Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Yelena Grinberg Rescues Rare Classical Treasures from Obscurity

For the last six years, pianist Yelena Grinberg‘s salon has become an Upper Westside institution. The lost treasures of the classical world couldn’t wish for a more enthusiastic, insightful advocate. The energy she put into finding them, and then bringing them back to life is astonishing. For context, she mixes in some of the more popular chamber works that you might see at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, although, realistically, all of this repertoire deserves such a wide audience. Grinberg is a generous hostess and fascinating to talk to. So many professional musicians are blase about their work. Grinberg is 180 degrees the opposite, a tirelessly passionate historian and interpreter of forgotten gems..

At Salon number 186 last weekend, Grinberg’s focus was on works for piano, flute and viola. She explained that she’d found exactly one, from an unexpected source: Tatiana Nikolayeva, best known as a virtuoso concert pianist and major interpreter of Shostakovich. Alongside that one, Grinberg added a piano/flute/viola arrangement of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp. There was also music for flute and piano, and flute and viola, delivered in high resolution. In addition to an extensive concert program, Grinberg gave the audience a detaiiled rundown of each work: she’s as entertaining a tour guide as the tour itself.

The musicianship was topnotch. Flutist Jessica Taskov played meticulously, from ripe, full-toned lows to sturdy swaths of sound and bright, sharply executed accents. This concert was also a rare opportunity to see the great violist Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin playing other peoples’ music: he’s been one of New York’s leading composer-performers for over a decade.

The highlight of the program was the Weinerg piece, opening with troubled, slowly unfolding exchanges between flute and viola over an ominous implied pedalpoint. Grinberg’s spiky accents and occasional glissandos energized the desolate call-and-response, up to what came across as a twisted parody of a klezmer dance. Clearly, the horrors the composer had survived, first from the Nazis, and then the Soviets, still lingered when he wrote it in 1979. Having witnessed the Philharmonic playing Corigliano’s terrifying Symphony No. 1 the previous night, this carried even more of a wallop.

Nikolayeva’s eight-part suite turned out to be as delightful a mix of flavors as a composer can possibly pack into about twenty minutes: baroque dances, a puckishly precise scherzo, moody contemplation from flute and viola, allusions to a Balkan bagpipe tune, a slow, starry waltz and finally a clever, Spanish-tinged variation that brought the music full circle. Was this a New York premiere? Or even a North American one?

Likewise, Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style for Violin and Piano (flute playing the violin part) explored familiar tropes from the baroque and onward: a lilting Sicilienne, a strutting ballet and n unexpectedly serioso duet with more than a hint of Mozart. The fugue was where Grinberg’s passion for Bach made itself the clearest, with perfect articulation on the keys that managed at the same time not to be fussy.

Grinberg characterized Alexander Zhurbin‘s piano and viola arrangement of the Waltz from his opera Doctor Zhivago, as “buoyant and passionate,” and she nailed its dynamic neoromanticisms in tandem with the younger Zhurbin (Ljova is Alexander’s son). The two closed with Anton Rubenstein’s Viola Sonata in F Minor, which as Ljova explained, is full of “macho energy.” The violist went deep into the composer’s rich low-register sonics, contrasting with the deviously sotto-voce harmonics of the third movement. And the piece is just as much of a concerto for piano, but Grinberg dug in for its cruelly challenging, stabbing, Schumann-style chordal runs.

The next salon is sold out; after that, Grinberg is offering a fantastic program on June 19 at 7 and the June 23 at 5 PM, with Rachmaninoff’s shattering Trio Elegiaque, along with the famous Arensky piano trio plus lesser known works by Tschaikovsky and Myaskovsky. The salon webpage accepts reservations; you can email the impresario for additional information. If you’re coming from outside the neighborhood, it’s about two minutes from the 96th St. stop on the 1/2/3 – exit at the front of the train.

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June 4, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Sides of Evocative, Brilliant Violist and Composer Ljova

Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin is one of the world’s most dynamic, versatile violists. As you would expect from someone who’s as busy as a bandleader as he is a sideman, he wears many, many hats: film composer, lead player in a Russian Romany party band, arranger to the stars of indie classical and the Middle East…and loopmusic artist. Ljova’s next New York show is a great chance to see him at full power with Romashka, the wild Romany-flavored band who are playing a killer twinbill with western swing stars Brain Cloud at 8 PM on March 23 at Flushing Town Hall. Cover is $16, $10 for seniors, and kids 19 and under with school ID get in free.

Ljova’s latest album, Solo Opus, is a somewhat calmer but no less colorful one-man string orchestra ep, streaming at Bandcamp. The first three numbers feature Ljova overdubbing and looping his six-string fadolin; the finale is the only viola track here. The album open with The Comet, a broodingly gorgeous, hypnotically epic tone poem written in the wake of the fateful 2016 Presidential election. It’s his Metamorphosen: with its disquieting layers of echo effects, it brings to mind his work with iconic Iranian composer and kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. As sirening phrases encroach on the center, could this be a commentary on the perils of a political echo chamber?

Does Say It build from “a gorgeously bittersweet, Gershwinesque four-chord riff to a soaring, bittersweet anthem,” as this blog described it in concert in December? Again, Kalhor’s work is a point of reference, as is the gloomiest side of Russian folk music, particularly when Ljova works the low strings for cello-like tonalities. But there are echoes that could be Gershwin-inspired as the aching melody moves up the scale to a big climatic waltz.

Lamento Larry is a moody interweave of simple, anthemic phrases, rising from a Bach-like interweave of lows to anxious, higher atmospherics, then an echoey blend of the two. Ljova closes the album with the wryly dancing, distantly bluegrass-tinged, pizzicato Lullaby for JS, complete with muffled conversation and tv noise in the background.

March 17, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Richly Eclectic, Rapturous Program of Ljova Compositions for Strings at Lincoln Center

Since the early zeros, virtuoso violist Ljova a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin has built one of the most colorfully eclectic repertoires of any string player anywhere. Lush, enveloping film themes, tangos, wild Russian string band music, original arrangements of some of the ancient folk themes that Stravinsky drew on for the Rite of Spring, and hypnotic loopmusic are just the tip of the iceberg. Thursday night, Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh was clearly psyched to have him back after having booked his high-voltage, cinematic Kontraband a few years back. To her, Ljova is fam – and as he confided late in the show, he and his kids became big fans of the mostly-weekly free concerts here. This time out, joined by a brilliant and similarly diverse cast from the worlds of latin music, classical and the avant garde, he aired out some of the rarer material in his ever-increasingly vast songbook.

Using a loop pedal, he built the night’s opening piece, Say It from a gorgeously bittersweet, Gershwinesque four-chord riff to a soaring, bittersweet anthem: it was like watching a one-man string quartet, bolstered by the cello-like low end from his signature six-string fadolin. He’s come a long way since that cold night at Barbes a few years back where he broke out the pedal in concert for the very first time.

Another solo piece, Healing, was dedicated to his late friend, the great tango pianist Octavio Brunetti – whose final show, Zhurbin noted, was across the campus at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. With Zhurbin bowing on and off the low strings and inducing skittish high harmonics, its wounded austerity shifted in and out of focus, a subtle showcase for the violist’s vaunted technique.

“I’d like to start inviting people up here in batches,” Zhurbin grinned, as cellist Yves Dharamraj, violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Ariana Kim joined him for a series of ballet pieces. Asha, dedicated to legendary Indian playback singer Asha Bhosle, echoed one of the Bach cello suites. Melting River, the title track from his 2013 one-man band recording, seamlessly blended the High Romantic with Philip Glass-ine minimalism.

Zhurbin was in top form as cynical raconteur, explaining that when he was in music school, those who deviated from twelve-tone severity were dismissed as potential film composers. So he decided to try his hand at an ad jingle or two. Window Cleaner, which he and the group delivered live for only the second time ever, was the night’s most irresistibly amusing piece, shifting from brooding Russian Romanticism – dirty windows? – to a swinging romp through a shiny faux French musette.

Bassist Pedro Giraudo had joined the ensemble by the time they got to Mecklenburg, another ballet number, which was far more serious, considering it originated as an improvisation and attempt to get the kids running around the room at an upstate house concert to chill out. But by the end, it seems the kids had won, as the circling motives gave way to latin flair.

Violinist Melissa Tong and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Nicholas and cellist Joshua Roman took the stage with the rest of the ensemble for the final three numbers. The high point of the evening was The Comet, a swirling, turbulent, troubled piece written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. Through its muted images of troops massing on the border to a volcano of leaping, jarring, searingly atonal riffs, it brought to mind the work of Kurdish composer and kamancheh mastermind Kayhan Kalhor, with whom Zhurbin has worked in the past. He’d premiered it as a loopmusic piece on that same that cold night at Barbes in 2016.

They closed with Holodomor, a wounded, elegaic narrative of the deadly displacement of Russian peasants under Stalin, and then a surrealistically bittersweet, punchy string band approximation of Balkan brass music dedicated to the late composer Harris Wulfson, an old Golden Fest pal, It’s hard to think of any other composer other than Ljova writing as fluently and playfully across so many styles.

This year’s mostly-weekly free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. winds up on Dec 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic tropicalia dancefloor personality Miss Yaya; get there early if you’re going.

December 19, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily, which has appropriated the Balkan and Slavic sounds this blog covered for years]

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: “Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

May 26, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova & the Kontraband Play Smart, Fun Music for Kids and Their Parents Too

Kinetically shapeshifting, stunningly eclectic Slavic string ensemble Ljova & the Kontraband played two shows Sunday evening at the National Opera Center, one for the kids and one for the adults. What was most striking was that even as bandleader/viola virtuoso Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin kept a mostly kindergarten-and-under audience attentive and often wildly involved – the perimeter of the room quickly becoming a proto-moshpit – he and the band never dumbed down the material. Nor did they condescend to the children: no babytalk, no “LLLEEETTT’SSS TTTAAALLLKKK IIINNN SLOOO- MOOO.” He challenged the kids, and bantered with them, and they rose to the occasion. As it turned out, one of the girls quickly identified his instrument as not being a violin. Another kid wanted to know why Zhurbin had switched to viola at age twelve after seven years playing the violin. “I like a lower sound,” he explained. “All the high notes on the violin made me want to freeze!”

You think an American kid can’t dance in 7/8 time? You didn’t see the five-and-unders having a ball with it at this show. “You can count to seven, right?” Zhurbin grinned, and it sure looked as if they did. What was funny, and maybe predictable, was how the girls (a slightly older demographic here) hung toward the front and watched, and took it all in, and responded eagerly to Zhurbin’s dry wit while the boys thundered around the room, amped from the steady boom of Mathias Kunzli’s frame drum, Jordan Morton’s nimble, trickily syncopated, richly dynamic bass, Patrick Farrell’s torrential, often seemingly supersonic accordion volleys and Zhurbin’s own dancing, constantly metamorphosizing viola lines. What was almost as cool was how the parents let the kids run free: no helicoptering, no mom in hot pursuit with bottle of hand sanitizer or baby wipes. Then again, it makes sense to assume that fans of this band would make cool parents. And they were down with the wrly edgy cinematics of Bagel on the Malecon and the uneasy yet tongue-in-cheek bouncy-house rhythms of Love Potion, Expired and the rest of a largely upbeat set while the herd ran amok

The second set was for the parents, the kids moving to an adjacent room for a set by a similarly lively group, vintage French pop revivalists Banda Magda. And it was a opportunity, as Zhurbin explained, to get more subtle and even more eclectic, showcasing a handful of tracks from the band’s excellent new, second album, No Refund on Flowers, as well as a few older crowd-pleasers and lots of pretty intense new material. This group has commissioned a lot of new material via Kickstarter (food for thought for other bands), and they played a few of those, notably a surprisingly stately, carefully considered wedding waltz for an older Vermont couple who never had a chance for a first one since the husband had to rush off to World War II.

They also romped through the deviously shifting metrics of Sam I Am – a dedication to an Upper West Side character from Zhurbin’s Columbus Avenue neighborhood – as well as a haunting Transylvanian theme, a dizzyingly polyrhythmic dance, and a broodingly stunning version of the old folk song Black Is the Color, Zhurbin’s wife Inna Barmash bringing the lights down with her plaintive vocals while Farrell switched to piano and met her intensity head-on, note for note. They closed with the similarly poignant, imploringly crescendoing Mnemosyne, the title track from the band’s previous album, Barmash leading the rising waves of angst. It was a far cry from the delirious dance party they’d just given the kids and testament to the ability of this group to switch gears in a split second and make it seem completely natural. Then again, if film music is your stock in trade, as it is with this band, that’s second nature.

May 13, 2014 Posted by | concert, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.

Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.

The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.

When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game  – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.

The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief  Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring.  It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.

Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass,  Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Brooklyn Rider’s Walking Fire – Their Most Intense Recording Yet

Taking its title from a Rumi love poem, Brooklyn Rider‘s new album A Walking Fire captures the state-of-the-art New York string quartet at their most animated and eclectic, even by their standards. Violinist Colin Jacobsen, cellist Eric Jacobsen, violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords arguably embrace interests beyond the classical repertoire more than any other quartet in recent memory, from Central Asian and Persian music to Romany and even Americana sounds. This one finds them diving into Eastern European music new and old via a suite by one of this era’s most cinematic composers, as well as a haunting early Modernist/late Romantic warhorse, along with a gripping Middle Eastern-flavored trio written by Colin Jacobsen.

The first is violist/composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s Culai, a homage to the late violinist and Taraf de Haidoucks bandleader Nicolae “Culai” Neacsu. In five parts, the group moves through a caffeinated, circular, balletesque pulse to low-key, Romany jazz-inspired atmospherics, a gentle but expressive Balkan dance dedicated to singer Romica Puceanu, a frantic tarantella (previously recorded by Zhurbin’s rocking string ensemble the Kontraband) and finally the poignant, elegaic Funeral Doina.

Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 doesn’t have the ferocity of the quartet that preceded it but there’s still plenty of raw anger, as one might expect from a work written in the midst of World War I. What distinguishes this version from the many other superb ones out there? Brooklyn Rider digs in hard, particularly in the low registers, Cords and Eric Jacobsen doing most of the heavy lifting in elevating the bitterness and angst (not to mention the sophistication of Bartok’s harmony). Riddled with apprehension, there’s a persistent contrast between an elegant staccato and a snaky legato that uncoils with a proto-Shostakovian dread. A wary subtlety dominates, especially as the high strings rise against the cello’s stern anchor in the initial moderato movement before giving way to the relentless pulse and anguished cadenzas of the second and the somber, smoky, funereal crescendo of the third. It’s a quietly, bitterly matter-of-fact showstopper.

Colin Jacobsen’s Three Miniatures for String Quartet draw on surrealistic, Persian-inspired imagery as well as Brooklyn Rider’s close association with the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor. Majnun’s Moonshine works apprehensively minimalist permutations on a darkly catchy, allusively chromatic dance vamp, while The Flowers of Esfahan shifts from an amiably twinkling nocturnal cityscape to an unexpectedly shivery swell. The title track employs Kalhor’s signature fluttering motives and otherworldly close harmonies over steady cello for an atmosphere that’s equally infused with dread and longing. Jacobsen, and the rest of the ensemble, succeed mightily in evoking one of their great inspirations with a triptych that manages not to be anticlimactic in view of what it has to follow – the decision not to close the album with the Bartok instead was very brave.

June 28, 2013 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Vividly Graceful Ballet Score for Strings by Ljova

Eclectic film composer/viola virtuoso/gypsy rocker Ljova’s latest album, Melting River, is a ballet soundtrack commissioned by choreographer Aszure Barton and developed at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada. The composer calls this his most personal work and it’s without a doubt his most intimate. An alternate title could have been Dancing With Myself – woops, that one’s taken. Playing as a one-man string trio or quartet here, he multitracks and loops himself on two instruments, viola and the custom-made fadolin, a 6-string violin/viola/cello hybrid. The music is elegant but lively, pensive yet liquidly kinetic, anchored by looped or circular phrases in the lower registers as bright melodies sail overhead.

The lithely dancing initial cut, Album Leaf is the most modern, artfully embellishing a simple, circular pizzicato melody and adding voices, some of them electronically processed, until it’s almost as if there’s a brass section playing them. Likewise, There You Have It balances a series of gracefully dexterous, minimalist leaps against  austere swells and then finally variations on a bluesy Gershwinesque riff.

A blend of modernist and High Romantic, the title track, an early spring tableau, could be Philip Glass doing Gabriel Faure, building from hopeful to somewhat anxious as it appears the river has a ways to go before it melts. It ends atmospheric and unresolved. By contrast, a miniature titled Asha works a catchy contrapuntal theme in 7/4 time, spiced with banjo-like pizzicato.

Birds is another narrative, swooping and suddenly looming in anxiously before a wry seagull voice makes an appearance…and then the cycle begins again. Another track in seven, aptly titled 7-4 works some neat contrasts and thematic handoffs between voices and registers over more tricky syncopation, with a jazzier feel than anything else on the album. The final cut, Never is a Good Time, is a Russian gypsy melody at heart, cleverly expanded and given plenty of breathing room. The whole album is streaming at Ljova’s Bandcamp site, something more composers should be doing.

January 4, 2013 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ljova & the Kontraband: Playful Fun and Riveting Intensity at Symphony Space

In an email the day before his show last night at Symphony Spaace, composer/violist Ljova Zhurbin described his ensemble the Kontraband as being “wry, fierce and ready.” Which is a considerable understatement, given that their set  included several eclectic, evocative film pieces; a lullaby; western Ukrainian klezmer songs; a couple of jazzy gypsy numbers; a brand-new rock anthem; and a ukulele-style arrangement of a Mahler symphonic theme for solo viola. Zhurbin happens to be one of the world’s foremost violists; there isn’t a symphony orchestra or string quartet that wouldn’t be happy to have him. But he’d rather write film scores and lead this dazzlingly cosmopolitan string band, this time out featuring accordion virtuoso Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and drummer/percussionist John Hadfield energetically and expertly filling in for the band’s Mathias Kunzli.

They opened with Blaine Game, a hypercaffeinated, trickily rhythmic, shapeshifting romp written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop in between jazz workshops that Zhurbin had been invited to teach there. They followed with Plume, a pensively swaying, lushly crescendoing atmospheric piece written for a documentary film about a World Cup competition for homeless European soccer players a few years ago. Then they launched into Love Potion, Expired, a boisteriously leaping, amusingly picturesque gypsy dance written, Zhurbin explained, when he was “moonlighting” in the gypsy band Romashka and had designs on the band’s frontwoman. Unlike the song’s storyline, this one ended well: the two ended up marrying, and with that, he brought his wife Inna Barmash to the stage for a series of intense, often harrowing klezmer numbers. Barmash is gifted with a diamond-cutter soprano; how subtly yet powerfully she weilds it is viscerally breathtaking to witness. They began with a sad waltz done as a duo between the couple, a vengeful dirge titled Koyl (Yiddish for “bullet” – you can guess the rest) and a couple of bitingly expressionistic, minor-key settings of poetry from across the ages. The most gripping of those was an early medieval German poem (retranslated wonderfully from Russian by Barmash) which commented caustically on a decline of civility and civilization that, as Zhurbin alluded, potently echoes our own era.

Not everything they played was that intense. Zhurbin brought out a couple of songs inspired by his two sons. Benjy, the oldest, got a playful, deviously joyous, bouncing number – if this portrait is accurate, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. His brother Yossi got a steady, more serioso song in the form of a lullaby, but with an amusing ending.

After the absolutely ridiculous Mahler theme and a darkly majestic, brand-new art-rock anthem, they wrapped up the set with the title track to the Kontraband’s absolutely brilliant 2008 album, Mnemosyne. It’s an increasingly angst-driven exploration of self-imposed exile: Barmash delivered goosebumps with her spun-silver wail as she took it all the way to the top of the final crescendo over Farrell’s rapidfire rivulets, Savino’s steady, incisive pulse and Zhurbin’s richly plaintive melodicism.. Zhurbin’s next New York show is with bassist Petros Klampanis’ excellent gypsy-flavored jazz group at Drom on Oct 11 at 7:30; the Kontraband will be at the Brooklyn Museum on  January 5 at 5 PM.

October 5, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova’s New Cinematic Album – A Movie for the Ears

Virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova’s new album is a lot like the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack, but more emotionally diverse and ultimately not as dark. A cinephile since childhood, he includes pieces here which have appeared over the last couple of years in films by Francis Ford Coppola, James Marsh, Lev Polyakov and several others. Fans of gypsy music are probably wondering if this is the new Romashka album – well…no, although that charismatic and equally eclectic gypsy band is featured pretty spectacularly on side one (Ljova has arranged the album with a happy A-side, and a more brooding B-side that ends rather hilariously). It’s literally a movie for the ears: that these vignettes and longer set pieces stand up as well as they do without the visuals testifies to how strong they are. Ljova’s signature ironic humor is in full force here, although the strongest cuts are the darkest ones. Many of these scenes clock in at under two minutes, even less than one in several cases.

On many of these tracks, Ljova plays an invention he’s recently popularized, the famiola, a hybrid six-stringed viola whose tonal capabilities surpass those of a guitar. As a result, his own multitracked soundscapes take on an unexpectedly lush, orchestral sweep. Being Russian by birth, it’s no surprise that he tends to favor minor keys, although the stylistic range of these instrumentals (and a handful of vocal tunes) is amazing: a couple of bluegrass numbers (including one lickety-split romp with Ljova backed by Tall Tall Trees); several moody, classically-tinged set pieces; a stately baroque minuet that turns absolutely creepy a second time around; and an anxiously crescendoing theme that very cleverly morphs into something far less stressful in the hands of Romashka clarinetist Jeff Perlman. And guest guitarist Jay Vilnai imbues the most gripping track here, a noir tableau titled Midnight Oil Change, with a distant but ever-present Marc Ribot-style menace.

As varied and enjoyable as all these are, it’s the gypsy music that’s probably going to be uploaded the most: a big, climactic, triumphant scene; an expansive, trickily rhythmic anthem; a fragment of an old Ukrainian song delivered with chilling expertise by Romashka frontwoman (and Ljova’s better half) Inna Barmash; and a blithe, jazz-tinged theme that also goes completely creepy when they reprise it. And Ljova had the good sense to put a genial, Gershwinesque stroll in the hands of this band rather than doing it as chamber music, a choice that pays off deviously the first time around and absolutely diabolically the second. Put on headphones (not those stupid earbuds), close your eyes, watch the crazy characters in motion. Ljova’s next gig is with his folks, Russian song icons Alexander Zhurbin and Irena Ginsburg at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 on Jan 15, advance tickets are very highly recommended.

January 3, 2012 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments