Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

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September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dancing Late with the Cypress String Quartet’s Elena Ruehr Album

In the spirit of spreading the word about releases that slipped under our radar when they initially appeared, here’s one from last year. The Cypress String Quartet discovered composer Elena Ruehr’s work by listening to an unlabeled recording. Eight years later, they finally consummated their affinity for her compositions, and have captured that passion in an album. The Quartet’s next-to-most-recent cd How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr could not be more aptly titled. Throughout her First, Third and Fourth String Quartets, rhythm is everywhere: sometimes jaunty, often incredibly tricky, occasionally outright aggressive. The three quartets here, (Nos. 1, 3 and 4), performed in reverse chronological order here, are extraordinarily melodic, with tinges of Afrobeat, and Irish dances alternating with modernist astringencies and enticing consonance.

Quartet No. 4 is Ruehr’s response to the Cypress Quartet’s request for her to compare Beethoven’s Ninth Quartet with Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet (which isn’t all that dissonant – that one has a longish intro that takes longer than usual until the anticipated call-and-response kicks in). But it sounds nothing like either. It’s essentially variations on a circular, West African-flavored theme, beginning terse and pizzicato and ending with a flurry of stormclouds. In the meantime, there’s an absolutely riveting, pensive interlude featuring a long, windswept cello solo and alternating variations on the initial theme and its shadow. The same process repeats in Quartet No. 3: the two back-to-back make a marvelous suite. More rhythmically-oriented and somewhat more lighthearted – although not completely – it closely resembles some of maverick violist Ljova Zhurbin’s more playful work. Beginnings and endings are more aggressive here; the album title, based on a broken triad that first appears in what’s basically a minuet in disguise, derives from a Celtic-tinged theme. Its two themes intertwine and become friends on the way out.

Quartet #1, from 1991, won the ASCAP award that year. It’s the most cinematic of the three, introducing the African rhythms as shifting segments rather than a full-on drumbeat with pizzicato or staccato bowing. When it’s not establishing a dreamy, cantabile mood, there’s a hypnotic, tricky rondo anchored by the cello and hints of a levantine dance introducing the unexpectedly tense, unresolved finale. Spirited performances by violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel shine throughout the album. The Cypress String Quartet’s next New York appearance is on April 28 at 8 PM, playing works by Benjamin Lees at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th St.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment