Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Pensive, Quietly Dynamic, Relevant Album of Japanese-Tinged Themes from Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.

The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.

The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.

On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone  interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.

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October 19, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Downtown Fun with Brooklyn Rider

It wouldn’t be fair to let the day go by without a big shout-out to Brooklyn Rider, the cutting-edge string quartet who played a characteristically eclectic show last night at Pace University’s Schimmel Center downtown. There are dozens of great string quartets out there, but too few of them let their hair down and get into the music with the kind of unselfconscious exuberance these guys do. This wasn’t just a display of chops: it was about fun, and entertainment, and soul. And connections. They’ve just recently released a smartly thought-out album of Phillip Glass quartets (recently reviewed here): violinist Colin Jacobsen explained that he recently couldn’t get Joao Gilberto’s Undiu out of his head, since it reminded him so much of Glass. So he arranged the piece for the quartet, and they played it right after Glass’ Quartet No. 2 (the considerably pensive “Company” quartet, written to accompany the Samuel Beckett play). What a cool segue that was, playing up each work’s tricky, hypnotic circularity.

They also did an early Mozart piece; Jacobsen’s own intricate, playful Sherriff’s Lied, Sherrif’s Freude, drawing equally on Dvorak and bluegrass; a couple of captivating, more-or-less-horizontal works written by shakuhachi virtuoso Kojiro Umezaki, who joined them for second part of the show; and a bunch of sizzling gypsy dances, a couple with characteristically cinematic, deviously clever arrangements by violist Ljova Zhurbin, who was in the audience. If you follow this space, you’ve noticed that we’ve covered Brooklyn Rider a lot. This is one of the reasons why.

July 13, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Brooklyn Rider at the Angel Orensanz Center, NYC 3/15/10

Since they take their name and inspiration from the Blue Rider Group, the defiant, short-lived Munich assemblage whose membership included Kandinsky, Schoenberg and Scriabin, it only made sense that Brooklyn Rider’s concert Monday night at the Angel Orensanz Center would take place in the midst of an art exhibition. Like the composers the string quartet plays, the artists were a polyglot bunch and some of their work here proved to be equally dazzling. Kevork Mourad, who also plays saz (Turkish lute) and is a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, had several eerily vertiginous black-and-white works done in alternately bold and strikingly precise fingerpaint, evoking some of Randi Russo’s work. He also had a fascinatingly Escheresque concert hall – that’s not the half of it – echoed by the equally provocative, Escheresque Lennie Peterson illustration used as artwork for the string quartet’s new cd Dominant Curve. Also on display were what appeared to be photo transfers by Mary Frank, juxtaposing the playful with the gruesome, as well as a handful of casually striking ink-and-paper works in Farsi by Golnar Adili. All of these works are on sale, a portion of the proceeds to benefit the quartet’s next recording: they’re all up at the Brooklyn Rider site, scroll down the front page a bit and click on the vertical “Art Gallery” button in the middle.

There was also music. The new album is quite extraordinary, got a glowing review here and the songs from it that the quartet played were even more intensely and joyously delivered live. Cellist Eric Jacobsen admitted to a case of nerves playing in front of a crowd of friends: “But what is nerves but chemicals in your body getting you high?” he asked. “Thanks for getting us high.” With the bar in the back, what was on the walls and the group in front of them, it appeared that the audience was just as high.

That Debussy’s String Quartet, the closing number, wasn’t the highlight of the show speaks to the quality of the other works on the bill. That one they attacked with abandon, just a tad short of recklessly, cello intense, percussive and full-bodied, Nicholas Cords’ viola supplying a warm, almost hornlike tone during the quieter circular sections of the second movement. Their string rearrangement of John Cage’s darkly bluesy early piano work In a Landscape seemed on the album to be a series of artfully produced loops assembled by guest Justin Messina – as it turned out, it’s not. The group played every note of its hypnotically stately permutations, with Messina’s live electronics limited to a suspenseful drone. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s soundscape, …al niente, benefited from an inspired cello-driven raveup in the midst of horizon-induced, hypnotic ambience, and guest Kojiro Umezaki cleverly and playfully added both live shakuhachi and subtle electronic undercurrents to his own composition (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise. The opening piece, violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (a Debussy allusion) set alternately warm, memorably melodic solo passages, notably some lightning cadenzas by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, side by side with either acidic or lush atmosphere as background. They encored with the night’s most ecstatic work, an intense, hauntingly galloping version of Ascending Bird, the Kayhan Kalhor composition from their landmark collaboration with the Iranian composer, Silent City, from 2008.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | Art, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Brooklyn Rider – Dominant Curve

It makes sense that pioneering string quartet Brooklyn Rider would feel close to Debussy, considering their background as classical players who, these days anyway, specialize in world music. The perennially cutting-edge Brooklyn group appear on the latest Silk Road Ensemble album; their first cd included strikingly original arrangements of Armenian folk songs plus a tango by Russian-born violist/composer Ljova. With credits and credentials like that, they hardly need a career boost, but this hypnotically beautiful, stunningly imaginative cross-pollinating work is exactly that. The album’s central theme could be summed up somewhat reductionistically as circularity: this is a collection of new commissioned pieces based on elements that return and echo with a deliberately hypnotic effect, tonally, rhythmically and volume-wise. The concept goes back as far as humanity does, expanding over the centuries and when Debussy discovered Javanese gamelan music, that was the quantum leap, in terms of western classical music at least. The genius of this album is simply picking up where Debussy left off.

Smartly, Brooklyn Rider make Debussy’s lone string quartet the centerpiece here rather than the opening or concluding track, setting it in context with the new works around it. It’s amazing how new and fresh it sounds, delivered with particular percussive verve, nudging the listener to tune in to ideas resonating elsewhere here – unison passages, echoes of Russian and Asian tonalities in the first movement, the swirling repetition of the second and gamelanesque allusions in the last one. There are also motifs that have insinuated themselves into rock music over the years: listen closely and you’ll find them!

Ensemble member and violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (Debussy’s birth name was Achille-Claude) displays a strong Kayhan Kalhor influence, and no wonder, considering how closely the group has worked with the Iranian compose (their 2008 collaboration Silent City is a high water mark in East/West mashups). The theme insinuates itself quietly, growing more intense with a Kalhoresque insistence alternated with pizzicato passages leading to an absolutely haunting figure where one of the violins pedals a funereal, bell-like tone before the striking contrast of the most rock-oriented passage on the entire album. Jacobsen’s cantabile astringency in the third movement casually sets the stage for the fiery riffage of the final, counterintuitively ending much as it began.

Shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki solos with the group on his composition, (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise, fading up with what sounds like actual studio feedback, the big flute alternating between stillness and rapidfire fifth intervals. A call to alarm sounds distantly over ambient strings and a low, crackling tone that could be a short circuit (amazing how sometimes snafus in the studio translate into the best moments a group could hope for!). It ends with a good ambient jape whose ending deseves not to be spoiled here. The first of the two other tracks here is a tone poem, extended, apprehensive stillness punctuated by ambient effects, by another one of the group’s Silk Road cohorts, Uzbek composer Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky. The other makes a fullscale rondo out of the John Cage composition In a Landscape, Justin Messina’s artful electronic loops sealing the deal as what’s essentially a blues lick runs over and over again, its permutations finally fading out gracefully. Brooklyn Rider are currently on tour: their cd release show is on March 15 at 7:30 PM at the Angel Oresanz Center. Adventurous listeners would be crazy to miss it – advance tix are available here.

March 6, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map

Their most adventurous album. For ten years, the Silk Road Ensemble has been bringing some of the most fascinating, intense and pioneering Asian and Asian-inflected music to western audiences. On their latest cd, an all-star cast of some of the most imaginative players on the planet – literally – take a flying leap into a rich, cutting-edge program of cross-pollination with equal parts gusto and finesse. For one reason or another, it’s arguably the least Asian of the Silk Road albums, and also the most demanding – while some of the compositions here are among the most accessible the ensemble has recorded, others are far from that – but a close listen pays tremendous rewards.

The cd opens with a three-part suite by the reliably multistylistic Gabriela Lena Frank (who just won a Latin Grammy!), titled Ritmos Anchinos. The opening piece, as Frank puts it, has Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man discovering her inner latina. The second is a blissful little dance inspired by a Chinese-African village in Peru; the third hitches a raw, clattering, rhythmically tricky, reverb-driven pipa piece to a second part where the pipa takes on some particularly imaginative jazz guitar voicings.

Hong Kong-born composer Angel Lam’s phantasmagorical, shapeshifting Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain follows, building to a dark, dramatic crescendo following a sparse buildup in the Asian scale, Kojiro Umezaki’s rustic shakuhachi flute bringing back a rain-drenched, ambient feel. The second part is a mysterious narrative of the events of the first part, sweeping along uneasily on the wings of the strings.

Evan Ziporyn’s compositions draw deeply on his gamelan work, and his trio suite here, Sulvasutra is no exception. Based on an ancient treatise on the proper proportions for Hindu altars, there’s a definite symmetry here, circular, echoey and insistent, the extraordinary string quartet Brooklyn Rider interpolating atmospherics within tabla player Sandeep Das’ hypnotic rhythms. The second part sounds like what another adventurous string composer, Ljova Zhurbin, might have done with a gamelan, adding a raw Carpathian edge to the pointillistic ambience; Wu Man reappears deviously in the concluding segment, taking the piece rousingly back to Fiji.

The concluding suite – if you can call it one – is the album’s star attraction, the latest from Osvaldo Golijov, alternatingly rousing, joyous, raptly hypnotic and haunting. On the slinky, seductive first section, the Argentinian avant garde luminary proves himself adept and frankly exhilarating (if not exactly innovative) at lush Mohammed Abdel Wahab-style levantine orchestration. The still, brooding, mystical tone poems that follow fall in stark contrast with the ecstatic, defiant Sardinian protest song that fades up and blasts along like the Pogues, Galician bagpipe star Cristina Pato fueling the blaze. And then it’s over. It’s out now on World Village Music and it makes a particularly suitable holiday gift for the cutting-edge listener on y0ur list.

November 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adrenaline for the Soul: The Greenwich Village Orchestra in Concert 11/18/07

It’s hard to believe that this world-class orchestra has somehow managed to fly so far below the radar. For a $15 donation, classical music fans can see reliably good, frequently exhilarating performances of both popular and obscure works, discover new composers and watch some of the best up-and-coming talent at the top of their game. Shows as good as this afternoon’s spiritually-themed program by the Greenwich Village Orchestra usually cost a hundred dollars or more at the Midtown concert halls. Plainly and simply, there is no better music value in New York.

While the afternoon’s theme (this orchestra LOVES theme programs) was spirituality, it would have been better put as a celebration of everything that makes life worth living, a frequently riveting, exuberant, passionate performance. They began slowly with two orchestral arrangements of Bruckner motets, the first a pretty generic, post-baroque melody, the second slightly more interesting but ultimately nothing more than a standard pre-Romantic Northern European piece, nothing Mendelssohn didn’t do a hundred times better.

But they brought out every bit of drama in the next piece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture. It’s a celebration of the Resurrection, opening all quiet and suspenseful but building quickly to a fiery, galloping, gypsyish folk dance in three movements. On the podium, Barbara Yahr spurred the orchestra to play with wild abandon, and they delivered.

In keeping with the spiritual theme, three representatives of New York spiritual communities each delivered a short introduction to a particular piece of music. Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah impressed the most by quoting influential civil rights crusader Rabbi Abraham Heschel on how prayer is by definition transgressive, that one’s spiritual life necessarily works against the status quo in seeking higher ground. It was an apt way to kick off Max Bruch’s heart-tugging Kol Nidrei, based on the prayer invoked the night before the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Guest soloist Eric Jacobsen played his part on the cello from memory with an intensity that made it look as if he was about to break strings. He’s a rising star, and for good reason, with a seemingly effortless vibrato and a sense of dynamics that doesn’t stop at fortissimo. His blazing interpretation burned away any trace of sentimentality that could have insinuated itself into this highly emotional composition.

The following work was a world premiere, young Hong Kong-born Angel Lam’s Her Thousand Year Dance. If this piece is typical of her other material, it instantly establishes her as a first-rate composer, blending the windswept, pastoral beauty of traditional Chinese classical music with western tonalities. Beginning abruptly with a few bursts from special guest Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi (an oversize Japanese wood flute), it rose to an ethereal, atmospheric yet rhythmically difficult altitude and pretty much stayed there for the duration, aside from a couple of breaks with light percussion. That the afternoon’s final piece, Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, would be anticlimactic speaks volumes about what preceded it. Yahr led the ensemble through a highly idiosyncratic yet extremely successful reading. Although there are no breaks written in the music, Strauss wrote this ultimately triumphant chronicle of struggle and redemption in four distinct parts. While the piece is frequently played with an emphasis on overall ambience, Yahr spelled out the dynamics in capital letters, putting teeth in both the ebbs and swells, an unexpected thrill ride to close what had to be the most exciting classical bill anywhere in town this week.

The media typically holds classical musicians to a higher standard than rock or jazz players (which is grossly unfair: everybody, even the greatest virtuosos, make mistakes). If there were any technical flaws in this afternoon’s performance, it would be the sluggishness of the horns early on in the Bruckner and some general weirdness (tuning issues?) in the violins early during the Lam. Otherwise, Yahr steered this careening unit directly into high winds and stormy seas and then brought everyone back into port unscathed, the crowd (on the docks, if you want to bring the metaphor full circle) all on their feet, roaring their approval. The GVO’s next concert is December 16, billed as a kid-friendly show featuring Saint-Saens’ witty, interesting, multi-part Carnival of the Animals (which gets pegged as a children’s piece even though it’s quite sophisticated), along with pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn.The GVO’s best deal is their series subscription, especially considering what lies in store: in addition to the December 16, the remainder of the season features works by Shostakovich, Bach, Brahms and others. The concerts continue to be held at Washington Irving High School auditorium as they’ve been for several years, considering the room’s excellent sonics (it seems to date from the 19th century and at one time even housed a concert organ, whose pipes still stand to the left and right of the stage).

November 19, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment