Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Haunting Music From Happier Times

While the past year has seen a lot of artists desperately mining their archives for concert recordings in order to maintain some semblance of a performing career, violinist Meg Okura’s Live at the Stone album with her NPO Trio is not one of those releases. This 2016 concert was one of the last at the iconic venue’s original Alphabet City digs before it moved to the New School, only to be shuttered in the lockdown. This particular set – released a couple of years ago and still streaming at Bandcamp – is expansive, klezmer-centric, and despite the energetic interplay between Okura, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, is rather dark.

As the initial 38-minute improvisation – divided up into six separate sections here – gets underway, Okura and Pilc are at their most orchestral. The violinist plays through a series of effects including delay, loops and massive amounts of reverb. The pianist, for the most part, maintains a glittering High Romantic gravitas.

Pilc echoes Okura’s cascades as she runs them through reverb turned up to the point of slapback. Building a series of builds variations, she’s joined by Newsome, who takes centerstage achingly as Pilc and Okura rustle and rumble underneath.

About three minutes in, Okura introduces the stark, central 19th century klezmer theme, Mark Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetchik. Newsome searches longingly with his microtonal washes until Pilc and Okura bring a steady rhythm back, the piano taking over scurrying, pointillistic variations. Then the violin moves to the foreground, leading the music from plaintive and insistent to spare and starry. Newsome’s stark clarinet-like tone, especially in the most somber moment here, fits this music perfectly.

Somber chromatics come front and center and remain there the longest in the fourth segment. Newsome leads the group down into minimalism, Pilc raising the energy with his jackhammer pedalpoint, a bit of a klezmer reel and a brief minor-key ballad without words. Newsome drives the band to a chilling, shivery coda.

There are two other improvisations here. The first, Unkind Gestures, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, is vastly more carefree and jauntily conversational, Pilc’s rumbles and basslines contrasting with Newsome’s keening, harmonically-laced duotones. Okura opens the almost nineteen-minute closing number, Yiddish Mama No Tsuki, with a sizzling klezmer solo, Pilc following with eerie belltones down to what sounds like an altered version of the old standard Mein Yiddishe Mama. Revelry and wry quotes interchange with airy acidity, disorienting clusters, a brooding Newsome solo and surreal blues from Okura and Pilc.

One quibble: not one but two tracks cut off right in the middle of gorgeously melismatic Newsome solos, a real faux pas. People who listen to this kind of music have long attention spans and don’t care how long a track is.

May 14, 2021 Posted by | jazz, klezmer, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jacob Mühlrad’s Somber Choral Works Explore Ancient Jewish Themes

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad‘s new choral album Time – streaming at Spotify – weaves ancient Jewish melodies and rapturous original themes into a hauntingly intricate web of sound. Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin conduct the Swedish Radio Choir with an aptly meticulous touch throughout this serious, brooding, often gloomy and potently relevant music. Mühlrad seems determined to become the Jewish Arvo Part, and so far he’s off to a good start.

The album opens with Anim Zemirot, a five-part suite of miniatures inspired by the concluding hymm from the Jewish liturgy. Slow, somber waves rise and subside, often with a bracing contrast between men’s and women’s voices. As celebratory music goes, this is pretty dark.

The album’s central, title suite draws on the Tower of Babel myth and the increasingly arduous challenge to find global unity across borders. The composer bases it on the word “time” in 104 different languages. Like the album’s first track, its gravitas pulses slowly in waves, spaciously drifting or suddenly looming into the sonic picture. As he does throughout the album, Mühlrad employs pretty much the totality of the available spectrum, ominous lows balanced by similarly uneasy highs. Subtle echo effects are a deftly executed touch. Repetitive, rising figures which fall just short of imploring are very striking, as the ending, which is unexpected and too good to give away. Slow and methodical as this is, it’s also very challenging to sing, and the group rise to the occasion.

The simply titled Nigun is more nebulously immersive, with its long, sustained, enigmatically close-harmonied motives, a sort of liturgical paraphrase with a terse tenor solo at the center. The concluding suite, Kaddish, is a Holocaust remembrance utilizing texts by Elie Wiesel and the composer’s late grandfather – a survivor – along with the traditional prayer for the dead. The sheer stillness of the introduction packs a wallop, in contrast with the incantatory yet similarly otherworldly pace the ensemble reach as Mühlrad builds momentum.

Much as this is compelling music, the decision to separate each suite into its parts – many of them cut off suddenly after less than two minutes – becomes frustrating, and jars the listener out of a reverie. If that’s intended to boost Spotify nanopayments, someday somebody at the record label might have enough pocket change for a bus ride home.

April 24, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

January 12, 2021 Posted by | folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sly Christmukah Ballad From Jazz Guitarist Peter Curtis

A couple of years back jazz guitarist Peter Curtis put out the album Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend, a competently played collection of Xmas songs written by Jews. And there’s historical context for that. More than a century ago, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Russia and the Pale to celebrate the Christian holiday. What’s somebody else’s simcha, anyway, when it all used to be Saturnalia?

The album’s title track is the real piece de resistance, and Curtis’ only original on it. And it’s a hoot, Curtis crooning to his shiksa GF about all the ways they can have Christmukah fun. No spoilers!

December 24, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Quietly Searing, Politically-Fueled New Album From Guitarist Ty Citerman and Bop Kabbalah

Guitarist Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah is best known for rocking out centuries-old Jewish themes. His latest release under the Bop Kabbalah monicker, When You Speak of Times to Come – streaming at Bandcamp – is just as radical, and radically different. As so many artists have done during the lockdown, this is far more intimate, a trio record with singers Sara Serpa and Judith Berkson.

This one’s all about contrasts. Citerman shifts between stark, acidic minimalism, cold sparks of noise and the minor-key growl he’s best known for as the two women add lushness and haunting close harmonies. This album often sounds like it’s made by a much larger ensemble. Serpa and Berkson often switch between channels in the mix: the former is more misty yet also more crystalline, while Berkson’s voice is more edgy and forceful. Together they cover all the bases.

They also deliver spoken word in both English and Yiddish in a handful of righteously revolutionary interludes between songs, along with the album’s rather exasperated opening prayer. The brief first song has simple, somber counterpoint between the two women and spiky harmonics from Citerman.

The second spoken-word interlude instructs us to “Demand bread from tsars and dukes, demand human rights, demand everything we’ve created.” In year of the lockdown, that has never been more of an imperative! The women’s uneasy close harmonies and blippy quasi-operatics float and dance as Citerman builds from icepick incisions to a snarl in Geyt Brider Geyt.

“With one hand you gave us the Constitution, with the other you took it back…you thought you could divert the revolution, that was your dirty politics. Down with you, you executioner, you muderer, get off the throne, no one believes in you anymore, only in the red flag,” the trio warn as the album’s fifth cut slowly builds up steam. Citerman winds down his multitracks, hits his distortion pedal and cuts loose with a roar.

Berkson sings the moody, steady Ver Tut Stroyen Movern Palatsn – an exploration of who does all the heavy lifting, and who gets the benefit of all that lifting – against Serpa’s signature vocalese, and Citerman’s burning dynamic shifts.

They wind down the hypnotic, pulsing, intertwining Es Rirt Zikh with an expansive, exploratory solo. The three build considerably more haunting variations on an old nigun in the first part of the suite Future Generations – is that Berkson or Serpa on piano?

The women’s harmonies are especially plaintive in the second part, At Night, a furtively slashing revolutionary tableau: Gordon Grdina’s darkest work comes to mind here. The album’s grittiest and most unhinged interlude is part three, Hidden Rage. The chillingly chromatic concluding movement, with its brooding tradeoffs between piano and guitar, serves as the title track. If there ever was an album for the end of the year on the brink of a holocaust delivered via lethal injection, this is it.

December 17, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease with horns over clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.

April 21, 2020 Posted by | folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

June 22, 2019 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

April 12, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Early Morning Blaze From the Uncategorizably Brilliant Klazz-Ma-Tazz

Pianist Ben Rosenblum hit a sharks-teeth minor-key spiral, echoed with slithery precision by bandleader and violinist Ben Sutin. Meanwhile, bassist Mat Muntz dipped and swayed, a monster truck spring at peak tension crossing a ravine in some remote Chernobyl forest. Behind them, drummer Tim Rachbach worked tense variations on a clave groove as guitarist Rafael Rosa held back, deep in the shadows, saxophonist Elijah Shiffer waiting for his moment. That would come about fifteen minutes later. At this point, it was about quarter to noon on Sunday morning.

The album release show by Sutin’s phenomenal band Klazz-Ma-Tazz transcended a lot of things, including but not limited to genre specificity and time of day. While Sutin’s compositions and arrangements draw deeply from the vast well of classic Jewish folk music from east of the Danube, they’re hardly limited to that. What they play is jazz, but it’s also dance music. You could also call it film music, considering how deeply they can plunge into noir. But they didn’t stay there, or anywhere, for long.

Musicians tend not to be morning people. But watching this band blaze through two ferocious, sets made it more than worthwhile to sit there glassy-eyed after spending most of the previous evening at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Interestingly, Sutin launched his epic Letting Go suite, from the band’s new album Meshugenah, just two songs in. Its allusive, chromatically electriified rises and falls foreshadowed the feral but expertly orchestrated intensity they’d save for the second set, veering from panoramic desertscapes to hints of samba and some Cuban flair.

Shiffer’s moment was a coda. Before then, he and Sutin had built a briefly heated conversation, but even that didn’t hint at what the saxophonist had up his sleeve. Working his baritione to what seemed the top of his register, he dropped it and reached for his alto. The choreography wasn’t perfect, but the effect was irresistibly fun as he went for the jugular…then put it down, picked up the bari again and took that big horn to heights nobody expected, or probably imagined were possible. Sure, it was a show-off move: to see somebody actually pull it off at such an early hour was really something else.

Sutin told the crowd that Sunrise, Sunset was one of his alltime favorite songs, then reinvented it as lush, plaintive, latin-tinged syncopated swing, a Lynch film set somewhere in the Negev. His version of In Odessa pounced and charged, possibly mirroring Putin-era terrorism there, Rosenblum’s bittersweet accordion holding its own against the stampede.

The second set showcased the band’s sense of humor as well as how feral they can get. Muntz’s quasi-Balkan dance Cyberbalkanization had a relentless, tongue-in-cheek faux EDM whoomp-whoomp beat, Sutin and Shiffer trading terse, acidic phrases overhead. From there they ranged from brooding and mournful to cumulo-nimbus ominousness in their version of Tumbalalaika, segueing into a majestically careening, turbocharged take of the classic Misirlou – but without much in the way of surf.

They saved the guest rapper and singers for the end. Sheyn Vi Di Levone is best known as a schmaltzy ballad, but singer Astrid Kuljanic worked its coy internal rhymes for all it was worth, the band making perfectly decent, uneasy midtempo swing out of it. Then guest Zhenya Lopatnik opened their version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön with a suspenseful, moody rubato vocal solo before the band swung it, hard. Thank You, from the band’s sizzlingly good debut album, was one of the closing numbers, awash in slashing modal riffs and shifting meters. That the band managed to play one of the best shows of 2018 so far, so early in the day, speaks for itself. Sutin’s next gig is a low-key trio show tomorrow, April 11 at 7 PM at Sidewalk. 

April 10, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

March 19, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment