Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Monday Night at the Classical Recording Foundation Awards

Music awards ceremonies can be funny, and not in a good way – for example, when’s the last time you watched the Grammies? A better question would be, have you ever watched the Grammies? At their 2011 awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall Monday night, the Classical Recording Foundation chose the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio to receive their “collaborative artist award,” named in honor of Samuel Sanders, the longtime Itzhak Perlman collaborator and a sensitive pianist. Other than that they have excellent taste – and that maybe they should call this award the Classie – what does this say about the Classical Recording Foundation? Do celebrated pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson deserve yet another award? Without question, yes, as they reminded when they played a fresh, cliche-free take of the opening Allegro Moderato from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1, acerbic and sometimes stingingly direct where they could go in that direction, redemptively cheery when that path wasn’t an option. This was especially impressive considering that they’ve probably played this piece hundreds if not thousands of times. But do they need this award? At this point in their career, having debuted as an ensemble at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural, they have their choice of concert halls worldwide and audiences who will fill them and walk away afterward in awe – and tell everyone about it.

If that particular award set the bar, the others upheld it. The first of two “composers of the year” was Robert Paterson. The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Paterson compositions, Star Crossing, is one of 2011’s best and most richly enjoyable albums, a feast of noir flourishes, accent on flutes and percussion, from someone who’s a somewhat unlikely combination of percussionist and composer. Imaginative, often magical trio Maya got to play several selections from Paterson’s considerably more lighthearted but equally original new Book of Goddesses album. Paterson’s keen sense of melody and remarkable eclecticism were evident throughout the four pieces on the bill. The first, Aphrodite, took on a bracing Middle Eastern edge with Sato Moughalian’s full-throated flute, Bridget Kibbey’s characteristically lithe, incisive harp and percussionist John Hadfield’s slinky levantine groove. After an ersatz Andean folk tune, Oya was a showcase for Kibbey, who switched effortlessly from percussive fire to funky rhythm and back, while The Muses gave the group a chance to work their way with a casual elegance from the ancient Middle East to current-day downtown New York. The other composer of the year, Arlene Sierra, was represented by piano duo Quattro Mani, whose pianists Susan Grace and Alice Rybak merged singlemindedly on the otherworldly Wuorinen-esque atonalisms of her 1997 composition Of Risk and Memory, which gave way to a cruelly difficult, insistent, staccato rhythmic attack and then extrapolated on both themes.

Young Artist of the Year went to Metropolitan Opera star Susanna Phillips, who delivered Debussy’s six Ariettes Oubliees, pianist Myra Huang getting the enviable assignment of playing them, turning in a richly sustained, spacious interpretation that essentially got the max out of the composer’s otherworldly minimalism. Phillips is a force of nature and sang like one, but the songs wouldn’t have had the same impact without Huang.

Awards are just a small part of the Classical Recording Foundation’s agenda (to an outsider, this concert felt like an exclusive party: everybody seemed to know each other, with several famous or least semi-famous faces scattered throughout the crowd). The Foundation’s agenda is to raise funds for important recordings, without regard to commercial appeal. The roster of acclaimed artists they’ve worked over the years includes such familiar names as Simone Dinnerstein, Donald Berman and Ann Marie McDermott. The CRF also has an ongoing collaboration with the Library of Congress and Bridge Records, both fortuitous relationships for an organization clearly not afraid to take risks in the spirit of making our era’s important works and performers available to future generations.

Advertisements

November 23, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan Stuns and Surprises at WMP Concert Hall

There are innumerable cookie-cutter classical pianists out there. They do as their teachers tell them and play it safe. Most of the time, they succeed with what’s put before them, since the composers they play knew how to enable just about anyone with sufficient chops to get the job done, more or less. Then at the other extreme there are players who say, “To hell with dynamics, this is MY interpretation, my way or the highway!” Alexandra Joan is neither, and she doesn’t fit the middle ground either. What she does is distinctive, and stunningly intuitive, as her solo program Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall so vividly reaffirmed. Joan is not only a musician, she’s also a scenemaker. Her ongoing Kaleidoscope Series – this season’s final concert is June 1 – brings together music, and sometimes art, and people, a diverse mix much younger than the typical Lincoln Center crowd. If this is one of classical music’s many possible futures, it’s something to look forward to.

This program’s theme was music by French composers, “Unconventional ways to feel or convey French culture,” Joan explained (she’s Romanian-French; she lives here). Focusing on the auspicious moment where Romanticism was busting out of its cocoon into Modernism, she opened with Faure’s Theme and Variations in C Sharp Minor, Op. 73. It’s a lot harder to play than it sounds, especially as the rather poignant, cantabile theme expands. Joan let its glittering moodiness speak for itself: the theme itself draws a straight line all the way back to Haydn, and she let that history resound, particularly throughout the expansive passage of high/low contrasts about three-quarters of the way in.

Enesco’s Sonata in F Sharp Minor, Op. 24, No. 1 was a showstopper, and an eye-opener. Joan is a leading advocate for the late Romantic composer who shares her heritage, “A visionary,” as she put it. Playing from memory, she took on its tense astringencies and restless unwillingness to resolve as if they were her own. In the repetitive, bruised pulse of the lefthand attack in the opening allegro, the twisted, staccato dance that builds to a galloping intensity in the second, presto movement and the walk through Monet’s back garden in the final andante, she gave it an otherworldly gravitas worthy of Debussy. The crowd was stunned.

The waves of intensity, if not the intellectual rigor, lifted for a minute with a handful of miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, who was in attendance. Still relatively young (he’s in his twenties) and amazingly prolific, Fairouz is a wide-ranging thinker with several considerably powerful, unselfconsciously deep works to his credit – and he can also be very funny. Joan assembled a set that was both amusing and captivating: an attempt to make an etude interesting, in a very successful, Schumann-esque way; a challenge to write a piece containing no dissonances (it was mostly arpeggios); a joke that began way up the scale and ended way down; an austere twelve-tone piece and a brief, vividly autumnal requiem.

She closed the concert with Ravel’s rippling Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, written as a homage to Schubert, explaining that the wit and diversity of these pieces would make a good segue with Fairouz, and she was right. The suite is emotionally diverse, from balminess to poignancy to turbulence, with a comfortable sense of resolution missing from the rest of the program, a rather triumphant way to wrap up the concert. The audience wouldn’t let her go without an encore, so she treated them to a sparkling, bustling excerpt from Ravel’s Ondine.

Also worth a mention is Raphael Haik’s witty, pun-laden photo exhibit held in tandem with the concert. Toddlers in a fierce wrestle portrayed as “speed dating;” an airhead Eiffel Tower; park chairs arranged in several clever configurations, and an enigmatically bemused traveler who just missed his commuter train  delivered quietly provocative questions and plenty of laughs.

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series concludes its 2011 spring season at WMP Concert Hall, 31 W 28th St. on June 1 at 7:30 PM with a diverse program that includes both original works and improvisations, featuring jazz guitar virtuoso Peter Mazza, saxophonist Timothy Hayward and bassist Thomson Kneeland.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cypress String Quartet Play Debussy, Higdon and Schulhoff with Soul and Sensitivity

Thursday night at the New School’s Tenri Institute, Cypress String Quartet violinist Cecily Ward explained that the Debussy String Quartet was the first piece the ensemble had played together. That was 1996. Fourteen years later, the group still finds bliss in it. Ward played from memory, mostly with her eyes closed. It’s about the joy of discovery: Debussy famously wrote it after seeing a Javanese gamelan for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The Cypress’ version was all about the joy of rediscovery, of finding yet new levels of nuance in an old favorite. Underneath the expertly interwoven Balinese-inspired tonalities is just a hint of a Gallic barroom dance, which they seized with fluidity and grace, both as cellist Jennifer Kloetzel propelled them with alternately hushed and dramatic dynamics as the first movement wound up, and when it came to the rounds of pizzicato in the second movement. Brooklyn Rider played a stunningly edgy version of this piece earlier this year at the Orensanz Center that brought to mind how Debussy must have felt in the hours after writing it; this performance, with its soul and depth, put it in context, a period piece that also happened to shift the stage for practically everything that followed.

The earlier part of the program was just as revelatory. Erwin Schulhoff’s 1923 suite Five Pieces for String Quartet first saw a revival right around the time this group was getting together. Other ensembles play up the occasional Roaring 20s archaisms that occur throughout its five dances, but this crew played it as satire with a deliciously snarky bite, from the faux waltz of the opening movement (it’s in straight-up 4/4 time), to the somewhat sinister boudoir theme of the second, which they gave a bolero-like sway. On the third, Kloetzel’s terse pedal point led to an angry fugue highlighted by the deadpan acerbity of violinist Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner, whose deft camaraderie would carry the following tango movement as well. They gave the final segment – a Flight of the Bumblebee parody of sorts – an eerie tinge that bordered on the macabre: this was a swarm of killer bees headed straight for the border.

Yet the piece that resonated the most with the audience was Jennifer Higdon’s Impressions, from 2003. The composer, who was in attendance, offered beforehand how she’d drawn on Impressionist art for inspiration. She explained her fondness for its lack of rough edges, which allows for a considerably broader scope of expression than more figurative styles. The intrigue (and advantage) of pointillism, as she put it, is that “You can’t tell what it is up close.” The first movement, a colorful dance, had the characteristically meticulous, diversely evocative architecture that defines her work, and was delivered with the same bustling joy as the Debussy. The following movement, titled Quiet Art, built from the pensive and sometimes apprehensive ambience of an artist struggling to find a path to expression and wound up with gusto, a dream fulfilled and a job well done. The third movement, a homage to Debussy, expertly wove individual lead lines from each instrument. The suite ended with an absolutely riveting chase scene, resolution and then unresolution, warmly sostenuto passages contrasting with a bracing percussive attack: if this was painting, it was a cross between Pollock and Escher. The crowd demanded an encore and were treated to a tantalizingly allusive version of the Orientale from Glazunov’s Fifth String Quartet, the Fertile Crescent through a glass, darkly. The Cypress String Quartet’s second volume in their conquest of the Beethoven late quartets is just out; watch this space.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Knights at Night in Central Park

With all the great new music out there, and the Knights – one of the most adventurous, new-music-inclined orchestras in the world – on the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night, why did they play so much old stuff? Maybe because they knew they could bring so much joy to it – and counterintuitivity, too. Conventional wisdom is that name-brand orchestras surpass the smaller or lesser-known outfits, but all too often the big ensembles are basically sightreading and not much more. One of the benefits of a less strenuous season than what the Philharmonics of the world have to tackle is that there’s enough time for everyone to really get their repertoire in their fingers, discover it on an individual level and let its nuances fly rather than trampling them in a quest to simply get the job done. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who doubles as the cellist in celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) offered a prime example during the second movement of Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major. It’s a series of swooping arabesques on the strings, followed by variations that the entire ensemble picks up and tosses around. Jacobsen turned them into a mystery theme, then shifted gears with the tempo, a couple of times, with a wink and a grin as the melody split and shifted kaleidoscopically on the wings of the winds. Likewise, he led the Knights through two waltzes by Shostakovich (newly arranged with jazzy Kurt Weill verve by Ljova Zhurbin) with a jaunty cabaret swing, taking a brooding Russian folk theme and then a more Weimar-inflected tune and making something approaching real dance music out of them, guest violinist Vera Beths clearly enjoying herself as much as she had during the devious swoops and slides of the Beethoven.

The rest of the program was more traditional. They’d opened with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, something akin to the Simpsons Theme from another time and place. As with the Simpsons Theme, less is more with this one, and that’s how the Knights played it. Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite was written for a favorite niece, said WQXR’s Bill McLaughlin, standing in as MC in place of a honeymooning Midge Woolsey (congratulations, Midge!). The two miniatures weren’t Fur Elise but they weren’t bad either. The orchestra wound up the program with a warmly cantabile performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, commonly known as The Clock (from the metronomic sway of a prominent pizzicato passage). All counterpoint and comfortably familiar chord resolutions, to New Yorkers of a certain stripe it made a perfect soundtrack for wine and quiet conviviality on Central Park grass. This was the final Naumburg Bandshell classical concert for 2010; watch this space early next summer for information on next year’s schedule.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Thomas Piercy and Vilian Ivantchev’s Cafe Album

A collection of brilliant segues. For a casual listener, this is the perfect rainy day album, pleasantly pensive with a balance of melancholy and more upbeat material, especially toward the end. For more adventurous fans, it’s a smartly innovative concept that works all the way through. Clarinetist Thomas Piercy and acoustic guitarist Vilian Ivantchev link fourteen pieces together as a suite, beginning with the French late Romantics, taking a detour into the German baroque before following the gypsy path to Brazil and from there to Argentina, where the trail ends on a note that threatens to jump out of its shoes with joy. It’s a very subtly fun ride.

Having worked with both Leonard Bernstein and KRS-One, Piercy is diversely talented. He’s as strong in his upper register, with a buoyant, flute-like presence on Telemann’s A Minor Sonata, or soaring with bandoneon textures on the Piazzolla pieces here that close the album, as he is mining the darker sonorities of Bartok’s Roumanian Folk Dances suite, or Erik Satie’s Gnossienne or Gymnopedie No. 1. Ivantchev displays almost superhuman discipline, restraining himself to terse, rock-solid chordal work or precise arpeggios, with the exception of the Piazzolla where he gets to cut loose a little more – but not much. Ultimately, this album is all about connections, and the duo make them everywhere. Debussy’s Le Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (The Blonde Girl) follows so seamlessly out of Satie that it could practically be the same piece. Likewise, following the last of Bartok’s gypsy dance transcriptions with Villa-Lobos’ Modinha is so logical that it’s almost funny when you think about it. The duo close the album with two brief arrangements of songs by vintage Argentinan tanguero Carlos Gardel (Mi Manita Pampa and Sus Ojos Se Cerraron) into a stripped-down yet melodically rich version of Piazzolla’s four-part suite Histoire du Tango and then, seemingly as an encore, Jacinto Chiclana which ends the album on a note equally balmy and bracing. Piercy’s viscerally intuitive feel for the tension-and-release of tango lets the guitar hold things together this time, giving him a chance to launch into some quiet rejoicing. Piercy plays the cd release show for this album at Caffe Vivaldi on June 19 at 8:15 PM with his trio: live, they are considerably more boisterous.

June 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Brooklyn Rider at the Angel Orensanz Center, NYC 3/15/10

Since they take their name and inspiration from the Blue Rider Group, the defiant, short-lived Munich assemblage whose membership included Kandinsky, Schoenberg and Scriabin, it only made sense that Brooklyn Rider’s concert Monday night at the Angel Orensanz Center would take place in the midst of an art exhibition. Like the composers the string quartet plays, the artists were a polyglot bunch and some of their work here proved to be equally dazzling. Kevork Mourad, who also plays saz (Turkish lute) and is a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, had several eerily vertiginous black-and-white works done in alternately bold and strikingly precise fingerpaint, evoking some of Randi Russo’s work. He also had a fascinatingly Escheresque concert hall – that’s not the half of it – echoed by the equally provocative, Escheresque Lennie Peterson illustration used as artwork for the string quartet’s new cd Dominant Curve. Also on display were what appeared to be photo transfers by Mary Frank, juxtaposing the playful with the gruesome, as well as a handful of casually striking ink-and-paper works in Farsi by Golnar Adili. All of these works are on sale, a portion of the proceeds to benefit the quartet’s next recording: they’re all up at the Brooklyn Rider site, scroll down the front page a bit and click on the vertical “Art Gallery” button in the middle.

There was also music. The new album is quite extraordinary, got a glowing review here and the songs from it that the quartet played were even more intensely and joyously delivered live. Cellist Eric Jacobsen admitted to a case of nerves playing in front of a crowd of friends: “But what is nerves but chemicals in your body getting you high?” he asked. “Thanks for getting us high.” With the bar in the back, what was on the walls and the group in front of them, it appeared that the audience was just as high.

That Debussy’s String Quartet, the closing number, wasn’t the highlight of the show speaks to the quality of the other works on the bill. That one they attacked with abandon, just a tad short of recklessly, cello intense, percussive and full-bodied, Nicholas Cords’ viola supplying a warm, almost hornlike tone during the quieter circular sections of the second movement. Their string rearrangement of John Cage’s darkly bluesy early piano work In a Landscape seemed on the album to be a series of artfully produced loops assembled by guest Justin Messina – as it turned out, it’s not. The group played every note of its hypnotically stately permutations, with Messina’s live electronics limited to a suspenseful drone. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s soundscape, …al niente, benefited from an inspired cello-driven raveup in the midst of horizon-induced, hypnotic ambience, and guest Kojiro Umezaki cleverly and playfully added both live shakuhachi and subtle electronic undercurrents to his own composition (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise. The opening piece, violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (a Debussy allusion) set alternately warm, memorably melodic solo passages, notably some lightning cadenzas by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, side by side with either acidic or lush atmosphere as background. They encored with the night’s most ecstatic work, an intense, hauntingly galloping version of Ascending Bird, the Kayhan Kalhor composition from their landmark collaboration with the Iranian composer, Silent City, from 2008.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | Art, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Scandia Symphony Play Carl Nielsen and Others at Trinity Church, NYC 3/9/10

The New York Scandia Symphony’s marathon concert yesterday at Trinity Church was exhausting yet exhilarating for musicians and audience alike, reaching a level of intensity envied by most players and rarely experienced by the average concertgoer. On one level, the members of the ensemble are spoiled rotten. While other orchestras roll out the same tired warhorses night after night, the Scandia dedicate themselves to obscure and rarely heard masterpieces by Scandinavian composers. Which means at least one premiere of some sort at every concert. The price of such riches? Hard work, but this one was well worth being out of breath for (as several in the orchestra literally were by the end).

The concert had a clear trajectory. They started with just a string orchestra playing a selection by late Romantic Danish composer Poul Schierbeck that sounded like a cheery organ prelude rearranged for strings (which it well could have been – Schierbeck was an organist). They then brought up guest cellist Jonathan Aasgaard for the Prayer by Ernest Block from his suite From Jewish Life. Broodingly cinematic in its Rachmaninovian sweep, it gave Aasgaard a chance to show off a strongly sostenuto, almost hornlike attack. There’s a movement afoot among cellists to hold notes as strongly as possible – the decay on a cello string is almost instantaneous, after all – and whether or not that trend might be part of his agenda or just his usual M.O., it resonated powerfully. It was even more notable as he swooped and dove over the full orchestra on the U.S. premiere of Hungarian/Danish Romantic composer Franz Neruda’s Cello Concerto, a somewhat martial dance theme taking on more of an apprehensive tone as it grew.

Another work from the Danish Romantic school, Emil Hartman’s Cello Concerto moved through an understatedly heroic theme with echoes of Cesar Franck, to quieter, more introverted, hypnotic territory, to a surprisingly upbeat dance of a conclusion. With considerably more solo parts for cello, it was more of a showcase for Aasgaard than the previous two pieces and he met the challenge head-on, climbing to a ferociously slithery, chromatic solo cadenza toward the end of the first movement.

They closed with Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony. With its constant, tidal tempo shifts, motifs that make their way around the orchestra and its distant sense of dread, it’s mightily difficult to play, but conductor Dorrit Matson kept a mighty hand on the tiller, maintaining as much ease as there can be while directing such an uneasy composition. In their hands, it took on the shape of cautionary tale about the perils of complacency: snooze and you lose. It opened with a seemingly carefree splash of bells, orchestra playing a rather mundane series of permutations until suddenly the violins gave off a muffled scream. And suddenly those silly bells made sense: they were an alarm, and nobody was paying attention! That violin motif returned again, and again, if never quite as fully horrified as the first time around – horror becomes less horrifying the more you get used to it.

The second movement, dubbed a “humoresk” by Nielsen, has been called a parody of modernism, and that could be true (it also could be a portrait of a clueless, selfish narcissist, or a political statement – it dates from 1926, you figure it out). Scored for just horns and percussion, the drums were clearly having fun stepping all over the melody, whenever they were needed least. As random as the time seemed, Mattson swung it to make sure it was not so that there wasn’t a millisecond lost when some rhythm reemerged. So the juxtaposition of the strikingly astringent, modernist third movement made quite a contrast, cellos somber, violins aflutter over the horns’ atmospherics. The concluding movement took on the feel of a Mediterranean aria filtered through the lens of Debussy, a careening, out-of-focus, dizzyingly rhythmic series of frozen-rain motifs, from a nail-biting waltz to almost a parody of a march to the sarcastic honk that ended it all cold. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the orchestra knew exactly what had.

The Scandia roll out their string quartet for their next concert, 5 PM on April 18 at Our Savior of Atonement, 189th St. and Bennett Ave. in the Bronx for an intriguing bill of Grieg, Frank Foerster, Zack Patten, C.E.F. Weyse, Langgaard and Nielsen. Admission is free.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Brooklyn Rider – Dominant Curve

It makes sense that pioneering string quartet Brooklyn Rider would feel close to Debussy, considering their background as classical players who, these days anyway, specialize in world music. The perennially cutting-edge Brooklyn group appear on the latest Silk Road Ensemble album; their first cd included strikingly original arrangements of Armenian folk songs plus a tango by Russian-born violist/composer Ljova. With credits and credentials like that, they hardly need a career boost, but this hypnotically beautiful, stunningly imaginative cross-pollinating work is exactly that. The album’s central theme could be summed up somewhat reductionistically as circularity: this is a collection of new commissioned pieces based on elements that return and echo with a deliberately hypnotic effect, tonally, rhythmically and volume-wise. The concept goes back as far as humanity does, expanding over the centuries and when Debussy discovered Javanese gamelan music, that was the quantum leap, in terms of western classical music at least. The genius of this album is simply picking up where Debussy left off.

Smartly, Brooklyn Rider make Debussy’s lone string quartet the centerpiece here rather than the opening or concluding track, setting it in context with the new works around it. It’s amazing how new and fresh it sounds, delivered with particular percussive verve, nudging the listener to tune in to ideas resonating elsewhere here – unison passages, echoes of Russian and Asian tonalities in the first movement, the swirling repetition of the second and gamelanesque allusions in the last one. There are also motifs that have insinuated themselves into rock music over the years: listen closely and you’ll find them!

Ensemble member and violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (Debussy’s birth name was Achille-Claude) displays a strong Kayhan Kalhor influence, and no wonder, considering how closely the group has worked with the Iranian compose (their 2008 collaboration Silent City is a high water mark in East/West mashups). The theme insinuates itself quietly, growing more intense with a Kalhoresque insistence alternated with pizzicato passages leading to an absolutely haunting figure where one of the violins pedals a funereal, bell-like tone before the striking contrast of the most rock-oriented passage on the entire album. Jacobsen’s cantabile astringency in the third movement casually sets the stage for the fiery riffage of the final, counterintuitively ending much as it began.

Shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki solos with the group on his composition, (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise, fading up with what sounds like actual studio feedback, the big flute alternating between stillness and rapidfire fifth intervals. A call to alarm sounds distantly over ambient strings and a low, crackling tone that could be a short circuit (amazing how sometimes snafus in the studio translate into the best moments a group could hope for!). It ends with a good ambient jape whose ending deseves not to be spoiled here. The first of the two other tracks here is a tone poem, extended, apprehensive stillness punctuated by ambient effects, by another one of the group’s Silk Road cohorts, Uzbek composer Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky. The other makes a fullscale rondo out of the John Cage composition In a Landscape, Justin Messina’s artful electronic loops sealing the deal as what’s essentially a blues lick runs over and over again, its permutations finally fading out gracefully. Brooklyn Rider are currently on tour: their cd release show is on March 15 at 7:30 PM at the Angel Oresanz Center. Adventurous listeners would be crazy to miss it – advance tix are available here.

March 6, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russell Saint John Sings Hall Johnson’s Spirituals in NYC 2/25/10

Hall Johnson, baritone singer Russell Saint John told the crowd last night at Merkin Hall, was a pretty amazing guy. World-renowned as a choirmaster and vocal coach in the 1930s onward (he taught Marian Anderson, among others), he learned piano from his sister at age eight, taught himself violin and viola after seeing Frederick Douglass’ grandson play a recital, and seems to have been a musicologist from a very early age. His arrangements of the spirituals he grew up with as the son of an AME minister bear a considerable resemblance to his contemporary, George Gershwin, which may seem ironic but actually further validates Gershwin as being true to the source of his inspiration. Because what Johnson was going for, in establishing, cataloguing and transcribing an African-American spiritual canon, was authenticity. He saw spirituals as an individual expression, and as high art: he had no use for “barbershop harmony,” as Saint John explained. Backed by Broadway United Church of Christ organist/pianist Douglas Drake’s smartly understated interpretations of Johnson’s remarkably terse, Romantically-tinged piano arrangements, Saint John – featured soloist in the choir at the Bronx’s Fordham United Methodist Church – gave the songs a stylistically diverse, emotionally varied, vibrato-laden treatment which obviously drew deeply on his operatic training and experience.

It was a good choice of singer and pianist, because Johnson’s scores, obviously influenced by European lieder and opera, so heavily emphasize the singer. Many of the arrangements – Wade in de Water, Witness [to My Lord] and I’m Gonter Tell God All o’My Troubles [spelling used here is Johnson’s] featured the vocals leading the piano, which would then gently, unostentatiously offer the occasional embellishment, Debussy taking a casual detour into the blues. Several of the one-chord minor-key blues numbers – the bitter chain gang song Swing Dat Hammer, for example – hark back vividly to Africa; others, like the raptly beautiful, atmospheric My Lord, What a Mornin’ and the absolutely gorgeous Let de Heb’n Light Shine on Me pulsed along on more varied changes, the first fertile seeds of musical cross-pollination on these shores.

Above all, Johnson took these songs seriously. What’s inarguable is that gospel music has great power; what’s open to interpretation is what that power might be. Gospel choirs make unbeatable party music; Johnson’s vision, it seems, was a considerably more personal one, an intimate communion rather than a communal fest. So it was no surprise that his arrangements of numbers like Keep A-Inchin’ Along held back from exploding into joyous ragtime. As is so often the case with spirituals, the subtext screamed. “There ain’t no crying over there,” Saint John reminded in Heaven Is One Beautiful Place: substitute “Africa” for “heaven” and the anguish of a captive held prisoner in an alien land is impossible to turn away from. At the end of the concert, Drake got a chance to join Saint John in taking the volume up as high as it would go, on intense, percussively chordal versions of the proto-soul song My God Is So High and a blazing encore of My Good Lord Done Been Here. At this point in the concert, there was no use in trying to hold back anymore – the spirit would not be denied.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Concert Review: Llyr Williams plays Schubert, Debussy and Moussorgsky at Weill Recital Hall, NYC 3/6/09

Being what it is, the Carnegie Hall complex has seen thousands of legendary debut performances. This was one of them. Welsh pianist Llyr Williams has such command of the keyboard that he seems to inhabit what he plays. There are thousands of hotshot pianists out there, few with Williams’ seemingly intuitive sensitivity to dynamics and emotional content coupled to a spectacular technical fluency. Throughout a program matching subtlety to fire, he came across as ideally suited to play the Romantics.

 

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958 is classic Schubertiade material, ablaze with inviting color and glistening cascades. Williams left himself plenty of headroom to let those many shades reveal themselves in their complexity, particularly toward the end of the first movement where he used an almost jarring staccato in an ascending bassline to set off a contrast with the fluidly rapidfire upper-register chromatics following close behind.

 

Debussy’s Estampes, a trio suite, were next. The first, Pagodas is a remarkably successful attempt to translate Javanese gamelan music to the piano, a difficult work with its percussive pointillisms, but Williams made it look easy. Night in Grenada, the second of the three begins as a nocturne and then suddenly the lights come on, and Williams lit into it with gusto. With its rivulets rushing up and down the length of the keys, Garden in the Rain is a showstopper. Hailstorm would be a better title – by the time it’s over, the kale is shredded and the parsnips are half-unearthed by the torrents, and Williams barreled through it with a confident abandon.

 

The second half of the program was Pictures at an Exhibition, and it was nice to revisit the old warhorse. Ravel’s orchestrated version is the one that most audiences know, and that’s too bad because that one subsumes the creepiness in the original solo piano version, which isn’t simply phantasmagorical: most of it is flat-out morbid. Williams found all that, but he also gave its many caricatures depth and dignity. The Gnome in the opening section was menacingly substantial, the Old Castle as filled with fleeting ghosts as a castle can be, and when the Great Gate at Kiev came around, Williams had held enough in reserve to let its crashing fortississimo resound in all its towering majesty. He encored with a comfortably familiar Chopin piece, which was perfectly fine for what it was but couldn’t help but be anything other than anticlimactic. Now that we’ve seen what this guy can do with the 1800s, it would be interesting to hear what he does with Bach. Or Maxwell Davies.

March 7, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments