Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The American Composers Orchestra: Cutting Edge Sounds from Across the Decades at Carnegie Hall

The American Composers Orchestra’s main mission is to whip new material into shape so as to entice other enterpising orchestras to play it. A daunting task, but one they’ve tackled gamely since the group’s inception back in the 90s. The group’s appeal is bittersweet: along with many tantalizing premieres that other orchestras will pick up, the ACO also plays a lot of material that you’ll never hear again. And that they’ll never play again, which makes their job so much harder considering that they have to learn so much of their repertoire, such that it is, from scratch. Friday night’s Carnegie Hall performance was typically eclectic and more historically-infused than usual, featuring an old standard of the avant garde that’s lived to claim its place, more or less, in the standard repertoire; a rarity from Mexico; two new works utilizing wavelike motives, the second much more successfully than the first; and a suite of new songs by the orchestra’s main man Derek Bermel.

They opened with a rather twistedly fascinating rarity, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ 1932 suite, Alcancias (literally, the title means “piggy bank;” figuratively, it can also mean “bullet” or “pimp”). The middle section was an uselfconsciously pretty pastorale lit up with a lyrically panoramic solo by oboeist Kathy Halvorson. On either side of it was a frantic, Keystone Kops pastiche of snippets of folk tunes, ragtime and vaudeville, so blustery that the pageantry seemed suspiciously forced. A satire, maybe?

The evening’s piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Manchay Tiempo, a chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque depiction of waves of fear inspired by childhood exposure to a documentary about terrorism in 1970s Chile, where her mother grew up. Frank flaunts her multiculturalism fearlessly: no idiom is off limits. That fearlessness extends to subject matter and emotional content as well, in this case a series of slow, menacing glissandos and murderously creeping crescendos, a knife’s-edge depiction of terror in the night, noir in the purest sense of the word. The surreal, off-center, tone-bending “is this really happening” ambience finally faded down to an unexpected calm at the end, a terrorized child finally drifting off to sleep. It’s impossible to think of a more gripping piece of music performed on a New York stage this year.

Gunther Schuller‘s Contours was considered radical when it debuted in 1958. More than half a century later, the composer’s vision has been more than validated: it’s still pretty cutting-edge. Conductor George Manahan, poised on his heels, was clearly having a good time with Schuller’s long, suspenseful crescendos, jazzy rhythms and bracing post-Ives lyricism and so was the orchestra. The program concluded with Bermel’s new suite of Eugenio de Andrade songs, delivered guardedly and methodically in a cool alto by Luciana Souza, building tension and intensity almost imperceptibly through deft manipulation of a series of circular, often hypnotic, yet equally kinetic themes.

One upcoming ACO series of concerts that’s been regularly promising is their Underwood readings of new works by up-and-coming composers at the DiMenna Center this coming June 5 and 6.

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April 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2013: Early Highlights

Since the World Financial Center atrium, home to the annual Bang on a Can avant garde music marathon for the past several years, is undergroing renovations, this year’s marathon was moved to the Schimmel auditorium at Pace University on the opposite side of town on Spruce Street. How long did it take for both the downstairs and balcony seats to fill up? About an hour. Three hours after the daylong concert began, there was a line at least a hundred deep outside. On one hand, it’s heartwarming to see how popular the event has become; on the other, it’s impossible not to feel bad for those who didn’t make it in.

Especially since the music was so consistently excellent. Chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound opened the festivities auspiciously with a lively, bubbling, south-of-the-border-tinged movement titled El Dude (a Gustavo Dudamel reference) from Derek Bermel’s Canzonas Americanas. Their next piece, Jeffrey Brooks’ After the Treewatcher, took its inspiration from an early Michael Gordon work. The composer, who was in the house, explained that when he asked Gordon for a score, Gordon said no: he wanted Brooks to work from memory instead. Guitarist Ryan Ferreira, stepping in on literally a few hours notice. provided hauntingly resonant twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar against permutations on a distantly creepy, circular motif. At the end, pianist John Orfe mimicked the conclusion of the Gordon work, insistently ringing a dinner bell, which surprisingly ramped up the surreal menace.

Charlie Piper’s Zoetrope cleverly interpolated simple, insistent, echoingly percussive motives from throughout the orchestra into an increasingly fascinating, dynamically shifting web of sound, while Caleb Burhans’ O Ye of Little Faith, Do You Know Where Your Children Are? returned both the ambient menace and sweeping, Reichian circularity of Brooks’ piece.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing trumpeter Peter Evans played solo, much in the same vein as Colin Stetson’s solo  bass saxophone work. It was a free clinic in extended technique via circular breathing: supersonic glissandos throwing off all kinds of microtonal quark and charm, whispery overtones, nebulous atmospherics contrasting with a little jaunty hard bop. He was rewarded with the most applause of any of the early acts.

Druimmers David Cossin and Ben Reimer teamed up for a steady yet trickily polyrhythmic, Ugandan-inspired Lukas Ligeti duet. French instrumentalists Cabaret Contemporain then made their American debut with a couple of hypnotic dancefloor jams, part dark dreampop, part disco, part romping serialism and great fun to watch, especially when some early technical glitches were fixed and the band’s two bassists, Ronan Coury and Simon Drappier, were playing subtle interchanges.

Jonathan Haas conducted the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble with the NYU Steel in a nimbly intricate performance of Kendall Williams’ Conception, expanding the universe of what the steel pan is capable of, the group methodically rising from a comfortable ripple to ominously majestic torrents. Tibetan chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo and pianist Anton Batagov followed with a hypnotic triptych of works from their recently released album Tayatha, a trance-inducing, tersely graceful exercise in the many interesting things that can be done with resonant one-chord, south Asian-tinged jams gently lit by Lhamo’s shimmering melismatics.

Then it was time to go see Ghosts in the Ocean, chanteuse Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos’ often chillingly atmospheric experimental noir pop project, who were playing several blocks north at Zirzamin. They made a good segue. It’s surprising that they haven’t made an appearance at Bang on a Can yet.

June 18, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious Start to This Year’s Imani Winds Festival

This year’s third annual Imani Winds Festival of cutting-edge chamber music kicked off auspiciously last night on the upper west side with the pioneering wind quintet performing a sometimes haunting, sometimes exhilarating mix of relatively new (and brand new) compositions. Imani Winds flutist Valerie Coleman’s Tzigane made a deliciously high-octane opening number: an imaginative blend of gypsy jazz and indie classical with intricately shifting voices, it was a showcase for the entirety of the ensemble, notably clarinetist Mariam Adam’s otherworldly, microtonal trills and Coleman’s slinkily legato snakecharmer lines.

Phil Taylor’s Prelude and Scherzo was next. Brooding, apprehensive, atmospheric cinematics built matter-of-factly to an anguished flute cadenza, then backed away and the process repeated itself; the Scherzo cleverly took the wary introductory theme and disguised it with a jaunty bounce which the group built to an unexpectedly triumphant ending.

The piece de resistance was a new Mohammed Fairouz suite, Jebnal Lebnan (meaning “Mount Lebanon,” the historical name for the mountainous country), which the Imani Winds recently recorded. The composer explained beforehand that its withering opening segment, Bashir’s March, was inspired by his visit to the site of a former refugee camp there, “the most horrific thing” he’d ever seen. Monica Ellis’ bassoon drove it with a chilling nonchalance, the rest of the ensemble fleshing out a coldly sarcastic, Shostakovian martial theme that Jeff Scott’s french horn took to its cruelly logical, mechanically bustling extreme. After a solo interlude where Coleman got to subtly  imitate an Arabic ney flute, the group hit a high note (if you’re willing to buy the premise of a dirge being a high note) with the second movement, Lamentation: Ariel’s Song. Ominous atmospheric washes led to an elegantly plaintive bassoon solo and a methodical crescendo that built from elegaic to fullscale horror, its fatalistic pulse suddenly disappearing, leaving the atmospherics to linger ominously before ending on a more lively but equally wary note. This angst subsided somewhat but still remained through the rest of the work: the tango-like Dance and Little Song, with their bracing close harmonies and Scheherezade allusions, and Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh, a cleverly interwoven rondo of sorts featuring Coleman on pennywhistle that ended energetically with a confluence of klezmer, gypsy and Arabic tonalities, an apt evocation of a land that’s been a melting pot (and a boiling point) for centuries.

Derek Bermel’s Gift of Life made a terrific segue. Inspired by a visit to Jerusalem, it built suspensefully with a Middle Eastern melody anchored by brooding bassoon, its atmospherics finally falling apart in a bustling cacaphony. Another short work by Bermel, Two Songs from Nandom, drawing on Ugandan xylophone music, made a sprightly contrast as its rhythmic central theme shifted further and further away from the center. The group closed with Scott’s artfully voiced, passionately animated arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango and encored with a grin from the edge of the stage with what sounded like a brief, matter-of-factly improvised theme from a late Dvorak work. The Imani Winds Festival continues through August 7, with a whirlwind of master classes and performances featuring a deluge of up-and-coming talent; the full schedule is here.

July 30, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Sospiro Winds at Music Mondays, NYC 10/19/09

The Sospiro Winds have quietly and methodically insinuated themselves as a particularly adventurous fixture in the New York music scene. It was particularly auspicious to see a good crowd assembled, on a Monday night no less, for the quintet’s program of exciting, obscure woodwind ensemble pieces (memo to other concert promoters: new music is commercially viable, especially if it’s this good!). The group opened with Viennese Romantic composer Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Humoreske, a little post-baroque style introduction (actually an etude, as one of the group explained) that set a convivial tone for the rest of the evening. In stark contrast, the great Hungarian modernist Gyorgy Kurtag‘s Quintetto Per Fiati was a stark and frequently disturbing, cinematic partita in eight sections that ran from an ominously minimalist intro through a series of boisterous and surprise-laden grapples with demons and syncopation. There’s a horror movie out there somewhere that needs this piece. Another partita, by the German post-Romantic Theodor Blumer moved from “fresh and fiery” to an insistently crescendoing conclusion.

The second half of the show was also replete with surprises. Contemporary American composer Derek Bermel’s Wanderings for Woodwind Quintet cleverly cached away a rousing klezmer dance within its first section, Gift of Life, turning plaintively percussive with Two Songs from Nandom, a particularly imaginative arrangement of an organ piece built on echo devices. Hector Villa-Lobos, a favorite of the group, was represented by the characteristically colorful, flamenco-inflected Quintette en forme de Choros. They closed with an Elliott Carter number that, even without a program (serves us right for getting to the venue at the eleventh hour) was obviously him, perversely atonal yet still managing to be cloying. Flutist Kelli Kathman gets top billing in the group, likely due to her Bang on a Can cred (she’s a member of SIGNAL); joining her with a swaying, passionate but precise attack was oboeist James Austin Smith. Clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois made her most difficult, sonically expansive passages look easy, as did the group’s newest member, French horn player Alana Vegter while Adrian Morejon gave a clinic in power and precision on bassoon, tackling all sorts of challenging staccato passages with fire and aplomb.

Music Mondays is an ambitious monthly series at the comfortably rustic old church at the northeast corner of 93rd and Broadway, currently home to two congregations, Advent Lutheran Church and Broadway United Church of Christ; watch this space for upcoming events.

October 21, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment