Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays One for the Ages

The buzz after the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert yesterday evening was that they’d just made their definitive live album. There were mics prominently set up toward the front at Murray Hill’s sonically magnificent Church of the Incarnation: if the recording is in any kind of decent shape, they’ve got as good a representation as anything the New York Philharmonic have ever put out. Some audience members credited this sleek, insightful, literally flawless performance to the church’s sonics. Others more cynical considered that the shock of having to adjust to new digs might have jarred the ensemble into one of their firest performances of recent years, considering that their usual Irving Place home base is currently shuttered and under repairs in the wake of a fire.

Whatever the case, conductor Barbara Yahr led the group through an exquisite performance. They opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo, Andres Cardenes the soloist on violin. Playing from memory, he approached the music with a purposeful drive and a subtlety of tone, very light on the vibrato and incisive rather than keening, in a Yehudi Menuhin vein. Yahr’s interpretation of the Agadio was as a pillowy nocturne, strings and winds so seamless that they seemed like one single, plush instrument. Sometimes Mozart gets carried away with his stereo effects, but not in the Rondo, and the orchestra matched that subtlety, both with dynamics and detail, Cardenes sailing overhead.

Interestingly, the program notes mentioned how Max Bruch had some doubts about how to characterize his Violin Concerto No. 1. Was it contiguous enough to be a real concerto, or is it just, say, some kind of partita or fantasy? Bruch’s virtuoso violinist pal Joseph Joachim reassured him that it was plenty cohesive enough. Which is kind of funny, because it’s sort of all over the place… in a good way. It’s a study in contrasts, amplified by both orchestra and soloist, tenderness juxtaposed against a marching theme that, after a lustrous, meticulously moody, spaciously paced second movement, takes a long upward climb toward a rather droll coda. It made a good segue with the Mozart.

Yahr explained to the crowd that she saw Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “The Reformation” as cycle of transformation on a very personal level, mirroring the religious paradigm shift that the composer sought to illustrate. We don’t know for certain, but some think that Mendelssohn didn’t think too highly of it since it was never published in his lifetime. What became crystal clear from the moment the orchestra launched into it is how clever, and often very funny, it is. It’s a big shout-out to Bach and has the same kind of drama as the St. Matthew Passion, with quotes from both Bach and the German Lutheran hymnal deftly interspersed amidst the increasing drama. Typical Mendelssohnian ebullience and optimism took a dip into a stately waltz and then an absolutely luscious, cantabile third movement before rise to epically anthemic proportions that had Yahr, usually a very meticulous and composed presence on the podium, caught it up its irresistible sway. Forget the album for a minute: this would have made a great DVD.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on May 22 at 3 PM, with works by Gershwin, Hindemith, Mozart and Tschaikovsky’s Capriccio Italian, the fantastic trumpeter Brandon Ridenour as soloist at a venue TBA. Watch this space.

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April 11, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Thrill Ride with the Greenwich Village Orchestra

There’s no thrill like being right on top of a symphony orchestra as they stampede through a particularly energetic passage. It’s almost like standing too close to the tracks as a train goes by: you literally feel the music as much as you hear it. And at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concerts, you don’t have to have a hedge fund in order to get a front row seat (a $15 donation gets you in; as at Merkin Hall, seats are general admission). Their previous performance back in November looked to be pretty much sold out; their concert this past Sunday wasn’t, probably because the program was more obscure (and maybe because it was what has become unseasonably cold outside). As it turned out, nobody took those front-row seats this time, probably because the sightlines are better a little further back in the auditorium. Standing in for the orchestra’s music director Barbara Yahr, conductor Pierre Vallet led the ensemble through a joyous, often Christmasy program that began and ended on a celebratory note. Conceivably, this particular bill would have been an appropriate choice for the New York Philharmonic Society to play sometime in the winter of 1886.

The first piece was Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger. Although it’s hardly profound, it’s impossible not to pick up on the subtleties and get lost in the music if you’re only about fifteen feet from the stage. A cynic might say that the orchestra figured, ok, if we have to play this thing, we might as well have fun with it – and they did! It wasn’t quite unbridled lust, but it was close to it – and the piece’s artful little touches, like the tense, shivery strings leading up to a crescendo in the midsection (“Uh oh, is the singer up there going to blow it, or win the contest? This suspense is killing me!”) were undeniable. The opera it comes from is farcical – it’s an ancestor of American Idol – but this orchestra redeemed it, at least this particular excerpt.

German/Jewish Romantic composer Max Bruch is best known for his plaintively powerful Kol Nidre Variations. The Orchestra played his four-part Scottish Fantasy suite, which isn’t quite as gripping, but it’s awfully close, particularly the lushly moody opening movement. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim was obviously enjoying herself as she made her way through meticulously bracing variations on the Scottish folk themes on which the piece is based. It’s a showcase for virtuoso fiddle-dance moves, and Kim made the most of them as the work picked up steam, its cinematics shifting from rugged Scottish coastline to country dance and then a triumphant battle theme, Vallet literally dancing on his toes on the podium as the orchestra swung through the changes with congenial majesty.

The concluding piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which is vastly underrated as Beethoven goes. The backstory here is that when he wrote this, Beethoven was in the midst of a particularly fertile period, even by his standards. He’d already started the Fifth Symphony, but then received a commission from a German nobleman (in those days, there were no foundations for the arts and no Kickstarter: you went straight to the one-percenters) who was a big fan of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Perhaps cynically, it seems the composer figured something like, “What the heck, I’ll knock off this one and then get back to my new magnum opus.” But he didn’t just phone it in – in its warm, comfortably glimmering way, this was a joy to hear. A well-oiled, perfectly balanced machine, the orchestra made their way through the suspenseful atmospherics of the opening movement, to a sudden, blustery gallop and then the buoyantly swaying minuet in the second, awash in the glimmering contentment of the high strings against warmly nocturnal, sustained brass and woodwind tones. After the stately, hypnotic, bass-driven pulse of the third movement, violinist/concertmaster Robert Hayden nimbly led the rest of the strings through the understatedly apprehensive flurries of chromatics that finally lit the fuse for several entertainingly Beethovenesque false endings. In the back, Yahr grinned in appreciation for the way her orchestra had bonded with Vallet, and vice versa. The GVO’s next concert is especially choice: March 25 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium on Irving Place, featuring Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Violin Concerto followed by Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 directed by up-and-coming conductor Farkhad Khudyev.

February 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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