Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Extrovert Organist Brian Charette Keeps Pushing the Envelope

Organist Brian Charette is this era’s Larry Young, expanding the terrain an organist can cover. And he’s one of the funniest guys in jazz: onstage, his sardonic wit infuses the music as much as the between-song banter. After years of toiling as the main organ jazz attraction at Smalls, and touring relentlessly, he’s finally been getting the critical recognition he deserves. His  next gig is with his Sextette at Dizzy’s Club on Feb 13, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30. With six guys in the band, this is a prime opportunity to catch Charette at his devious best.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Charette’s shows, it was last fall and he was playing an intimate trio set with his mesmerising singer wife Melanie Scholtz at Rue B in the East Village. In terms of unselfconsciously spectacular talent, it wouldn’t be overhype to call these two the newest power couple in jazz. While this gig was completely different from what Charette does in a straight-ahead jazz context, he was still just as much of a shark on the prowl, chilling out between the rocks, waiting for a choice morsel of melody to sink his teeth into.

Scholtz sings in several languages including Xosa, a distinctive and particularly difficult vernacular from her native South Africa that includes clicks along with vowels and consonants. Playing percussion and syndrums, she looped her vocals on several numbers, constructing wildly spiraling, kaleidescopic melodies on a couple of them as Charette shifted from Afrobeat to dub to gospel to vintage soul to a little funk, sometimes all of that in the same serpentine number.

Much as Charette’s erudite textures and idiomatic shifts were entertaining, Scholtz was a force of nature, rising from shamanic, unearthly lows to soaring highs, coyly fluttering intimacy and a gale-force wail. Spun through the mixer, those tones took on all sorts of unexpected, surreal shapes. Yet as psychedelically enveloping as all that turned out to be, it was when she went straight through the PA without any effects that she delivered her most spine-tingling moments of the night. She and Charette are off on European tour next month.

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February 11, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Intensity from the Navarra String Quartet at Lincoln Center

Just about every month this spring, there’s a free classical concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street in conjunction with the current Great Performers series. There’s also just about every other stye of music made in every community in New York here too. It’s especially interesting to see who turns out for the classical shows. Last night a packed house representing just about every age group and community here in town was treated to a performance by UK group the Navarra String Quartet.

Cellist Brian O’Kane introduced Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ music as “Full of beautiful landscapes, very atmospheric…one can hear his love of nature and quite a lot of spirituality. In contrast, there are quite a few episodes of struggle after a very horrible regime in the Eastern Bloc.”

The group moved gently into the stillness, ghostly glissandos and subtle trills of the opening movement of his 1999 String Quartet No. 4. O’Kane anchored the group’s slow climb from brooding austerity to agitation and then back, violinists Magnus and Marije Johnston rising alongside Sascha Bota’s viola.

Furtively circling, rhythmic variations on a chase theme grew to a blaze, reflecting O’Kane’s comments about the music’s political content. The group channeled desolation and loss in a muted series of ominously stacked, Arvo Part-like harmonies, going deep into the relentless angst as the music peaked in a series of waves.

The contrast between the violins and the lower instruments underscored a growing terror as the chase scene recurred: no doubt this kind of thing happened all the time when the KGB were prowling Vasks’ home turf. Exchanges of guarded prayerfulness and forlorn resignation mingled in the mist; Bota adding  hushed, somberly tremoloing pedalpoint. The eerily wafting conclusion offered no sense of closure: the audience, who’d already been taken by surprise by the composer’s many full stops earlier i the work, slowly processed the intensity.

Right at the second the group returned to the stage for Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, a siren wailed down Columbus Avenue. Undeterred, the quartet built Parisian wistfulness toward a heroic overture, Magnus Johnston’s silken but aching lines telgraphing that all would not be fin de siècle contentment here.

The group’s vigorous pizzicato had the same effect in the waltzing second movement, foreshadowing the twists and turbulence that ends up infusing the dance. The wounded calm the ensemble built in the third was as it was gorgeous, especially when they hit the big crescendo. Likewise, their fiery launch into the fourth. Credit the quartet for realizing what a perhaps surprisingly good segue it made after the harrowing intensity of the first half od the program.

They encored with a moody miniature by Kurtag, “To calm ourselves down,” as O’Kane grinned. The next Lincoln Center atrium concert is on Valentine’s Day at 7:30 PM with energetic, individualistic Cape Verde islands singer/guitarist Tcheka. Show up early if you want a seat.

February 8, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poignancy and Exhilaration with Claudia Acuña at Birdland

There was a point last night during her first set of a four-night stand at Birdland where singer Claudia Acuña started pogoing across the stage. She got as far as guitarist Juancho Herrera’s pedalboard before she ran out of room and had to chill out a little. If you’d been on that stage with that band and that setlist, you would have been just as ecstatic – but you wouldn’t have sung as rivetingly as she did.

Because the majority of this particular setlist was hers. She opened with a punchy take of Hey, a no-nonsense empowerment anthem for women everywhere and closed with a shamanic, enveloping take of her mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Holy Earth. In between, she mixed a couple of acerbic Lincoln tunes and a knowingly angst-fueled take of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful in with a gorgeously lyrical mix of songs from her new album Turning Pages.

Acuña gets all sorts of props for her often shatteringly direct alto voice, but here the crowd was just as blown away by her songwriting and the quality of the band. Pianist Pablo Vergara spun intricate, plaintive neoromantic filigrees, with a couple of starry solos as openers. Behind the kit, Yayo Serka played what seemed to be both sides of a conspiratorial talking drum interlude to start one number, underscored much of the material with a subtle clave and went way back to the banks of the Nile to foreshadow the end of the set.

Starting on Fender and finishing on upright, bassist Carlos Henderson’s minutely nuanced touch matched the bandleader’s subtlety, notably with his allusions to the steady propulsion of Bob Marley’s Exodus throughout an understatedly dancing take of Futuro, one of the new record’s standout tracks. Acuña explained that she’d written it to her yet-unborn son and then sang with hushed joy about how much she was looking forward to seeing him “Dancing through the constellations, and through the onion and garlic patch. That translation from the Spanish is less poetic  than the actual lyric.

The high point of the new album, and arguably the show as well, was the poignant, brooding anthem Aguita de Corazon. Lowlit by Herrera’s spare accents and Vergara’s rippling angst, the wounded payoff packed a wallop whenever the chorus came around. “I’m from Chile,” Acuña explained. “We have a tea for everything. You have a broken heart? We have a tea for that too.” It was strong and potent medicine in this group’s hands, guest Gregoire Maret’s harmonica reaching an unexpectedly wrenching coda after he’d taken his time, going deeper into the blues as the narrative unfolded.

His animated exchanges with Acuña’s scatting on the next number were more lighthearted, and a lot of fun. But ultimately, depth and emotional impact is what she’s all about, and she delivered all of that, whether the wistful hope of Tres Deseos – a wish song times three, basically – and Lincoln’s The World Is Falling Down, which she and the group built matter-of-factly and aptly, with a bittersweet knowingness that was closer to Rachelle Garniez than the woman who wrote it, a deeply personal political artifact from the Civil Rights era whose relevance hasn’t dimmed.

The album release stand continues tonight, Feb 7 through 9 with sets at 7 and 10 PM; you can get in for $20.

February 7, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Harrowing, Shattering Quartet for the End of Time Uptown

Olivier Messiaen premiered his 1941 prison break suite Quartet for the End of Time in the very same prison he wanted to break out of.

And got away with it.

The program notes for last night’s performance of that immortal partita at the Crypt Sessions uptown quoted the composer as saying that “Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.” That the Nazis there missed the point speaks volumes. The prisoners obviously got the message.

Messiaen was eventually liberated from that Nazi POW camp, where he’d debuted it in on a grim, rainy night, playing a barely functional piano alongside a violinist, clarinetist, and cellist who had to make do with only three strings. Talk about chutzpah!

Almost eight decades later, amid the rich natural reverb beneath the vaulted ceiling in the stone crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, the quartet of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, clarinetist Yoonah Kim and pianist Orion Weiss channeled the terror and defiance and hope against hope that kept Messiaen going at a time when he had no idea that he’d survive the war, let alone be released the following year.

The official story, of course, is that the suite is a portrait of a biblical apocalypse. Considering that Messiaen was a devout Catholic and had a whole liturgical script worked out, there’s no reason to doubt that. But the subtext here screamed as loudly as it possibly could: GET ME OUT!

The four musicians had obviously sized up the sonics, realized what powerful amplification they had in the space’s rich natural reverb, and rolled with it. Kim’s long series of slow upward crescendos, requiring daunting displays of circular breathing, left the audience as breathless as she was. Campbell’s shivery, masterfully nuanced white-knuckle ascent later on was every bit as haunting and elegaic. And Jackiw’s final pairing with Weiss at the end peaked with an almost horrific cadenza, throwing off the Nazi chains to make way for the opening of heaven…or maybe just a return to prewar normalcy

The interweave of birdsong (Messiaen was cruelly tantalized by birds singing outside his cell window) and stark, jagged close harmonies was all too clear early on. The escape sequence and subsequent chase scene – uneasy, sometimes Indian-tinged harmonies furtively scampering and spiced with one sudden, horrified cadenza after another – in the sixth movement could not have been more vivid, or Hitchcockian.

And in the preceding movement, Weiss’ decision not to go for the jugular with grand guignol but instead to hang back and let the menace linger was ultimately the key to the whole performance. Despite the temptations of innumerable creepy tritones and endless dirge passages rising slowly with mournfully tolling, upper-register belltone accents, the group went for foreshadowing. Yet at the end, Weiss didn’t try to mask Messiaen’s forlorn echo phrases, underscoring a vision of a very Pyrrhic victory.

The likelihood of this same group getting together for this same piece is pretty slim, but the next concert in the Crypt Sessions series, on March 7 at 8 PM, has a similarly dark theme. Baritone Lucas Meachem and his wife, pianist Irina Meachem – who will be six months pregnant by the time she plays the concert – will be performing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder suite.  To get tickets, you need to get on the email list – the website, http://www.deathofclassical.com says it all.

The crypt is easy to get to, two blocks up the hill from the 157th Street station on the 1 line. There’s plentiful wine and cheese and crudites and banter beforehand. The crowd tends to skew young, and old: lots of twentysomethings out on a date along with more than a few seniors doing the same. And there never seems to be anyone gratuitously gramming here; this crowd comes to descend into the darkness and listen.

February 6, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Harrowing Relevance and Conversational Charm from the Chelsea Symphony

Is there any orchestra in New York, the Philharmonic included, who have commissioned as many important, relevant new works as the Chelsea Symphony? Saturday night on their home turf on the west side, they debuted yet another impactful piece alongside a sinuously choreographed crowd-pleaser and a mighty favorite from the standard repertoire.

That the world premiere of Aaron Dai’s Four Miniatures for a Dark Age would threaten to upstage Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 speaks as much to the power of Dai’s suite as to the orchestra’s commitment to it. Shostakovich’s fingerprints were all over the music: macabre tritones and sudden bursts of eerie chromatics leapt out from every corner of the orchestra. There were also more than hints of sarcastic faux pageantry – a twisted variation on Hail to the Chief, front and center – and frequent descents to Bernard Herrmann-esque Hitchcock film territory. Cadenzas were fleeting, seldom more than a bar long, requiring instantaneous focus which the ensemble delivered over and over. As is, the suite deserves widespread programming; if Dai could expand each of the themes and make a symphony out of them, that would really be something to look forward to.

Soloist Sarah Koop McCoy got more than one standing ovation for her performance of Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. With rich, woody lows, keening highs and slinky midrange, she maintained a constant intensity as conductor Matthew Aubin brought all hands on deck and kept them there. Nielsen’s music is so much fun to conduct, and play, because he keeps his ideas constantly shifting from one part of the orchestra to another. Aubin’s long association with this group shone throughout a warm, conversational rapport, notwithstanding the music’s persistent unease: Nielsen’s late-career, tentative flirtation with the Second Viennese School. Yet not everything here defied resolution – there was a nod in a samba direction, a dixieland detour, and finally one of the funniest fugues in the repertoire, played solo by McCoy with deadpan flair.

Aubin ceded the podium to Nell Flanders for Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. The orchestra began almost tentatively, then got loud fast and careened forward from there. But if there’s any well-known symphony that an ensemble can do that with, it’s this one. On one hand, the composer’s vast interweave of one catchy riff after another never reached the point where it felt particularly contiguous, and the orchestra seemed rather rudderless. On the other, this was an opportunity to get to know parts of the score that easily get subsumed in epic grandeur. So maybe that’s six of one, half a dozen of another.

And those solos, bursting from every dusky nook at St. Paul’s Church on West 22nd Street, were consistently bright and briskly executed, from basses to brass. Over the decades, parts of the symphony have been used in scores of movies and NPR themes, emerging triumphantly here to remind everyone what their provenance was.

The Chelsea Symphony’s current season is dedicated to socially relevant works: it seems they’re finally making it official now after years of advocacy for important causes. Their next concerts are March 8 and 9 at 8 PM with a fascinating program beginning with the world premiere of bassist Tim Kiah‘s Fascist Baby; a second world premiere by Benjamin Louis Brody; the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major; a rare suite by 20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck (a neglected figure this orchestra have rescued from obscurity), and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. The Saturday night show switches Haydn concertos, substituting one for cello. Both shows are at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St.; suggested donation is $20.

January 28, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic Bring Epic Relevance to a Grim, Pivotal Moment in New York History

Has there ever been such a massive, grimly determined crowd of musicians onstage – and in the aisles – as there were at Lincoln Center last night for the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth? For an especially lavish production of Beethoven’s Ninth, conceivably. But even in that case maestro Jaap van Zweden wouldn’t have had to signal four separate choirs behind his back while facing the orchestra and choirs in front of him.

That he and the ensembles could keep the composer’s maze of insistent counterpoint so steady and seamless speaks to a genuinely epic commitment to do justice to Wolfe’s theme: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its 146 victims. The title of the piece is actually a quote from labor organizer Clara Lemlich, referring to her passion for battling factory owners’ private gestapos in her early days as an advocate for worker’s rights. In an era where working people around the world are facing Industrial Revolution conditions, and amazon.com employees in the UK forego bathroom breaks for fear of being fired, the legacy of the most deadly calamity on New York soil prior to 9/11 has more relevance than ever.

Wolfe has made a career of writing impactful, historically rich work. To be clear, this isn’t her most harrowing composition: that would probably be her utterly macabre string orchestra piece, Cruel Sister. This latest extravaganza follows the insistently rhythmic, towering, Pulitzer Prize-winning intensity of her oratorio Anthracite Fields. Both are unflinching and relentless: the lives of early 1900s New York sweatshop employees and Pennsylvania coal miners are cruelly similar.

As theatre, this performance was immersively effective: there’s no escaping the angst of these exploited women, in their matching smocks, when they’re singing in unison right next to you. Choral ensemble the Crossing remained onstage while several subsets of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City migrated matter-of-factly from station to station. Dead center amid the maelstrom, van Zweden remained a calm guide through what was often a hailstorm of beats. One of Wolfe’s favorite tropes is to shake up the music with all sorts of rhythmic complexity when a melody is more or less horizontal, and she does that a lot here. The result, tight as a drum, was impressive to say the least.

The introduction took awhile, requiring some patience from the audience before the massed groups gathered steam. “Crushing poverty” became a vivid motif amid a constant, flitting interchange of voices as a transatlantic immigrant’s tale finally offered foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. The interpolation of a plaintive Yiddish song and a phantasmagorical tarantella – most of the fire victims were either Eastern European Jewish or Italian immigrants – was stunningly executed.

Sharply menacing sheet metal shears are a new addition to the world’s symphonic instruments: the choirs were choreographed to employ them to snap out a rhythm attesting to the dangers and mind-numbing repetition inherent to sweatshop labor. Likewise, the way the singers hammered on the word “want” over and over again, a bit later on, resonated on every conceivable level. The coda to this all-too-familiar tale turned out to be more dynamic, and longer, than expected, ending with a kaleidoscopically arranged incantation of the victims’ names.

The first half of the program underscored the difference between decent music direction and genuine brilliance. Maybe it was just a stroke of fate van Zweden had been on the podium for the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s oratorio, August 4, 1964, but making a segue with Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra was as perfect as it was counterintuitive. The instrumental Elegy from Stucky’s suite, and the first part of Copland’s would-be diptych share eerie Twin Peaks vamps and variations, and also jazz influences: crepuscular Gil Evans-like lustre in the former, jaunty faux dixieland in the latter. Clarinetist Anthony McGill matched coyness to muscle while van Zweden couldn’t resist shaking a tail feather, a chance to blow off steam before reality returned with a vengeance in the second half of the program.

There’s a final performance tonight, Jan 26 at 8 PM. Although last night appeared to be pretty much sold out, tickets are available as of this writing (Saturday, 11 AM); at yesterday’s show, the box office was doing brisk business right up til curtain time. This is an important moment in New York history: you should see it.

January 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The East West Trio Deliver a Stunning, Haunting, Armenian-Inspired Performance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Witnessing organist Marina Omelchenko slowly work her way up through the eerie chromatics of an ancient Armenian lament last night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was nothing short of sublime. It became even more so when duduk player Oganes Kazarian, situated at the opposite end of the church, joined the somber majesty with his meticulously modulated, mournful phrasing. Throughout the concert, whether playing against the organ, with soprano Tehmine Zaryan, or with both, he employed such a wide-angle vibrato that no matter how horizontal or enveloping the melody got at times, his inflections were always adding an otherworldly sparkle of overtones.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a duduk – the rustic, plaintively woody-toned Armenian oboe – paired with a church organ? Just the premise of the concert was impossible to resist, and for the most part the three individualists of the East West Trio delivered on the promise of such a deliciously textured sound. Kazarian kept his modes muted and reserved throughout a rapt duet with Zaryan toward the end of the performance. When paired with Omelchenko, especially in her arrangements of a handful of Armenian hymns and traditional numbers, he was much more forceful, a brand-new stop in an almighty beast, the church’s Kilgen organ.

Zaryan hit a spine-tingling crescendo at the end of a Schubert aria early on; a concluding Andrew Lloyd Webber ditty was impossible to redeem. But getting there was an often breathtaking rollercoaster ride. Omelchenko began with cinematic and then cantabile Bach and then worked her way to triumph with all the stops out, through the stately power of a Tcherepnin overture. Yet despite all the fireworks, the quieter Armenian melodies were the most hauntingly resonant.

St. Patrick’s has not only a very eclectic series of free organ concerts, typically at 3:15 PM on Sundays, but also an intriguing series of classical performances that often involve the organ in some way. The next one is this Sunday the 27th at the usual time with organist Heitor Caballero playing a diverse program of works by Bruhns, Guilmant, Sebastian Duron and Flor Peeters.

January 25, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Student Orchestras Rule!

Among the ever-shrinking, rarefied elites who sometimes actually get paid to go to concerts and then share their experiences, there’s a feeling that student orchestras often do a better job than the pros. There are many logical reasons for this. Conservatory kids get more rehearsals, more guidance (which could cut both ways), they’re playing for a grade, and they’re not yet jaded to the point where they feel like phoning it in.

Yesterday’s Juilliard performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony at Alice Tully Hall validated all of those arguments. There was no backing off: everybody dug in, and went as deeply as possible into the composer’s stubborn dedication to being counterintuitive. This is a mighty tough piece to play, with its constantly shifting web of counterpoint, sudden blustery exchanges of short riffs between instruments, and tantalizing fragments of melody that, just when you start to hum along, disappear into thin air.

It was a friendly and animated guided tour of eerie close harmonies, petulant defiance of any genuine resolution, and Schoenberg’s sometimes outrageous sense of humor. There’s a point about two thirds of the way through where he basically stops the music to make sure that the cello and bass are both in tune – and then makes a theme and variations out of it. The group nailed it with deadpan aplomb: it was shocking that the audience, at least the string players in the crowd, weren’t completely cracking up.

And has anybody noticed what a great string section the Columbia University Orchestra has this year? It’s Boston Symphony quality: lush, rich, epic and tight as a drum. Dynamics weren’t at the top of the list, it would seem, at their mighty performance of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite at Symphony Space last month, but their forceful presence gave the music a stunning freshness. This piece is proto heavy metal, and that’s exactly how the ensemble played it, going in hard for every bit of clever humor and grand guignol that the composer weaves for the strings.

They did the same thing with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Anybody who’s gone to any of the classical halls over the past few years has probably been exposed to more New World than they probably could ever want. Yet, having heard maybe a half dozen different versions live since the New York Philharmonic made it their theme for a season, this ranked with the best of them. The rest of the orchestra wasn’t up to the level of the strings, but the rest of those other orchestras weren’t up to that level, either. What an undeniable, emphatic attack! It validated any bellicose interpretation of the symphony, and was every bit as fresh and new as the Grieg.

The Columbia University Orchestra’s next performance is a program TBA on April 6 at 8 PM at Lerner Hall on the Columbia Campus. And next month at Juilliard is the Focus Festival, featuring several public concerts of music originally commissioned for radio airplay, many of which are free. The first one is on Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at Alice Tully Hall, with orchestral works by Ligeti, Betty Olivero and Michael Tippett; tix are available at the hall’s box office.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Full Throttle Intensity with Lionel Yu at Carnegie Hall

It’s impossible to remember seeing as many kids in a Carnegie Hall audience as there were for Lionel Yu this past evening. Not just gradeschoolers, but pretty much every age group alive had come out to see the Chinese-American pianist work up a sweat with his superhuman technique, crushing volleys of chords and catchy hooks.

Yu takes the High Romantic as high as it can possibly go – and nobody knows better than Yu that the piano is a percussion instrument. If nonstop thrills are your thing, he’s your man. His chops are astonishing: he lives in that magic space where his fingers hit the keys with a perfectly unwavering attack, just hard enough to unleash the loudest possible sound. Great drummers work the same way, allowing their kits to resonate rather than trying to beat the sound into them.

Yet as much as Yu is all about raw power and breathtaking speed, ultimately he’s defined by passion. It felt viscerally redemptive to watch this conservatory-trained composer attack the keys with blitz after blitz of icepick staccato phrases, often riding the pedal, an effect that would make a lot of piano teachers cringe. In an era where conservatories have been Sovietized to churn out an assembly line of cookie-cutter players, a rugged individualist like Yu stands out even more. That’s probably why all the kids came out to see him: his music is the furthest thing from safe or tame.

Although online pageview counts can never be trusted, his youtube channel boasts over 19 million hits. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, he’s popular enough to pack Carnegie Hall. His compositional style is deceptively simple: high-voltage variations on strikingly direct, translucent themes which often look straight back to the baroque. There’s also a very strong, and catchy Chinese folk influence in his writing, and whenever a simple progression threatens to slide off the table into video game drama or pageantry, he steers clear of cliche, shifting to a slashing chromatic phrase or an accidental.

He began the night with the epic Rolling Thunder, a red herring in the sense that it was the night’s most dynamically shifting number: this evening was all about hard and fast. Never Surrender, with its lightning cascades, dates from ten years ago when Yu was out of work and depressed and trying to write himself out of that downward spiral, he explained to the crowd. Apparently, the attempt was a success.

Gallop, with its Rachmaninovian chromatics, Arabic and flamenco licks, came across as an escape narrative. Yu’s biggest youtube hit, Fires of a Revolution, was also the most challenging piece of the night, ablaze with punishing, machinegunning staccato octaves, a whirlwind descent or three and like many of the other pieces on the bill, a lefthand that was every bit as daunting and exhilarating as the firestorm further up the keys.

The most amusing piece on the bill was Pachelbel’s Nightmare, a scenario where Yu envisioned the composer being taken over in his sleep by a “shadow” figure, the famous Canon turned from major to minor and given a deliciously severe thrashing before something approximating calm finally returns.

Yu has his limitations: like Art Tatum (or Motorhead), ballads are not his forte (they’re not forte enough – sorry). Yu could have given guest violinist Christina Bouey – no stranger to passion and sizzling technique herself – a chart that was every bit as much of a workout. Instead, she was limited to assertive, sometimes insistent phrases that any third-year student could have played, if with less dynamic subtlety. Yu can play quietly and lustrously if he wants, but those moments were gone in a flash as his jackhammer lefthand kicked in. And until he worked his way up to full blast, those quieter interludes felt muzzled.

But for sheer adrenaline, Yu is unsurpassed. Very, very few pianists have the physical prowess to be so forceful and graceful at the same time. Kathleen Supove is a rare example of one who does; Tatum was the same way. Judging from the size and diversity of the crowd, Yu’s time has come. At a point in history where the average age of audiences at the big Manhattan concert halls is 65, we need performers like this guy more than ever.

December 27, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Richly Eclectic, Rapturous Program of Ljova Compositions for Strings at Lincoln Center

Since the early zeros, virtuoso violist Ljova a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin has built one of the most colorfully eclectic repertoires of any string player anywhere. Lush, enveloping film themes, tangos, wild Russian string band music, original arrangements of some of the ancient folk themes that Stravinsky drew on for the Rite of Spring, and hypnotic loopmusic are just the tip of the iceberg. Thursday night, Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh was clearly psyched to have him back after having booked his high-voltage, cinematic Kontraband a few years back. To her, Ljova is fam – and as he confided late in the show, he and his kids became big fans of the mostly-weekly free concerts here. This time out, joined by a brilliant and similarly diverse cast from the worlds of latin music, classical and the avant garde, he aired out some of the rarer material in his ever-increasingly vast songbook.

Using a loop pedal, he built the night’s opening piece, Say It from a gorgeously bittersweet, Gershwinesque four-chord riff to a soaring, bittersweet anthem: it was like watching a one-man string quartet, bolstered by the cello-like low end from his signature six-string fadolin. He’s come a long way since that cold night at Barbes a few years back where he broke out the pedal in concert for the very first time.

Another solo piece, Healing, was dedicated to his late friend, the great tango pianist Octavio Brunetti – whose final show, Zhurbin noted, was across the campus at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. With Zhurbin bowing on and off the low strings and inducing skittish high harmonics, its wounded austerity shifted in and out of focus, a subtle showcase for the violist’s vaunted technique.

“I’d like to start inviting people up here in batches,” Zhurbin grinned, as cellist Yves Dharamraj, violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Ariana Kim joined him for a series of ballet pieces. Asha, dedicated to legendary Indian playback singer Asha Bhosle, echoed one of the Bach cello suites. Melting River, the title track from his 2013 one-man band recording, seamlessly blended the High Romantic with Philip Glass-ine minimalism.

Zhurbin was in top form as cynical raconteur, explaining that when he was in music school, those who deviated from twelve-tone severity were dismissed as potential film composers. So he decided to try his hand at an ad jingle or two. Window Cleaner, which he and the group delivered live for only the second time ever, was the night’s most irresistibly amusing piece, shifting from brooding Russian Romanticism – dirty windows? – to a swinging romp through a shiny faux French musette.

Bassist Pedro Giraudo had joined the ensemble by the time they got to Mecklenburg, another ballet number, which was far more serious, considering it originated as an improvisation and attempt to get the kids running around the room at an upstate house concert to chill out. But by the end, it seems the kids had won, as the circling motives gave way to latin flair.

Violinist Melissa Tong and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Nicholas and cellist Joshua Roman took the stage with the rest of the ensemble for the final three numbers. The high point of the evening was The Comet, a swirling, turbulent, troubled piece written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. Through its muted images of troops massing on the border to a volcano of leaping, jarring, searingly atonal riffs, it brought to mind the work of Kurdish composer and kamancheh mastermind Kayhan Kalhor, with whom Zhurbin has worked in the past. He’d premiered it as a loopmusic piece on that same that cold night at Barbes in 2016.

They closed with Holodomor, a wounded, elegaic narrative of the deadly displacement of Russian peasants under Stalin, and then a surrealistically bittersweet, punchy string band approximation of Balkan brass music dedicated to the late composer Harris Wulfson, an old Golden Fest pal, It’s hard to think of any other composer other than Ljova writing as fluently and playfully across so many styles.

This year’s mostly-weekly free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. winds up on Dec 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic tropicalia dancefloor personality Miss Yaya; get there early if you’re going.

December 19, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment