Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Who Wouldn’t Go to Staten Island for Shostakovich?

Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”

An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.

Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues  – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.

Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.

The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.

That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?

In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known

The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.

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February 13, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ACME Revisits the Holocaust, Memorably

Thursday night at the Morgan Library, in a program sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) played a wrenchingly powerful trio of requiems for victims of the Holocaust and World War II.  While there’s so much live music in this city that it’s never really safe to pick a particular concert as the year’s best, for 2013, this one was as transcendent as they get.

First on the bill was Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, Op. 18. The Polish composer had an extraordinarily prolific career as both a concert pianist and composer in the former Soviet Union, supporting himself mainly by writing scores for film and animation. He had musical roots: his mother was a pianist and his father ran Warsaw’s Jewish theatre. Both were murdered in the Holocaust. The cinematic aspect of Weinberg’s compositions is potently foreshadowed in this work, witten in 1944 when he was 25. It’s essentially a narrative about a cabaret gone horribly wrong. Its phantasmagorical menace, savage irony and gallows humor may reflect both Weinberg’s dread concerning the fate of his family, and also a contempt for the low-rent theatre types of his new digs in Tashkent, a safe if backwater haven where he ran the local opera company until the war’s end.

The piece has three main themes. Pianist Timothy Andres led the distantly macabre, title theme of sorts with a moody, nonchalant foreshadowing, setting up the series of twisted, tumbling circus interludes, the frantic horror of a couple of chase scenes and the funereal bell motif that eventually serves as its coda. In between there were twisted waltzes, a bit of a lurid stripper vamp and sarcasm in abundance, their edgy counterpoint delivered dynamically by violinists Ben Russell and Caroline Shaw, violist Nadia Sirota and cellist Clarice Jensen.

Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1992 Kronos Quartet commission, was next, quite the contrast with the savagery that preceded it. Taking its inspiration from an elegaic poem by Velimir Khlebnikov, it juxtaposes grief-stricken cumulo-nimbus ambience with a hushed, prayerful theme. Jensen probed sharply for plaintive tonalities and struck gold, Sirota bringing a similarly cello-like richness to the raw, austere passages where Gorecki spotlights the viola.

That Shostakovich’s 1944 Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 was almost an anticlimax speaks to the power of what preceded it. And this is Shostakovich at his most savage: the piece introduces a wounded klezmer melody that would reappear in his String Quartet No. 8, as well as a mincing, cowardly caricature in the warped, marionettish closing danse macabe. The composer never alluded to exactly who its target was: it could be Hitler, but it could also be Stalin. Pretty much every classical ensemble not specifically dedicated to a particular era claim to be advocates for new music, but ACME really walk the walk. That this adventurous collective would go as far back in time for this particular program is unusual; that they’d advocate so powerfully for the underrated Weinberg, and go as deeply into the rest of the program as they did is characteristic.

April 19, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Rhizoma Evokes Vast, Haunting Vistas

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s debut collection, Rhizoma, came out late last year on Innova. This minimalistic yet lush, desolate yet forcefully immediate, dark masterpiece hasn’t yet reached the audience it should. Interpolated between its three orchestral works is a murky five-part suite, Hidden, for solo percussed piano, played with judiciously brooding intensity by Justin DeHart. A series of low rumbles punctuated by the occasional sepulchral brush of the piano strings, with deftly placed single notes or simple phrases, the motifs are spaced apart with considerable distance, to the point of creating a Plutonian pace. The piece compares favorably with Eli Keszler’s recent, stygian work – and is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole, resequenced so its segments play consecutively.

The big orchestral works are showstoppers, to put it mildly. The first, Hrim (the Icelandic term for the growth of ice crystals) is performed by the seventeen-piece chamber orchestra Caput Ensemble conducted by Snorri Sifgus Birgisson. A tense, wary tone poem spiced with sudden, jarring cadenzas from the brass, strings, percussion or piano, it begins with a muffled rumble eventually balanced by a high, keening string drone, building to long, shifting tones, a brief, horror-stricken interlude with the piano grappling against fluttering agitation from the violins and then follows a long trajectory downward to eventual silence. Far more dramatic is the potently cinematic Streaming Arhythmia. Once again, mutedly minimal motifs from a long series of voices over a droning rumble build to a scurrying crescendo where everyone seems to have frantically thrown their windows wide to see what horrific event is about to take place. From there the orchestra builds a big black-sky theme (like a wide-open, expansive blue-sky theme but vastly more menacing), low strings in tandem with the timpani and brass at the bottom of their registers. Autumnal hues eventually ebb and fall over the drones; it ends on an unexpectedly playful note, the horror having gone up in smoke, or back into ocean.

The centerpiece, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason is sardonically titled Dreaming – but it’s a fullscale nightmare. Fading up with suspenseful Art of Noise-style footfalls over an amber glimmer, microtonal sheets of sound rise with a stately swirl and a distant menace. Waves of muted, rumbling percussion introduce an ominous cumulo-nimbus ambience and allusively tense minor-key phrases (from a compositional standpoint, this is a clinic in implied melody), fading elegantly to ghostly knocks, flutters and flurries.

To say that this album engages the listener is quite the understatement: obviously, these works were made first and foremost for live performance. On cd, the vast dynamic range Thorvaldsdottir employs requires constant attention to the volume level. This does not facilitate casual listening: it’s inaudible if you turn it down too low, and it can become extremely jarring if you turn it up. But maybe that’s the point of all this. Minimalism has seldom been so in-your-face. Who is the audience for this? Fans of dark sounds in general, dark cinematic composers like Bernard Herrmann, and also those who gravitate toward the horizontal work of Gerard Grisey or Henryk Gorecki but wish it had more rhythm and dynamics.

August 16, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The JACK Quartet and Ensemble Signal Play a Riveting Henryk Gorecki Tribute

What a rare treat it was to see a rare all-Henryk Gorecki performance last night at le Poisson Rouge, a tribute concert held on the first anniversary of the great Polish composer’s death. The club hasn’t been so packed, at least for music, since last year’s Winter Jazz Festival. This time, courtesy of the Polish Cultural Institute, the standing-room crowd got to witness intense, haunting versions of Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, played by the JACK Quartet, as well as the Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, Op. 66 by Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman.

Both pieces date from a couple of years before the recording of Gorecki’s Symphony #3 by the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw went platinum in the UK, and then became a worldwide sensation back in the early 90s. In a lengthy interview before the concert with one of the club’s personnel, the head of Nonesuch Records admitted that he’d made a “good deal” with the performers on that album, paying them only as musicians for hire, with no royalties. To his credit, when sales exploded – its status as the bestselling album of alltime featuring work by a living composer has yet to be surpassed- he cut both Gorecki and the musicians in on the deal. Gorecki was supposedly so flabbergasted that he carried his first royalty check around with him for a couple of years before he cashed it. The label head also noted insightfully how 1933 in Poland was auspicious for artists: not only Gorecki but also Jerzy Kosinski and Roman Polanski were born that year. And for all three, the defining moment seems to be their survival of Hitler’s terror, which may be one explanation for the enduring popularity of Gorecki’s plaintive, otherworldly music.

Both works contrast lush, hypnotic atmospherics with jarring, terrified passages, the String Quartet the more dramatic and intense of the two. Like the work of another chronicler of that era’s terror, Shostakovich, there are passages in both pieces that mock pageantry and bombast, and also the lockstep conformity of fascism (having also survived the Polish communist regime, Gorecki may also had that in mind when he wrote these). Despite some difficult operating conditions – the club had turned the air conditioning virtually all the way off, making it oppressively hot – the JACK Quartet turned in a raw, powerfully plaintive performance. Brooding and then somewhat warmer atmospherics quickly gave way to shocked, horrified staccato passages anchored by a cello pedal note; the second movement gave the ensemble a platform to grimly and inexorably build to an insistent crescendo of microtones, as Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld’s violins played starkly rhythmic harmonics against the menacing low notes of Kevin McFarland’s cello and John Pickford Richards’ viola. The melodies here don’t move around much: it’s all about dynamics, and foreshadowing, and frantic, horror-stricken panic, and the quartet vividly portayed each as it appeared.

Lubman led Ensemble Signal through the little requiem for a polka with dexterity and great respect for its spaciously minimalist architecture: the silences between the bells and piano in the opening movement, and the jarring increases in distance between string motifs later on, are very tricky rhythmically, but the group was as ready for them as anyone can really be: as random as they might sound, the effect is purposeful, and packs a punch. There’s another even more caricaturish faux-martial passage here, and the group sank their teeth into it. The piece wound out slowly, a requiem of slowly shifting string textures punctuated by distant, decreasingly frequent, minimalist bell accents, the funeral winding down pensively, one bitter memory at a time.

The Polish Cultural Institute regularly schedules an excellently yearly series of film, literary, dramatic and musical events, not only in New York but elsewhere in the United States and in Poland as well.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Album of the Day 8/31/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #882:

Henryk Gorecki – Symphony #3: London Sinfonietta/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw, Soprano

Today we go to a whisper from a scream. Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, this tryptich is one of the most effective and brilliantly understated examples of minimalism. Its still, spacious lento movements explore grief and bereavement: as an antiwar statement, they make a quietly explosive impact. Its first movement strips down a medieval Polish canon to the bare essentials; its second movement, the most famous, illustrates an inscription scrawled on a Gestapo cell by a young Polish girl snared in the Holocaust (literal translation: “Mother, don’t worry; God help me”). The third develops a Polish folksong theme as a memorial for those killed in the Silesian uprising against the Nazis. While many people have claimed to have been brought to tears by this music, it’s not the least bit maudlin: its slowly shifting ambience is more pensive and weary than anything else. Dawn Upshaw sings its fragmentary lyrics with what sounds, to Anglophone ears at least, like a creditable Polish accent, chamber orchestra and piano maintaining a striking amount of suspense. It premiered in 1977 in Poland but only came to popularity about twenty years later after pieces of it from this album were used in the soundtrack to the film Basquiat. It would eventually go platinum, a rare and now almost unthinkable achievement for a classical recording.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brick from the Wall to Wall Behind the Wall

In a good year, Symphony Space’s annual Wall to Wall music marathon could easily be the best concert of the year – for those who have the time. Fortuitously, for those whose schedules don’t allow a Shoah-length commitment, the venue begins these early in the day (hey – 11 AM on a Saturday is early). This year’s program was titled Wall to Wall Behind the Wall, i.e. music by former Soviet bloc composers, an eye-opening parade of first-class performers and works, many of them either New York or world premieres – the Symphony Space folks really outdid themselves this year.

The program opened on a familiar, cosmopolitan note with Bartok’s jazz-inflected Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. It was premiered here in New York with Benny Goodman on clarinet and Bartok himself on piano; the Israeli Chamber Project – Tibi Cziger on clarinet, Itamar Zorman on violin and Assaff Weissman on piano – cleverly mined its surprisingly playful jumps and characteristically jarring, percussive riffage.

Russian Jewish composer Alexander Krein’s Esquisses Hebraiques was performed hauntingly and beautifully by the Colorado Quartet plus clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg. It’s a series of klezmer themes, laments as well as a dance. Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes made a particularly choice if obvious segue, on balance heavier on West than East, played by the same crew plus pianist Margaret Kampmeier.

Contemporary Armenian composer Tigram Mansurian’s Agnus Dei, done by Sternberg, Julie Rosenfeld of the Colorado Quartet on violin and her bandmate Katie Schlaikjer on cello plus Artur Avanesov on piano was a New York premiere, a wondrously soulful, ambient Henryk Gorecki-ish suite of shifting voices and warm, rapt textures. A world premiere, Zurab Nadarejshvili’s Dialogue with Urban Songs grew sneakily and very effectively from jaunty ragtime to creepy, played by the Poulenc Trio (Vladimir Lande on oboe, Bryan Young on bassoon and Irina Kaplan Lande on piano).

Russian-American composer Nataliya Medvedovskaya’s cinematic First Snow proved to be a vivid and apt work for the global warming era – she misses her home country’s ever-present winter snow. She described it to the audience beforehand as a cold piece, and as much as it relies on astringent atonalities, the way it tracks a winter storm – or two – is often unabashedly amusing. The Poulenc Trio were joined here by Anton Lande on violin. After that, another Twentieth Century Armenian, Arno Babajanyan was represented by his Poem, played by Avanesov on piano, knotty and dramatic but more mathematical than it was emotionally resonant. By now, it was around one in the afternoon; a flute suite was next on the bill, which for our crew of low-register fans was a signal that it was time to attend to a long list of Saturday chores (and then celebrate in the evening at Barbes with Serena Jost and Chicha Libre). Steve Smith of the Times got to Symphony Space at six and offers his insights on the rest of the program.

May 17, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment