Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mimesis Ensemble Champions Stunning Contemporary Works at Carnegie Hall

If there’s anybody who doesn’t think that the contemporary string quartet repertoire is one of the world’s most exhilarating, they weren’t onstage or in the crowd last night at Carnegie Hall. In a multi-composer bill along the same lines as what the Miller Theatre does, Mimesis Ensemble staged a program featuring works of four current composers – Anna Clyne, Alexandra du Bois, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mohammed Fairouz – to rival any Shostakovian thrills filling the halls further up Broadway.

These were dark, moody, otherworldly thrills, first from Clyne’s rhythmic suite Prima Vulgaris (meaning “evening primrose”), delivered with verve by violinists Alex Shiozaki and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir. She, in particular, is a player who relishes low tonalities, who’s not afraid to dig in and go deep into the well, taking charge to the point where she was essentially leading the ensemble. Austerity punctuated by pregnant pauses built to hints of an English reel, a long passage that gave Levinson a launching pad for vividly plaintive unease, then a pensive microtonal romp over an ominous cello drone. Tension-packed runs down a memorably uncertain scale set off an increasingly agitated series of variations that ended surprisingly quietly, but no less hauntingly. In its troubled way, it’s a stunning piece of music.

As was du Bois’ String Quartet No. 3, Night Songs, inspired by the journals of Holocaust memoirist and victim Esther Hillesum. As one would expect from a suite inspired by a philosophically-inclined bon vivant murdered at 29 by the Nazis, it has a wounded, elegaic quality. Dread and apprehension are everywhere, even in its most robust moments. It’s less a narrative than a series of brooding crescendos leading to horror, whether sheer terror or heart-stopping stillness. The melody and shifting motifs don’t move a lot, hinting and sometimes longing for a consonance that’s always out of reach. Levinson once again took centerstage with a series of raw chords, setting off a scurrying, pell-mell passage that led to keening overtones and then distantly menacing swoops. Hints of a dance gave no inkling of the considerably different tangent the piece would take as it cruelly but gracefully wound down. The audience exploded afterward.

The program wasn’t limited to string quartets. Roumain was best represented by an intricately woven, lively, dancing, George Crumb-inspired work played by a wind quintet of clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, oboeist Carl Oswald, bassoonist Brad Balliett and flutist Jonathan Engle, with Jason Sugata’s horn calm in the center of the storm.

Fairouz, who amid innumerable projects is reinvigorating the venerable art-song catalog, likes to collaborate with poets (maybe because his compositions tend to be remarkably terse and crystallized). For this he brought along  poet David Shapiro, whose bittersweet Socratically-themed texts were fleshed out by a septet with strings and flute, strongly sung by soprano Katharine Dain and masterfully lowlit by Katie Reimer’s alternately vigorous and murkily resonant piano. Closely attuned to lyrical content, sometimes agitated, sometimes playful insistent, this quartet of songs seemed to mock death as much as dread it.

Mimesis Ensemble are at Merkin Concert Hall on May 4 at 8:30 PM playing a Lynchian elegy by Caleb Burhans, a cruelly sarcastic take on eco-disaster by David T. Little, powerful and historically aware chamber pieces by Fairouz as well as other works. Advance tickets are only $10 (students $5) and are highly recommended.

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January 25, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mohammed Fairouz’s Chamber Works Defy Categorization

Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz, the composer’s debut collection, came out on Sono Luminus last year. WQXR did a little piece on it: they didn’t really get it. The album title is something of a misnomer: while there is considerable rigor in Fairouz’s work, he also happens to be one of the great wits in contemporary composition. But his wit is biting and edgy, sometimes caustic, qualities that elevate even the most obvious pieces here (and there are a couple) above the frivolity that defines so much of what’s considered “indie classical.” The rest of the album, a remarkably diverse collection of works for wind quartet and bass, violin-and-sax duo, solo piano, guitar and string quartet, imaginatively and utterly unpredictably blends postminimalism, neoromanticism, bracing atonalities and occasional satire. In places, it’s harrowing; elsewhere, it can be hilarious.

The opening composition, Litany, performed by bassist James Orleans and a wind quartet of Claire Cutting on oboe, Jonathan Engle on flute, Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and Thomas Fleming on bassoon could easily be titled “Pensively Apprehensively.” A sense of longing pervades as the ensemble strolls plaintively with chilly, fanfare-ish counterpoint and a rondo of sorts; it ends unresolved. The title’s Critical Models are violin/sax duos, two questions,each followed by a response. The first, Catchword: A Modernist’s ‘Dilemma,’ employs a bustling, anxious semi-conversation between Michael Couper’s alto sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. If this is to be taken at face value, it will. Its rejoinder employs tersely quavery microtonal intricacies and a stillness-vs-animation tension, inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A satirical faux-bellydance theme with actually quite lovely violin, Catchword: An Oriental Model illustrates a hideous anti-Arab screed by British Victorian playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer; its vividly optimistic response, inspired by Edward Said, has Couper playing the voice of reason via mystical, airy microtones, and when Ahn gets the picture, she grabs it with both hands.

Pianist Katie Reimer plays six delicious miniatures with a potently precise understatement: she clearly also gets this material. The first is an uneasy, distantly Ravel-esque etude of sorts; the second, a creepy phantasmagorical march; a bustling, ragtimish variation on that theme; an exercise in creepy faux operatics; an obvious but irresistible exercise in descending progressions; and a minimalist, spacious nocturne.

The Lydian String Quartet play a diptych, Lamentation and Satire. The first part builds from mingling, dissociative funereal voices to a rather macabre crescendo, followed by austere, brooding solo viola and foreboding cello passages. The second seems to be a cruel parody of funereal music, with sarcastic rustles, a snide martial passage and a predictable if still quite moving solo cello passage to end it. Reimer and Couper than team up for Three Novelettes: the first, Cadenzas, cleverly interpolates satirical motifs within a moody architecture; the second, Serenade, has to be the saddest serenade ever written and is the most haunting work on the album; and a simply hilarious Dance Montage that has to be heard to be appreciated.

The album concludes with four works for solo classical guitar, played with deadpan clarity by Maarten Stragier. Baroque rhythms and tropes get twisted up in modern tonalities, tongue-in-cheek staccato stomps alternate with skeletal Italianate melody; the suite ends with a slowly spacious work that Fairouz calls a toccata, with seemingly snide, offhand references to both Bach and Elizabethan guitar music. Eclectic to the extreme and very successfully so, it’s an accurate portrait of where Fairouz is right now. Unsurprisingly, his latest project has him branching out into opera: last week, his first, Sumeida’s Song, based on a classic Tawfiq El Hakim play, debuted at Carnegie Hall. It’s something of an understatement to say that he’s a composer to keep your eye on.

April 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Young Lions Celebrate An Old One At Weill Hall

Rude as it is to eavesdrop, some conversations are worth repeating. Saturday night’s concert at Weill Hall featured characteristically eclectic and enormously entertaining music from Gunther Schuller and his younger colleague Mohammed Fairouz, seated together inconspicuously in the crowd. After one of Fairouz’s pieces had reached its end, Schuller nudged him. “About one note – I think it’s an “A” – in the second movement…it’s like punching a hole in it. It doesn’t work. With such beautiful atonalities, to have this bland note? You have to take it out.”

Which sums up the enduring value of Dr. Schuller – whose recent 85th birthday the musicians and composers were celebrating – better than any accolade ever could. Imagine: a composer who would use any means necessary to avoid blandness. Rather than taking umbrage, Fairouz was grateful that the former New England Conservatory president had given the work such a close listen. “I’ll find it,” he responded confidently.

This was a celebration of substantial music, which took itself with the utmost seriousness at times; other times, not at all. In a brief onstage discussion prior to the concert, Schuller – “A guy who doesn’t rely on the system,” as Fairouz understatedly explained – campaigned to expand his concept of third-stream to a “brotherhood or sisterhood of music,” to include not only jazz and classical but all global musical styles as well. Schuller pointed to the internet era’s explosion of available recordings as reason for optimism and the eventual triumph of complete syncretism, but reminded that effort and willingness to abandon outdated preconceptions would be necessary to cement the paradigm shift.

The music was just as much a celebration of eclecticism. Schuller’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone opened the program, pianist Katie Reimer nimbly negotiating its starlit expanses and trickily skipping passages, alternating and then converging with Michael Couper’s effectively dynamic birdcalls and pensive deliberateness. Farouz’s Furia, from 2010, followed, a string quartet of Tema Watstein and Michelle Ross on violins, Mary Sang-Hyun Yong on viola and Michael Katz on cello establishing a grave, foreboding ambience for baritone Mischa Bouvier to stoically deliver a lyric by Borges. In essence, it’s about reaching the pinnacle of success and hating every minute of it. As Katz coyly injected a little swoop and dive into the horror-movie sonics, Bouvier stern and immobile, it took on an amusing surrealism.

A far more serious suite, Fairouz’s Four Critical Models was next. Assembled as two statements, each followed by a response, the first, a bustling, agitated semi-conversation between Couper’s sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin sought to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. Its rejoinder employed marvelous microtonal violin intricacies inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A hideous anti-Arab screed by British playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer was surprisingly downplayed via some bright and probably intentionally generic Middle Eastern tropes; its response, inspired by Edward Said, worked a beautifully still, logical series of gently shifting sostenuto notes or simple motifs.

The evening’s showstopper was Schuller’s Paradigm Exchanges, a series of witty, shapeshifting vignettes that often segued seamlessly from one to another, with echoes of both Bartok and Messiaen. Here Reimer, Katz and Watstein were joined by Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Magdalena Angelova on flute. Through its fourteen movements, pretty much every possible permutation of the quintet was utilized. Watstein’s confidently eerie tritone-packed solo made a high point in the opening fanfare, followed by a vivid conversation, Dukovski maintaining a perfect cool as Katz’s cello grew more agitated. As the segues continued, it became impossible to figure out where one movement ended and the next began. Angelova provided strikingly apprehensive accents against Messiaenesque stillness; a bit later, Reimer got to hint gleefully at an evil buffoon theme, and then illuminate a murky bass clarinet drone. Eventually a canon emerged; the whole ensemble brought it to an end with an eerie flourish, an escape from a roomful of funhouse mirrors. Somewhere there’s a surreal suspense movie that needs to be made to utilize this literally mesmerizing, cinematic work.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment