Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Far Cry Play a Demanding, Witheringly Relevant Program in Withering Heat in Central Park

It’s already an achievement when all eighteen members of a string orchestra can be on the same page and get everything right in the comfortable confines of a concert hall. It’s another thing entirely to do that in ninety-plus degree heat, facing a Manhattan sunset. Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, A Far Cry really worked up a sweat doing a whole lot more in a brilliantly programmed mix of mostly dark works with potent resonance for the pre-impeachment Trump era. 

The highlight could have been Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, from 1994. Managing to negotiate the thicket of hypnotic, often ominous circular riffage that foreshadowed Glass’ Dracula soundtrack from five years later was impressive enough. Yet the group dug in for both the jokes – the trick ending at the end of the first movement and the “who, me?” exchanges of pizzicato in the final one – – along with relentless macabre understatement. From the muted, wounded whispers of the introduction, dynamics were ripe to rise with a pulse just short of bloodcurdling. Much as the second movement is on the slow side, it’s also very percussive, and the ensemble were on that as well, bassists Erik Higgins and Karl Doty exchanging fanged serpentine phrases beneath circling cloudbanks of melody.

It’s one of Glass’ most Lynchian works, and it set the stage lusciously well for an even more dynamically bristling interpretation of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. WQXR’s Elliott Forrest, the night’s emcee, explained that the composer had written it in 1939 before escaping the encroaching fascism in his native Hungary. The ensemble kept their cards close to the vest through the straightforwardly strutting phony pageantry that opens the triptych but then got their claws out for the anguished, jaggedly slashing danse macabre afterward. Likewise, the contrast between the sense of depletion and loss in the second movement and the defiantly jaunty coda was breathtaking. As a musical hail-Mary pass (and raised middle finger at the Nazis and their enablers), it’s akin to Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel cheating the hangman.  

The group closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, rising from stillness to aching, Glass-ine echo effects and then an elegaic processional, a brooding conclusion to an often haunting evening.

The warmup piece – in every sense of the word – was Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K.138, a prescient student work written when he was 15 that lacks the colorful voicings he’d develop just a few years later, but its coy hooks still pop up in movies and on NPR all the time. As one of the band members mused to the crowd, who knew that this piece would ever be played in such a major city, let alone to a full house. Mozart would no doubt be plenty proud of himself.

And a special shout-out to the pretty blonde woman in the black sundress who shared an entire bag of walnut-banana crunch  – a high-class take on Fiddle Faddle – with the hungry blog proprietor seated behind her. If you see this, be in touch – reciprocity is due.

A Far Cry’s next performance is a program including Moussorgsky’s Pictures At an Exhibition plus a Jessica Meyer world premiere and works by Bernstein and Respighi at 3 PM on September 8 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The next concert at the Naumburg Bandshell is this coming Tuesday, July 17 at 7:30 PM with popular indie classical orchestra the Knights playing works by Anna Clyne along with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and works by Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat. 

July 14, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Johnny Gandelsman’s Album of Solo Bach Works for Violin: A Revelatory Magnum Opus

Johnny Gandelsman is the first violinist of one of the world’s most consistently interesting string quartets, Brooklyn Rider, advocates for some of this era’s most individualistic composers. As buyers of classical albums are probably aware, Gandelsman’s epic solo recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas – streaming at Bandcamp  topped the classical charts earlier this year, a more substantial feat than most people might realize. While the vinyl renaissance keeps gaining traction, it’s impossible to know just how many units are being moved since artists don’t typically report them. And keep in mind that the bestselling album of two years ago among all styles of music was a Mozart box set.  

For those who haven’t heard Gandelsman’s magnum opus, it’s everything anybody could want from a number one record. It’s arguably the most cantabile performance of these pieces ever recorded. Gandelsman approaches the material as a singer would, not only segment by segment – which run the length of the emotional spectrum – but seemingly line by line.

The secret to his technique is his legato. You can hear it in his work with Brookyn Rider, most strikingly in the group’s hauntingly lustrous take of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131, from their 2012 Seven Steps album.

Most musicians who play Bach tend to drift toward a mechanical rhythm. Then there’s a small contingent who decide that Bach’s steady note values don’t count for anything, and play rubato, with predictably befuddling results. Gandelsman doesn’t do either. Much of Bach has an inner swing – often, a shuffle rhythm – and he finds that wherever it exists. Other times, he lets the ornamentation serve as contrast to rhythmic steadfastness. And when he digs in with a razor’s edge staccato, as in the biting, leaping seventh movement of the Partita No. 1, the contrast is breathtaking.

This isn’t an album you can hear once and completely grasp. The more you hear it, the more of an ode to joy it turns out to be – but if the best you can do is play this in the background during dinner, you’re missing the point. What Gandelsman is going for here, beyond technical dazzle, is close emotional attunement. Bach loved stories, and secret codes – this is as close to a skeleton key as exists for this often wildly dynamic music.

It would be overkill to dissect each suite segment by segment. But there are innumerable interludes to get lost in (and if there’s any composer you can get completely lost in, it’s Bach). The way Gandelsman weaves through the ornamentation to introduce the opening adagio of the very first Sonata is as playful as it is stately – “charmingly antique” might explain how someone else would do it.

There are some dances here, but they don’t necessarily leap and bound. More likely than not, they flow gracefully, whether with the muted bittersweetness of the second movement of the first Partita, or the almost conspiratorial pulse of its presto finale. And even in the quasi-Vivaldi of the fourth movement, Gandelsman wrings as much sheer sound out of those volleys of eighth notes as any human not armed with an organ could possibly obtain.

Gandelsman parses the Sonata No. 1 from forlorn, to brooding, then determined and finally slithery – what a transformation! The build-down from suspense to partial resolution in Sonata No. 3 is also revelatory. The storm that rips at the chaconne that closes Partita No. 2 might be the both the album’s most technically challenging and adrenalizing moment.

Gandelsman doesn’t have any solo shows coming up, but popular young-ish orchestra the Knights, who often share band members with Brooklyn Rider, are playing the Naumburg Bandshell on July 17 at 7:30 PM with a program of works by Anna Clyne, Brahms and Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat.

July 12, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Knights Charge Through Central Park

The NY Phil may have abdicated Central Park to a considerably younger and somewhat smaller orchestra, but classical music there this summer is just as alive and well as ever courtesy of the Naumburg Bandshell series and especially the Knights. Their conductor Eric Jacobsen explained beforehand that last night’s theme would be Schubert and Liszt (this being the Liszt bicentenary and Schubert being one of his favorites), liveliness and fun bookending more pensive, complex, often pained reflections. As usual, WQXR’s Midge Woolsey emceed; the beginning and end, and interestingly enough, the high point of the concert all being staples of the QXR rotation for decades.

Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde was first, Jacobsen’s crisply serious approach imbuing its “Italianate” tropes i.e. buffoonery with something approaching gravitas. Liszt’s At the Grave of Richard Wagner was, well, Wagnerian and schmaltzy. But the orchestra was absolutely at the top of their game throughout three new arrangements of old songs. Schubert’s Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel was given an appropriately swirling ambience via Ljova Zhurbin’s orchestration, while another Schubert piece, The Brook’s Lullaby seemed like more of a fleshed-out folk song, a particularly bittersweet one. Liszt’s Freudvoll Und Leidvoll was done, maybe as should be expected, with even more grandeur, Jacobsen rejoining the ensemble on the podium.

The highlights were an absolutely stunning, cinematic take on Liszt’s “symphonic poem” From the Cradle to the Grave, ending as plaintively and bucolically as it began, with a lifetime’s worth of regret and occasional fireworks in between. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, an orchestral warhorse if there ever was one, was done freshly and dynamically, from that unforgettable, almost cruelly poignant, chromatic opening movement, through the alternately wary and lushly nocturnal waltz themes which follow, through what in this group’s hands seemed to be a completely unexpected, ebullient second movement. They closed with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, which seemed underdone for awhile. But Jacobsen had something up his sleeve! Woooooo! the orchestra intoned, and the race was on, complete with stone-cold, deadpan false endings and a rattletrap rollercoaster of a coda that had everybody holding onto their seats, metaphorically speaking at least. The Knights are on a roll lately: they’ll be QXR’s first-ever artists in residency, with a marathon four days of performances including one simulcast from the Greene Space the evening of September 18 featuring music of Ginastera, Golijov, Schubert and Russell Platt.

August 23, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brave New and Old Works by the Knights in Central Park

Transcending any kind of “indie classical” typecasting, symphony orchestra the Knights tackled a tremendously ambitious program Monday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park and pulled it off mightily. Composer Lisa Bielawa introduced the world premiere of her Templehof Etude, taking care to explain how it was an etude for her, not the orchestra. In addition to her substantial body of work for orchestra and smaller ensembles, Bielawa is a pioneer in the use of outdoor sonics and settings for classical and new-music ensembles. She’s orchestrated surreal conversations overheard on the street, and explored the possibilities created between roving audiences – and sometimes roving musicians – in public spaces. This particular piece is a prototype for Bielawa’s most ambitious project yet, a grand-scale work scheduled to debut in the fall of 2012 on the grounds of the Berlin park that was once the Templehof airport, the Berlin Wall airlift’s final destination [she explains this with typical diligence and grace in this New York Times piece].

And it didn’t sound anything like a typical etude, either. Knowing the backstory helped. Conductor Colin Jacobsen led the ensemble through a memorably direct, bright, brassy DID YOU SEE THAT exchange across a runway that took on a staggered echo effect with the strings and timpani whirling in – airlift to the rescue? Rich with suspense, a bracing passage of horror-film atmospherics playfully pushed aside by a bassoon, hypnotic counterpoint and a blustery, crescendoing overture, it was as catchy as it was lushly arranged.

The orchestra brought it down from there with a Morton Feldman piece dedicated to his late piano teacher. Quietly ambient atonal layers shifted slowly behind an incessant cuckoo motif that seemed to be an inside joke: was his teacher a cuckoo fan? Did she have a favorite clock, maybe?

Then they played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Jacobsen explained unassumingly to emcee Midge Woolsey that he’d always wanted to conduct it: its humanity, he said, was what strikes him the most. How do you tackle something so iconic, something that’s become part of so many classical music fans’ DNA…and a potential minefield for performers? The Knights did it fast, and precisely, and guilelessly, letting the joy resound, crisply: this was party music. And if the piece is part of your DNA, how do you experience it as an audience member? Pondering how the sonics of the birdcalls all around and airplanes overhead might fit with the music? By watching the shadowplay of the musicians on the bandshell’s back wall, or the bird overhead on its way home to the roof? Could its wings have been keeping time with the music? No. A strong bloody mary came in useful here. There should be a Beethoven’s Fifth drinking game: drink for every false ending, chug every time the meter changes.

Beethoven probably came up with da-da-da-DA in 1804, a long time before his most paradigm-shifting stuff. Knowing the backstory, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine it’s Haydn in the courtly second movement. But when the endless series of conclusions kicks in, it could only be Beethoven, and this time you’re at the bar, and he’s needling you. And he’s having fun too. And it’s impossible not to smile back.

Special thanks to Martha Sullivan, singer and composer of symphonic music for organ, and to Gail Wein, bassoonist and impresario to the stars, for their insight and good company.

June 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Knights at Night in Central Park

With all the great new music out there, and the Knights – one of the most adventurous, new-music-inclined orchestras in the world – on the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night, why did they play so much old stuff? Maybe because they knew they could bring so much joy to it – and counterintuitivity, too. Conventional wisdom is that name-brand orchestras surpass the smaller or lesser-known outfits, but all too often the big ensembles are basically sightreading and not much more. One of the benefits of a less strenuous season than what the Philharmonics of the world have to tackle is that there’s enough time for everyone to really get their repertoire in their fingers, discover it on an individual level and let its nuances fly rather than trampling them in a quest to simply get the job done. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who doubles as the cellist in celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) offered a prime example during the second movement of Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major. It’s a series of swooping arabesques on the strings, followed by variations that the entire ensemble picks up and tosses around. Jacobsen turned them into a mystery theme, then shifted gears with the tempo, a couple of times, with a wink and a grin as the melody split and shifted kaleidoscopically on the wings of the winds. Likewise, he led the Knights through two waltzes by Shostakovich (newly arranged with jazzy Kurt Weill verve by Ljova Zhurbin) with a jaunty cabaret swing, taking a brooding Russian folk theme and then a more Weimar-inflected tune and making something approaching real dance music out of them, guest violinist Vera Beths clearly enjoying herself as much as she had during the devious swoops and slides of the Beethoven.

The rest of the program was more traditional. They’d opened with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, something akin to the Simpsons Theme from another time and place. As with the Simpsons Theme, less is more with this one, and that’s how the Knights played it. Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite was written for a favorite niece, said WQXR’s Bill McLaughlin, standing in as MC in place of a honeymooning Midge Woolsey (congratulations, Midge!). The two miniatures weren’t Fur Elise but they weren’t bad either. The orchestra wound up the program with a warmly cantabile performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, commonly known as The Clock (from the metronomic sway of a prominent pizzicato passage). All counterpoint and comfortably familiar chord resolutions, to New Yorkers of a certain stripe it made a perfect soundtrack for wine and quiet conviviality on Central Park grass. This was the final Naumburg Bandshell classical concert for 2010; watch this space early next summer for information on next year’s schedule.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Knights Segue Through the Ages

As the Knights’ previous album Live from New York affirmed, the orchestra transcend any kind of “indie classical” label – they’re as much at home with Shostakovich as they are with Jimi Hendrix. Their first studio recording, New Worlds, artfully takes a characteristically diverse and ambitious selection of works from the Romantic era through the present day and casts them as a suite: the tracks basically segue into each other. As dissimilar as these compositions are, that the idea works at all is an achievement: that it works so well is a triumph worth celebrating. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who’s also the cellist in another first-rate new music ensemble, the celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) leads this adventurous crew with flair and gusto yet with an almost obsessive focus on minutiae: dynamics are everything here, and they are everywhere. For example, the apprehension of the trumpet motif rising out of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, the opening track here – and its single, fleeting, cinematic cadenza that rises up and disappears like a ghost. Or the second movement of Latin Grammy winner Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout. It’s a game of hide-and-seek, pizzicato string accents amid stillness like woodland sprites. And then a spritely dance, with distant echoes of The Rites of Spring. It’s supposed to be evocative of native Andean instruments, but the Knights give them personalities.

And they breathe new life into an old chestnut. Dvorak’s Silent Woods swings and sways, with cellist Jan Vogler the soloist. These woods are very robustly alive – it’s a romp all the way through the trick ending. So the segue into Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round, a memorably bristling, staccato string homage to Piazzolla, works like a charm. Credit Golijov, as well for the counterintuitivity of the funereal second movement, whose counterpoint could almost pass for Brahms.

And that’s when the album ends, for us at least. The ensemble have a special fondness for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, as they were playing it throughout the Obama campaign’s ascendancy up to the historic 2008 election. We’ll leave it to fans of that piece to contemplate where the Knights’ version stands alongside other recordings. The Knights’ next New York performance is on August 3 at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park – take the 72nd St. entrance on the east side, circle round the south side of Summerstage, go down the steps and it’ll be on your right.

July 8, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment