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

A Powerful, Relevant Performance by the Best Orchestra in New York Not Called the Philharmonic

There was a moment at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concert Saturday night at the Lincoln Center complex where the bassists got to share a brief, gleefully triumphantly grin. They’d just played the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, one of the most viscerally evil pieces of music ever written. It’s also one of the most viscerally thrilling. It doesn’t require the virtuoso technique of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra played with similar passion earlier this year. This was a different kind of adrenaline.

Conductor Barbara Yahr summed it up succinctly beforehand. “The first movement is conflict, and struggle…a memorial to the victims of Stalin. The second is pure evil: a portrait of Stalin. The third is like an old Russian guy with his tea and his vodka – something isn’t right, but we’ve managed to survive, and there’s hope. The fourth movement is revenge, Shostakovich going [she thumbed her nose] to Stalin, ‘Haha, I survived and you didn’t.’ But even there,” she motioned, “The music is still digging at you.”

And this was one for the books. Like the New York Philharmonic, the GVO typically record their concerts, so hopefully the rest of the world will be able to hear what the sold-out crowd here did. At the reception afterward, there was more than a buzz: it was more like a roar. Yahr had called out individual soloists for an ovation, something she never does, since she knew she’d caught lightning in a bottle.

Amid the turmoil, and bustle, and sheer horror – massed violins rising to a terrified, sustained shriek in the first movement – the composer allows for many momentary glimpses of hope, voiced starkly by soloists throughout the group. The effect is meant to be striking, and leaves zero room for error in in a cold and essentially merciless spotlight. And everybody was at the top of their game, including but not limited to oboeist Shannon Bryant, clarinetist Gary Dranch, french hornist Andrew Schulze, bassoonist Nisreen Nor, trumpeter Andrew Jeng and flutist Simon Dratfield.

They’d opened what turned out to be a very auspicious, aptly cantabile performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, glistening with Andrew Pak’s crystalline, powerfully poignant violin out in front of the orchestra. Then the group’s longtime timpanist, Gerard Gordon got a long-overdue turn in the spotlight with a resounding, lush romp through Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof. It’s a rare work that uses the timpani for extended melodic sequences – remember, those drums are tuned – as well as all sorts of dynamics, from misty washes to hailstorms and a few, tantalizingly thunderous volleys.

The night’s theme, in typical GVO fashion, was in the here and now. If the wheels of impeachment stall out, somebody’s going to have to vocalize and raise the roof and put an end to a bad idea gone viral – something the second movement of Shostakovich’s symphony expands on with withering sarcasm.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is their annual family concert, which is happening this year in the comfortable auditorium at the Third Street Music School Settlement at 235 E 11th St. on December 17 at 3 PM.

December 5, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mirian Conti Goes On a Mission Which Was Impossible Until Recently

This past evening in the comfortable, old-world auditorium at the Consulate of Argentina in midtown, Mirian Conti played the first ever North American concert devoted exclusively to the solo piano music of Lalo Schifrin. It could have been a world premiere, although the now 85-year-old Argentine composer has undoubtedly played at least a few solo shows of his own somewhere in the world. Either way, Conti made history with this revelatory performance, especially considering that she was responsible for getting Schifrin to write most of the music.

While Schifrin is no stranger to fans of film scores, he isn’t known as a composer of solo piano works. Long story short: Conti suggested he come up with enough new material or new arrangements for a solo show, and he did. And her dynamic, kinetic, mutable approach to the music did justice to the composer’s ruggedly individualistic blend of neoromanticism, jazz, nuevo tango and vast cinematic themes.

“Other than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this is it,” Conti grinned, closing the bill with the world premiere of Schifrin’s solo piano arrangement of the Mission Impossible theme. Tens of thousands of bands and orchestras have played that tune, and kids have been playing probably more than one simplified piano arrangement since 1973. Perhaps ironically, Conti’s boisterous, irrepressibly hard-hitting version was the key to the entire concert. Consider: the theme opens with a hammering, syncopated blues riff, but expands to lots of unexpected chromatics, a mashup of blues, jazz, tango and hints of Debussy.

So it was no surprise that the rest of the show mirrored those influences in the prolific composer’’s work. Although a formidable lefthand attack is hardly the exclusive domain of Argentine pianists, it’s a distinctive  trope, and Conti did it justice, opening with the wryly titled Tango Del Atardecer, Schifrin new solo arrangement of the main theme form the 1977 movie Tango.

Conti made the tricky idiomatic shifts between nuevo tango, pre-tango Argentine folk and quasi-Second Viennese School tonalities in Danza De Los  Montes look easy. She told the crowd that for a classically-trained musician, the tricky rhythms, syncopation and allusive harmonies of Schifrin’s Jazz Sonata are a real challenge, but she delivered all of that in a strongly dynamic take of its second movement.

She explained that Schifrin had written Tango A Borges as a salute to the writer and his fondness for the tango guardia vieja – surprisingly, he didn’t like nuevo tango. So she made every intense, regal cascade count, up to a wry surprise ending. Her take of Schifrin’s new Suite and Ten Variations was a cleverly referential if hardly reverential capsule history of classical piano from the baroque,through Beethoven to Bartok and then maybe Piazzolla. Conti encored with a brand-new, lushly baroque-tinged lullaby: clearly, Schifrin has plenty of tunes left him him.

November 30, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Captivating World Premiere and Two Playful, Relevant Works in Progress Wrap Up This Year’s Sounds of Arts Festival

This year’s Sounds of Arts Festival in Long Island City, staged by arts organization Multicultural Sonic Evolution, featured a variety of performances from jazz to dance to indie classical music. The final program was an auspicious trio of works in progress by Chinese-American Alicia Lieu and Japanese composer Yui Kitamura along with a world premiere commission from Mayalsian-born JunYi Chow.

The highlight of the first night was Chow’s colorful, dynamic partita The House of Smells and Noise. Inspired by a story about a boy’s experiences with Nyonya (Chinese Malaysian) culture in Lee Su Kim’s book Sarong Secrets, it was replete with tensions and dichotomies: tradition versus modernity, calm versus bustle, humor versus solemnity. Percussionist Maiko Hosoda really got a workout, beginning with a stroll around the back of the theatre, clanging her cymbals. From there she took charge of the rhythm on a variety of instruments, including the dreamy microtone-laced plink of a Malaysian kalimba.

Austere call-and response gave way to somewhat more expansive passages that bordered on carefree but never quite went there, played with care and restraint by an impressively unorthodox ensemble of violinist Michael Mandrin, cellist Jay Tilton, oboeist Kevin Chavez, flutist Chrissy Fong and harpist Margery Fitts.  The electroacoustic ending packed a subtle emotional wallop and is too good to give away.

Kitamura’s brief suite, from a forthcoming opera, was sung with expressive power in Japanese by soprano Hirona Amamiya. The text explores the struggles of the daughter of famous 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika, widely credited with much of her father’s work since art in Japan at the time was a career essentially closed to women. Asian melodies were alluded to rather than stated outright; themes ranged from a poignant waltz that recalled Belgian musette, to more sweeping, distantly angst-fueled, cinematic passages.

To close the night, a quartet of singers delivered the first part of Lieu’s comic opera Unwrapping Fortune, exploring cultural and parent-child tensions in a Chinese-Jewish New York family. Not to spoil a good and relevant plot, but a chow mein sandwich is involved. A quartet of singers – sopranos Caroline Miller and Estabaliz Martinez, baritone Brian J. Alvarado and tenor Stephen Velasquez – brought drama and sardonic humor to the narrative over pleasant, baroque-tinged melodies.

November 22, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating an Eclectic, Dynamic Force in Venezuelan Classical Music

“I’m having a great time up here,” bassist Gonzalo Teppa told his bandmates with an unselfconsciously grin. He’d been exchanging sly rhythmic riffs all night with the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro, Jorge Glem. Not something you might expect at a concert celebrating the work of a pioneering classical composer.

Friday night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, an all-star chamber orchestra played the first-ever career retrospective of music by Aldemaro Romero, a 20th century Venezuelan counterpart to Ernesto Lecuona. Romero came to New York at age 34 with his family and worked prolifically as an arranger in both classical and jazz before returning to found the Caracas Philharmonic Orchestra. His 1955 symphonic album Dinner in Caracas, focusing on his signature mashup of neoromanticism and a wide array of styles from across the Americas, was a huge global hit. His son Aldemaro Jr., a biologist and dean of the college, conducted a shapeshifting ensemble which also comprised the Alexander String Quartet, pianist/singer Selene Quiroga, pianist Gonzalo Grau and drummer Fabio Rojas.

In an eerie stroke of fate, the concert took place on the exact spot on 25th Street that housed the RCA studio where Romero Sr. recorded his famous album. The younger Romero, who also contributed a couple of witty cameos on melodica, did not know this until shortly before the performance. “It gave me goosebumps,” he admitted. That the energy and vitality of the show was as fresh as it was testifies not only to the liveliness of the music but also the fact that the group had come up with some of the charts only a couple of days beforehand.

And the concert was anything but stuffy. This music is full of life, and color, and much of it was made for dancing. Subtle rhythmic shifts were everywhere, referencing grooves from the Romeros’ home turf to Cuba, Mexico and ultimately, Spain. The most striking of the instrumental numbers was Capriccio for Viola and Piano, a world premiere given a vigorously incisive workout by Quiroga and Alexander Quartet violist Paul Yarbrough.

Another world premiere, the second movement of the Concerto for Teresa (a dedication to a Venezuelan New York Philharmnoic member ) rose from starkly elegaic into a lush, majestic remembrance. And the entire string section closed with Fuga Con Pajarillo, the most widely performed piece on the bill, an expansive bit of neoromantic dancefloor indulgence that brought to mind Astor Piazzolla’s late work.

When’s the last time you saw a classical pianist move to the mic for a display of vocal power and versatility? The elder Romero probably would have gotten a kick out of the fact that global audiences probably know Quiroga best as a member of irrepressible ska-punk band Desorden Publico. With dramatic flair and often plaintive nuance, she delivered a series of moody, crescendoing ballads, through the expectancy and longing of Quien to the bouncy, salsa-tinged El Musiquito to the uneasily lilting Lo Que Paso Contigo (What’s Up with You), backed by Glem and Teppa’s erudite jousting. Baruch’s choir the Blue Notes, strolling down the stairs on both side of the audience, added harmonic enhancement.

As is across the various CUNY campuses, diversity rules at Baruch. This is the real New York. The next concert in this year’s eclectic season is a holiday show on Dec 5 at 8 PM with pianist Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble, who blend acerbic klezmer and latin jazz sounds. Cover is $26/$11 stud.

November 19, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Salute a Beloved, Tireless Champion of Classical Music in This City

Beethoven was just about to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon, but then Napoleon got too big for his britches, crowned himself emperor…and missed his chance to have a Beethoven symphony named in his honor. Last night at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s sold-out performance in the Lincoln Center complex, conductor Barbara Yahr dismissed the speculation of what unnamed “great man” the composer actually dedicated the mighty piece to after Napoleon went over to the dark side. “I’ve decided that it’s for the greatness in every one of us,” Yahr intimated, and with that, dedicated this concert to the orchestra’s late cellist and longtime publicist Trudy Goldstein.

We lost Trudy a couple of months ago. She insisted that the shoulder problems that brought an end to her performing career were caused by years of tuning cellos for her school students: she was that dedicated. Publicly, she was always first in line to champion young performers. Privately, she lamented the Sovietization and one-size-fits-all approach that’s become so commonplace in music education. Ever the individualist, Trudy wanted everybody to be themselves.

Where an awful lot of people on the business end of classical music tend to be stuffy and stand on ceremony, Trudy was a bon vivant. Her beaming smile, big hugs, unselfconsciously down-to-earth personality and infectious enthusiasm won her a wide circle of friends, but also paid dividends in terms of growing the fan base.

Big-hearted, determined and generous to a fault, Trudy’s biggest dream was to share the transcendence and thrills she’d experienced in a lifetime in classical music. She listened widely and voraciously: she was always up for hearing a new idea or interpretation. She loved everything oldschool about her city: diners, neighborhoods holding their own against an onslaught of gentrification, traipsing all over Chinatown and Greenpoint with her husband Sidney, an erudite and passionate devotee of jazz and fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. In her own sweet way, Trudy was a potent influence on an awful lot of people over the years, one of the real unsung heroes of classical music in New York in the late 20th and early 21st century. She is dearly missed.

She would have loved what the orchestra did with Beethoven this time out. His symphonies are all about punchy, catchy hooks and this might be the hookiest and punchiest of all of them. The constant rhythmic shifts are daunting, but the group negotiated these mini-mazes with a seamless grace. And this wasn’t a steamrolling performance: it was a translucent, nuanced one. The way Yahr held the orchestra in check through a deadpan, winking interpretation of the scherzo, where Beethoven is saying, “What on earth are we doing, getting our underwear all up in a knot over this guy,” was almost devastatingly funny. Likewise, the triumph of the coda was more ballet than ballroom blitz. There are some new faces in the brass section, crisp and clear and on their game. Let’s hope they stick around.

As good as that was, the Sibelius Violin Concerto was arguably even better, in context a requiem that packed a wallop. What a haunting tale this one told. Soloist Tosca Opdam painted a harrowing portrait of inconsolable sadness with her angst-fueled shivers, austere grey-sky harmonics and mournful cadenzas as the basses and timpani fluttered through the gloom below. And oboeist Jason Smoller hit a bullseye with his silky solo in a boisterous take of the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture to open the night.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s season last year was ambitious to the extreme, the centerpiece being Beethoven’s Ninth. This year is all about relevance and some heavy issues we’ve all had to deal with since last November. Their next concert is on December 2 at 7:30 PM, back at Good Shepherd/Faith Presbyterian Church at 52 W 66th St with Rachmaninoff’s poignant Vocalise, Michael Daughterty’s explosively kinetic Raise the Roof and Shostakovich’s savagely anti-fascist Symphony No. 10. Tix are $20/$10 stud/srs and considering that last night sold out, this concert probably will too.

October 22, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colin Stetson Hauntingly Reinvents an Iconic Eulogy For the Victims of Genocide

What’s more Halloweenish than the arguably most evil event in human history? Friday night at the World Financial Center, saxophonist Colin Stetson led a twelve-piece jazz orchestra through his inventive, intensely immersive original arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s third Symphony, better known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” The Polish composer dedicated it to victims of the Holocaust and World War II; the 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw remains one of the very last classical recordings to sell a million copies worldwide.

Stetson pointedly remarked before the show that he’d remained true Gorecki’s original melodies, beyond extending or sustaining certain climactic passages, “Amplified for these times.” That ominousness rang especially true right from the start. The main themes are a solemn processional and a round of sorts, both of which rose to several mighty crescendos that were far louder than anything Gorecki ever could have imagined.

Spinning his axes – first a rumbling contrabass clarinet, then his signature bass sax and finally an alto – through a pedalboard along with his looming vocalese, Stetson anchored the dense sonic cloud. Bolstering the low end on multi-saxes and clarinets were Matt Bauder (of darkly brilliant, psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things) and Dan Bennett, along with cellist Rebecca Foon and synth players Justin Walter and Shahzad Ismaily. Violinists Amanda Lo and Caleb Burhans were charged with Gorecki’s most ethereal tonalities, while guitarists Grey Mcmurray and Ryan Ferreira got a serious workout, tirelessly chopping at their strings with endless volleys of tremolo-picking. It’s amazing that everybody got through this without breaking strings.

The addition of Greg Fox on drums resulted in an unexpected, sometimes Shostakovian satirical feel, adding a twisted faux-vaudevillian edge to a section of the second movement. Stetson’s sister Megan ably took charge of the Upshaw role with her dramatic but nuanced arioso vocal stylings. After the smoke had risen and fallen and risen again across the battlefield, the air finally cleared, an apt return to the stillness and meditative quality of the original score, matching the guarded optimism of the ending as much as the group had channeled the grief and muted anguish of the rest of the work. One suspects the composer – who toiled under a repressive Iron Curtain regime for much of his life – would have approved.

You’ll be able to hear this when the performance airs on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live on WNYC, most likely early in November.

October 17, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting One of the Most Haunting String Quartets of Recent Years

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. Hersch takes his inspiration from Michael Mazur’s 1960s series of etchings of grimacing, contorted, sometimes catatonic patients in a Rhode Island mental institution, lost in perpetuity in their own worlds. In a particularly tragic footnote, just when Hersch had finished his own sketches for this work and reached out to his old artist pal, Mazur died. So there’s a doubly elegaic quality to this music.

It’s very slow and ghostly in the purest sense of the word. Stark sheets shift and then evoke sudden and persistent horror, grounded by Felix Wang’s cello – Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 7 is a persistent reference point. A gentle, graceful dance brings a moment of nostalgia, only to fade mournfully toward black, awash in eerie close harmonies.

Moments where individual voices – Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard’s violins and John Kochanowski’s viola – enter or pair off outnumber passages where the whole quartet is in slow, ineluctably grim motion. Microtonal fragments flicker and then disappear just as suddenly. But when the quartet are going full steam, particularly through a surreal, phantasmagorical, cruelly ironic march before the final clouds descend, the effect is hair-raising.  That sense is amplified by Mazur’s drawings, several of them included in the cd booklet.

Innova Records still has this available, and it’s up at Spotify.

October 11, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Momenta Festival, Installment Three: Fun Night!

Even by the rigorous standards of the string quartet world, the Momenta Quartet have to assimilate an enormous amount of material for their annual Manhattan festival. Never mind the kind of stylistic leaps and bounds that would drive most other groups to distraction. This year’s festivities conclude tonight with a free concert at 7 at West Park Church at 86th and Amsterdam put together by violinist Alex Shiozaki. The centerpiece is Per Norgard’s mesmerizingly dark String Quartet No. 8, and reportedly there will be free beer. But the music will be better than the beer. What’s better than free beer? Now you know.

Each member of this irrepressible quartet programs a single festival evening. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron was in charge of night one, which was reputedly challenging and entertaining – this blog wasn’t there. Night two, assembled by violist Stephanie Griffin, was harrowingly intense and had enormous political relevance. Last night’s bill at Columbia’s Italian Academy auditorium, devised by celist Michael Haas, was the fun night – although the fun promises to continue tonight as well.

Last night’s theme was a tourists-eye view of Italy. Haas took that idea from the evening’s one world premiere, Claude Baker’s absolutely delightful Years of Pilgrimage: Italy. Baker found his inspiration in Italian-themed works by Liszt, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky, and there were jarring episodes interpolating snippets of some of those themes throughout an otherwise distinctively 21st century work. It wasn’t the easiest, segue-wise, but it was riotously funny. Otherwise, the piece didn’t seem to have much to do with Italy, from austere, minimalist insistence, to all sorts of allusive, enigmatic ripples and rises, a daunting and uneasily captivating microtonal interlude, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek glissandos and other only slightly less ostentatious uses of extended technique. The group had a great time with it: every string quartet ought to play it.

The party ended on a high note with Tschaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the quartet bolstered by their former teachers Samuel Rhodes and Marcy Rosen on second viola and cello, respectively. It was an unabashedly joyous, conversational performance: to the extent that this music can swing, the group swung it, through beery, punchy Beethovenesque riffage bookended by familiar Russian gloom.

It was as if Tschaikovsky was reassuring himself that it was ok to cut loose and have some fun. And did he ever. That buffoonish brass fanfare midway through, transposed for strings – whose doublestops and rat-a-tat phrasing are brutally tough to play, by the way? Check. That ridiculous faux-tarantella at the end? Doublecheck. Otherwise, the group reveled in nifty exchanges of voices as the mood shifted back and forth.

They’d opened with Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which was more of a vehicle for individual members’ technical skill than anything else. Gendron spun silky filigrees while Haas and Shiozaki  provided elegant, precisely pulsing pizzicato alongside Griffin’s plaintive resonance. But ultimately, the piece – a late work based on Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice – didn’t really go anywhere. Obviously, the group can’t be faulted for the composer electing for a “this is what I look like when I’m sad” pose over genuine empathy. That the opera is based on the Thomas Mann novel explains a lot.

October 4, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment