Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Challenging Ideas and Tonalities at the New York Festival of Song

This season’s concluding concert of the New York Festival of Song series Tuesday night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center was characteristically challenging and entertaining. NYFOS’ definition of art-song takes the idea of lieder (essentially, operatic songs without the opera) and brings it into the 21st century, musically and lyrically. Some of the works on the bill were basically opera songs but a lot weren’t, with a nod to the adventurous downtown 80s and what are turning out to be the equally adventurous teens. Put together by New Yorker scribe (and prolific art-song writer and advocate) Russell Platt, it teamed a talented parade of singers with versatile pianist Thomas Sauer, who deserved top billing here for tackling a dizzyingly diverse, technically challenging series of compositions and pulling them off with flair and sensitivity. Platt explained that this year’s theme was “a snapshot of Generation X music,” which for him meant taking “an irreverent tone to text.” Which when you think about it is punk rock, pure and simple: it may be more comforting than accurate to assign credit to GenX for much more than effeteness, at least as far as the arts are concerned.

The highlight of the evening was a trio of songs by Lisa Bielawa, a powerful and eclectic composer who looks back far beyond her own generation – in this particular case, to Franz Kafka. Violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt smartly chose to read the texts before launching into the songs (written for her by Bielawa around 2001-03), alongside Matthias Bossi on pump organ and percussion. A parable of the longing to find order in disorder was vividly anxious, lit up with the violin’s quavery intensity, overtones and glissandos against the organ’s placid tones, followed by a more playful take on existential angst and then a piece about the nature of ghosts illustrated with sepulchrally muted pizzicato. Kihlstedt followed this with her own take on a Robert Louis Stevenson poem on a “nevermore” theme, which she’d discovered via a Google search (could it be that the Edgar Allen Poe estate or its equivalent needs to pay off Google to get top billing for that particular keyword?). She began on trumpet-violin, again contrasting against the warm washes of the organ, eventually switching to violin for a bitingly rustic, minor-key theme that eventually came full circle, ending pensively and unresolved.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night was a parody of MTA snafus and subway announcements written by Gilda Lyons, delivered with grand guignol drama, a-cappella, by Sarah Wolfson and Blythe Gaissert. In its own cruelly sarcastic way, it was just as Kafkaesque as Bielawa’s songs. Harold Meltzer also contributed three settings of texts by Ohio poet James Wright, given coloratura nuance by tenor Kyle Bielfield over piano melodies that ranged from creepy, inchoate iciness, to Pat Metheny-ish meandering against a central tone, to allusions to gospel and the blues, all handled deftly by Sauer. A sadness pervaded all of them, roadkill juxtaposed against dead dreams and unrequited homoeroticism.

And Platt also included a quartet of his own songs, mining a similarly dispirited Midwestern milieu via texts by Paul Muldoon set to noirish, chromatically-fueled piano that ranged from bracing atonalism to neoromantic angst. Bass-baritone Mischa Bouvier dignified these portraits of a smaller, claustrophobic world (Platt spent some time there after college and clearly wanted out) with a raw, rugged intensity, finding drama in the seemingly mundane without going over the top, at least for the most part.

Not everything on the bill was as successful. Sometimes the stylized “scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the fandango” operatics (Bouvier found himself rolling his R’s periodically although he was singing in English) overwhelmed the content. And a coy hail-mary pass, sort of a composer’s equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” should have been left on the rehearsal room floor. Still, it was good to see a full house respond enthusiastically to a program that so often embraced the cutting edge.

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April 26, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Young Lions Celebrate An Old One At Weill Hall

Rude as it is to eavesdrop, some conversations are worth repeating. Saturday night’s concert at Weill Hall featured characteristically eclectic and enormously entertaining music from Gunther Schuller and his younger colleague Mohammed Fairouz, seated together inconspicuously in the crowd. After one of Fairouz’s pieces had reached its end, Schuller nudged him. “About one note – I think it’s an “A” – in the second movement…it’s like punching a hole in it. It doesn’t work. With such beautiful atonalities, to have this bland note? You have to take it out.”

Which sums up the enduring value of Dr. Schuller – whose recent 85th birthday the musicians and composers were celebrating – better than any accolade ever could. Imagine: a composer who would use any means necessary to avoid blandness. Rather than taking umbrage, Fairouz was grateful that the former New England Conservatory president had given the work such a close listen. “I’ll find it,” he responded confidently.

This was a celebration of substantial music, which took itself with the utmost seriousness at times; other times, not at all. In a brief onstage discussion prior to the concert, Schuller – “A guy who doesn’t rely on the system,” as Fairouz understatedly explained – campaigned to expand his concept of third-stream to a “brotherhood or sisterhood of music,” to include not only jazz and classical but all global musical styles as well. Schuller pointed to the internet era’s explosion of available recordings as reason for optimism and the eventual triumph of complete syncretism, but reminded that effort and willingness to abandon outdated preconceptions would be necessary to cement the paradigm shift.

The music was just as much a celebration of eclecticism. Schuller’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone opened the program, pianist Katie Reimer nimbly negotiating its starlit expanses and trickily skipping passages, alternating and then converging with Michael Couper’s effectively dynamic birdcalls and pensive deliberateness. Farouz’s Furia, from 2010, followed, a string quartet of Tema Watstein and Michelle Ross on violins, Mary Sang-Hyun Yong on viola and Michael Katz on cello establishing a grave, foreboding ambience for baritone Mischa Bouvier to stoically deliver a lyric by Borges. In essence, it’s about reaching the pinnacle of success and hating every minute of it. As Katz coyly injected a little swoop and dive into the horror-movie sonics, Bouvier stern and immobile, it took on an amusing surrealism.

A far more serious suite, Fairouz’s Four Critical Models was next. Assembled as two statements, each followed by a response, the first, a bustling, agitated semi-conversation between Couper’s sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin sought to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. Its rejoinder employed marvelous microtonal violin intricacies inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A hideous anti-Arab screed by British playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer was surprisingly downplayed via some bright and probably intentionally generic Middle Eastern tropes; its response, inspired by Edward Said, worked a beautifully still, logical series of gently shifting sostenuto notes or simple motifs.

The evening’s showstopper was Schuller’s Paradigm Exchanges, a series of witty, shapeshifting vignettes that often segued seamlessly from one to another, with echoes of both Bartok and Messiaen. Here Reimer, Katz and Watstein were joined by Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Magdalena Angelova on flute. Through its fourteen movements, pretty much every possible permutation of the quintet was utilized. Watstein’s confidently eerie tritone-packed solo made a high point in the opening fanfare, followed by a vivid conversation, Dukovski maintaining a perfect cool as Katz’s cello grew more agitated. As the segues continued, it became impossible to figure out where one movement ended and the next began. Angelova provided strikingly apprehensive accents against Messiaenesque stillness; a bit later, Reimer got to hint gleefully at an evil buffoon theme, and then illuminate a murky bass clarinet drone. Eventually a canon emerged; the whole ensemble brought it to an end with an eerie flourish, an escape from a roomful of funhouse mirrors. Somewhere there’s a surreal suspense movie that needs to be made to utilize this literally mesmerizing, cinematic work.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment