Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Mise-En Festival; Arguably 2019’s Best New Music Marathon

There are several annual festivals dedicated to new orchestral and chamber music in New York, but no organization casts a wider net than Ensemble Mise-En. Over the past few years, they’ve championed some of the best obscure composers from around the world and resurrected others whose work has been undeservedly forgotten. Last night at Scandinavia House, an expanded edition of the group played a marathon conclusion to their annual festival. The first half was a characteristically rare treat.

The first piece of the night was the world premiere of João Quinteiro‘s Energeia, with Yoon Jae Lee conducting an octet of strings, winds and percussion. Assembled from a vast series of flitting, momentary motives, it became all but impossible to figure out who was playing what, Just when an idea hinted that it would coalesce, it was gone. The two percussionists, Josh Perry and Chris Graham, had a blast, their whirs and buzzes and a momentary, thunderous boom from a large collection of strikable items punctuating a dancing, flickering parade of fragmentary imagery. That put everyody in a good mood.

The night’s piece de resistance was the American premiere of Seoul-based Yie Eun Chun‘s Urban Symphony, Lee conducting a fifteen-piece ensemble throughout its striking, cinematic, whirlwind cinematic shifts. A portrait of the composer’s home turf, it evoked the noir bustle of Charles Mingus, the persistent unease of Messiaen, a little circular Steve Reich in the background along with Miho Hazama at her most majestic. Insistent, kinetic riffage that rose to frantic levels and a creepy chase scene midway through contrasted with tense, minimalist call-and-response over a pulse that began on the cowbell and then made its way through less comedically evocative instruments. It flickered out calmly at the end: peace had finally come to the city. It’s hard to imagine a more consistently thrilling new orchestral work played anywhere in this city this year: it deserves a vast audience.

Another consistently gripping if somewhat quieter composition was another American premiere, Peder Barratt-due‘s microtonal duet ldfleur. Violists Anna Heflin and Hannah Levinson brought its spare, determined unresolve into sharp, sometimes disquieting, sometimes jaunty focus with their dynamic interplay, down to whispery harmonics and then back.

The coda of the first half of the marathon – which was scheduled to run late into the night – was the world premiere of Martin Loridan‘s Concerto pour Piano et Ensemble. Windy, toneless gusts filtered in from the winds and horns, to the violins – watching Marina Im and Sabina Torosjan blow into their instruments was ridiculously funny, considering how meticulously they would articulate the composer’s calm, hovering lines afterward. Pianist Yumi Suehiro’s grim, fanged, revolving phrases, both on the keys and inside the piano, contrasted with that hazy sustain, first from the strings and then the rest of the full ensemble. If Reich had ever wanted to write theme music for a Halloween haunted house, this could have been it.

This was it for the Mise-En Festival, but the group maintains a year-round schedule, both at their home digs in Bushwick and points further from the dreaded L train.

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June 30, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Avant Garde All-Star Bass Clarinetist Ken Thomson Plays a Rare Greenpoint Gig

Ken Thomson plays reeds – mostly bass clarinet – in genre-defying art-rock/avant-rock icons the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Over the past couple of decades, he’s also led several other ensembles. His album Restless – an aply titled, troubled tour de force duo recording of two of his chamber works by allstar cellist Ashley Bathgate and pianist Karl Larson – is streaming at Bandcamp. That vinyl record makes a good listen if you’re considering his show tomorow night, June 16 at 5 PM at Arete Gallery where he’s leading his sextet on a twinbill with Larson’s indie classical trio Bearthoven. Cover is $15 – and the G train is running this weekend!

The album comprises two suites: Restless, nd MeVs,. The four-part, title partita rises from a wary, spare, fugal intertwine of cello and piano to an aching intensity and then an unexpectedly catchy, anthemic coda before fading down. The second movement, Forge is a study in contrasting leaps and bounds: the string jazz of Zach Brock comes to mind early on. Remain Untold is a relentleslsy uneasy stroll anchored by Larson’s low lefthand; then the piano and cello switch roles, rather savagely. Bathgate’s long, expressive, vibrato-tinged lines take centerstage over Larson’s mutedly minimal, resonant chords in the conclusion, Lost, building to an aching insistence punctuated by viscerally chilling glissandos from the cello.

MeVs, a triptych for solo piano, begins with Turn of Phrase, a practically rubato series of short, emphatic phrases amid extended pause that give it a glitchy feel. Quiet, calm, distantly Messiaenic resonance eventually prevails over the heavy whacks, slowly crescendoing with more than a hint of postbop jazz.

Part two, Another Second Try comes across as a more expansive remake of the famous Chopin E Minor Prelude, Larson runs steady eighth notes over surreal lefthand syncopation before the cruelling challenging, incisive series of staccato chords in the concluding segment kick in. Most definitely an album for our time.

June 15, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Latest Chapter in the PRISM Quartet’s Crusade to Establish Four-Sax Repertoire

Are a saxophone quartet a brass band? Not really. A wind ensemble? Strictly speaking, yes, but the PRISM Quartet are different. “New music superstars,” is how composer Emily Cooley – who’d discovered them as a kid at summer camp at Interlochen, the Juilliard of the midwest – characterized them. She was one of four composers whose works the group gave world premieres to Monday night in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

They opened with Nina C. Young‘s Tarnish, a playful evocation of how oxidation changes the surface of metal yet also acts as a sealant for what’s underneath. Brief tectonic shifts between pairs of instruments and then the full ensemble – Timothy McAllister on soprano sax, Zachary Shemon on alto, Matthew Levy on tenor and the New Thread Quartet‘s Geoffrey Landman, subbing for Taimur Sullivan and adding welcome growl and purr on baritone – led to a series of circular themes with a nod to Steve Reich, a trope that would dominate the rest of the program. They wound it up with unexpectedly coy cheer.

Jacob TV‘s The Waves drew its inspiration not from Virginia Woolf but from the medieval Japanese poet Dogen. A study in the passage (and ultimately, ravages) of time, in addition to the minutiae of attack and decay of individual notes, its calm, lustrous slowly mutating riffs built a baroque-tinged quasi-canon. Philip Glass also came to mind frequently.

Young composer Francesca Hellerman drew a round of chuckles from the audience, explaining how she’d come up with what turned out to be a very apt title for From Here to There, a commission from the ensemble in a long, long line of new repertoire for sax quartet dating back to the group’s inception. Its quirky charm, developing variations on a couple of catchy, lithe riffs, made a good pairing with Young’s work.

Cooley’s Dissolve went in the opposite direction, a meticulous interweave slowly distilled to its underlying essence. Counterintuitively, she ended the first part of the diptych on a jaunty, upbeat note. The second half was awash in airy, sustained phrases, ending soberly and matter-of-factly in the same vein as Jacob TV’s composition

There was another piece on the program which posed more questions than it answered. To what extent does it make sense to try to control chaos? How possible is it to orchestrate genuine chaos if you begin with a specific game plan? Music may ultimately be all math, but to what degree, if at all, can an audience realistically be engaged by a severe, dispassionate depiction of what sounds like an interminably abstruse equation – especially if it’s the longest number on the bill?

June 6, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,” violinist and singer Skye Steele intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn, David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Steele’s stately angst in Heartbreak. Vilnai layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

 

May 27, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marathon Microtonal Magic with Kelly Moran at Roulette

During the momentary pause midway through Kelly Moran‘s riveting, marathon parformance at Roulette Monday night, a handful of audience members went up on the balcony to peer into the concert grand piano she’d been playing. What had she done to get such magically eerie, bell-like, otherworldly pointillistic sounds out of that thing?

Moran never addressed the issue, emerging from the wings for the second half in a new outfit – switching out an airy linen dress for a slightly more fesitve black top and jeans. Had she detuned some of the strings? There were some suspicious coppery objects inside the piano, and people in the crowd were speculating whether she’d put tacks, or similar metal objects, on some of the hammers. And there were a couple of laptops involved. Whatever the case, Moran worked the keyboard hard as she swayed from side to side on the bench, a rugged individualist reveling in her own iminitable sound.

It was a torrentially gorgeous tour through Moran’s two latest albums, plus a lengthy suite of new material. Moran combines the uneasy belltones of Mompou with the Asian inflections and rhythmic complexity of Debussy while adding her own layers of microtonal mystery. She tackled six relatively short pieces from her botanically-themed Bloodroot album with an unexpected vigor. The album is on the delicate side; here, she raised the voltage, anchoring her meticulous, rhythmically perfect righthand articulation with graceful, sparse lefthand accents, a trope that would recur with even more intensity later on. While both the subtle circular shifts of Phlip Glass and the plaintiveness of Chopin seemed to be touchstones, the music was unmistakably Moran’s.

The two new, considerably longer pieces before the intermission were even more dynamic. There was a Glass-ine matter-of-factness in the methodical, outwardly rippling variations of the first two movements of Helix II, while the aptly titled Night Music brought to mind late Ravel.

The second half of the program was more electroacoustic, Moran playing along to videos of underwater imagery in tandem with prerecorded, synthesized orchestration that ranged from low drones to what seemed to be live sampling. Often that increased the psychedelic factor, spinning her celestial curlicues and spirals back kaleidoscopically, although as the thicket of sound grew more dense, it sometimes subsumed what Moran was actually playing. After the better part of two hours onstage, she finally closed with a stately, spacious, echoingly minimalist theme to send the crowd home on a rapt note.

Roulette continues to program the most exciting avant garde and 21st century music of any Brooklyn venue, while staying in touch with their roots in the loft jazz scene. Fans of largescale improvisational music and the AACM canon might want to swing by the memorial concert for the great saxophonist Joseph Jarman this Saturday, May 25 at 2 PM; admission is free with a rsvp.

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

Brooklyn Rider and Kinan Azmeh Play a Transcendent Coda to a Popular Upper West Side Concert Series

Over the last few years, the mostly-monthly Music Mondays concert series has become an Upper West Side institution. The level of classical talent they’ve been able to lure up to the corner of 93rd and Broadway rivals the programming at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. The final night of this season on May 6, with paradigm-shifting string quartet Brooklyn Rider and haunting clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, was as transcendent as any in recent memory here. And that includes two separate, equally shattering occasions where the East Coast Chamber Orchestra played their towering arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing anti-fascist masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 8.

As they’re likely to do , Brooklyn Rider opened the night with a New York premiere, in this case Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma. With equal parts meticulousness and unbridled joy, the quartet – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas – stood in a semicircle as they played. Maybe that configuration gave them a jolt of extra energy as they parsed the composer’s development of a series of cell-like phrases, spiced with fleetingly jaunty cadenzas and passages with an unselfconscious, neoromantic attractivness.

The world premiere of Jacobsen’s Starlighter, bolstered by Azmeh’s emphatic drive, was even more fun. The violinist explained to the sold-out crowd that it’s about photosynthesis, which came across as a genuinely miraculous, verdantly triumphant phenomenon. Its deft metamorphosis of riffs within a very traditional sonata architecture made a good pairing with Shaw’s work.

That the concert’s high point was not its centerpiece, a stunningly seamless perrformance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 speaks to the power of the entire program. Brooklyn Rider’s recorded version has a legato and a stamina that’s remarkable even in the rarified world of those who can play it on that level. But seeing it live drove home just how much of a thrill, and a challenge, it is to play. The contrasts between all the interchanging leaps and bounds and the rapt atmospherics of the adagio third movement, became all the more dramatic.

The highlight of the night was the world premiere of The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea, Azmeh’s duo piece for clarinet and cello. The composert told the crowd how he’d been inspired to write it from the rooftop of a Beirut building after fleeing his native Syria with his wife. It’s about memory, how it can fade and be reinvented, how tricky those reimagining can be – and how they haunt. Azmeh would look out over the ocean and convince himself that he could see his home turf in the far distance. As most exiles would, he clearly misses it terribly. The introduction had plaintively fluttering echoes of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time;. Later passages, for both the duo and each solo instrument, followed a plaintive trajectory that dipped with a murky, almost macabre cello interlude laced with sepulchral harmonics and ended as a poignant Arabic ballad.

All five musicians closed the show with a deliroius romp through Kayhan Kalhor‘s Ascending Bird. On album, with Kalhor playing kamancheh and joined by Brooklyn Rider, it’s a bittersweet, furiously kinetic escape anthem. Here, Azmeh taking Kahor’s place, it was more stark and resonant, even as the piece’s bounding echo effects and sudden, warily intense riffage coalesced.

Music Mondays’ fall season of free concerts typically begins in late September or early October; watch this space. Brooklyn Rider’s next concert is on May 31 at the Oranjewoud Festival in the Netherlands with legendary singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Azmeh’s next show is May 19 at 2 PM at First Presbyterian Church,,201 S  21st Street at Walnut St in Philadelphia with pianist Jean Schneider.

 

May 17, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stark, Almost Shockingly Catchy String Tunes and Improvisations From Allstar Trio Hear in Now

Violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Silvia Bolognesi all have busy careers as bandleaders, but they also occasionally play in an edgy, often stunningly catchy trio they call Hear in Now. The project is bracingly and deliciously uncategorizable: ostensibly the music is string jazz, and there’s a lot of improvisation, but also more than a hint of Italian folk, the blues and even string metal. Their latest album Not Living in Fear is streaming at Bandcamp. Reid may be airing out any material from it in two sets at the Jazz Gallery on April 26, the first a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, the second with her quartet including Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Jason Roebke. Cover is $25.

The trio open the album with a jam, rising from hints of a stately march to shivery squall…and then Frankenstein looks in the window but keeps going. Leaving Livorno is every bit the lament the title suggests, Bolognesi’s stark bowed lines taking centerstage over a whispery backdrop.

Transiti has a staggered staccato pulse, errie close harmonies and a sharp, acidically emphatic cello solo. Requiem for Charlie Haden is unexpectedly catchy, despite the astringency of the circling strings. The aptly titled Circle is even bouncier, bordering on parlor pop in the same vein as groups like the Real Vocal String Quartet: it’s neat how the group shift from punchy to a balletesque strut.

Bolognesi’s steady bowing anchors the sailing melody overhead in the miniature Billions and Billions, another strikingly direct, catchy number. Swift sings the album’s title cut, its message of indomitability set to keening high string harmonies and plucky chords over growly bass.

The album’s second improvisation, interestingly, is just as memorable, waltzing intricately around a circling, blues-tinged hook. Terrortoma is the most darkly bluesy track, with its tight, bracing haronies. The longing in Prayer for Wadud – a diptych – is visceral, Swift’s spare, resonant riffs, Reid and Bolognesi joining underneath with a brooding, bowed riff.

They open Cantiere Orlando with neo-baroque elegance, then hit a spiky interlude and artfully bring the main theme back. They close with the liltingly anthemic waltz Last Night’s Vacation and then the showstopper Cultural Differences, shifting gears hard through minimalism, some atmospherics and then shivery, metal-tinged phrasing. There’s really nothing like this out there.

April 24, 2019 Posted by | Music, music, concert, 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

Two Sides of Evocative, Brilliant Violist and Composer Ljova

Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin is one of the world’s most dynamic, versatile violists. As you would expect from someone who’s as busy as a bandleader as he is a sideman, he wears many, many hats: film composer, lead player in a Russian Romany party band, arranger to the stars of indie classical and the Middle East…and loopmusic artist. Ljova’s next New York show is a great chance to see him at full power with Romashka, the wild Romany-flavored band who are playing a killer twinbill with western swing stars Brain Cloud at 8 PM on March 23 at Flushing Town Hall. Cover is $16, $10 for seniors, and kids 19 and under with school ID get in free.

Ljova’s latest album, Solo Opus, is a somewhat calmer but no less colorful one-man string orchestra ep, streaming at Bandcamp. The first three numbers feature Ljova overdubbing and looping his six-string fadolin; the finale is the only viola track here. The album open with The Comet, a broodingly gorgeous, hypnotically epic tone poem written in the wake of the fateful 2016 Presidential election. It’s his Metamorphosen: with its disquieting layers of echo effects, it brings to mind his work with iconic Iranian composer and kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. As sirening phrases encroach on the center, could this be a commentary on the perils of a political echo chamber?

Does Say It build from “a gorgeously bittersweet, Gershwinesque four-chord riff to a soaring, bittersweet anthem,” as this blog described it in concert in December? Again, Kalhor’s work is a point of reference, as is the gloomiest side of Russian folk music, particularly when Ljova works the low strings for cello-like tonalities. But there are echoes that could be Gershwin-inspired as the aching melody moves up the scale to a big climatic waltz.

Lamento Larry is a moody interweave of simple, anthemic phrases, rising from a Bach-like interweave of lows to anxious, higher atmospherics, then an echoey blend of the two. Ljova closes the album with the wryly dancing, distantly bluegrass-tinged, pizzicato Lullaby for JS, complete with muffled conversation and tv noise in the background.

March 17, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

February 28, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment