Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Haskell Small Plays a Shattering, Haunting Program on the Upper West

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]

More musicians should do what Haskell Small does: he plays what he likes, and brings it to life, sometimes quietly, sometimes somewhat more boisterously, putting his heart and soul into it. He gravitates toward music that’s on the quiet and rapturous side: his performance of Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada here last year was absolutely riveting. Friday night on the Upper West Side, Small revisited that theme, bookending an absolutely shattering performance of his own suite The Rothko Room with music of Satie and Alan Hovhaness.

Kicking off the evening with Satie’s first suite for piano, Four Ogives, set the stage perfectly. The title refers to church windows; with a delivery that managed to simultaneously embody stateliness, a warm gospel tone and an understated tension, Small left no doubt that by 1886, when Satie wrote this, he’d already found plenty to be vexated about. The evening’s piece de resistance was Small’s original work, an uninterrupted theme and variations based onboth  the life of Mark Rothko as well as an immersion in the Rothko paintings in the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room in Washington, DC. Centered around a mournful bell-like theme that immediately brought to mind Mompou, Small worked dynamics that ranged from minute to occasionally jarring, through an unexpected boogie-woogie flavored passage and another, longer, bitingly animatedly interlude that strongly evoked Small’s early mentor Vincent Persichetti. The depiction of a late-career resurgence for Rothko brought back a hopeful, once again gospel-tinted ambience, but that quickly dissolved into an increasingly spacious, imploring and then utterly defeated series of motives. Small quoted Rothko beforehand as declaring that the only emotions worth depicting are doom and suffering, then made good on that statement.

The pianist picked up the pace after that with a series of ruggedly pastoral solo works by Hovhaness, illustrative of that composer’s fixation with mountains (he saw them as transitional from material to the spiritual, halfway between earth and sky). The Lullaby from the piano sonata Mt. Katahdin (a peak in Maine which barely qualifies as a mountain) took shape as a steady, morose dirge, contrasting with the tricky tempo and cruelly challenging staccato octaves of the Macedonian Mountain Dance, a Balkan boogie of sorts. Small made a different kind of challenge, the contrast between low-register, resonant malletwork inside the piano and the steady righthand melody, seem easy.

“Now for some rock n roll!“ Small grinned, winding up the program on a defiantly celebratory note with the Hymn to Mt. Chocorua., from Hovhaness’ 1982 sonata portraying the New Hampshire hill where the Indian warrior it’s named for reputedly lept to his death rather than surrendering to the bounty hunters who’d chased him to the summit. With its blend of traditional Armenian kef music and savage, Lisztian block chords, it was quite a change from the mystical, somber mood Small had brought to life so vividly earlier, an atmosphere he returned to with the encore, a tender, lushly spacious version of Arvo Part’s minimalist classic Fur Elina. Small’s spring tour featuring these works continues on April 11 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

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March 31, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haskell Small Delivers a Shattering Performance of Mompou’s Musica Callada

Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada, true to its name, is very quiet, but it’s murderously difficult to play. Not because it requires great technique, but because it calls for an extraordinary command of minutiae – the subtlest gesture on the part of a pianist brave enough to tackle it can make a mountain of difference. Friday night in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, Haskell Small went deep into the suite with a nuanced command and relentlessly intense commitment and turned in a performance that was often nothing short of harrowing.

Mompou wrote the series of twenty-eight more-or-less miniatures in four “books,” beginning in 1959 and concluding fifteen years later, when the composer was eighty-one years of age. Mompou’s obvious reference points are Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes – but with more dynamic variations, and less of a lingering, macabre sensibility – and Messiaen at his most otherworldly and haunting. Small explained beforehand that Mompou described the suite as “airless,” but it’s less a study in stillness than in the anguish of wanting to break a spell. There’s also a prayerful aspect to this music, but in Small’s hands it was an imploring, get-me-out-of-here kind of anguish, similar to the quietest works of Jehain Alain.

Mompou’s father ran a bell foundry, which might be the original inspiration for the eerie, sustained close harmonies that define the work. Small approached them with a minutely varied rubato which mightily enhanced the suspense and element of the unexpected that pervades these pieces. He cautioned the audience to pay close attention to the occasional tortured explosions of sound, making them count far more loudly than he actually played them. As the bit of an opening overture quickly morphed into lento creepiness, Small built tension with a knife’s-edge intensity that never wavered. The alternately atmospheric and sudden, twisted motives of the middle series of pieces in the second book was a highlight, as was Small’s favorite of the entire suite, the next-to-last segment which in many ways sums up the entire work with its plaintive, acidic, bell-toned angst. It concluded at last with a hymn of sorts, but even that never quite let go of the pervasive longing. The crowd, silent throughout the performance, waited until it was certain there would be no more and then slowly began their standing ovation. Small is also a composer, and will play a follow-up to this concert featuring his own similarly-tinged works at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on 69th St. between Central Park West and Columbus Ave. at 8 PM next March 28.

October 30, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment