Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Timeless Relevance and Challenging Sounds from Ensemble Pi

It’s always a good sign when a challenging ensemble sells out the room; it’s even better when the program is important on more than just a musical level. Such was the case last night at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea where Ensemble Pi put on their annual peace concert. It was fun, and entertaining…and politically charged. The theme, What Must Be Said turned out to be a Gunter Grass quote, read in its entirety in the original German, the gist being that Israel ought to be subject to the same nuclear inspections as Iran. To which should be added, every nation possessing weapons, or power plants, of mass destruction let’s not forget what happened on 3/11.

That was the politics. The music addressed the global struggle for freedom, sometimes acerbically, sometimes gnomically, sometimes in between those extremes. Pianist Idith Meshulam and violinist Airi Yoshioka opened the evening with Susan Botti’s Lament: The Fallen City, a reflection on areas fallen victim to natural or manmade disasters.The violin played droning microtones against the center as the piano melody began still and built from there: in the early going, it reminded of Kayhan Kalhor’s horror-stricken Silent City. From there the duo took it to an agitation that eventally turned into a sort of ragtime disguised with twelve-tone harmonies, jaunty Americana on a knife’s edge.

Three songs by Kristin Norderval followed, from a forthcoming opera based on the life of architect and human rights crusader Patricia Isasa. In her native Argentina, “disappear” can be a transitive verb; Isasa was one of the few who returned after having been “disappeared” during the pre-1983 dictatorship’s reign of terror. Soprano Emily Donato gave dignity – and a viscerally thrilling crescendo – to Isasa’s teenage dreams of building a new city, conducted with tango-tinged verve by Eduardo Leandro, the piano and violin joined by Isabel Castellvi on cello, Cristian Amigo on guitar, Daniel Binelli on bandoneon and Kevin Norton on an army of percussion instruments. Daniel Pincus sang a sarcastic, faux-martial number from the point of view of the judge who sent Isasa away – and who later got sent away for doing that. The composer then sang an irony-drenched, shapeshifting, microtonally-infused number whose most powerful lyrics unfortunately got lost in upper-register pyrotechnics. Since the opera is a work in progress, it makes sense to say that – audiences need to hear a song’s most resonant line, don’t they?

Meshulam then backed a wry and vividly relevant puppet show, performed by the troupe Great Small Works, based on the life of composer Hanns Eisler, who was deported from the US during the McCarthy era. Titled Eisler on the Go after the song that Woody Guthrie had written about him, it underscored the continued relevance of Eisler’s artfully corrosive songs written with Kurt Weill, three of which were sung by Norderval. Just the icepick precision of Meshulam’s menacingly altered boogie-woogie lefthand in the mordant Supply and Demand made the concert worthwhile (for those who missed last night’s show, they’re doing it again tonight).

The evening closed with a couple of piano miniatures, one with a creepy, Satie-esque minimalism, and then the first movement from Eisler’s Sonata No. 3, which heavily referenced the energetic otherworldliness of Eisler’s teacher Arthur Schoenberg. In the worlds of serious music, especially indie classical, self-absorption can get out of hand. So it was refreshing, often to the extreme, to see a show like this one.

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November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jay Vilnai’s Shakespeare Songs: Dark Otherworldly Intensity

Jay Vilnai may be best known as an eclectic, intense guitarist and connoisseur of gypsy music. He’s also a formidable composer, most recently reaffirmed by his new collection, Shakespeare Songs, a setting of six Shakespeare texts sung with counterintuitive relish by soprano Gelsey Bell over the often downright creepy strings of the Mivos String Trio. Much of this is sort of a missing link between Rasputina and Bernard Herrmann.

The Mourning Song from Cymbeline matches an austerely aching string melody to soulfully apprehensive vocals. Set to a stately, insistent rhythm, it’s a brooding reflection on mortality, with just enough bracing atonality to give the dirge a genuinely creepy otherworldliness. The second cut, To Dream Again is a vignette anchored by stark lo/hi contrast between cello and violin. Sigh No More (from Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 2), a slow waltz fueled by pizzicato cello, has Bell adding a strikingly melismatic, soul-inflected quality: she gets the max out of her occasional flights as it builds with understated counterpoint and hints at vaudeville. Rather than “converting all your sounds of woe,” as the Bard suggests, the song plays up the pain of the past, with a deliciously creepy outro.

There’s also a wry humor here, particularly in Behind the Door (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1), its clever mimicry, ghostly ambience and ethereal overtones making a marvelously nocturnal backdrop for the ghoulish lyric:

Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide

It it grows to a march with clever counterpoint and a deadpan horror-movie conclusion. Likewise, I Have Drunk and Seen the Spider, from The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene 1 – a Melora Creager-esque spoken-word piece – playfully looks at the power of suggestion. The final track is an operatic take on the old folk song Hey Ho the Wind and the Rain, its shifting astringencies making a marvelously menacing contrast with the blitheness of the melody. The musicianship is understated, with nuanced dynamics by the entire ensemble: Joshua Modney on violin, Victor Lowrie on viola and Isabel Castellvi (also of exhilirating worldbeat string band Copal) on cello. Throughout the songs, Vilnai’s arrangements are strikingly terse and economical, not to mention memorable – indie classical doesn’t get any better than this.

January 14, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment