Lucid Culture


A Shattering Roulette Performance of Mary Kouyoumdjian Works Commemorating the Genocide in Armenia

Last night’s concert at Roulette included what were arguably the most harrowing moments onstage at any New York performance since Sung Jin Hong premiered his rumbling, macabre real-time depiction of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing at a Chelsea show with the One World Symphony a couple of years ago. This one commemorated the centenary of an even more lethal series of events, the holocaust in Armenia, via four works by the riveting, individualistic composer Mary Kouyoumdjian.

For those with gaps in their history, no nation in the past hundred fifty years was depopulated by mass murder to the extent that Armenia was, dating from the 1890s through the Ottomans’ mass extermination campaign of 1915-22 .The exact death toll is not known: if the pogroms of 1894-96 and subsequent mass killings are included, the number is upwards of two milllion men, women and children murdered, confirmed by the fact that barely fifteen percent of the pre-genocide population remained afterward. And if genocide wasn’t bad enough, who then formally annexed Armenia? The Soviet Union.

Kouyoumdjian’s music is rich with history, notably The Bombs of Beirut, her first Kronos Quartet commission, an examination of the effects of the civil war in Lebanon in the early 80s. That ensemble premiered an even more intense new string quartet, Silent Cranes, while adventurous chamber ensemble Hotel Elefant performed an equally gripping trio of works. The music was propulsively and often insistently rhythmic, and texturally rich, with some group members doubling on multiple instruments including accordion, vibraphone and electric piano. Kouyoumdjian worked the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from murky lows to whispery highs, often balancing them for a dramatic, cinematic effect.

A quintet including pianist David Friend, flutist Domenica Fossati, violinist Andie Springer, clarinetist Isabel Kim and cellist Rose Bellini played Dzov Erky Koonyov (Sea of Two Colors), a homage to legendary singer/composer/musicologist Komitas, who was sort of the Alan Lomax of early 20th century Armenia. An acidic, biting diptych blending elements of spectral, microtonal and circular indie classical idioms, it challenged Friend with its long series of pointillistic anvil motives, which he finally and remarkably gracefully handed off to Springer as the rest of the group provided a lush but stark interweave. Komitas spent the last two decades of his life institutionalized, broken by the horrific torture he’d suffered, referenced by Koyoumdjian’s endlessly cycling, aching phrases and distant Middle Eastern allusions.

Baritone Jeffrey Gavett gave an understatedly poignant tone to Royce Vavrek’s lyrics throughout Everlastingness, a trio piece, over the brooding backdrop of Friend’s piano and Gillian Gallagher’s viola. This was a portrait of doomed surrealist artist Arshile Gorky, who survived the holocaust and escaped to America after losing his mother to starvation. The first half of the concert peaked with a full thirteen-piece ensemble, heavy on percussion, playing the eleven-part suite This Should Feel Like Home. Inspired by the composer’s first trip to the land of her ancestors a couple of years ago, it referenced the seizure of national landmarks, forced displacement, longing for home and savagery that rose to a long, horrified, searing crescendo that left Josh Perry’s huge bass drum to roar and resonate and finally fade down. While the previous piece on the bill offered elegant variations on an austere, chromatically-charged piano melody, this was replete with vividly Middle Eastern riffs and cadenzas against constantly shifting atmospherics: as an evocation of mass agony, it was almost unendurable.

The Kronos Quartet were given a more plaintive work, Silent Cranes, sort of a synthesis of the meticulous insistence of the first part of the program and the raw angst that followed. To make things more complicated, they were challenged to keep time with with a similarly vivid series of projections of often grisly archival images as well as snippets of haunting old recordings (including one of Komitas himself) and testimony from survivors. It’s a severely beautiful, dynamically vibrant if unceasingly pained and mournful portait of an injustice that’s far too often overlooked, and ended on an almost mystical note to accompany historian/investigative journalist David Barsamian’s recorded commentary which essentially echoed that if we forget events like these, those things might well happen to us.

On one hand, what Kouyoumdjian has done with this is important historical work, and puts the music in an appropriatingly horrifying context – which the stunned audience eventually rewarded with a standing ovation. On the other hand, it would be also be rewarding to hear that string quartet by itself: it’s certainly strong enough to stand on its own. The best concert of 2015 so far? By far, the most intense.


May 13, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Typical NYC Concert Moment: A Brilliant Program by Under-the-Radar Ensemble Mise-En

To anyone who might be cynical about music in New York: you don’t get out enough. Last night at the Tenri Cultural Center in the West Village, Ensemble Mise-En played a richly eclectic, entertaining and often transcendent program including two world premieres and a US premiere which should have happened long ago. This adventurous, relatively young (average age: guessing mid-20s), mixed winds/strings/percussion ensemble put together a program that puts to shame most of the bills taking place in the high fifties and mid sixties in this town most days of the week.

The evening started on an auspicous note with Irish composer Karen Power’s Cold or Hot Bean Slurper for chamber orchestra with guest conductor Mark Loria out in front of the ensemble, where he would remain for the second piece as well. One might see the title and think Chinatown noodles: au contraire, this brought a richly dynamic sense of fun, vivid timbral contrasts and a long, apprehensive upward arc to music that put a lively spin on the spectral sounds coming out of IRCAM in the mid-80s.

Eric Lyon‘s sarcastic punk classical suite Noise Variations for chamber orchestra was next on the bill. The title was sarcastic as well. It actually wasn’t particularly noisy – rather, the ensemble brought an often cruelly sardonic feast of close harmonies and parodies of classical tropes, from a twisted spoof of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations, to a LOL-suspenseful Waiting for Godot To Play the Next Motif interlude, to a coldly and richly satisfying faux-heroic overture that wound up the piece on an high note – or a low note, depending on your perspective. Either way, it was great fun.

They gave Danish composer Hans Abrahamasen’s Walden Variations a playful, suspensefully bucolic treatment, again mining the space between agitation, or just plain motion, for all the suspense and potential laughs it was worth, throughout this otherwise vividly verdant, subtly rising and falling tone poem.

The concert ended up on a riveting, Shostakovian note with South Korean composer Isang Yun’s 1988 Distanzen for Wind Quintet and String Quintet, a New York premiere. Yun spent prison time after being nabbed by the South Korean gestapo for his 1967 jaunt to the north of the country, and the horror of his experiences resonated throughout the uneasy, often chililng, semi-horizontal work. Ali Jones’ raw, fiery cello intro, Nicholas Walls’ surrealistically echoing, ominously sostenuto horn and the potently moody insistence of Ben Thomas’ bass propelled this haunting, brilliant work to a lush swell that hit a shiveringly agitated swell before a chilly, ethereally calm, not altogether safe conclusion. All in all, it was a triumphant performance including but not limited to ensemble members flutist Domenica Fossati, oboeist Stuart Breczinski, clarinetists Diego Vasquez and Jinju Yeo, alto saxophonist Kevin Baldwin, bassoonist Jack Chan, horn player Nathaniel Center, trimbonist Tyler Vahldick, pianist Dorothy Chan, subtle percussionist Clara Warnaaar, violinists Sabina Trojosjan and Hanjal Plvnick, violist Sam Kelder and maestro Moon Young Ha, confident,  inspired and understatedly intense on the podium.  Brilliant programs like this are all over the place in New York, but you have to look for them. Ensemble Mise-En plays their next show on May 2 at 8 PM at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea with music by Bent Sørensen, Erik Lund, Louis Karchin and Moon Young Ha.

March 8, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, lists, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment