Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Valerie Coleman’s Bustling Compositions Spring to Life at Symphony Space

If anybody deserves a lavish three-hour “composer portrait” concert, it’s Valerie Coleman. The esteemed Imani Winds flutist and founder got just that at Symphony Space in a program featuring her bandmates along with the Da Capo Chamber Players and other musicians. Coleman’s compositions bustle without being busy. They’re electric with color and rhythm, reflecting the New York milieu she represents. Balancing that kinetic energy is a somber side steeped in history, infused as much with the blues and gospel music as with classical and the avant garde. And as serious and in-your-face as her music can be – very in-your-face, if she feels like it – she can also be uproariously funny. There were several moments of LOL vaudevillian jousting during the performance that made for considerable relief from the intensity that permeated the rest of the show. Ultimately, Coleman’s music is deep, and the performers seized that and brought out all the rich color in a series of diverse chamber works as they flashed by, or resonated with a gritty, irony-drenched gravitas.

The night’s most spine-tingling moment of many might have been the tightly spiraling interplay between Coleman and clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki midway through an unselfconsciously haunting, Langston Hughes-inspired trio work (one of a half-dozen on the bill) with pianist Dmitri Dover. Or it could have been the Da Capos’ world premiere of Lenox Avenue, a fascinatingly boisterous cityscape that does for Harlem what Respighi did for Rome. The rousing, minutely jeweled closing partita Tzigane for Wind Quintet also delivered plenty of chromatically-charged thrills, notably from the Imanis’ Toyin Spellman-Diaz’s oboe, set up by longer, more expansive, suspenseful interludes.

The Imanis delivered an alternately rapt, darkly reflective and celebratory take of Coleman’s triptych, Afro-Cuban Concerto for Wind Quintet. Coleman said before the concert that she envisioned her ensemble as having more of the spirit of a brass band than a “light and fluffy” group, and this reaffirmed that she doesn’t have to worry about the latter ever being the case. The world premiere of Rubispheres, for the wind trio of Coleman and her bandmates – propulsive bassoonist Monica Ellis and the similarly incisive Mariam Adam on clarinet – followed a similar, dynamically charged trajectory, echoed later in the program by the DaCapos’ take of the blues-infused suite Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. All three of those richly ambered, reflective works made a powerful contrast with the unfettered joie de vivre that had taken centerstage for so much of this fascinating and rewarding program.

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April 7, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moonstruck Menace at Merkin Hall

This year may the centenary of the Rite of  Spring, the Da Capo Chamber Players’ pianist Blair McMillen reminded the crowd at Merkin Hall last night, but it’s also the centenary of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Lucy Shelton opened the group’s performance of the iconic avant garde work – a staple of hundreds of horror films over the years – by placing a puppet in a tiny wicker chair at the edge of the stage directly in front of the ensemble. One hand on her hip, the other holding herself up on the piano, wild grin straining across her face, Shelton made a delectably demonic moonstruck matron. Crooning, imploring, one second petulant, the next gleeful. she played the role to the hilt. At one point she fanned herself energetically (which may not have been an act – it could have been hot onstage), then ostentatiously took a couple of hits off a snifter of red liquid (vodka cranberry? Nyquil?)  and then offered some to the rest of the musicians. Everybody declined.

As dark, carnivalesque, deliberately ugly music – and as a prototype for serialism – Schoenberg’s suite is pretty much unsurpasssed. The Da Capos’ version last night was particularly impactful because they played the calmer sections with such a low-key elegance, leaving plenty of headroom for the piano or the violin or the flute to fire off the occasional savage, atonal cadenza. Watching the group, what was most striking was how minimalist so much of the piece is:  the entire group is in on it only a small fraction of the time. Otherwise, it was left to a combination of perhaps three or even fewer instruments out of the piano, Meighan Stoops’ clarinet or bass clarinet, Curtis Macomber’s violin, James Wilson‘s cello and Patricia Spencer’s flutes beneath the vocals. In many places, the music mocks those vocals, sometimes overtly, sometimes by maintaining a perfect calm while the crazy puppet coos and rasps and pulls against imaginary shackles.

Many of the melodies are parodies of circus music. The famous circus riff that everybody knows  – dat-dat, da-da-da-da, DAT-dat, da-da – or rather a twisted version thereof, gets played by the cello about midway through the suite. Otherwise, the phantasmagoria is sometimes enhanced, sometimes weirdly masked by the composer’s use of tritones and dissonance in place of anything resembling a resolution. At the end, Shelton took it down with just the hint of a cackle for good measure and won the group three standing ovations.

A Mohammed Fairouz suite that appropriated the title of the Schoenberg work opened the night. Hubristic a move as it was, Fairouz is fearless about things like that. This suite didn’t have his usual politically-fueled edge but it did have his signature wit and eclectic tunesmithing. The ensemble gamely tackled a rather difficult series of switches from uneasy operatics, to lush chamber pop, noir cabaret, gleeful circus rock and finally a plaintive art-rock anthem that morphed into Queen-y histrionics. It was too bad that the vocals and the lyrics weren’t up to the carefully measured melodicism and clever layers of meaning that Fairouz had given the music. As the piece stands, it has a bright future as a suite of songs without words.

June 7, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Da Capo Chamber Players Jumpstart Black History Month

Gil Scott-Heron famously observed that Black History Month could only happen in February. Last night at Merkin Concert Hall the Da Capo Chamber Players gave it a vigorous jumpstart with a program of music by contemporary black composers that was often as gripping as it was provocative. Da Capo flutist Patricia Spencer and clarinetist Meighan Stoops chose the works, inspired in particular by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and its revelation that the percentage of blacks currently incarcerated in the United States is higher than it was in South Africa under apartheid.

Da Capo pianist Blair McMillen opened with a trio of Nkeiru Okoye miniatures: a tightly assembled group of children at play, a droll rain dance and a beautifully nuanced take of Dusk, an elegaic nocturne mingling oldtime gospel and 70s soul themes. A similar darkness and mystery would recur a little later in the night’s quiet showstopper, Alvin Singleton’s La Flora. From the perspective of not having read the liner notes beforehand, it conjured up images of early morning New England industrial parks, plots being hatched among sleepy accomplices who slowly begin to focus as the light grows and then leap into action. However it might be interpreted, it’s a hushed, lush, conspiratorial, powerfully cinematic piece, part minimalist tone poem, part Lynchian noir narrative. The ensemble (McMillen, Stoops, Spencer on bass flute, Curtis Macomber on violin and James Wilson on cello) took their time with it, Wilson working its pianissimo drones for all the tension they were worth, McMillen and guest vibraphonist Matthew Gold adding eerie glimmer in turn alongside the lushness of the winds and strings and percussionist Samuel Nathan’s terse, distantly menacing accents. As it turns out, Singleton’s inspiration was Botticelli’s La Primavera and its subtext-loaded assemblage of dieties and nymphs: go figure. Either way, the foreshadowing lingered long after it was over. The composer was present and seemed pleased: he had every reason to be.

The ensemble’s approach to Jeffrey Mumford’s complex, alternately harsh and balmy A Diffuse Light That Knows No Particular Hour was judicious and matter-of-fact,  its calm/agitated dichotomies highlighted by a swaying, conversational interlude between flute and clarinet that recurred memorably as the work hit a trick ending and then continued an upward arc, developing a visceral sense of longing.

A series of miniatures by the Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman drew on Langston Hughes poems which were recited in between: a resilient and surprisingly bubbly portrait of Helen Keller; wry jazz and blues-inspired Paris nightclub romps; a Debussy-esque rainstorm and a dark, understatedly majestic Harlem nocturne that was equal parts blues, gospel and art-rock. The ensemble closed with Wendell Morris Logan’s Runagate, Runagate, a jarringly cinematic, shapeshifting, often chilling portrait of slaves escaping to freedom. Trouble was, it was paired with a long Robert Hayden poem – both spoken and sung – on a similar theme. Taken separately, music and lyrics have much to recommend them; together, it seemed that the poem had been grafted haphazardly to the suite, a fault of composition rather than performance. The vocal line never wavered far from a central tone since there was nowhere to go over the leaps and bounds of the rest of the arrangement, and there were moments, especially early on, where operatics actually drowned out the music behind them.

The Da Capo Chamber Players return to Merkin Hall on June 6 at 8 PM to play a new commission from Mohammed Fairouz plus Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with soprano Lucy Shelton.

January 30, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment