Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rapturous, Innovative String Music All Over Midtown

When she first formed the Momenta Quartet, violist Stephanie Griffin probably had no idea of how many hundreds of premieres the group would play, a list that continues to blossom. That same fascination with brilliant obscurities and new ideas has informed her work outside the classical world, as one of the few conservatory-trained players who’s just as comfortable and acerbic in jazz improvisation (some would call that “creative music,” but all good music is creative). Her next scheduled New York gig was scheduled for March 20 on a killer triplebill that starts at 7:30 PM at Metro Baptist Church at 410 W 40th St. past 9th Ave.) but is now cancelled. Jazz guitarist Amanda Monaco, who lately has been exploring klezmer infuences, was slated to open the night with her trio, followed by flutist Cheryl Pyle‘s Musique Libre trio, and then Griffin with a chamber jazz quartet, along with pianist Gordon Beeferman playing the world premiere of her first-ever work for solo piano.

One of Griffin’s most interesting recent New York performances was last month, as a member of the Argento Ensemble, on a characteristically diverse, edgy program featuring works by Schoenberg and Erin Gee. It was more than a little embarrassing to get to the show almost an hour late, but the friendly folks at the Austrian Cultural Forum had saved a seat, even though the show was sold out: thanks, guys! And fortuitously, there was still time to catch the group playing a deliciously dynamic, sometimes velvety, occasionally chilling version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht as well as the world premiere of Gee’s Mouthpiece 29b.

Throughout the former, the sense of the composer aching to break free of late 19th century conventions was visceral. Contrasts between starkness and lushness, Debussyesque bittersweetness and the strange new world that Schoenberg would open the floodgates for were consistently striking. The sting of Mari Lee’s violin was a standout, from the work’s almost frantically volleying crescendos, to the somber lullaby at the end. The rest of the group, which along with Griffin also included violinist Doori Na, violist Jocelin Pan, cellists Michael Katz and Serafim Smigelsky and bassist Tristen Kasten-Krause, dug in just as deeply.

Gee explained to the crowd that she’d written her playful, dauntingly innovative piece in the International Phonetic Alphabet rather than in any extant language. Just witnessing her command of flittingly crisp, almost backward-masked syllables as the ensemble echoed her with sepulchral wisps and glissandos was breathtaking. It’s a very entertaining piece of music, just as challenging for the strings as for Gee, involving both singing and occasional whistling from what seemed to be most of the group. Gee’s surreal, individualistic sound world is like no other on this planet because there isn’t one, other than maybe Meredith Monk’s, as a point of comparison.

Argento’s next scheduled performance is April 18 at the Tenri Institute, with works by Bethany Younge, Yotam Haber and Alma Mahler; cover is $tba.

March 16, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Smashing Debut by Percussion Ensemble Pathos Trio

It takes a lot of nerve for a group to play four world premieres at their first-ever concert together. Friday night at Arete Gallery, Pathos Trio validated both their confidence in choice of composers as well as their mutual talents, making a debut to remember. That may be all the more impressive in that they didn’t even have all their regular members. Peter White, playing vibraphone, bells and a vanload of other bangable objects, subbed manfully for percussionist Marcelina Suchocka.

This may be a new ensemble, but each of the members has extensive credits in the world of new music. The three opened with Alyssa Weinberg‘s dynamically churning Delirious Phenomena, a surreal portrait of a factory haunted by mischievous ghosts, or so it seemed. White, Felix Reyes and Alan Hankers worked the guts of a meticulously prepared piano, using mallets for murk and looming swells, then piano wires wrapped around individual strings inside for timbres that ranged from keening, to whispery, to a spot-on facsimile of a french horn. Hypnotically circling patterns and atmospheric washes rose and fell, up to a sudden, coy ending.

Thundering bursts from bass drum and gongs contrasted with eerily tinny resonance emanating from bowed bells, vibraphone and spare piano in Finola Merivale‘s Oblivious Oblivion, a macabre, apocalyptic global warming tableau. A long, cruelly crushing study in wave motion and long, ineluctable upward trajectories, it also ended suddenly, but 180 degrees from where Weinberg’s piece had landed. It was the showstopper of the night.

Evan Chapman‘s Fiction of Light came across as the kind of piece a group can have fun playing, but that didn’t translate to the audience. Reyes and White really got a workout keeping its machinegunning sixteenth notes on the rails, but ultimately this loopy triptych didn’t cohere despite a rather compelling, minimalist rainy-day piano interlude midway through.

The three closed by employing the entirety of their gear throughout Alison Yun-Fei Jiang‘s spacious, vivid Prayer Variations, an increasingly majestic depiction of the vastness of cathedrals the composer’s been visiting lately. As with Merivale’s work, the group nimbly developed its series of long, meticulously interwoven crescendos, from White’s rippling, gamelanesque vibraphone, to Hankers’ tersely plaintive piano, to Reyes’ triumphant accents on the drums and cymbals.

Over the past ten years or so, New York has become a hotbed of good percussion ensembles who’ve drawn the attention of similarly innovative, ambitous composers. With just one show under their respective belts, Pathos Trio have elevated themselves into those elite ranks alongside Yarn/Wire, So Percussion, Tigue, Iktus and Ensemble Et Al. Pathos Trio’s next show is a free concert at 7 PM on March 16 at the New World Center, 500 17th St, in Miami Beach.

March 2, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Melody Fader Channels the Deepest Side of Chopin and More in Manhattan and Brooklyn

Pianist Melody Fader’s favorite composer is Chopin. And it shows. The audience at her intimate, solo Soho Silk Series show last month gave her a standing ovation that went on and on, after she’d ended the program with a characteristically intuitive take of the composer’s famous Fantasie-Impromptu op. 66. Maybe that’s because she didn’t play it as if it was the Minute Waltz, as certain hotshot players tend to do.

Instead, revealingly, she took her time, letting the gritty Romany chromatics of those daunting cascades gleam, rather than just leaving momentary flickers behind in a race to the finish line. That was just one of the concert’s innumerable gorgeous details. On one hand, that’s to be expected on a program of music by a classical icon or two; still, Fader seems especially dedicated to finding those delicious bits and spotlighting them. She’s a pioneer of the house concert circuit (not to be confused with the evil and intrusive Groupmuse); her next Soho loft show is Feb 25 in a duo set with Momenta Quartet violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron playing  music of Ravel, Brahms and Schumann. You can rsvp for location and deets; for the Brooklyn posse, they’re repeating the program (from their forthcoming album) the following night, Feb 26 at 7 PM at Spectrum for a modest $15 cover.

The rest of the January bill was just as much of a revelation. It’s impossible to remember anyone playing more emotionally attuned versions of the E Minor and B Minor preludes. They’re standard repertoire, they don’t require virtuoso technique, but what a difference Fader’s subtle rubato and resoluteness in the face of sheer devastation meant to the former. Same with her crisp but muted arpeggios, bringing out all the longing in the latter. The dynamics in the rest of the first eight of Chopin’s preludes were just as vivid, from the warm cantabile she brought to the C major prelude, to the catacomb phantasmagoria of the one in A minor and a welcome suspense in A major later on.

From there, there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of depth, and gravitas, but also in many places unselfconscious joy. Fader averred that as a kid, she didn’t like Bach: she found his music mechanical. These days, she’s done a 180, validating that with a dazzling, harpsichord-like precision but also fierce ornamentation throughout a rousing take of his French Suite in E, no. 6.

Kaija Saariaho is also a big Bach fan, so following with her Ballade was a great segue, even if the rhythms tended toward the tango Fader had found lurking inside the early part. The stygian boogie and jaunty cascades afterward were just as intense.

The wary, muted melancholy as she launched into the Chopin Ballade no. 2 in F major was a feature that sometimes gets lost in more ostentatious hands. By contrast, she pulled out an almost grand guignol attack for the Andante Spianato op. 22, yet pulled back with a guardedly hopeful understatement afterward. Amd the glittery tumbles of the Etude op. 25 no. 1 got the same kind of articulacy she’d given the Bach. By the time this was all over, pretty much everybody was out of breath.

February 23, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Distantly Creepy, Bite-Sized Cinematics From Pianist Akira Kosemura

Pianist Akira Kosemura‘s has a darkly resonant new ep of brief, memorable solo pieces, titled Romance, streaming at Bandcamp.

The title cut is an elegantly brooding, chromatically incisive, somewhat minimalist waltz. It’s an opening theme for a suspense film waiting to happen…and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Kosemura takes its series of precisely articulated broken chords and makes more of an angst-fueled ballad out of them with the second movement, In the Middle of a Bridge. The clouds lift somewhat with the more enigmatic yet hopeful harmonies of the final movement, Reach Into the Sky. Third time’s a charm: about nine minutes of first-class grey-sky music from an expert in the field.

 

February 11, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Steal This Composition Book

Soul singer Zeshan B once told an audience that whenever he’s at a loss about where to go with a tune, he just rips a riff from the Indian raga repertoire. Thelonious Monk would loop a phrase and play variations on it until he found something he liked. Iggy Pop’s advice is to take three favorite songs and mash them up. Another good option for the musically stuck would be to dial up the double vinyl album Diary 2005–2015: Yuko Yamaoka Plays the Music of Satoko Fujii, which unfortunately isn’t online yet. It’s a historic release: up to now, no one has ever put out a cover album of material by Fujii, widely considered one of the greatest improvisers of our time, but also underrated (and somewhat undiscovered) as a composer.

Since the mid-90s, Fujii has released over a hundred albums of her own and played on many others: solo, with small groups and several improvising orchestras. She has a Bach-like sense of the seemingly endless permutations that can be built from a simple phrase. This album is sort of the greatest hits from her sketchbook, Some of these ideas morphed into pieces she’s released over the years, but most of them just sat in a box until her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, suggested pulling the best of them together for a record.

Since Fujii and Tamura spend so much of their time on the road, they enlisted Yamaoka, whose background is classical music, to record them. The result is something worth…um…emulating. You can hear some of those emulatable ideas when Fujii, who’s been coming to town a lot more in recent months, plays Roulette on Feb 11 at 8 PM with her Kaze quartet; $18 advance tix are highly recommended and available at the venue on showdates.

Some of these ideas are barely twenty seconds long; others go on maybe a minute. It becomes clear early on that this is a great mind at work, and Yamaoka’s elegant phrasing does it justice. Fujii has a Pauline Oliveros-class sense of pure sound, but this is straight-up keyboard material without any of the inside-the-piano otherworldliness that Fujii inevitably brings into her live performance.

Each piece is titled by date: the darkness is pretty relentless. Among the most gorgeous are 021205, an understatedly majestic chromatic theme; the one from the next day, with its eerie belltones, is just as tantalizingly brief. A brooding waltz from December of that year could be the start of something beautiful, as could an intriguing series of interlocking phrases from the spring of 2006. A forlornly saturnine 3/4 ballad from the end of 2011 is another highlight. The most fully developed number is an allusive yet stunningly catchy quasi-bolero from 2014.

There are studies on the black keys, in whole-tone and twelve-tone scales and tense close harmonies. Contrasts abound: lively/still, low/high, spare/intricate and warm/icy. Flickers of Debussy, Stravinsky at his most phantasmagorical, Monk, Dave Brubeck, acoustic Steely Dan and Japanese folk melodies filter in and out. Fans of Bartok’s similarly fascinating and inspiring Mikrokosmos will find this a goldmine of useful ideas.

February 7, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Landmark Weeklong Celebration of Brilliant Women Composers at Juiliard

If you follow this page, you’re familiar with the ugly truth that as recently as 2015, this country’s major symphony orchestras were performing music written by women less than two percent of the time. For a lot of those orchestras, that’s about once a year. That 25% of the New York Philharmonic s programming this year will be writtten by women – as part of the orchestra’s Project 19 initiative – is enough to bump that dial significantly. It’s about time.

And just as significantly, Juilliard devoted the entirety of their Focus 2020 series, which wound up last week, to women composers. Just think: some of the rising-star talent there may take some of those pieces with them when they graduate. This blog was not present for the full seven days, but did devote an entire work week to discovering some of the most riveting rare repertoire played in this city this year.

You can’t find most of this material on youtube, or anywhere on the web, either. The amount of work that Juilliard’s Joel Sachs and his crew put into casting a net for more than a century’s worth of scores is mind-blowing. But a global network answered his SOS, and the result was not only a consistently strong mix of mostly undiscovered treasures, but also some very smartly conceived programming. As closing night last Friday at Alice Tully Hall proved, it was possible to pull together a whole night of percussion-driven, noir-tinged symphonic material, all written by women. That these works aren’t already famous testifies to the barriers their creators had to overcome.

Tragically, some of them didn’t. One of the festival’s most eye-opening and darkest works was the solo piano suite Pages From the Diary, a more brief but equally carnivalesque counterpart to Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1949 by Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky. We don’t know if it was ever performed in her lifetime; she died in obscurity in 1990. It was part of the Monday night program, played with dynamic verve by Isabella Ma. One has to wonder how many thousands of other Verdina Shlonskys there may have been.

Was the highlight of the Tuesday night program Vivian Fine’s Emily’s Images, a vividly jeweled suite of miniatures for piano and flute, or the saturnine blend of gospel gravitas and Gershwinesque flair in Florence Price’s Piano Sonata, played with steely confidence by Qilin Sun? It was hard to choose: it also could have been Young-Ja Lee’s dynamically bristling, subtly Asian-tinged, intriguingly voiced piano trio Pilgrimage of the Soul. The night ended with a couple of early Mary Lou Williams piano pieces, reminding that before she reinvented herself as a composer of gospel-inspired jazz and classical music, she was a big draw on the jazz and blues circuit, a formidable counterpart to James P. Johnson.

Without question, the high point of the Wednesday program was the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, violinists Courtenay Cleary and Abigail Hong, violist Aria Cherogosha and cellist Geirthrudur Gudmundsdottir working its meticulous hive of activity with barely repressed joy. Its subtly staggered mechanics have the complexity but also the translucence of Bartok; it may also be the most clever musical palindrome ever written.

Otherwise, pianist Keru Zhang voiced the Balkan-tinged edge of Viteslava Kapralova’s 1937 mini-suite April Preludes. Harpist Abigail Kent won a competition of sorts among Juilliard harpists to play Germaine Tailleferre’s jaunty, Debussyesque sonata. And the night’s great discovery was Australian composer Margaret Sutherland’s alternately angst-ridden and ebullient suite of neoromantic art-songs, sung with acerbic power by Maggie Valdman over Brian Wong’s elegant piano.

It was also hard to choose a favorite from Thursday night’s bill. The easy picks would have been Amy Beach’s Piano Trio in A Minor, a richly dynamic nocturne, or organist Phoon Yu’s lights-out savagery throughout Ruth Zechlin’s Fall of the Berlin Wall-era protest piece Against the Sleep of Reason. But pianist TianYi Lee‘s incisive, intense interpretation of Louise Talma’s often ominously biting Alleluia in the Form of a Toccata made a powerful coda before the intermission.

Also on the bill were Tiffany Wong’s graceful performance of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ solo Sonata for Harp, a picturesquely late Romantic trio of Lili Boulanger miniatures played by flutist Helena Macheral and pianist Ying Lee, and the rather sardonic, contrapuntally clever, carefully cached but no less vivid chamber work Des-Cantec, written by Romanian composer Myriam Marbe in 1986.

The big Friday night blowout was everything it could have been: stormy, explosive, often harrowing. What a thrill it was to witness the Juilliard Orchestra reveling in the wide-eyed, spooky percussion and foreboding Bernard Herrmann-esque swells of Betsy Jolas’ 2015 A Litlle Summer Suite. They echoed that with more distant Cold War-era horror in Grazina Bacewicz’ 1963 Cello Sonata No. 2, soloist Samuel DeCaprio drawing roars of applause for tackling its daunting glissandos and wildfire staccato.

The lush, epic Ethel Smyth seascape On the Cliffs of Cornwall made a good launching pad for wave after harrowing wave of Thea Musgrave‘s 1990 Rainbow.

Ironically, throughout the history of folk music, women have always played an integral role, from Appalachian balladry, to the Bulgarian choral tradition and the Moroccan lila ceremony. If Project 19 and Juilliard’s herculean efforts are successful in jumpstarting a nationwide movement, it will merely mean that we’ve come full circle.

Concerts and solo recitals at Julliard continue throughout the end of the academic year. The next installment of the Philharmonic’s Project 19 series is tonight, Feb 6 at 7:30 PM with a Nina C. Young world premiere alongside Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Mozart’s “Great” Mass. You can get in for $35, or if you’re feeling adventurous (no guarantees, good luck), you can try scoring rush tickets a little before curtain time.

February 6, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Symphonic Lushness and Edgy Intensity from Wildly Eclectic Accordionist Simone Baron

Accordionist Simone Baron‘s debut album The Space Between Disguises, with her group Arco Belo – streaming at Bandcamp – has the lushness and epic sweep of classical music, the edge of the Balkans, the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the vividness of a film score. Just when you think it couldn’t get more eclectic,  she throws in brief interludes with loops and snippets of found sound in between songs. There are thousands of bands across Europe who mash up all these styles, but few here in the US.

The lush string overture introducing the album’s opening cut, Post Edit Delete, alludes to a famously overcast weekend song made famous by Billie Holiday. Then the group tipetoe through a Balkan-tinged violin theme. Baron plays piano on this particular number, dancing through the moody mist.

With its hazy swells and a coy bass/violin conversation, Angle of Incidence is more astringent, Baron’s accordion doubling bassist Mike Pope’s bubbly lines midway through. Who Cares is a gorgeously dark pastoral jazz vignette fueled by banjo player Mark Schatz’s enigmatic frailing. Dramatically incisive low-register piano, biting violin, austerely swirling strings, a bit of funk and warily unsettled accordion percolate throughout the epic mini-suite Passive Puppeteer.

The melancholic, singing quality of the strings and acccordion as the album’s title track gets underway is stunning; then all of a sudden it’s a loopy, marionettish dance that grows more haunting and lush. Baron reinvents Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Those Who Chant with an elegant gallop, then takes her time with the sweepingly plaintive Valsa, by Brazilian accordionist Tibor Fittel. The album’s concluding diptych, Buciumeana/Kadynja juxtaposes a gorgeous, klezmerish Moldovan theme with a Romanian folk dance appropriated by Bartók, complete with creepy music box-like piano and a killer handoff from accordion to violin.

A tour de force from a group that also includes drummer Lucas Ashby and the strings of Aaron Malone on violin and viola, Bill Neri on viola, Peter Kibbe on cello, plus violinists Nelson Moneo, Laura Colgate and Ellen McSweeney.

January 31, 2020 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Revelations from Women Composers at Juilliard

Dovetailing with the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 celebration of women composers and women achieving the right to vote in this country, the Juilliard School’s current Focus 2020 series features unprecedented, all-female programming this week. The big basement theatre there was about three-quarters full last night. If brilliant, obscure repertoire is your thing, or if you just like free classical concerts, you ought to be able to get in if you show up by about 7:15. Or you can pick up tickets at the box office during the day. The show tonight, Jan 28 starts at 7:30 PM with mostly piano-centric music by Vivian Fine, Florence Price, Young-ja Lee, Priaulx Rainier and Mary Lou Williams.

Last night’s performance was a revelation. It’s shameful that such sublime and powerful material has been largely ignored for so long, and it was clear from the program notes that a lot of sleuthing was required simply to track down the scores for much of it. Few of these women were fortunate enough to land a composer-in-residence gig, as Liu Zhuang maintained for two decades in her native China. Yet her own publisher was unable to provide the sheet music for her 1999 trio Wind Through Pines. A friend of Juilliard’s Joel Sachs had to be enlisted to supply a copy from his local library.

Rebecca Clarke broke the gender barrier as a hardworking symphony violist, yet was reduced to working as a nanny at one point. And Verdina Shlonsky, an early Israeli composer, had very few performances during her lifetime, dying broke and forgotten in 1990.

The concert was a rollercoaster ride, beginning and ending very darkly. Clarke’s 1941 Dumka, played with inspired, animated counterpoint by violinist Yaegy Park, violist Serena Hsu and pianist Jiahao Han, was a bitterly anthemic, Balkan-tinged theme and variations punctuated by jagged pointillisms and a forlornly lyrical viola solo.

Irish-English composer Elizabeth Maconchy’s 1938 String Quartet No. 3 was a broodingly and often grimly apt choice of concluding number. Cellist Erica Ogihara‘s deep pitchblende drive contrasted with the elegant exchanges between violinists Jeongah Choi and Haokun Liang and violist Leah Glick. Its uninterrupted variations foreshaded what Shostakovich would be doing twenty years later, all the way through to a macabre, slow gallop and flicker of a coda.

The night’s most breaktaking display of interpretive skill was pianist Isabella Ma’s vastly dynamic, sometimes muted and tender, sometimes explosive take of Shlonsky’s 1949 suite Pages From the Diary. The obvious precursor is Pictures at an Exhibition, coyly and fleetingly referenced toward the end. Icy belltones gave way to a marionettish strut that eventually resurfaced as fullscale phantasmagoria, only to flutter away gracefully at the conclusion.

Ruth Schonthal’s 1979 duo Love Letters, played by clarinetist Ashbur Jin and cellist Elisabeth Chang, was a matter-of-fact exchange that began somewhat warily and warmed to a casual stroll, more of a display of camaraderie than red-hot passion. Violist Sergio Munoz Leiva gamely tackled the knotty demands for extended technique throughout the short, sharp phrasing of Barbara Pentland’s solo Variations for Viola. And the trio of pianist Qu Xi, cellist Raphael Boden and flutist Audrey Emata emulated the alternately airy and otherworldly plucked, Asian-tinged pastoral phrasing of the Zhuang piece.

This week’s programming concludes with a big blowout at Alice Tully Hall this Friday, Jan 31 at 7:30 PM featuring works by Betsy Jolas, Grażyna Bacewicz, Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina with Raphael Vogl at the organ along with the Juilliard ensemble. Free tickets are currently available at the box office there.

January 28, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is It Time to Trash Classical Piano Competitions? Some Insiders Say Yes

For the last several years, Ilona Olutski, founder of the Getclassical series, has been staging remarkably imaginative piano-centric concerts around town. She started at Zinc Bar and has expanded to several more sonically welcoming venues. Last night at Opera America, she put on one of her most entertaining programs yet, featuring insightful performances of Schumann and Brahms works followed by a righteously hilarious roundtable discussion which didn’t take long to reach the conclusion that piano competition in the digital age needs a complete overhaul if it’s going to have any real-world relevance.

“My passion is big Romantic sonatas,” pianist Daumants Liepins – winner of the Vendome Prize at last year’s Verbier Festival in Switzerland – told the crowd. Other pianists are not so lucky to get to indulge that passion to the extent that Liepins does. His interpretations of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F# minor and and Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor were insightful, as skilful as one would expect from a victorious competitor, and if they erred anywhere, it was on the side of elegance and good taste.

The Schumann came across as something of a pivot point where Bach meets Rachmaninoff. Liepins’ approach to the piece’s counterpoint was steady, but not to the point of rigidity. Throughout the work, there were several striking exchanges of riffs that brought to mind a young Rachmaninoff parsing the score, thinking to himself, “I can distill this to three and a half minutes,” and then cranking out his famous G Minor Prelude. Throughout the piece, Liepins distinguished himself by walking a tightrope between the severe and the lyrical, reveling in the coda’s wry triumph.

His take of the Brahms had a vastly wider dynamic range, and that really saved the piece. This sonata isn’t typical, translucent (some would say facile) Brahms: there’s a persistent sense of struggle, the composer trying to get something onto the page at fortissimo volume and very seldom actually nailing it. But there is a lot of humor in it, and Liepins clearly couldn’t wait to romp through those grandiose flourishes, and a little strutting faux-pomp, with more than a bit of a smirk. Contrastingly, he really let the low lefthand murk toward the end resonate, raising the enigmatic factor. He’s recording those pieces for Steinway today, and the matter-of-fact confidence he showed here left no doubt that he’s ready for the studio.

Asked afterward if he felt that competitive playing had helped his career, he affirmed that it had driven him to sharpen his chops and then flex them. But later, after everybody else on the panel was pretty much done venting, he averred that he’d played just as well at competitions he didn’t win as at those he did, chalking up the final scores to judicial capriciousness

And did those competitions ever get a thrashing. Zsolt Bognar, host of Living the Classical Life, offered a withering bit of sports play-by-play, mocking the kind of nitpicking involved. Producer Joe Patrych questioned whether competitions have any positive career impact, reminding that Vladimir Horowitz only really came into his own after returning from twelve years out of music, having been typecast for years as strictly a mile-a-minute, speed-and-proficiency guy.

From the academic side, both Karlstad University’s Julia Mustonen-Dahlquist and Mannes piano department chair Pavlina Dokovska spoke to the need to open up juries to non-pianists – an idea everyone enthusiastically endorsed – and decried the conflicts of interest in judging one’s own students (that happens a lot). Composer Sean Hickey soberly reminded everyone that speed and technique are hardly the only reasons why audiences come out. There was also unanimous support for taking competitions offline: both Bognar and Liepins considered how a competitively-oriented mindset goes even further into the red when playing for an internet audience along with the judges.

What wasn’t addressed was how piano has come to be taught academically, and how competitions are often simply the logical end result. There’s no limit to the cynicism that can be extrapolated from how much speed-reading and technical proficiency are emphasized over interpretive skill: Cruella DeVille is very much alive, and now a career coach.

And there’s a sobering reality behind piano pedagogy as Kaplan class. One day you’re playing Stockhausen, the next day Schubert, and you have to be able to shift gears seamlessly if not with any particular attunement to content, subtext or emotional connection. As everyone seemed to agree, that’s precisely where great musicians differentiate themselves from the competition.

The next concert in this year’s Getclassical series is on March 17 at 7 PM at the Revelation Gallery, 224 Waverly Pl. featuring the Ekstasis Duo – pianist Eliran Avni and cellist Natasha Farni – playing a program TBA. Cover is $20.

January 21, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Leading the Way for Women Composers at Lincoln Center

To celebrate one hundred years of women voting in this country, the New York Philharmonic have launched Project 19, a major initiative to feature women composers in their regular programming. That’s a genuine paradigm shift, in the wake of the ugly confirmation from a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey confirming that as recently as 2015, the major orchestras in this country have been performing works written by women less than two percent of the time

Dovetailing with the Philharmonic’s long-overdue move, the Juilliard School are staging an unprecedented series of free concerts the last week of this month, with both semi-popular and obscure works by women from over the past two hundred years. The first is on Jan 24 at 7:30 PM at the conservatory’s Sharp Theatre, with a student ensemble playing music by Jacqueline Fontyn, Ursula Mamlok, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Elisabeth Lutyens and Galina Ustvolskaya. Free tiix are currently available.

For what it’s worth, Helen Grime is not one of the composers featured during this marathon week, possibly because she’s one of the better-known women in new classical music. There’s a fantastic London Symphony Orchestra recording of her Woven Space triptych conducted by Simon Rattle streaming at Spotify that you should hear, if staying on top of what’s happening in that world matters to you…or if you love John Barry or Bernard Herrmann suspense film scores.

The orchestra pounce on Grime’s sharp, anxious, Rite of Spring-ish introduction and swing its swirling variations around, brass and percussion dancing amid the strings as the first movement gains momentum. A distant horn sounds over a momentary lull, the angst returning with a vengeance anchored by low, sustained bass.

The second movement begins with disquieting chimes and disorienting, acidic resonance, nebulous strings in the background. There’s a sense of horror rising as sudden accents puncture the stillness, receding momentarily for an elegantly circling call-and-response. Sprightly dancing riffs interchange with bright brass, then ominous bass introduces a brooding reflecting pool of sound. The dance returns furtively – a celebrarion of the human spirit amid constant surveillance?

A tensely gusty circle dance kicks off the concluding movement, delicately churning amid heavy, stern percussion accents. A brief, eerily starry interlude rises and morphs into a series of bracing echo phrases. Grime’s low-high contrasts and reliance on percussion have Stravinsky’s fingerprints all over them; the dance ends suddenly and without closure.

January 19, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment