Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Far Cry Storm Back into Action at the Naumburg Bandshell

From 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual series in the history of music. It has been as much of a godsend to witness the return of these performances this year as it was tragic to lose them in 2020. Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell, huddled under their umbrellas in relentless rain that finally grew to monsoon proportions, a crowd of about a hundred undeterred concertgoers thunderously welcomed back a familiar presence on the stage here, seventeen-piece string ensemble A Far Cry.

They were just as happy to see the audience. This was the group’s first concert since February of last year. Violinist Jae Cosmos Lee mentioned that they’d played their share of webcasts and broadcasts, as just about every other ensemble that managed to stay together during the sixteen-month lockdown here in the northeast ended up doing. Still, he confided that his most sobering realization during that time was how crucial the relationship between performers and audience is. “Without you, all this would be…” he searched for a word, “Nothing!” This wasn’t just Sergeant Pepper trying to take all the girls home. This was sincere.

That energy was more electric than the sky overhead: Lee enthused that this was the group’s most exciting moment onstage, at least since a show in Slidell, Louisiana where it was “raining sideways” and one of the violinists burst into a solo version of Orange Blossom Special while her bandmates waited for the sky to clear.

Throughout this particular downpour, the music was transcendent in the purest sense of the word. They opened with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, bristling with dynamics, from the stiletto staccato of the first movement, black velvet resonance from bass and cellos in the anxious second part, and a lithe pulse throughout the baroque-tinged dances they wound it up with.

Joseph Bologne, a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a slightly older and very colorful contemporary of Mozart, is all the rage now, represented on this bill by a kinetically stately take of his 1778 Sinfonia Concertante Op. 13, No. 1, which has actually never been recorded. Maybe A Far Cry can jump on that bandwagon too.

The two pieces de resistance among many were a couple of Jessie Montgomery works. She’s one of us, Lower East Side born and bred, and the group did her justice with a plucky, emphatically circling, meticulously playful take of her 2012 work Strum for String Orchestra. And they luxuriated in the wealth of subtly cached microtones and slowly glissandoing swells in Source Code for String Orchestra, from a year later.

Silouan’s Song, a 1991 Arvo Part composition, made an apt segue with its somber, spaciously paced minimalism. The group closed with the High Romantic joy and angst and ultimate triumph of Teresa Carreno’s 1895 Serenade for Strings: a love song, a passionately wary waltz that offered a fond nod to Chopin, moments of pensive calm ceding to a heroic coda that simply would not be denied. Meanwhile, the cadences of the storm overhead seemed to be keeping pace with the music to the extent that the crowd started laughing whenever there would be a pause, or a crescendo capped off with a thunderclap or an explosion of rain.

This year’s Naumburg Bandshell concerts continue on July 20 at 7:30 PM with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra playing works by Purcell, John Blow and others. The recently renovated bandshell is a little closer to the west side; take the 72nd St. entrance and get there early – an hour and a half early isn’t too early – if you want a seat.

July 7, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Catalyst Quartet Release the Most Gorgeously Memorable Album of 2021 So Far

For the most rapturously gorgeous piece of music released so far this year, cue up the Catalyst Quartet’s new recording of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Humoresque, streaming at Spotify (there’s also a live version at youtube). It starts as a quasi-Balkan dance. When the sun busts through the clouds and a chorus of sorts kicks in, it’s a gutpunch. The album it’s on, Uncovered Vol. 1, should come with one of those stickers that you sometimes see on old heavy metal and punk records from the 80s: PLAY LOUD.

The quartet’s mission in recording an all Coleridge-Taylor album is to resurrect the poignant and sublimely melodic music of this fascinating composer beyond the organ demimonde. where his works are still frequently played – at least in free parts of the world, one hopes, anyway. Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes referred to as the British Brahms, but the British Dvorak is a much better comparison (this blog rates Coleridge-Taylor a cut above both). He died tragically young. His instantly identifiable sound echoes Dvorak’s fondness for Romany riffs, but also the African-American spiritual tradition. Which is no surprise, considering that Coleridge-Taylor was black.

It’s a trip to hear the Catalyst Quartet, champions of some of the most acerbic and sometimes challenging contemporary composers, playing such unselfconsciously beautiful High Romantic music, right down to an understated, period-perfect vibrato trailing out on the longer notes and the somewhat muted sonics of the recording. And yet, this music is rich with irony and a woundedness that’s sometimes allusively vengeful. The group – violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violist Paul Laraia and cellist Karlos Rodriguez are joined by pianist Stewart Goodyear to open the record with Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet in G minor for Piano and Strings, from 1893. The first movement reveals intriguing hints of both American Indian and Mexican music along with saturnine blues-tinged phrases woven into its dynamic shifts from the heroic to the pastoral.

Movement two has an opulent, tender, lullaby quality underscored by Goodyear and Laraia. The third movement has an elegant, Beethovenesque lilt but also a return to the gusty, bracing peaks of the opening theme. Goodyear’s emphatic, triumphant drive is matched by the ebullience of the strings in the conclusion, which manages to be as biting as it is cheerily catchy.

That delicious (and not necessarily amusing) Humoresque is the third movement of Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestücke Op. 5, a string quartet work from two years later. The opening Prelude comes across as a comfortably dancing nocturne, the serenade of a second movement awash in rapt lustre. The Minuet and Trio are angst-tinged songs without words: it’s astonishing that nobody has ripped them off for pop songs in the century since they were written. The anthemic concluding dance is the most Dvoriakan moment here.

Anthony McGill is the soloist in the concluding piece, the Quintet in F sharp minor for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 10, from 1906. The opening movement begins with sharp contrasts between McGrill’s unassailable liquidity and the dark incisiveness of the strings, then calms, but the tension remains, Vienna versus Veracruz. The textural richness and tenderness of the second will take your breath away, while the balletesque cheer of the third prefigures Gershwin. In the conclusion, it’s fascinating to see how the composer handles his return to the conflict inherent in the introduction, for a deviously playful payoff.

Just as auspiciously, this album is the first in a planned series featuring the works of other underrated and undeservedly obscure black composers including Florence Price and William Grant Still, among many others.

February 8, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Diverse, Playfully Eclectic Solo Violin Album From Michi Wiancko

Until the lockdown, violinist Michi Wiancko enjoyed a busy career in the New York new music scene. Like many arists have done in the last few months, she’s releasing a solo album, Planetary Candidate – streaming at Bandcamp – an eclectic collection of both organic and electroacoustic works by several of her favorite contemporary composers, along with one of her own. The sounds here are adventurous and often psychedelic, but not harsh or assaultive.

The album’s title track, by the artist herself, is a deceptively catchy, increasingly dense jungle of insistent, minimalist pizzicato chords bookending a still, sustained interlude. Wiancko’s vocals are multitracked as well. The theme is breathing, which could be a loaded metaphor: hard to do that with a muzzle over your face!

Wiancko’s similarly insistent eight-note phrases dirift further and further into dissonace as Christopher Adler’s Jolie Sphinx moves along, a trope that repeats in more pensive, subtly baroque-influenced cadences a little later on in Mark Dancigers‘ Skyline. Paula Matthusen’s Songs of Fuel and Insomnia has dissociatively drifting overlays, trippy electronic textures that extend into stygian depths, and some unexpectedly shreddy metal.

Wiancko shifts from briskly leaping arpeggios to hazy, steady close harmonies and then halfway back in Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 2. Bizarrely processed echo effects pervade William Brittelle‘s alternately ambient and acerbic So Long Art Decade – a reference to the Bowie song?

A waterside tableau complete with found sounds, Matthusen’s Lullaby for Dead Horse Bay manages to be both the album’s most atmospheric and captivating piece. Wiancko winds up the record with a second Brittelle composition, Disintegration, a swooping, imaginatively overdubbed, increasingly kinetic series of echoey exchanges with coy, distant echoes of 80s new wave music.

September 20, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare, Fascinating Program of String Quartet Music by African-American Composers at Bryant Park

Every year, this blog (and its predecessor) has chosen both a Brooklyn and Manhattan space as best venue of the year for each borough. In 2018, not wanting to settle for the obvious (i.e. Carnegie Hall and the Village Vanguard) and frustrated by the closure of so many small clubs, the pick for best Manhattan venue went to Bryant Park. Home to an annual, multi-night accordion festival as well as plenty of jazz festivals, chamber music and global sounds over the years, the space had earned it. In a long-awaited and highly auspicious return to live classical music there last night, a quartet featuring members of the American Symphony Orchestra played a rich, rare mix of music by African-American composers.

They opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Spirituals For String Quartet, which quickly took on a gently benedictory ambience as the four musicians joined in unison in a lullaby theme. Cellist Alberto Parrini gave it a delicate pizzicato pulse, the group rising to distantly blues-tinged variations over an increasingly vibrant, dancing drive.

Violinist Phillip Payton, who’d put together this fascinating program, played first chair for that one and then switched positions with the ASO’s concertmaster, Cyrus Beroukhim for Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 piece Voodoo Dolls. Parrini and first-chair ASO violist William Frampton dug in with their bandmates for a recurrently grim, staccato pedalpoint, akin to Julia Wolfe at her bluesiest. Bracingly glissandoing chords set off a suspenseful lull, then the group bowed hard and swooped through the finale. Payton made no secret of how much he loved that piece: it was the big hit of the night with the audience, a relatively sparse but raptly attentive crowd of maybe sixty people scattered across the space behind the library.

Next on the bill were movements one, three and four of Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. The quartet matter-of-factly worked steady, Mozartean exchanges as the music shifted from a pensive, old-world minor-key theme to a more warmly enveloping atmosphere that seemed to draw as much on the French Romantics (Faure most noticeably) as the African-American gospel tradition.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as Payton explained, bridged a lot of genres. He played in Max Roach’s jazz group and later arranged for Marvin Gaye. His String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary, ” contained “A lot of notes we’re not expected to play,” Payton grinned,, “Very jazzy harmonies!” He wasn’t kidding. Steady, rapidly strolling bluesiness quickly receded for more chromatic, brooding passages, like Bartok at his most unadorned. From there the ensemble followed a counterintuitive downward arc, from shivery counterpoint, a tease of a big swell and then crepuscular, flickering pianissimo textures that gently filtered away. The final movement, with its wickedly catchy cello lines, delivered a triumphant, anthemic payoff.

Trevor Weston’s Juba for String Quartet, the newest piece on the bill, seemed to be a study in how far from the blues a series of variations can go. In this group’s hands, that meant pretty far, and involving some extended technique, but also not so far that the center was lost. Terse, spare riffs were spun through a kaleidoscope and then back, through numerous dynamic shifts and ghostly harmonics.

William Grant Still’s first symphony, Payton explained, was in its time the most-played orchestral work by an American composer. His three-movement Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends), from 1960, was the final piece on the bill. The composer’s eclecticism was front and center here, more than alluding to Romany swing after a fondly Romantic song without words to open the triptych, later finding common ground between Indian carnatic music and the blues. Quasi-microtonal flickers added depth to the incisively minor-key, jubilantly emphatic conclusion and its coyly Beethoven-ish series of false endings.

The quartet encored with Price’s heartwarmingly familiar variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The organizers behind the music at Bryant Park seem to be determined to help this city get back to normal; their long-running series of solo shows on the park’s electric piano continues on several weekdays into next month. This string quartet return there on Sept 21 at 5:30 PM with a program including works by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota.

September 15, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catchy, Edgy Themes and Contrasting Textures From Big Dog Little Dog

The duo of violinist Jessie Montgomery and bassist Eleonore Oppenheim call themselves Big Dog Little Dog. That may have something to do with the relative size of their instruments, or maybe not. The two were asked who is which animal at a show at a mesmerizing show at Metropolis Ensemble’s Lower East Side digs late last year: “We switch off,” Montgomery grinned. Their edgy, dynamic debut album is streaming at Bandcamp. As a unit, they like long crescendos and playing off catchy, direct ideas.

It begins with a brief, nocturnal bit of found sound: somebody crosses a yard and approaches a house, tree frogs contentedly peeping in the background. Then the duo launch into the first piece, Panorama, a catchy, swaying series of variations on a couple of terse, blues-rooted riffs, Oppenheim bowing steady, overtone-rich chords as Montgomery plays slithery, rapidfire arpeggios and cascades.

Hypnotically pulsing, loopy bass anchors Montgomery’s drifting airiness and incisive pizzicato chords as Man Without a Face builds momentum, up to a stabbing peak with echoes of Appalachian music. In Ice, the two shift between variations on coyly slipsliding, “wheeeeeee” phrases and a keening, rather wistful horizontality over Oppenheim’s rich, chocolatey chords.

With its punchy, rhythmic drive, Woods seems to be an increasingly lively woodchopper’s ball. Wafting sheets of harmonics slowly make their way through the sonic picture and finally coalesce into stern chords in the album’s most expansive and most horizontal track, Blue Hour. The coda, a contrast between Montgomery’s enigmatic close harmonies and Oppenheim’s rumbling low E drone, is just plain luscious.

Brisk wave pulses echo with an increasingly animated syncopation in Cipher, one of several tracks here that bring to mind Julia Wolfe‘s work for strings. Ultraviolet makes a good segue, Montgomery’s stabbing, muted phrases and uneasy movement outward from a central note above Oppenheim’s deadpan bump-bump and glissandos. They go out the way they came in, peepers and all.

March 4, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment