The last time Max Lifchitz performed in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, he was at the piano, delivering a characteristically diverse and eye-opening program of 20th century Mexican composers including works by Carlos Chavez, Manuel Enriquez, Manuel M. Ponce, Maria Teresa Prieto, Silvestre Revueltas, and an eclectically lively partita by Brian Banks along with a pastorale partita of his own. Much of the bill could be characterized as the Second Viennese School gone south of the border. Tuesday night, Lifchitz conducted his North/South Chamber Orchestra in a matter-of-factly transcendent program of contemporary compositions.
Katherine Hoover‘s South Zephyr was an evocatively buoyant, gently kinetic evocation of an enveloping, warmly comforting wind from the tropics, Lisa Hansen’s flute afloat on a lush bed of strings. Victor Kioulaphides‘ Summer Concerto, a string piece, was the big hit with the audience with its misterioso pulse, dynamic shifts, subtly flamenco-tinged interlude and allusions to Andalucia and the Middle East.
Alla Pavlova‘s Concertino came across as the great lost Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #5, or something from late Tschaikovsky. It didn’t have the virtuoso piano passages of Rachmaninoff, but it was packed with the kind of direct, emphatic, angst-ridden, stunningly memorable riffage that defines that composer’s work. And it featured plenty of original tropes as well, most notably the shivery string passages in the opening segment as a backdrop to Helen Lin’s icepick piano and Mioi Takeda’s steely but cantabile violin.
Soloist Edmundo Ramirez brought a graceful but plaintive, sometimes vividly aching edge and an acerbic tone to the night’s most stunning work, Anna Veismane‘s Concerto for Viola d’Amore. A tone poem, more or less, its tectonic sheets shifted slowly and methodically and grew more haunting as it went on, building a surreal, dangerously otherworldly mood with close harmonies from the strings. Lifchitz concluded with his own song suite, Forget Me Not, sung with deadpan wit by soprano Carol Wilson. Over the lilting sway of the strings, Wilson managed to keep a straight face through a long interlude about a potato, something some of the audience could do but others could not. It made for comic relief in the wake of a lot of searing emotion.
Lifchitz’s agenda with his long-running North/South Consonance concerts is to cross-pollinate on a global level and promote the work of composers from across the Americas alongside their counterparts from literally everywhere else. It’s an ambitious project, and something to keep an eye on if first-rate new works (and plenty of older rarities) by under-the-radar composers are your thing.
Going to see a concert by the New York Scandia Symphony is something akin to being a member of a secret society. They are an organization after our own heart. The NY Scandia dedicates itself to popularizing Scandinavian works from over the centuries, some of which are well-known or even iconic on their native turf but completely obscure here. You can also count on them for at least one US or New York premiere at every show. Thursday night in the comfortable Victor Borge Auditorium at Scandinavia House in midtown they brought their smaller String Symphony chamber ensemble for a program that even by their exacting standards was riveting.
They took their time opening up with Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Flute Concerto, whose highlights were a handful of dexterously ornamented yet understatedly precise solos by Lisa Hansen. As a composition, it shows its age, fugal and predictable, yet the ensemble lit into it with such insistent gusto that it was impossible not to believe: they completely sold it. By contrast, the largo from early 20th century Danish composer Poul Schierbeck’s song cycle I Was Born in Denmark was nothing short of transcendent. Schierbeck was an organist, and the string arrangement is unsurprisingly a lush blend of subtle textures, a perfect match for the stately longing and distant anguish of the melody. A piece by Norwegian Romantic composer Johan Svendsen contrasted with its attractive, comfortably steady ebullience.
Making his North American debut, hotshot Danish accordionist Bjarke Mogensen joined the ensemble for a richly genre-blending, emotionally intense yet frequently very playful US premiere of Anders Koppel’s Concerto Piccolo. Koppel began his career as a rock musician while still in his teens, playing psychedelic pop with popular Danish export Savage Rose, but in the following years he moved to film music. This three-part suite proved as fascinating as it was well-played, leaping from jazzy, bass-driven Mingus-esque suspense to macabre Bernard Herrmann atmospherics to a surprisingly upbeat, subtly amusing conclusion. Mogensen matched a whirlwind attack through a knotty thicket of accidentals to several wrenchingly beautiful, minimalistically ambient passages while conductor Dorrit Matson worked overtime but didn’t break a sweat. They closed with another string piece, Frank Foerster’s Suite for Scandinavian Folk Tunes, the composer himself the featured soloist on viola, a similar feast of contrasting emotions, timbres and attacks. The piece interpolated a series of rousing hardanger-style fiddle dances meant to symbolize the five Scandinavian nations against a haunting, ominous “song of the sea” theme that cleverly worked variations on a minor sixth arpeggio. In the depths of the sway and the swells of the string section, the heart of a very inspired noir garage band – or Norwegian surf band from the sixties – had come alive, in a very subtle way. The Scandia Symphony’s next full-orchestra concert is on March 9 at 1 (one) PM at Trinity Church playing yet another premiere-packed program.
And by the way, Scandinavia House’s cute, lowlit cafe makes a good date-night spot – the organization’s dinner-and-a-movie and dinner-and-concert packages are quite the bargain and the regionally-themed cuisine (notably: fish, berries and fresh greens) turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.