feb 7 with oboeist Olivier Stankiewicz and pianist Jonathan Ware playing an all-French program of works by Poulenc, Dorati, Saint-Saens and Sancan; cover is $20 including museum admission.

January 31, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

January 28, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooding, Cinematic Piano Minimalism From Elias Haddad

Pianist Elias Haddad writes dark, pensive, frequently poignant songs without words that draw equally on minimalism and film music, with flickers of the Middle East. You could call him the Lebanese Ludovico Einaudi. Philip Glass is also a major influence. For fun, check out Haddad’s performance in the Jeida Grotto at Mount Lebanon – much as the humidity is doing a number on the piano’s tuning, you can tell how magical the sonics must have been in there that night. His new album Visions is streaming at Spotify. Lucky concertgoers in Ghazir, Lebanon can see him there with Noemi Boroka on cello at the town church on Jan 20 at 7:30 PM; the show is free.

The new album is mostly solo piano, Jana Semaan adding moody, lingering cello to several cuts. The opening track, Falling Leaves blends bell-like, calmly insitent phrases over stygian cello washes: it’s akin to Yann Tiersen playing Federico Mompou.

Alone, a rather menacing solo piano anthem, reminds vividly of Glass’ film work, notably the Dracula soundtrack. It makes a diptych with the similar but more emphatic Chasing Dreams. In Deep Blue, Haddad builds hypnotically circling variations over the cello wafting in from below.

Dream 6676 would make a great new wave pop song – or the title theme for a dark arthouse film. Eternal Tranquility juxtaposes spacious, distantly elegaic piano against distantly fluttering cello that sounds like it’s being run through a sustain pedal. Haddad makes a return to Glassine territory with Free, a somber waltz, and then Illusions and its tricky, Indian-inflected syncopation.

The cello lines over Haddad’s slowly expanding, twinkling broken chords in Last Heartbeats aren’t quite imploring, but they’re pretty close. The wryly titled Teenagers in Love comes straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti school of 50s kitsch recast as noir – it sounds suspiciously satirical. The album’s title track blends Satie angst and Ray Manzarek flourishes. Haddad closes with the sweeping, Lynchian theme Welcome Home.

A casual listener might catch a bar or two of this and confuse it with new age music, or the innumerable gothboy synthesizer dudes who are all over youtube, but it’s infinitely catchier and darker. Somewhere there’s a suspense film or a refugee documentary waiting for this guy to score.

January 6, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

December 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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