Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Intriguing Outdoor Concert of New Classical Works on the Water Next Week

A rare auspicious development that surfaced during the past sixteen months’ lockdown was that New York musicians became more resourceful than ever. Deprived of venues and concert stages, people improvised in more ways than usual, creating new spaces for audiences and players with a much greater inclusiveness than the old, profit-driven club model. One holdover from the days when indoor concerts were forbidden – not so long ago! – is a very intriguing outdoor show this July 21 at 7 PM where 21st century classical ensemble Contemporaneous play a program of new works by Alex Weiser, Zachary James Ritter, Yasmin Williams and toy pianist Lucy Yao, plus a world premiere by Yaz Lancaster at Pier 64 at 24th St. and the Hudson. The show is free with a rsvp.

For an idea of at least part of the bill, dial up Weiser’s 2019 album And All the Days Were Purple at Bandcamp. It’s a series of often very moving settings of poems from across the Jewish diaspora which the composer found during his archival research at the YIVO Institute, where until the lockdown he ran the public programming.

The first track is My Joy, a minimalist, slowly vamping setting of a regretful text by Anna Margolin, pianist Lee Dionne following a subtle upward trajectory in contrast with the hazy strings of violinist Maya Bennardo, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Hannah Collins beneath soprano Eliza Bagg’s understatedly plaintive, soaring vocal.

The strings rise to swirls and subside, punctuated by dramatic shocks in the second track, a brief tone poem of sorts simply titled titled with an asterisk. It segues into a haunting setting of Edward Hirsch’s poem I Was Never Able to Pray, Bagg’s airy, austere delivery in contrast with a somber bell motif.

Longing, a very thinly disguised early 20th century erotic poem by Rachel Korn, follows a series of elegant, upwardly stairstepping figures. There’s a similar subtext in Poetry, a text by Abraham Sutzkever where Bagg channels a deep, soul-infused sound over a slowly drifting piano backdrop.

She takes an airier approach to Margolin’s Lines for Winter over Dionne’s insistent, reflecting-pool piano and the swells of the strings. A second asterisked instrumental interlude follows as a segue, awash in extended-technique strings, swooping and dipping microtonally and shedding high harmonics.

The album’s big, understatedly angst-fueled ballad is We Went Through the Day, which Bagg sings in the original Yiddish. The big concluding epic is Three Epitaphs, with text reflecting on the brevity of life by Williams Carlos Williams, Seikilos and Emily Dickinson. Percussionist Mike Compitello joins in the pointillism of the first part, Bagg’s long, resonant tones sailing overhead. A reflecting pool of echoes and then a wistfully drifting outro conclude this soberingly immersive collection.

July 16, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DWB: The Most Relevant, Hauntingly Evocative New Chamber Opera in Years

It’s hard to imagine a song cycle more apropos to our era than composer Susan Kander and soprano Roberta Gumbel’s chamber opera DWB (Driving While Black), streaming at Spotify. Gumbel’s lyrics draw on her own experiences and worries as the parent of a black adolescent who’s approaching driving age. Interspersed amid this mom’s reveries are real-life “bulletins” ranging from incidents of mundane everyday racism – Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to enter his own home – to allusively macabre references to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile.

Kander’s dynamic, sometimes kinetic, often haunting series of themes bring to mind Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock movie scores, Gumbel nimbly negotiating their dramatic twists and turns. With tense close harmonies and chiming arrangements, Messiaen and maybe George Crumb seem to be influences. The duo New Morse Code come across as a much larger ensemble: credit percussionist Michael Compitello, who plays a vast variety of instruments, most notably vibraphone and bells, alongside cellist Hannah Collins. Together they shift, often in the span of a few seconds, from a creepy, deep-space twinkle to a stalking, monstrous pulse and all-too-frequent evocations of gunfire.

What hits you right off the bat is that this narrator mom is smart. She frets about putting her infant in a backwards-facing car seat, because he won’t be able to see her, and she won’t be able to offer him a smile to comfort him. We get to watch him grow up: to Gumbel’s immense credit, there’s a lot of humor in the more familial moments, welcome relief from the relentless sinister outside world. The driver’s ed scene is particularly hilarious. Yet this doesn’t turn out to be a trouble-free childhood: Gumbel casts the kid as the son in a single-parent household, reflecting the reality that an inordinate percentage of people of color are forced to cope with.

Most of the numbers are over in less than a couple of minutes, a kaleidoscope of alternately fond and grisly images. A soaring, drifting lullaby, a slinky soul-tinged groove and a plaintive cello solo break up the furtive, often frantic sequences. One of the most chilling interludes involves not a police shooting but a near-miss. In a case of mistaken identity with a rare happy ending, the cops end up dumping the ex-suspect out of the police van in an unfamiliar part of town. He has to walk all the way home from there. Wait til you find out how old he is.

June 9, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

April 12, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cantata Profana Blend Renaissance Drama and Twentieth Century Austerity with Fun and Relevance at Symphony Space Tonight

The lights went down in the disused Roebling Avenue storefront, and then members of Cantata Profana – harpsichordist Daniel Schlosberg, theorbo player Arash Noori, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, violinist Jacob Ashworth, tenor Jonathan Blalock and baritone Jonathan Woody – launched into Monteverdi’s brooding kiss-off anthem, Interotte Speranze. What do you do the night before a big Symphony Space gig? Book a Williamsburg show…and pack the place. And then treat a mostly twentysomething crowd to mulled wine, Oreos and a surrealistically edgy, irresistibly fun performance that makes unexpectedly vivid connections between Renaissance vocal music and  Twentieth Century austerity. As if we need more proof that there’s a young, engaged audience that’s clamoring for serious concert music but has been priced out at the establishment venues, this is it. If the idea of pairing hauntingly resonant Webern vocal works with proto-parlor-pop and proto-opera appeals to you, Cantata Profana are reprising last night’s entertainment at Symphony Space tonight at 8 PM; tix are $25/$10 stud.

Cantata Profana are a prime example of how versatility is the new specialization, across the musical spectrum these days: it’s  the revenge of the utility player over the high-priced allstar. The ensemble – a core of singers and players surrounded by a semi-rotating cast – proved as at home with acidic Second Viennese School tonalities as with elegant medieval Italian balladry. The piece de resistance at this show is American composer George Rochberg’s Contra Morten et Tempus, with its hair-raising dynamic shifts and various quotes from Ives, Berio and other contemporaries. Another similarly bracing number on the program is Luigi Dallapiccola’s’ Due Liriche di Anacreonte, a showcase for tersely considered interplay between mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken Kelsey and among the supporting cast at well. And the juxtaposition between a partita by Renaissance Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, rising from a rather haunting, almost klezmer introduction to more easygoing Mediterranean tones, against the twelve-tone acerbity of Webern, was an example of shared ambition, an unexpectedly smooth segue.

To wind up the bill, the group employs a rather mystical diptych by Guido Caccini to set up Monteverdi’s famous early operatic piece Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, sung with appropriate drama by tenor Samuel Levine with support from Woody and scintillating sopratno Emma McNairy (whose raw power, unleashed in the small Williamsburg space, provided the night’s most adrenalizing moments). Like the rest of the earliest music on the bill, it makes an unanticipatedly good pairing alongside the serialist works – it’s hardly arioso, considering that the vocal line doesn’t really move around that much, leaving the cruel irony of the deadly duel between the knight and his crush-in-diguise all the more resonant. Especially in our era of global conflicts which are no less logically twisted.

January 22, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment