Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.

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May 21, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Denise Mei Yan Hofmann’s New Works Hold the Audience Rapt at Spectrum

Spectrum was packed last night. Granted, composer/guitarist Denise Mei Yan Hofmann used to be in a popular rock band, the wickedly catchy, lyrical Changing Modes, but all the same it was awfully cool to see a venue filled to capacity with young people listening intently to serious composed music. A tantalizingly brief program of new chamber works revealed that Hofmann is a young composer who’s already developed a distinctive and thoughtfully compelling voice. Her harmonies transcend the tonal/twelve-tone dichotomy; her narratives are vivid, she doesn’t waste notes and is rather meticulous about that.

Hofmann performed the opening diptych, a more-or-less steadily strolling miniature featuring lots of close harmonies and flitting exchanges between her terse, minimalist guitar and Salome Scheidegger‘s piano. Hofmann described it afterward as “harsh” – as a depiction of push-pull, lost in the wilderness, randomly searching and then very purposefully seeking a way out, it hit the mark.

Scheidegger played Hofmann’s Dear Son of Memory solo, an aching and dynamically rich depiction of letters never sent. It turned out to be a considerably challenging work. Scheidegger didn’t shy away from it, beginning almost as a march and then negotiating through starlit austerities, flitting sort-of-segues and then a rather violently percussive crescendo before finding home in the calm beyond it. One of Hofmann’s signature tropes seems to be working tension against a central point, raga style, a prominent and effective device here.

The final piece was a triptych for string trio, Deep Calls Unto Deep – another 2014 composition – performed elegantly by violinist Francesca Dardani, violist Yumi Oshima and cellist Xue Yang Liu. With a little editing, this could be something really special. At the core, it’s a rondo, a carefully articulated exchange of voices which began with a rather wounded, austere tone, picked up the pace with a precise, balletesque pulse in the second movement and then with a more resonant, angst-fueled quality in the third even as the rhythm came back to the forefront. The Debussy String Quartet seems to be an influence.

If there’s any criticism of what Hofmann does, it’s that she needs to work on her transitions. There were places throughout both the solo piano and trio pieces which came across as momentary lapses. Full stops would have been one answer; fleshing out those fragmentary segues to eliminate jarring with what came before and after would also be an option. So would nixing them completely. But those are minor quibbles. Here’s looking forward to what this individualistic and auspicious new voice has in store.

October 13, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment