Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A November 21 Triplebill to Get Lost In, Staged by @Tignortronics

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

Violinist/composer Christopher Tignor plays music that transcends pigeonholing. His slow tempos underscore the thoughtfulness and consideration that goes into his vividly evocative, often achingly angst-fueled sonic narratives. The former leader of popular indie classical/postrock ensemble Slow Six is also an impresario, working under the Twitter handle @Tignortronics. His latest show at 8 PM on November 21 at Littlefield is a real killer one, for those who like lush, richly enveloping sounds. Former Rasputina cellist and loopmusic maven Julia Kent opens the night, followed by Tignor and then cinematic, atmospheric guitarist/composer Sarah Lipstate a.k.a. Noveller. Tignor took some time away from his studio production and engineering, among other things, to answer a few pointed questions about what he’s up to:

New York Music Daily: We have a situation – which the Village Voice, of all places, touched on in an article last week – where rehearsals for performances of new, serious composed music, are becoming more and more burdensome. Moneywise, spacewise, timewise, the works. Obviously, when an ensemble is presenting a new piece of music, it’s vastly more enjoyable for everybody, not just the musicians, if the group has some familiarity with it rather than struggling through a reading, more or less cold. How does @Tignortronics offer a solution to that problem?

Christopher Tignor: Probably a few ways. I’m booking artists that deliver a cohesive voice they’ve developed over many years. To a large degree, credit needs to go to these artists who’ve already had to figure this out in order to create at the high level that they do. These aren’t classical concerts where the players live with these works for a few rehearsals. These performers have typically toured this music far and wide.

But I know from personal experience that this doesn’t scale well. The practical demands of what it takes to put together this kind of music takes a toll. To this end, I make my full rehearsal studio in Bed-Stuy freely available to artists preparing for one of my bills. Makes sense really – if they sound good, we all sound good.

But probably the most important thing I can do is make these gigs worth it for the artists. I try to fight for good deals and real soundcheck time at a venue that sounds great and that people love going to on weekends. Costs aside, artists first and foremost want to be heard and a solid gig that’s well put together can be hard to find at this end of the musical spectrum.

NYMD: You’re staging on your third consecutive bill of cutting-edge new work, this time around on November 21 at 8 PM at Littlefield. It’s a great lineup. Julia Kent, the former Rasputina cellist and a first-rate composer in her own right, then yourself, then Sarah Lipstate, a.k.a Noveller, whose music is cinematic to the nth degree. Other than the fact that there’s a lot of tunefulness, and a hypnotic, sometimes electroacoustic aspect, with loops and effects, etcetera, is there a theme to the night – other than just plain good music? Slow tempos but high energy, maybe?

Christopher Tignor: I think we all share a uniquely compatible aesthetic on this bill. It seems like we’re all bowing here. For Julia on cello and me on violin, literally, and with the sounds Noveller evokes from her guitar, sonically. Rich long tones. Aesthetic cohesion is definitely something important to these shows. Most instrumental or experimental concerts feel a like a total grab bag to me which I find annoying.

NYMD: Is this a theme that you’re going to continue, or do you have others in mind for future performances?

Christopher Tignor: I build each bill around the artists. The more experimental an aesthetic experience is, the more aesthetically focused it needs to be to work. If I encounter artists I think fit the vibe then I reach out to them and look for ways to build a show they’ll be psyched about.

NYMD: Your previous lineup, at the Silent Barn a few weeks ago, featured Sontag Shogun and their kitchen-sink assembly of instruments and loops and epic swells and fades, then Hubble, a.k.a. Ben Greenberg and his roaring guitar vortex, along with yourself. And it was on a weeknight in the middle of Bushwick and you managed to fill the room. Clearly there’s an audience for this kind of music out there among young people. Do you have a game plan for building this kind of a scene, that stays pretty much DYI and doesn’t rely on foundation funding like, say, Roulette?

Christopher Tignor: In my opinion, all today’s most interesting art comes from one of the various DIY scenes. The moneyed culture at large is generally fucked and if you’re not pushing back against it, i.e. acting counter-culturally, you’re just not getting it. Note in 2014, this does not mean starting a noisy punk band to scream lyrics about your girlfriend over chords through some hip new distortion pedal. Have fun doing that, but make no mistake that that sound is but the expected background noise of youth made right before going back to school for a “real” degree and flipping on Sex and the City. If you want to really fuck with people in a way that counts, then stop and actually think it through. Make something thoughtful before emptying your heart into it. As for growing the scene, all I can do is put this philosophy into practice and play Kevin Costner, seeing if indeed they will come.

NYMD: Why Littlefield? I happen to like the place a lot, the sonics there are fantastic and it’s actually pretty easy to get to: you just walk downhill from the Atlantic Avenue subway a few blocks and you’re right there…

Christopher Tignor: Littlefield sounds really good and looks great. It’s a fun place to actually go and really hear music with friends. That’s a prerequisite for my shows. If the shows aren’t going to feel amazing, it’s not worth my time, and certainly not yours. However, if the shows are worth my time, it turns out they are also in fact worth yours because I know what you’ve got going and it’s cool, but really this is much, much cooler.

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November 10, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, experimental music, irish music, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leif Arntzen Explains His Brilliant New Album, with a Release Show at Nublu on May 25

You typically don’t expect someone who’s been been a presence in the New York jazz scene since 1985 to wait until now to make the best album of his career. But not only is Leif Arntzen’s new album Continuous Break a career high-water mark, it’s also one of this year’s best. The brilliantly individualistic trumpeter plays the album release show this Saturday, May 25 at Nublu at around 10 with the players on it: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. It’s an intimate space and the band hasn’t played in awhile, so early arrival is advised. Arntzen graciously took some time away from rehearsals and pre-concert logistics to answer a few questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: In my opinion, the new album is your best ever. Do you agree? It’s definitely your most eclectic…

Leif Arntzen: This record was the hardest I’ve ever done, but at the same time I felt the most at home with the process. I didm’t feel any limitations to play anything in particular or stick to one sound or musical direction. Anything we played became fair game, and that created a lot of intensity from all of us, to make whatever we played count for something. It was our special moment in time, and we played that way. I think we got what we were looking for.

LCC: I understand all the tracks are live, continuous takes, oldschool style. Is that true?

LA: Yes, it was live off the floor crowded in a small studio playing next to each other. There was a lot of sonic bleed, so overdubs were not an option.

LCC:  I also understand that the tunes came together in an unusual way, in bits and pieces rather than either fully formed compositions or flat-out jams. Can you explain that?

LA: When everyone is so capable of so many things, of playing anything, for me it seemed more important to give the group simple ideas that made each of us have to dig…for something that brings us together, moves us forward. It was like we each showed up with our paintboxes, but only one big canvas to lay it down. I tried to simplify the starting point with simple melodies as much as possible…I think that gave us a wider horizon.

LCC: On the new album, it seems to me that you’ve thrashed a bunch of defiantly individualistic, outside-thinking guys into shape. Or is this them jumping at the opportunity to play lyrical, tuneful, memorable, composed or at least semi-composed music?

LA: As a horn player, I want to clear a way forward somehow through all the sound. I want to be playing outside too…but if there isn’t a melodic and rhythmic home, then being outside loses its meaning. I don’t have the luxury of playing more than one note at a time, so I have to imagine whatever I can to make my choices meaningful. I think everyone in the band is doing that in their own way, in their own voices. Maybe that’s why the music sounds more composed than it actually is.

LCC: Obviously there’s all kinds of improvisation on the album. I usually can pick up on where people are putting their own personalities, but this one is hard to figure out. For example, on your version of My Ideal, I love how Jeff adds an edgy contrast with his brushes against the lyrical gentleness of the melody line. His idea or yours?

LA: That’s Jeff. He has such a voice. He comes up with colors and shapes in the strangest ways…that made it easy for me to just play with the time and space…because I felt like that was all I needed to do to get something beautiful. It’s easy when all of us are after the same thing.

LCC: One of my favorite tracks is Tired, a laid-back funk groove that hits a big, explosive pastoral crescendo on the chorus. Are you into the Americana jazz thing that’s steamrolling these days, Bryan & the Aardvarks, Jeremy Udden, Bill Frisell?

LA: I really admire Bill’s version of Shenandoah on one of his recent albums. I love American classic melodies, folk and country music storytelling…I loved the Gil Evans Orchestra when they hit a big sonic full band stride. My son Miles [the brilliant drummer in Antibalas and leader of  Emefe] wrote a bass line and guitar riff inspired by his love of Nigerian Afrobeat and American funk…He called it Tired. When I heard the line, I heard so much of deep America in it, jazz rock pioneers, funk masters and delta blues, and came up with the melody….and so we just took it to our own place.

LCC: Another one I like a lot is The Call, where you take what could be a totally generic, lickety-split swing shuffle and introduce all those conversations, and good cop/bad cop dynamics, and rhythmic push-pull even though the bass is always holding the center Was that planned?

LA: The Call is not planned, and intended to allow us to go anywhere…it’s fast and we each just hitch aboard and see where we wind up, try to get there and back in one piece, together.

LCC: I hope you can forgive me for having discovered you not from your original music but from your Channeling Chet project. I never got to see Chet Baker in concert, so seeing you do his music – which seemed to me to be as close to channeling as anyone can get – brought me full circle with it in a sense. I think that speaks for a lot of other listeners. Looking back, how did that impact your career? By exposing you to a lot of people who might not have discovered you otherwise…or did it become a millstone, you being associated so closely with Baker’s work instead of your own compositions?

LA: I grew up listening to my dad’s Louis Armstrong recordings, and he was my favorite. After Louis it was Miles and Freddie and Coltrane. Chet came along much later in my own experience. It happened after singing a cameo in a New York show, where I sang and played Days Of Wine And Roses as a band feature while the name stars took a break. The New York writers wrote about it, with comparisons to Chet. When that happened I went back to better understand his music and playing. That’s when I became a diehard Chet fan. Eventually I paid homage to him in my own way on the Channeling Chet recording. His sound production adn technique were really something else, such a beautiful melodist. For awhile there it seemed like the Chet thing overshadowed a little, but mostly I didn’t worry about it.

LCC: You have a rep as a purist. What’s up with the Wurly? Did you write this stuff with electric rather than acoustic piano in mind? Or just the confidence that Landon Knobloch wouldn’t clutter the songs with it?

LA: I’ve been thinking more electric for some time. I grew up with rock, I like the Wurly, a Wurly was handy, and Landon just sounds great on it, gets a real swirly thing going on, and especially with Ryan too…Rock is a part of what this band is about, and I feel at home.

LCC: On the new album, as far as influences are concerned, I definitely hear Miles as far as space and pacing is concerned, and Freddie Hubbard  as far as perfect articulation and weightlessness of the notes. Am I on to something or not? What other trumpeters inspire you these days?

LA: Miles recordings have been a constant for me in my life. In terms of the horn, Miles and Freddie pioneered the sound of the horn, probably the biggest influence for me. But I can’t set aside Kenny Dorham, Chet, and of course Louis Armstrong perhaps most of all. Louis paved the way for all of us for just everything. I still listen to him all the time, hoping one day I could ever move an audience like that. There’s a recording of him touring in Europe in 1935, you’d think it was the Beatles, people are getting so crazy. Also his small group recordings with Duke Ellington are masterpieces.

LCC: Any plans to take this band on the road?

LA: Well, in the coming years I plan to work this band at every opportunity. I believe in this band, best one I ever had. We’ll do some touring around the east coast, maybe up to see my Canadian brothers and sisters…also working on a Spain tour for later this year.

May 21, 2013 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alicia Jo Rabins Comes Forward About Bernie Madoff

Eclectic violin virtuoso and composer Alicia Jo Rabins – formerly of Golem and currently with Girls in Trouble – has put together an intriguing new show titled A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. She debuted it here in New York Thursday night at Joe’s Pub. It’s billed as an attempt “to investigate the intersection of mysticism and finance, the inevitability of cycles, and the true meaning of wealth.” Hot on the heels of a sold-out show (the next one is also at Joe’s Pub on Thursday, Nov 15 at 7), Rabins was gracious to answer a few loaded questions about it:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Kaddish is something we say for the dead. Is Bernie Madoff dead?

Alicia Jo Rabins: Yes, Kaddish is the prayer for the dead – and it’s also, extremely rarely, used to mark excommunication, when a person becomes “dead” to the community, as in that amazing scene in the Jazz Singer. So I’m playing with that meaning and also with the idea of mortality – Madoff’s, and our own.

LCC: Do you find it particularly reprehensible that Madoff deliberately chose to victimize other Jews?

AJR: Well, in the piece I mention that these kinds of schemes are often referred to as affinity scams because people prey on those from their own community, taking advantage of the natural sense of trust that exists between people from a similar background. So – reprehensible, yes, and extreme – but surprisingly not uncommon.

LCC: In your research, how many of the main characters in this did you talk to? Madoff himself? Harry Markopoulos? Any of the SEC people? I remember how the Madoff family did a huge amount of PR for damage control, and then they disappeared, or tried to. Did you talk to any of them?

AJR: I decided not to approach the Madoff family because I wanted to maintain some sense of objectivity and distance from the central players in the story, and to look at it from the perspective of the supporting players – a lawyer defending the victims from clawbacks, an FBI agent on the case, a financial risk officer at a bank who advised against investing with Madoff and was initially rebuked.

LCC: Lurid as the scandal was, Madoff doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly interesting guy. He had a lot of stuff, and flaunted it, and that’s about all he seemed to be interested in. Or is there more to him than that?

AJR: I was actually interested in the many reports I read that Madoff did not particularly flaunt his wealth – in the rarified world of hedge funds, he was relatively modest  – still absurdly wealthy, but not particularly showy about it. Apparently that actually led people to trust him more. Learning that was one of the things that drew me deeper into the complexities of the story.

LCC: Considering that the biggest ponzi schemer of all time was once head of the NASDAQ stock exchange, what does this portend? How many other Madoffs are there out there? Or is it ultimately just one big casino?

AJR: I heard this question so many times in my research – people saying “Isn’t the whole stock market a giant ponzi scheme anyway?” I certainly don’t have the answer, but I think it’s an important question for America at this moment.

LCC: To what degree are we all implicated in this – for buying into the system that tolerates and even abets criminals like Madofff, or for foolishly believing that the system would thoroughly police itself?

AJR: I couldn’t agree more – if one can agree with a question. And I would add, how does this sort of belief or faith in capitalism tie into our spiritual condition as a nation at the moment? To what degree are we responsible for one another? These aren’t just theoretical questions. Should people making millions from stock trading have to contribute towards the health care of people making ten dollars an hour? Should higher education be subsidized for those who can’t afford it? I stay out of the political angle in this piece and focus more on the spiritual questions, but really, it’s all the same.

Alicia Jo Rabins plays A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff at Joe’s Pub this coming Thursday, Nov 15 at 7 PM: $15 tickets are still available as of today.

November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dozen Questions for Rising Star Violinist Hye-Jin Kim

Up-and-coming violin virtuoso Hye-Jin Kim is a passionate devotee of the arts, with an infectious joie de vivre. Hopefully at some future date – the Sunday, November 4 concert with the Greenwich Village Orchestra has been postponed – she’ll have the opportunity to rejoin this exciting ensemble for a performance. Prior to the recent hurricane, Kim graciously took some time out of her whirlwind schedule to entertain a few serious and not-so-serious questions about the show and her blossoming career:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’re playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Greenwich Village Orchestra on November 4. Does this piece have special resonance for you, or is this just a chance to gig with a good orchestra?

Hye-Jin Kim: I have always loved Mendelssohn’s music- chamber music, vocal, orchestral, piano, and of course the violin concerto – for the delicate texture and yet highly emotional content. I have not played this piece for some time other than teaching it, so I’m very excited to be performing it with the GVO. This month has become my Mendelssohn phase as I just finished playing an all-Mendelssohn chamber music program for a residency. It’s as good as it gets.

LCC: I love his music too – it’s so indomitable, and inspiring – it always cheers me up. As far as your concert is concerned, I’m always interested in how musicians connect. Is this your debut performance with this particular orchestra? Did they find you or did you find them? Either way, I know you’re in for a good time..

HJK: I worked with the GVO once before, performing the Scottish Fantasy by Bruch with the delightful Pierre Vallet, who was guest conductor for that concert. So I guess I can say that they found me again! I enjoyed every minute playing with them and I really thought we had something special together in the concert. I’m looking forward to working with conductor Barbara Yahr this time, and discovering new things about this concerto.

LCC: How did you ge so lucky as to study with Jaime Laredo and Ida Kafavian when you were 14?

HJK:Going to the Curtis Institute of Music to work with Jaime Laredo and Ida Kavafian is one of the most fortunate things that happened in my life, another one being studying with Miriam Fried, post-Curtis. I do not know how it all happened and I don’t think I was quite aware how lucky I was at the time since I was only 14 years old. I remember playing my auditions in front of the faculty members and thinking to myself “hmm, I don’t know any of them!” The next thing I remember is getting a phone call from Mr. Graffman who was the director of Curtis at the time and he told me that I would be working with Jaime and Ida. And the rest is history.

LCC: You won the Concert Artists Guild International Competition three years ago. I see a million competitions out there, with a million winners, and I get jaded. And yet, some of these players are tremendously good. To what extent has your victory helped your career?

HJK: I have done my share of competitions in the past and did well in some. However, CAG is a bit different in that it awards a management contract to winners. It helped me connect with many musicians and presenters in the performing arts scene..

LCC: I can’t help but notice how busy your concert schedule is. How do you find the time, and the energy, and the focus, to shift between genres, and ensembles, and sometimes play the role of educator?

HJK: It definitely has been a challenge in recent years since I took a teaching position at East Carolina University not too long ago in addition to actively playing solo and chamber music. I find joy in all the things I do in this stage of my career and whether it is a concerto, recital, ensemble, or teaching, what I am doing at the moment is my favorite thing. This mindset helps me stay fresh and energized.

LCC: Every single quote I see about string players from the mainstream classical music press concerns an artist’s tone. Isn’t there a lot, lot more to it than tone – phrasing, dynamics, emotional attunement, the works? Besides, a lot of it depends on the instrument, anyway, right? Do you ever find yourself worrying about your tone?

HJK: Tone for a player is like a person’s personality or character. And with that individual, unique tone, you create phrasing, dynamics, and bring out emotions in music. So I feel that all this is very closely related. It does somewhat depend on the kind of instrument you play, but the tone you create should be from you, not the instrument.

What I search for in my playing is how to shape and use my tone to best express the music I play. To me, that challenge is especially fun.

LCC: Like most string players, you do a lot of chamber music gigs. Is there one particular repertoire, or musical era, that you find yourself gravitating toward especially? I see you like Bach which is always a good sign…

HJK: Bach is my musical home. From there I begin all my other musical journeys to different composers and repertoire. So it’s always nice to come home to Bach as often as I can.

I enjoy playing Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. I know it’s not too original, but I like digging very deep into feelings and emotions like Beethoven and Schubert did.

These days, I spend much time studying and listening to two great English composers with genuine, unique qualities, Elgar and Britten.

LCC: What violin do you play, how old is it and what is its provenance? How did you acquire it?

HJK: I play the Gioffredo Cappa circa 1687. It was crafted in Saluzzo, Italy but 320 years later it ended up in Boston and met me.

LCC: Hmmmm…ok. Now they said you were temperamental in Helsinki. Is that true?

HJK: If they said so!

LCC: That’s a media quote. I stole it from your website.

HJK: It was very cold around the time I played in Helsinki. So I think it was a good thing.

LCC: I see you’re a Phillies fan. I offer my condolences for this year – although the way they came back, after trading away half the team, was impressive. Are you psyched for next year and maybe watching Chase Utley move to third?

HJK: Thank you for your condolences. The September rush was exciting although it was short-lived. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m “psyched” for next year. With the Phillies lately it’s half excitement and half worries about the core guys’ lingering injuries. I think if Halladay comes back strong we will have a shot at having a good season. I really hope that the three young starting pitchers will pitch in the World Series for the Phillies together before the older two, Halladay and Lee, get too old. And I think next year should be the year for them.

I don’t think they will move Utley to third after all and I’m hoping they won’t. I love watching Jimmy Rollins and Utley turning double plays! But who knows…They have many holes to fill in and I’m looking forward to what this off-season holds for them.

LCC: You’re also a devotee of 19th century English Literature. If you could meet one author from that era, who would it be?

HJK: Charlotte Bronte. I visited her home in Yorkshire a couple years ago. I was humbled seeing the stark and severe setting and life circumstances she faced. You get a strong sense of that rough-edged life from her characters, and yet there is incredible beauty and sensitivity in her work. I think that underneath the severe expression she wears in portraits, and from the subjects she addressed in her writing, Charlotte Bronte must have had a tender, if not vulnerable, heart.

LCC: What I’m getting at with all these crazy questions is that a lot of audiences tend to take musicians for granted . If you’re onstage, you’re expected to deliver perfection 100% of the time – audiences sometimes forget that the musicians are everyday people, too, with the same kind of interests, for example, in books and baseball and movies as everybody else. Are those lofty expectations ever exasperating for you?

HJK: I wouldn’t say so. I believe there should be more effort from the performer’s end to communicate their thoughts about music-making and about life beyond the performing world. I try to put together concerts and recitals that reflect my literary interests and to combine those two worlds that I love. I am yet to figure out how baseball would go with music. Maybe that will just have to remain my secret passion!

LCC: Here’s an idea, I’m sure somebody did this before, but I’ll bet there hasn’t been a violinist playing the national anthem before a game in awhile. Think of all the fans who would hear you, it would be good exposure – and that song is a lot easier to play than it is to sing!

Hye-Jin Kim’s performance of the Mendelssohn with the Greenwich Village Orchestra at 3 PM on Sunday, November 4 at the Old Stuyvesant Campus, 345 E 15th St (between 1st/2nd Aves) has been postponed: watch this space for a rescheduled date.

October 19, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten Questions for Phil Kline

Phil Kline has been at the forefront of cutting-edge composition since the 80s. His eclectic work ranges from the shimmering, kaleidoscopic sound paintings for which he’s best known, to art-song, to orchestral pieces and edgy rock (he played with Jim Jarmusch in the early 80s, and toured the world as a guitarist in Glenn Branca’s mighty ensemble). And his 1992 processional “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night  – which took shape against the backdrop of the Bush I Gulf War – grew from an underground New York attraction to a global phenomenon. At this year’s BAM Next Wave Festival, there’ll be an important moment in New York music history when adventurous ensemble ACME and crooner Theo Bleckmann premiere Kline’s new arrangement of his powerful Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs – which haven’t been staged in this city in eight years -, along with the composer’s Rumsfeld Songs, and selections from his new cycle Out Cold, inspired by the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaborations of the 1950s.

One consistent trait that runs throughout Kline’s music is his wry wit, which comes through in the man himself. Kline generously took some time out of the usual pre-concert havoc to share some insights on his career and what he’s up to lately:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’ve made a career out of writing important, socially relevant music. Yet – as I ask myself all the time – to what degree do you find yourself preaching to the converted? Isn’t BAM Next Wave a progressive crowd anyway? Is there an aisle, or some other kind of border we have to reach across to really make a difference?

Phil Kline: I’m not convinced that music can convert one to another political viewpoint, at least not directly. But it has the ability to arouse strange, untranslatable impulses within us, and that might possibly lead one to states where the mind is open to change.

If everyone who likes my music is already converted, that’s OK. The people in the choir need a little comfort, too.

LCC: If there’s any work that humanizes the life of a soldier, it’s the Zippo Songs. With the ongoing war in Afghanistan – and wars in Syria and Mali, ad infinitum – do you think that the suite has greater relevance today than when you wrote it?

PK: I think it remains constant because the focus is not on the war but the individual.

LCC: You’re quoted on the BAM event page as saying that you often have doubts about yourself as a composer but not as an arranger. Which made me laugh: to my ears, your music is extremely meticulous, the exact quality you’d want in a good arranger. Don’t the two skills go hand in hand? Ellington and Strayhorn, for example?

PK: It’s a little joke I tell myself to avoid getting psyched out when I begin a piece. There is some truth in it, though. I am a good editor and arranger, and I use that skill to straighten out whatever mess I might start out with.

LCC: A lot of people are less aware of you as a lyricist than a composer, although lyrics have continued to play an increasingly important role in your work. Your new song cycle, Out Cold, explores songcraft in a 1950s Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle vein. As someone who’s made a career in far less constricting, less stylized music, how do you approach the constraints of verse/chorus and rhyme schemes…or are these songs an attempt to push the envelope with the genre?

PK: Actually, I like to embrace different styles as I go along, like the allusions to Renaissance music or barbershop or the Beach Boys in John the Revelator. To me it’s a bit like falling into the voice of a character as you tell a story. But Out Cold really does engage one genre, which is the so-called standard song, especially torch songs and ballads. The whole idea was to emulate the craft of that genre, the elegant tunes and lyrics of the great 30s-40s-50s songwriters. I suppose in a way I felt I could reveal myself best by wearing a costume.

LCC: How about the new arrangements of Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs for ACME? Was that a challenge for the arranger/transcriptionist in you?

PK: Actually, I was surprised by how easily they translated to strings, percussion and piano. The originals are very spare and the main challenge is not to add too much. It’s easy to feel a bit apologetic when you ask ace players to do whole notes for a half hour, but that’s what is required sometimes. Bruckner sometimes holds notes for pages!

LCC: Ha, so does Messiaen for that matter. Now this is a reunion of sorts with you and Theo Bleckmann – if I’m correct, this is the first time the Zippo Songs have been performed in New York in eight years. What specifically aboutt him made you say, yup, he’s the one to put these across?

PK: It’s his inner Sinatra, the beautiful flow of legato and smart timing. I’d been thinking about writing him a group of orchestral love songs for several years.

LCC Do you still actually participate in Unsilent Night every year? And back in, I think 1993, when you led the first parade of boomboxes through the Village, did it ever occur to you in your wildest dreams that this would become a worldwide phenomenon?

PK: A – yes, B – no! I sort of dread it when I realize the season is coming, like “oh boy, another sleet-filled night,” but when it’s over I’m always glad we did it. At least one of the Unsilent Nights every year has something amazing happen in it.

LCC: You’ve gone on record as saying that you’re simply following a tradition of American transcendentalists: Charles Ives, et al. Yet your music, as abstract-sounding as some of it is, especially your earlier work, is very specific. To what degree has your career been simply doing what you love, and connecting the tradition of the composers who’ve obviously inspired you with a new level of social commitment and awareness?

PK: I would say that’s exactly what my career has been.

LCC: Jim Jarmusch is an old college friend and bandmate of yours. Tell us about your latest, forthcoming collaboration with him.

PK: We actually met in the 6th grade! Tesla in New York is an operatic fantasy of the inventor Nikola Tesla’s exploits over the 50 years he lived and died in New York City. Most of his glory days were spent in the general vicinity of SoHo.

LCC: Around the World in a Daze, your DVD from 2009 is a favorite – and I think one of amazon’s bestselling releases on DVD if I remember correctly. The Housatonic at Henry Street, one of your “boombox symphonies” which opens the DVD, depicts an evening scene. Yet the corner of Henry and Madison Street where it was shot has a bus stop, and the projects, and a McDonalds since a few years back. I’ve always wondered how you managed to get such tranquility at that location…

PK: You’re one block away. I made the field recording on my corner, Henry and Rutgers. Not as quiet as it used to be, but not quite as bustling as Madison Street. I’m on the 5th floor and I was responding to that moan the city has when you listen from above. It’s a soft roar comprised of a thousand little things going by and echoing in the concrete pond below. I guess I thought of the parade as a river of life, just as the Housatonic was Ives’ river of life, flowing by inexorably. Come to think of it, the Ganges isn’t exactly clean and quiet, either.

ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Theo Bleckmann and Phil Kline present the Zippo Songs, Rumsfeld Songs and Out Cold -produced by American Opera Projects – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival at 7:30 PM, Oct 25-27. Tickets are $20; the October 26 show includes a post-performance chat with the composer and ensemble.

October 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Insights from Awardwinning Conductor David Bernard of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

Most cities are lucky to have a single symphony orchestra. Here in New York, classical music audiences have a far greater number of ensembles to choose from. Not only do we have the flagship New York Philharmonic, we’ve got several other first-rate orchestras, some of them simmering just under the radar. One of the finest of these ensembles is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, a full-size symphony orchestra led by charismatic maestro David Bernard. Their 2012-13 season begins this October 27 at 8 PM with a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished;” Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” with Terry Eder on piano, at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St, between Second and Third Avenues. Maestro Bernard took some time away from his schedule to shed some light on what he and the Chamber Symphony have in store for this season:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First of all, congratulations for winning a First Prize in the Orchestral Conducting Competition of the American Prize. Was there a winning performance, and what was the victorious piece?

David Bernard: Thanks. I am very proud, not only of this, but also for being awarded a First Prize in Orchestral Performance together with the orchestra. Both awards are great recognition. The primary work in the Conducting Competition submission was the performance of Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration – from October 2011 – which I believe you attended.

LCC: Yes, I was there. That’s a piece that’s very close to my heart, which explains why I’ve seen it performed several times. In fact, I was transfixed by your version: the dynamic range and attention to detail surpassed any performance of that piece that I’ve witnessed. Needless to say, I never expected that a “chamber symphony” would deliver my alltime favorite version of Tod und Verklarung! Which leads me to the next question: as anyone who’s seen the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in concert will attest, your orchestra is a mighty beast. But one hears the term “chamber symphony” and thinks of maybe a twelve-piece string orchestra. Is that how the group originated? Do you think the name fits at this point?

DB: Yes, our name is a frequent point of discussion, especially when we program larger repertoire. Certainly an orchestra that performs Mahler with a complement of eighty is not a “chamber orchestra.” When we started thirteen years ago, we were an orchestra of twenty-two. When it came time to choose a name, we had a feeling we would grow, so rather than use the name “chamber orchestra” we chose “chamber symphony,” which suggests a larger complement of musicians. We were, in fact, a little small to be a “chamber symphony” at the time, but when we did grow larger, it suited us. Currently, with seventy to eighty members depending on the repertoire, we are not so large yet as to call ourselves a “philharmonic” of say a hundred performers. I see “chamber symphony” as descriptive of that upper middle ground, which is quite versatile, as we can effectively deliver performances of a wide range of repertoire, from Bach to Mahler, in our intimate venue. But I am sure this will be an ongoing discussion, and perhaps sometime down the road we will change our name to reflect our growth.

LCC: You founded the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony thirteen years ago. What are your favorite, most memorable experiences?

DB: There are so many. Our many performances at New York’s major venues – Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall. Our performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a chorus of more than 200 singers at Riverside Church. Working with Whoopi Goldberg as the narrator in our performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”. And of course our tour of China this past Winter.

LCC: Tell me about that tour of China. I imagine you have a lot of stories. How did the invitation to play there originate? How do the concert halls and audiences in China compare to what we have over here? Did you have to leave your phone with customs and pick it up on the way out?

DB: The Chinese were very gracious and attentive, and they didn’t have an interest in my cell phone – which is a good thing, for it came in very handy dealing with the many logistical hurdles that typically accompany a nine-city tour like ours! We were invited to perform a series of holiday concerts in China after a representative of China attended one of our performances in New York City. It was an extraordinary experience for the entire orchestra. Our performance itinerary of nine cities in fifteen days – Beijing, Qingdao, Dalian, Jinzhou, Chaoyang, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Xi’an – was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was very exciting and through the experience, the orchestra bonded on a more personal level. The concerts were held in the major concert halls in each city, some of which were absolutely spectacular. I would certainly put Beijing Concert Hall, Qingdao Grand Theater, Shenzhen Symphony Hall, Xi’an Concert Hall and Xinghai Symphony Hall in Guangzhou in the same class as the best American concert halls in terms of acoustics and overall quality. Since these concerts were billed as holiday concerts, our repertoire was mostly light classical – Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, etcetera, as well as two Chinese works: Dance of the Yao Tribe, which is a gorgeous work by Liu Tieshan and Mao Yuan, and In Praise of the Red Flag, by Lü Qiming. Audiences were very enthusiastic, especially when we performed the Chinese works. An interesting tidbit is the special affinity the Chinese have for Strauss’ Radetzky March, which must be played as the last of many encores. The custom is that when the Radetzky March is performed, the political leaders exit the hall first while the audience claps its hands to the beat of the march – and we had some very enthusiastic clappers, I must say! We also performed some American music. Copland’s Hoe Down from Rodeo was a big hit – again the audience couldn’t help but clap along – as was an arrangement of Bernstein’s West Side Story, and music from John Williams’ Star Wars. In some concerts, I did a quick change into a Darth Vader costume and conducted the Star Wars music with a light saber. The Chinese loved it – Star Wars is very popular there.

LCC: That’s a great idea, I think more conductors should consider using a light saber – at least the kind that doesn’t go “mmmmmmmm.” Now in my estimation, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony ranks among New York’s best orchestras – and by that I mean the New York Phil, obviously; the Greenwich Village Orchestra, who never disappoint; the imaginative, theatrically-inclined Chelsea Symphony; the Brooklyn Phil, who do everything from Beethoven to hip-hop; and the Knights, who always seem to be having fun as they jump from century to century. How do you differentiate yourselves? Would you say that there’s a defining characteristic to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony?

DB: I am really excited about the overall concert experience we offer our audiences. We combine very high quality music making, eclectic and interesting repertoire, first-rate soloists and an intimate venue into a compelling and inexpensive package that our audiences love. Concertgoers are ecstatic about all of this, but especially the intimacy. They say that we make the concert experience come alive through experiencing not only themusic, but the musicians in a much more personal way than a traditional concert—they feel almost as though they are IN the orchestra. This is a big difference to traditional concert venues, which tend to put the audience at a distance. Also, we perform regularly on the Upper East Side. The East Side of Manhattan hasn’t traditionally been the hub for the arts, so through our concert series at All Saints Church – located around the corner from Bloomingdales – we serve as a key cultural resource to this community.

Our mission does not end with our concert season. We work very hard to support music education organizations through fundraising and benefit concerts. Arts institutions are facing difficult times and if you believe in the arts as a cornerstone of society, we need now more than ever, communities that are both arts aware and arts involved. A great way to achieve this goal is to help arts education programs thrive in our schools so we can develop well-rounded people who attend concerts and maybe even donate to their local arts organizations. Through the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s fundraising efforts, we have helped establish a new Scholarship Fund for students at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and have raised money for the Lucy Moses Community Music School’s Suzuki Scholarship Program. We have established a particularly longstanding relationship with The Harmony Program—a New York City organization that provides music lessons to economically disadvantaged children and is modeled after Venezuela’s world-famous model of music education, “El Sistema”

LCC: That intimacy between orchestra and audience, I think, really defines the concert experience that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has to offer – the atmosphere at All Saints Church really is like being a part of the orchestra. How did you end up there?

DB: Although we have had the privilege of performing in New York’s major concert halls throughout the years, our home has usually been in a New York City church. In 2005, we began an exhaustive search for a new home and found All Saints Church. It has wonderful acoustics, and while being intimate, can also handle performances of large works such as Strauss and Mahler. Over the years we have developed a very strong partnership with All Saints Church. But even early on in our relationship, the church relocated their front set of pews to make room for our string section! We are fortunate to have such a great partner.

LCC: This season’s concluding concerts on May 4 and 5 of 2013 feature the absolutely brilliant pianist Kariné Poghosyan joining the orchestra for the Mozart Concerto for Piano No. 23 in A major, a piece that it seems would be effortless for her. I’m always interested in how musical connections are made. How did this one come about?

DB: We had our eye on Kariné for several years, and finally engaged her to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at our February 2011 concert series. We had a fantastic collaboration. She was superb and both the audience and the orchestra loved her. This season, as I was looking for a concerto to complement the Kraft work with Tchaikovsky’s rich and passionate Fifth Symphony, this particular Mozart piano concerto – and Ms. Poghosyan – instantly came to mind. It turned out she was eager to play that work, so it was kismet! She is a brilliant and sensitive artist, and we look forward to working with her again.

LCC: Like the New York Phil, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a lot of recordings, which can all be heard or at least sampled on your music page – everything from the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, to Dvorak, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, the Four Seasons and the Barber Adagio. Which are all probably the best advertising you could ever get. Do you record every concert you play? Do you have a favorite among them?

DB: The most exciting thing about our catalog of recordings is that it represents a portal to a whole new international audience. We record many of our concerts, which you cansample on our website or download/stream in full using a wide range of sources: iTunes, Amazon.com, Google Play, Spotify and MOG, to name a few. And as you point out, it is great for marketing and brand-building. Looking at our logs, we have regular streamers from around the globe! Picking a favorite is difficult. I love them all, as they are the result of great music making experiences with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.

LCC: I’m always curious about how conductors come up with a choice of repertoire for their concert seasons. For example, this season’s opening concert series, on October 27th and 28th is rather eclectic: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with soloist Terry Eder. You’ve got plenty of gravitas, but also quirky frivolity. What is your programming game plan?

DB: Programming a season is similar to solving a Rubik’s Cube: there are many dimensions that must be solved for simultaneously. One must balance the variety and selection of works throughout the season with the adjacencies of works within each program, audience preferences, the introduction of new repertoire, inclusion of the familiar and recency of past performances. I have a few longer- term initiatives as well—completing our cycles of Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies as well as cycle of Strauss’ Tone Poems. So each season our audiences are treated to at least one Beethoven Symphony – this season we have programmed two, the First and the Seventh. We will complete the Beethoven cycle next Fall with the Second Symphony and the Strauss Cycle next Fall with Don Juan. The Brahms Cycle will be completed in 2014.

I also love to premiere new works and expand the repertoire. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a rich history of programming premieres, including works by Bruce Adolphe, Chris Caswell and John Mackey. Last season we premiered a jazz piano concerto written and performed by Ted Rosenthal, which was especially satisfying as Ted is an extraordinary musician, composer and performer: we subsequently released a recording of this work which is available on iTunes and Amazon.com. And in May we will be giving the New York Premiere of Leo Kraft’s Variations for Orchestra. We have a deep and ongoing commitment to the music of our time.

Within a single program, I often enjoy programming works of similar lineage that also represent great variety. Our October program of Schubert, Strauss and Beethoven is an example, representing the finest Germanic symphonic music, yet each work offers a distinctly unique experience. Despite its popularity, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony refuses to become stale with sublime, timeless and unforgettable phrases. You can feel Schubert’s soul in every note as he guides you through a wild ride that ends with a spiritual ascent. In Till Eulenspeigel, Strauss offers a highly programmatic and exciting account of the antics of a 14th-century prankster that is masterfully crafted and scored. It offers great contrast to the Schubert and I think it’s a marvelous way to close the first half of the program. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is in many ways a synthesis of both the Schubert and the Strauss across the stream of movements, we get heroism, deeply felt melancholy and a frolicking romp to a triumphant conclusion that ties the evening together. I hope that by the end of the program our audience will be energized, enlightened and entertained in a way that only classical music can offer.

September 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: The Miller Theatre’s Melissa Smey

This blog takes a generally dim view of booking agents and talent buyers. Driven and sometimes desperate for filthy lucre, there’s no telling how low some of them will go to fill the seats wherever they happen to be. One notable exception is Melissa Smey, the enthusiastic director at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre uptown. An unabashed fan of a staggering number of genres from one end of the musical spectrum to the other, over the last two years she’s booked a diversity of programming unrivalled at any other music venue in New York, and for that matter, maybe the world. The Miller Theatre’s 2012-13 season includes lush, majestic choral music, a vast supply of cutting-edge indie classical ensembles, and an exciting jazz series featuring the bands of Christian McBride, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Wycliffe Gordon, among others. In addition to running the theatre, she also heads up the Columbia Arts Initiative to help encourage students to make the arts a regular part of their lives. Somehow she found the time to shed some light on this:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: What is your agenda here – other than to put bodies in the seats?

Melissa Smey: I absolutely love working in the arts, promoting the arts and developing new audiences, and supporting the composers, musicians, and ensembles we work with so they can realize their artistic vision. I think arts and culture should be a part of everyone’s daily life. It shouldn’t be a luxury or feel unattainable.

LCC: Is there a legacy here left behind by George Steel – who moved on to the New York City Opera, I believe – and if so, what is that legacy and how do you plan to keep it going – or not?

MS: I think one of George Steel’s most incredible contributions to Miller Theatre, and to the field of contemporary music, was the creation of the Composer Portraits series. The format, now nationally recognized and widely emulated, showcases a range of works by a single composer. Since the series was founded, in 1999, we have featured over 100 composers, from Steve Reich, John Zorn, and Julia Wolfe, to Kaija Saariaho, Helmut Lachenmann, and Chaya Czernowin. It’s at the heart of Miller’s programming and very close to mine! Not only have I kept it going, I’m committed to making sure the idea stays current. I’ve made commissioning new work an important component. Last season we featured world premiere performances of new works by John Zorn, Hilda Paredes, and Georges Aperghis. This coming season we’re working with Enno Poppe and Julio Estrada. More are in the works (really good ones!). Also, I’ve made it a priority to bring as many composers as possible to Miller Theatre, we host them in residence of four to five days so they can work closely with the musicians in rehearsal. We also have an onstage discussion right after intermission, and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about this from our audience.

LCC: You must really love what you do, since you do so much of it. How many of the shows that you book do you actually get the opportunity to see?

MS: You are right – I really do love what I do. I attend every performance we produce or present. Perhaps I’m still in the newlywed phase as an arts programmer, but I love every performance that goes into the Miller season and I actually want to be there for each of them. I think this enthusiasm is part of what helps us to make a genuine connection with our audiences.

LCC: You’re a musician yourself. What’s your instrument…and do you ever get the chance to play anymore?

MS: I was a flute player for many years, played recorder and sang in a collegium group, and last summer I dabbled a bit with ukulele – not well!

LCC: It seems pretty obvious to me that you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose from among the best performers, across the musical spectrum, in pretty much its entirety. Which ultimately reflects very well on you: the Miller Theatre may not have been a prestige venue ten years ago, but it is now. As someone who has put together a show or two myself, I’m always curious about how these things happen: so many of them seem completely random, although not at your place. Could you give me a rough guess as to how many of the acts on the schedule were pitched to you, whether by the artists themselves, or their agents, versus the shows you came up with on your own?

MS: For the most part, we actively produce all of our performances. It’s my goal to curate a season of programs that can’t be seen or heard anywhere else. I embrace a repertoire-centered approach to programming, I care about each individual piece. For Composer Portraits, I collaborate with the composers and musicians to develop a program that is unique, demonstrates the breadth of the composer’s work, and shows the ensemble to best advantage. We try to feature works for larger forces that are more difficult for ensembles to self-produce in smaller venues. Increasingly, I’m bringing these same values to our Early Music and Jazz series. It’s a process, but it’s important to me to build relationships with musicians and ensembles so we can work together to develop new programs that are truly made at Miller.

LCC: The Miller Theatre’s diversity of programming is even more astonishing. Your season kicks off on September 12 with Le Poeme Harmonique singing early Venetian music; you’ve paired the frivolity of John Cage with Rzewski’s crushingly difficult, intense The People…you’re introducing all sorts of up-and-coming composers…even the jazz runs the gamut, from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indian-flavored hard bop to Wycliffe Gordon’s purist style. Literally something for everyone, from way, way outside the mainstream, to music that’s accessible to the nth degree. Your job seems to me to be the equivalent of on-the-job training for a doctorate in music. Is that true – and is that deliberate on your part, to expose yourself to as many different styles and schools of thought as possible?

MS: My goal is to embrace great music regardless of genre. The most important criteria to me is whether it’s something I’d enjoy listening to for two hours. And is it something that I want to experience live, not just study with recordings or scores. I love that at Columbia, which historically was the home of ‘uptown music’, we can now program portraits of Pierre Boulez and Julia Wolfe in immediate succession.

LCC: I think we both agree that good music can be financially lucrative. Yet the Miller Theatre has a leg up on other venues since it has its own line in the Columbia University budget. To what degree does that liberate you from having to fret over whether or not a certain concert, or even a series, has to turn a profit?

MS: We are incredibly lucky, and deeply grateful, to have the full support of Columbia University behind us. And being a campus-based presenter provides amazing opportunities for audience development – there is an entire class of potential new audience members coming to campus every fall! The University embraces research and innovation across an astonishing variety of disciplines, and it’s no different for us at Miller. That said, we do have to raise the money to underwrite every single performance we put on the Miller stage. We’ve made a commitment to keeping ticket prices low. This means, like all non- profits, we have to raise money to fill the gap between what we earn in ticket sales and what it costs to produce performances.

LCC: The toughest job you have, it seems to me, is being in charge of fundraising. What kind of hoops do you find yourself having to jump through in these difficult times? Where do you turn when a reliable source of revenue suddenly vanishes?

MS: It’s been a tough few years for cultural organizations in general and for contemporary music in particular. Some major foundations that funded contemporary music in New York City, like the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and the Greenwall Foundation, have ceased their operations. We’ve looked increasingly to individuals for support of our programs. I believe we are poised for success in this area – we’ve seen increases in both subscribers and single ticket buyers over the last three years and we’re getting rave reviews for our programming from journalists and audiences alike. For an individual looking to make a difference in supporting contemporary music in New York City, there is really no better investment than Miller Theatre because every dollar we raise goes directly into producing the art on our stage.

LCC: I’m all for free beer as long as it isn’t my beer that’s being given away, but doesn’t the idea of a pop-up concert, as your series of early-evening indie classical shows is called, run completely counter to the idea of substantial music? Like a pop-up hospital, or a pop-up fire department? Or is this simply a kind of branding to lure the idle classes out of their Bushwick lofts? For that matter, do you really think that the idle classes can be lured out of Bushwick to begin with, let alone as far uptown as 116th Street? Even with free beer?

MS: I developed the Pop Up Concerts so I would have an outlet for the brilliant musicians and programs that aren’t a natural fit in one of our other series. I also wanted the freedom to schedule a concert on short notice – our season programming is booked 18-24 months in advance. What distinguishes these concerts from our others is the size of the ensembles – two to five musicians – and the intimacy of the setting. The caliber of the performances is the same for everything we do: excellent. All of the concerts were completely packed.

LCC: Well, with free beer…

MS: People stayed long after the music ended to chat and mingle with the musicians and each other. I wanted a format that would feel like hanging out in a living room listening to good music with your friends. I love the intimate feel between the audience and with the performers at venues like the Stone and the Village Vanguard. I think it helps listeners to make a closer connection to the artists and the music.

LCC: Tell me about Morningside Lights, your puppet parade for families, and for everybody else too. That sounds like a lot of fun…

MS: The Morningside Lights workshops, September 22 to 28 and procession on the 29th are going to be so much fun! We’re building on the partnerships we developed when we produced John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit in Morningside Park in June 2011. I love taking music out of the concert hall and finding ways to connect with the community. For this project, we’re collaborating with Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles of Processional Arts Workshop, the composer Nathan Davis, and the Friends of Morningside Park. It will be unlike anything else we’ve ever done.

LCC: What do you listen to at home? Wild guess: Dolly Parton? L’il Kim? Pauline Oliveros? Or after a day full of sound, do you prefer silence?

MS: I listen to everything. I’ve always been a fan of indie rock, I’m going to Grizzly Bear at Radio City and ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties] next month. I’m also willing to admit that I listen to a fair amount of pop music on the radio, Gooset Brown has a cool show on WBLS Friday after work that I’ll sometimes catch.

September 6, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, experimental music, interview, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Explains His Marathon Celebration of the Great, Underrated Composer Louis Vierne

This coming June 2 at the Church of the Ascension, 5th Ave. at 10th St., renowned organist Christopher Houlihan plays symphonic works by legendary, cutting-edge French composer Louis Vierne to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne’s dramatic death. At 3 PM Houlihan plays Symphonies No. 1, 3 and 5; and at 7:30 PM, Symphonies No. 2, 4 and 6. Houlihan managed to take some time away from rehearsals to shed some light on this herculean endeavor.

Lucid Culture: First of all, congratulations for creating www.vierne2012.com. As you’ll remember, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times created a stir with his “ten best composers of alltime” list last year. It inspired me to come up with one of my own, and I picked Louis Vierne as one of my top ten. Why do you think such an extraordinary and eclectic composer isn’t better known?

Christopher Houlihan: Good choice! If Vierne is remembered at all, he is thought of as a composer of organ music. He certainly wrote some of his greatest music for the organ, but that only makes up a very small part of his output, actually. I’ve gotten to know some of his other compositions while I’ve been preparing the six symphonies and have to say – his other music is stunning. The Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet are particular favorites of mine. I think the reason he’s largely unknown is because his musical language was fairly conservative by early 20th century standards. He identified more with the style of Franck than Debussy. But the musical world of Paris surrounding Vierne was hearing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Rite of Spring. Vierne’s music is spectacular, but wasn’t as shocking as the other music of his time. That being said, nothing like these symphonies had ever been written for the organ before!

LC: Would you agree that Vierne’s career mirrors the paradigm shifting from Romanticism to Modernism just as much as, say, Debussy’s or Ravel’s, both of whom were his contemporaries?

CH: I’d actually say Vierne was firmly planted in Romanticism and not much of a modernist. His music definitely becomes more and more chromatic as he ages, but it is always rooted in tonality. His musical structures are always very clear. I think it just took organ music a lot longer to catch up with Romanticism than the rest of the music world – after Bach, there was very little significant organ music written until Mendelssohn and Franck in the mid-nineteenth century!

LC: For those who aren’t familiar with the organ demimonde and its history, can you explain the rather grisly events of June 2, 1937 in the organ console at Notre-Dame in Paris?

CH: After the clergy of Notre-Dame decided that organ recitals weren’t going to be allowed in the cathedral any longer, a “final” recital was planned. Vierne finished playing his Triptyque, then was programmed to perform an improvisation – something French organists are famous for. He set up the organ’s stops…then he had a heart attack! His foot landed on low E, and everyone in the audience thought it was the start of the improvisation, but he had actually died! Because the story of his death is so legendary, I think it’s very appropriate to commemorate the 75th anniversary with a celebration of his music. I’m constantly reminded not to reenact his death as well!

LC: Vierne had a tough life – a gentle soul who was practically blind since childhood, who lost family and friends in World War I, was forced to tour the US to raise funds to repair the organ at Notre Dame after the war…the list goes on. To what extent do you think Vierne transcended his suffering?

CH: Vierne was used to overcoming setbacks: he learned to play the organ despite being blind! The organ is probably more complicated than any other solo instrument, and that’s if you can see! So, I think he transcended his suffering a great deal. Sure, in a lot of his music one can really sense this was a man who knew suffering, but there is almost always extreme joy and beauty alongside the angst. One can’t hear the Final to the Sixth Symphony and think Vierne was anything but an optimist.

LC: Much of Vierne’s work has been described as diabolical, especially Symphony No. 3 – which you’re playing on June 2 here in New York. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?

CH: Much of it is diabolical, but that’s really only gives half of the picture. His music is also very sensual, playful, silly, and joyful. Vierne’s music explores the full range of human emotion. But when it is diabolical, it doesn’t just rain, it pours! The Final to Symphony 4 is about as wild as it gets.

LC: You’re going to play the entire set of Vierne symphonies – all six – at the Church of the Ascension in the West Village on June 2. Isn’t that a bit much? That’s an enormous amount of music by any standard. The Beatles and the Doors would play four sets a night on the Reeperbahn or at the Fillmore, Muddy Waters would play all night in Chicago juke joints, but what you’re doing is vastly more demanding. What kind of preparation does one have to go through to pull this off?

CH: Sometimes I think I’m a little crazy for doing this, yes! It is a lot of music, in total shortly under four hours worth. But, I chose to perform the symphonies in two halves, odd numbers at 3 PM and even numbers at 7:30 PM. This way, each recital is totally digestible and gives the listener a taste of the changes in Vierne’s style over the course of his life. Preparing this music for performance hasn’t been easy but has been worth every sacrifice: this music deserves to be heard.

LC: Why a fullscale symphony cycle? Why not include some of Vierne’s shorter pieces for variation? Clair de Lune, that gorgeous lullaby, maybe one of the clock chime variations – I’m thinking the Longpont Cathedral, perhaps?

CH: Of course Vierne wrote a lot more for organ than just the Symphonies, but they are really his most monumental works for the instrument. The 24 Fantasy Pieces are sort of like the Debussy Preludes for Piano, some with equally whimsical titles: Naïdes (Water Nymphs), Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), Feux Follets (Will o’ the Wisp), Étoile du soir (Night Star)… these titles almost make you forget the sadness in Vierne’s life!

LC: Are you recording these performances so that we can enjoy them later?

CH: I eventually would love to record the symphonies for a CD release, but don’t think I’ll be releasing any live recordings of these marathons.

LC: New York has many world-famous organs: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue and “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. have tremendous vintage instruments whose tonalities are well-suited to the French Romantic repertoire. Why the Church of the Ascension?

CH: The brand-new organ at the Church of the Ascension is totally unique among instruments in New York and is just perfect for the music of Vierne. It was installed last year, built by the French organ builder Pascal Quorin. It is the only French-built organ in New York City and one of only two in the country. There are certainly no shortage of wonderful North-American built organs here in the city, but this instrument has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that I love. You could even say it does more than just speak with a French accent – it speaks French fluently.

LC: Can I ask you what drew you to the organ initially – and what drew you to Vierne?

CH: I think initially I was drawn to the mechanics and extreme sounds of the organ, as many people are: the buttons, pedals, and keyboards, and the very quiet and very loud sounds the instrument can often produce. What sustains my interest isn’t a love of “the organ,” which can’t create beauty on its own, but my love of the music that’s been written for it and the opportunities I’ve had to share this music with audiences.

I can’t explain why I’ve been drawn to Vierne’s music, but I know what I love about it: it is colorful, dynamic, exciting, and packed with emotion. These symphonies, I think, are not what people expect when they think of organ music, especially because they don’t expect organ music to be so personal. But Vierne’s music is about as intimate as it gets.

LC: To what degree are you preaching to the converted? What I mean to say is that there are those of us who can never get enough Louis Vierne – but most other classical music fans have no idea of who he was or why his music is so relevant and vital to this day. Do you really think you can connect beyond the Pipedreams crowd, such that it is?

CH: I can’t help but think of an interview with the late American organist Robert Glasgow, who was asked – on Pipedreams! – how an audience unfamiliar with the Symphonie Romane of Widor – who was Vierne’s teacher – should approach listening to the work. He simply said: “Don’t worry about whether it’s coming from the organ or not; it’s just music.” And Vierne’s music communicates, plain and simple. I can’t tell you how many times after playing a recital I’ve heard: “This was my first organ concert and I had no idea it was going to be this exciting!” Somehow organ recitals have gained the reputation of being boring, but music like Vierne’s is anything but boring. I know anyone coming to this music for the first time will be very pleasantly surprised at what they find.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Conductor’s-Eye View from Yaniv Segal

This coming Sunday, May 20 at 3 PM the Greenwich Village Orchestra plays Shostakovich’s lively and entertaining yet subtext-loaded Symphony No. 9, conducted by Yaniv Segal of the eclectic Chelsea Symphony, followed by the GVO’s own Barbara Yahr conducting Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at Washington Irving HS Auditorium at Irving Place and 16th Street. A $15 donation gets you in; there’s a reception to follow. Segal is widely sought out as a guest conductor; luckily, he had a little time to discuss what promises to be a characteristically rich program.

Lucid Culture: You’ve had a very eclectic background in the arts, having been involved with the theatre and in music since childhood. Let me ask you, is your acting background something you draw on as a conductor, and if so, how?

Yaniv Segal: Being on stage from a young age has helped me to become very comfortable as a performer in front of an audience. I very rarely get nervous, but if I do get a little antsy before a performance, as soon as I step on stage I am over it and able to focus on the music at hand.

Conducting is different from acting in many ways but a big difference is the timeframe – whereas acting requires emoting in real-time, a conductor must show what is about to happen in the near future while reacting to what is going on in the present. It is a constant mind trick to be both involved and aware of shaping the present while preparing the future and considering how the present will impact something that occurs in the music down the line.

A similarity between conducting and acting is that the end result must be apparent..and communicated. If an actor were to feel a certain passionate scene in some way – let’s say Maria’s reaction to Tony’s death at the end of West Side Story – but the reaction were internal, and not communicated to the audience, the actor might feel personally devastated, but the audience may not be moved at all. Thus the good and successful actor must not only be able to feel the emotion in the story, but also to communicate that in a way that the audience feels the same way. A conductor must resonate with the music but also must translate that into some kind of physical or spiritual communication so that the musicians all feel it and thus are able to bring the emotions and power of the music to the audience.

LC: You’re also a trained violinist. Does that inform your approach to conducting an orchestra – and especially the string section?

YS: I have a lot of experience playing in orchestras. I still play violin and viola regularly, and that has definitely influenced my conducting. Perhaps one of the biggest areas of influence is on my rehearsal technique. As an orchestral musician, I have been frustrated by conductors who are not efficient with their time on the podium during rehearsal. We want to make music together and the best way to do that is through more playing and less talking. I think that a successful conductor knows how to manage their limited rehearsal time and knows how to get the most out of an orchestra using the fewest words possible.

As to my specific string playing knowledge, it is certainly helpful for conducting. The strings are the most numerous members of an orchestra. Although I have learned a little bit about playing all the instruments in the orchestra in order to feel a connection to them, I will always feel a close relationship with string sound and technique—and that certainly informs my conducting and rehearsing.

LC: You are a founder of the Chelsea Symphony, that excellent and eclectic orchestra across town on the west side. It’s good to see cross-pollination going on between these two ensembles. As up-and-coming orchestras from neighborhoods long known for their artsiness, is there any competition between you? Or is it more collaborative – you know, in classical circles, everybody tends to know everybody else…

YS: I don’t think that there is competition between the two organizations. We have had a very positive working experience between the two organizations and in the past GVO has graciously lent some of their equipment, and there are some players who play in both orchestras. If I can make a general statement, I would say that competition is created by people and not by organizations. The two orchestras serve different communities and have different aspirations and specific goals. It makes more sense to work together to bring more music to New York’s diverse and wonderful neighborhoods than to think of ourselves as in competition.

LC: To what degree, if at all, do you have to throw a switch, transition from one work or one era to another? I’ve seen you conduct Tschaikovsky, you just conducted a massive symphonic poem for choir and orchestra, Mario Jazzetti’s The Profile, the Life, and the Faith Across the Notes at Avery Fisher Hall. Now you’re moving to the Shostakovich Symphony No. 9. Both of those pieces have a triumphant sensibility, on the surface at least: does this make the shift easier for you?

YS: Conductors these days are expected to do the impossible and to have a command of all types of repertoire, styles, time periods, etcetera. A single concert might typically juxtapose a world premiere with a classical warhorse. Basically we have to be able to switch gears on a dime. I think if anything makes shifting between pieces easier, it is the quality of the music that makes the difference. When there is music that we love to perform, it doesn’t matter when it was written.

LC: Many listeners hear considerable sarcasm along with triumph in the Shostakovich. Do you agree?

YS: For sure. It is very important to listen to this piece in the context for which it was written. At the end of World War II, the Soviets, Stalin especially, expected a triumphant Ninth Symphony from their country’s leading composer, Shostakovich, along the lines of Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead, he gave them this 30-minute chamber symphony full of wit, humor, and sarcasm. Every seeming development towards a climax dissipates before it fully materializes. The symphony has a witty scherzo and an enormous faux-serious and plaintive bassoon solo which negates the weightiness of the low brass (the fourth movement). Finally in the last movement Shostakovich gives us what seems to be a true military march and perhaps the final triumph, but that two disappears into a childlike “nyah nyah” moment.

LC: Is there something in this work – a message, an emotional resonance maybe – that you hope send listeners home with?

YS: Perhaps Shostakovich was trying to point out the folly of war, perhaps he was just sticking it to the authorities… I think the message is clear from Shostakovich. He stayed true to his artistic integrity regardless of what was expected of him from an authority he didn’t believe in. It is important for all of us, even when faced with tremendous calamities, to remember that we have our own voices.

LC: Have you ever conducted the GVO before? If so, you’re in for a treat…

YS: Yes, I have. I was their assistant conductor when I lived in New York. I got to work with them a lot in rehearsal and conducted several pieces in performance. The last time I conducted them was Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals, and Barbara Yahr played the piano part.

LC: Any other questions I should be asking?

YS: I met my wife through the GVO. She was playing flute and piccolo in the orchestra as a grad student, and I was called to sub for Barbara for a rehearsal. Joanna and I hit it off and started dating a few weeks later. I ended up becoming the assistant conductor of the orchestra, she ended up serving on the board, and we are about to celebrate our two-year anniversary!

May 13, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conductor Farkhad Khudyev Shares His Raison D’Etre

This coming Sunday, March 25, highly regarded up-and-coming conductor Farkhad Khudyev leads the Greenwich Village Orchestra in a 3 PM performance of Kachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Violin Concerto, and the Brahms Symphony No. 3. It looks to be an auspicious connection between like-minded, energetically-inclined purists. A child prodigy on the violin in his native Turkmenistan, Khudyev is Azeri by descent, educated at Interlochen, Oberlin and Yale, and has conducted several orchestras in central Asia and the United States. A thoughtful and passionately honest advocate for the music he performs, Khudyev took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about the concert:

Lucid Culture: Audiences often wonder how orchestras and conductors come together. How did this gig happen? Did you find the GVO or did they find you?

Farkhad Khudyev: Barbara Yahr [the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s conductor] contacted me after looking at my video materials, we met for a cup of coffee and had a lovely time talking about music and the conducting world.

LC: You come from an interesting background as an awardwinning young concert violinist – which was your ticket to a scholarship at Interlochen, the Juilliard of the midwest. How did you get involved with conducting? Has this always been an interest for you?

FK: Conducting has always been something incredibly special to me. I remember when I was studying violin and composition back at Interlochen, the desire to conduct was already coming to me then. Through this mystical and beautiful art I felt I could communicate the best that great artists have given us, while simultaneously bringing my own inner world into the music.

LC: Does conducting get in the way of the violin for you, or vice versa? Which do you prefer – or does it really matter to you?

FK: I try to find time for the violin as much as I can. Currently Australian pianist Stephen Whale and I have been performing as a duo, Duo Fondamento, where we try to bring out a fundamental approach to our interpretation of Beethoven, Brahms, as well as various other sonatas in our repertoire. I also often play with my two brothers, violinist Eldar Khudyev and clarinetist Emil Khudyev, who are fantastic musicians. We’ve done critically acclaimed concerts together at several venues throughout the world as the Khudyev Brothers. Conducting, playing the violin and composing are all closely related, I feel, and all three of these great art forms help me communicate what I have to say through music.

LC: You’re also a composer. How has does that inform your view of how to conduct an orchestra?

FK: Composing has helped me to understand instrumentation, orchestration and most of all I learned how to compose all the great works of great composers for myself again. In other words, I learned to rediscover music that I conduct and bring some fresh air into these great works.

LC: You’ve led a very diverse list of orchestras, from your native Turkmenistan, to Russia, to the USA. As a guest conductor, what’s the main challenge for you?

FK: As guest conductor, it is a challenge to bring all the musicians together and let them trust your own inner world. Once musicians see the truth and depth in your work, trust comes very quickly. I find that first rehearsal is very important. My goal is to inspire every musician in the orchestra so we all have a great experience working together and most importantly a meaningful performance. The GVO is a wonderful orchestra with such friendly and warm musicians. This month has been a great experience for me.

LC: To what degree can a conductor breathe new life into well-known works like these without completely twisting them out of shape – or should a conductor attempt such at thing at all?

FK: I think that a conductor can only attempt to breathe new life into these great works once the music has lived with him or her for a long time. The point where the music speaks through a conductor is the right time to attempt to bring it to life. These works are full of inner depth, and they require time and experience to be able to understand, and to breathe new life into them.

LC: I think you’re going to find this orchestra a joy to work with. Is there anything special that audiences should look forward to on the 25th?

FK: Since I am ethnically Azeri, from Turkmenistan, it’s very special for me to conduct Kachaturian’s music – its traits are similar to the culture I grew up in. This music is full of strength as well as ethereal warmth and softness. These two extreme sonic aspects are culturally meaningful in the Caucasus. Brahms’ Third Symphony is a great example of an artist’s love of freedom and longing for it, despite life’s bitter hardships. Brahms cherishes all kinds of wonderful memories with great tenderness throughout the symphony, immortalizing them in the music.

LC: Are you sick to death of getting tagged with the wunderkind thing, you know, “young conductor?” I mean, you’re in your twenties now, you’ve graduated from conservatory. Can we simply count you among your peers in the conducting world now? Is that what you’ve worked toward all along?

FK: Music is my life and it gives me a chance to express everything I have in my heart which I am strongly thankful for. Therefore I have never taken the “wunderkind thing” seriously, since it does not mean much to me. I know that as long as I live I will try to give everything to this divine gift. Music grants strength, sincerity, purity and joy to humanity, which is so essential in our world.

Farkhad Khudyev leads the Greenwich Village Orchestra in a performance of Kachaturian’s Sabre Dance, Violin Concerto and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, Irving Place and 16th St. in Manhattan at 3 PM on Sunday, March 25, $15 sugg. don., reception to follow.

March 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment