Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

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December 9, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, children's music, classical music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Captivating World Premiere and Two Playful, Relevant Works in Progress Wrap Up This Year’s Sounds of Arts Festival

This year’s Sounds of Arts Festival in Long Island City, staged by arts organization Multicultural Sonic Evolution, featured a variety of performances from jazz to dance to indie classical music. The final program was an auspicious trio of works in progress by Chinese-American Alicia Lieu and Japanese composer Yui Kitamura along with a world premiere commission from Mayalsian-born JunYi Chow.

The highlight of the first night was Chow’s colorful, dynamic partita The House of Smells and Noise. Inspired by a story about a boy’s experiences with Nyonya (Chinese Malaysian) culture in Lee Su Kim’s book Sarong Secrets, it was replete with tensions and dichotomies: tradition versus modernity, calm versus bustle, humor versus solemnity. Percussionist Maiko Hosoda really got a workout, beginning with a stroll around the back of the theatre, clanging her cymbals. From there she took charge of the rhythm on a variety of instruments, including the dreamy microtone-laced plink of a Malaysian kalimba.

Austere call-and response gave way to somewhat more expansive passages that bordered on carefree but never quite went there, played with care and restraint by an impressively unorthodox ensemble of violinist Michael Mandrin, cellist Jay Tilton, oboeist Kevin Chavez, flutist Chrissy Fong and harpist Margery Fitts.  The electroacoustic ending packed a subtle emotional wallop and is too good to give away.

Kitamura’s brief suite, from a forthcoming opera, was sung with expressive power in Japanese by soprano Hirona Amamiya. The text explores the struggles of the daughter of famous 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika, widely credited with much of her father’s work since art in Japan at the time was a career essentially closed to women. Asian melodies were alluded to rather than stated outright; themes ranged from a poignant waltz that recalled Belgian musette, to more sweeping, distantly angst-fueled, cinematic passages.

To close the night, a quartet of singers delivered the first part of Lieu’s comic opera Unwrapping Fortune, exploring cultural and parent-child tensions in a Chinese-Jewish New York family. Not to spoil a good and relevant plot, but a chow mein sandwich is involved. A quartet of singers – sopranos Caroline Miller and Estabaliz Martinez, baritone Brian J. Alvarado and tenor Stephen Velasquez – brought drama and sardonic humor to the narrative over pleasant, baroque-tinged melodies.

November 22, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis,  which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

September 21, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ThingNY Debuts a Blackly Amusing, Sonically Rich Reflection on Hurricane Sandy

ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.

Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.

Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”

The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.

September 25, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ivar Pall Jonsson’s Sinister New Rock Musical Is a Hit

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.

August 12, 2014 Posted by | drama, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Federico Garcia Lorca Inspires a Twisted, Funny, Cruelly Ironic Puppet Show

Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are the Spanish equivalent of Punch and Judy. In their new show Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, Luminescent Orchestrii multi-instrumentalist Rima Fand and puppetry designer-director Erin Orr intersperse Federico Garcia Lorca poems set to haunting, flamenco-tinged original music within a sly, innuendo-fueled program that’s part dirty puppet show, part shadowplay and part farce. Lorca several times hinted that Don Cristobal may be deeper than a mere one-dimensional buffoon, a character study that this piece develops by leaps and bounds with plenty of laughs but also an undercurrent of existential angst that eventually takes centerstage.

The fourth wall comes down quickly and for all intents and purposes stays down the rest of the way. Many of the jokes and sight gags are theatre-insider humor, but they’re not so abstruse as to go over the heads of the audience. The plotline is pretty straightforward: having been tantalized by the prospect of life beyond the stage, Don Cristobal suddenly finds his predictable role mauling the other puppets much less interesting than usual. To complicate matters, he’s become hopelesssly infatuated with Rosita. Both characters are portayed with small stage puppets, Don Cristobal also via a creepy, toddler-size Japanese bunraku-style puppet manipulated expertly and voiced by Brendan McMahon. Claudia Acosta plays Rosita with an unwavering sweetness and blind taskfulness, literally unable to think outside the box. John Clancy is a smash hit as Don Cristobal’s smarmy stage director, with a malicious relish completely lacking either boundaries or scruples. David Fand is his meek, downtrodden antagonist, the Poet, who gets a few plaintive, gentle folk songs; Alice Tolan-Mee sings a handful of numbers for Rosita in Lorca’s original Spanish with a lively Broadwayesque flair.

As Don Cristobal’s existential crisis deepens, his dedication to his job as a puppet begins to waver; he slips out of character and his health declines to the point where his prospects of surviving a repair appointment with the Puppet Maker (a deadpan Quince Marcum, who also doubles on horn and percussion) don’t look good. Racy shadowplay interludes alternate with vaudevillian tomfoolery, a bizarre witches’ dance of sorts and endless messing with the audience. At yesterday’s matinee, there was a possible technical malfunction early on. If this was scripted, it fooled everyone; if it was a genuine snafu, the players improvved their way through it seamlessly.

And the music was the high point of the show. Multi-instrumentalist Fand (who primarily played keyboards and mandolin) was joined by guitarists Kyle Senna and Avi Fox-Rosen for a twisted overture, a plaintive, dramatic bolero, skeletal folk-rock interludes, a couple of absolutely chilling, macabre, carnivalesque Lynchian piano themes and an artsy mandolin-fueled goth-rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Black Fortresss of Opium catalog. Fand’s music matched the mood of Lorca’s lyrics, whether voicing longing (Midnight Hours), lust (Rosita’s Song) or suspenseful narration (El Rio Guadalquivir). A score this memorable deserves a DVD, or at least an original soundtrack release. The show continues at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. on the lower east side on February 22-23 and March 1-2 at 8 PM; February 23 and March 2 at 3 PM; and February 17, 24 and March 3 at 5 PM. Tickets are $20; the discount code for $15 tix this weekend is Rosita.

February 17, 2013 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theatre Review: Doug Vincent’s A Day for Grace

To call playwright Doug Vincent’s show A Day for Grace harrowing is an understatement. Exploring the events of a hardscrabble Virginia childhood that culminated in his alcoholic father’s suicide, along with those events’ many ramifications, Vincent plays himself as well as a Greek chorus of family members whose take on events don’t always sync with his own: those multiple perspectives shed considerable light on the kind of baggage he brought into the delivery room the day his daughter Grace was born. We know beforehand that despite what could have been an equally harrowing scene at her birth, Grace survived, but even that knowledge doesn’t spare the audience from an emotional roller coaster ride. After a sold-out run at New York’s Stage Left Studio, Vincent is returning it to his native Colorado at a venue still to be determined.

Vincent is a gifted and extremely entertaining storyteller. Early on, his depiction of his childhood emulation of the future Hall of Fame catcher from the Cincinnati Reds is delivered suspensefully, with a deft touch not unlike a baseball broadcaster recounting events as they happen in real time. But even more than he wants to be like Johnny Bench, the young Vincent wants to be like his dad. With one problem: dad’s “medicine” for a persistent physical ailment comes in a can labeled Pabst Blue Ribbon. When grandma comes over with her 40-ounce Colt .45, dad requires even stronger medicine, in the form of Canadian Mist. Vincent’s description of family interaction at moments like these is surprisingly elegant, without the least bit of the kind of mawkishness that typifies so many autobiographical works. Much as this must have been problematic, to say the least, Vincent never lapses into cliche, nor does he play the blame game. Instead, gallows humor is what pulls him through, something he no doubt picked up from his doomed father.

As the show’s segments shift, Sam Llanas – former frontman of popular Wisconsin roots rockers the BoDeans – does his part as Greek chorus with his acoustic guitar and warm baritone voice, singing excerpts from songs including the BoDeans’ brooding classic Far, Far Away from My Heart as well as several numbers from his 1998 cult classic cd A Good Day to Die, by the short-live side project Absinthe [#629 on the 1000 Best Albums of All Time list here – ed.]. Written to memorialize the teenage suicide of his older brother, the pieces from that song cycle used here have had their lyrics tweaked to fit the new context, and add considerable depth and gravitas to the overall ambience.

While Vincent’s father’s suicide is described in graphic detail, it’s the emotional impact that resonates more shockingly. Certain sounds and behaviors become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggers for Vincent, culminating with his wife’s struggles as his unborn daughter’s life hangs in the balance. At this past Saturday’s show, as the suspense reached breaking point, Vincent was literally moved to tears recalling how events unfolded: several audience members were overcome by emotion as well. Sometimes the drama of real life surpasses anything contrived for the stage.

One tantalizing aspect of the show, one which sadly won’t be missed by anyone who doesn’t know Sam Llanas’ more obscure catalog, is that his songs sometimes get cut short. Like Vincent, Llanas is also a first-rate storyteller, and there were points where songs like the haunting, down-and-out saga It Don’t Bother Me and the majestically angst-driven, Orbisonesque anthem Messed Up Likes of Us were about to reach their denouement…and then they were over. On one hand, Vincent deserves considerable credit for making such an apt pairing of music and monologue: on the other, those familiar with the Absinthe record will be left longing for more. During the New York run, Llanas played a series of intimate club dates; perhaps the same could be done the next time the show is staged. Otherwise, it couldn’t hurt to extend the work by, say, fifteen minutes, to let Llanas’ grim sagas sink in as impactfully as Vincent’s narrative.

September 17, 2012 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rocking the World with John Koprowski

Singer John Koprowski’s Five Years That Rocked the World, 1964-1969 is the rare cabaret show that’s both family-friendly and edgy. That may seem like the world’s biggest oxymoron, but Koprowski (abetted by musical director and perennial MAC awardwinner Tracy Stark) has put together a somewhat stagy revue that tells the story of the Sixties via an informative, sometimes predictable but often counterintuitive mix of rock and pop songs from the era (and a little afterward, if you count the Kinks and the Grateful Dead). It’s a rock show for cabaret rooms at this point: with some work, it would have legs on Broadway, as last night’s performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre more than hinted. Eric Michael Gillett’s direction keeps the show moving along briskly: between songs or medleys, Koprowski’s narration comes across in the style of a low-key, friendly AM disc jockey with a casually encyclopedic, historical awareness of oldies rock that transcends the trivia usually associated with those songs.

This isn’t some anonymous pit band phoning in Abba covers for the umpteenth time, either: Stark, a luminous pianist, strikes an imaginative balance between the hippie inspiration of the originals and an artsy, frequently harder-rocking edge. Eclectic guitar virtuoso Peter Calo and the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin bring serious downtown cred, backed by a rhythm section of Owen Yost on bass and Donna Kelly on drums along with Wendy Russsell and Cindy Green on vocals. Koprowski projects a friendly, knowing I-was-there vibe: a comedic explanation for why he’s able to remember it comes around when he explains how much of his friends’ time and energy was consumed by the ever-present search for drugs (a subject that he tackles deftly and then deflects, something that parents will appreciate).

There are some transcendent moments here. Russell and Green give Koprowski a lurid backdrop to eerily explode out of with a gimlet-eyed menace on an absolutely chilling, gothic reinterpretation of Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising. Mitchell’s sizzling gypsy-blues solo on a Hendrix-inspired All Along the Watchtower (which Calo caps off with a surreally savage one of his own) is worth the price of admission alone. Mitchell and Calo also unearth the rustic country song beneath Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles, then segue effortlessly into the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension (that band, along with Dylan, is an obvious favorite here). Koprowski’s strongest moment, a bitterly declamatory take on Phil Ochs’ I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, is again set up by Green and Russell, this time with deadpan cruelty, a potent evocation of the antiwar struggle, not to mention the sheer body count of the Vietnam War. The nascent gay liberation movement is also addressed via a winking version of the Kinks’ Lola. Among the rest of the songs, including hits by the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles (a spot-on version of Revolution lit up by Calo’s overdriven guitar against Stark’s warm, flowing chordlets, and a less successful version of With a Little Help from My Friends), the only dud is America, a shaggy-dog story from the Paul Simon songbook that comes across as something like a Pinataland outtake.

Koprowski is funny, humble and sings the songs in context, something that a younger singer might not be able to pull off so effortlessly. But to a millennial generation raised on autotune and American Idol (and their long-suffering parents), it couldn’t hurt to bolster Koprowski’s vocals, which are those of a survivor, dents and all. Consider: the people who wrote these songs were all in their twenties. To relegate Green – a versatile, tremendously compelling talent – to the occasional harmony is a mistake (was she a last-minute addition to the cast?). Likewise, the show would benefit from considerably more time in the spotlight from Russell: her quietly crescendoing lead vocal on Janis Ian’s plea for racial harmony, Society’s Child, is unselfconsciously poignant. Obviously, with shows like these in their early stages, rehearsals all too often are limited, but since so many of the original versions of these songs featured all sorts of vocal harmonies, the opportunies that the presence of Russell and Green – and Stark as well – offer are tantalizing, and with a little work could be every bit as compelling as the instrumentation. With a little more help from his friends, Koprowski could take this to a much bigger stage.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debussy Was Right – And Apparently So Was Obama

Debussy was right about gamelan music. In a marathon three-and-a-half show Friday night at the Asia Society, famed Javanese dhalang (shadow puppeteer) Purbo Asmoro led New York’s Gamelan Kusuma Laras along with musicians from his own gamelan troupe Mayangkara in a lush, hypnotic, often thrilling and frequently hilarious modern update on the medieval wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) epic Dewi Ruci. Subtitled “Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment,” it’s an Indonesian spin on an old Indian myth. The plotline concerns a spiritually-inclined prince’s Herculean adventures in the search for enlightenment: who knew that a quest for personal growth could be so arduous? Bima tackles ogres in the woods and dives to the ocean floor to do battle with a giant sea serpent, all in the name of wisdom. Which makes sense, given his lineage. Utimately, the story could be termed a battle between blue and red states: Bima’s family, the peaceful Pandhawas, are vying with their rivals, the materialistic Kurawa clan, for control of an empire. As part of a “comic interlude” that was only supposed to take five minutes but which went on much longer (to the delight of the remarkably diverse crowd of expats and Americans), a Barack Obama puppet made an appearance, which only made sense: as Asmoro told it, Obama was exposed to wayang as a child in Indonesia and enjoyed it. And who wouldn’t.

Simultaneously playing the role of lyric baritone, comedian, and conductor, Asmoro was a force of nature, acrobatically spinning his wayang (puppet figures manipulated with what look like giant chopsticks) to cast shadows on the screen, aggressively thumping his giant wooden puppet box, clattering his foot cymbals to signal dynamic shifts and all the while entertaining the crowd. This was all the more impressive considering that he and most of his ensemble played the entire show seated, their backs to the audience, which is the style in Indonesia these days (apparently the desire for a backstage pass is universal). Throughout the performance, audience members traipsed onstage to get a look at the figures on the shadow screen facing the band, which was also being projected via live video on the side of the stage. To the immense benefit of the non-Javanese speakers in the crowd, gamelan member Kitsie Emerson furiously typed a witty and insightful simultaneous English translation that was projected high above the musicians.

The music itself covered the range of the entire sonic spectrum. Director I.M. Harjito led the group as they built calmly dreamy ambience with a hypnotic, gently polyrhythmic, pointilliistically glimmering web of instrumental “welcoming music” with their bells, gongs and fiddle that went on for practically a half-hour before Asmoro took the stage. Alternately dramatic, intense, droll and ribald, he shifted voices as much as he shifted characters while the band rose and fell along with the plotline. When the stage momentarily lost power, puppets blamed each other; Freudian metaphors abounded, and Asmoro got the crowd roaring with his explanation of how New York winter cold affected his manhood. Musically, the highlight of the show was a harder-charging interlude meant to illustrate soldiers in what seemed to be competitive training exercises, the tinkling of the bells balanced by the low, richly reverberating boom of the gongs. In between acts, a choir sang choruses along with soloists from the ensemble (notably soprano Ibu Yatmi, with her meticulously nuanced, piercingly microtonal melismas). After about an hour and a half, wine and snacks were served upstairs: people made their way up and back into the theatre, happy for a break but eager to see what else the group had in store. It was after eleven when the show finally concluded, Bima victorious at last in his search for wisdom, the future of the Pandhawa uncertain, the crowd still invigorated, on their feet, wanting more.

March 19, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes from the Underground: Tammy Faye Starlite as Nico in “Chelsea Madchen”

by Serena Angelique Williams

I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.

I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.

This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.

The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.

Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.

In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.

The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview.  We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.

Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.

As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.

And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.

The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission.  Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. There is one last performance on Saturday, and it should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.

Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in “Chelsea Madchen” at the Duplex, 61 Christopher St. at 7th Ave. South on Nov 19th at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $10; reservations are highly recommended to (212) 255-5438.

November 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment