Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Raptly Thematic Lincoln Center Concert by All-Star Choir Cantus

One of Minnesota-based all-male choir Cantus‘ signature traits is theme programs. As one concertgoer put it, they can get a lot wilder than they were Sunday at Lincoln Center. Then again, this program was part of the spiritually-themed White Light Festival, continuing here through November 11. There are plenty of groups who mine the standard Renaissance repertoire, some who specialize in rediscovering treasures from that era, but Cantus are just as likely to juxtapose the ancient with the most current and make it all flow together seamlessly, and in that respect this was a characteristic performance.

They began with a precise, pulsing, even bouncy take of a twelfth century Perotinus piece, then a more traditional, somberly contemplative one by Josquin Des Prez. With its intricately echoing counterpoint, Randall Tompson’s 1940 Alleluia made a good segue, especially when the group hit an unexpectedly celebratory peak right before the end. In a way, it brought the early part of the concert full circle.

Jumping ahead sixty years to a lush, ambered take of Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled Lux Aurumque, they followed that with a bucolic 1942 nocturne by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven. Negotiating the tricky metrics, sudden dynamic shifts and otherworldly close harmonies of a diptych by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was no easy task, but the group made it look almost easy. In a choir, the individuals on the low and the top end always end up standing out, and this group was no exception, basses Chris Foss and Samuel Green paired against tenors Paul John Rudoi, Shahzore Shah, Aaron Humble and Blake Morgan. But the midrange benefited especially from the efforts of tenor Zachary Colby and baritone Matthew Goinz; Matthew Tintes, in particular, showed off an unexpectedly far-reaching range for a baritone.

From there they moved through brief works celebrating the comfort of home, or home country, via works by Sibelius, Dvorak, Janacek and Kodaly – the latter being the Hungarian national song, more or less, awash in a warmly consonant harmony that hardly seemed possible, from someone with such a thorny repertoire. It was music to get lost in. The group closed on a much more acerbic note, maybe as to draw the crowd out of their dream state, with a 2006 diptych by Edie Hill and encored by going deep into the 19th century hymnal. Cantus’ current tour continues onward: the next stop along the way is November 13 at 7 PM at Central Christian Center, 5th & Virginia in Joplin, Missouri.

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November 4, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz Connect the Unexpected

If you listen to NPR or watch PBS, this is old news, so here’s to all of you who’ve made the switch from the small screen to an even smaller one and might not have noticed that pianist Christopher O’Riley and adventurous cello virtuoso Matt Haimovitz have a new album out. It’s titled Shuffle. Play. Listen., and they’ll be touring it next year, with a stop at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Jan 22. Pianist O’Riley, host of the NPR/PBS program From the Top, is no stranger to making neoromantic instrumental albums out of rock and pop songs: this double cd makes three in a row. It’s a lively and often exquisitely good duo performance, simply the best thing O’Riley’s ever put his hands on.

To succeed with a music show, you ought to know something about connections, which is what the first cd is all about. Who knew how much Bernard Herrmann’s classic soundtrack to the equally classic Hitchcock film Vertigo had in common with works by Stravinsky, Janacek or Martinu? This guy, obviously. To make those commonalities crystal-clear, imaginatively potent new arrangements of parts of the Herrmann score are interwoven between the other pieces, a concept that might seem preposterous but works brilliantly. Haimovitz gets most if not all of the juiciest parts, perhaps logically since Herrmann’s score was heavy on the strings, and also because O’Riley has the good sense to stay within himself. His playing is distinguished by smartly thought-out dynamics, pacing and elegantly terse embellishments rather than pyrotechnics.

The first cd opens on a deliciously macabre note with Prelude from the Vertigo Suite, done here as a creepy waltz with artful, unexpected cello/piano overlays. The duo follow that with Leos Janacek’s Fairy Tale, which follows a similar trajectory: after the minimalistic first movement (with some striking, Kayhan Kalhor-style echo effects from Haimovitz), it grows more wary and winds up with an understated menace. The nightmare scene from Vertigo follows, impressively understated with its agitated cello flurries. Martinu’s Variations on a Slavic Folk Song makes an unexpected but rock-solid segue, growing from stark to forceful, with a suspenseful edge very similar to Herrmann’s.

They segue back to the Vertigo Suite for the hypnotic Carlotta’s Portrait, then take a detour for a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, its highlights being the sad waltz that precedes the dynamically-charged, surprisingly quiet Aria and then the Tarantella, which pushes the limits of how far and how fast O’Riley can go. The Scotty Tracks Madeline scene from the film gorgeously juxtaposes longing with blitheness and a rapt upper-register duo between Haimovitz – who can get tones out of his cello that no one else can – and O’Riley. From there, a spirited take on Piazzolla’s Grand Tango – with each instrumentalist assigned to cover a little of the ground that Piazzolla’s bandoneon did on the original – is spot-on. The disc concludes with the thinly disguised, mournful minuet that serves as the film’s love theme.

The second cd reverts to the random vibe of O’Riley’s two other classical-rock piano albums, with generally good results. There’s a marvelously successful instrumental version of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, right down to the cello winkingly spinning off a fade or a psychedelic riff straight off the record as O’Reilly rubatos the piano with just the right touch of suspenseful anticipation. And that band’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi gets a graceful, circular indie classical treatment, focusing on its subtle counterpoint, as does the almost unrecognizable version of A Perfect Circle’s Three Libras. A couple of Cocteau Twins tunes reach for a slightly less hypnotic atmosphere than the originals, while two Blonde Redhead tunes – Misery Is a Butterfly and Melody – run richly memorable hooks over and over for an approach that builds toward grand guignol. There are also two John McLaughlin compositions here – Dance of Maya, whose austere acidicism doesn’t stop it from matching up well with Herrmann as it morphs into a bitterly bluesy minor-key romp, and A Lotus in the Back Seat, done as Ravel might have orchestrated it.

Another Cocteau Twins track, the lightweight Heaven or Las Vegas, isn’t as well-suited to this kind of serioso treatment as the other tracks are, and the derivative faux-baroquisms of the first movement of the Stravinsky make for two minutes of what-are-we-doing-here. And as far as the two Arcade Fire covers here are concerned, the two players take an energetic stab at elevating them to Herrmann-ish grandeur, but ultimately, garbage in, garbage out: Arcade Fire is a boring band. But those are only small complaints about an otherwise mammothly successful effort. O’Riley also has a very cool, gospel-flavored free download available, Time of My Time inspired by Kris Saknussemm’s recent novel Reverend America.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

ECCO Resounds Intensely on the Upper West Side

Lately we’ve been scoping out little-known neighborhood enclaves for first-class live music. Music Mondays is not one of them. Despite temperatures in the teens last night, the church at 93rd St. and Broadway quickly filled to standing-room capacity, testament to the popularity and vitality of this ongoing monthly series. Sixteen-piece string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, a.k.a. ECCO rewarded the house full of brave souls with a genuinely transcendent, unflinchingly direct, rawly emotional performance.

The conductorless group opened with a warmly nocturnal take of Janacek’s Suite for String Orchestra. Within its comfortably glimmering cantabile and cirrus-cloud atmospherics, they focused on wistfulness and wariness, notably in the song without words that comprises its first adagio movement, and the searching overture that brought it up to end on a hopeful note. They followed with a performance of Shostakovich’s Sinfonia, Op. 110, based on his String Quartet No. 8, which literally stunned the crowd. Composed three years after his elegaic Eleventh Symphony, like so much of Shostakovich’s post-Stalin era work, it’s a requiem. From the quietly stumbling anguish of the opening solo violin figure, the ensemble left no doubt as to how harrowing this would get, as much a homage to those who managed to survive Stalin’s years of terror as to those who didn’t. Like the Eleventh Symphony, its opening funeral scene is interrupted by a series of salvos and a crushing stampede, contrasting mightily with the suspensefully macabre, carnivalesque dance that follows. This interpretation let the composer’s depiction of complete emotional depletion speak for itself, through the whispery, exhausted anguish of the concluding atmospherics, solo violin or cello rising just to the point of serving as witness to unspeakable evil. The audience – an impressively knowledgeable bunch, from all appearances – didn’t know what hit them.

The rest of the program was anticlimactic, but not by much. Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 10 in B Minor essentially pairs off two themes, a mostly breezy waltz versus darker martial shades, the group emphasizing the latter. They closed with another real stunner, Ginastera’s Concerto Por Corde, Op. 33. Like the Shostakovich that preceded it, this has long, stampeding passages, except that these don’t let up – and like Shostakovich, there’s considerable angst, here finally rising to a scream as the piece wound up after several false endings. To say that this was a workout for the musicians is quite an understatement: they played as if it was the triumphant marathon (albeit a bitter one) for which they’d been feverishly training. For a group that typically limits itself to a few performances per year since all the members have busy careers as soloists and with other ensembles, they displayed a remarkable singlemindedness.

The next concert in the Music Mondays series is February 21 at 7:30 PM featuring the Enso Quartet at the multipurpose, multicommunity church at 93rd and Broadway: early arrival is very strongly advised.

January 25, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: David Kalhous Plays Scarlatti, Beethoven, Janacek and Schumann at Bargemusic, Brooklyn NY 2/7/09

Saturday at Bargemusic, Prague-educated pianist David Kalhous delivered a program whose stylistic diversity was matched by its surprises. The two Scarlatti sonatas that opened the program were a study in contrast, major and then minor, both performed with the requisite agile counterpoint. Next on the bill was Beethoven’s Six Variations in F, Op.34, which you know even if you don’t recognize it – it’s been a fixture of dinnertime classical music programming for, well, centuries, if you count parts of two of them. It’s not deep, in fact there’s a smug self-satisfaction to it. But it goes well with wine, and it’s fun to play, and there are passages, particularly the nocturne that opens the suite and then recurs at the end of the final movement where a player can stretch out and even get a little rubato and no one will be the wiser. Kalhous played it like he couldn’t wait to get it over with, metronomic, way too fast, absent any meaningful dynamics. One can only wonder why he chose it in the first place.

 

By contrast, his take on the three parts of Janacek’s In The Mists was masterful, intense, passionate and spot-on – perhaps he’s a performer who needs something substantial to bring out everything he can deliver. From the only slightly restrained macabre of the opening Andante, through the eerie cascades of the Andantino and then the somewhat mistitled, suspenseful Presto, Kalhous illuminated it with every veiled shade of menace he could conjure. He closed on an only slightly lighter note with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, all twelve variations. While these were written as exercises, they build somewhat bitterly and dramatically. And with their constant, insistent, fast staccato passages, they’re not easy to play. Kalhous tackled them with a resoundingly successful, cool confidence. He’s a talent you should see, especially if the program has an edge to it.

February 7, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment