The last time Max Lifchitz performed in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, he was at the piano, delivering a characteristically diverse and eye-opening program of 20th century Mexican composers including works by Carlos Chavez, Manuel Enriquez, Manuel M. Ponce, Maria Teresa Prieto, Silvestre Revueltas, and an eclectically lively partita by Brian Banks along with a pastorale partita of his own. Much of the bill could be characterized as the Second Viennese School gone south of the border. Tuesday night, Lifchitz conducted his North/South Chamber Orchestra in a matter-of-factly transcendent program of contemporary compositions.
Katherine Hoover‘s South Zephyr was an evocatively buoyant, gently kinetic evocation of an enveloping, warmly comforting wind from the tropics, Lisa Hansen’s flute afloat on a lush bed of strings. Victor Kioulaphides‘ Summer Concerto, a string piece, was the big hit with the audience with its misterioso pulse, dynamic shifts, subtly flamenco-tinged interlude and allusions to Andalucia and the Middle East.
Alla Pavlova‘s Concertino came across as the great lost Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #5, or something from late Tschaikovsky. It didn’t have the virtuoso piano passages of Rachmaninoff, but it was packed with the kind of direct, emphatic, angst-ridden, stunningly memorable riffage that defines that composer’s work. And it featured plenty of original tropes as well, most notably the shivery string passages in the opening segment as a backdrop to Helen Lin’s icepick piano and Mioi Takeda’s steely but cantabile violin.
Soloist Edmundo Ramirez brought a graceful but plaintive, sometimes vividly aching edge and an acerbic tone to the night’s most stunning work, Anna Veismane‘s Concerto for Viola d’Amore. A tone poem, more or less, its tectonic sheets shifted slowly and methodically and grew more haunting as it went on, building a surreal, dangerously otherworldly mood with close harmonies from the strings. Lifchitz concluded with his own song suite, Forget Me Not, sung with deadpan wit by soprano Carol Wilson. Over the lilting sway of the strings, Wilson managed to keep a straight face through a long interlude about a potato, something some of the audience could do but others could not. It made for comic relief in the wake of a lot of searing emotion.
Lifchitz’s agenda with his long-running North/South Consonance concerts is to cross-pollinate on a global level and promote the work of composers from across the Americas alongside their counterparts from literally everywhere else. It’s an ambitious project, and something to keep an eye on if first-rate new works (and plenty of older rarities) by under-the-radar composers are your thing.
Sagapool hail from Montreal. They play tunefully esoteric, mostly minor-key instrumentals that would make a good soundtrack to a David Cronenberg film somewhere in the woods north of Quebec City. Their new album features Luizio Altobelli’s accordion, Guillaume Bourque’s clarinet, Alexis Dumais’ piano, Zoe Dumais’ violin, Dany Nicolas’ acoustic guitar and Marton Maderspach’s lithe, subtle drums as the main instruments, although they also use banjo, bass, alto sax, mandolin, electric piano, sandpaper and “whispering.” Gypsy music is an obvious influence, and there’s a little of that here, but they also touch on classical, jazz and various folk styles. Some of their stuff reminds of eclectic San Francisco group Pickpocket Ensemble. Although not a theme and variations per se, the album works best taken as a single integral work, as if actually intended to be a movie soundtrack. The tunes are catchy and will linger in your head long after the sun goes down for good.
The opening cut is set in a Montreal park, a slightly aching accordion melody that builds to a motorway anthem as the drums rumble along, muffled against swooshing ambience. They follow that with Coeur D’Aiguille (Eye of the Needle), a wistful clarinet waltz with glockenspiel and ambient accordion. Le Vent Des Iles (Island Breeze) is another waltz, this one more pensive and featuring the piano. It rises to a sailing clarinet solo and then a romp through a majestic swirl of arpeggios in the style of 70s art-rock bands like Genesis. From its staccato piano intro to its tense violin/accordion melody, Le Fil Boreal (Edge of the Northern Lights) sounds like it’s about to explode into a big anthem but never quite gets there. La Tristesse De L’Ampleur (Sad Expanse) is a rather plaintive folk/jazz guitar tune that shifts between tricky and funky, and another moody waltz, clarinet soaring brightly upward.
The two tracks here where the grey-sky atmosphere lifts are Marcel, a jaunty, carefree dixieland-flavored number, and the amusing closing cut, Mon Cousin Joue Du Synthe (My Cousin Plays Synth), a dark minor-key theme bookending some unexpectedly silly, campy 80s new wave tropes. There’s also a brooding neoromantic piano waltz with Erik Satie echoes; another violin tune that shifts between waltz time and trickier rhythms; and the vividly crescendoing De Cordes et De Bois (Strings and Wood), which matter-of-factly builds until it lifts off and becomes an action movie theme – and then reprises an earlier melody. Who is the audience for this? Montreal bartenders on the day shift; northern New England shopkeepers who aspire to be classier than Walmart; people whose days begin late and end early or wish that was the case.