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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Iconic Horror Film For the Ears

Here’s one of the alltime great horror movies for the ears. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1936, when he first earned the wrath of Josef Stalin for daring to create interesting and relevant music that didn’t glorify the genocidal Soviet regime.

Sound familiar?

Censorship and totalitarianism existed long before the lockdown, the needle of death, Facebook and Google. The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was pressured not to premiere the symphony, which wouldn’t see the light of day until 1961. The composer reputedly called it his favorite.

As political satire, it’s one of the most withering pieces of music ever written. It’s a mashup of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Schoenberg, but more venomously political than anything any of those composers ever wrote. There’s a spellbinding live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, streaming at Spotify, that you should hear if you can handle savagely troubled music right now.

This particular album is taken from two concerts at the Barbican in November 2018. Noseda’s dynamics are vast and dramatic to the extreme, as they should be. Whether explosive, or shuddering with horror, or ruthlessly parodying Stalin’s campy pageantry, the orchestra are a force of nature.

The first movement comes in with a shriek, a pulsing post-Sacre du Printemps dance of death and all kinds of foreshadowing of how Shostakovich would expand on this kind of phantasmagoria, far more politically. All the strongman themes in Shostakovich’s symphonies, from the third on, are phony: he never lets a tyrant, whether Stalin or Krushchev, off the hook.

Coy cartoons suddenly appear livesize and lethal. This is a cautionary tale, the composer telling us not to take our eye off the ball, or else. A rite of the dead of winter, intertwined with terrified individual voices, rises to a vicious crescendo. The first of many references to Anitra’s Dance, the Grieg theme, appears. Concertmaster Roman Sinovic and bassoonist Rachel Gough become plaintive and persistent witnesses to history.

Movement two is nothing less than an indictment, a sometimes ghostly, pervasively anxious waltz wafting in and out, the ruthlessness of the regime baring its fangs to a terrorized citizenry. The concluding third movement begins too casual to be true, as the orchestra calmly allude to another macabre Russian classic, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The chase scene early on doesn’t have quite the horror of the KGB pursuit theme in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but it’s close.

The ensemble offer a twisted parody of a Germanic minuet as a spitball at the entitled Russian collaborator classes, Noseda getting maximum cynical gossipy fervor out of the strings. Stormtroopers gather and wreak havoc, the orchestra building a devastatingly phantasmagorical parody of Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Clashes of ideologies, musical and otherwise, grow more combatively surreal. The seemingly ineluctable, gruesome march out doesn’t get to fade down without a series of accusatory ghosts.

As with all of Shostakovich, there are innumerable other details that could take up ten more pages to chronicle: buckle up for this carnival of dead souls. The London Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of live albums comprise some incredible performances and this might be the very best of recent years.

October 1, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Far Cry Storm Back into Action at the Naumburg Bandshell

From 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual series in the history of music. It has been as much of a godsend to witness the return of these performances this year as it was tragic to lose them in 2020. Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell, huddled under their umbrellas in relentless rain that finally grew to monsoon proportions, a crowd of about a hundred undeterred concertgoers thunderously welcomed back a familiar presence on the stage here, seventeen-piece string ensemble A Far Cry.

They were just as happy to see the audience. This was the group’s first concert since February of last year. Violinist Jae Cosmos Lee mentioned that they’d played their share of webcasts and broadcasts, as just about every other ensemble that managed to stay together during the sixteen-month lockdown here in the northeast ended up doing. Still, he confided that his most sobering realization during that time was how crucial the relationship between performers and audience is. “Without you, all this would be…” he searched for a word, “Nothing!” This wasn’t just Sergeant Pepper trying to take all the girls home. This was sincere.

That energy was more electric than the sky overhead: Lee enthused that this was the group’s most exciting moment onstage, at least since a show in Slidell, Louisiana where it was “raining sideways” and one of the violinists burst into a solo version of Orange Blossom Special while her bandmates waited for the sky to clear.

Throughout this particular downpour, the music was transcendent in the purest sense of the word. They opened with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, bristling with dynamics, from the stiletto staccato of the first movement, black velvet resonance from bass and cellos in the anxious second part, and a lithe pulse throughout the baroque-tinged dances they wound it up with.

Joseph Bologne, a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a slightly older and very colorful contemporary of Mozart, is all the rage now, represented on this bill by a kinetically stately take of his 1778 Sinfonia Concertante Op. 13, No. 1, which has actually never been recorded. Maybe A Far Cry can jump on that bandwagon too.

The two pieces de resistance among many were a couple of Jessie Montgomery works. She’s one of us, Lower East Side born and bred, and the group did her justice with a plucky, emphatically circling, meticulously playful take of her 2012 work Strum for String Orchestra. And they luxuriated in the wealth of subtly cached microtones and slowly glissandoing swells in Source Code for String Orchestra, from a year later.

Silouan’s Song, a 1991 Arvo Part composition, made an apt segue with its somber, spaciously paced minimalism. The group closed with the High Romantic joy and angst and ultimate triumph of Teresa Carreno’s 1895 Serenade for Strings: a love song, a passionately wary waltz that offered a fond nod to Chopin, moments of pensive calm ceding to a heroic coda that simply would not be denied. Meanwhile, the cadences of the storm overhead seemed to be keeping pace with the music to the extent that the crowd started laughing whenever there would be a pause, or a crescendo capped off with a thunderclap or an explosion of rain.

This year’s Naumburg Bandshell concerts continue on July 20 at 7:30 PM with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra playing works by Purcell, John Blow and others. The recently renovated bandshell is a little closer to the west side; take the 72nd St. entrance and get there early – an hour and a half early isn’t too early – if you want a seat.

July 7, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Student Orchestras Rule!

Among the ever-shrinking, rarefied elites who sometimes actually get paid to go to concerts and then share their experiences, there’s a feeling that student orchestras often do a better job than the pros. There are many logical reasons for this. Conservatory kids get more rehearsals, more guidance (which could cut both ways), they’re playing for a grade, and they’re not yet jaded to the point where they feel like phoning it in.

Yesterday’s Juilliard performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony at Alice Tully Hall validated all of those arguments. There was no backing off: everybody dug in, and went as deeply as possible into the composer’s stubborn dedication to being counterintuitive. This is a mighty tough piece to play, with its constantly shifting web of counterpoint, sudden blustery exchanges of short riffs between instruments, and tantalizing fragments of melody that, just when you start to hum along, disappear into thin air.

It was a friendly and animated guided tour of eerie close harmonies, petulant defiance of any genuine resolution, and Schoenberg’s sometimes outrageous sense of humor. There’s a point about two thirds of the way through where he basically stops the music to make sure that the cello and bass are both in tune – and then makes a theme and variations out of it. The group nailed it with deadpan aplomb: it was shocking that the audience, at least the string players in the crowd, weren’t completely cracking up.

And has anybody noticed what a great string section the Columbia University Orchestra has this year? It’s Boston Symphony quality: lush, rich, epic and tight as a drum. Dynamics weren’t at the top of the list, it would seem, at their mighty performance of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite at Symphony Space last month, but their forceful presence gave the music a stunning freshness. This piece is proto heavy metal, and that’s exactly how the ensemble played it, going in hard for every bit of clever humor and grand guignol that the composer weaves for the strings.

They did the same thing with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Anybody who’s gone to any of the classical halls over the past few years has probably been exposed to more New World than they probably could ever want. Yet, having heard maybe a half dozen different versions live since the New York Philharmonic made it their theme for a season, this ranked with the best of them. The rest of the orchestra wasn’t up to the level of the strings, but the rest of those other orchestras weren’t up to that level, either. What an undeniable, emphatic attack! It validated any bellicose interpretation of the symphony, and was every bit as fresh and new as the Grieg.

The Columbia University Orchestra’s next performance is a program TBA on April 6 at 8 PM at Lerner Hall on the Columbia Campus. And next month at Juilliard is the Focus Festival, featuring several public concerts of music originally commissioned for radio airplay, many of which are free. The first one is on Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at Alice Tully Hall, with orchestral works by Ligeti, Betty Olivero and Michael Tippett; tix are available at the hall’s box office.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Karine Poghosyan Reinvents Late Romantic Piano Classics with Spot-On Humor and Sensational Chops

It’s hard to imagine a more colorful pianist in Manhattan than Karine Poghosyan, which comes as no surprise when you learn that she’s the daughter of the great Armenian-American painter Razmik Pogosyan. She’s got a larger-than-life stage persona, striking costumes, fearsome technique, and an irrepressible sense of humor. No other pianist seems to have as much fun onstage as she does: anyone who thinks that classical music is stuffy needs to see this fearless spirit in action. Last night at the DiMenna Center, she earned a couple of standing ovations for her signature, breathtaking pyrotechnics but also for her counterintutive insight and unselfconsciiously deep, meticulous, individualistic interpretation of a daunting program of works by Grieg, Liszt, Komitas Vardapet and Stravinsky.

She divided the program into two parts, essentially: reckless abandon, then spellbinding, rapidfire phantasmagoria. The attention to detail and revelatory, dynamic approach she brought to a trio of lyric pieces by Grieg – To Spring, Minuet: Vanished Days, and the famous Wedding Day at Troldhaugenand – gave each a cinematic sweep that puts to shame the kind of rote versions you might hear on WQXR. The first was as suspenseful as it was verdant: Poghosyan is unsurpassed at finding fleeting details and jokes that other players might gloss over, and then bringing them front and center, whether that might have been a defiant “take that!” swipe at the low keys, or a “yessss!” moment when a big crescendo reached exit velocity. And what a surprise the last of the three turned out to be. Where others find straight-up pageantry, Poghosyan channeled sarcasm and subtle parody. As the big processional took shape, Grieg might not have been throwing a stinkbomb at the assembly of Nordic gentry, but he was definitely putting something in the punch bowl.

Poghosyan did the exact opposite with the Liszt. Where other players would most likely find bombast, she looked for poignancy and then brought that out, with shapeshifting interpretations of three Hungarian Rhapsodies. After the intermission (and a new gown, and a ponytail to keep her hair in check as she swayed and flung her head back) she followed with her own innovative, harmonically rich arrangement of three bittersweet miniatures from the Komitas Vardapet book. Komitas, widely considered to be the father of modern Armenian music, was a sort of Middle Eastern amalgam of Allen Lomax and Bela Bartok, and his exhaustive archive – compiled under cruelly difficult circumstances – deserves to be vastly better known. Hypnotically stately motives gave way to what could have been the roots of Erik Satie as the balletesque pulse grew more prominent, glistening in its otherworldly unresolve.

Poghosyan wound up the bill with three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: how she managed to maintain such fluid, legato phrasing at such high volume, with such a pummeling attack, defies the imagination. But it wasn’t always so seamless. As clever and amusing as the first part of the bill was, she was all business, matching surgical precision to chainsaw ferocity through the anvil chorus of the Russian Dance, then the surrealism and schizophrenic contrasts in Chez Petrouchka – in Poghosyan’s hands, a loony puppet to rival anything Schoenberg ever envisioned. The closing theatrics of Le Semaine Grasse were riveting in every sense of the word, her dynamic shifts giving her extra headroom for raising the rafters with its gritty, ironic, harrowingly difficult closing cascades.

This performance was staged by Project 142, whose popularity as a house concert series on the Upper West Side outgrew its original West End Avenue digs. They’ve since found a new home at the DiMenna Center: their next concert there, on June 12 at 3 PM features solo and chamber music by female composers Jessie Montgomery, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, Florence Price and Rebecca Clark. Cover is $15.

May 23, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love Slays Multitasking Yesterday Evening

If there was ever a symphony for our time, it’s Sibelius’ No. 7. And it’s practically a hundred years old:  completed in 1924, to be precise. Before leading the Greenwich Village Orchestra through it yesterday, conductor Barbara Yahr cautioned the audience that it would be as challenging to hear as it is to play. “But it’s one of my alltime favorite pieces,” she smiled. “What Sibelius says in a phrase would take twenty minutes in Mahler.”

As usual, she was right on the money. She’d always intuited that the symphony’s central theme is love: “It grows more human,” she explained, pointing to how the first movement coalesces and brightens out of ambiguous, restlessly shifting cell-like phrases. She pointed out that the program notes validated that understanding: the scherzo in the second movement is a lively dedication to one of the composer’s daughters, and the warm major-key theme in the third refers to his wife.

The notes also dismissively characterized the work as domestic. Domestic, shmomestic! It’s a relentlessly harried, sometimes haggard piece, and although more optimistic themes take centerstage as it goes on, it ends more enigmatically than anyone would probably expect given the triumph that comes before. Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for us. On an intellectual level, this is the late Romantic Sibelius listening to Modernism and thinking, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to be said for this twelve-tone stuff.” This performance focused on the emotional content, “I know we’re crazy busy, but I still love you.” And if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. The barrage of ideas and motives flies by like a fast-forward film until at last the sun comes out – and what a warm sun that was, how funny that Nordic music has so many memorable “it’s finally not dark anymore” moments, huh? Yahr managed to bring her signature precision and attention to minute, revelatory detail to this vexing but ultimately rewarding work, one that nobody’s about to conduct from memory, let alone play without the music in front of them.

She and the ensemble bookended it with two considerably more accessible pieces about love: love for freedom, and pure undiluted passion and joie de vivre. The concert opened with a fervent, insistent take of Sibelius’ Finlandia, leaving no question that this was no mere national anthem: it was about giving Russian invaders a swift kick. That spirit brought to mind the similarly unleashed version that Dorrit Matson and the New York Scandia Symphony played at Symphony Space last year.

Pianist Ko-Eun Yi brought equal parts fire and luminosity to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Together, she and the orchestra made it swing, made it rock, at the end threatening to crush the piano keys with her savage, fortissimo chords as the coda swung in like a construction crane run amok. No wonder its themes have been plundered by so many rock acts – for example, ELO, who made surf rock out of it, and the Fugs, who would have made it x-rated had their 1967 record label let them. From that bristling, wickedly anthemic six-chord hook that Yi really took her time with, making it resound for all it was worth, through gleaming cascades and dazzling sunset-on-the-waves ripples, she had come to bring the party, and Yahr and the group behind her were only too glad to raise a sturdy foundation and a wide-angle backdrop for all the Romany and flamenco-tinged festivities.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on April 10 at 3 PM at Irving Auditorium, 17th and Irving Place (cattycorner from Irving Plaza), featuring the Mozart Adagio and Rondo, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Suggested donation is $20, reception to follow.

February 8, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Intriguing US Premiere and Some Nordic Rarities

Classical music fans in New York looking something more interesting than the same old standards have numerous options. Among the best of these is the New York Scandia Symphony, who dedicate themselves to reviving interest in lesser-known Nordic composers as well as premiering new works by emerging composers from the upper reaches of that hemisphere. Last night at Victor Borge Hall in Murray Hill, the highlight of the night, performed by a twelve-piece chamber version of the orchestra, was the American permiere of contemporary Danish composer Anders Koppel’s Symphonie Concertante. A triptych, it’s a characteristically enigmatic and absolutely fascinating work, something to get lost in if not for the endless tempo and stylistic shifts. Conductor Dorrit Matson, a Dane herself, led the ensemble seamlessly through a wary, pulsing first movement that evoked Astor Piazzolla’s later work before engaging Steven Hartman’s clarinet and Andrew Schwartz’s bassoon in a long round of animatedly crescendoing rhythmic hijinks over the swells of the strings and eventually a labyrinth of polyrhythms. And yet, the jousting stopped abruptly during the early part of the second, Largo movement and turned to apprehension, reaching near-horror proportions via the chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque string motif around which the final Allegro appassionato movement was centered. A celebrity in his native land ever since his days in popular rock band Savage Rose, Koppel deserves to be much better known here.

Another highlight of the program was Symphony violist Frank Foerster’s Suite of Scandinavian Folk Tunes for string ensemble. Foerster is a very eclectic player and has a great wit – another suite of his, Summer in Fort Tryon Park, is a quintessentially New York tableau, packed with irresistible on-location references. This piece is more serious, a rugged hardanger fiddle-style sea motif linking a series of portraits of several of the Nordic nations: by this account, the Norwegians and Swedes are a serious bunch given to vivid dramatics, while the Finns and Icelandics are party animals. Opening the concert, Matson and the group took Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Haydn-esque Violin Concerto and tackled its rather rugged, stern underpinnings with a muscular sway beneath violinist Mayuki Fukuhara’s spun-silk swirls; a bit later, Hartman was featured in a velvety version of the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, Op. 11 of Bernhardt Henrik Crusell, a Swedish contemporary of Mozart. They closed with enjoyably jaunty yet precise takes on the Prelude and Rigaudon from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Concerts like this only add intrigue to the question: what have else we not yet heard from this particular part of the world that deserves to be known equally well over here – and when is this orchestra going to play it?

March 23, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning to Love Music: The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Annual Family Concert

by Serene Angelique Williams

I took my two-year-old daughter to the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Annual Family Concert this weekend, apprehensively not knowing if she would be able to make it through her first experience seeing a symphony orchestra without some sort of embarrassing meltdown. I had nothing to worry about. It was the perfect way to break her in to the glory of live music, and Barbara Yahr, the GVO’s music director and conductor, knows just how to appeal to young minds. Everything was geared to making the concert experience enjoyable for young people in a fun, non-stifling environment. The orchestra is tight, professional and technically brilliant, and the show, which consisted mostly of Christmas music, was a lively and well-executed medley of familiar selections from Tchikovsky’s “Nutcracker” along with works by Edvard Grieg, Aaron Copland, and no less than 12 variations on Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The auditorium at Washington Irving High School is gorgeous, and there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out. The kids were encouraged to participate with each piece by dancing, clapping, and even were invited to sit on stage with the musicians. I loved hearing these pieces live, and it was thrilling not to be stressed out and worried about my child misbehaving, or causing disruptions. To my surprise and overwhelming joy, she responded to everything enthusiastically, and there was not one moment when she seemed to lose interest.

After the show, there was a holiday party with many tasty goodies: plenty of wine for the adults, seltzer and cider for the kiddies. There was also an “instrument petting zoo” where the children were welcome to try out all of the instruments with very patient and encouraging instructors. I was amazed when my little one decided to try out the violin, and in less than 15 minutes, she had not only learned how to properly hold the child-size instrument, she was already beginning to play! The afternoon was well worth the $10 per family admission price, and I can’t wait to do it again. Next year I’ll be sure to bring along more friends, ones with or without kids. Everyone can enjoy this show, but it’s a particularly fine way to introduce very young people to the unadulterated joys of playing music, and the wonderfully varied world of instruments, with first-rate musicians and instructors.

December 12, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Scandia String Quartet at MOSA 4/18/10

Like their big sister the NY Scandia Symphony, the Scandia String Quartet dedicate themselves to popularizing Scandinavian composers who are too frequently unknown here. Violinists Mayuki Fukuhara and Elizabeth Miller, cellist Lawrence Zoernig and violist Frank Foerster are the orchestra’s power hitters. Conveniently and fortuitously, Foerster also happens to be a first-rate composer. This program at MOSA uptown Sunday evening featured several of his stark, dramatic arrangements of folk songs from throughout Scandinavia in addition to the world premiere of his composition Summer in Fort Tryon Park. Whimsical but hardly shallow, it painted a lively, multicultural weekend afternoon scene with latin, klezmer and Polish flourishes (the latter an ode the joys of morphine), a brief, torrential downpour and an ice cream truck. The central theme took the shape of a surprisingly somber canon, the audio equivalent of a Time Out NY cover collage by Diane Arbus.

Foerster and the quartet gave the folk songs a majesty that transcended their humble origins. Finland was represented by a heroic theme, a wistful waltz and a carefree dance tune, Iceland by a handful of striking, otherworldly modal numbers, a “winter dance” that moved from a disquietingly modal march to Vivaldiesque revelry, and a potently staccato interpretation of the famous Dangerous Journey on Horseback. Another contemporary composer, Zack Patten was represented, his warily atmospheric, aptly titled Kierkegaard floating uneasily on a series of ninth intervals up to a powerful crescendo sung by contralto Hanne Ladefoged Dollase, and then out much the way it came in.

All this made the big finale, Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27. somewhat anticlimactic, testament to the quality of what had preceded it rather than the Quartet’s inspired performance as they played up its tensions for all they were worth. Written after the composer had left the city for the famous country fiddling town of Hardanger, it’s a tug-of-war, comfortably convivial urbanity (which eventually wins out in the end) versus the wild lure of the unknown. Zoernig described it beforehand as something of a missing link between the late Beethoven quartets and Debussy or Bartok, which vividly made sense, notably toward the end in the evil gnomish stampedes straight out of the Mountain King’s cave. This along with the heroic central theme (an Ibsen song) gave Zoernig and Foerster their chance to blaze through the darkness and they seized each moment as it came along.

The Scandia String Quartet’s next performance is May 13 at Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. featuring many of the most appealing works from this bill including the Foerster original, the Patten and Grieg along with works by Sibelius. And as they’ve been doing for the past few years, the Scandia String Quartet will present a series of outdoors concerts in Ft. Tryon Park this June on Sunday afternoons.

The MOSA series at Our Savior’s Atonement at 189th St. and Bennett Ave. continues as well; the next concert features avant garde adventures Ensemble ACJW on June 6 at 5 PM.

April 22, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment