Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Exhilarating Live Album of Anna Clyne Symphonic Works

It’s criminal how the BBC – until this past spring a fairly reliable source of information that American corporate media would never dare go near – was transformed overnight into just another sycophantic lockdowner fake-news channel. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra are not to blame – in fact, they can’t play right now because of the lockdown, and if Boris Johnson gets his way, they never will again.

Assuming the British wake up and overthrow his fascist regime, we will be able to look forward to more concerts and recordings by this colorful, diverse ensemble. Until then, we have a passionate, exhilarating live album of Anna Clyne works, titled Mythologies and performed under the baton of four separate conductors – and streaming at Spotify – to tide us over.

Marin Alsop leads the group in a concert performance of a swooping, suspenseful, electrifyingly crescendoing short work, Masquerade. Those massed glissandos are best appreciated at loud volume!

Sakari Oramo conducts the similarly brisk and colorful This Midnight Hour. Clyne cites two poems – a Juan Ramón Jiménez depiction of a naked woman running madly through the darkness, along with Baudelaire’s creepy Harmonie du soir. A lithely leaping waltz with echoes of Saint-Saens’ Bacchanal from Samson and Deiliah ends cold; distant boomy bass drums signal a series of tense, mysterious swells. With its brooding, chromatic trumpet solo, the lush neoromantic waltz afterward could be Dvorak.

The Seamstress, an imaginary one-act ballet on themes of loss and absence with vivid Appalachian tinges, is a concerto for violinist Jennifer Koh and also includes Irene Buckley’s voiceover of William Butler Yeats’ poem A Coat. Stark, folksy, leaping figures give way to steady, pizzicato-fueled starriness and then a fleeting Balkan-toned crescendo. Raga-like variations on a twelve-tone row are a clever touch for Koh’s steady hand. She reaches to the heights over the orchestra’s muted cavatina in the concluding movement, which is where Buckley comes in.

Andrew Litton conducts For Night Ferry, for which Clyne also painted a lurid mural. She takes the title from Seamus Heaney’s Elegy for Robert Lowell, the American poet who like Schubert was manic-depressive. Through a long series of gusts, swirls and cascades, the orchestra hit a series of insistent, brassy peaks that alternate with warmly sparkling, nocturnal passages. The cynical dance of death and rollercoaster ride afterward are spine-tingling; the ending is hardly what you would expect.   

André de Ridder takes the podium for the album’s final piece, <<Rewind<<, a wryly microtonal, darkly majestic romp evoking a battered videotape being rewound, glitches and all. This is hands-down one of the half-dozen best classical albums of 2020.

November 13, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intimate Electricity From Joshua Bell

Isn’t it funny how some of the world’s most exciting sounds get lumped into a category with the most boring name? And who would have thought there would be such a mighty upsurge in chamber music in 2020? With established concert venues padlocked and imperiled – outside of places like Sweden, Moscow and Nicagagua anyway – intimate performances largely by and for family and friends have become the new paradigm in classical music, at least until the lockdown is over.

And in keeping with the zeitgeist, some of the biggest names in the field are making intimate recordings. None other than Joshua Bell has made a diverse and often electrifying new live album, At Home with Music, streaming at Spotify. Although virtually all of it is arrangements of standard repertoire, the violinist seems especially amped to play it.

He opens with the famous first movement from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, jauntily trading riffs with pianist Jeremy Denk. The two play it fast: in their most animated moments, the lack of digital separation between the instruments enhances the carefree energy.

Peter Dugan takes over the piano, joining Bell for a much more rubato, Romantic take of Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B minor. Bell’s rise from silken vibrato to raw, Romany intensity is unselfconsciously electrifying, a real crowd-pleaser.

Next, he teams up with soprano Larisa Martínez and pianist Kamal Khan for a somewhat understatedly lyrical take of Mendelssohn’s “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro” from the opera Infelice. They return to tackle a Puccini aria later on.

The rare treat here is Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major, Op. 4, with Dugan back on piano, both musicians digging in hard for its anthemic leaps, slashes and devious dips. Their remarkably steady, unvarnished take of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 makes a good segue, quiet as it generally is. And hearing Bell revel in the virtuoso ornamentation of the Jascha Heifetz arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime is an expected thrill.

Martínez and Khan return for the closer, an alternately bracing and warmly familiar medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. with a triumphant coda.

November 12, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Rider Pair First-Class 21st Century Works with an Iconic String Quartet

Brooklyn Rider are the rare string quartet who seem to have as much fun with the classical canon as they do with the new composers they champion. To violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas, it’s all just good music. Their latest, lavish double-disc set, Healing Modes – streaming at Bandcamp – interpolates some fascinating new compositions among succesive movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, a mainstay of their performances (before the lockdown, at least). The new repertoire here challenges the group’s extended technique arguably more than any other recording they’ve done, but they rise to its demands. As usual, among the new works, there are connecting threads, notably a constant tension between atmospherics and bustle. And the Beethoven bristles with surprises and erudition, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

The opening piece, Matana Roberts‘ Borderland is a contrast in ghostly and poltergeist sonics. Microtonal haze gives way to insistent, rhythmic phrases, hectic pizzicato, coy glissandos, and then back. There’s also a loaded, allusive spoken word element that packs a wallop at a time when our constitutional rights have been stolen from us by the lockdowners.

Reena Ismail‘s Zeher (Poison) has a similar resonant/rhythmic dichotomy spiced with doublestops and quavery, Indian-influenced ornamentation, shifting to an unexpectedly anthemic conclusion that brings to mind the quartet’s recordings of Philip Glass.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Kanto Kechua #2 has acerbically harmonized, tightly leaping phrases, a round of biting chromatics at the center. The quartet revel in these flurries, which obliquely echo Bernard Herrmann film scores, Peruvian folk music and also the Beethoven here.

The second disc begins with Du Yun‘s I Am My Own Achilles Heel, its shivers, squeals, approximations of arioso vocalese and sharply strutting figures receding down to sepulchral ambience and back again. There may be an improvisational element at work here: beyond an animated, allusively Appalachian circle dance at around the halfway mark or so, and pastoral Asian tinges later, it’s hard to tell.

The take of Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma seems even more amiably plucky and subtly anthemic than the version they played as a New York premiere on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2019.

There seems to be new gravitas but also new vigor in the first movement of the Beethoven, compared to the group’s previous interpretations, although their stunningly legato approach throughout hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s less a nocturne than an anthem. There’s lilting grace and delicacy in unexpected moments of movement two, but with plenty of muscle.

The devious Bach quotes amid the hymnal lustre of the third movement are right up front, and irresistible, as is the lushness of its conclusion. The ensemble play up the drollery in the fleeting bit of a fourth movement as much as the bittersweet, Vivaldiesque grace of the final one. These guys know better than most anyone else that this particular quartet is more symphonic than it is chamber music, a celebration of being snatched from the jaws of death. What does it sound like mixed up amid the new compositions? Full disclosure: this blog tweaked the tracklist to play it contiguously. It’s that addictive.

November 10, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Give a Jolt of Energy to a Couple of Old Standards

Violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz have a delightful, insightful new album, Key of A – streaming at Spotify – which offers a fresh, energetic approach to a couple of iconic A major pieces from the 19th century repertoire as well as Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin. The two’s reckless abandon is refreshing: this isn’t sedate wine-hour music for the idle classes of Napoleonic Vienna.

The duo approach the first movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with a sparse, spacious suspense before following an icepick velocity through the volleys that follow, lyricism balanced by lively displays of chops. St. John can be raw and searing one moment, gentle and balletesque another, depending on the passage, and the composition gives her a wide canvas to paint.

Likewise, Herskowitz’s methodical steadiness and almost gleeful baroque ornamentation in the much moodier second movement. The third has the feel of a boisterous country dance, but also a penetrating, Bach-like gothic edge.

Franck’s Sonata in A major turns out to be just as dynamic, and if anything, more lyrical, through the moodily dancing key changes of the first movement through the prowling, often windswept rumble and ripple of the second. They parse the third judiciously, sometimes emphatically, sometimes with remarkable restraint, then cut loose with an unrestrained triumph in the fourth. It’s a considerably more vigorous counterpart to Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien‘s more delicately detailed, recently released take.

St. John and Matt Herskowitz bounce their way through Kreisler’s cheery waltz to close the album. If music that wears its heart on its sleeve is your thing, don’t miss this.

November 5, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Stunningly Orchestrated Piano Jazz Masterpiece

On one hand, the lockdown has been a nightmare on pretty much every level. On the other, sudden time away from work opened up a window for some serious spring cleaning. Beyond the chance to wipe the extraneous stuff off the hard drive, these past months have been an opportunity to spend quality time with some great albums which had been sitting around for a long time, sometimes years, and had always been on the bubble. Yet they never ended up making the front page here until now. This is one of them.

Pianist Danny Green‘s 2018 album One Day It Will – streaming at Spotify  – is one of the most unselfconsciously gorgeous releases in recent memory. The obvious comparison is the classic 1966 Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra record, although Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage Suite and Matt Ulery‘s recent work are also points of reference. Green really likes the high midrange: his soaring melodies have a rare glisten and gleam.

Jazz with a string section goes all the way back to Charlie Parker, but this is a landmark of the style. Here the pianist is joined by bassist Justin Grinnell and drummer Julien Cantelm from his long-running trio, plus a string quartet comprising San Diego Symphony violinists Kate Hatmaker and Igor Pandurski, violist Travis Maril and cellist Erica Erenyi. If breathtaking lushness is your thing, this is your holy grail.

The group open with the bright, chiming, anthemically Brubeckian Time Lapse to Fall, the strings leaping in swells and counterpoint. As the Parrot Flies has a dancing, tropical quality: it could be vintage Donald Fagen at his most elegant and erudite, at least until the tumbling, eerily modal bridge.

The album’s title track is a striking, achingly bittersweet ballad: one of the coolest things about this album is how the strings, or a violin, or the cello carry the melody as often as the piano does. In this case, it’s Grinnell’s muscular solo that signals a shift toward sunnier exchanges between Green and the strings.

View From the Sky, with its dancing ebullience and lyrical upper-register piano, makes a good segue. From the shimmering strings of the intro to its catchy, gospel-flavored dynamic shifts, Lemon Avenue is the album’s most expansive track. November Reveries, a fondly brisk ballad without words, has Grinnell adding gravitas over Cantelm’s flurries until the strings come sweeping back.

Green’s wistfully vamping variations in Sifting Through the Silence might be the most vivid distillation of where he’s going with all this. The saturnine, brooding October Ballad, a jazz waltz, is the album’s most darkly stunning track, with a stark, tantalizingly brief cello solo toward the end.

The memorably rippling Snowy Day in Boston evokes a steady trail of chilly South Station T riders looking forward to cozy Somerville apartments more than it does, say, dodging snowplows on Mass Ave. The album winds up with the imaginatively blustery orchestrated blues Down and Out.

November 4, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surprisingly Subtle Shades of Grand Guignol for Halloween

Murky piano, distantly tolling bells, ominous low brass and an operatic singer. Sounds like Halloween, right? Today’s release day for David Hertzberg‘s one-act opera The Rose Elf – streaming at Bandcamp – and that’s how it opens.

That overture rises with an eerie tinkle of piano to a cold stop. The narrative draws on a Hans Christian Andersen fable which reads more like the Brothers Grimm. Samantha Hankey sings the part of the Elf, with Andrew Bogard, Sydney Mancasola and Kirk Dougherty in double roles. Robert Kahn conducts a chamber ensemble behind them with meticulous menace.

Phantasmagorical upper-register piano over hazy strings is a big part of the picture, as are Hankey’s agitated flights to the heights. Stark cello! A doomed, foggy baritone voice! Pregnant pauses! Are we having fun yet, Lurch?

What distinguishes this from classical heavy metal cliche is Hertzberg’s enigmatic sense of melody. This music lingers and doesn’t move around much despite numerous dynamic shifts beneath the singers’ full-blown angst: it’s the High Romantic from a somewhat calmer five thousand feet. Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Charles Gounod are points of comparison, as are Stravinsky and Prokofiev at their most predictably carnivalesque. Euntaek Kim, the ensemble’s emphatic, dynamic pianist makes the icily glimmering, marionettish parts count. And percussionist Bradley Loudis also excels in a richly suspenseful, colorful performance.

October 31, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A World Premiere From 1716 and Other Lively Entertainment From Augusta McKay Lodge

One of the most electrifying aspects of Italian baroque music is the degree of improvisation involved. As in much of Middle Eastern music, dynamics and embellishments are typically left to the individual soloist. A listener has to dig deep into the liner notes of violinist Augusta McKay Lodge’s new album Corelli’s Band: Violin Sonatas by Corelli, Carbonelli, Mossi – streaming at Spotify – to discover that those interpretations are hers. And she matches that impetuous energy with depth.

Lodge has a lithe, strikingly nuanced touch, a flair for the dramatic, a colorful vibrato but also a finely attuned sense of the music’s emotional context. And if you think that every worthwhile piece from the 18th century has already been recorded, guess again!

Lodge opens the album with a world premiere, Giovanni Mossi’s Sonata No. 9, op. 6. With its opening prelude centered around a gorgeously melancholy, melismatic riff that recurs with some tasty chromatics in the fourth movement, it’s on the serious side. And it’s a triumph for Lodge, with her rapidfire triplets in the second movement and her almost breathlessly fleeting pauses in the third. Throughout the album, a supporting cast including Elliot Figg on harpsichord, Doug Balliett on violone, Ezra Seltzer on cello and Adam Cockerham on theorbo and guitar play elegantly alongside her.

Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli is arguably even more obscure than his contemporary Mossi, but his music deserves to be far better known. His Sonata No. 10 comes across as Vivaldi Jr., its stately opening giving way to a brisk ballet of counterpoint down a circular staircase. Stark guitar/violin contrast dominates the third movement, then the group wind it up with a jovial bounce.

Arcangelo Corelli, whose highly ornamented violin style inspired both of these lesser-known composers, is represented by his Sonata No. 3, op. 5, a springboard for Lodge’s quicksilver cadenzas and griptite staccato alongside the rest of the ensemble.

She goes back to Mossi’s catalog for Sonatas No. 1 and 3 from his op. 1 book. The group dig in with unexpected vigor for for the former’s brooding yet meticulously agitated introduction, plaintively Vivaldiesque exchanges and flurries. They give the latter a colorful but more expansive approach.

Lodge winds up the album with Carbonelli’s lilting Sonata No. 9, a showcase for her sensitivity of attack, particularly in the somber processional of a first movement, the shivery embellishments of the second and the melancholy waltz that winds it up. Pop a cork on the barolo, but savor the moment: don’t overindulge like the robber barons whose salons were where this music probably debuted, and who probably weren’t paying much paying attention.

October 27, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast Rapture and Playful Scrambles From Brilliant, Individualistic Pianist Eunyoung Kim

Pianist Eunyoung Kim plays improvised music that draws as much on 20th century and contemporary classical music as it does jazz. Her technique is daunting, and she has a rare fluency for orchestrating on the spot. Themes and variations are big with her, as are close harmonies. She flirts with twelve-tone ideas without being tying the knot with them. Her new album, Earworm – streaming at Bandcamp – is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

The first number – each of the album’s tracks is untitled – has a steady, playfully dancing rhythm with hints of swing, tango and the baroque disguised behind close harmonies. If Louis Andriessen played jazz, it might sound something like this.

Track two is a vast, otherworldly, minimalist soundscape, akin to Federico Mompou at a tenth the speed, maybe. Kim returns to playfully rhythmic mode with the tune after that, an increasingly thorny series of curlicuing phrases and variations that grow more murky and hypnotic.

Track four reflects the spacious minimalism of track two, but more somberly and intricately: it brings to mind Satoko Fujii’s most brooding solo work. Blippy, leapfrogging phrases and staccato insistence mingle in the piece after that, down to a striking interlude fueled by stern quasi-boogie low-register work.

Track six begins as a synthesis of the bounciness and the moody minimalism that Kim has been shifting between so far; then she romps toward Monk and gospel music. She finally goes under the piano lid for her seventh improvisation, a momentary return to somber stillness.

With Kim’s steady, bracing modalities and steady, incisive attack, track eight reminds of Keith Jarrett’s 1960s work. Next up, Kim clusters and jabs with breathtaking speed and articulacy: that she waits this long before cutting loose with her chops testifies to her commitment to making a statement rather than showing off.

The album’s tenth track is increasingly hypnotic variations on a wry, loopy modal phrase. Kim closes the record with an approximation of a Monk-ish wee-hours ballad. Like all the albums on the new Mung Music label out of Korea, this was recorded live to a vintage Tascam cassette recorder before being digitized.

October 26, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Subtle, Elegantly Evocative Suspense Film Score From Disasterpeace

Composer Richard Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace’s orchestral score to the film Under the Silver Lake – streaming at Bandcamp – is a clinic in picturesque, suspenseful new classical composition. The themes are simple, even minimalist in places. Lush, distantly anxious or murky, close-harmonied strings, ambered woodwind/string textures and clarinet/bass contrasts are just a few of the interesting tropes here. There’s a lingering ominousness, delicate ambience punctured by sudden, yet often remarkably subtle figures or percussive accents. Moments of lively activity are infrequent and striking when they appear: the hushed ambience grows quieter and more sinister as the suspense rises toward the end. Featured instruments range beyond the usual orchestral lineup to include pennywhistle, icy electric guitar played through a vintage analog chorus pedal, and what could be either a cimbalom or a prepared piano,

There’s also a jaunty little ragtime strut and a delightful 60s pop hit. And a pointless cover of another hit from that era, a cheesy, orchestrated “R&B” number and a wretched pair of songs from the low point of REM’s career. Beyond that, this is an album will keep you at the edge of your seat for a long time: there are a total of 34 tracks here.

October 25, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why a Symphony From 1935 Matters More Than Ever

The events of 2020 under the lockdown are eerily similar to 1935. By then, the Nazi campaign of genocide had begun, with the mass murder of disabled and cripped people, all of them euthanized by the German medical establishment. Here in the US, the President recently announced a deal with the huge pharmacy conglomerate Wallgreens to kill off residents of nursing homes with the Bill Gates needle of death. When are the general public going to wake up? Eighty-five years ago, Europe didn’t until it was too late to stop the Nazi war machine. If that historical precedent holds true, we are in trouble. As Pastor Martin Niemoller famously recalled, “Then they went after the Jews. Then they came for us.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was premiered in 1935, by an earlier version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins, lifelong champion of the Romantic tradition, conducts them in this latest recording, which hasn’t hit the web yet. If there was specific content or narrative in his music, the composer usually made that very clear, and he didn’t do that in this case. Still, this symphony is chillingly a reflection of its time, and in that sense, a cautionary tale.

As this storm gathers momentum, chromatics that stop thisshort of frantic cede to restlessly circling, gusty variations that rise with an increasing unease: hindsight may be 20/20, but it’s impossible not to read rumors of war into this. Brabbins immediately dims the lights for the comforting nocturne that morphs out of it: could this be a reflection on the momentary honeymoon between wars for the English people?

Likewise, a stalking pulse from the strings rises to enigmatic luste, persistent disquiet disappearing in favor of twilit serenity in the second movement; yet it ends broodingly. A darkly bristling, distinctly Russian-tinged dance opens the third and transforms into a march in the last movement, albeit with suspiciously sarcastic humor. Again, Brabbins pulls the orchestra for a comforting lull, which doesn’t last. The Beethovenesque series of false endings grow more and more foreboding, to the point where the impact remains long beyond the final, seemingly sardonic blast of low brass.

Where is the 2020 counterpart to this troubled masterpiece? Probably still being written. The operative question is whether we’ll ever be able to hear it. In the UK in 1935 it was legal for an orchestra to perform in front of an audience..

This album opens with Vaughan Williams’ radically different “Pastoral” Symphony No. 3. As inspired by World War I gravesites as by the English countryside of the composer’s youth, it’s one of the quietest pieces in the symphonic repertoire, at least before the explosion of spectral music in the early 1980s.

The first movement comes across as sleepy time for heroes –an update on the wave motion the composer explored in his Sea Symphony – along with vast Dvorakian vistas. Maybe that influence explains the minor blues riff that anchors one of the main themes. The gentle, steadily ratcheting counterpoint introduced in the first movement comes further to the forefront in the more stark, spare, folksy second one. Alan Thomas’ long, restrained, distantly troubled trumpet solo is the highlight here.

Heroes wake up vociferously as the third movement gets underway, larks quickly ascend to the trees and some bustling and strutting ensues – yet quietly. Soprano Elizabeth Watts animatedly brings back the blues riffs over an almost imperceptible stillness to introduce the conclusion, rising to disorienting, fragmentary exchanges before the serene intertwine of the first movement returns. From there Brabbins meticulously leads the slow rise to a momentary triumph and descent into nocturnal content and contemplation, Watts adding celestial lustre at the end.

The record is also noteworthy for including the world premiere of Vaughan Williams’ previously unpublished cantata Saraband “Helen,” a setting of a Christopher Marlowe text about Helen of Troy. Brabbins’ arrangement is sober and understated; tenor David Butt Philip sings expressively over the increasingly bittersweet sweep of the orchestra and choir.

October 22, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment