Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Moonstruck Menace at Merkin Hall

This year may the centenary of the Rite of  Spring, the Da Capo Chamber Players’ pianist Blair McMillen reminded the crowd at Merkin Hall last night, but it’s also the centenary of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Lucy Shelton opened the group’s performance of the iconic avant garde work – a staple of hundreds of horror films over the years – by placing a puppet in a tiny wicker chair at the edge of the stage directly in front of the ensemble. One hand on her hip, the other holding herself up on the piano, wild grin straining across her face, Shelton made a delectably demonic moonstruck matron. Crooning, imploring, one second petulant, the next gleeful. she played the role to the hilt. At one point she fanned herself energetically (which may not have been an act – it could have been hot onstage), then ostentatiously took a couple of hits off a snifter of red liquid (vodka cranberry? Nyquil?)  and then offered some to the rest of the musicians. Everybody declined.

As dark, carnivalesque, deliberately ugly music – and as a prototype for serialism – Schoenberg’s suite is pretty much unsurpasssed. The Da Capos’ version last night was particularly impactful because they played the calmer sections with such a low-key elegance, leaving plenty of headroom for the piano or the violin or the flute to fire off the occasional savage, atonal cadenza. Watching the group, what was most striking was how minimalist so much of the piece is:  the entire group is in on it only a small fraction of the time. Otherwise, it was left to a combination of perhaps three or even fewer instruments out of the piano, Meighan Stoops’ clarinet or bass clarinet, Curtis Macomber’s violin, James Wilson‘s cello and Patricia Spencer’s flutes beneath the vocals. In many places, the music mocks those vocals, sometimes overtly, sometimes by maintaining a perfect calm while the crazy puppet coos and rasps and pulls against imaginary shackles.

Many of the melodies are parodies of circus music. The famous circus riff that everybody knows  – dat-dat, da-da-da-da, DAT-dat, da-da – or rather a twisted version thereof, gets played by the cello about midway through the suite. Otherwise, the phantasmagoria is sometimes enhanced, sometimes weirdly masked by the composer’s use of tritones and dissonance in place of anything resembling a resolution. At the end, Shelton took it down with just the hint of a cackle for good measure and won the group three standing ovations.

A Mohammed Fairouz suite that appropriated the title of the Schoenberg work opened the night. Hubristic a move as it was, Fairouz is fearless about things like that. This suite didn’t have his usual politically-fueled edge but it did have his signature wit and eclectic tunesmithing. The ensemble gamely tackled a rather difficult series of switches from uneasy operatics, to lush chamber pop, noir cabaret, gleeful circus rock and finally a plaintive art-rock anthem that morphed into Queen-y histrionics. It was too bad that the vocals and the lyrics weren’t up to the carefully measured melodicism and clever layers of meaning that Fairouz had given the music. As the piece stands, it has a bright future as a suite of songs without words.

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June 7, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The AME’s Star Crossing – Film Noir for the Ears

You know the “ping” moment in a horror or suspense movie where suddenly everything that had been going smoothly suddenly hits a bump…and then it’s obvious that at some point, terror will set in? This is a whole album of those moments. The American Modern Ensemble’s new album Star Crossing: Music of Robert Paterson is a noir film for the ears: for fans of dark, suspenseful music, this is heaven. Paterson is a percussionist, so it’s no surprise that bells, crotales and other brightly ringing instruments are featured here along with flutes and clarinets, piano and cello working contrasts in the lower registers.

The opening mini-suite, Sextet, traces the trail of a criminal on the run – even in his dreams. As expected, it doesn’t end well. Through volleys of furtive footsteps, hallucinatory nightmare sequences, frozen moments of sheer terror and endlessly echoing, apprehensive flute cadenzas, the poor guy doesn’t have a prayer. The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind is hypnotic, warm and starlit, tantalizing bits of Romantic melody – and even a jaunty dance – interwoven with eerie bell tones. It’s something akin to the familiar comfort of a radio fading in and out in the midst of a wasteland. The title track is an offhandedly dazzling display of creepy, chilly Hitchcockian ambience, sepulchral woodwind flourishes and simple, seemingly random piano motifs against disembodied ringing tonalities. Although it’s meant to evoke an otherworldly, outer-space milieu, the tension is relentless. Embracing the Wind, an attempt to evoke various sonics created by air currents, has an uneasy, allusive Romanticism in the same vein as the second track here, but considerably creepier.

It’s only fitting that this album should include a requiem. Elegy for Two Bassoons and Piano is a homage to bassoonist Charles McCracken’s cellist father, drawing liberally from one of his favorite pieces, Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite. Like its ancestor, it has a murky poignancy, but it’s also unexpectedly lively. Skylights, an attempt to make airy music with dark-toned instruments, magnificently evokes noir dread througout its nine-plus minutes: somebody kill that light before somebody gets killed! Paterson plays marimba (using both mallet heads and handles simultaneously) on the final work, Quintus, a bubbly, polyrhythmic maze that eventually takes on a grim boogie-woogie tinge. The album as a whole features lively and acerbic playing by Sato Moughalian on flutes; Meighan Stoops on clarinets; Robin Zeh on violin; Robert Burkhart on cello; Matthew Ward on percussion; Blair McMillen, Elizabeth DiFelice and Stephen Gosling on piano; Danielle Farina on viola; Jacqueline Kerrod on harp, and Gilbert Dejean and Charles McCracken on bassoons. Count this among the half-dozen best releases of 2011 so far, in any style of music.

July 11, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment