Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

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December 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brooding, Wounded Masterpiece from Jane Antonia Cornish

Composer Jane Antonia Cornish has scored some big hits (pun intended) with her film music. Her signature style tends to be reflective and atmospheric, meticulous to a fault: a wasted note would be a serious crime in her universe. Her latest album, Continuum opens with Nocturne 1, a starkly minimalist, Lynchian series of very subtle variations on a very simple motif for strings that Angelo Badalamenti would no doubt approve of. As it grows darker and louder, bringing to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula soundtrack, the ghosts of the deep, robust roots of the trees whose wood became cellos and violins begin to flicker, their microtones dancing across the bows of the string ensemble Decoda. Composers tend to write best for their own instruments, and Cornish being a violinist, that strikes particularly true here. For that matter, the whole album – out from Innova and streaming this week at WQXR – is as starkly gripping as its opening track.

Nocturne II opens with such precision and clarity that its sonorities could be produced by winds instead of strings – and then that macabre theme kicks in! The third and final Nocturne is an achingly crescendoing grey-sky tone poem. Again, the cello quintet achieves such a crystalline timbre that they could be french horns.

Cornish’s cinematic prowess stretches across the horizon on Continuum 1, a spacious, moody Great Plains tableau of sorts – it’s tempting to say that it reaches Spielbergian heights. The second movement refers obliquely to the Glassine pulse of the opening Nocturne, with a series of wavelike echo effects as hypnotic as anything Glass ever wrote. The solo cello piece that follows offers a fond nod back to the Bach cello sonatas, adding both Cornish’s signature spaciousness and minutely honed sense of tasty string overtones. The album winds up with Tides, a vivid illustration of waves and echoes. A thousand electronic composers have used machines to follow similar tangents, but Cornish’s triumph is one of echoing nature exactly as it exists rather than through the bottom of a laptop.

And it wouldn’t be fair to end without mentioning the rapturously precise and inspired solo performance by Decoda cellist Hamilton Berry at the album launch party last month at Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea, where he gave voice to an austerely poignant Cornish sonata as well as a colorful solo pastorale by George Crumb that required considerable split-second extended technique.

September 18, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Halloween Thrills and Chills from the American Modern Ensemble

At Merkin Concert Hall Thursday night, American Modern Ensemble director and virtuoso percussionist Robert Paterson explained to the sold-out crowd that the show had been eight years in the making. And he made it worth everyone’s while. It might or might not have been a rather brazen attempt to upstage works by George Crumb and David Del Tredici with a trio of his own compositions, but that was the ultimate result. Whatever the intention, it made for a great night of music.

The ensemble began as a sextet and by the time they hit the intermission, they’d grown to a nineteen-piece chamber orchestra, heavy on the percussion as you would expect from a composer like Paterson. He’s one of the most cinematic around: it’s a shock that his work hasn’t appeared in more films than it has. He credited both other composers on the bill as being major influences, and while there were echoes of Crumb’s flitting, ghostly motives as well as Del Tredici’s edgy, carnivalesque tunefulness throughout these works, there was as much ghoulish narrative, comparable with Bernard Herrmann – or Danny Elfman on steroids. Which made sense, this being a Halloween show.

The first number, Hell’s Kitchen, included everything AND a kitchen sink (ripped from its frame and hanging over the marimba). Methodically and with not a little gleeful intensity, the group made their way through a chuffing steam-train theme, a lively chase scene and horror-stricken tritones punctuated by brief moments of relatively less unease. Paterson’s second work, Closet Full of Demons, was more of a longform horror theme and variations, veering between cartoonish drollery and moments of sheer terrror. The concluding work, Ghost Theater took the wry ghoul-humor to a logical conclusion, sort of a 21st century update on Raymond Scott.

Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (from his Makrokosmos IIII suite) had a creepy aspect, and a nocturnal one, but also a big, agitated twin-piano cadenza from Blair McMillen and Stephen Gosling early on, not to mention plenty of anticipated autoharp-like figures emanating from inside the piano as the two went under their respective lids to brush the strings. The two percussionists, Paterson and Matt Ward, really got a workout, shifting in a split second between many, many objects, building vivid contrasts between murk and momentary, marionettish motives. As the piece went on, there were persistent references to dreamy Asian-tinged folk themes – and also occasionally maddeningly weird, awkward, seemingly random vocal shouts and mumbles that under different circumstances might have cleared the room. A work with so many other interesting things going on deserves to have those parts discreetly omitted.

Del Tredici’s Dracula came across as the kind of piece that would have been staged at Tonic ten years ago, part Vera Beren avant garde horror tableau, part nimbly macabre theme and variations. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy sang the daylights out of it when presented with a few opportunities to do that. Otherwise, she was relegated to narration, which was luridly fun as the story took shape but quickly became a distraction from what is in every sense of the word a fantastic piece of music. Echoes of Roaring 20s swing, disquieting circus rock and Weimar cabaret juxtaposed with the clenched-teeth intensity from the winds, brass, percussion and strings – violist Jessica Meyer and cellist Dave Eggar getting some of the juiciest parts. Looking back, you could see the twistedly funny ending coming a mile away.

This was it for 2014 for this group, other than a couple of characteristically eclectic trio performances led by Gosling coming up at 5 PM on December 5 and 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art balcony bar. But 2015 promises to be especially ambitious for an already ambitious ensemble: a weeklong festival of new music from American composers staged at a reputedly amazing new complex in Danbury, Connecticut, in late summer, and the creation of a fullsize American Modern Ensemble symphony orchestra.

November 1, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment