Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Harrowing, Shattering Quartet for the End of Time Uptown

Olivier Messiaen premiered his 1941 prison break suite Quartet for the End of Time in the very same prison he wanted to break out of.

And got away with it.

The program notes for last night’s performance of that immortal partita at the Crypt Sessions uptown quoted the composer as saying that “Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.” That the Nazis there missed the point speaks volumes. The prisoners obviously got the message.

Messiaen was eventually liberated from that Nazi POW camp, where he’d debuted it in on a grim, rainy night, playing a barely functional piano alongside a violinist, clarinetist, and cellist who had to make do with only three strings. Talk about chutzpah!

Almost eight decades later, amid the rich natural reverb beneath the vaulted ceiling in the stone crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, the quartet of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, clarinetist Yoonah Kim and pianist Orion Weiss channeled the terror and defiance and hope against hope that kept Messiaen going at a time when he had no idea that he’d survive the war, let alone be released the following year.

The official story, of course, is that the suite is a portrait of a biblical apocalypse. Considering that Messiaen was a devout Catholic and had a whole liturgical script worked out, there’s no reason to doubt that. But the subtext here screamed as loudly as it possibly could: GET ME OUT!

The four musicians had obviously sized up the sonics, realized what powerful amplification they had in the space’s rich natural reverb, and rolled with it. Kim’s long series of slow upward crescendos, requiring daunting displays of circular breathing, left the audience as breathless as she was. Campbell’s shivery, masterfully nuanced white-knuckle ascent later on was every bit as haunting and elegaic. And Jackiw’s final pairing with Weiss at the end peaked with an almost horrific cadenza, throwing off the Nazi chains to make way for the opening of heaven…or maybe just a return to prewar normalcy

The interweave of birdsong (Messiaen was cruelly tantalized by birds singing outside his cell window) and stark, jagged close harmonies was all too clear early on. The escape sequence and subsequent chase scene – uneasy, sometimes Indian-tinged harmonies furtively scampering and spiced with one sudden, horrified cadenza after another – in the sixth movement could not have been more vivid, or Hitchcockian.

And in the preceding movement, Weiss’ decision not to go for the jugular with grand guignol but instead to hang back and let the menace linger was ultimately the key to the whole performance. Despite the temptations of innumerable creepy tritones and endless dirge passages rising slowly with mournfully tolling, upper-register belltone accents, the group went for foreshadowing. Yet at the end, Weiss didn’t try to mask Messiaen’s forlorn echo phrases, underscoring a vision of a very Pyrrhic victory.

The likelihood of this same group getting together for this same piece is pretty slim, but the next concert in the Crypt Sessions series, on March 7 at 8 PM, has a similarly dark theme. Baritone Lucas Meachem and his wife, pianist Irina Meachem – who will be six months pregnant by the time she plays the concert – will be performing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder suite.  To get tickets, you need to get on the email list – the website, http://www.deathofclassical.com says it all.

The crypt is easy to get to, two blocks up the hill from the 157th Street station on the 1 line. There’s plentiful wine and cheese and crudites and banter beforehand. The crowd tends to skew young, and old: lots of twentysomethings out on a date along with more than a few seniors doing the same. And there never seems to be anyone gratuitously gramming here; this crowd comes to descend into the darkness and listen.

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February 6, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jay Campbell Plays an Insane Show at Columbia

Cellist Jay Campbell characterized his program last night at Columbia University’s Italian Academy as “kind of insane,” and he was right on the money. Campbell, winner of the Concert Artists Guild’s 2012 competition, keeps a very busy schedule and seems to gravitate toward contemporary repertoire. This concert seemed to be an opportunity for him to blow off some steam. The bill started somewhat haphazardly with the world premiere of Jonathan Dawe‘s Cello Sonata, with Stephen Gosling on piano. On one hand, its architecture is clever, taking the sonata concept as we understand it today back two hundred years by giving the lion’s share of activity to the piano rather than the cello. On the other hand, the way it constantly veered between classical harmony and the twelve-tone system was jarring, as motive after motive flashed by. It never really had time to coalesce.

Jason Eckardt’s Flux, with Campbell joined by flutist Eric Lamb, began with the feel of a jazz improvisation, albeit one without the kind of sputtering and scraping you might expect from the pairing of these two instruments. It came together subtly and artfully as the duo intertwined and exchanged voices.

The piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s 1981 composition Vanitas: Still Life in One Act, Campbell teaming with Gosling and soprano Sharon Harms. It goes on too long, becomes interminable and repeats itself practically ad nauseum, but that seems intentional: this twistedly creepy, glacially slow, sardonic punk classical piece is as funny as it is menacing (and brutally difficult to play!), and the audience loved it. Does any other work exist which requires the cellist to spend so much time playing fractions of an inch from the bridge? 95% of the cello score is harmonics, but Campbell was up to the challenge, through a droll, endless call-and-response with Harms, whispery sustained accents punctuated by long, pregnant pauses and the occasional rise to whiplash agitation or icily spinning circular phrases delivered with icepick precision by Gosling.

Both the pianist and cellist managed to keep a straight face, although Harms couldn’t, no surprise since she got the bulk of the work’s silliest moments, her stentorian, declamatory phrases trailing off into a quasi-yodel. Sciarrino’s incessant use of microtones and slides make it even more difficult for a singer, but Harms nailed it, to the extent that you can nail something as slippery as this. And when the time came about midway through where it seemed that the composer realized that a horror film soundtrack of sorts was within reach and then went for it, more or less abandoning the tomfoolerly, the effect was viscerally chilling. At least until Campbell’s long, slow, deadpan downward slide at the very end, the sonic equivalent of a tracking shot panning the horizon at a dead crawl as the sun slips under. He’d never heard the piece prior to playing it, grinningly explaining it as “a lot stranger than I had expected.” Here’s to having the nerve to tackle it at all, let alone with such deviously purposeful command.

May 8, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Met Celebrates Sixty Intense Years of John Zorn

“When we did this at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months ago, they put us over in the corner,” John Zorn said with a smirk to the crowd massed in the Abstract Expressionism gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier today. “Here, they put us right in front of the Pollock.” Sure enough, right behind Zorn and his bandmate Milford Graves was Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (No. 30).

Zorn had already gotten a foot in the door as a composer in the downtown scene during a time when the idea of a Pollock painting at the Met would have raised some eyebrows, not to mention a free jazz saxophonist and drummer squalling and rumbling in front of it. Has uptown finally caught up with downtown? As Dylan said, maybe everything’s a little upside down in New York right now, Zorn being feted at the Met for his antiestablishment antics and vast body of often strangely beautiful work while down in his old Lower East Side digs, it’s mostly Jeff Koons and Miley Cyrus wannabes strutting their stuff in the galleries and onstage. That someone who sounds anything like John Zorn wouldn’t be likely to get a gig in that neighborhood anywhere other than the Stone – Zorn’s own hangout – speaks to the LES’s death by gentrification more powerfully than just about anything else.

But Zorn was at home here and he played to the crowd. An alto saxophonist for the better part of four, maybe five decades, his chops have never been more razor-sharp. This duo improvisation was a roller-coaster ride, a sizzling display of extended technique peaking midway through with an endless series of trills delivered via circular breathing as Zorn slowly and very emphatically made his way up the chromatic scale over Graves’ crepuscular rumble. As intense as Zorn’s music can be, people sometimes forget what a great wit he is, and there was plenty of that here as well: a trick ending, a squonk or two that Graves slapped back at with a cymbal crash, and puckish pauses when least expected. Graves may be best known for his groundbreaking work in cardiac medicine, music history and acoustic science, but at 72 he’s absolutely undiminished behind the kit. And this one was considerably unorthodox: three floor toms, kick drum, ride cymbal and hi-hat, with two snares of differing sizes situated in the very front, Graves leaning on his central tom with his left elbow when he went for the very occasional higher timbre. That persistent low, matter-of-fact approach was the perfect complement to Zorn’s upper-register whirls and shrieks sprinkled with the occasional terse, pensive, chromatic phrase.

Elsewhere throughout the museum, small ensembles performed works from throughout Zorn’s career. In a Halloween-themed room in the American wing, a trio comprised of violinist Chris Otto, violist Dave Fulmer and cellist Jay Campbell had fun with Zorn’s spritely All Hallows Eve. They made it a warily suspenseful game of hide and seek, closer to an alternately lively and wispy Walpurgisnacht among the cicadas than, say, the John Carpenter movie. A quintet of Jane Seddon, Sarah Brailey, Abby Fischer, Mellissa Hughes and Kirsten Sollek sang the alternately rapt and assaultive antiphons of Zorn’s Holy Visions in the considerably more spacious medieval sculpture hall downstairs. Cellist Erik Friedlander treated the crowd packed into a room in the Assyrian section to a judicious, meticulously phrased solo take of Volac, a poignantly pleading partita from Zorn’s Masada: Book of Angels. The highlight of the morning was at the Temple of Dendur, where guitarist Bill Frisell, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen and harpist Carol Emmanuel delivered a lushly gentle but incisively echoing version of the Gnostic Preludes and its warmly enveloping, hypnotic but anthemically interwoven, bell-like harmonies. And the museum opened with a sextet of trumpeters – Nate Botts, Wayne DuMaine, Gareth Flowers, Josh Frank, Stephanie Richards and Tim Leopold – premiering the brand-new Antiphonal Fanfare and its subtly crescendoingly, triumphant variations on a simple phrase a la Philip Glass. The reputedly prickly Zorn seemed anything but and during this piece was moved almost to the point of tears.

There were other performances later in the day for percussion, choir, oud, violin and finally the man himself at the museum’s venerable 1830 Appleton organ. What was all this like? After standing for five hours, with constant distractions from several millennia worth of fascinating stuff on the walls, it was time to call it a day. As the day went on, the crowds grew and everyone had their cameras out; there should be a ton of video out there if those people were generous enough to share it.

September 28, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment