Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Brooklyn Rider Redefines What a String Quartet Is in the 21st Century

For the past few years, Brooklyn Rider have pushed the envelope pretty much as far as a string quartet can go, and in the process have raised the bar for other groups: they transcend any preconception about what serious composed music is all about. Their latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac – streaming at Spotify – is their most ambitious effort yet, and may well be the one that most accurately captures what the group is all about. They draw on a wide composer base, including their own members, an A-list of mostly New York-based players and writers across the musical spectrum, from indie classical to Americana to rock and now even jazz.

It’s also a dance album in many respects – pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s similarly eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra also comes to mind. Beyond the rhythms – everything from funky grooves to waltzes and struts and the hint of a reel or a stately English dance – dynamics are everything here. The pieces rise and fall and shift shape, often with a cinematic arc. The first track is Rubin Kodheli‘s Necessary Henry!, the group – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – establishing an ominous/dancing dichotomy out of a stormy intro. It may have originally been written for Kodheli’s snarlingly majestic cello metal band Blues in Space.

Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn shifts from a lustrous fog with distant echoes of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to a slow waltz and then a chase scene – it’s the most cinematic piece here. Simpson’s Gap, by Clogs‘ Padma Newsome makes a good segue, an Appalachian ballad given bulk and heft with fluttering echoes, as if bouncing off the mountain walls and down into the valley below.

The Haring Escape, by saxophonist Daniel Cords veers from swaying, echoing funk, to slowly shifting resonance, to an aggressive march. Aoife O’Donovan’s Show Me is akin to something Dvorak would have pieced together out of a gentle Hudson Valley dance. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Dig the Say gives the quartet a  theme and variations to work, a study in counterrythms, funky vamps bookending a resonantly atmospheric interlude.

There are two pieces by indie rock drummers here. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier – most recently witnessed  trying his best to demolish the house kit at Glasslands a couple of weeks ago – contributes the most minimalist piece here, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Poing Fumble Thaw being more pointillistic. The album continues on a kinetic path from here until the very end, through Ethan Iverson‘s Morris Dance – which blends contrastingly furtive and calm themes – then Colin Jacobsen’s Exit, with Shara Worden on vocals, a triumphantly balletesque, swirling, rather Reichian piece. The most rhythmically emphatic number here is by Gonazlo Grau, leader of explosive psychedelic salsa band La Clave Secreta. After Christina Courtin’s raptly atmospheric Tralala, the quartet ends with a warmly measured, aptly pastoral take of John Steinbeck, by Bill Frisell.

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October 19, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Rider’s Walking Fire – Their Most Intense Recording Yet

Taking its title from a Rumi love poem, Brooklyn Rider‘s new album A Walking Fire captures the state-of-the-art New York string quartet at their most animated and eclectic, even by their standards. Violinist Colin Jacobsen, cellist Eric Jacobsen, violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords arguably embrace interests beyond the classical repertoire more than any other quartet in recent memory, from Central Asian and Persian music to Romany and even Americana sounds. This one finds them diving into Eastern European music new and old via a suite by one of this era’s most cinematic composers, as well as a haunting early Modernist/late Romantic warhorse, along with a gripping Middle Eastern-flavored trio written by Colin Jacobsen.

The first is violist/composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s Culai, a homage to the late violinist and Taraf de Haidoucks bandleader Nicolae “Culai” Neacsu. In five parts, the group moves through a caffeinated, circular, balletesque pulse to low-key, Romany jazz-inspired atmospherics, a gentle but expressive Balkan dance dedicated to singer Romica Puceanu, a frantic tarantella (previously recorded by Zhurbin’s rocking string ensemble the Kontraband) and finally the poignant, elegaic Funeral Doina.

Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 doesn’t have the ferocity of the quartet that preceded it but there’s still plenty of raw anger, as one might expect from a work written in the midst of World War I. What distinguishes this version from the many other superb ones out there? Brooklyn Rider digs in hard, particularly in the low registers, Cords and Eric Jacobsen doing most of the heavy lifting in elevating the bitterness and angst (not to mention the sophistication of Bartok’s harmony). Riddled with apprehension, there’s a persistent contrast between an elegant staccato and a snaky legato that uncoils with a proto-Shostakovian dread. A wary subtlety dominates, especially as the high strings rise against the cello’s stern anchor in the initial moderato movement before giving way to the relentless pulse and anguished cadenzas of the second and the somber, smoky, funereal crescendo of the third. It’s a quietly, bitterly matter-of-fact showstopper.

Colin Jacobsen’s Three Miniatures for String Quartet draw on surrealistic, Persian-inspired imagery as well as Brooklyn Rider’s close association with the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor. Majnun’s Moonshine works apprehensively minimalist permutations on a darkly catchy, allusively chromatic dance vamp, while The Flowers of Esfahan shifts from an amiably twinkling nocturnal cityscape to an unexpectedly shivery swell. The title track employs Kalhor’s signature fluttering motives and otherworldly close harmonies over steady cello for an atmosphere that’s equally infused with dread and longing. Jacobsen, and the rest of the ensemble, succeed mightily in evoking one of their great inspirations with a triptych that manages not to be anticlimactic in view of what it has to follow – the decision not to close the album with the Bartok instead was very brave.

June 28, 2013 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NYU’s Repertory Orchestra: Ready for Prime Time

We were sussed to this one via an email from the extraordinary violist/composer/bandleader Ljova Zhurbin, who’s had a good year writing film and ballet scores (his eclectic Russian/gypsy/tango string group the Kontraband plays live for Aszure Barton’s Busk dance performance at the Baryshnikov Arts Ctr., 450 W. 37th St., – tickets are still available for one of the four remaining performances, 12/18 at 3 PM). Student orchestras have their ups and downs, which is understandable, but this year’s edition of the NYU Repertory Orchestra is Carnegie Hall-caliber. This performance was an unexpected treat, and it might have something to do with the fact that Zhurbin’s cellist pal Eric Jacobsen (from cutting-edge string quartet Brooklyn Rider and their sister orchestra the Knights) conducts the ensemble. It wasn’t just a matter of getting the notes and dynamics right: there were both chemistry and soul in the two pieces we managed to catch Friday night along with an obvious, high-spirited camaraderie between conductor and orchestra. They’re obviously psyched to have him out in front; he’s obviously psyched to have his finger on the pulse of this much up-and-coming talent. Some of these players will be filling the seats at Lincoln Center in a couple of years.

The Ljova composition Garmoshka (Russian for “button accordion”) was first on the bill, a characteristically wry, bittersweet waltz originally written for accordion and viola and lushly rearranged to air out a series of jaunty but wary motifs jeweled with tricky twists and turns as they alternate between various sections of the orchestra. It got warmer as it went along; it had a happy ending (it made its premiere at a wedding). The trickiest passages fell to the winds, who absolutely nailed them: Ashley Williams and SooA Kim on flutes; Matthew Brady and Andrew Policastro on oboes; Charles Furlong and Catherine Kim on clarinets and Sean Huston and Jordana Schacht-Levine on bassoons. And Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto (the first one he wrote, actually) wasn’t merely a case of the orchestra proving themselves able to follow the keyboard melody: they formed a seamless whole with Kiyomi Kimura’s ecstatic yet fluidly ripping fingerwork. As much as the program notes alluded to the fact that some listeners consider the piece overwrought, much of it is unselfsconsciously moving, particularly the final allegro vivace movement, which was given a vivid sense of longing and displacement. Pieces by Phillip Glass and Schubert were next after the intermission, but by then it was time (or so we thought) to go over the bridge to hear a bunch of noise-rock bands.

December 13, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Knights at Night in Central Park

With all the great new music out there, and the Knights – one of the most adventurous, new-music-inclined orchestras in the world – on the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night, why did they play so much old stuff? Maybe because they knew they could bring so much joy to it – and counterintuitivity, too. Conventional wisdom is that name-brand orchestras surpass the smaller or lesser-known outfits, but all too often the big ensembles are basically sightreading and not much more. One of the benefits of a less strenuous season than what the Philharmonics of the world have to tackle is that there’s enough time for everyone to really get their repertoire in their fingers, discover it on an individual level and let its nuances fly rather than trampling them in a quest to simply get the job done. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who doubles as the cellist in celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) offered a prime example during the second movement of Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major. It’s a series of swooping arabesques on the strings, followed by variations that the entire ensemble picks up and tosses around. Jacobsen turned them into a mystery theme, then shifted gears with the tempo, a couple of times, with a wink and a grin as the melody split and shifted kaleidoscopically on the wings of the winds. Likewise, he led the Knights through two waltzes by Shostakovich (newly arranged with jazzy Kurt Weill verve by Ljova Zhurbin) with a jaunty cabaret swing, taking a brooding Russian folk theme and then a more Weimar-inflected tune and making something approaching real dance music out of them, guest violinist Vera Beths clearly enjoying herself as much as she had during the devious swoops and slides of the Beethoven.

The rest of the program was more traditional. They’d opened with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, something akin to the Simpsons Theme from another time and place. As with the Simpsons Theme, less is more with this one, and that’s how the Knights played it. Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite was written for a favorite niece, said WQXR’s Bill McLaughlin, standing in as MC in place of a honeymooning Midge Woolsey (congratulations, Midge!). The two miniatures weren’t Fur Elise but they weren’t bad either. The orchestra wound up the program with a warmly cantabile performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, commonly known as The Clock (from the metronomic sway of a prominent pizzicato passage). All counterpoint and comfortably familiar chord resolutions, to New Yorkers of a certain stripe it made a perfect soundtrack for wine and quiet conviviality on Central Park grass. This was the final Naumburg Bandshell classical concert for 2010; watch this space early next summer for information on next year’s schedule.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Knights Segue Through the Ages

As the Knights’ previous album Live from New York affirmed, the orchestra transcend any kind of “indie classical” label – they’re as much at home with Shostakovich as they are with Jimi Hendrix. Their first studio recording, New Worlds, artfully takes a characteristically diverse and ambitious selection of works from the Romantic era through the present day and casts them as a suite: the tracks basically segue into each other. As dissimilar as these compositions are, that the idea works at all is an achievement: that it works so well is a triumph worth celebrating. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who’s also the cellist in another first-rate new music ensemble, the celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) leads this adventurous crew with flair and gusto yet with an almost obsessive focus on minutiae: dynamics are everything here, and they are everywhere. For example, the apprehension of the trumpet motif rising out of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, the opening track here – and its single, fleeting, cinematic cadenza that rises up and disappears like a ghost. Or the second movement of Latin Grammy winner Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout. It’s a game of hide-and-seek, pizzicato string accents amid stillness like woodland sprites. And then a spritely dance, with distant echoes of The Rites of Spring. It’s supposed to be evocative of native Andean instruments, but the Knights give them personalities.

And they breathe new life into an old chestnut. Dvorak’s Silent Woods swings and sways, with cellist Jan Vogler the soloist. These woods are very robustly alive – it’s a romp all the way through the trick ending. So the segue into Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round, a memorably bristling, staccato string homage to Piazzolla, works like a charm. Credit Golijov, as well for the counterintuitivity of the funereal second movement, whose counterpoint could almost pass for Brahms.

And that’s when the album ends, for us at least. The ensemble have a special fondness for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, as they were playing it throughout the Obama campaign’s ascendancy up to the historic 2008 election. We’ll leave it to fans of that piece to contemplate where the Knights’ version stands alongside other recordings. The Knights’ next New York performance is on August 3 at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park – take the 72nd St. entrance on the east side, circle round the south side of Summerstage, go down the steps and it’ll be on your right.

July 8, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adrenaline for the Soul: The Greenwich Village Orchestra in Concert 11/18/07

It’s hard to believe that this world-class orchestra has somehow managed to fly so far below the radar. For a $15 donation, classical music fans can see reliably good, frequently exhilarating performances of both popular and obscure works, discover new composers and watch some of the best up-and-coming talent at the top of their game. Shows as good as this afternoon’s spiritually-themed program by the Greenwich Village Orchestra usually cost a hundred dollars or more at the Midtown concert halls. Plainly and simply, there is no better music value in New York.

While the afternoon’s theme (this orchestra LOVES theme programs) was spirituality, it would have been better put as a celebration of everything that makes life worth living, a frequently riveting, exuberant, passionate performance. They began slowly with two orchestral arrangements of Bruckner motets, the first a pretty generic, post-baroque melody, the second slightly more interesting but ultimately nothing more than a standard pre-Romantic Northern European piece, nothing Mendelssohn didn’t do a hundred times better.

But they brought out every bit of drama in the next piece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture. It’s a celebration of the Resurrection, opening all quiet and suspenseful but building quickly to a fiery, galloping, gypsyish folk dance in three movements. On the podium, Barbara Yahr spurred the orchestra to play with wild abandon, and they delivered.

In keeping with the spiritual theme, three representatives of New York spiritual communities each delivered a short introduction to a particular piece of music. Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah impressed the most by quoting influential civil rights crusader Rabbi Abraham Heschel on how prayer is by definition transgressive, that one’s spiritual life necessarily works against the status quo in seeking higher ground. It was an apt way to kick off Max Bruch’s heart-tugging Kol Nidrei, based on the prayer invoked the night before the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Guest soloist Eric Jacobsen played his part on the cello from memory with an intensity that made it look as if he was about to break strings. He’s a rising star, and for good reason, with a seemingly effortless vibrato and a sense of dynamics that doesn’t stop at fortissimo. His blazing interpretation burned away any trace of sentimentality that could have insinuated itself into this highly emotional composition.

The following work was a world premiere, young Hong Kong-born Angel Lam’s Her Thousand Year Dance. If this piece is typical of her other material, it instantly establishes her as a first-rate composer, blending the windswept, pastoral beauty of traditional Chinese classical music with western tonalities. Beginning abruptly with a few bursts from special guest Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi (an oversize Japanese wood flute), it rose to an ethereal, atmospheric yet rhythmically difficult altitude and pretty much stayed there for the duration, aside from a couple of breaks with light percussion. That the afternoon’s final piece, Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, would be anticlimactic speaks volumes about what preceded it. Yahr led the ensemble through a highly idiosyncratic yet extremely successful reading. Although there are no breaks written in the music, Strauss wrote this ultimately triumphant chronicle of struggle and redemption in four distinct parts. While the piece is frequently played with an emphasis on overall ambience, Yahr spelled out the dynamics in capital letters, putting teeth in both the ebbs and swells, an unexpected thrill ride to close what had to be the most exciting classical bill anywhere in town this week.

The media typically holds classical musicians to a higher standard than rock or jazz players (which is grossly unfair: everybody, even the greatest virtuosos, make mistakes). If there were any technical flaws in this afternoon’s performance, it would be the sluggishness of the horns early on in the Bruckner and some general weirdness (tuning issues?) in the violins early during the Lam. Otherwise, Yahr steered this careening unit directly into high winds and stormy seas and then brought everyone back into port unscathed, the crowd (on the docks, if you want to bring the metaphor full circle) all on their feet, roaring their approval. The GVO’s next concert is December 16, billed as a kid-friendly show featuring Saint-Saens’ witty, interesting, multi-part Carnival of the Animals (which gets pegged as a children’s piece even though it’s quite sophisticated), along with pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn.The GVO’s best deal is their series subscription, especially considering what lies in store: in addition to the December 16, the remainder of the season features works by Shostakovich, Bach, Brahms and others. The concerts continue to be held at Washington Irving High School auditorium as they’ve been for several years, considering the room’s excellent sonics (it seems to date from the 19th century and at one time even housed a concert organ, whose pipes still stand to the left and right of the stage).

November 19, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment