It’s been nineteen years since Philip Glass and his circle decided to begin programming the scores that people around the world were sending him. Since then, the annual MATA Festival has grown into an annual celebration of cutting-edge, and these days, increasingly relevant new music from around the world. In recent years, they’ve found a comfortable home at the Kitchen in Chelsea, where the festival continues nightly at 8 PM through Saturday, April 29; tix are $20; To keep the momentum going, the organizers are also staging a series of shows this summer featuring new chamber music from the Islamic world, as well as intimate house concerts (take THAT, Groupmuse!).
Night one of this year’s festival began with humor and ended, ok, humorously, if your sense of humor extends to unlikely sonic snafus onstage. Festival honcho Todd Tarantino proudly announced that the pieces selected for five nights worth of music were chosen from among works by 1159 composers from 72 countries. In their North American debut, Danish indie classical ensemble Scenatet tackled a dauntingly eclectic program from seven composers and acquitted themselves with equal parts spectacular extended technique and meticulous, minimalist resonance.
Their countryman Kaj Duncan David’s Computer Music was first on the bill, performed by the octet on matching laptops, each reading from a graphic score calling for the musicians to punch in on random heartbeats, more or less. The results created a pulse of light in addition to sound, an aspect that drew inadvertent winces from the performers until they’d become accustomed to a little blast of light from the screen. As it grew from spare to more complex, it got a lot funnier: a bad cop role (or a boss role) was involved. As an electronic music parable of The Office, maybe, it made a point and got the crowd chuckling.
German composer Martin Grütter’s Messer Engel Atem Kling called for some squalling, bow-shredding extended technique from violinist Kirsten Riis-Jensen and violist Mina Luka Fred as they worked an uneasy push-pull against the stygian anchor of My Hellgren’s cello. Yet as much as the high strings pulled away from the center, the harmonies stayed firmly nailed in. Part cello metal, part Zorn string piece, it was a clever study in contradictions – a depiction of a composer struggling to break free of convention, maybe?
Murat Çolak’s electroacoustic Orchid, an astigmatic mashup of eras, idioms and atmospheres, blended grey-sky horizontality, hazily uneasy percussion and shards of brooding, acerbically chromatic Turkish classical music. What would have been even more fun is if there’d been a second ensemble for the group onstage to duel it out with instead of doing haphazardly (and cruelly difficult) polyrhythms with the laptop, clarinetist Vicky Wright front and center. In a similar vein, Japanese/Dutch composer Yu Oda’s Everybody Is Brainwashed blended a simple, cliched EDM thump with live cajon and a simple, rather cloying violin theme that more than hinted at parody.
Like the opening piece, Eric Wubbels’ mini-suite Life-Still – one of several world premieres on the bill – had an aleatoric (improvisational) element, its simple, carefully considered, resonant accents gradually building into a distantly starlit lullaby. For the final movement, string and reed players switched to bells and brought it down to a comfortable landing.
Daniel Tacke’s Musica Ricercata/Musica Poetica for viola, clarinet and vibraphone. followed a similarly starry, nocturnal trajectory, a fragmentary canon at quarterspeed or slower, inspired by the motion of voices in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Putting two such rapturously calm pieces back to back made for a quietly powerful anti-coda. A final number was derailed by technical difficulties, a rare event at this festival: watching it was like being in an iso booth in a recording session with bad headphones and wondering what everybody else was doing.
Tonight’s show at the Kitchen continues the festival’s vast global sweep with music for piano, viola and percussion. Thursday’s lineup promises to be more lush and expansive; according to Tarantino, Friday’s looks inward, deeply. The final night, Saturday, features all sorts of unusual instruments in addition to those typically employed by chamber orchestra Novus NY. If you happen to miss these, the summer programming is something to look forward to.
Les Chauds Lapins sing about drunk couples emerging disheveled from the bushes, expats missing Paris during the Nazi occupation, and sex. Lots of that. “You told me yes, you told me yes, you told me yes,” frontwoman Meg Reichardt sang in insistently cheery, carefully enunciated and pretty damn good French at the band’s most recent show at Barbes last month.
The material they cover – old French swing and chanson, mostly from the 30s and 40s, emphasis on the Charles Trenet catalog – is pretty radical compared to American pop from that era. Even today, these songs are racy. And as funny and clever as the wordplay is, the band’s sound is lush and swoony. if you’re looking for a place to take your boo this Friday night, April 14, there’s no better place than Barbes at 8 PM where Les Chauds Lapins (“The Hot Rabbits,” as in “hot to trot”) will be picking up where they left off.
The music matched the lyrics, full of chipper, strutting, swinging tunes, glimmering strings from cellist Garo Yellin and violist Karen Waltuch and a wry basketball-courtside “let’s go” riff from clarinetist/frontman Kurt Hoffman at one point. And yet, there’s an underlying cynicism, and frequent yearning, in the lyrics, that often rears its head, just as the music isn’t all just soft edges either. Hearing the occasional austere minor-key blues phrase from either Waltuch or Yellin was a treat. Reichardt fired off a couple of stinging blues guitar solos when she wasn’t holding down rhythm on her hundred-year-old banjo uke and adding to the oldtimey atmosphere.
As the show went on, shivery strings paired off with a plaintive clarinet intro, there was an unexpected detour into quasi-funk fueled by a cello bassline, and eventually a long interlude straight out of Mood Indigo with a lustrous, moonlit clarinet solo from Hoffman. For those who don’t speak French, the show is best enjoyed as a long, sweet suite. As date-night music in New York in 2017, it’s unsurpassed. Without crossing the line into TMI, let’s say that after the show, the person you bring might be more likely to tell you, “Je t’adore,” instead of just a plain old “Je t’aime” See,“Je t’aime” doesn’t amount to much more than a peck on the cheek. “Je t’adore” is where the tongue gets involved. Just saying. Bonne chance à tout le monde demain soir.
Last night Ryan Keberle & Catharsis returned from their latest US tour to play a sold-out show at Cornelia Street Cafe. The trombonist/multi-instrumentalist/composer has made a name for himself as an electrifying, intensely thoughtful soloist and has played with every major New York big band, most notably the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He’s one of the few musicians to write articulately about reaching the elusive “zone” that most players find themselves searching for words to explain. But his best work may be his own compositions.
Drummer Henry Cole subtly shifted the opening number, Quintessence, from an airconditioned swing toward sweaty New Orleans territory as the bandleader hit a Rubik’s Cube of syncopation, tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson bringing back the breeze as Keberle switched to melodica and played high, airy chords. Then he went back to trombone to duel it out with Robinson.
Guitarist Camila Meza’a disarmingly direct, pensively poignant vocalese mingled within and then quickly rose out of a lulling haze of trombone and sax as the next number, Uruguayan composer Jorge Drexler’s El Otro Lado Del Rio slowly coalesced into warmly intimate tropicalia lit up with a psychedelically pulsing lattice of counterrhythms. Its uneasy border-crossing metaphors foreshadowed much of what was to come.
Cole took what might be this year’s funniest drum solo to open Ellington’s Big Kick Blues – from Keberle’s 2013 album Music Is Emotion – moving the “up” beat around like a three-card monte dealer. The band’s slice-and-dice syncopation kept a wry suspense going, Meza doubling her guitar and vocal lines, Cole finally straightening out the groove as Robinson supplied a terse trumpet solo before returning to sax. Who knew that the irrepressibly versatile multi-multi-reedman was also an adept brass player, Keberle enthused.
He explained that his next album as a leader would be an album of protest music, and gave a shout-out to Ornette Coleman for his role as a revolutionary. Then the band followed with an Ornette-inspired original built on propulsive, insistent, stairstepping phrases, Meza’s carefree vocalese in stark contrast, Keberle’s steady, emphatically bluesy solo building to a biting crescendo.
Meza sang the night’s most compelling and relevant number, Become the Water, the “magnum opus from the new record,” as Keberle put it. “Enough is enough!” he mused exasperatedly. “We want to use our music to bring change, hopefully in some small way.” In this rousing challenge to find compassion and defy the forces of evil, Meza stood her ground as the soaring, chromatic choruses kicked in, Keberle’s expansively moody piano chords serving as anchor as Robinson’s soaring sax spoke truth to power. More musicians should be doing this.
The Cornelia is Keberle’s Manhattan home base with this crew; watch this space for upcoming dates there or at his frequent Brooklyn haunt, Barbes.
It’s hubristic to even think of staging a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Just the amount of space required for orchestra, choir and soloists is daunting. Not only is it one of the most technically challenging pieces of music in the entire classical canon, it’s also one of the most physically taxing. “It didn’t feel like we were onstage as long as we were,” one of the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s cellists exclaimed, flushed and practically winded, after their lavish performance of it yesterday evening.
“Beethoven was insane when he wrote this!” groused one of the bassists. “It’s like the Grosse Fugue.” He was referring to the notoriously thorny coda to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13. But he and the cellist and the rest of the low strings – whose fingers really take a beating in the symphony’s final movement, leaping between registers at breakneck speed – dug in and delivered a performance that was more of a hymn to adrenaline than the ode to joy in the famous Schiller poem from which Beethoven took his inspiration. The rest of the orchestra followed suit. And that’s fine, that’s what music should be about a lot of the time. In context, it was the perfect choice. If you can play this at all, chances are it’ll be good. And it was. The roar of a pretty-much sold-out house afterward affirmed that.
After she’d led the orchestra through a brief fanfare well-known to NPR listeners, conductor Barbara Yahr offered her usual insight. She sees Beethoven’s narrative in the symphony’s four movements as contiguous. The first, a vibrant life somewhat in disarray, awash in ups and downs. The second, a “diabolical dance,” which as she accurately pointed out draws a straight line back to the pizzicato third movement of the Sixth Symphony. The third, a love ballad, and the fourth, a tug of war between orchestra and the low strings, who refuse to accept a new theme again and again until finally, “The one we know from childhood recitals,” as she said with a grin, finally takes centerstage and redeems everything and love wins over all.
Whew. Beethoven influences people who write about him too.
Now here’s an alternate interpretation. Those of us who love Beethoven know how, for all intents and purposes, his Fifth Symphony was really his Fourth, and vice versa, and how the disconnect between when he happened to write a piece and when his publishers put it out occurred all the time. Just like pretty much everyone who writes music, Beethoven had a “song junkyard” full of unfinished ideas in one form or another. It therefore stands to reason that he took the four favorites he had kicking around and strung them together as a swan song. That he was able to tie them together as much as he did, and in the process made it pretty much impossible for any other symphonic composer to follow him, conceptually at least, underscores why the Ninth is such an important piece of music . Even if, say, you find the famous final theme cloying and the Schiller poem it’s based on trippy and unfocused.
So from this point of view, the piece de resistance at this performance was that clever and richly interwoven first movement. The doomy main theme is akin to the theme from the Fifth Symphony, times two. Watching conductor and orchestra weaving through the waves of uneasy bluster juxtaposed with moments of joy, holding nothing back in reserve for what was to follow, was a blustery joy to witness. The second movement came across not as diabolical but heroic and triumphant, precision matched to unrestrained passion. Maybe the composer put the third movement in for the sake of a momentary breather, awash in lustrous high/low harmonies, and the ensemble seemed glad to back off for a bit.
It took a total of three all-ages choirs: the Ars Musica Chorale, directed by Dusty Francis; the Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale, led by Nelly Vuksic, and Seraphim, conducted by Robert Long, to deliver the fourth movement’s titanic polyphony, and they did with a precision and robustness to match the orchestra’s herculean efforts onstage. The choral soloists: baritone Peter Stewart. soprano Rachel Rosales, mezzo-soprano Jan Wilson and tenor John Tiranno, all punched in strongly when their moments came.
Not having seen this performed since childhood (and hating it at the time, and wishing it was over), it was impossible not to be caught up in it – and to be grateful for the opportunity to revisit it and learn something new. Plenty of new things, actually. The Greenwich Village Orchestra conclude their most ambitious season to date with a pops concert – something which, if they’ve done it before, they haven’t in almost twenty years – on May 7 at 3 PM featuring singers Grasan Kingsberry and Betsy Struxness.
That the Chelsea Symphony’s Powerglide tour of the iconic vistas in Dvorak’s New World Symphony Friday night was upstaged by two world premieres speaks to both the quality of those works as well as the orchestra’s commitment to establishing them in the symphonic repertoire. With meticulous attention to detail, conductor Miguel Campos Neto first led the group through Danny Gray’s Summer Mountains, the winning piece from this season’s Chelsea Symphony composition competition.
Although inspired by eleventh century Chinese landscape portraiture, there’s nothing Asian about it: Gray could just as easily have called it Appalachian Spring. As the work built from distant but purposeful impressionism to awestruck brass riffs, it came across as something akin to Copland but without the fussiness. That, and Dvorak.
As it went on, a couple of dreamy, lustrous interludes referenced the night’s most famous work; otherwise, Gray utilized just about every available instrument, section of the orchestra and tonality. It’s a colorful, programmatic piece. A playfully brief interlude from the percussion section, and then towering heights fueled by brass and wind soloists were balanced with a couple of mystical idylls and a surprise nocturne of an outro. Throughout the piece, solos were crystalline and distinct; the same was true of the work’s counterpoint and textural contrasts. The was one muddy moment where a flurry of percussion drowned out the strings, but that wouldn’t have been an issue in a larger venue.
Soloist Sarah Haines’ role in premiering Michael Boyman’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra had its virtuoso passages, most striking in a coldly enigmatic, slithery chromatic riff and variations. Yet more often than not, she served as anchor while a succession of dark, often Shostakovian melodies rose and fell around her. Boyman is also a violist, which made perfect sense in context. Cumulo-nimbus low brass loomed large against the litheness of the viola, strings and winds, a brooding, recurrent trope. A rather cynical, dancing scherzo gave way to a boisterous neoromantic crescendo and mighty upward swirl in the coda, a succession of nocturnal motives that again referenced Dvorak at his most lustrous. This moody, mighty suite very vividly reflects our current state of unease: it would resonate powerfully with a global audience.
The orchestra’s silkiness in the most low-key passages of Dvorak’s most famous piece gave Campos Neto a high ceiling for some absolutely bellicose heroic melodies along with wary calls across the plains from sentries and scouts. Chariots swung low and hard and Old Man River was foreshadowed mightily from the current, amid homey familiarity. This performance more than did justice to the ongoing New World Initiative instigated by the NY Philharmonic, an apt choice of a piece to be programmed at venues across this city in an era when the descendants of the African-Americans whose melodies Dvorak appropriated are facing perils that for awhile we thought we’d left behind in another century.
For eleven years now, the Chelsea Symphony have been introducing important, relevant new works while lending their signature flair to standard repertoire. Their next concerts are Friday, April 21 at 8:30 PM and then Saturday, April 22 at 7:30 at St. Paul’s German Church, 315 W 22nd St. off of 8th Ave. featuring an Aaron Dai world premiere plus music of Bach, Stravinsky, Carl Busch, Samuel Magrill and Henri Vieuxtemps. Suggested donation is $20.
What’s karmic payback for walking out of a Vijay Iyer show? Losing a recording of the most awestruck, rivetingly beautiful concert of the year, for starters – that, and missing out on most of a performance by this era’s most distinctive and arguably most influential pianist. Vijay, if you’re reading this, don’t take it personally. This blog’s proprietor once walked out on Pauline Oliveros too.
Not that she wasn’t great. It’s just that sometimes the demands of running a blog don’t always coincide with having a life. Saturday night at Merkin Concert Hall, it was at least good to get to see a rapturous, often mesmerizing performance by Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab leading a quartet including pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Jorn Bielfeldt and synth player Yusuke Yamamoto through what seemed to be a largely improvisational suite.
Singing mostly vocalese in a cool, hushed, nuanced mezzo-soprano, Aftab ran her vocals through a series of effects for additional subtlety, adding reverb or looping her phrasing, mostly for the sake of rhythmic shifts. Genovese played the show of his life. Since Aftab’s ghazal-inspired tone poems don’t often shift key and typically eschew western harmony, the pianist assembled an eerily glittering architecture out of passing tones, first bringing to mind Bill Mays playing Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks themes, then raising the ante to white-knuckle terror in places. Although there was one interlude where Genovese took a long, energetic solo, he held back from going against the current and trying to make postbop out of Aftab’s pensive atmospherics…or taking the easy route and hanging back with open fifths and octaves.
Bielfeldt also played with remarkable and intuitive restraint. Toward the end, he and Genovese exchanged coyly conversational riffs as the music swelled, but otherwise he was all about the lustre. Under these circumstances, having a synth in the band usually spells disaster, but Yamamoto turned out to be a magic ingredient with his deep-space washes of chords and the occasional elegant synth bass riff.
After a roughly forty-minute set, Aftab brought out Iyer for a duo as the encore. It seemed at this point that for a pianist, following Genovese would be just plain cruel, considering how he’d just mined every macabre tonality in the keys and the overtone system. But Iyer went in a more optimistic direction, opting for an approach that was both more hypnotically rhythmic and minimalist, while airing out similar resonance from the overtones. Watching him think on his feet with a much more limited choice of options than usual was rewarding; sticking around for his own set would no doubt have been twice as fun. Iyer is currently on tour; he’ll be back in New York on May 9 leading a sextet through a week at the Vanguard.
“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, and we’ll club their heads in,” Laurie Anderson mused last night toward the end of a rapturous series of trio improvisations with bassist Christian McBride and cellist Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall. She was being sarcastic, of course, As a point of context, she’d brought up Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine, where at the end the author contemplates what might happen if rightwing American bellicosity abroad was launched here. Anderson suggested that the incessant tweets and fake news emanating from that lunatic fringe in the Oval Office could be a harbinger.
Like so many New Yorkers, Anderson was profoundly affected by 9/11, and accurately connected the sense of horror and being blindsided then to the state of the city today. That unease pervaded much of the trio’s hour onstage, balanced by a defiant, surprisingly kinetic joie de vivre. She was obviously the bandleader, and her collaborators were practically jumping out of their shoes to revel in a surreal, richly textural, frequently eerie ambience that gave them a series of launching pads for daunting if terse and purposeful displays of extended technique.
Ominous chromatic piano riff and grey-sky organ from Anderson anchored the centerpiece of her political commentary, strongly evoking a Bat For Lashes hit from the late zeros. The trio’s backdrop for a voiceover of a Lou Reed poem was just as troubling and troubled, rising from starry, elegaic ambience to fluttery horror and then phantasmagorically pulsing, microtonal upward drifts.
Balancing that relentless angst was the coy tale of Anderson’s successful run for middle school student council. As she told it, she’d written to Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, seeking advice, received a detailed letter in response, took his counsel to heart (kiss up to everyone, he said, more or less), and then won. And then sent him a triumphant thank-you note. Kennedy responded with a dozen roses. When the story made the local paper in Anderson’s Illinois hometown, “Kennedy had won the heart of every woman,” of voting age and otherwise, she told the crowd. They wound up the evening when Anderson hit her pitch pedal, took her vocals down a couple of octaves for a wry deep-space atmosphere: “We like stars because we can’t crush them,” her man-in-the-moon character informed the crowd.
The rest of the set was all instrumental. At one point, McBride responded to a sprightly volley of pizzicato from Anderson with a bittersweet twelve-note rock riff that would have been the envy of any artsy British band from the 70s. It was the night’s single most gorgeous moment. And he never reprised it. Otherwise, he spent most of the evening playing with a bow, parsing minutely inflected high harmonics and even some wryly creeping low-register glissandos when he wasn’t delivering steady, often circular minimalist riffage below the mist.
Anderson, bolstered by light effects via a couple of laptops, introduced monentary, flickering themes with plucky pizzicato phrases, keeningly ethereal microtonal cloudbanks and a couple of menacingly galloping interludes. Caught in the eye of the ice storm, Kodheli had the hardest job of anyone onstage and deftly found a middle ground. Often that meant taking the others’ roles, whether delivering stark staccato harmonic slashes way up the fingerboard, or providing sinewy basslines when McBride pounced and bubbled far beyond his axe’s customary range. The audience roared their approval with a series of standing ovations: clearly, we’ve reached the point where improvised music has the potential to draw a large audience if perhaps not a mass one. The time has come when places like Jazz at Lincoln Center should be booking creative musicians like Steve Swell and Wadada Leo Smith – and lowering ticket prices to where the average New Yorker can afford to see them.
It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.
This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.
Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.
Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.
It took until about the halfway point in Bing and Ruth’s album release show last night at the Greene Space before the brunette in the front row finally rested her head on the shoulder of the adjacent sweaterboy. New Yorkers have been cocooning a lot lately: it’s hard to think of a more apt, or possibly more hopeful soundtrack for quiet reflection than the ensemble’s new record No Home of the Mind – available on vinyl and streaming at WNYC – which they played from start to finish.
Pianist David Moore has scaled down the original scope of the band from almost a dozen members to the current five, in the process further concretizing his signature blend of minimalism, indie classical and electroacoustic trance music. As the group’s instrumentals segued from one into another, they brought to mind acts as diverse as Anton Bagatov, Dawn of Midi without the thump, George Winston without the sentimentality, or even Bruce Hornsby if he’d gone into minimalism after his time with the Grateful Dead.
What was most impressive was how little the group relies on electronics. Other acts would take Moore’s looping phrases and have a pedal do all the heavy lifting. Not Moore: it’s one thing to play his gnomic clusters, and elegant arpeggios, and Philip Glass-ine phrases once with perfect timing; Moore did it over and over, with unwavering intonation and touch and rhythm and made it seem easy. Much of the time, he had his eyes closed. Clarinetist Jeremy Viner, who supplied subtly shifting shades enhanced by a pedalboard, might have opened his once during about 45 minutes onstage. The two bassists – Greg Chudzik and Jeff Ratner – took different roles, one anchoring the music with a series of low drones, the other playing higher up the fingerboard and adding the occasional, understatedly emphatic slow glissando. Mike Effenberger sat stage left, running the sound through a series of mixers, sometimes for minute timbral shirts or oscillations, occasionally for dramatic low-versus-high effect. Moore began with his most energetic phrasing, segued down toward enigmatic ambience, took a turn into minor keys for the night’s most acerbic moments and ended on a warmly nocturnal note.
Considering that Bing and Ruth usually play much larger spaces, it was something of a shock to see that the intimate Greene Space – a former deli about the same size as Hifi Bar – wasn’t sold out. Then again, everyone’s cocooning these days. Bing and Ruth’s next New York show is on April 10 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th St in Williamsburg, time/price TBA.
Just for the record, there is nobody with either the name Bing or Ruth in Bing and Ruth. There’ve been thousands of illustrious Ruths over the centuries; beyond a crooner of cheesy 1930s pop hits, a baseball executive, and the world’s most useless search engine, there haven’t been too many Bings. Here’s to this group for redeeming the name.
Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”
An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.
Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.
Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.
The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.
That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?
In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known
The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.