Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Macabre Piano Epics and Deep-Space Ambience From Elizabeth A. Baker

Pianist/multi-instrumentalist Elizabeth A. Baker’s new album Quadrivium – streaming at Bandcamp – is extremely long and often extremely dark. Her music can be hypnotic and atmospheric one moment and absolutely bloodcurdling the next. Erik Satie seems to be a strong influence; at other times, it sounds like George Winston on acid, or Brian Eno. It was tempting to save it for Halloween month – when all hell could break loose here – but Baker’s playing the release show tonight, Sept 22  at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint at 7 PM. Cover is $15 – be aware that there is no G train between Nassau Ave. and Queens this weekend, so your options are either taking the L to Bedford and about a 20-minute walk, or the G to Nassau if you’re coming from Brooklyn and then hoofing it from there.

Baker’s striking high/low piano contrasts follow a hypnotically circling, glacial pace in the thirteen-plus minutes of the album’s opening track, Sashay. Subtly and slowly, her icicle accents grow more spacious, with the occasional unexpectedly playful accent. The second track, Command Voices – 251A is a lot more sinister, laced with Baker’s emphatic menace amid sepulchral rustles. Its eleven-minute second part is a pitch-black haunted house soundtrack complete with creaky inside-the-piano sonics and ghostly bells that finally come full circle with a long parade of macabre close harmonies.

Four Explosions Expanding From the Center is an awfully sardonic title for a deep-space Satie-esque tone poem echoing the album’s opening track as it grows more energetic. Quarks is a study in coy, fleeting accents followed by the brief spoken-word piece Identity Definitions, which contemplates how primitive attempts to rationalize existence still have resonance today.

The far more epic Lateral Phases & Beat Frequencies addresses interpersonal quandaries over drones and spacy squiggles. Headspace is as ambient and drifty as you would think. What Is Done in Silence builds a spot-on, sarcastically robotic cautionary scenario about getting caught in a digital snare. Baker works trippily oscillating loops in An Outcast; the album’s final cut is a coldly glimmering, practically 24-minute portrait of a dangerous powder drug, or so it would seem. It brings to mind the early loop collages of Phil Kline. Lots of flavors and lots of troubling relevance in an album which has a remarkably persistent awareness even as Baker messes with the listener’s imagination.

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September 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

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

Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.

With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.

He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.

“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.

Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.

There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.

Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.

The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut

September 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Persistent Disquiet, a Roulette Show and New Material From Individualistic Keyboardist Kelly Moran

Although multi-keyboardist Kelly Moran’s albums are all solo recordings, they frequently have a psychedelic, gamelanesque quality to go along with a relentless unease. That’s because Moran multitracks herself, and prepares her piano strings for all sorts of strange muted and clock-chime effects. Her most recent album Bloodroot – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates different species of plants, some of them garden variety, some much less so.

The eleven tracks are purposeful to the nth degree, seldom much longer than two minutes apiece. Although she’s playing brand-new material with projections at her show on Sept 7 at 8 PM at Roulette, if you’re lucky you’ll get to hear some of this deliciously uneasy material as well. Advance tix, available at the front desk on show nights, are $18.

The first track on the album, Iris, is a miniature, a chiming theme with pregnant pauses. The muting of the strings adds an enigmatic click beneath Moran’s belltone phrasing. Celandine – a close relative to the buttercup – is represented by steady, elegantly circling broken chords that Moran shifts eerily toward the shadows as she adds dissonances. From there she segues into the ornate rivulets of Freesia – it’s not clear how much electronic processing there is on the track, or if Moran has cleverly overdubbed a toy piano into the mix.

In Hyacinth, she bows the strings inside the piano for a shimmering autoharp effect and icy, doppler-like waves. Liatris – a flower akin to smaller-scale tall phlox –  is portrayed with music box-like voicings, anchored by terse, graceful piano harmonies. Moran segues from there directly into the album’s title track, a spare, brooding, Satie-esque theme. A flickering prepared piano track approximating the sound of castanets echoes the melody – t’s the strongest and most disconcerting number here.

Moran is done with the calla lily in less than a minute and a half of what could be a mashup of Webern, Mompou and Margaret Leng Tan (for a completely different take on the flower, check out the bittersweet Amy Allison song)

Sea lavender – a favorite of the composer, maybe? – gets two tracks. Statice – a common synonym – is a plaintive anthem with spiky, muted carillon-esque textures. Limonium – the flower’s taxonomical name – could be a duet between horror film composer Clint Mansell and toy pianist Phyllis Chen.

In between the two rests Aster, uneasily – it’s the closest thing to the otherworldly belltones of Mompou here, punctuated by plenty of pauses. Moran closes the album with a salute to the Heliconia, a bright red-and-yellow tropical flower and distant relative of the banana. It gets a surprisingly dark, epic portrayal, the closest thing to grand guignol on this beguiling, rather troubled album. It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of distant menace Moran can conjure up in Brooklyn this weekend. 

September 2, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nancy Garniez’s Hilarious, Insightfully Iconoclastic Piano Book Stands the Test of Time

“I am deeply gratified that this little book is still relevant,” Nancy Garniez said the other night at one of her popular piano salons. That comment had the same understatement and wit that sparkles throughout her 1999 gem of an insider’s guide to the piano, What Might It Mean: An Uncommon Glossary of Musical Terms and Concepts for the Stuck, Bored and Curious.

On one hand, it’s a musical Devil’s Dictionary. Garniez’s relentless humor, which ranges from tart to absolutely withering, is irresistible. As someone with over half a century as a classical pianist and teacher, she has erudition to match those chuckles and can’t resist sharing it. It would be easy to say that there are thousands of dollars worth of lessons in this little 96-page, fifteen dollar paperback, but the reality is that you aren’t going to find this information anywhere else…at least not as concisely.

Garniez describes dolce – the musical dynamic – as “An Italian dessert, whose only relevance to music might take the form of a smudge on the printed score or a sugar-induced slump in a player’s brain.”

Fingering “Is the fine art of connecting ear to instrument. This involves factors no less complex than those connecting eye to tennis ball, baseball, golf ball, bowling ball, etc. No serious athlete would try to simplify that!”

Counting in quarter notes is Garniez’s bête noire – her many riffs on that one are priceless. And, an amateur is “Unprotected by a pretension to flawless technique…likely to be more receptive to auditory impulses than many professionals.” The iconoclasm should be clear by now.

Adults tend to forget that they were ever children to begin with – or if they haven’t, they tend to disown what they learned as kids. Not Garniez. From day one, she was puzzled by how what she played on the piano didn’t completely sync with what she read on the score. As she learned the mechanics of the piano, and then delved into acoustic and auditory science, she realized that she was hearing overtones. That eureka moment will resonate (pun intended) with anyone who either grew up with or gravitates toward the microtones of non-western scales.

Garniez’s realization sparked two others, which inform her pianistic worldview. The first is that a player’s sense of touch is everything. Since the levers for the black keys are shorter, they sound louder than the white keys if played with the same attack. Therefore, they also produce louder overtones, whether or not in combination with the white keys (there are multiple overtone systems in the piano; Garniez offers a capsule view rather than getting into heavy theory).

Secondly, almost from day one, the great composers have been aware of this, and have had a ball utilizing that insight. Garniez offers numerous instances from Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bartok and others. After reading this book, you will hear, or play those pieces, as well as innumerable other repertoire, like you never have before.

The book is meticulously cross-referenced. It’s impossible to read all the way through without leapfrogging between topics…which is exactly what Garniez wants you to do. For example, the concept of linear coloration – the way a composer builds intensity around a specific thematic pitch – relates to fourteen other boldfaced terms. Garniez’s discussion of dynamics links to Phrases, Acoustical Events, Articulation, Consonance, Dissonance, Baroque Music, the Fugue, and the Continuo device.

While Garniez wrote this for working pianists and serious students, it’s a must-read for musicians, especially those of us who either want to get a handle on the challenges facing our ivory-tickling bandmates, as well as those of us who came to the piano as a secondary instrument. Needless to say, it’s also a goldmine for listeners intrigued by how the mechanics of the instrument relate to how composers think – and, for better or worse, how pianists play.

Garniez’s own piano technique, distingiushed by a remarkably legato, cantabile approach, mirrors her insights here. Rhythm is every bit as important to her as touch, although ultimately, listening is the most important thing a musician can do. Any good bandmate would second that.

Garniez’s latest installment in her ongoing salon is at 4 PM on Aug 19 in a comfortable Upper West Side location, a leisurely ten-minute walk from the 1/2/3 station at 96th St. There’s a suggested donation of $30, or pay what you can. Mozart, Schumann and Brahms are on the bill; there will be delicious gluten-free refreshments, possibly wine, and lively conversation afterward. Email for location and directions. 

Fun fact: Garniez is the mom of Rachelle Garniez, the multi-instrumentalist and singer who is probably this century’s greatest and most consistently surprising English-language songwriter.

August 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Literature, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Titanically Orchestrated New Album and a Rare NYC Solo Show by Pianist Alan Broadbent

Pianist Alan Broadbent isn’t an ostentatious player: he’s a purist, he knows a good tune when he hears it and doesn’t clutter it. He’s playing a rare New York solo show on Aug 13 at 8 PM at Mezzrow. You can witness it from the bar for as low as $15.

His latest album, Developing Story – streaming at Spotify – is the furthest thing you could expect from such an intimate performance. It’s a lavish double album for jazz trio and orchestra, recorded with bassist Harvie S, drummer Peter Erskine and the London Metropolitan Orchestra. It’s closer to classically-inspired film score than, say, Gil Evans’ Miles Davis arrangements or solo work. 

Broadbent’s title suite, in three movements, begins with a warmly optimistic opening-credits theme of sorts for the orchestra. The piano makes a graceful entrance with the rhythm section; the strings play balmy counterpoint and swing remarkably well as Broadbent works a tropical lounge vibe. As the piece reaches a lush neoromantic calm, it could be Cesar Franck.

The second movement morphs cleverly from an elegantly sober waltz to a more pensive theme with lustrous oboe at the center. The triptych concludes with a judiciously syncopated groove beefed up by the strings, which wouldn’t be out of place in the late Dave Brubeck book – or the Antonin Dvorak book, for that matter.

Broadbent is also a highly sought-after arranger, and has reinvented four jazz standards for this lavish setup. An especially lyrical version of Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now juxtaposes Broadbent’s tersely ornamented piano with the orchestra’s increasingly gusty swells. He balances majesty with restraint throughout his long introductory solo in John Coltrane’s Naima; then the orchestra build a nocturnal, tropical milieu followed by playful quasi-Tschaikovsky.

Miles Davis is represented by two numbers. That crystalline oboe returns in a sweeping yet purposeful version of Blue in Green, driven by Broadbent’s meticulous articulation on the keys and a similar intricacy in the lush chart’s alternating voices. Orchestra trumpeter John Barclay leads the brass in a pulsing, cloudbursting rearrangement of Milestones.

Broadbent also has two stand-alone originals here as well. The ballad Lady in the Lake is the album’s strongest track, a study in contrasts with its ebullient central theme surrounded by foreshadowing and outright menace on every side. Children of Lima – written in memory of the devastating earthquake there in 1974 – is a mighty, heartfelt waltz. All this ought to resonate with fans of classical music as well as vintage film composers like Erich Korngold.

August 11, 2018 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deep in the Catacombs, Harp and Strings Never Sounded More Menacing

You probably wouldn’t expect a concert in a graveyard to be particularly lively. But this past evening’s program deep in Green-Wood Cemetery was as intimately ferocious as it was macabre. With only candles and a couple of low-watt ceiling lamps illuminating the private catacombs there, impresario Andrew Ousley introduced Bridget Kibbey as “The dark gothic goddess of the harp.” That description no doubt reflected her decision to hang out by herself down there before the show and practice for a couple of hours, in the company of about 120 fulltime residents contained in thirty family crypts.

Obviously, not everything Kibbey plays is morbid, nor were there any dirges on this particular bill. But the performance had enough grimness and sheer terror for any respectable Halloween event. Joining forces with an allstar string quartet – violinists Chad Hoopes and Grace Park, violist Matthew Lipman and cellist Mihai Marica – Kibbey opened with Debussy’s Dances Sacred and Profane. Beyond the piece’s kaleidoscopic dynamics, what was most viscerally striking is how loud it was down there. For anyone who might assume that chamber music is necessarily sedate, this was a wild wake-up call.

The space’s resonance is just as remarkable: no matter how intricate Kibbey’s lattice of notes became, they all lingered, an effect that powerfully benefited the string section as well. And the sheer volume afforded a listener a rare chance to revel in Debussy’s echoing exchanges of riffs, not to mention his clever shifts in and out of Asian pentatonic mode, his jaunty allusions to French ragtime and occasional gargoylish motives.

As omnipresent and fiery as Kibbey’s volleys of notes were, the most adrenalizing point of the concert was Hoopes’ solo midway through Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie, robustly arranged by Kibbey for violin and harp. Careening like he was about to leave the rails for good, his notes lept and flailed with a feral abandon, grounded by Kibbey’s alterlnately sparkling and looming attack.

Likewise, her use of the harp’s low register was one of the most stunning aspects of her solo arrangement of Bach’s Toccata in D. In that context, it was fascinating to hear how much of that organ work’s pedal line she retained. As perfomance, it was pure punk rock. Kibbey confided that she’d come up with it on a dare – and that the dude who dared her remains a friend. At the very end, she abandoned Bach’s seesaw drive toward an end that’s been coming a mile away for a long time, then blasted through every red light and tossed off that otherwise immortal five-chord coda in what seemed like a split second. The effect was as funny as it was iconoclastic.

Lipman took centerstage with his alternately balletesque and plaintive lines in Kibbey’s cinematic duo version of Britten’s Lachrymae. As she explained it, the piece is far from morose – describing it as a tour of a mansion was spot-on. The group closed with a piece that Kibbey and Marica have had creepy fun with in the past, Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique. As it followed the grand guignol detail of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, the ensemble spun an uneasily rising and then suspensefully falling tapestry. They maxed out the trick ending, the 11 PM hour where the entitled types at Poe’s masked ball get a hint of a reality check. When death himself showed his face, the carnivalesque payoff was a mighty one. Despite temperatures in the pleasantly loamy-smelling catacombs being at least twenty degrees lower than they were topside, everybody was out of breath by the end.

Afterward, a refreshingly airconditioned shuttle bus returned to pick up anyone who had to rush for the train down the hill. Those not pressed for time had the option of taking a leisurely fifteen-minute walk back through the graves, lit only by the night sky and the occasional tiki torch.

This concert series began in a smaller crypt space in Harlem and has made a welcome migration to Brooklyn. Along with the music, there are always noshes and drinks beforehand as part of the package. This time it was small-batch whiskey: upstate distillery Five & 20, whose overproof rye glistens with the bite of five New York varietals, stole that part of the show.

If these mostly-monthly events intrigue you, be aware that the best way to find out when they’re happening is via the organizers’ email list. You can sign up at deathofclassical.com, unsurprisingly, tickets go very fast.

August 6, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Early Music Luminary Richard Egarr Makes a Long-Awaited Mostly Mozart Festival Debut

Fans of classical music may find it hard to believe that harpsichord virtuoso Richard Egarr is finally making his Mostly Mozart Festival debut at Lincoln Center this July 27 and 28 at 7:30 PM. The tireless leader of the Academy of Ancient Music records and tours relentlessly – one can only imagine that it’s his grueling schedule that’s kept him from being part of the festival until now. This time out he’ll join the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and flute soloist Jasmine Choi in a program that includes Handel’s Concerto Grosso and Sonata à Cinque plus portions of his iconic Water Music suite. There’ll also be iconic Bach on the bill: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, plus his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. As a bonus for those who can get to Lincoln Center early, guitarist Jiji opens the night at 6:30, playing works by Albeniz, Paganini, Marais and Bach. You can get in for $35.

Egarr plays with masterful baroque precision but also High Romantic ferocity. Those attributes are far from incompatible considering that the repertoire he’s so passionate about was radical in its day. To get a sense of his approach, give a spin to his epic double-cd recording of the Bach Partitas, BWV 825-830, streaming at Spotify. From the spiky curlicues of the ornamentation of the prelude that opens the first partita, to the majestic mathematics of the finale of the sixth, the way Egarr make the harpsichord sparkle and then whir is breathtaking. But Egarr doesn’t merely content himself with working up a storm on the keys. He’s gone inside the music to find the secret codes that the composer loved so much.

The most dramatic is the passion play in the sixth partita. As Egarr explains with considerable relish in the liner notes – after all, he’s solved the puzzle – Bach’s first clue is to provide the time signature as “perfect time” rather than a prosaic 4/4. The harpsichordist explains how the composer creates numerological Biblical imagery to illustrate a familiar tale that’s usually a very grim one – this ends with a triumphant flourish.

Within these bejewelled mazes of harmony, Egarr doesn’t limit himself to standard, metronomic rhythm, either, as you’ll hear in the lilting sarabande on the way to that big payoff. Although it’s less noticeable, he takes his time getting into the mighty anthem that opens the second partita before it goes scampering and brightens somewhat. And in the same vein as a jazz player providing a bonus outtake that was too hot to leave off the album, he offers two versions of the pouncing finale to the third partita. On the surface, a lot of this looks back to Bach’s mentor, Buxtehude, but the harmonic and rhythmic innovations are vastly more complex. For those with the cash, this weekend’s Mostly Mozart Festival program offers a real trip in time back to what was once  the world’s cutting edge in serious concert music.

July 23, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Far Cry Play a Demanding, Witheringly Relevant Program in Withering Heat in Central Park

It’s already an achievement when all eighteen members of a string orchestra can be on the same page and get everything right in the comfortable confines of a concert hall. It’s another thing entirely to do that in ninety-plus degree heat, facing a Manhattan sunset. Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, A Far Cry really worked up a sweat doing a whole lot more in a brilliantly programmed mix of mostly dark works with potent resonance for the pre-impeachment Trump era. 

The highlight could have been Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, from 1994. Managing to negotiate the thicket of hypnotic, often ominous circular riffage that foreshadowed Glass’ Dracula soundtrack from five years later was impressive enough. Yet the group dug in for both the jokes – the trick ending at the end of the first movement and the “who, me?” exchanges of pizzicato in the final one – – along with relentless macabre understatement. From the muted, wounded whispers of the introduction, dynamics were ripe to rise with a pulse just short of bloodcurdling. Much as the second movement is on the slow side, it’s also very percussive, and the ensemble were on that as well, bassists Erik Higgins and Karl Doty exchanging fanged serpentine phrases beneath circling cloudbanks of melody.

It’s one of Glass’ most Lynchian works, and it set the stage lusciously well for an even more dynamically bristling interpretation of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. WQXR’s Elliott Forrest, the night’s emcee, explained that the composer had written it in 1939 before escaping the encroaching fascism in his native Hungary. The ensemble kept their cards close to the vest through the straightforwardly strutting phony pageantry that opens the triptych but then got their claws out for the anguished, jaggedly slashing danse macabre afterward. Likewise, the contrast between the sense of depletion and loss in the second movement and the defiantly jaunty coda was breathtaking. As a musical hail-Mary pass (and raised middle finger at the Nazis and their enablers), it’s akin to Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel cheating the hangman.  

The group closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, rising from stillness to aching, Glass-ine echo effects and then an elegaic processional, a brooding conclusion to an often haunting evening.

The warmup piece – in every sense of the word – was Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K.138, a prescient student work written when he was 15 that lacks the colorful voicings he’d develop just a few years later, but its coy hooks still pop up in movies and on NPR all the time. As one of the band members mused to the crowd, who knew that this piece would ever be played in such a major city, let alone to a full house. Mozart would no doubt be plenty proud of himself.

And a special shout-out to the pretty blonde woman in the black sundress who shared an entire bag of walnut-banana crunch  – a high-class take on Fiddle Faddle – with the hungry blog proprietor seated behind her. If you see this, be in touch – reciprocity is due.

A Far Cry’s next performance is a program including Moussorgsky’s Pictures At an Exhibition plus a Jessica Meyer world premiere and works by Bernstein and Respighi at 3 PM on September 8 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The next concert at the Naumburg Bandshell is this coming Tuesday, July 17 at 7:30 PM with popular indie classical orchestra the Knights playing works by Anna Clyne along with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and works by Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat. 

July 14, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Johnny Gandelsman’s Album of Solo Bach Works for Violin: A Revelatory Magnum Opus

Johnny Gandelsman is the first violinist of one of the world’s most consistently interesting string quartets, Brooklyn Rider, advocates for some of this era’s most individualistic composers. As buyers of classical albums are probably aware, Gandelsman’s epic solo recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas – streaming at Bandcamp  topped the classical charts earlier this year, a more substantial feat than most people might realize. While the vinyl renaissance keeps gaining traction, it’s impossible to know just how many units are being moved since artists don’t typically report them. And keep in mind that the bestselling album of two years ago among all styles of music was a Mozart box set.  

For those who haven’t heard Gandelsman’s magnum opus, it’s everything anybody could want from a number one record. It’s arguably the most cantabile performance of these pieces ever recorded. Gandelsman approaches the material as a singer would, not only segment by segment – which run the length of the emotional spectrum – but seemingly line by line.

The secret to his technique is his legato. You can hear it in his work with Brookyn Rider, most strikingly in the group’s hauntingly lustrous take of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131, from their 2012 Seven Steps album.

Most musicians who play Bach tend to drift toward a mechanical rhythm. Then there’s a small contingent who decide that Bach’s steady note values don’t count for anything, and play rubato, with predictably befuddling results. Gandelsman doesn’t do either. Much of Bach has an inner swing – often, a shuffle rhythm – and he finds that wherever it exists. Other times, he lets the ornamentation serve as contrast to rhythmic steadfastness. And when he digs in with a razor’s edge staccato, as in the biting, leaping seventh movement of the Partita No. 1, the contrast is breathtaking.

This isn’t an album you can hear once and completely grasp. The more you hear it, the more of an ode to joy it turns out to be – but if the best you can do is play this in the background during dinner, you’re missing the point. What Gandelsman is going for here, beyond technical dazzle, is close emotional attunement. Bach loved stories, and secret codes – this is as close to a skeleton key as exists for this often wildly dynamic music.

It would be overkill to dissect each suite segment by segment. But there are innumerable interludes to get lost in (and if there’s any composer you can get completely lost in, it’s Bach). The way Gandelsman weaves through the ornamentation to introduce the opening adagio of the very first Sonata is as playful as it is stately – “charmingly antique” might explain how someone else would do it.

There are some dances here, but they don’t necessarily leap and bound. More likely than not, they flow gracefully, whether with the muted bittersweetness of the second movement of the first Partita, or the almost conspiratorial pulse of its presto finale. And even in the quasi-Vivaldi of the fourth movement, Gandelsman wrings as much sheer sound out of those volleys of eighth notes as any human not armed with an organ could possibly obtain.

Gandelsman parses the Sonata No. 1 from forlorn, to brooding, then determined and finally slithery – what a transformation! The build-down from suspense to partial resolution in Sonata No. 3 is also revelatory. The storm that rips at the chaconne that closes Partita No. 2 might be the both the album’s most technically challenging and adrenalizing moment.

Gandelsman doesn’t have any solo shows coming up, but popular young-ish orchestra the Knights, who often share band members with Brooklyn Rider, are playing the Naumburg Bandshell on July 17 at 7:30 PM with a program of works by Anna Clyne, Brahms and Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat.

July 12, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment