Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Inspired New School Big Band Plays Haunting and Propulsive Darcy James Argue Tunes

What’s the likelihood of being able to see this era’s most fearsomely relevant composer in big band jazz leading a diversely talented ensemble in a comfortable Manhattan auditorium, for free? It happened a couple of weeks ago at the New School, where Darcy James Argue conducted their newly created Studio Orchestra in a program of both well-known and more obscure works. And the great majority of the time, the group were up to the challenge.

It’s always fun to watch a student ensemble and try to figure out who the future stars are. That’s never obvious, since the best musician in the band might be out of the spotlight, working on his or her sight reading while the people getting solos might be the ones who need to step up that part of their game. At this show, one obvious pick was guitarist Theo Braun. Has Argue ever conducted a guitar player with such eclectic chops, who so thoroughly gets his material? Any composer would be lucky to be in that position.

Whether adding plaintive jangle, enigmatically ominous strolls through the unease of a handful of conspiracy theory-themed numbers from Argue’s haunting Real Enemies album, or careening and roaring along with the band in a particularly haphazard take of Transit, a bracing Fung Wah bus ride, Braun connected profoundly with the music. At times, he seamlessly interpolated a loop pedal into the music, no easy task, and he never fell back on too-cool-for-school scales or practice patterns. Obviously, no good musician should be that self-indulgent, but there are guys who’ve had long careers doing exactly that. Braun is a welcome exception.

Likewise, trombonist Isaac Poole is a rare musician with monster chops who doesn’t overplay. Throughout the night, he went deep into the blues and took a detour or two to New Orleans, showing off some blazing speed and command of extended technique not limited to high harmonics and duotones. Where Braun brought the darkness, Poole was the sun busting through it.

The unexpected material was fascinating, The group more or less eased their way into the set with the anthemically circling, Bob Brookmeyer-influenced Drift, then stampeded through the faux pageantry and bluster of The Tallest Tower in the World, the caustic critique of narcissism run amok from Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon album. Another track from that collection, Coney Island, was affectingly plaintive.

With its shift from tense, cell-like Philip Glass-ine phrases to more envelopingly nocturnal ambience, Redeye was a very convincing portrait of sleep deprivation. Argue explained a triptych of slinky, noirish numbers from Real Enemies as exploring the right wing’s vested interest in conspiracy theories as tools for disempowerment: if the Illuminati control the world, for instance, what’s the use in voting? 

The orchestra wound that sequence up with Casus Belli, which Argue said was inspired by Operation Northwoods, an early 60s proposal for the CIA or its proxy to blow up a civilian airliner as a false flag attempt to start a war with the Soviet Union: in that sense, 9/11 has a long backstory. The song’s broodingly kinetic salsa-jazz theme imagines the plotters working out the details as a Catskill mambo band plays in the background at some cheesy upstate resort.

The group also swayed their way through Last Waltz for Levon, a gospel-tinged elegy for Levon Helm which Argue had begun writing as a final salute to Dave Brubeck before pastoral jazz crept into it.

If the exact same crew who played this gig are onstage for their next one, so much the better. They all deserve a shout: Melvin Carter, Sade Whittier, Alain Mitrailler, Bapiste Horcholle and Benjamin Huff on saxes; Michelle Hromin on clarinet and bass clarinet; Louis Arques on bass clarinet; Jose Valle, Joshua Bialkin, Moe Feinberg, Raul Rios and Elijah Michaux on trumpets; Valerio Aleman, Rebecca Patterson and Olivia Gadberry filling out the trombone section; Benjamin Appel on piano and Nord Electro; Jonathan Livnate and Arturo Valdez Aguilar alternating on electric and acoustic bass; and Parker Trent on drums.

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March 20, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rumbling in Brooklyn with Josh Sinton

Friday night at Issue Project Room, Josh Sinton sat with his back to the audience in the middle of the stage, breathing into his contrabass clarinet. It’s a secondary instrument for him: his usual axe is the baritone sax, which he plays with some of New York’s most interesting big bands, notably Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound.

The sound of the horn rumbled through a pedalboard and then a bass amp. In his black suit and matching fedora, he made a somber presence. It was clear from his silhouette, larger than life on the northern wall above the marble arch to the side of the stage, that he was breathing pretty hard. It takes a lot of air to fill those tubes. Sinton did that via circular breathing, in an almost nonstop, practically forty-minute improvisation. Is there an Olympic swimmer who can match that for endurance?

Likewise, the music conjured vast, oceanic vistas – when it wasn’t evoking an old diesel tractor. Several other machines came to mind: an encroaching lawnmower; a bandsaw; the hypnotically comforting thrum from the engine room of an ocean liner, through a heavy bulkhead. Overtones echoed, and pulsed, and sometimes hissed or howled, Sinton pulling back on the volume when that happened until the final ten minutes or so.

There was a point about halfway through when it felt utterly shameful to sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the rumbling ambience, considering how hard Sinton was working to create such a calming effect. Finally, he opted not to pull away from the rising wall of feedback, letting it shriek as the throb of the amp became more like a jackhammer. Suddenly, what had been incredibly soothing was absolutely assaultive: a couple of people exited the front row. Finally, slowly and methodically, Sinton brought the atmosphere full circle to a barely audible wisp. And then silence.

Sinton calls this project Krasa – it’s a deliberate attempt to push himself out of his comfort zone to spur new creative tangents. Another completely different gig which Sinton has excelled at lately has been as the leader of Phantasos, a Morphine cover band. He had a residency with that trio last month at Barbes, putting a somewhat more slinky edge on Mark Sandman’s noir bounces and dirges. He had Dana Colley’s alternately gruff and plaintive sound down cold, and a rotating cast of bassists and drummers – notably Sam Ospovat- rose to the challenge of doing justice to such an iconic band. Much as Issue Project Room was close to sold out for Krasa, Phantasos could be a money gig to be proud of if Sinton could find the time. 

March 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stormy Solo Cello Transcendence with Tamas Varga at Merkin Concert Hall

Last week at Merkin Concert Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Tamas Varga played a transcendent, majestic solo concert built around Kodaly’s Sonata for Violincello. Aaron Jay Kernis, who was in the audience, demurred that he’d never heard the piece before Varga had commissioned him and two others to write solo works to accompany the Hungarian composer’s “great masterwork,” as he called it. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s a symphony for solo cello, requiring all sorts of extended technique: harmonics, simultaneous pizzicato and bowing, and maddening metric shifts, among other things. But Varga dug in with relish. Complicating matters is that the two lowest strings are downtuned, something that the rest of the pieces on the bill shared. Varga cut loose churning rivers of low-register chords before rising to a regal theme that sounded suspiciously sardonic. Distantly Bartokian acidity and Romany-tinged flair were muted in the adagio section but burst into bracing focus in the climactic third movement, which ended cold and unresolved. Throughout the work, Varga’s pacing enhanced the suspense, through a couple of wry Beethovenesque false endings, stormy gusts, brooding lulls and finally the flames that leapt from his bow.

The new pieces were fascinating as well. Kernis’ Blues for Mr. Z was the most allusive yet most resonantly colorful of the three. The composer related that just as Kodaly had drawn on the folk music of his native Hungary, he’d decided to incorporate some austere minor-key blues, which turned out more often than not to be implied rather than explicitly evoked.

Varga opened with a meticulously altered stroll through Gregory Vajda’s Captain Hume’s Last Pavin for Violincello. Inspired by a seventeenth-century rant by British composer Tobias Hume, it built toward several possible resolutions that never arrived. Laszlo Vidovszky’s Two Paraphrases for Violincello Solo, based on two themes from the Kodaly work, built enigmatically ambered variations and ended with a shout out to the composer’s shape note system which is ubiquitous in Hungarian music education. Did Kodaly get the idea from the American shape note system, which was very popular in religious and choral music in the early 1800s? That merits further study.

Varga closed with a plaintive, calmly paced, Bach-influenced miniature written by his son, who couldn’t make it to the show…because he was in school. How many young composers have such a brilliant advocate for their work as Varga? And how many brilliant cellists have kids who can write as poignantly as Varga’s son?

This concert was part of the High Note Hungary series staged by the Hungarian Cultural Center, who have been putting on some incredible shows around town over the last couple of years. The best way to stay on top of what’s happening is to get on their email list: this one was a late addition to the calendar.

March 18, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendent, Troubled, Richly Relevant Sounds with the Chelsea Symphony Saturday Night

Saturday night the Chelsea Symphony – New York’s most intimate orchestral experience – left the audience spellbound with a program that was a fearlessly relevant as it was stylistically vast.

The coda was a poignant, kinetically evocative version of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin that was more dynamic than a famous recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony, and had more slink and dark ripple than another by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of Pierre Boulez. With a calm meticulousness on the podium, the Chelsea Symphony’s Matthew Aubin brought the war veteran composer’s angst-ridden, distantly Andalucian-influenced WWI-era shout-out to people and an era gone forever into sharp, envelopingly wistful focus. Solos throughout were strikingly direct, especially Jason Smoller’s long, plaintive passage, horn player Emily Wong voicing reason through battlefield smoke a little later. 

There isn’t enough room in the New York Philharmonic for all the great musicians in New York: the Chelsea Symphony is one of the places where they can be found. What differentiates the Chelsea ensemble is that since their season is shorter, they have more time for rehearsals – a grand total of five for this particular bill – and this year, the orchestra have dedicated themselves to socially aware programming. No art for art’s sake this year: it’s all about keeping the music grounded in reality.

Chelsea Symphony bassist and composer Tim Kiah introduced the world premiere of his suite Fascist Baby, contemplating how we can keep our children from going over to the dark side. By implication, certainly, no child is born a fascist: the title is a question rather than an epithet. Kiah’s answer to that question, he said, would be to scare that kid a little, but also to offer hope, precisely what his suite accomplished. From a massed scream in the introduction, through calmer, more bittersweet passages utilizing the entire sonic spectrum a la Gil Evanas, to stabbing, Shostakovian horror and then backing away, solace seemed to trump menace.Conductor Reuben Blundell seemed as swept up in the suspense as to how it would turn out as everybody else was.

He also conducted the night’s second piece, Haydn’s First Cello Concerto, with soloist Erich Schoen-Rene. For those who might have preferred sedate, civilized Haydn, this was not the answer, but for those who wanted to revel in the composer’s irrepressible humor, playful jousting and “gotcha” phrases, this was a real romp. It was also the only point during the evening when there were any issues: in this case, tuning, probably weather-related. St. Paul’s Church on 22nd St. is a charming place to see an orchestra, but drafty 19th century buildings can be challenging for string sections when it’s cold outside.

The night’s centerpiece was what may have been the American premiere of Fernande Decruck’s 5 Poems for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra. The Chelsea Symphony have singlehandedly springboarded a revival of the mid-20th composer’s symphonic work, and Aubin has become the world’s leading Decruck scholar. He’s right in calling her extraordinary: one of the few women composers whose work was frequently played throughout Europe in the 1940s, her career was tragically cut short.

In a stroke of synchronicity, both the original 1944 version of this piece as well as the Ravel had been premiered by the same French ensemble, the Ochestre Colonne. Additionally, Decruck and her multi-instrumentalist husband, who played in the New York Philharmonic, lived in the London Terrace apartments in Chelsea, just a few blocks away, during the 1930s.

Introducing the piece, Aubin mentioned a possible political subtext: although the suite derives from liturgical themes, religion barely factors into Decruck’s oeuvre. Rather, the five sections came across as more of a harrowing, relentlessly elegaic commentary on the horrors of war, and as much of a condemnation of those who collaborated with the enemy. Soprano Kate Maroney kept those dynamics front and center, finally rising to an accusatory peak over an insistently somber backdrop. The bass section in particular stood out here, both in the stern first part and later in a surreal, hypnotically brooding one-chord bolero of sorts. Both years ahead of its time and timeless, there’s never been a better moment for this music to be resurgent. If this was recorded, the Chelsea Symphony ought to release it.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next concerts are May 18 at 8 PM, repeating on the 19th at 2 at the DiMenna Center, featuring Shostakovich’s harrowing Symphony No. 5 as well as works by Dvorak, Courtney Bryan and Eric Ewazen. Suggested donation is $20.

March 14, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shimmering and Shattering Mozart This Week From the New York Philharmonic

Last night the New York Philharmonic went from a whisper to a scream in a performance of two iconic Mozart works that even by this orchestra’s standards were revelatory. The Philharmonic are pairing the Requiem with Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B Flat, featuring soloist Richard Goode tomorrow night, March 15 at 8 PM, as well as March 16 at 8 and March 19 at 7:30 PM. If you’ve never seen these pieces before, go – this is a rare chance to get a foundational understanding. If you have, these performances may reorient you, profoundly.

This was not a particularly loud Requiem. Notwithstanding that harrowing jolt where Mozart realizes that things are not going to end well – “Rex! Rex!” the choir implores – and that several later passages are as grand as guignol gets, the orchestra didn’t play them that way. In the early going, conductor Manfred Honeck put his hand to his ear, an admonition to remain hushed, and both the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir standing against the back wall stayed as sotto-voce and dead serious as they possibly could have been. Many ensembles can’t resist the temptation to make Halloween out of it, but this Requiem fulfilled its function as elegy and also as liturgical music, true to the commission Mozart accepted. Employing his motet Ave Verum Corpus as a solemn summation to this uncompleted version was a respectful acknowledgment that we’ll never know how the composer wanted it to end.

As David Bernard has astutely observed, eighty percent of the Requiem is either repetition or Mozart understudy Franz Sussmayr. How do you save repetition from being redundant? Change the dynamics. What a difference Honeck’s choice made when the introductory theme came around again, this time closer to pine box than velvet. Contrasts between mens’ and women’s voices were striking and distinct, other than in the two bewildering series of quasi-operatic, Handelian eighth note volleys that are so out of place that one assumes it was Sussmayr, not Mozart, who came up with them.

Among the four vocal soloists, soprano Joelle Harvey’s forceful delivery was particularly impactful, as was mezzo-soprano Megan Mikhailovna Samarin’s more understated, moody approach, in her Philharmonic debut. Tenor Ben Bliss and bass Matthew Rose exchanged roles as voices of doom and hope against hope. Snippets of somber Mozart Masonic funeral music made an apt introduction and brought everything full circle.

Much as the Requiem was played through a stained glass window, darkly, the Piano Concerto sparkled with coy humor. Goode’s floating articulacy on the keys, through jaunty, fleeting crescendos, jeweled cascades and some jousting with the orchestra, was unselfconsciously joyous. Likewise, the orchestra were seamless unless a particular moment called for some goofy peek-a-boo from an individual voice – Mozart uses the flute a lot for that. There were a few slight transitory glitches early on, but things like that typically get ironed out after opening night.

March 14, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iconic and Obscure Treasures From The Tesla Quartet at Lincoln Center,

In their first Lincoln Center performance since an impromptu 2008 Alice Tully Hall gig, the Tesla Quartet treated a sold-out audience to a well-loved classic along with a more obscure treat this past evening, as part of the ongoing Great Perfomers series.

Violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, violist Edwin Kaplan and cellist Serafim Smigelskiy began with an especially dynamic performance of Beethoven’s final major work, the String Quartet in F major, Op. 135. A tiptoeing hush rose to a vigorous, emphatic stroll through the elegant cheer of the opening allegretto movement, echoed in the vivace second movement as the ensemble shifted between a muted minuet and forceful, fullscale enthusiasm.

From a whispery beginning to aching, unexpectedly stark, vibrato-infused washes, the lento third movement covered an equal expanse of sonic and emotional terrain. After that saturnine interlude, the remarkably spacious series of sharp phrases that began the next movement were quite the surprise, and packed a quiet wallop. Sometimes just a little extra energy completely transforms a piece of music, as the four musicians did with the brooding bittersweetness and sudden detour toward horror afterward. After that, the return to a jaunty stroll seemed to be a red herring: leave it to Beethoven to get all gothic on us!

Respighi’s String Quartet in D major is much lesser known but shouldn’t be – it has all the color of his various Roman cinematic suites. Snyder acknowledged that he discovered it at a “boot camp for string players” upstate: a cd purchased from a now-closed Borders book and record store completely floored him with its idiosyncracies and color. Which should come as no surprise: Respighi was a string player himself.

Gentle hints of a tarantella flitted here and there in the resonant, nocturnal opening movement, the group shifting effortlessly from a balletesque pulse to a wistful, Ravel-esque lushness. The contrast between the subtle echo effects in the background behind Snyder’s bittersweet melody was deftly executed.

The quartet worked hints of Romany flavor, subtle dissonances and a moody waltz to a dark crescendo fueled by Smigelskiy’s assertive presence. They let the enigmatic dance in the third movement speak for itself for a bit, but it wasn’t long before they dug in as they had with the Beethoven, setting the stage for the lively, anthemic series of triplets, acerbic rises and candlelit lulls afterward in the final movement.

They encored with their own lush arrangement of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.

The Tesla Quartet’s next American concert is a program TBA on March 23 at 8 PM at the Stamford United Methodist Church, 88 Main St. in Stamford, New York. The next free classical music event at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is a conversation with New York Philharmonic maestro Jaap van Zweden on March 20 at 7:30 PM. The earlier you get there, the better. 

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

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

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

Slavic Surrealism, Somber Strauss and Bittersweet Beethoven at Lincoln Center

This past evening the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center staged a program on themes of endings and goodbyes. In various configurations, eight musicians contributed to a final work in a specific genre, an elegy, and what could have been a fervent wave goodbye to a composer’s beloved home turf. Each was performed in unusually high-definition, sometimes revelatory detail. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd agreed that braving late-winter bluster for a show like this was infinitely more rewarding than snuggling with a handful of favorite records (or with youtube).

Pianist Gilbert Kalish and violinist Bella Hristova opened the night with a remarkably straightforward take of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10. It seemed just a hair slow. That turned out to be a wise choice, considering that other musicians often romp through the whole thing since the piano part does not require typical Beethovenesque virtuosity (the duke who commissioned it also played the premiere). Likewise, Hristova held back on the vibrato until the hymnal second movement was underway: the effect turned what could have been sentimentality into genuine bittersweetness. Constant exchanges between piano lefthand and violin were coyly amusing, in contrast to the first hint of an ending in the third movement, which Kalish imbued with a distantly desperate quality, raising the ante with sudden extra vigor.

The centerpiece was an absolutely shattering performance of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, arguably the saddest tone poem ever written. Violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violists Mark Holloway and Richard O’Neil, cellists Dmitri Atapine and David Requiro, and bassist Xavier Foley joined Hristova to build a relentless, aching, meticulous interweave that finally came full circle, fueled by the cellos’ plaintive angst. Here as elsewhere, the septet’s attention to minutiae was such that Strauss’ cell-like permutations echoed Bach as much as they foreshadowed Philip Glass. At the end, the audience sat in stunned silence for what felt like a full thirty seconds before breaking into applause.

Dynamics bristled and sparkled throughout the night’s coda, Dvorak’s Trio in E Minor for Piano, Violin and Cello, best known as the Dumky. Joined by Sussmann and Requiro, Kalish seemed to revel in the suite’s almost gleeful phantasmagoria. The savagery in how the composer takes an initial, cloying dance theme and then twists it through a funhouse mirror had a magnetic effect on the trio, especially when Kalish decided to pick up the pace. The numerous contrasts, particularly a silken ending to the adagio second movement, were striking and unselfconsciously poignant…or just plain funny. Sussmann and Requiro approached their solo spots with a straightforwardness that matched the Beethoven. It wouldn’t be fair to call the ending diabolical, but it was close, a devilishly good time. Glistening with Slavic chromatics, if this was a goodbye, it could have been a salute to everything Dvorak loved about his home country…and also quite possibly a snide dismissal of everything he didn’t.

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

A Profoundly Entertaining, Interactive Night of Operatic Fun at the Edge of Chinatown

At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.

He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.

He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?

After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.

But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.

There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.

The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.

February 24, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Compelling, Lushly Relevant Orchestral Works in Washington Heights

This past evening a string subset of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra played a lush, majestic, sweeping, potently relevant program of works by 20th and 21st century composers. The performance validated conventional wisdom in real estate bubble-era New York: the fringes are where the most cutting-edge artists are supposed to be. Ask yourself how many members of the Philharmonic actually walk to work: it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of this talented ensemble did.

The group echoed Music Director Chris Whittaker’s poise on the podium, at least with as much poise as a string section can maintain playing distinctly troubled music. The central theme was Japanese, comprising works by composers with Japanese heritage, setting up a harrowing look back at the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima wasn’t addressed, but it might as well have been, considering how plaintive and elegaic the overall ambience was.

Both the opening and concluding pieces, Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum and Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes opened with percussive rustles from the bass section, a neat pairing. The former was an alternately kinetic and stark interweave of 19th century gospel-inflected pentatonic melody and more distinctly Asian motives. Permeated with the call-and-response of chain gang chants, it spoke for itself as a reminder of how little has changed in over a century.

The showstopper was an understatedly aching, enveloping take of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem For String Orchestra. Moving gracefully from an austere pavane to stabbing close harmonies that foreshadow Julia Wolfe’s work, and then to to cellular Glass-ine phrasing, the group locked in on its relentless, overcast atmosphere.

Karen Tanaka’s Dreamscape suite often had a similarly circular but more distinctly nebulous effect, their group parsing its starry pointillisms and sparely memorable hooks with delicacy to match their lustre, harpist Tomina Parvanova and concertmaster Mark Chien tracing lively comet tails and deep-space bubbles.

Theofanidis’ piece was inspired by the Japanese tradition of making paper cranes. As the myth goes, producing a thousand of them allows for a wish to come true. That activity became a meme among those stricken with radiation poisoning and all kinds of other horrible illnesses after August of 1945.

The triptych is a hard piece to play, partly because it covers so much ground, emotionally speaking. There was unexpectedly calm jubilance in the opening overture of sorts, which disappeared as reality sank in. The group nimbly tackled the precisely dancing pizzicato section and then let the mournful washes afterward linger. The steady procession up to a decidedly unresolved ending was just as poignant.

The orchestra are staging monthly concerts  this spring: the next one is March 23 at 3 PM at at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, 729 W 181st St. just up the hill from the 1 train, with works by Korngold, Britten, Anna Clyne and Michael Torke. Admission is free; $25 gets you into the reception afterward and for the rest of the season as well.

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