Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Randall Harlow Puts Out a Wild, Epic Triple Album of Spine-Tingling Recent Concert Organ Music

With his epic new triple album Organon Novus – streaming at SpotifyRandall Harlow seeks to restore the king of the instruments to its rightful place in concert music. Current generations may not realize how prominent a role the organ has played in American history. A hundred years ago, pretty much every major concert hall – not to mention city hall, baseball stadium, movie theatre, skating rink, funeral parlor, wedding venue, even the occasional department store – had its own organ. Harlow’s criteria in selecting the material here is to focus on American composers who are not organists themselves.

He explains that rationale in the liner notes: “As a performer I am particularly attracted to works by non-organist composers, as they tend to refreshingly avoid the well-worn gestures and techniques oft overused by incorrigible organists. This is not to say there aren’t compelling and original works composed by organists, particularly by those whose professional compositional activities extend beyond the organ and choral worlds, but works by non-organists such as these here often present novel and challenging figurations and elicit compelling new sounds from the instrument.” That’s something of an understatement. Harlow plays them on the titanically colorful E.M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the the University of Chicago.

The music here runs the gamut as eclectically as any other instrumental album released over the last several years. If you want an in-depth survey of some of the most interestingly diverse works for organ since 1990, you can’t do any better than this. The majority of them are on the short side as organ works go, generally under ten minutes, many of them under five. The dynamic and timbral ranges are as vast as any fan of the demimonde could want, from whispery nebulosity to all-stops-out pandemonium. The quietest pieces are the most minimalist.

Harlow opens with an alternately showy and calmly enveloping Libby Larsen study in bell-like tones which he calls an “all-limbs-on-deck work for the performer.” He closes with Aaron Travers‘ Exodus, an oceanic partita once considered unplayable for its complexity, wildly churning menace, leaps and whirling vortices. It will take your breath away.

In between we get Matt Darriau‘s crescendoing, anthemically circling Diapason Fall, which sounds nothing like his adventures in klezmer or Balkan music. Harlow follows Michael Daugherty‘s stormy, pulsing An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance with Roberto Sierra‘s Fantasia Cromática and its dervish dance of an outro.

He turns a Christian Wolff piece for either organ or celesta into a coy dialogue betweeen that relatively rare organ stop and the high flutes. Then he improvises against the rattle of dried beans and macaroni atop percussionist Matt Andreini’s snare and tom-tom in a droning, hypnotic Alvin Lucier soundscape. A “hair-raising study in how not to play the organ” by John Zorn, contrastingly careening and quietly macabre, concludes the second disc.

Other standouts from among the total of 25 composers represented here include John Anthony Lennon‘s allusively Doors-influenced, cascading Misericordia; a towering, picturesque Rocky Mountain tableau by George Walker; Samuel Adler‘s purposeful, tightly coiling Schoenberg homage From Generation to Generation; and Joan Tower’s delightfully blustery, aptly titled Ascent. The portents of the penultimate number, Lukas Foss’ Hiroshima-themed triptych War and Peace are among the album’s most riveting moments. Harlow attacks each of these pieces with equal parts meticulousness and passion. Even better, there’s a sequel in the works.

November 29, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back at Bryant Park For an Even More Revealing, Entertaining Concert of String Quartets

The American Symphony Orchestra deserve immense credit for their courage in taking a frontline role in bringing live music back to New York at such a perilous historical moment. Likewise, the programmers at Bryant Park deserve just as much of a shout for giving musicians a space to perform when indoor spots have been ruled off-limits by Il Duce up in Albany. Concert-starved audiences whose daytime hours are free can catch an ongoing series of solo performances on the park’s electric piano at half past noon on frequent weekdays.

Monday night’s performance featured a string quartet of violinists Cyrus Beroukhim andRichard Rood, violist William Frampton and cellist Alberto Parrini playing a fascinating and entertaining mix of obscure and standard repertoire. Crowds have become immune to rote homilies like “You’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us.” But when Frampton unselfconsciously gushed about how much of a pleasure it was to finally be able to play concerts again, there was no doubting his sincerity.

With full-on vibrato, they opened with an unabashedly Romantic rendition of Nino Rota’s Love Theme from the film Romeo and Juliet, and brought the concert full circle with the encore, Gabriel’s Oboe, by Ennio Morricone. In between, they confidently and vividly tackled three completely different but equally engaging pieces.

The first was Nino Rota’s lone string quartet, in three movements – considering the demands on his creativity as a film composer, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a fourth. From the initial movement’s soaring, lively, anthemic opening-credits energy,  the quartet turned in a robust, dynamic interpretation – more than a little cabin fever may have been exorcised at this show. The contrasts between the meticulously calm, baroque-tinged rondo and rise to a bracingly insistent minor-key coda in the second movement were striking, as the visceral triumph of the conclusion.

The group worked a spring-loaded, dynamically-charged intensity in the opening and closing movements of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, its centerpiece being an even more dynamic, gossamer interpretation of the iconic Appassionate For Strings. Hearing that often whispery, achingly crescendoing movement – often played as a stand-alone piece – in the context of a greater whole was revelatory, especially when the quartet threw caution to the wind and reveled in the rise to the payoff at the end.

George Walker’s 1946 String Quartet No. 1 was the most technically challenging, thorniest work on the bill, but also the most fascinating. Much more rhythmic, bustling with constantly changing counterpoint, it’s  a crazy quilt of short, incisive, pervasively restless phrases, like a Bartok Jr. Never having heard the piece before, the simmering, nocturnal second movement came as a surprise – as did the shivery intensity of the reprise of the opening theme in the movement afterward. The dichotomy between bristling energy and plaintiveness was evoked even more strongly in the rather brief coda.

You can go on youtube anytime you want and look up every composer who ever wrote a note, but nothing compares to new discoveries brought to life before your eyes by a group who seem to be enjoying that every bit as much.

The next live performance at Bryant Park is a solo piano gig tomorrow, Sept 25 at half past noon by Yuko Aikawa.

September 24, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment