Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

Whether Russian orchestras actually play Shostakovich better, or French organists are best suited to perform the work of Louis Vierne, are debatable questions. What was indisputable last night was how vastly attuned the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were to their countryman Arvo Part’s somber, rapturous mysticism. It’s impossible to think of a more apt program for a New York series called Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

The concert was a confluence of unlikely serendipities. Beyond the rare opportunity to witness these two legendary ensembles together on American soil, the material on the bill was what many consider to be peak-era Part. Everything dated from1990 and later, with one of the arrangements a 2018 North American premiere. Better yet, the composer himself had suggested the inclusion of his soberly crescendoing, cell-like 2006 string orchestra piece, Fur Lennart in Memoria.

On a macro level, the performance was as meticulously serious as its overall gloom was pervasive and relentless. In particular, conductor Tonu Kaljuste made masterful use of the innumerable spaces that punctuated these works, leting the natural reverb of the high-ceilinged Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola resonate as profoundly as the music itself.

The ensembles only missed the big American costume-party holiday by a couple of weeks. To be fair, the only point where the sound reached fullscale horror was in the stalking pulse, gothic chromatics and brief series of muted, shrieking motives in the concluding suite, Adam’s Lament. The message, here as elsewhere, seemed to be that no human alone should have to bear the burden of being cast out of paradise, all alone in a hostile world.

The rest of the program was every bit as troubled and serious. Even celeste player Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann’s graceful comet-trail phrases and bittersweet starriness tended to simply mingle with the otherwise rather stygian, even creepy tones of Salve Regina. Mysterious bass drones anchored alternately moody and robust accents and call-and-response from the choir throughout an understatedly dynamic take of Part’s Berliner Messe, the oldest piece they performed. The string orchestra brought a gorgeous, Gorecki-like, hypnotically circling ambience to Silouan’s Song, rising to a windswept ethereality. And the Prayer, from Part’s Kanon Pokajanen suite, perfectly synopsized the concert’s slow, steady, spacious majesty, artfully developed variations on simple, emphatic phrases and lustrous contrast between highs and lows from both the singers and the strings.

The two ensembles are currently on US tour; the next stop is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. in Stanford, California; you can get in for $32, less if you’re a student. After more lighthearted holiday fare next month, Sacred Music in a Sacred Space’s programming keeps the intensity high with a performance by longtime St. Ignatius organist Renee-Anne Louprette with uilleann piper Ivan Goff on Jan 20 at 3 PM; tix are $25.

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November 13, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a specific soloist, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.

November 11, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practical Strategies For Introducing Audiences to New Composers of Serious Music

The panel discussion this past evening at Lincoln Center was less a skull session about how to fix the crisis of diminishing audiences at concerts of serious music and more about how two of the most colorful individuals in the business are tackling it. The New York Philharmonic‘s Isaac Thompson, who moderated, wisely picked the orchestra’s first-ever Creative Partner, Nadia Sirota, along with her International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist pal Rebekah Heller, then let the two of them chew the scenery. The result was refreshingly optimistic, all the more so for being grounded in the grim reality of experience and history.

Both approach the situation from a programming rather than audience perspective – one that goes completely against the grain of conventional corporate strategy. These days we’re told to mine data to the nth degree, then bombard those attached to that data with lures and incentives to buy more and more of what the numbers say they already like. In so doing, you take absolutely no chances.

But as Heller put it, “Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is also the safest.” She was referring to Ashley Fure’s Filament, which the Philharmonic chose to open their season this year. Heller played that piece from a position in the audience. Unorthodox spatial configurations of musicians are old hat in the avant garde, and there’s plenty of mainstream precedent – Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? – yet have been quite the exception in this particular milieu. Was this a one-off? Far from it, Heller vigorously asserted.

“I didn’t get called by the New York Philharmonic because I’m an amazing bassoonist,” she demurred. “I got the call because I’m part of this community with Ashley. This is a generation of community-building, with and for each other, and giving back to the field,” she explained. What Heller could have said but didn’t is that she’s actually a very dynamic bassoonist, a disciple of  Pauline Oliveros with a flair for the unusual. Her Dark and Stormy project with Adrian Morejon might be the only group in history to have played the entire extant repertoire for bassoon duo.

Sirota enthusiastically affirmed Heller’s communitarian philosophy. “New York is this incredible farm team of nineteen and twenty-year-old musicians just dying to play new music. It wasn’t always that way,” she reminded soberly. “In twenty or thirty years I hope that audiences for this will have octupled,” she enthused.

The Juilliard-trained violist and founder of indie classical chamber ensemble yMusic speaks from experience. You can see the wheels turning at the Phiilharmonic: it’s impossible to think of a more likable ambassador for new composers. With her rapidfire wit and livewire enthusiasm, she earned the position after three years running arguably the best new music podcast out there, Meet the Composer. Her agenda: to bring that passion – along with a considerable following – to a new series of Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortable amphitheatre sonics of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There’s also the late-night Kaplan Penthouse Nightcap series of intimate performances featuring composers whose work is on the bill in the hall downstairs – and where you can actually meet them.

She’s also booked her first Young People’s Concert for March 2 of next year, pairing Beethoven with Andrew Norman. She took her cue for the afternoon’s video game theme from a comment by Norman comparing motivic development in Beethoven with the challenges of increasingly complex gaming levels.

Heller is one of several ICE musicians do double duty as administrator and programmer. The group’s ICE Lab program, a workshop for emerging composers, springboarded her connection to Fure. And the long-running, free OpeniCE series – the latest of which are happening this week through Nov 8 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – continues to offer exciting, eclectic programming accessible to everyone.

The elephant not in the room was the Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. “He is so game!” Heller asserted. “He made his name on these big Germanic pieces but that’ s not the only thing he likes or is good at,” pointing to his advocacy for new composers with the Dallas Symphony. “So with this orchestra, he gets to be this amazing explorer with them.” It will be interesting to see how far the can take that: Alan Gilbert’s adventurous and often absolutely delightful Contact! series, dedicated to emerging composers, got off to a smashingly good start but stalled out as the venues got smaller and smaller while ticket prices went up.

In the Q&A afterward, one audience member asked why the Philharmonic doesn’t open every performance with a new work. Neither SIrota nor Heller acknowledged that they used to do that all the time. Half the audience would leave at the intermission, dejected, while the other half would show up then for the big Germanic piece. Instead, the two women simply acknowledged that new music belongs on the program wherever it makes sense to put it: in the middle of the bill wouldn’t be a bad idea. As musicians, Sirota and Heller know that better than anyone. We’ve come a long way since the days when, as Heller explained it, the twelve-tone camp and the neoromantics were duking out over which was preferable: ”Music that was intelligent but emotionally lacking, or emotional but stupid.”

The Philharmonic’s next performances are Nov 7-8 at 7:30 PM and Nov 9 at 8 PM with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony plus two works by Schubert: the Fifth Symphony and a “joyous, charming mini-cantata,” featuring Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill and soprano Miah Persson. You can get in for $34. 

November 5, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Relevant Grand Finale to This Year’s Momenta Festival

Over the past four years, the Momenta Festival has become one of New York’s most exciting annual events. Each member of the irrepressibly daring Momenta Quartet takes his or her turn programming a night. The festival usually ends on violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron’s birthday. This year’s grand finale, Friday night at the Tenri Institute, happened to be cellist Michael Haas’ birthday: he and the group celebrated by going starkly deep into a program centered around Bartok’s harrowing String Quartet No. 4. As he explained succinctly before the show, it’s a piece he’d been scheming to play ever since joining the ensemble five years ago.  As was the case last year, admission was free, and there was high-grade craft beer afterward, also courtesy of the hosts. What more could a concertgoer possibly want?

They opened with Eric Nathan’s diptych Four to One, from 2011. Interestingly, this was the only contemporary work on the bill. It set it the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the evening, notwithstanding the iconic Bartok quartet immediately afterward. Right off the bat, it became a harried, relentless, microtonal rollercoaster ride, the group holding fast to the counterpoint amidst the storm. Violist Stephanie Griffin’s plaintive assertions were particularly striking, as was Gendron’s turn in the rather cruel spotlight over a menacing wash in the second part. Haas’ cello was also stark yet prominent: it’s not hard to see why he’d want to program this. It reminded a lot of Michael Hersch’s recent, troubling microtonal work.

The performance of the Bartok turned out to be one of the very best of many witnessed by this blog or its owner over the past couple of decades. The persistent sense of doom the quartet parsed with razorwire intensity had particular resonance in this post-2016 election era. Menacingly emphatic gestures leapt from the dark interweave of the first movement, danger drawing ever closer. The circle dance in the second was just as macabre, especially with the exchanges of voices between instruments. Haas’ plaintive cavatina, echoed incisively by violinist Alex Shiozaki, brought the longing and if-only atmosphere of the third to a peak: it was impossible not to think of Shostakovich being influenced by this when writing his String Quartet No. 7. Both the savagery and after-the-battle emotional depletion of the final movement were just as indelible a reminder of the perilous consequences of fascism. The more things change…

Augmented by the Argus Quartet – violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, cellist Joann Whang and guest violist Rose Hashimoto – the Momentas wound up the program with a triumphantly anthemic take of Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C Major. The young composer wrote it at nineteen in a rather successful attempt to outdo Mendelssohn at teenage octetry. The main theme has a suspenseful Andalucian feel, which grew to echo the Ravel bolero in places: together, the group reveled in the dramatic foreshadowing, even if it grew facile in places. A more mature composer might have written it half as long, but even so, when the synopsis of the final movement finally circled back, there was no denying how much of a party this merry band had brought.

The Momenta Quartet are currently on tour: their next gig is tomorrow night, Oct 24 at 7:30 PM playing works by Agustin Fernandez, Roberto Sierra, Eric Nathan, and Philip Glass at Santa Teresa Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Argus Quartet’s next New York show is on Nov 13 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, playing an excellent, diverse program including Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” along with works by Haydn, Ted Hearne, Juri Seo and Christopher Theofanidis. Cover is $25/$15 stud.

October 23, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Classical Accordionist Hanzhi Wang Brings Darkly Dynamic New Nordic Compositions to Carnegie Hall

Hanzhi Wang isn’t the first accordionist to specialize in new classical music, but she is the first-ever squeezebox player to earn inclusion on the Young Concert Artists roster. Even though more composers these days are writing for the accordion, that’s still a pretty big deal. Wang has a magically dynamic album of concise new works by Nordic composers, On the Path to H.C. Andersen, streaming at Spotify. She’s making her Carnegie Hall debut on Oct 22 at 8:30 PM in Zankel Hall, where she’ll be joined by the Zorá String Quartet, playing works by Bach, Gubaidulina, Moszkowski, Piazzolla and Martin Lohse. You can get in for as little as $10. Along with this past summer’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival – and maybe Golden Fest, which always has plenty of accordion music – this is THE big accordion event of the year in New York.

The first composition is Lohse‘s Menuetto, a steady, Philip Glass-ine, austerely waltzing theme punctuated by airy, rather still interludes, growing more uneasy as its distantly baroque-tinged, cell-like variations rise and then recede.

Lohse’s triptych Passing begins with a similarly circling if almost marionettishly pulsing allegro section. The steady, moonlit waltz that follows is deliciously ominous; the concluding variation is 180 degrees the opposite until that same resonance is artfully interpolated amidst the starry, flitting optimism. Wang’s precision, all the way through a persistent strobe effect, is striking.

A final Lohse piece, The Little Match Girl begins with sparse, Ligeti-esque syncopation and expands from there: the central theme reminds of the old English folk tune Scarborough Fair. Wang has gone on record as having a close personal connection to its persistent melancholy since it reminds her of her first solitary days and weeks as a Chinese accordion student abroad for the first time in Denmark.

She negotiates the twisted turns and sudden bursts of Jabberwocky, by Jesper Koch with carnivalesque vigor and finesse. The creepiest number here is Tears, by Bent Lorentzen, building to from ethereal suspense to phantasmagorical Flight of the Bumblebee clusters, murky low atmospherics and poltergeist accents bursting in from the shadows.

Wang concludes the album with Svend Aaquist’s practically fifteen-minute Saga Night, which quickly becomes a dissociatively eerie, rhythmically challenging fugue. A heroic theme is alluded to but never hit head-on; then a variation on the opening quasi-fugue makes an enigmatic return. In a way, it’s practically a synopsis of the album as a whole. While some of these pieces could conceivably be played on organ or by a string ensemble, nothing beats the plaintive lusciousness of Wang’s instrument of choice.

October 17, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Perfectly Macabre Halloween Month Extravaganza at Green-Wood Cemetery

This past evening, in the the private catacombs buried away in the center of Green-Wood Cemetery, a woman’s high heels echoed over a murmur of sepulchral voices.

Those persistent footfalls belonged to an employee there. But the hushed swirl of voices weren’t coming from cemetery workers. While those sounds were on the quiet side, they were also very lively: the electricity of a sold-out crowd who’d gone deep into the realm of the dead to witness the first of three nights of the grand finale of the series called the Angel’s Share.

Drawing on classics by Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, pianist Gregg Kallor and cellist Joshua Roman built a relentlessly turbulent ambience, less classic horror film score than mashup of postbop jazz, the Second Viennese School and a little Olympian Rick Wakeman bombast. Yet this performance of pieces from Kallor’s current work in progress, a Frankenstein opera, as well as his epic oratorio The Tell-Tale Heart were ultimately less about instrumental pyrotechnics than vocal ones. And what voices these were!

The greatest achievement of Kallor’s scores turned out to be the contrast between the stubborn unresolve of the music and the sheer anthemic catchiness of the vocal melodies. Yet with all the tension and often outright suspense between the two, they were hardly easy to sing. Emerging from (and then eventually skulking back into) the Herrmann family’s private crypt, baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave the Frankenstein monster dignity and gravitas, along with a crushing solitude that rang starkly true to Shelley’s novella. Tenor Brian Cheney, as Dr. Frankenstein, channeled intransigent denial, but his angst grew more harrowing as the dialogue with his creation grew more emotionally charged. The takeaway from Kallor’s interpretation of the story seems to be that if you create monsters, be careful lest you become one. As the suite wound up, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano also offered resolute poignancy as the doctor’s fiancee and quasi-foil.

Kallor then delivered another world premiere, solo, playing The Answer Is Yes, a dedication to Leonard Bernstein (who according to the program notes is a permanent Green-Wood resident). The title is a typically exuberant Bernstein quote from a series of Harvard lectures, and rang true as Kallor methodically shifted gears between distantly Stravinskian, balletesque leaps and bounds, saturnine lustre and a little bittersweet blues. So many other composers  inspired by Bernstein end up aping him. Kallor did nothing of the sort.

Cano then pulled out all the stops in The Tell-Tale Heart. Kallor and Roman edged closer to straight-ahead, chromatically slashing grand guignol as she gave voice to what appeared to be the entire short story. It was a dynamic tour de force that ultimately demanded every bit of available firepower and range-stretching technique. In between those extremes, she delivered furtive puzzlement, and grisly determination, and finally a knockout portrait of sheer madness. Whether modulating her soul-infused vibrato or belting with a crypt-shaking power, she put on a clinic in just about every emotion that could be evinced from this creepy character.

Without spoiling anything else, the costuming and lighting are spot-on and add immensely to the performance’s tension and suspense. Sometimes less is really more: in staging this, the crew really had to become intimate with the space.

The program repeats tomorrow and Friday, Oct 11-12 and is sold out. However, there is a wait list. In their inaugural season, this series became a huge hit with neighborhood folks, so if you are one of them, and ghoulish sounds are your thing, head up the hill to the cemetery and you might just get in.

Maybe you’ll even be able to take a refreshingly shadowy ten-minute walk back from the crypt, through the tombstones, afterward…despite this past evening’s crushing humidity, that stroll was as magical as the concert.

October 10, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brilliant Grey-Sky Themes and Savage Irony From Andrew Rosciszewski

Bassist/composer Andrew Rosciszewski’s music vividly evokes his primary influence, Shostakovich, from a persistently grim, grey-sky sensibility to a devious, sometimes cruelly ironic sense of humor. Other obvious touchpoints are the terse minimalism of Gorecki and the phantasmagoria of Stravinsky. Rosciszewski’s richly dynamic new collection of chamber works, Sonic Real Estate, is streaming at Bandcamp. His deft use of false endings is unsurpassed: Beethoven would be jealous.

The album opens with his Piano Trio No. 1. The first movement comes across as a radical deconstruction of the first couple of bars of the famous Mars theme from the Planets, by Gustav Holst, flickers of what was once bellicose drama drifting endlessly through space with a funereal pulse. Cellist Timothy Leonard’s amazingly consistent, loopy phrases contrast with Wen Yi Lo’s stern, fragmentary piano, violinist Izabella Liss Cohen eventually making a similarly somber entrance.

The gleefully creepy Balkan dance of the second movement provides striking contrast. Deep-space belltone gloom introduces a series of hypnotically emphatic, circling phrases straight out of Gorecki’s Third Symphony in the third. The concluding Allegro is a feast of darkly carnivalesque tropes: devilish glissandos, a bit of Bartokian boogie, a Balkan danse macabre with some breathtaking lows from Leonard and a marionetttish strut for a coda.

Leonard and Lo team up for the Pieśń Wdowy for Cello & Piano, a diptych that opens with Rachmaninovian glimmer and angst and swings back into the Balkans – and is that a distortion pedal that Leonard’s playing through?

Music for Three Instruments is a three-part suite, opening with a particularly animated Andante, Tamara Keshecki’s twistedly dancing flute against a backdrop of Joseph d’Auguste’s clarinet and Lucy Corwin’s viola. The sheer desolation of the Russian folk theme afterward and then the animatedly sepulchral conclusion both strongly echo Shostakovich at his darkest and most cynical.

Meg Zervoulis plays the Impromptu for Piano solo, a sly neoromantic parody that drifts off into Philip Glass territory. The title piece is a cinematically suspenseful, occasionally buffoonish, chamber-rock number with the composer on electric bass and Moog pedals alongside percussionist Vincent Livolsi, Leonard, Keshecki and Lo, who switches to synth. In a best-case scenario, this album ought to raise Rosciszewski’s profile beyond cult-favorite status: somebody give this guy a grisly historical epic to score!

October 6, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Michael Hersch Works Top the List of the Most Disturbing Music of 2018

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. That one was inspired by Michael Mazur sketches made inside a Rhode Island mental asylum in the early 1960s. The latest recording of Hersch’s characteristically harrowing work is even more so, evoking the fitful last gasps and lingering pain of the final stages of terminal illness. Hersch’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with International Contemporary Ensemble is paired with his End Stages suite, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and streaming at New Focus Recordings.

The twisted march that introduces the concerto – arranged with an emphasis on strings rather than a full orchestra – kicks in with a savage downward slash from Kopatchinskaja. Within the first minute, the message is clear: the horror is going to be relentless. The brooding string quartets of Per Norgard are an antecedent. Kopatchinskaja’s role is less traditional soloist than member of the ensemble who gets the most shivery, terror-stricken lines and cruelly demanding cadenzas.

A sense of desperation pervades this piece, foreshadowing the suite to follow, Evil faces from every corner of the sonic picture peek out and then slash at each other, the horns rising over a cruel, emphatic low note from the piano. Astringent microtones linger side by side, a macabre march anchoring the shrieks overhead – not that anyone would want to be anchored in this skin-peeling acidity.

That’s the first movement. In the second, Similar shrieks burst from accordion-like textures throughout as much welcome calm as there is, the occasional piano accent piercing the veil. The third is a vast, spacious, defeated tableau punctuated by funereal piano, a horrified fragment from the strings eventually leading to a horrified quasi-march with a frantic couple of duels amid the string section, then a series of cruelly sarcastic faux-fanfares. The stillness in the fourth remains constant and sadistically icy: Hersch’s orchestration is every bit as inventive as his music is disturbing.

End Stages, which is also a microtonal work, begins with an austere mist punctuated by a sudden evocation of a scream or a brief moment of neoromantic clarity. The rest of the movements, many of them barely a minute or two long, shift from surreal, cinematic, conversational exchanges, to macabre dirges.

Bells and stark string horror permeate the third movement. There could be a death in a sudden pained cadenza here, and also in the grim codas of the fourth and fifth, puncturing their lingering, ghastly suspense. A sadistic parody of churchbells and grey-sky Shostakovian ambience sit side by side with long shrieking motives and every foreshadowing device ever invented, as these tortured voices stare down the end.  This is the best piece of new orchestral music since Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister album back in 2011.

October 5, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missy Mazzoli’s Grim, Grisly Great Plains Gothic Tour de Force

As a sold-out crowd filtered into the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, a strange interweave of short melodic phrases rose from the newly reopened orchestra pit, played more or less in turn by a large subset of International Contemporary Ensemble’s rotating multi-city cast. They weren’t warming up for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing opera, Proving Up: the surreal, acidic exchange was foreshadowing in disguise. It only hinted at the ghastly narrative to come.

Royce Vavrek’s libretto, based on a Karen Russell short story, follows the misfortunes of a family of 19th century Nebraska homesteaders. The only possible hardship they don’t have to face is Indian raids: presumably the original occupants of the land to which the Zegner family hopes to claim the deed have already been murdered. A cast of seven, both the living and the dead, carry out a grim narrative, clinging to the illusion of a destiny they can manifest despite all odds against that ever happening. They’re forced to recycle things you never would. Such a sobering wake-up call, from an American dream that has historically eluded most of those who embraced it, could not be more relevant than it is now.

Mazzoli’s score mirrors the Zegners’ determination to prove to a Godot of a government inspector that they’ve fulfilled every surreal requirement to make the land their own. The melodies are elusive, often maddeningly so. Folksy themes gather momentary momentum, only to be twisted into cruel shadows of themselves. Mazzoli’s orchestration is sublimely strange and counterintuitive: a melodica and a big gong figure notably in the score alongside aching strings, spare brass, sepulchrally glittering piano and woodwinds.

The singers take similarly challenging melodies which seldom stayed in any one particular scale or mode and deliver a confidently chilling performance. John Moore gives poignancy to the family’s drunken, abusive yet fiercely populist patriarch. Soprano Talise Trevigne brings an immutably soaring strength to his wife, the family’s truest believer and possibly truest victim. As their son, riding across the lone prairie on a joke of a horse, Michael Slattery witnesses the mark of the beast on midwestern sentimentality  As a very differently imperiled brother, Sam Shapiro has to hold some contorted poses, and his ballet training doesn’t let him down. Bass Andrew Harris plays a grim reaper figure with relish. And Abgail Nims and Cree Carrico, as ghost Greek choir, channel diabolical schadenfraude. Director James Darrah’s decision to stage an exhumation in the midst of all the drama packs grand guignol wallop.

The opera’s totemic central symbol is a glass window, something every verifiable homestead needed to have. A question of provenance arises, with lethal results. As the story plays out, Mazzoli’s sinister, looming ambience is relentless. Her music has no shortage of troubling undercurrents, but this is the darkest and arguably best work she’s ever composed in a career that probably hasn’t even hit its high point yet.

Downward glissandos from both the singers and the orchestra cap off some of the night’s most emphatic crescendos, one crushing defeat after another. Solid grooves are dashed away in an endlessly daunting series of rhythmic shifts: nothing is solidly underfoot here. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with fullscale horror in the final act, the long build up to that point, through vast long-tone desolation, eerily twinkling piano, marionettish rhythmic jerks and sepulchral flickers throughout the ensemble, the takeaway is unmistakeable. We should be able to see the final results of this particular promise a mile away.

There’s one more performance tonight at the Miller, and that’s sold out. Programming here this season is characteristically diverse, from Brazilian rainforest nocturnes on Oct 9 at 6 PM, to one of the theatre’s signature composer portrait performances featuring the work and vocals of Kate Soper on the 27th at 8.

September 28, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

September 21, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment