Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

Advertisements

March 19, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High Energy and World Premieres from the American Composers Orchestra

American Composers Orchestra honcho Michael Geller has gone on record as saying that producing good concerts isn’t the organization’s main focus: they’re more of a vehicle for new composers to develop fungible, orchestra-ready repertoire. That’s a hefty agenda, but along the way the ACO manages to put out albums and play concerts that are often spectacularly entertaining, not just because of the diversity of the composers whose work they thrash into shape. Carnegie Hall last night was a launching pad for some of that: two world premieres, an American premiere and a familiar crowd-pleaser from an earlier era conducted robustly by guest Jose Serebrier.

Narong Prangcharoen’s The Migration of Lost Souls, inspired by the temple bell music of his native Thailand opened the show dramatically and intensely, essentially a suspenseful, serialistic tone poem punctuated by breathless, often terrorized bursts of agitation. Sepulchral washes of airy strings built to bustling, rapidfire cascades, often utilizing the entire orchestra but also making vivid use of the xylophone to mimic the lickety-split phrasing of northern Thai mor lan music. The carnival of souls finally found peace at the end in the gamelan-like resonance of bells and a boomy bass gong.

Milica Paranosic’s The Tiger’s Wife: Prologue, utilizing texts from the popular Tea Obreht novel, went for similar dramatics with mixed results. It’s a powerful and vivid piece of music, a diptych of sorts, beginning with a tense, niftily orchestrated, suspensefully rhythmic tone poem and ending with a blazing, gypsy-tinged overture. Unfortunately, an inspired performance by the orchestra threatened to be subsumed in a deluge of bells and whistles. Singer Lori Cotler delivered the lyrics with an aptly biting edge, but a lot of that got lost in a tumble of south Indian takadimi drum language. It’s a device she employs with spectacular dexterity and not a little wit in a radically different context, as part of the playful Takadimi Duo. But all the diggity-doo was as out of place here as rosewater on a burek – or in more prosaic terms, like ketchup on ice cream. There were also electronics, which added nothing: Cotler’s vocals were strong, and the orchestra was going full force. Meanwhile, a high-definition vacation video of sorts played on a screen overhead and proved far less interesting than the orchestra. Was this an attempt to connect with a youtube generation that ostensibly can’t relate to anything without visuals? In terms the youtube generation knows well: epic fail.

Some of Charles Ives’ work was paradigm-shifting; his Symphony No. 3 wasn’t. But this performance was hardly boring, the orchestra taking a briskly energetic, sometimes even romping journey through its often folksy “Camp Meeting” cinematics. The boisterous, rhythmic energy wound up with the American premiere of the conductor’s Flute Concerto with Tango. Its tango rhythm is syncopated bracingly in the beginning – it’s missing the heavy, defining third beat – so a recognizable tango per se doesn’t appear until the concluding movement. Along the way, flutist Sharon Bezaly negotiated thicket after thicket of knotty, lickety-split rivulets and a long, taqsim-like, mostly solo interlude on alto flute, all the way through to a dancing coda.

Not only do the ACO premiere their composers’ works, they also workshop them live, which can be a treat to witness for serious listeners and students of the style. The next one is at Mannes College Auditorium on the upper west side on Nov 13 at 2 PM.

October 27, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment