Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

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February 28, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missy Mazzoli’s Richly Tuneful, Restless, Enigmatic Works Take Centerstage at the Miller Theatre

Missy Mazzoli’s music is hypnotic yet stormy, intricate yet disarmingly transparent. A strong and influential contingent of New York new music fans consider Mazzoli to be the most vital composer so far to emerge in this century. Thursday night, the Miller Theatre saluted her with a “composer portrait” concert of her work for both string quartet and for soloists playing along with prerecorded multitracks. As accessible and vivid as Mazzoli’s compositions are, they require all kinds of extended technique and are far from easy to play – although they seem, as a rule, to be fun to play, and the performers reveled in them.

The Mivos Quartet opened the bill with an alternately kinetic and atmospheric favorite from 2010, Death Valley Junction. Lit up with innumerable, graceful swoops and dives – Mazzoli LOVES glissandos – the piece takes its inspiration from Martha Becket, an octogenarian opera singer who achieved cult status for her one-woman shows in a desolate sagebrush town on the California-Nevada border. The group also ended the first half of the performance with a nimble electroacoustic take of Harp and Altar, a joyously bustling, circling homage to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Violinist Robert Simonds played Dissolve, O My Heart, a very subtle, gentle and distantly plaintive theme and variations based on the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita. Cellist Jody Redhage sang A Thousand Tongues, contemplating issues of honesty and believability in a soaring soprano while playing its remotely disquieted, ambered lines against a hypnotic backing track of electronically blenderized Mazzoli solo piano.  Likewise, Violist Nathan Schram got to interact with a backing track of processed viola by Nadia Sirota – with the piece’s clever waves of call-and-response, Schram couldn’t resist breaking into a grin, and the audience was there with him. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge then took centerstage, joined by the string quartet Ethel for His Name Is Jan, a “work in progress,” as Mazzoli put it, moody tectonic shifts anchoring its irresistibly droll, animated arioso vocals. It’s part of a forthcoming opera based on the Lars Von Trier film Breaking the Waves, scheduled to premiere in Philadelphia next year.

Ethel closed out the concert with a blustery yet elegant world premiere, Quartet for Queen Mab, an aptly trippy portrait of a mysterious sprite who spirits people off to a surreal dreamworld. The next “composer portrait” program at the Miller Theatre is Feb 19 at 8 PM with the Mivos Quartet, Yarn/Wire and Ekmeles playing and singing the thorny, challenging music of Stefano Gervasoni. Mazzoli’s art-rock band Victoire are playing the album release show for their intense, richly enveloping, forthcoming cd Vespers for a New Dark Age at le Poisson Rouge at 8 PM on May 7.

February 7, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethel’s Latest Album Is Worth the Wait

Extrovert violinist Todd Reynolds may have left adventurous string quartet Ethel to pursue his solo career, but the group continues on with Mary Rowell filling his place. And the group’s long-awaited new album, Heavy – out from Innova in a charmingly vintage, oversize package – proves to be worth that wait. The title is a little misleading: the moods evoked here run the gamut from raw, unleashed menace to playful and fun. The centerpiece is an early Julia Wolfe composition, Early That Summer. It’s classic Wolfe: driven by a cruelly emphatic, incessant staccato rhythm that the ensemble never wavers from, it begins with creepy, tritone-fueled exchanges of machinegun fire between the ensemble with intricate dynamic shifts. Cellist Dorothy Lawson is the star of this one early on over the suspenseful ambience of the higher strings, Rowell plus violist Ralph Farris and violinist Neil Duffalo. Disjointed Giant Steps phrases bring on more relentless staccato and increasingly unsettling microtones, growing more stately and then fading. Like so much of Wolfe’s work, it takes your breath away – it might be the most viscerally intense piece of music released this year in any style of music.

John Halle’s Sphere [‘]s developes a summery plantation soul ambience, its rustic charm underpinning subtly alternating voices with bluesy allusions, trainwhistle slides, and variations that crescendo with an elegant spiritual feel. John King’s pensively bucolic No Nickel Blues moves from quavery off-pitch ambience to slow, soulful, judicious variations, steady over a tricky tempo. Another standout track, Raz Mesinai’s La Citadelle takes a swooping, diving gypsy dance and expands on it, alternately minimalist and cinematic – this particular citadel is as active as a busy airport, and fraught with chromatically-charged tension. By contrast, David Lang’s pensive, rather horizontal Wed works subtle variations on simple, memorable sostenuto motifs.

Kenji Bunch joins the ensemble for a lively take on his String Circle, blending Celtic and bluegrass motifs into its shapeshifting architecture colored by subtle microtonal shades and an intricate divergence of voices. As it builds, it becomes more classical than bluegrass, developing a warmly balmy, cantabile pulse. The album’s final track, Marcelo Zarvos’ Rounds ends the album on a resonantly cantabile note, a pretty, Britfolk-inflected song without words exchanging hypnotic, circular pizzicato passages with a swelling, cantabile pulse. There’s also a string quartet by Don Byron that opens the album and which you will probably want to leave off your phone, or your machine, whatever that may be, when you upload this. Otherwise, this is a rich and rewarding mix that ought to appeal to rock fans as well as those with a taste for more challenging sonics.

August 14, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment