Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Organist Gail Archer Reinvents a Horror Movie Classic and Unearths Rare Russian Gems

What’s more Halloweenish in 2018 than Russia? Not to invalidate anyone’s suffering, but compared to what Russians have had to deal with under Putin, this country’s had it relatively easy lately. And Russia doesn’t have this November 6 to look forward to.

Musically speaking, what could be more appropriate for this Wednesday’s holiday than a Russian organ music record? It doesn’t hurt that it’s played by one of this era’s most adventurous interpreters of the classical organ repertoire, Gail Archer. Her latest album A Russian Journey is streaming at Spotify.

While there isn’t as vast a tradition of music for the organ in Russia as there is further west, there was a boomlet of composers writing for the instrument beginning in the late 1800s. That’s the formative period Archer starts with, unearthing some majestically tuneful, frequently mysterious material that too seldom gets programmed beyond its home turf.

She gives Cesar Cui’s hypnotic, Asian-tinged Prelude in G Minor a relentless, artfully crescendoing interpretation. His Prelude in A Flat Major comes as a shocking contrast, a starry, steady, mysteriously rising piece with a sobering balance between lows and exuberantly voiced highs, maxing out the organ’s high reed stops. It’s a roller rink at Dr. Zhivago’s grave.

Likewise, Sergei Ljapunow’s enigmatically neoromantic Prelude Pastoral has both steadfastness and swirl, through shadowy counterpoint between the pedals and midrange, bittersweet glitter, and confidently calm exchanges of catchy, allusively carnivalesque riffage between registers. Clearly, this is Baba Yaga country he’s exploring here. Glazunov’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor is steady, stately and somber, Archer maxing out the silken sheen of the upper registers again as she builds intensity through the hypnotic waltz of the fugue.

Contemporary composer Sergej Slominski’s Toccata has a brightly celebratory French flavor: the work of Eugene Gigout comes to mind. Archer strolls enigmatically through the opening bars of Alexander Schawersaschwili’s Prelude and Fugue, a dynamic piece with acidic sheets of sound, calmly marionettish phrasing and cinematically climbing variations, She winds up the album with a vigorous, epic, yet often remarkably subtle take of Zsigmond Szathmary’s organ arrangement of Moussorgsky’s classic Night on Bald Mountain, which in terms of sheer mystery outdoes most of the orchestral versions used in horror films for the better part of a century.  Rabid members of the organ music underground won’t be the only people who will relish making some new discoveries here.

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October 30, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The GVO Gets Picturesque

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s most recent concert this past Sunday featured fresh, energetic, revealing takes on a couple of familiar favorites, bookending an unexpected interlude. Led by guest conductor Pierre Vallet, the ensemble opened with Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture: lush, dreamy beauty shifting to brighter and more energetic, with pinpoint French horn flourishes and a bouncy precision. Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Op. 37, the lesser-known follow-up to the Enigma Variations, were next, sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who showed off a full soprano’s range as the suite went on, a series of cinematic, coastal and nautical settings of British Romantic poems including texts by Elgar’s wife along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. From sweeping, craggy, windy bluster to more simple, catchy songcraft and then up with more drama – particularly the final song in the cycle, The Swimmer, considered by some to portend Robert Browning’s suicide at 39 – the orchestra gave Johnson Cano a lush backdrop for her vivid, turbulent evocation.

From seats close to the orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition turned out to be as close to an opportunity to get inside Maurice Ravel’s mind as is physically possible. There’s literally not a bad seat at the GVO home base on 16th Street, an unexpected bonus considering that the building is now a public high school. On one hand, it was impossible not to revel in how much fun Ravel had orchestrating Moussorgsky’s creepy suite. On the other, Ravel did it justice: ultimately, this is a requiem for Moussorgsky’s painter friend Victor Hartmann. And the GVO did them both justice, particularly in the darker passages, not to mention the brief refrains that punctuate the “pictures.” Conductor Barbara Yahr likened them to an inner journey, the composer remembering his dead pal, rather than simply a chronicle of the stroll from one end of the gallery to the other. “These aren’t filler,” she reminded the crowd before the piece began, and she wasn’t kidding: by the time she took them down into the Catacombs, what began as a fanfare had become a dirge. Themes familiar to every moviegoer became profound: the Gnome bellicose yet poignant; the Old Castle brooding with a nostalgic tone, the children dancing in the Tuileries quaint and somewhat courtly. The orchestra’s attention to the astringent faux-Orientalisms in the portrait of the two Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuely, alone made the trip worthwhile. And after the off-center menace of the Catacombs, the most macabre part of the suite, the orchestra maintained that atmosphere intensely even as the classical heavy metal of Baba Yaga’s Hut kicked in. If the Catacombs is Moussorgsky facing the fact that his friend’s not coming back, as Yahr mentioned, then maybe this is the rage afterward. The coda, The Great Gate of Kiev contemplates a mechanical marvel which was actually never built, a cruel irony for this towering, majestic ending to end all endings and its epic Beethoven allusions. Through two standing ovations, the mostly sold-out house seemed as out of breath as the musicians were.

November 23, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nine Questions for Maestro Barbara Yahr of the Greenwich Village Orchestra

The Greenwich Village Orchestra, as their name implies, draws on some of the finest classical talent from a neighborhood that’s been synonymous with artsy downtown New York for decades. They play a diverse and characteristically thematic program this Sunday, November 20 at 3 PM: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture; Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 16th and Irving Place. There’s a reception to follow: all this for a suggested donation of $15. The orchestra’s dynamic musical director, Barbara Yahr, took some time to answer a few lingering questions about this elite ensemble:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: The GVO seems to be one of New York’s hidden treasures. You get major grants, you’ve played innumerable world premieres and New York premieres by important current-day composers. You are held in high esteem especially by musicians – it seems that practically everyone at your concerts is one! I’ve been going to your concerts for over a decade at the auditorium at 16th and Irving Place.

Barbara Yahr: I’m so glad to hear that!

LCC: Has this become a comfortable home for you?

BY: This is a wonderful home for us…with fantastic acoustics!

LCC: Does this have anything to do with the fact that audiences can literally get on top of the orchestra and experience the rush you get from being so close to the beast? I remember being a kid at Carnegie Hall and sneaking down from the peanut gallery to the orchestra during intermission. Here, it doesn’t cost $100 to get a good seat for the entire show….

BY: Low ticket price is only one of the great things about the GVO experience – but it does make a difference. We love the fact that the audience is so close – at family concerts, we like to bring kids up on stage! The next one is December 11 at 3 PM.

LCC: You remember the uproar when Alan Gilbert increased the number of rehearsals per concert for the New York Phil? How many rehearsals does the GVO typically have per performance?

BY: We usually have six – not that many when you realize that most fulltime, professional orchestras only have four and occasionally five.

LCC: In what way if any does your orchestra’s somewhat less hectic workload impact the quality of your performances, by comparison to, say, the Philharmonic or the New York City Opera?

BY: We get to live with the music for several weeks, which is a delightful luxury. We can get into the inner workings of a piece of music, really take it apart and put it back together.

LCC: You like themes. I’m assuming that you’re the one responsible for coming up with with the November 20 program, right? And would you say that this particular one is more thematic musically, or narrative-wise?

BY: This program is only thematic in extra-musical terms. All of the pieces make use of imagery. This way of writing music, as opposed to an abstract symphony with no clear extra-musical idea, does affect the composers, but these are three – four if you count Ravel, who orchestrated the Mussorgsky – very different composers.

LCC: There’s obviously a lot of camaraderie in this ensemble. To what degree if any is this a democratic institution, for example, if an inspired member of the winds says, “We ought to do this a certain way,” for example. How do you as conductor handle that?

BY: I love it when a player has an opinion – and if I like it, or find it interesting or exciting, of course we go with it! If it’s something I don’t feel works musically, then we have a discussion. An orchestra cannot be a pure democracy but it’s not a dictatorship. It requires leadership, but in the end, the best performances are collaborative.

LCC: Dynamic contrasts and the desire to portray one thing or another via the music seem to be especially important to this orchestra. Among these pieces, are there parts that you’ve singled out specifically for the orchestra to focus on? For example, in the Mussorgsky, how creepy are you going to make The Gnome? Or are you going to see how quiet and mysterious you can get with The Catacombs?

BY: I think the Gnome is pretty darn creepy, and yes, this piece is full of contrasts…but the heart of the work is found in understanding the backstory, the friendship between Mussorgsky and the painter of the Pictures, Victor Hartmann. For me, we are there, with the composer, at the exhibition of his friends’ works, walking from picture to picture. At the end, after he has visits the Catacombs, he confronts and accepts the death of his friend and is perhaps celebrating his friend with the finale, the Great Gate. This is a personal interpretation but it is, for me, a meaningful narrative for the piece, and helps us to understand the work as more than just a series of attractive pieces depicting a set of paintings.

LCC: Are you recording this? Any plans to release any of this material in the future?

BY: We always record our concerts— stay tuned!

November 16, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Svetlana Berezhnaya Plays Her Definitive Arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition

Many years ago the prog-rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded a buffoonish, bombastic version of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As a result, it’s likely that much of an entire generation was turned off from the piece, from discovering the suite’s subtleties and intricacies. What little bombast and buffoonery there is in the original is confined to moments where it’s illustrating a character or a moment. Still, the idea of an organ version of this playfully creepy old standard is tempting. Last night at St. Thomas Church in midtown, Russian organist Svetlana Berezhnaya played her own organ arrangement of the suite, a richly dynamic, suspensefully illustrative, extraordinarily intuitive yet sometimes counterintuitive version that more than did justice to all the phantasmagorical, twisted characters who populate it. And while she didn’t softpedal it, there also wasn’t a single point at which she literally pulled out all the stops: she only brought the firepower when she absolutely needed it. The result was one of the best concerts of the year, in any genre.

Taking advantage of the range of available sonics, Berezhnaya gave the Gnome legs and elevated it to the level of grand guignol. Likewise, Baba Yaga’s Hut came to life in a cruelly caricaturesque dance, and the Cattle in her version were transformed into ominously growling, mad cows. But the Haunted Castle was understated, awash in airy drafts, the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks bouncing with surreal, staccato counterpoint quietly in the uppermost registers, and in the concert’s most striking moments, the Catacombs gave Berezhnaya a chance to evoke the spirits there with a genuinely haunting exploration of the lowest bass pedals. Surprisingly, the loudest passages were the raucously bustling Market scene; when she got to the Great Gate of Kiev, it was more of a casually celebratory conclusion than a fire-and-brimstone coda. There’s no telling if and when she’ll be back, but if you get a chance to see Berezhnaya play this, don’t miss it.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Llyr Williams plays Schubert, Debussy and Moussorgsky at Weill Recital Hall, NYC 3/6/09

Being what it is, the Carnegie Hall complex has seen thousands of legendary debut performances. This was one of them. Welsh pianist Llyr Williams has such command of the keyboard that he seems to inhabit what he plays. There are thousands of hotshot pianists out there, few with Williams’ seemingly intuitive sensitivity to dynamics and emotional content coupled to a spectacular technical fluency. Throughout a program matching subtlety to fire, he came across as ideally suited to play the Romantics.

 

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958 is classic Schubertiade material, ablaze with inviting color and glistening cascades. Williams left himself plenty of headroom to let those many shades reveal themselves in their complexity, particularly toward the end of the first movement where he used an almost jarring staccato in an ascending bassline to set off a contrast with the fluidly rapidfire upper-register chromatics following close behind.

 

Debussy’s Estampes, a trio suite, were next. The first, Pagodas is a remarkably successful attempt to translate Javanese gamelan music to the piano, a difficult work with its percussive pointillisms, but Williams made it look easy. Night in Grenada, the second of the three begins as a nocturne and then suddenly the lights come on, and Williams lit into it with gusto. With its rivulets rushing up and down the length of the keys, Garden in the Rain is a showstopper. Hailstorm would be a better title – by the time it’s over, the kale is shredded and the parsnips are half-unearthed by the torrents, and Williams barreled through it with a confident abandon.

 

The second half of the program was Pictures at an Exhibition, and it was nice to revisit the old warhorse. Ravel’s orchestrated version is the one that most audiences know, and that’s too bad because that one subsumes the creepiness in the original solo piano version, which isn’t simply phantasmagorical: most of it is flat-out morbid. Williams found all that, but he also gave its many caricatures depth and dignity. The Gnome in the opening section was menacingly substantial, the Old Castle as filled with fleeting ghosts as a castle can be, and when the Great Gate at Kiev came around, Williams had held enough in reserve to let its crashing fortississimo resound in all its towering majesty. He encored with a comfortably familiar Chopin piece, which was perfectly fine for what it was but couldn’t help but be anything other than anticlimactic. Now that we’ve seen what this guy can do with the 1800s, it would be interesting to hear what he does with Bach. Or Maxwell Davies.

March 7, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments