Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.

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August 2, 2019 Posted by | concert, drama, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bracingly Majestic Double Concerto and a Couple of Classy Museum Mile Gigs From Bandoneon Innovator JP Jofre

JP Jofre may be known as one of the world’s foremost soloists on the bandoneon, the little accordion that Astor Piazzolla catapulted to fame. But Jofre is also a brilliant and pioneering composer whose work transcends nuevo tango to encompass the neoromantic, indie classical and jazz. His latest and most ambitious project yet is the first ever Double Concerto for Bandoneon and Violin – streaming at Spotify – which he performs along with violinist Michael Guttman and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This won’t be on the bill at the Argentine-born composer’s next New York performance; instead, he’ll be leading his Hard Tango Band at the ongoing series of free 5:30 PM shows at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec 28 and 29.

Throughout the Double Concerto, there’s a great deal of conversational interplay between the bandoneon and the violin; reduced to lowest terms, Guttman is typically the good cop. Jofre, as usual, gets extraordinary dynamic range out of his instrument, from ominous low drones to chirpy flourishes at the top while the orchestra follows similarly challenging trajectories. Rhythmic shifts are constant and counterintuitive, and the whole unit follows them seamlessly, hardly an easy task.

Jofre opens solo before Guttman sails in overhead, building steely, unresolved intensity to usher in the explosively pulsing allegro movement. The orchestra tackle it with a meticulous but vigorous pulse, its bursts of counterpoint blending such disparate elements as orchestral Piazzolla, Debussy and the baroque. Guttman resolutely answers Jofre’s creepy chromatic loops, then the mighty dance ensues again.

Brooding Jofre atmospherics contrast with wistful Guttman violin, the orchestra and piano adding Tschaikovslan lustre in the adagio. An astringently leaping solo violin cadenza introduces the milonga and its impassioned pulse, rising and falling with Persian-tinged echo effects.

The album’s final three pieces, all duets, have specific titles beyond tempo indicators. Jofre’s rainswept washes and subtle insistence give Guttman a launching pad for his plaintively soaring lines in the elegaic Before the Curtain. Como El Agua maintains the mood with its slow tidal shifts and La Vie En Rose allusions, while Sweet Dreams is a more impassioned lullaby than you might expect. Whether you call this nuevo tango or classical music, it’s characteristic of the ambition and brightly focused melodicism that have defined Jofre’s career up to this point.

December 24, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thrills and Dynamism from the Transatlantic Ensemble at Steinway Hall

From this perspective, crowds at concerts have been even more sparse than usual since the election. Monday night at the new Steinway Hall just around the corner from the Town Hall, a surprisingly robust turnout for an early weeknight got to witness a thrilling, dynamic performance by the Transatlantic Ensemble: clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Evelyn Ulex, joined by a couple of similarly electrifying special guests, Lara St. John on violin and JP Jofre on bandoneon.

The group’s raison d’etre is to expand the range of serious concert music beyond the usual parade of dead white guys. Lots of ensembles are doing this, but few more excitingly than this semi-rotating cast. Adam got to treat the crowd with her joyous, technically challenging leaps and bounds as the group bookended the program with a couple of Paquito D’Rivera pieces, Benny@100 – a tribute to famed jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman – and a pulsing Venezuelan-flavored waltz.

In between, Ulex explored a similar dynamism and nuance. She’s one of the pianists Steinway selected to record for their digital player piano, the Spirio, which not only plays the notes but with a very close approximation of an individual player’s touch and phrasing. With the Spirio, you have your choice of your favorite music along with a variety of interpretations. If there’s no room in your apartment or your budget for such a big piece of equipment, the Steinway label has just put out the Transatlantic Ensemble’s new album Havana Moon – streaming at Spotify – whose release the group was celebrating.

The premise of the album, Adam revealed, was to celebrate the work of some of the group’s favorite composers from their global circle. The night’s biggest thrill ride was a tango by Miguel del Aguila, whom Adam described as “impetuous,” and she wasn’t kidding. Ulex attacked the tune with both graceful precision and unleashed passion as Adam provided cleverly dancing counterpoint, and St. John added her own high-voltage flurries and spirals. The group hit a similar peak later on when joined by Jofre for a rousing performance of his composition Primavera, which came across as more of a wild midsummer festival on the Argentinian pampa.

Del Aguila’s Silence, as Adam averred, was hardly silent: a requiem, it gave her the evening’s lone opportunity to cut loose in an anguished torrent of notes, and she made the most of it. The duo also elegantly parsed the subtleties of D’Rivera’s neoromantically-tinged Habanera, a wistful Roaring 20s Parisian waltz by Villa-Lobos and a surprisingly astringent, modernist lullaby by Jofre.

November 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philippe Quint Shows Off His Address Book and His Exquisite Chops on the Violin

The bill Tuesday night at the Times Center was a casual “Philippe Quint and friends,” but these friends are in high places, musically speaking. Great players never have trouble finding similar top-level talent, but this violinist has a particularly deep address book. Introducing his own Caprices from the film The Red Violin, John Corigliano attested to Quint’s eclecticism. “He can do bluesy swing, salsa, anything you ask him to,” he marveled. Quint validated him with an alternatingly terse and sizzling performance of the plaintively neoromantic solo theme and variations, through daunting octave passages, lightning descents and nail-biting intensity as they reached a peak.

A bit later on, his fellow violin virtuoso Joshua Bell joined him along with pianist William Wolfram for an effortlessly gleaming version of the opening movement from Moszkowski’s Suite for 2 Violins, followed by an equally gorgeous performance of Shostakovich’s Prelude for Two Violins and Piano, from the composer’s variations on the Jewish folk themes collected by legendary songfinder Moishe Beregovsky in the 1930s. There was a scripted false start and some banter about how Quint had appropriated the Corigliano suite, which Bell had played for the film score and which has since become a signature of sorts: here and elsewhere, Quint revealed himself as quite the ham when he wants to be.

The evening ended on an even more emotionally charged note with the wryly named Quint Quintet – comprising some of the world’s top talent in nuevo tango – playing a trio of Piazzolla classics. Bassist Pedro Giraudo anchored the songs with a spring-loaded pulse while Quint and bandoneon genius JP Jofre worked magical, angst-ridden dynamics while electric guitarist Oren Fader spiced them with measured, incisive figures. Pianist Octavio Brunetti led the group with a relentlessly mysterious majesty through a lushly crescendoing version of Milonga del Angel, then the rising and falling, utterly Lynchian Concierto para Quintetto and then a triumphantly pouncing take of Libertango. Quint favors a singing tone – he released an album of violin arrangements of opera arias a couple of years ago – so it was no surprise to see him literally give voice to the longing and passion in Piazzolla’s melodies.

Pianist Matt Herskowitz delivered an equally thrilling, all-too-brief set with his trio. Quint joined them for a jauntily swinging, exuberantly latin-tinged reinvention of Bach’s Cello Prelude, then a tender rendition of the Goldberg Aria. Herskowitz and the trio ended with a long, ferally cascading arrangement of a familiar Prokofiev theme. All three of these pieces will appear on a forthcoming album recorded by Quint with Herskowitz and his band.

There were also a couple of cameos with singer-songwriters where Quint proved himself adept at chamber pop and quasi-Romany jazz. This concert was a benefit for the Russian-American Foundation, known for similarly intriguing, cross-pollinational events, this one being the kickoff for their twelfth annual Russian Heritage Month. In Russia, classical music is a spectator sport: this audience, weighing in at about 50/50 Russian and American, responded with a Moscow-class enthusiasm.

June 1, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Dances to the End of the Season

Is it fair to expect a five-year-old to be able to identify ballet music? At the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s joyously kinetic performance yesterday, the five-year-old along for the ride with this crew did exactly that, without any prompting. Does that make her precocious…or simply normal? Is a physical response to music an innate human trait? If a child doesn’t respond to music in a visceral way, is that a trouble sign …or just that the kid might need some sleep, or might not like a particular style of music? How many parents ask themselves questions like these?

Although this particular program was not devised as a children’s concert, there were several, ranging from preschool through middle school age, scattered throughout the crowd with their parents…and they were into it! And aside from boisterously applauding between pieces, they kept still. And that probably wasn’t easy, considering how much fun the orchestra was having. Who had the most? The pointillistic trumpet section – Warren Wernick, Ian C. Schaefer and Richard Perry Woodbury III? The percussion section – Gerard Gordon, Jamie Reeves, Julian Bennett Holmes, Sunita deSouza and and Benjamin Vokits – who got to air out a carnival’s worth of rhythms on everything from deep timpani to clashy cymbals to twinkly vibraphone? Conductor Barbara Yahr, a lithe and meticulously graceful presence in front of the ensemble, finally signaling the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappricio Espagnol with an unselfconsciously triumphant reach for the rafters?

The concert’s unifying theme (pretty much every performance by this orchestra has one) was global music with a Spanish tinge. The simplest and most obviously derivative was Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, fleshed-out variations on folk themes to open the show. Four dances from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia suite vividly evoked field hands conspiring, a balmy romantic waltz deep in the wheat, and cowboys on a race across the plains (this is where the trumpets had a ball), up and out on a victorious vamp.

Dancers Orlando Reyes and Adriana Salgado swayed and intertwined elegantly against the alternately stately and plaintively lyrical pulse of a couple of Astor Piazzolla works. As a bonus, the noir-tinged Fracanapa and a lush, string-fueled arrangement of Milonga del Angel, then Osvaldo Pugliese’s earthier Negracha were lit up with guest soloist JP Jofre’s wistfully lyrical bandoneon.

Yahr grinningly introduced the Rimsky-Korsakov as anything but authentically Spanish, and she was right on the money, but it made for a delirious romp just the way it was, an indelibly Slavic suite spiced with Russian Romany riffs rather than anything genuinely evoking flamenco, or Romany sounds from west of the Balkans. And there were hints of klezmer in there too, throughout the boisterious overture and variations and the more subdued waltz that later on becomes a “Scene e canto gitano” or well-intentioned, propulsively lyrical facsimile thereof. This was the concluding concert in the GVO’s 2013-14 season, sending both parents and kids out into the reception afterward humming what they’d just heard.

May 19, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lush, Luxuriant, Relentless Intensity from JP Jofre and the Attacca String Quartet

It takes nerve to put your own string quartet on the program after an Astor Piazzolla work widely regarded as a classic, but that’s what bandoneon virtuoso JP Jofre did at SubCulture last night. Not only was it not anticlimactic; it would have made a good segue with the bill’s centerpiece, the late-period Piazzolla suite Five Tango Sensations. Jofre filled the time between the two pieces with a small handful of hard-hitting shorter works of his own before leaping into his String Quartet No. 1, joining with the Attacca String Quartet: cellist Andrew Yee, violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga and violist Luke Fleming.

Jofre broke a sweat before the first piece, a stormy, bustling miniature, was over. Then he led the group into the lingering, wistful introduction to Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations. The suite was premiered by the composer with the Kronos Quartet at Lincoln Center in 1989 and remains one of the standouts in a late-career burst of creativity to rival pretty much any composer, ever. The “sensations” in the title are meant to describe specific emotions; the composer wasn’t bragging about how sensational the suite is…yet that’s a good way to describe it. The ensemble built it to lushly shifting, Rachmaninovian washes of strings, resolutely propelling a vamp that was a lot more bitter than sweet. Dynamic shifts, which the group worked like a charm all night, went from to darkly pillowy to leaping and insistent, developing the ominously chromatic central theme and then angst-fueled variations to an ultimately triumphant conclusion. In between, the strings carried a somber, noirish lament that made the payoff at the end all the more rewarding – and unexpected, for anyone hearing it for the first time.

From there Jofre mixed and matched a trio of smaller-group numbers, first a tender, hypnotic lullaby for his niece and then a marauding, rat-a-tat theme that evoked the cello metal of Rasputina before shiftting back and forth between atmospheric washes and a big, shivery bandoneon cadenza into a victoriously anthemic ending. An austere, rather elegaic bandoneon/cello duet was next. Then they tackled the String Quartet – which is actually a quintet, the bandoneon featured in its later movements. Throughout the composition, Jofre kept his collaborators on their toes as the variations moved briskly through an uneasy rustle, warmly anthemic hints emerging from moody atmospherics, the bandoneon leading the cello through a furtive chase scene to a big, rhythmic, stalking passage that deviously signaled the way out. They wound up the show with an explosive, anxiously bustling piece whose dark drama crept into crime-jazz turf and ended cold. The pretty much sold-out audience responded about as explosively as the music they’d just heard. For anyone in search of soul-wrenching, emotionally-charged tunefulness, Argentina is the place to look, with Jofre as one of its most original ambassadors.

November 8, 2013 Posted by | concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Transatlantic Ensemble Gives Their New Album a Mighty Launch

Monday night the Transatlantic Ensemble Imani Winds clarinetist Mariam Adam and German pianist Evelyn Ulex – teamed up with nuevo tango bandoneon virtuoso J.P. Jofre for one of those semi-private concerts that are all the rage now (it wasn’t closed to the public, but you either had to know someone or get on the guest list). As you would expect from musicians of this quality, much of it was transcendent. Jofre and Adam shared a fondness for bittersweet ambered tonalities, and there were plenty of those, each of the artists at the top of their game. This was the album release show for the ensemble’s new one and if this performance was any indication, it must be superb.

The concert opened auspiciously with a series of pieces for clarinet and piano, beginning with Adam’s french hornist bandmate Jeff Scott’s Toccata. Ulex drove it into increasingly stormy, dancing, Piazzolla-influenced territory with a distantly bluesy undercurrent, Adam shifting in a split second from a crystalline pensiveness to bright, lively upper-register cascades. The first of three Paquito D’Rivera numbers, Invitation al Danzon, was exactly as Adam termed it, “a wonderful, hipswinging kind of piece,” juxtaposing increasingly brooding cantabile balladry with jaunty clarinet flourishes.

Ulex then delivered a comfortably expansive, satisfyingly nocturnal Schumann diptych, Fantasietucke, Op. 73. By contrast, her take of Rodion Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato – a real workout written for a piano competition, replete with wryly rapidfire etude-like interludes – was a battle, one that gave her innumerable opportunities to emerge triumphant with her fingers still intact.

Jofre joined the duo for the night’s most gripping moments, first with a rather epic, hauntingly memorable, angst-fueled mini-suite full of noir bustle, electric dynamic shifts, a long, suspensefully carnivalesque bandoneon solo and finally a sense of closure with a surprisingly still, calm ending, something completely unexpected in the wake of all the fireworks. The trio then romped through Jofre’s Primavera, an insistently rhythmic, appropriately vernal song without words. Adam and Ulex closed with two selections from D’Rivera’s Cape Cod Files (a commission from a festival there), an anxiously elegaic Piazzolla elegy and then a lighthearted but surprisingly sophisticated, modernist Benny Goodman homage full of tongue-in-cheek swing and boogie-woogie japes.

January 16, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment