Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Tschaikovsky for a Winter Afternoon

If you’re considering a splurge on the post-Thanksgiving, 2 PM Nov 30 matinee performance of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 by the NY Philharmonic, it’s probably a good idea. Music Director Jaap Van Zweden is back, and he and the orchestra excel with Rachmaninoff, so this also could be sublime. Tix are pricy: $34 will get you in. The Mozart Wind Serenade in E flat might seem like an odd piece to start the show, but Van Zweden has a knack for making sense of seemingly bizarre segues.

And if you’re looking for a way to warm up for the concert, there’s an excellent, characteristically epic new recording of Tschaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 just out from the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev and streaming at Spotify. Make no mistake about it, this is heavy music: Swan Lake it is not, although it also isn’t completely dark.

The delicately brooding bassoon-and-strings lament that bookends the first movement’s stern, angst-fueled waltz and blustery, swirling crescendos will be a recurrent trope. Likewise, Gergiev and the ensemble stay low to the ground in the grimly murky atmospherics that wind up the first movement, and the melancholy horn melody that opens the second. Mournful bassoon and clarinet eventually rise warily, but not that far. When the plucky basses introduce a secondary theme, that’s a big message, foreshadowing a sudden jolt from nocturnal contentment to sheer horror.

The lickety-split counterpoint of the third movement is downright furtive, and closure doesn’t quite happen with the relative calm of the waltz afterward. For that we have to wait til the triumphant lustre and unexpected, jovial majesty of the finale. And ultimately, it’s too pat: happiness just busting through the clouds without the slightest warning?

So the album’s piece de resistance is the gloomy cumulo-nimbus Russian gothic Symphony No. 4, the album’s opening number. The obvious model is Beethoven’s Fifth, and there are riffs everywhere that Rachmaninoff nicked and took to their logical conclusions with his Second Symphony. The angst police show up with a fanfare; strings sweep down like a flock of vultures, relentlessly; that bassoon and clarinet again!

Momentary cheer gets strutted off to trial or shadowed by a stalker or three. Desolation on some barren steppe gets maximum grandeur. What another orchestra might do as a ballet all the way through, this group introduce as phantasmagoria. Gergiev and the orchestra finally reach Eldorado in the rapidfire overture of the finale, filling the sonic picture, floor to ceiling: they get this troubled masterpiece.

November 22, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic Premiere David Lang’s Chillingly Relevant New Opera

David Lang has more contempt for a police state than he does for capital letters. That’s a lot. A sold-out audience last night were treated to the New York Philharmonic‘s world premiere of his sometimes allusively haunting, sometimes horrifyingly realistic new opera “enemy of the state” [all lowercase, as is the style throughout his catalog]. It’s easy to read Lang’s new take on the theme Beethoven followed in his lone opera, Fidelio, as a Julian Assange parable. Although with the iconic Wikileaks founder reportedly near death from mysterious causes in a British prison, he doesn’t seem to have anyone as willing amd able to spring him as the central prisoner’s wife is in Lang’s new magnum opus. It’s an important work for our time: $34 tickets are still available for tonight and tomorrow night’s 8 PM performances. You should see it.

Lang has always been an anomaly, a brilliant tunesmith in a field too often dominated by both pigheaded obscurantism and twee amateurishness. The music of this new work (Lang also wrote the lyrics) resembles the Hindustani-influenced art-rock of singer Peter Gabriel, the late 70s recordings of the rock band King Crimson at their most purposeful, and the anthemic, artsy side of 80s new wave, more than it recalls Beethoven. Strings and percussion dominate throughout. Late in the narrative, a trumpeter perched on one of the balconies will sound a particularly sardonic variation on an already cynical fanfare. The sheer gorgeousness of the vocal overlays and harmonies of singers Julie Mathevet, Eric Owens and Alan Oke offer cruelly sarcastic contrast with a relentlessly grim, profoundly philosophical narrative that quotes Arendt and Macchiavelli and coldly references Bentham on what the ideal prison should be.

How did maestro Jaap van Zweden tackle the music? Bouncing on his heels as he pulled subtle variations on Lang’s tersely expanding, cellular, Glass-ine themes from the orchestra, he validated every claim about his dedication to new music. Lang’s metrics are challenging, to say the least, and the conductor had those rhythms in his pocket. He was having as much fun as anyone can have leading an orchestra, choir and soloists through the story of a potentially averted execution (you will not find out here how it ends).

The acting is as strong as the singing. Mathevet’s tantalizingly brief flights upward are matched by a resolute presence (as in Fidelio, we are expected to believe that in costume she can pass for a boy, a real stretch). Owens is almost as imperturbable as a would-be Eichmann, just doing his job, but not 100% completely devoid of humanity. Oke, as prison honcho, exudes pure evil as coldblooded sociopath and executioner.

We never even get to see the titular Prisoner, played with depleted, almost-out-of-gas determination by Jarrett Ott, until the third movement. Nor do we ever learn why he’s behind bars – although, as the Jailer avers, he probably has powerful enemies. The difference between life behind bars and outside, as the Prisoner puts it, is that inside, you can see the bars. In this Hobbesian terror state, ruled by greed, corruption and (allusively) Instagram, the jailers are as much prisoners as those they watch over. And somebody’s always watching.

Behind the scenes, Donald Nally matched van Zweden for mastery of uncanny rhythms, leading the orange-clad prisoner choir personfiied by the many men of the Concert Chorale of New York. Elkhannah Pulitzer’s direction sets the stage aptly, with imaginative use of projections and a Guantanamo-like set. When van Zweden emerged from an unexpected entry point, he set off the lone flicker of laughter in this otherwise chillingly relevant retelling of an all-too-familiar story.;

June 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jaap van Zweden Shares His Optimism for Women Composers and New Music at Lincoln Center

Beginning in the fall of this year, the New York Philharmonic will be celebrating a century of women in this country having the right to vote. The orchestra’s upcoming Project 19 series. built around works by nineteen contemporary female composers, features an intriguing list including but not limited to Sarah Kirkland Snider, Joan LaBarbara and Paola Prestini. Last night at Lincoln Center, in a conversation with Philharmonic President Deborah Borda, Musical Director Jaap van Zweden enthused about the advantages of working with them. “We can come close, but we can never know what Brahms wanted,” he mused. But engaging with a composer willing to tweak the music to make it more orchestra-friendly pays big dividends, he reminded.

Anybody who doubts van Zweden’s commitment to new music “Didn’t research enough about my past,” he chuckled. In his tenure with the Dallas Symphony, he earned a reputation for programming old Germanic warhorses. “We had to fill the hall,” he groused. “Whenever I had to do a contemporary piece, I had to fight for it.”

Those battles began after the 2008 market crash and continued, and he made no secret how happy he is that these battles are over. Van Zweden comes with the reputation for being a very straight shooter, a rarity in a world that so often stands on ceremony and where candor can get you in a lot of trouble. Mozart in the Jungle may be a stupid soap opera, but the intrigue is real.

Van Zweden’s advocacy for living composers dates back to his days leading the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. With weekly broadcasts, there was a constant need for new material: standard repertoire from centuries past runs out fast.

Borda confided that the Philharmonic had never played a piece by Philip Glass until van Zweden came aboard – an acknowledgment that was as painful as it should have been. And both she and van Zweden whooped it up – well, kind of whooped it up – about how last month’s performances of Julia Wolfe’s epic, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire-themed cantata sold out so quickly.

In her tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Borda landed Gustavo Dudamel, and she seems to have similar faith in van Zweden. Like Dudamel, he comes across as more of a bon vivant than obsessive music geek. “Sing with your brain, think with your heart,” seems to be his guiding principle, a mantra he shared with a somewhat starstruck music student in the crowd. That would make sense, considering that van Zweden was inspired to take up the violin after being present at his pianist father’s many jams with fiddlers who dazzled him with their Hungarian Romany songs.

Asked how the orchestra’s programming is conceived, he made no secret of how it’s a group effort, and that “there are requests.” Nonetheless, the orchestra members are consulted and number among those putting in requests, he assured.

In about an hour worth of banter and then audience Q&A, van Zweden also touched on the legacy of Gustav Mahler, his distant predecessor as Musical Director at the Philharmonic, whose work will be feted both here and in Holland next year. He and Borda reassured the crowd that the imminent replacement for the former Avery Fisher Hall would be built to accommodate the Philharmonic’s schedule, not the other way around, “Because we don’t want to lose you.” And he beamed about the orchestra’s upcoming Phil the Hall program next month, a series of hourlong concerts with five-dollar tickets, which were first offered to New York City first responders. These shows aren’t just pops fluff either: there’s Beethoven, and Bernstein, and even Steven Stucky on the bill.

The next classical music event at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on April 18 at 7:30 PM with the Castalian String Quartet playing works by Britten and Schubert. These free shows fill up fast; getting to the space early is always a good idea.

March 21, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic Bring Epic Relevance to a Grim, Pivotal Moment in New York History

Has there ever been such a massive, grimly determined crowd of musicians onstage – and in the aisles – as there were at Lincoln Center last night for the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth? For an especially lavish production of Beethoven’s Ninth, conceivably. But even in that case maestro Jaap van Zweden wouldn’t have had to signal four separate choirs behind his back while facing the orchestra and choirs in front of him.

That he and the ensembles could keep the composer’s maze of insistent counterpoint so steady and seamless speaks to a genuinely epic commitment to do justice to Wolfe’s theme: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its 146 victims. The title of the piece is actually a quote from labor organizer Clara Lemlich, referring to her passion for battling factory owners’ private gestapos in her early days as an advocate for worker’s rights. In an era where working people around the world are facing Industrial Revolution conditions, and amazon.com employees in the UK forego bathroom breaks for fear of being fired, the legacy of the most deadly calamity on New York soil prior to 9/11 has more relevance than ever.

Wolfe has made a career of writing impactful, historically rich work. To be clear, this isn’t her most harrowing composition: that would probably be her utterly macabre string orchestra piece, Cruel Sister. This latest extravaganza follows the insistently rhythmic, towering, Pulitzer Prize-winning intensity of her oratorio Anthracite Fields. Both are unflinching and relentless: the lives of early 1900s New York sweatshop employees and Pennsylvania coal miners are cruelly similar.

As theatre, this performance was immersively effective: there’s no escaping the angst of these exploited women, in their matching smocks, when they’re singing in unison right next to you. Choral ensemble the Crossing remained onstage while several subsets of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City migrated matter-of-factly from station to station. Dead center amid the maelstrom, van Zweden remained a calm guide through what was often a hailstorm of beats. One of Wolfe’s favorite tropes is to shake up the music with all sorts of rhythmic complexity when a melody is more or less horizontal, and she does that a lot here. The result, tight as a drum, was impressive to say the least.

The introduction took awhile, requiring some patience from the audience before the massed groups gathered steam. “Crushing poverty” became a vivid motif amid a constant, flitting interchange of voices as a transatlantic immigrant’s tale finally offered foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. The interpolation of a plaintive Yiddish song and a phantasmagorical tarantella – most of the fire victims were either Eastern European Jewish or Italian immigrants – was stunningly executed.

Sharply menacing sheet metal shears are a new addition to the world’s symphonic instruments: the choirs were choreographed to employ them to snap out a rhythm attesting to the dangers and mind-numbing repetition inherent to sweatshop labor. Likewise, the way the singers hammered on the word “want” over and over again, a bit later on, resonated on every conceivable level. The coda to this all-too-familiar tale turned out to be more dynamic, and longer, than expected, ending with a kaleidoscopically arranged incantation of the victims’ names.

The first half of the program underscored the difference between decent music direction and genuine brilliance. Maybe it was just a stroke of fate van Zweden had been on the podium for the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s oratorio, August 4, 1964, but making a segue with Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra was as perfect as it was counterintuitive. The instrumental Elegy from Stucky’s suite, and the first part of Copland’s would-be diptych share eerie Twin Peaks vamps and variations, and also jazz influences: crepuscular Gil Evans-like lustre in the former, jaunty faux dixieland in the latter. Clarinetist Anthony McGill matched coyness to muscle while van Zweden couldn’t resist shaking a tail feather, a chance to blow off steam before reality returned with a vengeance in the second half of the program.

There’s a final performance tonight, Jan 26 at 8 PM. Although last night appeared to be pretty much sold out, tickets are available as of this writing (Saturday, 11 AM); at yesterday’s show, the box office was doing brisk business right up til curtain time. This is an important moment in New York history: you should see it.

January 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment