Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

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September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cypress String Quartet Play Debussy, Higdon and Schulhoff with Soul and Sensitivity

Thursday night at the New School’s Tenri Institute, Cypress String Quartet violinist Cecily Ward explained that the Debussy String Quartet was the first piece the ensemble had played together. That was 1996. Fourteen years later, the group still finds bliss in it. Ward played from memory, mostly with her eyes closed. It’s about the joy of discovery: Debussy famously wrote it after seeing a Javanese gamelan for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The Cypress’ version was all about the joy of rediscovery, of finding yet new levels of nuance in an old favorite. Underneath the expertly interwoven Balinese-inspired tonalities is just a hint of a Gallic barroom dance, which they seized with fluidity and grace, both as cellist Jennifer Kloetzel propelled them with alternately hushed and dramatic dynamics as the first movement wound up, and when it came to the rounds of pizzicato in the second movement. Brooklyn Rider played a stunningly edgy version of this piece earlier this year at the Orensanz Center that brought to mind how Debussy must have felt in the hours after writing it; this performance, with its soul and depth, put it in context, a period piece that also happened to shift the stage for practically everything that followed.

The earlier part of the program was just as revelatory. Erwin Schulhoff’s 1923 suite Five Pieces for String Quartet first saw a revival right around the time this group was getting together. Other ensembles play up the occasional Roaring 20s archaisms that occur throughout its five dances, but this crew played it as satire with a deliciously snarky bite, from the faux waltz of the opening movement (it’s in straight-up 4/4 time), to the somewhat sinister boudoir theme of the second, which they gave a bolero-like sway. On the third, Kloetzel’s terse pedal point led to an angry fugue highlighted by the deadpan acerbity of violinist Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner, whose deft camaraderie would carry the following tango movement as well. They gave the final segment – a Flight of the Bumblebee parody of sorts – an eerie tinge that bordered on the macabre: this was a swarm of killer bees headed straight for the border.

Yet the piece that resonated the most with the audience was Jennifer Higdon’s Impressions, from 2003. The composer, who was in attendance, offered beforehand how she’d drawn on Impressionist art for inspiration. She explained her fondness for its lack of rough edges, which allows for a considerably broader scope of expression than more figurative styles. The intrigue (and advantage) of pointillism, as she put it, is that “You can’t tell what it is up close.” The first movement, a colorful dance, had the characteristically meticulous, diversely evocative architecture that defines her work, and was delivered with the same bustling joy as the Debussy. The following movement, titled Quiet Art, built from the pensive and sometimes apprehensive ambience of an artist struggling to find a path to expression and wound up with gusto, a dream fulfilled and a job well done. The third movement, a homage to Debussy, expertly wove individual lead lines from each instrument. The suite ended with an absolutely riveting chase scene, resolution and then unresolution, warmly sostenuto passages contrasting with a bracing percussive attack: if this was painting, it was a cross between Pollock and Escher. The crowd demanded an encore and were treated to a tantalizingly allusive version of the Orientale from Glazunov’s Fifth String Quartet, the Fertile Crescent through a glass, darkly. The Cypress String Quartet’s second volume in their conquest of the Beethoven late quartets is just out; watch this space.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alondra de la Parra Directs a Brilliantly Eclectic Performance at Lincoln Center

There’s a backstory here, and it’s an encouraging, even paradigm-shifting one. Conductor Alondra de la Parra and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas’ new album Mi Alma Mexicana not only reached #1 on the Mexican classical charts, it also reached #2 on the pop charts there. Ironically, that may not be quite as extraordinary an achievement as it would have been ten years ago. But it is compelling evidence that even in the age of downloading, people are still willing to pay for quality. The album seeks to revive interest in pieces by Mexican orchestral composers from the past 150 years or so. Last night, de la Parra and the orchestra treated a sold-out Alice Tully Hall crowd to a handful, opening with Carlos Chavez’ Caballos de Vapor. De La Parra introduced it as “the horsepower suite,” a ballet whose original costumes were created by Diego Rivera. Rarely recorded or played in concert, it’s a richly dynamic piece that deserves to be vastly better known. The intricately bustling mechanics of the first movement grew to a sort of dance of the behemoths, and it was here where de la Parra’s emotional intelligence and meticulous approach really struck home: the crescendo could have become florid, but she wouldn’t let it go completely over the top. Was this supposed to be satirical, a cautionary tale about falling too deeply in love with the Industrial Revolution? Certainly the mournful intensity of the dance themes that followed – a brooding Mexican sandunga that brilliantly mimicked a guitar timbre, a troubled, languid, pulseless tango and a bolero that went from shadowy to almost sepulchral – could be interpreted as its aftereffects. The ensemble played singlemindedly, de la Parra always maintaining plenty of open space for the many brief solo spots, the orchestra parting the waters with split-second efficiency when the moment arrived.

Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a case of lyrics surpassing the quality of the music beneath. Actor Chris Noth (of Sex and the City fame/notoriety) gave Abraham Lincoln’s own words of warning and love for democracy the gravitas the orchestra couldn’t, although they did the best they could with what they had. De la Parra did the opposite of what she’d just done so well with the Chavez as they latched onto pretty much anything of even remote interest in this obviously hastily cobbled together, western movie-tinged, folk song-speckled tone poem by the Norman Rockwell of 20th century music.

The concluding piece, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra was a showstopper, every bit as extraordinary as de la Parra hinted it would be. The conductor emphasized how this orchestra’s mission is to promote composers and soloists from the whole of North America, and sardonically noted the American composer’s mastery of “a form several composers have tried and done successfully, ha ha, some of them…” Percussive as the work is, it paired off terrifically with the Chavez. The first movement built to brisk, intense, percussive yet distantly suspenseful unison riffage; the second, seemingly a tribute to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, paired off the basses and violins playfully as lushness and pleasing, Romantically tinged rondo themes made their appearance. Then the fun began, a series of motifs with a quiet nocturnal flair, some of them wryly swooping, moving through the orchestra, building to lush sostenuto brass passages that wouldn’t have been out of place in Brahms. The unselfconscious sense of fun returned in even fuller effect with the fourth movement and its long, gently unstoppable crescendo for percussion, timpani and kettledrums that owed more to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix (Moby Dick and Machine Gun, specifically) than anything else. De la Parra held the careening polyrhythms tightly to the rails as they rattled through to a triumphant drum roll of a conclusion. The crowd reacted with the delirious enthusiasm of a rock audience: on their feet, they literally wouldn’t let the orchestra go, eventually rewarded for their strenuous efforts with Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo Garcia, a playful, increasingly ornately arranged suite of Mexican folk songs and then Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, variations on a genuinely haunting, ballet-tinged, minor-key theme in the same vein as the well-known folk ballad La Llorona.

October 30, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment