Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

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April 12, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Playful, Quirky Indie Classical Sounds at Lincoln Center

“We are home to free year-round programming that is as eclectic as you are this evening.” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal grinned as she introduced Sugar Vendil’s Nouveau Classical Project this past evening in the Broadway atrium space. “A project that we’ve been dreaming about having for a long time,” Dugal confided: “One thing that’s very unique about this ensemble is that these pieces were all commissioned by the band.” Co-sponsored by the Asian-American Arts Alliance, this performance was a rare opportunity to hear a first-class group of instrumentalists tackle some quirky, playful material which is pretty much exclusive to the ensemble right now, as Dugal pointed out.

Clarinetist Mara Mayer kicked off Olga Bell’s Zero Initiative against samples of banal crowd conversation, flutist Laura Cocks dancing over the staccato strings of violinist Maya Bennardo and cellist Thea Mesirow. Pianist Vendil joined the dance and then backed away as the music decayed to calm washes, then leapt back in. Onstage, the piece seemed both more dynamic and more hypnotic than the version on their new album Currents – but that’s a vey subjective observation. A flitting riff that the band quickly disassembled seemed lifted from Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, no surprise considering that Bell originally hails from Russia.

The second piece on the bill was Isaac Shankler’s Artifacts, whose maddeningly tricky opening rhythms and expectant upward trajectories also seemed more frenetic and bustling than the bubbly recorded version. Light electronic touches filtered through the mix behind emphatic, catchy, cell-like phrases, which fell away for enigmatically crescendoing ambience punctuated by delicate flickers from the winds. The tongue-in-cheek disco pageantry midway through was mostly confined to the laptop.

David Bird’s Cy Twombly homage, simply titled Cy, had a similarly ambient intro, the ensemble’s momentary microtonal motives creating a pervasive restlessness that eventually verged on terror. Clarinetist Eric Umble led them safely underneath, at least until Mesirow dug in hard on her glissandos and scrapes.The music came across as less horizontal than a brisk limo ride over a series of speed bumps.

They closed with Gabrielle Herbst’s Where Is My Voice – which as it turned out was on the laptop as well, the group’s calm resonance anchoring flitting samples of vocalese and labored breathing. Then they picked up with a hammering, Julia Wolfe-like insistence before Cocks’ agitated spirals and Vendil’s catchy lefthand riffage provided a cloudburst. Moody Satie-esque themes and syncopated circular hooks, led by Mayer’s luscious bass clarinet, punctuated the stillness of the rest of the work. Everybody in the group rocked custom-made stagewear by Jenny Lai: it’s classy, and it’s not all black.

The next concert in the mostly-weekly series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Dec 13 at 7:30 PM with wildly eclectic virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin leading a series of colorful ensembles. Get there early if you want a seat.

December 6, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious Portrait of Emerging Composers Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser

Student works by emerging composers get a bad rap because they’re so often like term papers, written to display a command of what’s been taught rather than any kind of individual vision. Last night at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, two young composers, Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser challenged that stereotype in an eclectic composer portrait concert of chamber works performed with verve by an inspired, talented cast of similarly up-and-coming talent.

The two have an enviable pedigree, mentored by two Bang on a Can luminaries: Evans with Julia Wolfe and Weiser with Michael Gordon. Evans proved to be influenced in a very good way by Wolfe’s relentless purposefulness and and often grim terseness, refusing to waste a single note. Gordon’s translucence, his gift for melody and also his wit were echoed throughout Weiser’s compositions.

The concert opened on an auspicious note with the trio Bearthoven – a band name so good that it hardly seems possible that it went unclaimed til now – slowly and meticulously swaying their way through the stygian whispers and then horror-stricken swells of Evans’ Shoaling, an illustration of long wave motion. Pianist Karl Larson, percussionist Matt Evans and bassist Pat Swoboda established a murky, minimalist ambience that grew and grew until those waves were about to dash the theme on a jagged, rocky shore. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly, as the wail of an ambulance echoed down Kingsland Avenue outside. Starkly ambitious and genuinely profound, it instantly put Evans on the map as someone to keep an eye on.

The composer herself played Augun, more or less a tone poem, solo on cello. It was basically a duet with herself, in tandem with a backing track featuring austere percussive accents and low-register washes, her subtle variations – derived from an Icelandic love ballad – pulling tensely against a central tone. A brief string quartet, Five, played by violinists Megan Atchley and Yu-Wei Hsiao, violist Alex Tasopolous and cellist Alexandra Jones, depicted the angst of the tedium of life in captivity, a marching canon eventually giving way to eye-rolling, seemingly exasperated glissandos and then a series of deft variations. In the end, there seemed to be optimism. Andplay, the duo of violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson, delivered a graceful take of Dogged, a series of variations on a four-note theme common in Neil Young-style rock that rose from austere building blocks to a warmly sustained conclusion.

Weiser and Evans share a fondness for emphatic, rhythmic motives for a foundation, but that’s where the similarity seems to end. Weiser likes to use a lot of space, especially while laying the groundwork for a piece. He’s drawn to the neoromantic and is a strong songwriter. The highlights among his works were a trio of songs done by Larson and soprano Charlotte Mundy. A distinctive, down-to-earth, disarmingly individualistic singer, she showed off a strong and conversationally direct low range throughout several a-cappella passages, no easy task. More than one person in the crowd remarked that the way she rose from a completely unadorned, intimate delivery to striking highs with just a tinge of gentle vibrato made it seem as if she was singing directly to everyone individually. The triptych’s opener, A Door, rose and fell on Larson’s glimmering waves; the second segment, Night Walk, developed artfully from spacious minimalism to a more lush, ominous nocturnal theme; the third, Marks, had a jauntily dancing flair.

The string quartet played Weiser’s Quake, meant to illustrate a tectonic system on the verge of completely coming apart, an insistently polyrhythmic, artfully dynamic exploration up to an agitatedly galloping coda. Bearthoven Roar, performed by that trio, turned out to be a droll pastiche of Beethoven-like motives interspersed among the instruments, flitting by in seconds. And the night’s concluding piece, Rumbling Waves, played by Larson and Matt Evans, was true to its title.

May 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Composers of the Future Debut Exciting New Works at NYU

Monday night, the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble played a program of world premieres that transcended the concept of “student works.” Concerts like this are a great way to stay in touch with what the near future of concert music will be. If this show is any indication, spectral and horizontal music is in no danger of disappearing, the presence of Steve Reich looms as close as it did twenty years ago, and there’s no shortage of good up-and-coming talent. NYU’s droll, enthusiastic ensemble director Jonathan Haas and guest conductor Sean Statser took turns on the podium.

Most of the works had no shortage of vivid emotional content, either. Youmee Baek’s Sketches for Yeon, arranged for the group’s mixed strings, winds and percussion, transposed the Romeo and Juliet narrative to feudal Japan. Over a loping, mechanical, rather tongue-in-cheek rhythm spiced with minimalist Asian motifs, a couple of agitated warlords squared off. The group followed with the third segment of Baek’s suite, where Juliet’s lumbering mom chases the disobedient lovers, a showcase for Crystal Chu’s nimble, dynamically-charged percussion as well as her sense of humor.

Laiyo Nakahashi’s Lucid Dream began as a dance from the violins of Patti Kilroy and Maya Bennardo, the viola of Elise Fawley and the cello of Fjola Evans but quickly took on a darkly carnivalesque feel that matched the accompanying animated film by Martina Milova, accented by Matthew Lau’s vibraphone and Tadeusz Domanowski’s piano. A lushly uneasy miniature followed; it was hard to concentrate on both the music and the movie at the same time, but both worked a populist discontent and awareness.

Florent Ghys‘ new tone poem, its title taken from his parents’ phone number, swelled upward, the strings hinting at a slow doppler effect against Manuel Laufer’s apprehensive piano glimmer. Brooks Frederickson’s Be Smart. Be Safe. Stand Back. gave alto saxophonist Bradley Mulholland a workout, moving from almost trombone-ish foghorn lows to a brisk, tiptoeing, baroque interlude, echo motives being passed artfully through the group, its cinematic trajectory rising to a big crescendo driven by Pat Swoboda‘s terse, incisive bass and Evans’ ominously swooping cello accents. The strings took it out with a sirening creepiness.

Leaha Maria Villareal’s spectral The Chasm & the Cliff worked a suspensefully whispery upward climb to a fork in the road where Evans suddenly introduced an agitation that rose to a pummeling, assaultive and intense vortex from the percussion and then faded down again, unresolved. It was the most viscerally exciting piece on the bill. Richard Vagnino’s Night Bus to Boston, a eerily suspensefully, cinematic work, was the most emotionally impactful. Lingering vibraphone drove its creepy crepuscular ambience, alternating voicings with the strings, rising with a neoromantic poignancy. A second part coalesced out of wispy, disjointed voices, fueled by the viola and Nick Mula’s clarinet. Percussion by Abby Fisher and Nick Handahl also factored, sometimes mightily, into the performance.

March 14, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment