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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Old World Premiere and an Ambitious New Choral Work From New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony are pretty much unique in the world of choral music in that they sing world premieres from five hundred years ago as well as from the here and now. The quartet – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – are as expertly protean as protean gets. One reason why they’re able to find so much fascinating, previously unreleased early music – beyond simply being experts at sleuthing it out – is that they’re smaller than most choirs and focus on the most intimate side of medieval masses and motets. The other is that they have sufficiently formidable chops to tackle this material – some of which was sung by boys at the time it was written – and Herbert’s steely upper register has a lot to do with that.

Their latest album And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide is streaming at Spotify. The group open with fifteenth century Flemish composer Loyset Compère’s stately, utterly otherworldly Crux Triumphans. The group’s resolute command of the pairing of highs against lows leaves the impression that they are a much larger ensemble: it’s a device that’s worked for everyone from Mozart to Gil Evans.

From there, the group shift seamlessly from a spaciously soaring, brief Josquin piece, to the hypnotic, swaying, terse echo effects and persistently unsettled ancient/modern harmonic juxtapositions of contemporary composer Andrew Smith‘s Salme 55.

A diptych by a slightly later fifteenth century Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert, features more dramatic upper register work. From there the group move on to alternately desolate and delicately rhythmic 20th century Estonian terrain for a psalm setting by Cyrillus Kreek.

Their latest old world premiere is Compère’s nine-part suite Officium de Cruce. It’s a Book of Hours meditation, its brief segments ranging from proto-operatic counterpoint to a mystical sway and back. The rather brooding sixth segment, where those rhythms intertwine, is the highlight. The quartet close the album with a thoughtful, spacious, benedictory work by a Compère contemporary, Pierre de la Rue [editor’s note – no relation :)].

The kinds of venues these guys would typically serenade a year ago are dragging their feet reopening, which only means that crowds are going to stick with the vastly less expensive speakeasy circuit when they do. A radical shift in how live music is presented in New York City is underway. The old venue-centric model is being replaced by a community and artist-based scene…and some would say that change is long overdue.

April 3, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Newberry Consort Unearth an Ultra-Rare, Thrilling Medieval Choral Suite

It never ceases to amaze how much interesting music has been gathering dust in archives for centuries and is only now reaching a mass audience. A prime example is the Newberry Consort’s joyous, often exhilarating new album Vespers – streaming at Spotify – a recording of early 17th century Mexican composer Juan de Lienas’ only known mass for treble choir. It has a very lively quality and a recurrent sense of triumph that prefigures Corelli. Christian liturgical music from that era seldom reaches the kind of peaks that the choir gather forces and then hit here. And with de Lienas’ demanding dynamics and range, this is not easy music to sing.

The composer’s use of uneven meters makes it all the more challenging: this is far more rhythmically sophisticated than the simple, swaying call-and-response of so much Renaissance choral music. It follows the order of a typical Catholic mass, in twelve parts. Meant to be sung in convents, an elegantly energetic ensemble with Frances Conover Fitch on organ, Katherine Shuldiner on viola da gamba and Rachel Begley on bajón handle the bass parts.

The choir begin with contrastingly upbeat and then solemn themes before launching into a series of long, intricately interwoven upward trajectories. Waltz time appears and then disappears just as unexpectedly. There’s a stunning proto-Mozartean crescendo of echo effects in the fourth movement. The eighth is a lilting organ prelude, utilizing mostly the flute stops: it wouldn’t be out of place in Sweelinck’s work.

The Magnificat is where everything comes together, with the mass’ most bracing harmonies and momentary introductions from solo organ. Interestingly, the choir wind it up with remarkable restraint: it’s as if de Lienas realized that this was a religious service, after all, and after all the fireworks he felt to conclude on a dignified note.

Beyond the composer’s small surviving output, we know next to nothing about him. Considering his command of the European choral traditions of his time, it would be astonishing if he hadn’t been born in Spain and trained somewhere on the continent. What he was doing in Mexico with the conquistadors is anybody’s guess. There has also been speculation that he was an Aztec determined to beat the invaders at their own game. He may have been a colorful and combative personality: the original manuscript for this piece is littered with invective scrawled in the margins. Whoever was responsible may have simply been jealous, given the originality and innovations of the music.

February 7, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Devious, Innuendo-Packed, Gorgeously Sung Italian Court Music From 1592

Concerto Italiano’s dynamic, lush, elegantly impassioned new album of Claudio Monteverdi madrigals – streaming at Spotify – celebrates the profane side of a composer best known for his sacred works. That’s not to imply that this music is obscene – though some of it is as devilishly suggestive as a court choir could realistically perform in 1592, when Monteverdi’s third book of madrigals was published. And as anyone who’s ever been swept away by his Vespers of 1610 knows, his religious works were no less radiantly melodic.

This album attest to the longstanding theory that people from a composer’s home turf are its best interpreters. Concerto Italiano sing this lavish collection in medieval Italian rather than the church Latin of Monteverdi’s masses. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducts.

Some of the juiciest texts are from the world of folk music, others by the composer’s contemporaries Torquato Tasso and Gian Battista Guarini. Young maidens who seem perfectly demure turn out to be hotties once you get to know them. Unrequited love is a persistent if not ubiquitous theme – there’s plenty of innuendo in the happy endings. Monteverdi also includes a couple of somber, understatedly grisly, vengeful kiss-off anthems.

Several of these relatively short songs are rounds, some rambunctious, others woven in more expansive, concentric circles. The choir pass the baton from crescendo to crescendo innumerable times: the waves of harmony are no less lively for their precision.

A brooding song addressed to a nightingale and a salamander – the latter thought to be able to reincarnate through fire – is one of the album’s most haunting moments, as is the second track, a lost-love lament. Flames leap from the sopranos’ evocation of the fire of love, high above the men of the ensemble in the seventh madrigal. And the women’s imploring echo effects in the eighteenth track are breathtaking as well.

February 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic, Hauntingly Resonant Achievement by One of the World’s Great Choirs

Last year, the Tallis Scholars released the thrilling final chapter in their epic recording of the complete masses of Josquin des Pres. It took the world’s most highly acclaimed Renaissance choral ensemble thirty-four years to complete the cycle. The sense of triumph in group founder Peter Phillips’ liner notes to the final album – streaming at Spotify – is visceral:

“When we started recording Josquin in 1986 there was no intention to launch a series; but slowly I began to understand that with his eighteen Masses – a just about manageable number for a single recording project – my principle would still be respected, simply because Josquin refused to do the same thing twice. Like Beethoven in his symphonies, Josquin used basically the same line-up of performers to create dramatically individual sound-worlds every time he wrote for them. I realised that every album could indeed be an event, and that the complete set – if we ever managed to finish it – would be a major event. Like exploring Beethoven’s symphonies, the differing sound-worlds inherent in Josquin’s handling of his chosen medium were there for the taking: it was our task to find them. It has been a search which at times has proved extremely taxing, not least because of Josquin’s crazily wide voice-ranges. But it has defined the career of The Tallis Scholars.”

Where was this major event celebrated? It wasn’t. The Tallis Scholars completed their first US tour in eons a couple of years ago…but that was before the lockdowners rebranded a seasonal  flu as the apocalypse, and used it as a pretext for criminalizing live music in most parts of the world. For now, as more and more of the world breaks free of the lockdown, we have this album to inspire us while we look forward to returning to normal.

The blend of voices here is characteristically celestial. There’s been plenty of turnover in the choir since they first took the stage almost fifty years ago; the current lineup features a cast as strong as ever. There are three pieces here, each of them dating from around 1500. There’s one written for the Duke of Ferrara in Italy, as well as the Missa D’ung aultre amer, and the Missa Faysant Regretz. That latter title may remind you of a Cole Porter song; it’s actually a requiem of sorts. This music is state-of-the-art for its time, foreshadowing the counterpoint and the devious mathematics of Bach.

Each is a radically different setting of a liturgical theme. Few if any of the robber barons of the Middle Ages were religious, but they paid lip service to it since it helped keep the peasants in line…and provided a convenient excuse to throw a party. In the first mass, Josquin cleverly uses musical code to weave a local dictator’s name into the music, a European counterpart to what the praise singers of sub-Saharan Africa were doing for the tyrants in their part of the world.

There’s well over an hour’s worth of music here. Baritones resound, sopranos soar and intertwine, often ranging from stark to lush and back in the course of less than a couple of minutes. This is most noticeable in the second mass, composed of very brief segments. The Amen section of the Missa Faysant Regretz will give you chills, and the effect lingers through successive interludes. The way the composer uses the simplest riffs to build increasingly complex webs will entrance you…literally.  And the echo effects, and dynamic shifts will lift you out of your reverie in appreciation of how talented musicians and composers managed to transcend the restrictions of an earlier era, one which more and more eerily has come to resemble our own.

January 10, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Gorgeous Live Recording of an Iconic Renaissance Choral Epic

Taken out of historical context, the Green Mountain Project’s final January 2020 concert performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 – streaming at Bandcamp – is epically electrifying. Considering the hideous events of the past nine months, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow and a few (slowly growing) parts of the world, it is illegal to either perform, or invite audiences to attend. How fortuitous it was that the ensemble decided to go out when they did – with a bang. This is a particularly high-voltage performance.

Choir directors Jolle Greenleaf and Scott Metcalfe first staged the iconic Renaissance choral work at St. Mary’s Church in midtown Manhattan in January of 2010. It became an annual tradition, finally winding up a year ago, the impassioned voices joined by strings, the period brass of the Dark Horse Consort, and organist Jeffrey Grossman. This massive double live album isn’t quite the complete show: brief, more mundane moments of call-and-response have been omitted. The group sing it at a slightly elevated Venetian pitch, as choirs where the composer was employed four centuries ago would have. Another fascinating accession to tradition is that most of the mass is sung one voice to a particular part, and every one of the soloists rises to the occasion.

Maybe because this is a concert recording, there are places where the instruments are as loud as the voices, occasionally even more so, everyone benefiting from the space’s immense amounts of natural reverb. The choir and instrumentalists handle Monteverdi’s intertwining counterpoint effortlessly and seem to relish hitting the big swells. Angels duel in strong, elegant, melismatic vocalese. Women soar over the men’s steady river of lows and the lustrously balanced orchestration: the wordless sonata that opens the second disc is a lush, majestic highlight.

Another welcome feature that older listeners typically take for granted is that this recording is divided up into a mere 24 tracks, a handful of which go on for almost ten minutes at a time. It’s not quite the equivalent of a vinyl record, but happily this album eschews the recent and incredibly annoying tendency for record labels to slice classical pieces up into dozens of fragments, presumably to maximize Spotify nanopayments.

January 9, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dreamy, Hypnotic Holiday Celebration with Roomful of Teeth and Tigue at the Guggenheim

Last night Roomful of Teeth sang a cocooning, dynamically pulsing, brilliantly conceived site-specific program, beneath and sometimes on the rotunda at the Guggenheim Museum. Conductor Brad Wells marveled at the space’s natural reverb, whose benefits were bolstered by the presence of percussion trio Tigue on several numbers.

The night’s most striking and hauntingly memorable song was Sarah Riskind‘s 2016 Hanerot Halalu, based on a stark melody in the chromatic Jewish freygish mode. Tynan Davis introduced that one from the second level of the balcony, the rest of the octet gathered on the ground-floor stage, Esteli Gomez eventually tossing the melody back up to her with similar elegance. Counterintuitively, the choir reconvened and followed with Gustav Holst’s wistful, folksy 1906 song In the Bleak Midwinter.

To open the evening, Tigue held the ground floor with their subtle, snowy accents while the choir, gathered four flights up on the balcony, delivered an emphatic, minimalistic new arrangement of Praetorius’ 1609 motet Lo, How a Rose. Caroline Shaw, who seems to have become the ringleader of this merry band, explained that the night’s bill was “A mix of the familiar and the unknown, by design,” works selected to rise up and ripple around the space. The two ensembles would come full circle at the end with more stately, reverent Praetorius, Tigue up on the balcony this time with handbells to add delicate tingle to the mix.

The night’s most dramatic, dynamically charged piece was Caleb Burhans‘ 2010 partita Beneath, ascending and falling with catchy, simple riffs punctuating slowly crescendoing, tectonic layers. Shaw described the world premiere of On Snow, which the Guggenheim’s Works and Process series (of which this concert was a part) had commissioned from her, as being “Music of the 17th century melting bit by bit.” The ensemble couldn’t conceal the fun they were having with the music’s coy, loopy, swoopy motives, bolstered by an elegant, slow crescendo by Tigue, from a ripple to a rumble.

Jeremy Faust’s Jubilo came across as a purposeful blend of minimalism and Renaissance polyphony. The choir followed the dreamy counterpoint of the 16th century Coventry Carol with the steady wave motion of Wells’ 2014 composition Render. Then Tigue built a matter-of-fact yet playful thicket of polyrhythms, the choir eventually interpolating airy swells and gentle gusts.

After the rhythmically pulsing variations of Judah Adashi‘s 2014 Bjork-inspired piece My Heart Comes Undone, the whole crew – also including baritone Jason Awbrey, bass Cameron Beauchamp, tenor Eric Dudley, baritone Jeffrey Gavett, sopranos Abigail Lennox  and Sarah Brailey – seemed to relish the wryly dipping, undulating quasi-mordents of Shaw’s Sarabande, from her Pulitzer Prizewinning 2011 suite.

This was the final concert at the Guggenheim this year. The museum’s events series continues next year with plenty of dance, opera and theatre as well.

December 17, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Aizuri Quartet Launch a New Season at a Favorite Upper West Side Classical Institution

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the Aizuri Quartet‘s eclectically entertaining, dynamic performance earlier this month at the popular Music Mondays series of free concerts on the Upper West Side.

The ensemble – violinists Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa, violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist Karen Ouzounian – began with an arrangement of a Hildegard Von Bingen diptych, its somber, stately, plainchant shifting artfully between the high strings and the cello, following a lengthy, aptly otherworldly introduction. The group’s take on Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major, op. 77, no. 2 spotlighted those individual, intertwining voices in as high definition as anyone could have wanted, illuminating its innumerable (some might say interminable) moments of playful repartee.

Then they played Caroline Shaw‘s deviously Beethoven-influenced Blueprint, its tightly interwoven cellular motives eventually reaching a burst of quiet jubilation, in contrast with its airy, spacious accents. There was also an augmented Brahms work on the bill, after the intermission, but sometimes sticking around for an entire evening of music ia a luxury. The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York concert is. December 4 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with works by Komitas, Haydn and Paul Wiancko.; tix are $30 The Music Mondays series at Advent Church at the northeast corner of 93rd St. and Broadway continues on Nov 18 at 7:30 PM with the Brass Project playing works by Bach, Reena Ismail, Gabriella Smith and a New York premiere by Kinan Abou-Afach

October 17, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cantata Profana Blend Renaissance Drama and Twentieth Century Austerity with Fun and Relevance at Symphony Space Tonight

The lights went down in the disused Roebling Avenue storefront, and then members of Cantata Profana – harpsichordist Daniel Schlosberg, theorbo player Arash Noori, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, violinist Jacob Ashworth, tenor Jonathan Blalock and baritone Jonathan Woody – launched into Monteverdi’s brooding kiss-off anthem, Interotte Speranze. What do you do the night before a big Symphony Space gig? Book a Williamsburg show…and pack the place. And then treat a mostly twentysomething crowd to mulled wine, Oreos and a surrealistically edgy, irresistibly fun performance that makes unexpectedly vivid connections between Renaissance vocal music and  Twentieth Century austerity. As if we need more proof that there’s a young, engaged audience that’s clamoring for serious concert music but has been priced out at the establishment venues, this is it. If the idea of pairing hauntingly resonant Webern vocal works with proto-parlor-pop and proto-opera appeals to you, Cantata Profana are reprising last night’s entertainment at Symphony Space tonight at 8 PM; tix are $25/$10 stud.

Cantata Profana are a prime example of how versatility is the new specialization, across the musical spectrum these days: it’s  the revenge of the utility player over the high-priced allstar. The ensemble – a core of singers and players surrounded by a semi-rotating cast – proved as at home with acidic Second Viennese School tonalities as with elegant medieval Italian balladry. The piece de resistance at this show is American composer George Rochberg’s Contra Morten et Tempus, with its hair-raising dynamic shifts and various quotes from Ives, Berio and other contemporaries. Another similarly bracing number on the program is Luigi Dallapiccola’s’ Due Liriche di Anacreonte, a showcase for tersely considered interplay between mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken Kelsey and among the supporting cast at well. And the juxtaposition between a partita by Renaissance Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, rising from a rather haunting, almost klezmer introduction to more easygoing Mediterranean tones, against the twelve-tone acerbity of Webern, was an example of shared ambition, an unexpectedly smooth segue.

To wind up the bill, the group employs a rather mystical diptych by Guido Caccini to set up Monteverdi’s famous early operatic piece Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, sung with appropriate drama by tenor Samuel Levine with support from Woody and scintillating sopratno Emma McNairy (whose raw power, unleashed in the small Williamsburg space, provided the night’s most adrenalizing moments). Like the rest of the earliest music on the bill, it makes an unanticipatedly good pairing alongside the serialist works – it’s hardly arioso, considering that the vocal line doesn’t really move around that much, leaving the cruel irony of the deadly duel between the knight and his crush-in-diguise all the more resonant. Especially in our era of global conflicts which are no less logically twisted.

January 22, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Raptly Thematic Lincoln Center Concert by All-Star Choir Cantus

One of Minnesota-based all-male choir Cantus‘ signature traits is theme programs. As one concertgoer put it, they can get a lot wilder than they were Sunday at Lincoln Center. Then again, this program was part of the spiritually-themed White Light Festival, continuing here through November 11. There are plenty of groups who mine the standard Renaissance repertoire, some who specialize in rediscovering treasures from that era, but Cantus are just as likely to juxtapose the ancient with the most current and make it all flow together seamlessly, and in that respect this was a characteristic performance.

They began with a precise, pulsing, even bouncy take of a twelfth century Perotinus piece, then a more traditional, somberly contemplative one by Josquin Des Prez. With its intricately echoing counterpoint, Randall Tompson’s 1940 Alleluia made a good segue, especially when the group hit an unexpectedly celebratory peak right before the end. In a way, it brought the early part of the concert full circle.

Jumping ahead sixty years to a lush, ambered take of Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled Lux Aurumque, they followed that with a bucolic 1942 nocturne by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven. Negotiating the tricky metrics, sudden dynamic shifts and otherworldly close harmonies of a diptych by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was no easy task, but the group made it look almost easy. In a choir, the individuals on the low and the top end always end up standing out, and this group was no exception, basses Chris Foss and Samuel Green paired against tenors Paul John Rudoi, Shahzore Shah, Aaron Humble and Blake Morgan. But the midrange benefited especially from the efforts of tenor Zachary Colby and baritone Matthew Goinz; Matthew Tintes, in particular, showed off an unexpectedly far-reaching range for a baritone.

From there they moved through brief works celebrating the comfort of home, or home country, via works by Sibelius, Dvorak, Janacek and Kodaly – the latter being the Hungarian national song, more or less, awash in a warmly consonant harmony that hardly seemed possible, from someone with such a thorny repertoire. It was music to get lost in. The group closed on a much more acerbic note, maybe as to draw the crowd out of their dream state, with a 2006 diptych by Edie Hill and encored by going deep into the 19th century hymnal. Cantus’ current tour continues onward: the next stop along the way is November 13 at 7 PM at Central Christian Center, 5th & Virginia in Joplin, Missouri.

November 4, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Happy Change of Pace from Stile Antico

It’s that time of year again, which means it must be time for a new album from Stile Antico. This time around, the hottest act in Renaissance polyphony give us Passion and Resurrection: Music Inspired By Holy Week. As one would expect, it’s a happier, considerably more optimistic, less gothic collection than their previous efforts. The conductorless British choral ensemble explore a richly resonant mix of short and longer works, nothing remotely as epic as their practically 24-minute version of John Sheppard’s Media Vita from 2010, but there are still fireworks here amidst the otherworldly glimmer and gleam.

The centerpiece, and longest work here, is a recent commission, John McCabe’s Woefully Arrayed. A review of their concert in New York this past April here called it “tense to the breaking point with sustained close harmonies versus rhythmic bursts, the darkest and most stunning moment of the night. Quasi-operatic outrage gave way at the end to organlike atonalities so richly atmospheric and perfectly executed that it seemed for a moment that the church’s mighty organ had actually taken over.” The recorded version needs to be turned up much louder than usual to deliver that effect, but it’s there.

The rest of the album has the balance of rich lows blending with angelic highs that defines this group’s work. There’s a roughly six-centuries older version of Woefully Arrayed – by William Cornysh – that opens it, considerably modern for its time. The closing piece, Tomas Crecquillon’s Congratulamimi Mihi, displays an even greater sophistication for its time with its dizzying polyrhythms. In between, there’s an absolutely gorgeous, dynamically rich version of Thomas Tallis’ iconic, anthemic O Sacrum Convivium, an intense miniature work (if such grand-scale music can be called miniature) by William Byrd and lush, variously paced pieces by a pan-European cast of fifteenth and sixteenth-century composers including Orlando Gibbons, Orlando de Lassus, Cristobal de Morales, Tomas Luis de Victoria, John Taverner, Francisco Guerrero, Jean Lheritier and Tomas Crecquillon. It’s out now from Harmonia Mundi.

November 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment