Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be juat as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed sentiment that via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

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September 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Casually Spectacular Violinist Olivia De Prato Closes Out This Year’s Concert Series at the Miller Theatre

This year’s beguiling series of free early-evening concerts of new and mostly-new concert music at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway comes to a triumphant close this coming June 12 at 6 PM with Olivia De Prato, the unselfconsciously brilliant first violinist of the fearless Mivos Quartet. She’ll be playing solo and duo works as well as leading an all-violin string quartet. That’s a typical move for an artist who doesn’t sit still and doesn’t seem to want to turn down a challenge.

De Prato’s debut solo album, Streya, which came out earlier this year, is as a remarkably accessible as it is daunting to play. Yet De Prato seemed to relish getting the chance to tackle its sharply contrasting nuts and bolts at her album release show this past spring upstairs at the Momenta Quartet’s Rivington Street second-floor hotspot. She told the crowd beforehand that what she enjoyed the most about making the record is that it gave her the opportunity to capture every possible sound that can be coaxed or wrestled from a violin. Then she did exactly that over the course of more than an hour.

This wasn’t the first time she’d played the title track solo. At an earlier Miller Theatre show, she opened a Mivos program with its uneasy, jaggedly dancing mix of resonance, ghostly flitting motives and even more sepulchral harmonics, planting her feet with the determination of a ballplayer intent on launching a long drive deep into the stands. While the classical tradition calls for playing a piece in perfect sync with a composer’s intentions every time out, the reality is that the best classical players will feel a room and adjust accordingly, just as a smart jazz or rock musician will. In this intimate Lower East Side space, it was fascinating to watch De Prato back away from that tenacity and let the spectres of her husband Victor Lowrie’s work waft with considerably more whispery mystery.

Beyond daunting displays of extended technique – insistent percussive accents, endlessly shifting deep-snowstorm washes and acidically shivery overtones – she let the sheer tunefulness of the material speak for itself. A Ned Rothenberg pastorale circled and circled, tensely, before De Prato pushed up the roof and let in the sun – metaphorically speaking, anyway. She danced through the distantly baroque and then Asian inflections in a Reiko Fueting number before closing the show by inviting up the great Missy Mazzoli to join her on keyboards for a rare duo performance of Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin.

Based on her darkly meticulous, moodily clustering Vespers For a New Dark Age, this seemed more kinetically starry than the artfully overdubbed album version. For anyone who remembered Mazzoli’s magically articulate performances with her swirling chamber-rock band Victoire back in the late zeros, this was a fond look back at a time and place gone forever. Mazzoli’s chops are just as sharp now as then, and the push-pull between the instruments, its contrasts between austerity and more hopeful, cascading phrases were brought into stark focus. It’s unlikely that Mazzoli will be part of the concert at the Miller on the 12th, but there will definitely be special guests, including Rothenberg on clarinet.

June 9, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Otherworldly Pan-Asian Transcendence From Jen Shyu

Over the span of less than a year, Jen Shyu lost two dear friends: Taiwanese nuclear scientist and poet Edward Cheng, and Javanese wayang (gamelan shadow puppetry) master Joko Raharjo, known as Cilik. The latter died along with his wife and infant daughter in a car crash; their other daughter, Naja, age six, survived. Shyu’s latest suite, Song of Silver Geese – streaming at Pi Recordings – is dedicated to those friends, and imagines Naja encountering a series of spirit guides from throughout Asian mythology, who give her strength.

The result is a hypnotic, otherworldly, sometimes harrowing  narrative. Shyu is performing her characteristically theatrical, solo Nine Doors suite at the Jazz Gallery on Jan 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25. She’s also at the Stone the following night, Jan 25 at 8:30 PM as part of pianist Kris Davis’ weeklong stand there; the band also includes Ikue Mori on laptop percussion samples, Trevor Dunn on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Ches Smith on drums. Cover is $20.

The suite is divided into nine “doors” – portals into  other worlds. Shyu plays Taiwanese moon lute, piano and the magically warpy Korean gayageum, singing in both English and several Asian vernaculars. She’s joined by the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opens solo on moon lute, with a stark, direct vocal:

I am no longer able to recount
In the tale, the story of my life…
When now it is twilight
And there is so much silence…
From the east to west
All you see in between
That deep black sky
Is everything…

Door 2, World of Java is a hauntingly suspenseful nightscape, cautious flute underscored by a low rumble of percussion. Door 3, Dark Road, Silent Moon rises methodically from pensive, allusively Asian solo flute to an astringent string quartet interlude that reaches toward frenzy.

Shyu’s stark, plaintively melismatic vocals slowly build and then soar over spare gayageum and moon lute in Door 4, Simon Semarangam, the suite’s epic centerpiece. The flute flutters and spirals as the strings gain force and then recede for cellist Victor Lowrie’s brooding, cautious solo against sparse piano and percussion. Dingman and Morgan interchange quietly within Shyu’s plucks as the she segues into Door 5, World of Hengchun, her dreamy vocals contrasting with gritty lute, striking melismatic cello, an acidic string canon and the lush sweep of the full ensemble.

Door 6, World of Wehali (a mythical Timorese warrior maiden) begins with a furtive percussion-and-gong passage and crescendos uneasily, with flitting accents from throughout the band: it’s the suite’s most straightforwardly rhythmic segment. The segue into Door 7, World of Ati Batik arrives suddenly, an insistently syncopated chant shifting to a thicket of sound with scurrying piano at the center

Door 8, World of Baridegi (a Korean princess who made a legendary journey to the underworld) is the dancingly explosive, almost tortuously shamanistic coda where Shyu imagines that Cilik’a family is saved. Her narration and then her singing offer a closing message of hope and renewal over spare accents in Door 9, Contemplation. Nocturnes don’t get any more surrealistically haunting than this. 

January 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Carnival of the Animals Holds a Multi-Generational Family Concert Crowd Rapt at the Miller Theatre

The best kind of so-called “family concerts” are like the Simpsons: they’re fun on face value, for the kids, but also have multiple levels of meaning for the adults. Such was the case yesterday afternoon at the sold-out multimedia performance of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals at the Miller Theatre. The kids – as diverse a mix as can be found in this multicultural city – loved the surrealistic, more-or-less lifesize puppets designed by Lake Simons and paraded around the stage with suspenseful, vaudevillian flair by Kristen Kammermeyer, Brendan McMahon, Justin Perkins and Rachael Shane. The adults, as well as what seemed to be a large percentage of the children, responded raptly to an exquisitely detailed, unselfconsciously playful performance by a ten-piece chamber orchestra, the strings of the Mivos Quartet augmented by an all-star cast on piano, percussion and winds.

While Simons took her inspiration for this show from late 1800s’ toy theatres, which rivalled the most elaborate dollhouses of the era, her creations had a lo-fi charm: mops, brooms, dusters and other wood-and-fabric assemblages brought to life the menagerie in the composer’s well-loved score. The ensemble followed the stage direction seamlessly, and that was a lot more cleverly orchestrated than a simple procession. Lively interplay between the puppeteers extended down into the audience at one point, drawing all sorts of laughs.

The music pulsed along vividly: regal lions, sputtering chickens, buffoonish donkeys, birds of all kinds and even pianists tortured by a cruel parody of boring etudes all got a minute or two centerstage. What was most striking about this concert – from the perspective of an adult who was able to brush up on the music beforehand with a well-worn vinyl record – was how downright creepy it is. Pianist Ning Yu’s otherworldly glimmer reminded how often the suite’s portrait of fish underwater has been used in horror films…and how Philip Glass nicked it for his Dracula soundtrack. And the depiction of fossil bones – which, in a neat choice of dynamics, the ensemble slowed from a gallop to a slinky sway – is a rewrite of the composer’s famous Danse Macabre. Happily, that aspect of the music seemed to go over the kids’ heads.

Toy pianist Laura Barger and percussionist Russell Greenberg opened the concert with a sprightly dance by William Byrd, a familiar Tschaikovsky theme and a carol, all of which were performed intricately and conversationally, although this long intro left the kids restless. There was also narration, utilizing Odgen Nash doggerel originally recorded in 1949 by an ensemble led by Andre Kostelanetz, and that drew some chuckles from the oldsters but didn’t connect with the younger contingent either. Speaking of which, everyone from about age four on up was captivated by the spectacle, which wrapped up briskly in just under an hour. Predictably, the toddlers were not: it’s hard enough to get an eighteen-month-old in and out of the grocery store, let alone through an hour of sitting still in the midst of an audience who’ve bought their tickets expecting not to be annoyed. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to expect the most entitled contingent of the Upper Westside crowd here to respect the theatre’s no-toddlers policy.

December 20, 2015 Posted by | children's music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missy Mazzoli’s Richly Tuneful, Restless, Enigmatic Works Take Centerstage at the Miller Theatre

Missy Mazzoli’s music is hypnotic yet stormy, intricate yet disarmingly transparent. A strong and influential contingent of New York new music fans consider Mazzoli to be the most vital composer so far to emerge in this century. Thursday night, the Miller Theatre saluted her with a “composer portrait” concert of her work for both string quartet and for soloists playing along with prerecorded multitracks. As accessible and vivid as Mazzoli’s compositions are, they require all kinds of extended technique and are far from easy to play – although they seem, as a rule, to be fun to play, and the performers reveled in them.

The Mivos Quartet opened the bill with an alternately kinetic and atmospheric favorite from 2010, Death Valley Junction. Lit up with innumerable, graceful swoops and dives – Mazzoli LOVES glissandos – the piece takes its inspiration from Martha Becket, an octogenarian opera singer who achieved cult status for her one-woman shows in a desolate sagebrush town on the California-Nevada border. The group also ended the first half of the performance with a nimble electroacoustic take of Harp and Altar, a joyously bustling, circling homage to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Violinist Robert Simonds played Dissolve, O My Heart, a very subtle, gentle and distantly plaintive theme and variations based on the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita. Cellist Jody Redhage sang A Thousand Tongues, contemplating issues of honesty and believability in a soaring soprano while playing its remotely disquieted, ambered lines against a hypnotic backing track of electronically blenderized Mazzoli solo piano.  Likewise, Violist Nathan Schram got to interact with a backing track of processed viola by Nadia Sirota – with the piece’s clever waves of call-and-response, Schram couldn’t resist breaking into a grin, and the audience was there with him. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge then took centerstage, joined by the string quartet Ethel for His Name Is Jan, a “work in progress,” as Mazzoli put it, moody tectonic shifts anchoring its irresistibly droll, animated arioso vocals. It’s part of a forthcoming opera based on the Lars Von Trier film Breaking the Waves, scheduled to premiere in Philadelphia next year.

Ethel closed out the concert with a blustery yet elegant world premiere, Quartet for Queen Mab, an aptly trippy portrait of a mysterious sprite who spirits people off to a surreal dreamworld. The next “composer portrait” program at the Miller Theatre is Feb 19 at 8 PM with the Mivos Quartet, Yarn/Wire and Ekmeles playing and singing the thorny, challenging music of Stefano Gervasoni. Mazzoli’s art-rock band Victoire are playing the album release show for their intense, richly enveloping, forthcoming cd Vespers for a New Dark Age at le Poisson Rouge at 8 PM on May 7.

February 7, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Characteristically Challenging, Entertaining Debut Album from the Mivos Quartet

It’s hard to believe that the Mivos Quartet haven’t made an album until now. For the past few years they’ve been one of the more pioneering new music ensembles in a city full of them, commissioning and premiering material left and right. So it makes sense that the album, titled Reappearances, would be an exciting, ambitious and extremely demanding lineup of works. And the quartet – violinists Olivia De Prato and Joshua Modney, violist Victor Lowrie, and cellist Mariel Roberts – digs in and clearly has great fun with them, even while having to push the limits of their technique. The four pieces here call for mysterious whispers, sepulchral overtones, jarring stccato motives, the quietest washes, microtonal slides and sudden rhythmic leaps, among other demands. Challenging as all this music is, it’s also vividly evocative.

Alex Mincek‘s String Quartet No. 3 probably wasn’t written to evoke a bug machine at night, but it does: a swarm builds and then they all get zapped one by one. That’s overly reductionistic, of course: there’s much more going on. Harsh, almost barking figures enter spaciously; whispery, devillish filigrees, pianissimo ambience spiced with slippery slides and harmonics flit around each other and briefly converse until a theme coalesces about midway through. Individual voices, notably the viola and cello, exchange roles, anchoring the music with a gritty determination. A long crescendo marked by slowly rising washes punctuated by agitated staccato motives builds to a thicket of polyrhythms, then the critters begin disappearing, one by one until there are none.

Wolfgang Rihm‘s Quartettstudie sketches out how to work an idea. Rihm’s signature brooding earthtones engage in a careful, considered call-and-response. An acidic rondo eventually develops with considerably more animation, then the pensive ambience returns. Apropos of the composer, those who enjoy this piece will also like the RIAS Kammerchor‘s recent recording of  Rihm’s similarly enigmatic, more ethereal Astralis, recently released by Harmonia Mundi.

David Brynjar Franzson‘s On Repetition and Reappearances is the album’s most entertaining piece, a nonchalantly spooky if often wryly insectile study in suspense and negative space. Brief, flitting fragments of sound loom in from afar…or seemingly afar. Uh oh, GOTCHA. And then right when it seems that the pianissimo ambience afterward has faded to nothingness, they’re back! It reminds of the uneasy repetition of Erik Satie’s Vexations.

Felipe Lara‘s Corde Vocale, the final work here, is a study in wave motion, built from simple, swooping phrases like comets with the tail first. The way the entire ensemble attacks these, as if using a backward-masked effect, is sonically striking, to say the least. Voices converge and then go off into the ether again; shivery trills unwind into calmer, more resonant phrases; at the end, the ensemble hits an unexpectedly snarling moment on the way to a trick ending. It’s as much fun as the rest of the album and considerably louder.

The Mivos Quartet play the album release concert for this one on Dec 19 at 8 PM at the DiMenna Center, 450 W 37th St west of 9th Ave. $20 cover includes a copy of cd and a reception afterward. The program features premieres of works by Mark Barden, Dai Fujikura, and Scott Wollschleger, plus the Lara piece from the album.

December 17, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment