Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

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September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Powerful, Provocative and Playful Performances at the Opening of the New St. Ann’s Warehouse

If you could perform a Yoko Ono world premiere with the Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? That’s what the audience at the grand opening of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo did Saturday night…literally. It was a playful Pauline Oliveros-style improv: everybody got to be rain, and snow, and a momentary thunderstorm. It wasn’t on the bill: from the looks of it, those of us who knew about it beforehand kept that information to ourselves.

The rest of the program embraced the cutting-edge, the profound and the warmly familliar. Choir leader Dianne Berkun-Menaker guided a beefed-up take of Americana band the Wailin’ Jennys‘ One Voice, plus an easygoing audience singalong of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House. Accompanied by vibraphonist David Cossin, the chorus opened the show with Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s Bubbles, a deliciously entertaining suite juxtaposing droll water noises with achingly lush, neoromantic atmospherics. The composer smartly chose to end on a humorous note: even the most serious-minded performer would have had a hard time getting through this one without collapsing in laughter. Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps, reprised from the chorus’ earlier performance this month at National Sawdust, maintained the kinetic pulse with its dynamic shifts, quirky accents and challenging polyrhythms, all seamlessly performed.

The most cutting-edge moment of the program was when the groups were joined by pioneering Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, who reinvent Bulgaian and Macedonian folk themes, sometimes cutting largescale choral works to their stark roots, sometimes creating 21st century arrangements of ancient folk tunes. The chorus seemed turbocharged for this one, poised to provide waves of dark earthtone color, elegantly slow glissandos and plainchant-like precision behind the microtonally-spiced, eerie close harmonies of Willa Roberts, Shelley Thomas and Sarah Small. The piece itself, titled Around the Forest, A Youth Roams; The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, was composed by Small – whose repertoire extends to art-song, largescale ensemble works and tableaux vivants – in collaboration with Brooklyn Balkan icon and theatrical composer Rima Fand.

The most relevant pieces on the bill were both world premieres, Sahba Aminikia‘s Sound, Only Sound Remains, and Mary Kouyoumdjian‘s Become Who I Am. The former gave the quartet a stern and austerely waltzing arrangement, delivered with precision against multitracks of women singers in Iran along with a digitized copy of a hundred-year-old 78 RPM folk recording. In Iran, it’s illegal for a woman to sing unaccompanied by men; this expression of global solidarity spoke volumes. Likewise, the latter of the premieres incorporated a litany of increasingly cutting, sardonic spoken-word snippets from members of the chorus into its carefully crescendoing, plaintive sweep, contemplating ongoing challenges facing women inside and outside of music. Bottom line: the glass ceiling might have a few cracks, but it’s still there. And if you thought the pressure to conform – especially for girls – was bad when you were a kid, it’s brutal now.

About the new space: it’s gorgeous. Tiered seating offers clear sightlines, and the sonics are pristine. While you can hear a pin drop when it’s quiet, it’s not a completely dry space like Avery Fisher Hall. And the hot chocolate at the food stand out front was getting the thumbs-up from the chocoholics in the crowd.

October 18, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Shattering Roulette Performance of Mary Kouyoumdjian Works Commemorating the Genocide in Armenia

Last night’s concert at Roulette included what were arguably the most harrowing moments onstage at any New York performance since Sung Jin Hong premiered his rumbling, macabre real-time depiction of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing at a Chelsea show with the One World Symphony a couple of years ago. This one commemorated the centenary of an even more lethal series of events, the holocaust in Armenia, via four works by the riveting, individualistic composer Mary Kouyoumdjian.

For those with gaps in their history, no nation in the past hundred fifty years was depopulated by mass murder to the extent that Armenia was, dating from the 1890s through the Ottomans’ mass extermination campaign of 1915-22 .The exact death toll is not known: if the pogroms of 1894-96 and subsequent mass killings are included, the number is upwards of two milllion men, women and children murdered, confirmed by the fact that barely fifteen percent of the pre-genocide population remained afterward. And if genocide wasn’t bad enough, who then formally annexed Armenia? The Soviet Union.

Kouyoumdjian’s music is rich with history, notably The Bombs of Beirut, her first Kronos Quartet commission, an examination of the effects of the civil war in Lebanon in the early 80s. That ensemble premiered an even more intense new string quartet, Silent Cranes, while adventurous chamber ensemble Hotel Elefant performed an equally gripping trio of works. The music was propulsively and often insistently rhythmic, and texturally rich, with some group members doubling on multiple instruments including accordion, vibraphone and electric piano. Kouyoumdjian worked the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from murky lows to whispery highs, often balancing them for a dramatic, cinematic effect.

A quintet including pianist David Friend, flutist Domenica Fossati, violinist Andie Springer, clarinetist Isabel Kim and cellist Rose Bellini played Dzov Erky Koonyov (Sea of Two Colors), a homage to legendary singer/composer/musicologist Komitas, who was sort of the Alan Lomax of early 20th century Armenia. An acidic, biting diptych blending elements of spectral, microtonal and circular indie classical idioms, it challenged Friend with its long series of pointillistic anvil motives, which he finally and remarkably gracefully handed off to Springer as the rest of the group provided a lush but stark interweave. Komitas spent the last two decades of his life institutionalized, broken by the horrific torture he’d suffered, referenced by Koyoumdjian’s endlessly cycling, aching phrases and distant Middle Eastern allusions.

Baritone Jeffrey Gavett gave an understatedly poignant tone to Royce Vavrek’s lyrics throughout Everlastingness, a trio piece, over the brooding backdrop of Friend’s piano and Gillian Gallagher’s viola. This was a portrait of doomed surrealist artist Arshile Gorky, who survived the holocaust and escaped to America after losing his mother to starvation. The first half of the concert peaked with a full thirteen-piece ensemble, heavy on percussion, playing the eleven-part suite This Should Feel Like Home. Inspired by the composer’s first trip to the land of her ancestors a couple of years ago, it referenced the seizure of national landmarks, forced displacement, longing for home and savagery that rose to a long, horrified, searing crescendo that left Josh Perry’s huge bass drum to roar and resonate and finally fade down. While the previous piece on the bill offered elegant variations on an austere, chromatically-charged piano melody, this was replete with vividly Middle Eastern riffs and cadenzas against constantly shifting atmospherics: as an evocation of mass agony, it was almost unendurable.

The Kronos Quartet were given a more plaintive work, Silent Cranes, sort of a synthesis of the meticulous insistence of the first part of the program and the raw angst that followed. To make things more complicated, they were challenged to keep time with with a similarly vivid series of projections of often grisly archival images as well as snippets of haunting old recordings (including one of Komitas himself) and testimony from survivors. It’s a severely beautiful, dynamically vibrant if unceasingly pained and mournful portait of an injustice that’s far too often overlooked, and ended on an almost mystical note to accompany historian/investigative journalist David Barsamian’s recorded commentary which essentially echoed that if we forget events like these, those things might well happen to us.

On one hand, what Kouyoumdjian has done with this is important historical work, and puts the music in an appropriatingly horrifying context – which the stunned audience eventually rewarded with a standing ovation. On the other hand, it would be also be rewarding to hear that string quartet by itself: it’s certainly strong enough to stand on its own. The best concert of 2015 so far? By far, the most intense.

May 13, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment