Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rapturous Nightscapes From an Invisible Orchestra by Pamelia Stickney

Pamelia Stickney is arguably the world’s foremost theremin player. By any standard, she’s done more than anyone else alive to take the original electronic instrument to new places. While most musicians use the early Soviet-era contraption for horror-movie shivers or comedic whistles, Stickney plays melodies on it. At various points in her career, those have ranged from desolate deep-space tableaux to earthy symphonic extravaganzas. At her tantalizingly short set this past weekend at Barbes, she led her ironically titled Transcendental Dissonance Quartet through a similar, stylistically vast expanse of styles, from film noir themes to lowdown latin soul to elegant chamber jazz improvisation.

Stickney plays theremin as if she’s playing a magical, invisible, somewhat cranky bass. Standing perfectly still, her right hand controlling the volume, she bends her left hand at the elbow, expanding her fingers outward to hit the notes. She saves the instrument’s signature, quavery, creaky-door effects for when she really needs to make a point. This time, she opened with a low bass synth sound that George Clinton would undoubtedly love to have in his arsensal.

Meanwhile, Stuart Popejoy – playing piano instead of his usual bass here – delivered tersely incisive, moody variations on a stark, Lynchian theme while Danny Tunick’s vibraphone sprinkled stardust throughout the tableau, violinist Sarah Bernstein completing the picture with airy washes and spare, plaintive  countermelodies. They would stick with this eerie, surreal thousand-layer cake of textures throughout their roughly fifty minutes onstage while Stickney channeled the sound of massed voices, a cello (which she also plays, among many other instruments), and various kinds of brass. Her m.o. is simple: a theremin takes up a lot less space when you’re on tour.

Midway through the set, she moved to the piano for a slowly unfolding, hushed duet with Bernstein, who finallly got the chance to move through the magical microtones that have become her stock in trade over the last few years. Then the whoe group reconfigured for a final nightscape.

Stickney is back in New York this September, where she’s doing a week at the Stone with a series of ensembles. In the meantime, she’s back on her home turf in Vienna this week, with gigs on May 24 at the Ruprechtskirche at Ruprechtspl. 1 – where she’s playing cello alongside the carnivalesque Hans Tschiritsch & NoMaden – and then on May 25 with her Scrambolage trio with pianist Monika Lang and cellist Melissa Coleman at Roter Salon, Wipplingerstr. 2 at 8 PM; cover is 15€/10€ stud.  And for New Yorkers, Bernstein is playing the album release show for her most lyrically-driven album yet this May 30 at 9ish at Wonders of Nature.

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May 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.

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

Saluting One of New York’s Great Music Advocacy Organinizations at Lincoln Center Last Night

Every generation tends to view successive ones as being more and more effete. That preconception becomes all the harder to argue with in an age where daily life for so much of the population is becoming more and more virtual and less and less real. Why drag yourself to Manhattan at rush hour to immerse yourself in a sublime and intimate performance when you could get a virtual equivalent on Facebook Live? 

So to see a packed house for the annual Young Concert Artists gala at  Alice Tully Hall last night was a shot of serious optimism. Does the continued success of an organization whose raison d’etre is to champion and springboard the careers of young classical musicians portend a sea change, maybe? A slow tidal shift? Or does that simply reaffirm the eternal appeal of great art? All of the above, maybe?

The concert itself was great fun, a display of ferocious chops, and intuition, and joie de vivre, played to an audience reflecting the relative youth of most of the performers. The prospect of being able to see pianists Lise de la Salle amd Anne-Marie McDermott. violinists Ani Kafavian and Juliette Kang, bassist Xavier Foley. harpist Emmanuel Ceysson and the Zora String Quartet alongside veteran flutist Paula Robison and cello icon Fred Sherry – just to name a handful of the 23 former and current YCA roster members – together onstage is less likely than it might seem. Each has a busy solo, orchestral and chamber music career.

If pageantry could be genunely profound, it would be the version of Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings played by YCA’s conductorless fifteen-piece all-star ensemble. With unbridled, fluttery joy balanced by more direct intonation and clear, uncluttered dynamic shifts, the group reveled in its balletesque riffs, drawing a straight line back to Mozart.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, backed by McDermott and the Zora String Quartet, followed a similarly straightforward trajectory from plaintiveness to a blaze of five-alarm drama in Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perpetuelle. That vigorous sensibility took a turn in a more upbeat, triumphantly lilting direction with Ravel’s Introduction and  Allegro, played by a septet including Sherry, Kang, Robinson and  Ceysson along with violinist Paul Huang, violist Toby Appel and clarinetist Narek Arutyunian.

The program closed with a mashup of Scott Joplin, Liszt and John Philip Sousa arranged for piano eight hands, performed by de la Salle and McDermott with Gleb Ivanov and Yun-Chin Zhou. As completely over-the-top as the concept was, careening from one idiom to another with zero regard for segues, there’s no denying how much fun the four musicians were having while simply trying to maintain a semblance of tightness. Which testifies to the kind of outside-the-box thinking that might or might not be putting more and more young people in the seats. That question continues to bedevil everyone in the concert business these days – and it’s inspiring to see YCA coming up with some answers that are obviously working.

May 2, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trio Vitruvi Make a Rapturously Vivid North American Debut at Carnegie Hall

It’s hardly realistic to expect a Carnegie Hall concert, let alone one that’s sold out, to be intimate. Yet the Trio Vitruvi’s American debut there this past week was exactly that. It was also intuitive and full of vivid narratives, tracing a rewarding historical path. And the virtuosic aspects of the performance were often downright breathtaking.

Was pianist Alexander McKenzie going to be able to maintain the blend of almost superhuman clarify and vigor that he brought to the opening movement of Schubert’s Trio in E Flat, D.929? When push came to shove, yes. And he seemed completely at home with setting the bar that impossibly high, right from the beginning. The first part is basically a little piano concerto, so he took centerstage, often with an insistent pedalpoint that would become a recurrent motif throughout the rest of the concert. The ensemble programmed it as well as they played it.

That particular trope ironically, came into clearer focus with the second movement, a cello concerto of sorts, Jacob la Cour’s alternately stark and soaring phrases complemented by Niklas Walentin’s gossamer violin textures.

As the piece went on and the interplay grew more lively, it was like being telepoted back to a particularly animated moment among the cognoscenti at a post-Napoleonic Viennese salon. Ostensibly, the central theme that recurs at sobering moments throughtout the rest of the work is an old Norwegian folk melody, but its brooding changes could just as easily have klezmer origins. It’s not out of the question that Schubert encountered it somewhere in Vienna and couldn’t resist appropriating it..

Following that with Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1 in  Minor, Op. 8 might seem like an odd pairing, but it worked seamlessly. Was this going to turn into a similarly vampy, subtly expanding exchange of personalities, or, as it seemed in the early going, rehashed Ravel? Hardly. McKenzie seemed to relish staking out the occasional, jarring dissonance that the composer sprinkles so artfully throughout the second half of the piece; Walentin’s calm shift away from silk toward sandpaper was every bit as deliciously uneasy.

The contrast between ebullient nocturnal cheer and poignancy rose to epic levels throughout the panoramic rises and lulls of an especially picturesque version of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90. A storyline quickly and forcefully materialized: the protagonist of the heroic opening movement suddenly grew wistful for his missing love. But then she came back, and all was bliss again! From there the dichotomies grew even clearer, particularly in the insistent/resonant tradeoffs among the instruments in the third movement as well as the sweetly nocturnal path that emerged in the fourth. As with the Schubert, the group seized every opportunity to tickle the audience with the occasional tongue-in-cheek flourish or vaudevillian cadenza. It’s the centerpiece of the group’s new album, just out from Bridge Records.

Trio Vitruvi reprise much of this bill and play additional works by Beethoven and Mozart this April 26 at 7:30 PM at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. north of 37th St; cover is $20.

April 22, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Shattering Performance of Iconic Classical and Film Music Uptown

In terms of pure thrills and chills, there hasn’t been a concert in New York this year more exhilarating than string ensemble Shattered Glass’ performance last night at the popular Washington Heights classical spot Our Savior’s Atonement. And that includes all of Golden Fest, trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s oceanically intense Middle Eastern mass improvisation in February at NYU, and cinematic noir trio Big Lazy’s shattering performance of mostly new material at Barbes later that month. This crew are like another popular conductorless string orchestra, ECCO…on steroids.

Just back from midwest tour, the fourteen-piece ensemble were clearly psyched to be back on their home turf. They played in the round, gathered in a circle under the church’s low lights. Between works on the bill, the group shifted positions so that everyone could get to see who was playing what. It was a transcendent program, kicking off with a relentlessly angst-ridden, percussive take of Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet. The sonics in the church enhanced the resonance of the pizzicato phrases to the point where they lingered almost like guitar chords. That effect would also help the delicately overtone-spiced, challenging extended technique required in Caroline Shaw’s concentrically circling Entr’acte to resound. It’s on Shattered Glass’ debut album; they’re the first group to record it.

Philip Glass’ diptych Company, its signature cell-like melody expanding deliciously outward, had distantly ominous chromatics that reminded of his Dracula soundtrack. It set the stage for what under ordinary circumstances would have been the night’s piece resistance, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings. The whole group got into the act on that lusciously chilling arrangement of the iconic horror film soundtrack. The sinuous menace of the central up-and-down staircase riff at its center, the machete attack of the shower scene, cumulo-nimbus buildups to icepick attacks and a final somber conclusion left the crowd breathless.

The group ended the night with a harrowing, dynamically epic arrangement of second Shostakovich piece, the String Quartet No. 3. The quartet of violinists Christina Bouey and Ravenna Lipchik, violist Michael Davis and cellist Max Jacob played the work as written, augmented with sinister force by the rest of the circle around them. Davis spoke passionately about how much the work means to them, and how wrenching it is to play, emotionally speaking. He didn’t say outright that there’s a psycho in the White House, or that wartime horror is that situation’s logical conclusion, but the piece spoke for itself.

And the group really nailed the narrative: the cynically lilting faux country dance that tries to come back valiantly but never does; the franticness, furtiveness but also the resilience and heroism of the second movement, Russians fending off the Nazi attackers; and the exhausted, mournful sweep of the concluding movements. It was as searing and relevant as any piece of music could have been in this country on this date.

Watch this space for Shattered Glass’ next performance. The next concert at Our Savior’s Atonement is on April 29 at 8 PM with the Jack Quartet playing a free program of “maverick American composers” TBA.

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

Sampling Lincoln Center’s Great Performers With the Aeolus Quartet

Lincoln Center’s Great Performers is New York’s cultural mecca’s longest-running continuous series, explained Jordana Leigh, who booked the Aeolus Quartet for a dynamic performance there this past evening. “Let’s enjoy this experience together as a community, which doesn’t happen as much as it used to,”  she encouraged. But the crowd – a surprisingly diverse, multi-generational mix – didn’t need any cajoling.

The quartet opened with Beethoven’ Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1. Dating from when the composer was still in the shadow of Haydn, it’s actually Beethoven’s second quartet – publishers couldn’t keep up with him. The ensemble took it for a ride, emphasis on its sparkliest moments, rising from stately to an almost icepick precision during the opening waltz, with jaunty exchanges between violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro.

They got a spontaneous round of applause before launching mutedly and plaintively into the second movement. They really took their time with it, with unusual detail, attention to moody/cheery contrasts, space and dynamics, which made the decision to really dig into its swells and whisper through its lulls stand out even more. And set up the struts and blusters of the movement to follow, anchored by cellist Alan Richardson. They ended it sharply and convivially, spiraling upward with a wink from violins, to cello, to violist Caitlin Lynch.

Richardson endorsed Charles Ives’ Quartet No. 2 as one of the 20th century’s greatest masterworks, and “tragically underperformed,” He quoted the composer’s explanations of its three movements – Discussions, Arguments and The Call of the Mountains –  as a process “That resonates in our current times, that our politicians sometimes forget.” As with the Debussy quartet, it’s Gilded Age vernacular through the bottom of a glass, darkly, including but not limited to wry quotes from Brahms, Beethoven and Tschaikovsky as well as the patriotic American themes Ives so often falls back on.

They parsed its somber opening astringencies with the same care they’d brought to the night’s first work – but this was more a resigned preparation for battle. That lept to the forefront with an aptly Bartokian, snarkily bellicose take of the second movement, the quartet reveling in slapping down the sweet melodicism from Shapiro’s violin. The third movement, both a literal and metaphorical journey, validated Richardson’s description as containing  “Some of the  most evocative painting in this repertoire…you can hear the light piercing over the peaks.” Base camp seldom looked so bleak, or the journey more arduous, but the practically aching lustre of the payoff made everything worthwhile. The crowd didn’t know what hit them.

The Aeolus Quartet’s next concert is  a free performance of Dvorak’s American String Quartet on April 15 at 5 PM with the New Orchestra of Washington, who play Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Fantasy for chamber orchestra. and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” at National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Avenue Northwest in Washington, DC, There’s a very different free  performance at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd  St. tomorrow night, April 13 at 7:30 PM featuring irrepressible Indian classical music collective the Brooklyn Raga Massive collaborating with soul singer Martha Redbone. Get there early if you’re going, to ensure a seat. 

April 12, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare, Shattering All-Mieczyslaw Weinberg Program at Baruch College

Wednesday night at Baruch College , the strings of the Attacca Quartet circled in, awash in a lethal mist of overtones as pianist Jeanne Golan played a low lefthand barroom riff.  As the swirl grew more menacing, there was no doubt that violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee were going to snuff the life out of any and all possible revelry from the keys. Was that moment, from the third movement of  Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, meant as sweet revenge over the lockstep conformity that had driven the composer from one frying pan into another, from the Nazis to the Soviets? Or was it a depiction of the Nazis ruining the party for everyone?

Weinberg lived across the street from Dmitri Shostakovich for a time, and the two were great friends, so it’s tempting to choose the former answer. That’s bolstered by the fact that the influence of this piece is strongly felt in Shostakovich’s immortal String Quartet No. 7 – the one where he’s hunted down by the gestapo. And beyond playing together, four hands on the piano, and championing each others’ work, each composer’s repertoire bristles with irony and satire.

Or maybe Weinberg was being entirely straightforward. When he wrote this masterpiece in 1944, did he know that his entire family would be murdered at Auschwitz? Did have any inkling that a few years later, he’d be on death row in the Soviet gulag? It  took the death of Stalin to facilitate Weinberg’s release.

If there’s ever been a composer who came face to face with evil, it was Weinberg. Golan told the crowd that she couldn’t have imagined a more apt choice to celebrate this Passover Week, “Recognizing exile and persecution, wherever it happens,” as she put it. And this was the piece de resistance on the bill. She and the quartet reveled in its epic dynamics and vast series of thematic shifts, capturing all of its raw angst, simmering anger and the muted horror that eventually closes it, subdued pizzicato and funereal piano fading as the graveyard looms ahead.

The ride there was almost as harrowing. Golan shifted as seamlessly as could be done, between woundedly glittering Rachmanonvian passages, icy nocturnal interludes, enigmatically jaunty boogie-inflected romps and circling pedalpoint that drew a straight line back to medieval Hasidic ngunim. The quartet had similarly vast terrain to cover, from icepick pizzicato, to distantly savage Bartokian acidity, to brooding, doomed conversational fragments, and clearly, they got it. It seemed as breathtaking for them to play as it was to witness.

Golan and Yee opened the night with Weinberg’s Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, a 1958 piece that came across as a mashup of Ravel and Mompou, an enigmatic blend of astringent 20th century tonalities and eerie, circling belltone phrases, in addition to variations alluding to ancient Jewish liturgical melodies. The interplay and exchanges between Yee and Golan made for a grave conversation and numerous desolate/intricate contrasts.

Midway through, Golan treated the crowd to Weinberg’s 1951 Sonatine For Piano,  a similar blend of modernist melodicism and classical gestures, with Jewish mysticism as a backdrop. Golan and the quartet have recorded these pieces for a forthcoming album; it comes as no surprise that Golan has also recorded works by another great Jewish composer of Weinberg’s era, Viktor Ullmann, who was even unluckier, but whose similarly dynamic body of work survived his murder in the Holocaust.

The Attacca Quartet’s next concert is a program TBA, on April 22 at 3 PM at the Presbyterian Church of Chatham Township, 240 Southern Blvd in Chatham Township, New Jersey.

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

The New York Philharmonic’s Kaleidoscope Ensemble Puts Fun, Relevance and Respect in Music Education for Kids

Did you know that if you’re a New York City school student, you can get the New York Philharmonic to visit your class? If you think your school, or your child’s school would be a good contact, get in touch with the Philharmonic’s education department. The orchestra has a terrific teaching ensemble, Kaleidoscope, which makes the rounds of schools throughout the five boroughs.

“Kaleidoscope’s repertoire is always shifting to reflect new and relevant themes. It’s a wonderful point of entry into the very colorful and variegated sound world of the orchestra,” the Philharmonic’s Director of Education Production, Amy Leffert explained to the audience at the group’s“info-concert” Monday night at Lincoln Center’s dynamically curated atrium space. Then the ensemble – flutist Julietta Curenton, clarinetist Katie Curran, french horn player Laura Weiner, trombonist Steven Dunn and pianist Jihea Hong-Park – validated that description.

This was kickoff night, more or less, for the group’s current program on tour in city schools over the next several weeks, designed to dovetail thematically with issues students are exploring. This particular theme is the Harlem Renaissance and how it relates to the present. The program employs colorful new arrangements of classic Ellington and Gershwin works as well as a stark William Grant Still arrangement of the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and a more recent, picturesque piece by Valerie Coleman. Along the way, the musicians drove home how fearlessly multidisciplinary the Harlem Renaissance artists were, and how that sense of community mirrors  so many artistic movements both historically and in the present.

What was most enjoyable about this experience – other than the music, which was played with the passion and dynamism you would expect from America’s flagship orchestra – was that it’s not condescending or patronizing like so much “music appreciation” coursework. Just like jazz, the five musicians worked from a script to engage the audience, but with plenty of room for lively, conversational interplay. The adults outnumbered the kids at this show, but everyone seemed to be having a ton of fun singing along in counterpoint, working variations on the blues scale and even scatting some jazz. 

There were two big takeaways, one obvious and the other implied. First and foremost, the Philharmonic’s education outreach is all about empowerment. Curran emphasized that under ideal circumstances, she’d be more than content if a student composer was able to hear a Dvorak piece and then prefer his or her own work instead. And without ever letting the words “third stream” slip into the discussion, the quintet let the music validate the paradigm shifts that take place when two traditions as vast as African-American jazz and western classical cross-pollinate.

The highlight of the night was Imani Winds flutist and co-founder Valerie Coleman’s In Time of Silver Rain, from her colorfully pointillistic, lilting suite Portraits of Langston for flute, clarinet and piano. The group closed with Ellington’s Echoes of Harlem, Dunn’s moody, darkly foggy trombone lines front and center.

And even if a visit from the Philharmonic doesn’t fit your school’s schedule, there are tons of resources for teachers, especially geared toward grades 3-5, at the orchestra’s education page

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

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

March 19, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Treat from the Harlem Quartet at Lincoln Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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