Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

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May 16, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Minguet Quartet Play Beethoven and More with Vigor and Sensitivity at Lincoln Center

Thursday night, there was fundamental logic for the Minguet Quartet’s concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space. The string quartet take their name from Pablo Minguet, an 18th century Spanish philosopher dedicated to making the arts accessible to everyone. That’s the agenda at Lincoln Center’s “playground,” as Jordana Leigh, who’d booked this show in conjunction with the ongoing Great Performers series, calls it. Its raison d’etre is transparent: give the public a marathon slate of first-class programming from literally all over the map, and create a brand new supporter base in the process. Considering that these shows routinely sell out, it seems to be working.

The quartet opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. They gathered steam slowly with the stately nocturnal intro to the first movement ; its cleverly shifting voicings brought to mind Vivaldi at quarterspeed. The group – violinists Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violist Aroa Sorin and cellist Matthias Diener – dug in harder, but with a striking consistency, as the composer’s rhythm shifted and the exchanges grew more suited to a dancefloor at some European baron’s estate.

But this is a Rubik’s Cube of a piece: there’s symmetry, but it’s always changing. A hypnotically pulsing calm set in as the violins rose further up the scale, until Diener got to puncture it, gently. Beethoven doesn’t let an initial country dance theme cut loose, but he does with a second, which the group attacked with relish. There was puckish joy in fleeting pizzicato moments, but also sotto-voce suspense as the music dipped. And a cruel instant where Beethoven suddenly has the whole quartet shift to high harmonics for a couple of bars didn’t phase them in the least.

Sharp martial motives stood out alongside twilit lustre and dancing rivulets; the innumerable false endings were absolutely conspiratorial. Whoever might think the string quartet repertoire might be stodgy hasn’t heard this group play this piece.

The group closed with a stripped-down arrangement of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Am Lost to the World), a morosely defiant artist’s kiss-off to a cruel world.

There will also be several hours’ worth of free events to celebrate Lincoln Center’s fiftieth anniversary taking place all over campus today, May 4 starting at around quarter to eleven in the morning: a thunderous all-female troupe playing Brazilian samba reggae, and a couple of Haitian ensembles, kick off the festivities on the plaza

May 4, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Visceral, Marathon Performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall

There was electricity in the air Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, where a sold-out crowd witnessed conductor Pablo Heras-Casaldo leading the Orchestra of St. Luke’s through a marathon performance of two symphonies, a famous piano concerto and a clever mini-suite that should be more popular than it is.

There’s always a curmudgeon somewhere. “They’re playing the Prokofiev first?” an older guy in the orchestra section scowled to his date, a pretty young brunette in a tight black sweater. “That’s anticlimactic.”

“That’s daring,” she deadpanned. Both turned out to be right.

From the quasi-Haydn of the exchanges in the opening movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, it sparkled with distinct voicings, jaunty accents and sotto-voce humor. It’s not Bohemian Rhapsody, but parts of it are close: the composer clearly had a great time toying with short, punchy, late 18th century-style Germanic phrasing. The pseudo-Mozart of the third movement was the most irrestistibly funny part, yet tellingly, Heras-Casaldo and the ensemble glimmered most memorably in the saturnine second movement. That’s where Prokofiev leaves no doubt as to who wrote it – and that bittersweetness will prevail at least for the time being. The coda seemed a little fast; then again, it’s hard to argue with how much fun the group were having, running red lights all the way.

Pianist Hélène Grimaud earned several standing ovations for a breathtakingly visceral take of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. From its gleeful opening glissandos, through plenty of the ravishing bolero and flamenco-tinged phrasing that the composer loved so much, to the sharply polished, steely interweave of the third movement, she matched meticulous precision to mighty joie de vivre.

It was going to be hard to top that. By now, it was all the more impressive how seamlessly the orchestra had negotiated a rugged road, constantly shifting gears between the early classical period, Russian Romanticism, the early modern, and foreshadowing flickers of flamenco jazz. There would be even more new terrain in Stravinsky’s Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra, a whistle-stop tour of tarantella, flamenco and finally Russian folk influences fleshed out with an arrangement that’s carnivalesque if not completely phantasmagorical.

They closed with an old warhorse, Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E Flat, from 1795. Once again, Heras-Casaldo and the group seemed to be having a ball with the endless volleys of call-and-response from both individual voices and segments of the orchestra. In the same vein as their rendition of the Prokofiev, this turned out to be more boisterous and beery than – as the curmudgeon groused to his companion – simply banquet music for the landed gentry of Napoleonic Europe.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s next show is April 25 at 8 PM at New York City Center, joining soprano Victoria Clark in a performance of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark; $30 tix are available.

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

Lisa Bielawa Makes a Memorable Conducting Debut at the New School

To what degree is iit a blessing, or a curse, for a conductor to make her debut with three world premieres? On one hand, it could be an overwhelming challenge. Until another orchestra plays those works, yours is the definitive version, for better or worse. On the other, it’s a chance to really shine,. Wednesday night at the New School, Lisa Bielawa did exactly that, leading the Mannes String Orchestra through lively debuts of arrangements of a couple of her own powerfully relevant pieces plus similarly striking contemporary works by Jon Gibson, David T. Little and a joyously swinging, dynamic finale with Philip Glass‘ Symphony No. 3.

Of course, Bielawa is best known as a composer, and a singer. She related how she’d been blown away by that symphony, shortly after joining the Philip Glass Ensemble as a vocalist, more or less straight out of Yale, 24 years ago. So she had the inside track for what was obviously a dream gig, seizing that moment with the same kind of muscular meticulousness that defines so much of her work.

So much of Glass’ music has a rapturously unfolding beauty that orchestras tend to play up the lustre factor, gliding through all those mesmerizing, shapeshifting phrases. This performance was much more bright and emphatic, in about as high definition as an ensemble can play it. Individual voices were strikingly distinct, notably violinists Yeji Pyun and Ann-Frances Rokosa, among the group’s nineteen members.
They danced through the playful, baroque-tinged humor in the first movement, tackled some daunting extended technique, notably glissandos and microtonal haze in the second, and accentuated the frequently shifting contrast between celestial sweep and trouble lurking just around the corner as the counterpoint grew more complex and intertwining.

The opening numbers were just as fascinating to wattch unfold. The ensemble arrived in threes for the opening work, Jon Gibson’s elegantly crescendoing Chorales for Relative Calm, with phrasing and more than one riff that sent a shout-out to Glass. Bielawa seemed at ease in her new role in front of the orchestra with that one, and really worked up a sweat with a pulsing, turbulent take of her own piece, The Trojan Women, pulling individual voices and clusters out of the increasing storm with Nielsen-esque color and aplomb.
The string orchestra arrangement of David T. Little’s 1986 – another world premiere – was even more of a challenge as the music leapfrogged between centuries and idioms, imgued with plenty of sarcasm and allusions to other works, and Bielawa and the ensemble held up to the challenge. 1986 was a pretty horrible year for just about everybody other than the Mets, and this piece doesn’t seem to include them.

Soprano Rowen Sabala emerged from the wings to sing two excerpts from Bielawa’s dystopic sci-fi opera Vireo and dispayed steely intensity as well as breathtaking range and a rare ability to enunciate, lyrically, something a lot of bigtime voices can’t do. Playing the role of a teenage visionary who exists simultaneously in three different centuries, she channeled both cynical contentment at being locked away at Alcatraz, away from her tormentors, along with surreal, hallucinatory angst.

Big up to the New School for getting to the guy who’s arguably the greatest American composer of the late 20th and early 21st century and setting up the Philip Glass Institute. Bielawa being their inaugural Composer-in-Residence, there will likely be more like this happening in the weeks to come.

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

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

April 12, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radical, Riveting Reinventions of Old Classics by New Talent: Xavier Foley and Kelly Lin at the Morgan Library

Anyone who might think that the Morgan Library wouldn’t necessarily be home to the most thrilling, cutting-edge music around wasn’t there earlier today for bassist Xavier Foley and pianist Kelly Lin’s exhilarating, genuinely radical performance. The two took all kinds of chances in a daring series of reinventions, in addition to a fascinating mini-suite by the bassist himself – and most of them worked.

To call the show hubristic doesn’t do justice to the pair’s achievement: in some classical circles, some still consider it hubris to play Bach on the piano instead of the harpsichord or the organ. And beyond late Beethoven, classical music that makes strenuous demands of the bass tends to be rare. Foley seems fixated on making his axe as important a solo instrument, as, say, the violin, and it’s about time somebody did.

The two opened with Foley’s reinvention of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E Minor. Transposing the violin part to a range comparable to a cello’s enhanced the almost Russian moodiness in the opening Allegro; one doesn’t usually speak of a bassist as having exceptionally nuanced vibrato, but Foley does, and used it masterfully. Lin, playing background that doesn’t give an artist much opportunity to display much personality, made the most of it with a steady, similarly nuanced attack, seamlessly playing Mozart’s ornamentation as glittering sixteenth notes.

Foley’s vast range, utilizing every bit of the bass’s actually vast sonic capability, came into jaunty focus throughout a playful take of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, D 821. From the sly, faux-Romany dance they opened with, through often deviously fugal counterpoint, it made a very smart pairing with the Mozart. A lot of the exchanges between instruments are very funny, the duo playing their cards close to the vest for the most part…and then Foley accidentally took an extra repeat! Lin knew in a split-second what had happened and stayed perfectly in sync as the two wound it out, with an emphatic burst of a bass chord to cap it off.

Excerpts from Foley’s own Star Sonata, which he wrote in 2016 at age 22, made for even more agile interplay between piano and bass, from sudden, minimalist syncopation, through a jazz-tinged, solo series of bass cascades and climbs that seemed completely improvised, to rapidfire, baroque-tinged bowed phrases from the wispiest highs to pitchblende lows.

The two closed with Gliere’s Intermezzo and Tarantella, a miniature that brought all the previous idioms full circle with some breathtaking phantasmagoria. The crowd went wild. This was it for this spring’s Young Concert Artists series at the Morgan, although the museum has plenty of chamber music continuing into the summer.

April 10, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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