Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a specific soloist, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.

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November 11, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Cole Porter and Philanthropy at Lincoln Center

“Do you know Bob Steel?” the friendly Arkansas orange magnate asked his tablemate – a Red Sox fan celebrating his team’s fourth World Championship in fifteen years a bit early – at this year’s Lincoln Center fall gala last week. Just to be clear, this fan was not ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has also never tried to hide his fondness for the Boston team, and was also present.

“Not personally,” the considerably younger Sox fan replied.

He’s a good guy,” the Arkansan confided, almost conspiratorially. He’d been at UNC while Steel was at Duke; his friendship with the longtime Lincoln Center benefactor has remained strong since. This particular evening was Steel’s “turn in the barrel,” as he’d sardonically told host Patricia E. Harris in the weeks beforehand.

Fundraising consultant Amy Schiller, who was also at the celebration, empathized. For anyone who’s ever been feted at one of these events, it really is a turn in the barrel, she reminded. It’s less a barrel going over Niagara Falls than the kind in a .357:it feels like you’re hurled out into midair at the speed of sound.

Offstage, Steel and his vivacious wife are exactly as humble and unassuming as Harris described them, a quintessential culturally engaged cosmopolitan New York couple with whom you might have shared a “wow, that was something” moment after, say, a performance by the Philharmonic. The fundamental difference is that they may have essentially underwritten that moment of reflection and transcendence. 

They have three daughters. Pianist/singer Jon Batiste dedicated what may have been the highlight of the musical portion of the night, a glistening, rainswept, New Orleans-tinged wee-hours take of Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night to them: “In the steel of the night,” he quipped.

As the lavish swells of the orchestra rose and fell from the lowlit stage, a full house were treated to a full hour of Cole Porter classics. In her slinky lace dress and heels, singer Kate Davis left no doubt as to what Love For Sale was about, her aching melismas giving the protagonist a poignancy to match the Billie Holiday version. The edgiest moment of the night was pianist Aaron Diehl’s simmering, shapeshifting interpretation of Too Darn Hot. The most kinetic points were located at the heel and toe of tapdancer Jared Grimes‘ shoes; he kicked up a storm to rival any sit-down percussionist.

Other than echoing John D. Rockefeller’s insistence that this continent’s flagship cultural institution should be a place for everyone, Steel didn’t say much. In this particular moment, that sort of quiet advocacy for one of New York’s treasures spoke a thousand times louder than any self-aggrandizing tweet ever could.

Batiste is at the Jazz Gallery on Dec 18, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $20. Diehl is at NJPAC in Newark on Nov 29-Dec 2 at various times with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; $20 seats are available.

October 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Relevant Grand Finale to This Year’s Momenta Festival

Over the past four years, the Momenta Festival has become one of New York’s most exciting annual events. Each member of the irrepressibly daring Momenta Quartet takes his or her turn programming a night. The festival usually ends on violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron’s birthday. This year’s grand finale, Friday night at the Tenri Institute, happened to be cellist Michael Haas’ birthday: he and the group celebrated by going starkly deep into a program centered around Bartok’s harrowing String Quartet No. 4. As he explained succinctly before the show, it’s a piece he’d been scheming to play ever since joining the ensemble five years ago.  As was the case last year, admission was free, and there was high-grade craft beer afterward, also courtesy of the hosts. What more could a concertgoer possibly want?

They opened with Eric Nathan’s diptych Four to One, from 2011. Interestingly, this was the only contemporary work on the bill. It set it the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the evening, notwithstanding the iconic Bartok quartet immediately afterward. Right off the bat, it became a harried, relentless, microtonal rollercoaster ride, the group holding fast to the counterpoint amidst the storm. Violist Stephanie Griffin’s plaintive assertions were particularly striking, as was Gendron’s turn in the rather cruel spotlight over a menacing wash in the second part. Haas’ cello was also stark yet prominent: it’s not hard to see why he’d want to program this. It reminded a lot of Michael Hersch’s recent, troubling microtonal work.

The performance of the Bartok turned out to be one of the very best of many witnessed by this blog or its owner over the past couple of decades. The persistent sense of doom the quartet parsed with razorwire intensity had particular resonance in this post-2016 election era. Menacingly emphatic gestures leapt from the dark interweave of the first movement, danger drawing ever closer. The circle dance in the second was just as macabre, especially with the exchanges of voices between instruments. Haas’ plaintive cavatina, echoed incisively by violinist Alex Shiozaki, brought the longing and if-only atmosphere of the third to a peak: it was impossible not to think of Shostakovich being influenced by this when writing his String Quartet No. 7. Both the savagery and after-the-battle emotional depletion of the final movement were just as indelible a reminder of the perilous consequences of fascism. The more things change…

Augmented by the Argus Quartet – violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, cellist Joann Whang and guest violist Rose Hashimoto – the Momentas wound up the program with a triumphantly anthemic take of Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C Major. The young composer wrote it at nineteen in a rather successful attempt to outdo Mendelssohn at teenage octetry. The main theme has a suspenseful Andalucian feel, which grew to echo the Ravel bolero in places: together, the group reveled in the dramatic foreshadowing, even if it grew facile in places. A more mature composer might have written it half as long, but even so, when the synopsis of the final movement finally circled back, there was no denying how much of a party this merry band had brought.

The Momenta Quartet are currently on tour: their next gig is tomorrow night, Oct 24 at 7:30 PM playing works by Agustin Fernandez, Roberto Sierra, Eric Nathan, and Philip Glass at Santa Teresa Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Argus Quartet’s next New York show is on Nov 13 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, playing an excellent, diverse program including Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” along with works by Haydn, Ted Hearne, Juri Seo and Christopher Theofanidis. Cover is $25/$15 stud.

October 23, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Avalon Jazz Band Fuel the Revelry at Symphony Space

On one hand, it was mystifying to see a sold-out crowd sitting sedately through the first three songs of the Avalon Jazz Band’s sold-out show at Symphony Space Thursday night. On the other, it was validating to see the group earning appreciation as a first-class jazz act. Too few swing bands get props for their chops.

This show was the second in a weekly series here called Revelry. Musically speaking, it’s the most exciting thing to happen to the Upper West Side in a long, long time. There were never many venues in the neighborhood to begin with and there are even fewer now. So Symphony Space is really filling a need by booking all sorts of artists who’ve probably never played this far north.

This Thursday, Oct 25 at 8 PM the venue has Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a polymath on oldtime blues guitar, banjo and piano who may be the single most talented musician in all of New York. Ticket buyers 30 and under get in for $20, which is ten bucks off the regular cover charge. The downstairs bar stays open during the show and afterward; last week, ushers were grinningly handing out wristbands which entitled concertgoers to 20% off at the bar. All this is a different kind of return to the venue’s glory days in the late zeros and earlier in this decade when they were booking a ton of global talent in addition to the usual classical and jazz acts.

Last week, it was a four-piece version of Avalon Jazz Band. They opened with a charming, chirpy, playfully conversational take of the old French standard Coquette, frontwoman Tatiana Eva-Marie shimmying and teasing cartoonish riffs – and an irresistibly droll bass solo – from her bandmates. By the night’s third number, people of all ages were beginning to leave their seats and heading down in front of the stage to cut a rug. The snazziest dance moves of the night came from a couple who looked to be in their seventies, clearly old pros at swing dancing.

After starting in Paris, the singer led her quartet to Romany territory – Tatiana is half French and half Romanian – then to New Orleans and finally brought the music full circle. Guitarist Vinny Raniolo aired out his vast bag of riffs, from punchy Django Reinhardt swing, to warily resonant Chicago blues, fleet postbop and some eerie, tremoloing Lynchian resonance capped off with tremolo-picking that was sometimes fluttery and sometimes an icepick attack.

Violinist Gabe Terracciano showed off similar chops, from jaunty Bob Wills-style western swing, to airy Stephane Grappelli-esque phrasing, lots of sabretoothed Romany riffs and stark blues as well. Bassist Wallace Stelzer was amped pleasantly high in the mix, serving as the band’s Secretary of Entertainment with his wry sense of humor, the occasional tongue-in-cheek quote and solos that echoed the guitar.

The songs in the set were just as diverse. They’d played this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival, so that was still on their minds. The highlight of the set was a brooding, saturnine take of Hoagy Carmichael’s New Orleans, with new English lyrics by a Crescent City friend of Tatiana’s. Her original, There’s Always a Moon Over New Orleans made a brisk contrast, inspired by the fact that when the band were down there, they never got up until after the sun went down. They mined the repertoire of Charles Trenet and Charles Aznavour for wistfulness, then went scampering up Menilmontant toward the end of the set. Afterward the crowd filed out to the bar, just as Tatiana – who by the end of the set had drained most of a sizeable glass of whiskey – had been encouraging all night. 

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

Drifting Through Dystopia and the Classics with Max Richter

This past evening at the Town Hall, pianist/composer Max Richter joined forces with a string quintet subset of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for a night of elegiacally enveloping, meticulously unfolding themes contemplating the apocalypse and the aftershock of a deadly terrorist attack. To careful listeners, the often hypnotically circling performance was also a guided tour of Richter’s big influences.

The paradigm for composing film music these days is akin to a mathematical proof in reverse, to start from simplest terms and build steadily from there toward whatever drama the script calls for. The sighing two-note riff that Angelo Badalamenti employed to open the Twin Peaks title theme is probably the most effective example. Richter is one of the great masters of that craft, a minimalist who can get maximal if the director needs it.

This was a night of generally very dark music, enhanced by the two cellos – ensemble leader Clarice Jensen and Paul Wianco – alongside violinists Laura Lutzke and Yuki Numata Resnick, and violist Caleb Burhans. The program paired a sonata of sorts, Richter’s 2008 work Infra – arguably the least kinetic ballet score ever written – with theme music from the dystopic sci-fi tv series The Leftovers

The former, a dynamic and often very still piece written to commemorate the July 7, 2005 London tube bombings mashed up Philip Glass and Brian Eno (with a few nods to a Schubert piano trio). The Leftovers score reinvented Bach and also referenced night-sky Beethoven – although the most egregiously clever quote was lifted verbatim from Cesar Franck.

Other than a dissociatively hammering, very effective interlude in the early part of Infra, any third-year piano student could have played Richter’s slow, steady, methodical variations on simple major and minor arpeggios. The brilliance was how judiciously he pieced accidentals into the fabric, from ultraviolet gleam to pitchblende finality. He occasionally switched to electric piano in the music’s starriest moments, particularly during the second half when he used a setting very close to the phantasmic tinkle of a toy piano.

The strings wove Richter’s rises and falls through increasingly complex, Renaissance-inflected counterpoint with similar dexterity. The high point of the night may have been in the early part of Infra, distant comet trails of harmonics sparkling from the strings and anchored by Richter’s simple, emphatic accents and block chords. Jensen’s vigorous propulsion beneath Resnick’s keening flickers brought to life similarly tasty contrasts. When the Leftovers score finally decayed from a dirge to defeated, lingering low-register horizontality, the devastation was visceral.

As vivid as the affinity was between the piano and string section, this was an electroacoustic performance. The lighter, glitchier electronic touches were a minor distraction; the louder ones subsumed the band. Obviously, the economics of touring make it impractical for a group that isn’t funded by all kinds of corporate or nonprofit money to bring along a full choir and low brass section. Considering how much reverb the sound engineer had put on the strings during the second half of the show, witnessing this music stripped to just Richter and the quintet would have been a lot more interesting simply because everybody could have been heard. And these are great musicians. Having to dig in and fight with a recording may have robbed them of the opportunity to play with the extraordinary nuance they’re known for. In those moments, it was impossible to tell.

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

A Perfectly Macabre Halloween Month Extravaganza at Green-Wood Cemetery

This past evening, in the the private catacombs buried away in the center of Green-Wood Cemetery, a woman’s high heels echoed over a murmur of sepulchral voices.

Those persistent footfalls belonged to an employee there. But the hushed swirl of voices weren’t coming from cemetery workers. While those sounds were on the quiet side, they were also very lively: the electricity of a sold-out crowd who’d gone deep into the realm of the dead to witness the first of three nights of the grand finale of the series called the Angel’s Share.

Drawing on classics by Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, pianist Gregg Kallor and cellist Joshua Roman built a relentlessly turbulent ambience, less classic horror film score than mashup of postbop jazz, the Second Viennese School and a little Olympian Rick Wakeman bombast. Yet this performance of pieces from Kallor’s current work in progress, a Frankenstein opera, as well as his epic oratorio The Tell-Tale Heart were ultimately less about instrumental pyrotechnics than vocal ones. And what voices these were!

The greatest achievement of Kallor’s scores turned out to be the contrast between the stubborn unresolve of the music and the sheer anthemic catchiness of the vocal melodies. Yet with all the tension and often outright suspense between the two, they were hardly easy to sing. Emerging from (and then eventually skulking back into) the Herrmann family’s private crypt, baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave the Frankenstein monster dignity and gravitas, along with a crushing solitude that rang starkly true to Shelley’s novella. Tenor Brian Cheney, as Dr. Frankenstein, channeled intransigent denial, but his angst grew more harrowing as the dialogue with his creation grew more emotionally charged. The takeaway from Kallor’s interpretation of the story seems to be that if you create monsters, be careful lest you become one. As the suite wound up, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano also offered resolute poignancy as the doctor’s fiancee and quasi-foil.

Kallor then delivered another world premiere, solo, playing The Answer Is Yes, a dedication to Leonard Bernstein (who according to the program notes is a permanent Green-Wood resident). The title is a typically exuberant Bernstein quote from a series of Harvard lectures, and rang true as Kallor methodically shifted gears between distantly Stravinskian, balletesque leaps and bounds, saturnine lustre and a little bittersweet blues. So many other composers  inspired by Bernstein end up aping him. Kallor did nothing of the sort.

Cano then pulled out all the stops in The Tell-Tale Heart. Kallor and Roman edged closer to straight-ahead, chromatically slashing grand guignol as she gave voice to what appeared to be the entire short story. It was a dynamic tour de force that ultimately demanded every bit of available firepower and range-stretching technique. In between those extremes, she delivered furtive puzzlement, and grisly determination, and finally a knockout portrait of sheer madness. Whether modulating her soul-infused vibrato or belting with a crypt-shaking power, she put on a clinic in just about every emotion that could be evinced from this creepy character.

Without spoiling anything else, the costuming and lighting are spot-on and add immensely to the performance’s tension and suspense. Sometimes less is really more: in staging this, the crew really had to become intimate with the space.

The program repeats tomorrow and Friday, Oct 11-12 and is sold out. However, there is a wait list. In their inaugural season, this series became a huge hit with neighborhood folks, so if you are one of them, and ghoulish sounds are your thing, head up the hill to the cemetery and you might just get in.

Maybe you’ll even be able to take a refreshingly shadowy ten-minute walk back from the crypt, through the tombstones, afterward…despite this past evening’s crushing humidity, that stroll was as magical as the concert.

October 10, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Edgy Preview For Bigtime European Creative Music in Deep Brooklyn

Every year, the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland draws European fans from across the continent, along with plenty of American travelers. It’s one of the major European jazz festivals and routinely sells out. For the last few years, there’s been a brief New York edition of the festival as well. It was fun to catch a trio of festival acts last year at Jazz at Lincoln Center – but word on the street has been that the really wild stuff is at the series of house concerts scattered around town over the course of a weekend. Saturday’s show in a comfortable second-floor Lefferts Gardens space – part of the adventurous Soup & Sound series – validated that.  Creative music in 2018 doesn’t get much better than this was.

That the propulsively glimmering trio of guest alto saxophonist Ned Rothenberg with pianist Piotr Orzechowski and drummer Łukasz Żyta weren’t anticlimactic speaks to the levels of spontaneous magic reached by the rest of the acts on this characteristically impromptu bill. The overall theme seemed to be variations on uneasy circular themes: tense close harmonies, taut and then more elastic push-pull against a center that veered in and out of focus, simple repetitive figures growing into double helixes that eventually produced brand-new musical species. 

The mystery guests were a couple of bassists, one of them playing a Fender, building a tersely intertwining lattice of textures that rose from the shadows to let in dapples of light from the upper registers. Rothenberg switched to clarinet for a two-reed frontline with Waclaw Zimpel and a second pianist for a hypnotically pointillistic electroacoustic set that evoked vintage Brian Jones loopmusic before veering back and forth toward a steady, swinging stroll and some jousting between the horns.

Orzechowski then returned to the keys, drummer and host Andrew Drury having all kinds of fun shifting between playfully tricky polyrhythms, allusive swing and extended-technique washes of sound from his kickdrum heads. Alto saxophonist Kuba Wiecek built a muted strobe effect over the thick, murky hammerklavier river underneath. Then the sax and rhythm exchanged roles, a hornets’ nest in both frenetic daytime and ominously nocturnal modes.

The Jazztopad Festival begins on November 16; trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar, among other current-day masters, will be there on the 24th.

October 9, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be juat as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed sentiment that via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

September 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missy Mazzoli’s Grim, Grisly Great Plains Gothic Tour de Force

As a sold-out crowd filtered into the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, a strange interweave of short melodic phrases rose from the newly reopened orchestra pit, played more or less in turn by a large subset of International Contemporary Ensemble’s rotating multi-city cast. They weren’t warming up for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing opera, Proving Up: the surreal, acidic exchange was foreshadowing in disguise. It only hinted at the ghastly narrative to come.

Royce Vavrek’s libretto, based on a Karen Russell short story, follows the misfortunes of a family of 19th century Nebraska homesteaders. The only possible hardship they don’t have to face is Indian raids: presumably the original occupants of the land to which the Zegner family hopes to claim the deed have already been murdered. A cast of seven, both the living and the dead, carry out a grim narrative, clinging to the illusion of a destiny they can manifest despite all odds against that ever happening. They’re forced to recycle things you never would. Such a sobering wake-up call, from an American dream that has historically eluded most of those who embraced it, could not be more relevant than it is now.

Mazzoli’s score mirrors the Zegners’ determination to prove to a Godot of a government inspector that they’ve fulfilled every surreal requirement to make the land their own. The melodies are elusive, often maddeningly so. Folksy themes gather momentary momentum, only to be twisted into cruel shadows of themselves. Mazzoli’s orchestration is sublimely strange and counterintuitive: a melodica and a big gong figure notably in the score alongside aching strings, spare brass, sepulchrally glittering piano and woodwinds.

The singers take similarly challenging melodies which seldom stayed in any one particular scale or mode and deliver a confidently chilling performance. John Moore gives poignancy to the family’s drunken, abusive yet fiercely populist patriarch. Soprano Talise Trevigne brings an immutably soaring strength to his wife, the family’s truest believer and possibly truest victim. As their son, riding across the lone prairie on a joke of a horse, Michael Slattery witnesses the mark of the beast on midwestern sentimentality  As a very differently imperiled brother, Sam Shapiro has to hold some contorted poses, and his ballet training doesn’t let him down. Bass Andrew Harris plays a grim reaper figure with relish. And Abgail Nims and Cree Carrico, as ghost Greek choir, channel diabolical schadenfraude. Director James Darrah’s decision to stage an exhumation in the midst of all the drama packs grand guignol wallop.

The opera’s totemic central symbol is a glass window, something every verifiable homestead needed to have. A question of provenance arises, with lethal results. As the story plays out, Mazzoli’s sinister, looming ambience is relentless. Her music has no shortage of troubling undercurrents, but this is the darkest and arguably best work she’s ever composed in a career that probably hasn’t even hit its high point yet.

Downward glissandos from both the singers and the orchestra cap off some of the night’s most emphatic crescendos, one crushing defeat after another. Solid grooves are dashed away in an endlessly daunting series of rhythmic shifts: nothing is solidly underfoot here. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with fullscale horror in the final act, the long build up to that point, through vast long-tone desolation, eerily twinkling piano, marionettish rhythmic jerks and sepulchral flickers throughout the ensemble, the takeaway is unmistakeable. We should be able to see the final results of this particular promise a mile away.

There’s one more performance tonight at the Miller, and that’s sold out. Programming here this season is characteristically diverse, from Brazilian rainforest nocturnes on Oct 9 at 6 PM, to one of the theatre’s signature composer portrait performances featuring the work and vocals of Kate Soper on the 27th at 8.

September 28, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magical, Cinematic Jazz Nocturnes From Aakash Mittal at Lincoln Center

“Tonight’s show is going to be very meditative and very beautiful – you’re going to want to soak in the piece, in one full bite,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused before Aakash Mittal took the stage with his trio this past evening. She was on to something. “My mind was blown by the variety of artists here,” Mittal agreed, being a regular at the atrium space where Dugal brings in talent from around the world (the Asian American Arts Alliance and India Center Foundation  partnered with Lincoln Center to make this happen). Then the group launched into the world premiere of a piece Mittal had just finished at 11 PM the night before

It’s a shout-out to three artists Mittal has worked with in recent years: avant garde soul singer Imani Uzuri, paradigm-shifting microtonal saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh and similarly legendary drummer/cardiac medicine guru Milford Graves. That eclecticism perfectly capsulized what Mittal is all about: a rugged individualist with sax (and clarinet, and flute) building on some of the catchiest tunes in a five thousand year tradition for something completely new and different.

He began the show on his usual axe, alto sax with a characteristically simple, crystallized, resonant series of phrases as guitarist Miles Okazaki jangled and plinked, Rajna Swaminathan nimbly firing out boomy syncopation on her double-barreled mridangam drum. As this enigmatic tone poem built up steam, it made an apt introduction for the series of nocturnes, each inspired by an individual Indian raga, which followed on the bill.

Swaminathan was energized right from the beginning, so Mittal and Okazaki chilled out before leaping back in and taking the introductory theme skyward, high-voltage bhangra melismatics balanced by punchy pedal phrases from the guitar. Rudresh Mahanthappa at his moodiest and most concise came to mind.

As the trio gently launched into the first nocturne, Mittal’s brooding blue-light curlicues contrasted with Swaminathan’s knock-knock beats, Okazaki again holding the center but pulling hard against it with his acidic chords. Mittal ceded the foreground, hanging on a long, mysterious drone, then picked up the pace with a coyly furtive, noir-tinged melody and variations that methodically drifted toward a tight bhangra pulse.

Okazaki sputtered out basslines and a little muted skronk; Mittal alluded to the slashing chromatics of Arabic modes, finally leiving the mist behind with a couple of wildfire flurries and some otherworldly duotones. Deviously dancing phrases occupied moody ambience; Mittal’s insistence paired off with Okazaki’s resilient chordal steadiness and cheery bubbles, occasionally hinting at Cuban riffage. With the boom from the mridangam, the absence of bass wasn’t a big deal. Ironically, the final nocturne was the sparest yet most hypnotically anthemic.

They pared the sound down to the bone for a plaintive rainy-day duo soundscape, Swaminathan eventually providing some distant thunder beyond the gloom. The funky number after that was closer to straight-ahead postbop jazz, but still Okazaki’s tense modal attack didn’t stray far from the center while the dance grew more agitated.

A flute duo between Mittal and guest Pawan Benjamin drew on Anthony Braxton’s modular writing but even as the notes rose higher up the scale, Mittal’s circular, nocturnal phrasing remained consistent,up to a shadowy ambient interlude where he switched to clarinet. The full quartet closed with a rivetingly microtonal, slashingly melismatic take of Street Music, Mittal’s evocation of late-night jamming in Kolkata, where he studied classical Indian music on a scholarship.

Mittal’s next gig is part of the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga marathon starting at 5 PM on Oct 5 and going all night at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. And the free, mostly-weekly series of shows at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues this Oct 4 at 7:30 PM with firebrand Egyptian accordionist/songwriter Youssra El Hawary, best known for her hilarious Arab Spring youtube hit Piss on the Wall.

September 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment