Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ensemble Pi Commemorate the Iraq War with an Understatedly Harrowing Program

Even by avant garde standards, chamber group Ensemble Pi stand out not only for the adventurousness of their commissions and their repertoire, but also for their fearlessly political stance. Their annual Peace Concert at Subculture Wednesday night, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bush/Cheney war in Iraq, held to loosely interconnected themes of how language may be interpreted. Group leader and elegantly eclectic pianist Idith Meshulam joined with cellist Katie Schlaikjer and violinist Airi Yoshioka to premiere a Susan Botti song cycle, J’ai tant rêvé de toi, a setting of the famous Robert Desnos love poem that was inscribed posthumously on the Monument to the Martyrs of World War II in Paris. Soprano Kristin Norderval dedicated the performance to Eric Garner and his survivors – with its acidic tonaliites, the vocals, accompaniment and instrumental passages maintained a bracing, tense, precise walking pace punctuated by the occasional horrified cadenza.

It set the stage for an early Krzysztof Penderecki work, his Violin Sonata No. 1. Ostensibly written with the death of Stalin in mind, its harshness never wavered and eventually dissapated in endless if precisely played waves of twelve-tone acidity. Clarinetist Moran Katz then joined the trio for another world premiere, Laura Kaminsky‘s strikingly intense diptych, Deception. Katz’s moody, richly burnished low register in tandem with the cello built an air of mystery and foreboding, occasionally punctured by the piano. The second movement worked clever variations via individual voices in a very Debussy-esque arrangement that also offered a nod to Shostakovich and possibly Penderecki as well.

The evening’s funniest moment was when Norderval sang a brief Bryant Kong setting of Donald Rumsfeld doublespeak about known knowns and known unknowns and so forth: it brought to mind Phil Kline‘s Rumsfeld Songs, a lengthier and even funnier take. Jason Eckardt‘s Rendition, for clarinet and piano, made an apt segue, exploring the concept of rendition in both lethal and less lethal forms. It made for a portrayal of both the chillingly robotic, lockstep mentality that justifies the use of torture as well as its numbingly dehumanizing aspects. To close the program on a particularly chilling note, the ensemble switched out the cello for soprano Rachel Rosales, who sang selections from Shostakovich’s subversive 1967 suite Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok. Blok’s hundred-year-old poems celebrate the downfall of the Tsarist regime, but they also make good anthems for freedom fighters looking to destroy any evil empire: they’re hardly pacifist, and Shostakovich was keenly aware of that. And it was there that the horror of totalitarianism came front and center, Rosales’ dynamic delivery ranging from steely irony to fullscale terror over a backdrop that spoke of shock and awe, from the perspective on the receiving end.

December 19, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Timeless Relevance and Challenging Sounds from Ensemble Pi

It’s always a good sign when a challenging ensemble sells out the room; it’s even better when the program is important on more than just a musical level. Such was the case last night at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea where Ensemble Pi put on their annual peace concert. It was fun, and entertaining…and politically charged. The theme, What Must Be Said turned out to be a Gunter Grass quote, read in its entirety in the original German, the gist being that Israel ought to be subject to the same nuclear inspections as Iran. To which should be added, every nation possessing weapons, or power plants, of mass destruction let’s not forget what happened on 3/11.

That was the politics. The music addressed the global struggle for freedom, sometimes acerbically, sometimes gnomically, sometimes in between those extremes. Pianist Idith Meshulam and violinist Airi Yoshioka opened the evening with Susan Botti’s Lament: The Fallen City, a reflection on areas fallen victim to natural or manmade disasters.The violin played droning microtones against the center as the piano melody began still and built from there: in the early going, it reminded of Kayhan Kalhor’s horror-stricken Silent City. From there the duo took it to an agitation that eventally turned into a sort of ragtime disguised with twelve-tone harmonies, jaunty Americana on a knife’s edge.

Three songs by Kristin Norderval followed, from a forthcoming opera based on the life of architect and human rights crusader Patricia Isasa. In her native Argentina, “disappear” can be a transitive verb; Isasa was one of the few who returned after having been “disappeared” during the pre-1983 dictatorship’s reign of terror. Soprano Emily Donato gave dignity – and a viscerally thrilling crescendo – to Isasa’s teenage dreams of building a new city, conducted with tango-tinged verve by Eduardo Leandro, the piano and violin joined by Isabel Castellvi on cello, Cristian Amigo on guitar, Daniel Binelli on bandoneon and Kevin Norton on an army of percussion instruments. Daniel Pincus sang a sarcastic, faux-martial number from the point of view of the judge who sent Isasa away – and who later got sent away for doing that. The composer then sang an irony-drenched, shapeshifting, microtonally-infused number whose most powerful lyrics unfortunately got lost in upper-register pyrotechnics. Since the opera is a work in progress, it makes sense to say that – audiences need to hear a song’s most resonant line, don’t they?

Meshulam then backed a wry and vividly relevant puppet show, performed by the troupe Great Small Works, based on the life of composer Hanns Eisler, who was deported from the US during the McCarthy era. Titled Eisler on the Go after the song that Woody Guthrie had written about him, it underscored the continued relevance of Eisler’s artfully corrosive songs written with Kurt Weill, three of which were sung by Norderval. Just the icepick precision of Meshulam’s menacingly altered boogie-woogie lefthand in the mordant Supply and Demand made the concert worthwhile (for those who missed last night’s show, they’re doing it again tonight).

The evening closed with a couple of piano miniatures, one with a creepy, Satie-esque minimalism, and then the first movement from Eisler’s Sonata No. 3, which heavily referenced the energetic otherworldliness of Eisler’s teacher Arthur Schoenberg. In the worlds of serious music, especially indie classical, self-absorption can get out of hand. So it was refreshing, often to the extreme, to see a show like this one.

November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment