Pianist/composer Ayumi Okada writes vivid, cinematic songs without words. Her music is full of stories, and humor, and unselfconscious depth. Much as her sense of melody is appealingly consonant, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a neoromantic: she’s most at home in the borderlands with Debussy and Ravel. A composer-performer, she’s premiering a new piano quintet with a first-class chamber ensemble including star cellist James Waldo on March 10 at 7:30 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 20 Cumming St. in Washington Heights. The group will also play music of Dvorak, Bach, Johann Goldberg, Caroline Shaw and Doug Balliett; admission is $15/$10 stud. Take the 1 train to Dyckman St.
Okada’s debut album is Here, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins – streaming at Spotify – a beguiling mix of chamber works. It opens with Okada’s String Quartet No. 1 a steady, bittersweetly theme with echoes of Dvorak and baroque-inflected counterpoint that gives way to a stormily dancing pulse which she elegantly ends up bringing full circle. There’s an arthouse film with a philosophical poignancy that needs this for when the main titles roll, a strongly voiced performance by Waldo, violinists Karen Dekker and Meredith Ezinma Ramsay and violist Rose Hashimoto.
The second work, Cape Roca has a similarly picturesque sweep, Waldo’s austere lines against resonant glimmer and then gracefully ornamented neoromanticism from pianist Alyona Aksyonova. The miniature A Walk in the Park is a showcase for Okada’s playful sense of humor, Aksyonova’s devious leaps and bounds in tandem with peek-a-boo clarinet from Yumi Ito bookending a momentary cloud passing across the sky.
Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the standard orchestration of piano, violin and cello hints at chromatic Shostakovian menace in between stately Piazzolla-esque passages and hints of late Romanticism. The album concludes with a triptych, the Light Princess Suite. Aksyonova plays a majestically enigmatic, emphatically waltzing theme over Waldo’s austere washes in the first movement. The second, where the rest of the strings join in, is awash in moody high/low, still/kinetic contrasts in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s more airy chamber works. Once again, Waldo’s starkness grounds the piano’s dancing, Debussyesque figures as the suite winds out, artfully shifting meters. It’s Okada at her most colorful and picturesque: this intrepidly dancing creature takes a lot of detours, but she can’t be stopped.
“This is very intense music in general,” violinist Monica Huggett remarked before the concluding piece on a whirlwind program last night by the newly formed Salon/Sanctuary Chamber Orchestra in the quaintly historic, sonically indulgent Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium in Yorkville. Huggett wasn’t kidding. She’d been thinking out loud about how much angrier and stormier J.S. Bach’s earlier works were, by comparison to his later repertoire. “He expressed himself in very direct ways. Let’s hear it for the young Bach!”
Then she led the spirited, poised ensemble – also comprising violinists Karen Dekker and Dongmyun Ahn, violist Dan McCarthy, cellist James Waldo, bassist Dara Bloom and harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire – through the terse, angst-infused exchanges of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. It didn’t have quite the level of intricacy and interplay of some of the other, later material on the evening’s all-Bach program, but it gave the ensemble a launching pad for vivid, fleetingly incisive exchanges replete with unexpected metrical shifts and what Huggett aptly termed “blue notes.”
Waldo got the night off to a strong start with a nuanced, richly ambered take of the Suite for Solo Cello in G Major, BWV 1007. This is the most famous one: you probably know it from a million movies, commercials and NPR promos. Playing from memory, eyes closed, Waldo let the music breathe while he stayed true to the composer’s steady, circling pace.
Bach’s Sonata for Obbligato Harpsichord and Violin in A Major, BWV 1015, as Brookshire’s insightful progarm notes explained, probably dated from the composer’s Leipzig years, when he was as much an impresario as composer, feeling his big family booking shows all over town. In the hands of the ensemble, this piece for awhile brought to mind images of a comfortable one-percenter salon milieu, but quickly took a turn in a much darker direction as the musicians shadowed each other, following a long, minutely jeweled sequence of tradeoffs through to its somewhat calmer, stately conclusion.
The centerpiece of the show was Brookshire’s breathtaking performance of the lightning volleys of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903. It’s rare enough to hear on harpsichord rather than piano or church organ, rarer still to hear the instrument whir, and resonate, and sing as Brookshire made it do. There’s a diabolical character to a lot of it, and although Brookshire barely broke a smile, it was obvious that he was savoring its searing cascades, ripples and charges up and down the keys. One thing the program notes didn’t mention was how fond a nod this piece gives to the darkest side of Dietrich Buxtehude, Bach’s pioneering mentor and main influence. The performance was enough to make what seemed like at least half of the sold-out crowd make their way to the front of the hall at intermission to get a close look at the harpsichord, as Brookshire calmly peered inside and made a few adjustments in the wake of the storm he’d just unleashed from it.
Salon/Sanctuary Concerts have earned themselves a substantial following for their adventurous programming; their performances last year with soprano and impresario Jessica Gould, showcasing haunting Italian Jewish music by Salamone Rossi juxtaposed with works by his Christian contemporaries, were rich, and haunting, and got them a lot of press. Their next concert is December 10 at 8 PM with Hopkinson Smith playing moody lute music from Tudor England by John Dowland, William Byrd and the lesser-known John Johnson and Anthony Holborne, also at Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium; general admission is $35/$25 stud/srs.
One of the unfortunate repercussions of the 12-tone revolution is that narrative often ended up taking a backseat to structure. For a composer, the decision to deliberately avoid any kind of melodic consonance makes it considerably more difficult to create a portrait or relate a story other than “life is painful and chaotic.” True as that may be, it’s only part of the picture. That’s where composers like Ayumi Okada come in. Saturday, as part of the up-and-coming Listen Closely chamber music series in Inwood, Okada’s vivid, painterly neoromantic compositions and their influences got a meticulous, detailed workout via a series of group and solo performances. Cellist/impresario James Waldo paired a matter-of-fact take on the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor with Okada’s naturalistic tableau In the Ancient Forest, the woods bursting into life with playful activity, making a memorable dichotomy with the piece’s rapt, underlying ambience. Flute virtuoso David Ordovsky followed a colorful, wryly entertaining take on Debussy’s Syrinx for Solo Flute with Okada’s 2010 partita Daydreams for Solo Flute. Utilizing the entirety of the instrument’s register, Ordovsky worked the same kind of lively/still contrasts as the cello piece, moody suspense giving way to catchy, animated motives that reminded of the work of Robert Paterson.
But the most gripping pieces on the bill involved multiple instruments. Waldo described Okada as someone whose music manages to be both “tonal, but fresh and new,” and he’s right on the money. An all-too-brief single-movement String Quartet No. 1 , from 2009, blended a poignant sense of longing into stately baroque counterpoint, shifted to an animated, suspensefully bustling atmosphere and then a warmly dreamy song without words. Violinists Yijia Zhang and Jacqueline Jove joined Waldo and violist Rose Hashimoto for a precise yet lush interpretation.
The other real stunner on the bill was Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, Waldo and Zhang teaming up with pianist Alyona Aksyonova. Uncluttered and brightly lyrical, it was the only work on the bill where the Kyoto-born Okada referenced any Asian tonalities, and even here she cached them within a thicket of western chromatics. Graceful exchanges of voices throughout a strong, cinematic theme led to marvelously stilletto, spacious piano motives, a quick upward sweep and a sudden ending. All together, this was a tantalizing introduction to a composer whose distinctive, colorful voice is making a strong contribution to new music in New York.
As a bonus, it turns out that Hashimoto has a side gig as a pastry chef. Her hand-dipped chocolate cookies are delicious.