Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lisa Bielawa’s In Medias Res Stuns and Lingers

Composers have been writing for their favorite performers and ensembles for centuries. Lisa Bielawa wrote much of the music on her lavish new double cd In Medias Res specifically for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Directed by Gil Rose, they return the gesture with a sweeping, potently attuned performance that does justice to the poignancy, and intensity, and playfulness of the four integral works and suite here. For lack of a better word, this is a deep album, a milestone in the career of a composer who deserves to be ranked as one of this era’s most powerful and compelling. It couldn’t have come at a better moment. It’s a lot more than Bielawa arriving in a cloud of dust to rescue the world of “indie classical” from the simpering, infantile whimsy that’s seeped in from the indie rock demimonde, but that’s part of the deal. Or at least we can hope so.

The first piece here is Roam, dating from 2001, on a theme of exile inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. It’s a marvelously suspenseful, ambient piece worthy of Tschaikovsky or Bernard Herrmann. A tone poem with unexpected and extremely effective digressions, it works the subtlest dynamics and a chromatic tug-of-war in lieu of any kind of overt consonance, crescendos rising slowly out of slow, plaintive tectonic shifts, wary and absolutely desolate in places. Bielawa wrote her Double Violin Concerto specifically for the solists here: Carla Kihlstedt, who sings an English translation from Faust (along the lines of “let’s get the hell out of here and find some peace”) while playing, and Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen. It’s another quiet stunner, plaintive with a vivid sense of longing, shades of Henryk Gorecki. Rapt, quiet, simple motifs diverge and converge austerely in the first movement. The second literally revolves around creepily circling violins as Kihlstedt channels Goethe in a soaring, unadorned high soprano; the third, inspired by the Lamentations of Jeremiah mixes suspenseful horizontality with a distantly Indian melody, which Jacobsen makes the most of, in the same vein of his work on Brooklyn Rider’s delicious new double cd of Philip Glass string quartets. The dance at the end becomes a danse macabre as the two violins close in on each other.

A cantata of sorts, Unfinish’d, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard II and his winter of discontent made summer. It packs a wallop in just short of nine minutes, austere and then blustery, and then suddenly down to a chilly expanse, Bielawa’s crystal-cutter soprano leading the way back to a breathless coda. In Medias Res, her concerto for orchestra, is a cinematic tour de force, swooping out of tune, building suspense with locomotive force, a creepily recurring waltz, starlit ambience straight out of the Gustav Holst playbook and a long, apprehensive, deeply satisfying crescendo out.

The second cd , titled Synopses, is a a series of miniatures and extended solo pieces for individual orchestra members. Some of these are actual motifs from In Medias Res; others foreshadow it, others seemingly allow for improvisation (particularly from trumpeter Terry Everson, who tackles it joyously). The most amusing piece is for drums and spoken word, done by Robert Schultz, whose accents are spot-on, but who could have used a voice like Kihlstedt’s or Bielawa’s to deliver a series of disturbingly or entertainingly allusive comments overheard on the street. All together, these pieces demand repeated listening. It was tempting to add this to our ongoing countdown of the thousand best albums of all time. We resisted. That might have been a mistake. Bielawa and an ensemble are playing several of the Synopses with choreography at New York City Center on 56th St. tomorrow, April 16th at 7:30 PM.

Advertisements

April 16, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The American Composers Orchestra Plays It Unsafe

The American Composers Orchestra has taken to doing what the New York Phil has, offering recordings of their concerts online – and why not? Their Playing It Unsafe program at Carnegie Hall from February, 2009 with Jeffrey Milarsky conducting is unselfconsciously accessible, yet much of it is cutting-edge, and the ensemble turns in a characteristically inspired performance.

The concert opens with Anna Clyne’s Tender Hooks, percussive swirl with distant martial allusions eventually giving way to a suspensefully punctuated tone poem. From there, the orchestra methodically drives to a crescendo with piano and percussion, followed by an eerily starlit little piano waltz that quotes liberally from the Moonlight Sonata – and ends cold, mid-phrase. With echoes of John Williams or Gustav Holst, Charles Norman Mason’s Additions is an austerely staccato, marionettish dance bookended by water-drip percussion. Dan Trueman’s Silicon/Carbon: An Anti-Concerto-Grosso begins with a seemingly unrelated allusions to Appalachian fiddling and then offers spaciously horizontal, Uranian ambience punctuated by occasional percussion and bell-like tones, a handful of crescendos to restart the suspense and a clever rhythmic tradeofff between the percussion section and the entire orchestra toward the end.

Overture and Ballet Music from Armide, by Jonathan Dawe works disconnected, overlapping passages that in places seem to parody generic classical crescendos and percussion breaks, hinting at florid but never going there. There’s a jarring vocal interlude that does nothing to enhance it, but the “passacaille” that closes the work vividly sets a multitude of matter-of-fact phrases entering the picture and then disappearing in turn rather than stepping all over each other, a trick from the world of dub reggae. The final piece, Ned McGowan’s Bantammer Swing features his own contrabass flute for some intriguing tonalities. Like the Clyne and Trueman pieces, it’s cinematic, the most suspenseful work here. The first movement moves steadily and pensively up and down; the brooding andante sostenuto of the second is the most gripping part of this album, sheets of noise finally rising ominously as the brass exchanges uneasy flutters. It ends on an unexpectedly playful, genuinely funny note with swooping motifs, a couple of jagged bass solos and a fun little rondo to wind it out. The whole album is streaming at instantencore, a very smart marketing move since a listen all the way through is the best advertisement this entertaining performance could possibly have.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 12/3/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #788:

Holst – The Planets – Walter Susskind/St. Louis Symphony Symphony Orchestra

Full disclosure – as a child, one of us had a favorite recording of this which turned out to have been conducted by a member of the Nazi party. That was the end of that. British composer Gustav Holst’s richly cinematic suite (John Williams brazenly ripped this off – Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star, for example) has been recorded by a million orchestras. Leonard Bernstein & the NY Philharmonic did one (the links you see here are all his). But is there a version that stands out among all of them? You bet there is. Walter Susskind’s 1975 recording with the St. Louis Symphony is loaded with dynamics, vividly illustrating what are essentially astrological themes. Most of these will be instantly familiar to moviegoers, particularly the suspenseful Mars, the Bringer of War. Venus, the Bringer of Peace is cast as a mystical tone poem; Mercury is puckish with bubbling brass; likewise, Jupiter is boisterous and bustling. But the three segments here that are absolutely riveting are the hauntingly bell-like, funereal Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; a big, evil, ominous Uranus, the Magician; and a chilling, viscerally otherworldly version of Neptune, the Mystic who is more like Hades here. Here’s a random torrent.

December 3, 2010 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment