Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Unmasking Mirna Lekic’s Lithe, Energetic, Brilliantly Thematic Solo Album

In 2017, when pianist Mirna Lekic released her solo debut album Masks – streaming at Spotify – who knew how much cultural baggage that title would take on! Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the themes she explores here have nothing to do with fascist regimentation or pseudoscientific propaganda. Au contraire: this is a playful, entertaining, extremely smartly programmed and insightfully dynamic collection of music. The connecting threads are childhood and phantasmagoria, typically the jaunty rather than sinister kind.

She begins with Debussy’s six-part La Boite a Joujoux (The Toybox), the last of his ballet scores. The contrast between blithely leaping passages and murky, resonant lows is striking, and Lekic cuts loose with abandon when the opportunity arises: this isn’t a cautious album. The opening prelude, for example, is slower, with more emphatic bursts – which give it character – than other pianists typically focus on.

Later, the toy soldiers on the battlefield have a light-footed strut that borders on satire (an approach that could also, without any subtext, simply illustrate a kid’s carefree imaginary world).

The Sheepfold for Sale is on the spare side, practically an etude in how to play Asian pentatonics with icepick precision. Lekic finds plenty of goofy humor in Tableau IV (A Fortune Made) and closes the suite on a high note.

A pair of very different works serve as the centerpiece here. Debussy’s Masques is somewhat more darkly phantasmagorical, and Lekic gives it a very saturnine ending. With its creepy single-note bassline, 20th century American composer Robert Muczynski’s Masks makes an unexpectedly good segue despite its thornier harmonies.

Martinu’s triptych Loutky (Puppets) bookends more traditional carnivalesque sounds around a famous, lighthearted Harlequin of a waltz: Lekic seems to draw what she can from what’s pretty insubstantial music.  She closes the record with another lesser-known trio of short works, Villa-Lobos’ Prole Do Bebe (Baby’s Family), which reveal a strong Debussy influence, both in terms of gestures and pentatonics. Dolls made of porcelain, papier-mache and wood, respectively, come across as remarkably agile, scintillating and finally, anything but wooden. Instead, Lekic leaves the listener with a smile and a romp.

October 8, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

December 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz Connect the Unexpected

If you listen to NPR or watch PBS, this is old news, so here’s to all of you who’ve made the switch from the small screen to an even smaller one and might not have noticed that pianist Christopher O’Riley and adventurous cello virtuoso Matt Haimovitz have a new album out. It’s titled Shuffle. Play. Listen., and they’ll be touring it next year, with a stop at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Jan 22. Pianist O’Riley, host of the NPR/PBS program From the Top, is no stranger to making neoromantic instrumental albums out of rock and pop songs: this double cd makes three in a row. It’s a lively and often exquisitely good duo performance, simply the best thing O’Riley’s ever put his hands on.

To succeed with a music show, you ought to know something about connections, which is what the first cd is all about. Who knew how much Bernard Herrmann’s classic soundtrack to the equally classic Hitchcock film Vertigo had in common with works by Stravinsky, Janacek or Martinu? This guy, obviously. To make those commonalities crystal-clear, imaginatively potent new arrangements of parts of the Herrmann score are interwoven between the other pieces, a concept that might seem preposterous but works brilliantly. Haimovitz gets most if not all of the juiciest parts, perhaps logically since Herrmann’s score was heavy on the strings, and also because O’Riley has the good sense to stay within himself. His playing is distinguished by smartly thought-out dynamics, pacing and elegantly terse embellishments rather than pyrotechnics.

The first cd opens on a deliciously macabre note with Prelude from the Vertigo Suite, done here as a creepy waltz with artful, unexpected cello/piano overlays. The duo follow that with Leos Janacek’s Fairy Tale, which follows a similar trajectory: after the minimalistic first movement (with some striking, Kayhan Kalhor-style echo effects from Haimovitz), it grows more wary and winds up with an understated menace. The nightmare scene from Vertigo follows, impressively understated with its agitated cello flurries. Martinu’s Variations on a Slavic Folk Song makes an unexpected but rock-solid segue, growing from stark to forceful, with a suspenseful edge very similar to Herrmann’s.

They segue back to the Vertigo Suite for the hypnotic Carlotta’s Portrait, then take a detour for a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, its highlights being the sad waltz that precedes the dynamically-charged, surprisingly quiet Aria and then the Tarantella, which pushes the limits of how far and how fast O’Riley can go. The Scotty Tracks Madeline scene from the film gorgeously juxtaposes longing with blitheness and a rapt upper-register duo between Haimovitz – who can get tones out of his cello that no one else can – and O’Riley. From there, a spirited take on Piazzolla’s Grand Tango – with each instrumentalist assigned to cover a little of the ground that Piazzolla’s bandoneon did on the original – is spot-on. The disc concludes with the thinly disguised, mournful minuet that serves as the film’s love theme.

The second cd reverts to the random vibe of O’Riley’s two other classical-rock piano albums, with generally good results. There’s a marvelously successful instrumental version of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, right down to the cello winkingly spinning off a fade or a psychedelic riff straight off the record as O’Reilly rubatos the piano with just the right touch of suspenseful anticipation. And that band’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi gets a graceful, circular indie classical treatment, focusing on its subtle counterpoint, as does the almost unrecognizable version of A Perfect Circle’s Three Libras. A couple of Cocteau Twins tunes reach for a slightly less hypnotic atmosphere than the originals, while two Blonde Redhead tunes – Misery Is a Butterfly and Melody – run richly memorable hooks over and over for an approach that builds toward grand guignol. There are also two John McLaughlin compositions here – Dance of Maya, whose austere acidicism doesn’t stop it from matching up well with Herrmann as it morphs into a bitterly bluesy minor-key romp, and A Lotus in the Back Seat, done as Ravel might have orchestrated it.

Another Cocteau Twins track, the lightweight Heaven or Las Vegas, isn’t as well-suited to this kind of serioso treatment as the other tracks are, and the derivative faux-baroquisms of the first movement of the Stravinsky make for two minutes of what-are-we-doing-here. And as far as the two Arcade Fire covers here are concerned, the two players take an energetic stab at elevating them to Herrmann-ish grandeur, but ultimately, garbage in, garbage out: Arcade Fire is a boring band. But those are only small complaints about an otherwise mammothly successful effort. O’Riley also has a very cool, gospel-flavored free download available, Time of My Time inspired by Kris Saknussemm’s recent novel Reverend America.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments