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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Grand Finale From One of This Century’s Most Fearless String Quartets at the Met

How does a string quartet go out in style?  By grabbing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 by the tail and speeding it up at the end, a practice considered treyf in traditional classical circles, but a fearlessly stunning way to cap off an eighteen-year career.

Or by joining a bill spiced with the stern, stygian, somber sonics of a sextet of men in monks’ outfits singing variations on Gregorian chant. ‘

Or with the New York premiere of a major work by the timelessly vital Philip Glass.

In their final major performance, the Chiara String Quartet did all this and more, bowing out at the absolute peak of their powers on familiar turf at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the early zeroes, they’ve championed obscure composers, brought standard repertoire to crowds in bars and jails, and played and recorded one of the most strikingly intuitive Bartok cycles ever released. Violist Jonah Sirota told the crowd soberly that everyone in the group found this concert moving beyond words – the three standing ovations at the end underscored this group’s potency and relevance. What a run they had.

They opened with Nico Muhly‘s Diacritical Marks, an impressively artful, distantly Balkan-tinged theme and variations that eventually circled back on itself – things coming full circle was a major theme throughout this show. Sirota, cellist Gregory Beaver, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon juggled between flickering and starkly resonating motives as tectonically rhythmic variations rose and fell.

Making a dramatic march from the back of the auditorium, the Axion Estin Chanters delivered an alternately severe and triumphant triptych, working permutations on the same Gregorian melody on which Glass based his Annunciation piano quintet. At first, that piece came across as a magically direct, lushly glittering, Lynchian piano concerto – until Glass’ steady arpeggios shifted to the quartet, and then back and forth. The quartet really dug in for the triumph of the outro against pianist Paul Barnes’ incisively liquid cadences.

Sirota introduced Beethoven’s famous late quartet a the kind of crazy piece that “makes a person want to become a musician.” That made sense, considering how cohesive yet individually focused the performance was. Sirota’s insight into how the lachrymose, prayerfully changing melody of the third movement echoed plainchant and foreshadowed Glass’ work was spot-on. He also alluded to how utterly bizarre the shifts were between those variations and what in this context seemed to be the sheer snark of a courtly dance that leaps further and further toward satire. They took it out with sheer abandon at the end and contrasted with the encore, a mutedly elegaic take of the third movement of the Debussy string quartet. How much fun these four must have had onstage…and how sad that the ride together is over.

All four have plans that dovetail with their pioneering work together. Sirota’s Strong Sad album, examining themes of everyday loss, is due out early this summer. Fischer is moving on with The Afield, a new multidisciplinary duo project with visual artist Anthony Hawley. Beaver and Yoon’s careers continue as educator and impresario, respectively.

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May 12, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s Contact! At Symphony Space, NYC 4/16/10

We’ve just wrapped up liveblogging this, explaining why everything here is in the present tense. The program has been a trio of world premieres, Alan Gilbert conducting ensembles of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra doing their frequent Contact! program of avant-garde pieces from acclaimed contemporary composers, WNYC’s John Schaefer (this guy gets around, huh?)  introducing each piece briefly in a discussion with its composer. Pre-concert sounds fluttering around the stage sounded menacingly enticing…

Sean Shepherd – These Particular Circumstances in seven uninterrupted episodes:

It’s a small ensemble – about fifteen performers. A fugue between fluttery strings and bells gives way to a couple of little horror movie crescendos (does this guy have a film music background? It would seem so). Suspenseful tradeoffs between individual voices, less for the sake of texture than to maintain suspense, it would seem. A series of animated, creepy crescendos – now this is fun! Straight out of Bernard Herrmann… Now a twisted little march – reminds of the one in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony but less savage….lots of ensemble interplay, strings handing off to brass etc., ominous and full of tritones, it’s a Sam Fuller movie….the sections of the suite segue into each other seamlessly. Now it’s variations on a twisted little fanfare, down to moody strings with those bells delivering the dread – this crew is quietly and methodically having a blast with this! A bit of boogie-woogie piano opening a chase scene picked up by the strings…

Time to build the suspense some more, pensive, gentle little codas growing in intensity. Where’s Bogey when we need him? A matter-of-factly clanging, metallic bell-driven conclusion gets a standing ovation from what looks to be a sold out house (missed all of the John Schaefer/Sean Shepherd onstage interview while unplugging and making room for unexpected seatholders – supposedly the balcony was going to be the bloggers’ peanut gallery).

Magnus Lindberg (the Phil’s Composer-in-Residence) supposedly is responsible for this bill – he lets his taste be his guide (good taste!). He reminds that recent writing for smaller ensembles really took off in the 60s (he didn’t say this, but it’s harder to sell something new and strange to a full orchestra than it is to simply cobble together an ensemble half the size).   

Nico Muhly – Detailed Instructions, for orchestra:

Muhly is a ham, gets a lot of laughs out of the crowd talking beforehand – but he doesn’t give anything away. For this piece, violas substitute for violins in this particular ensemble. Interesting interlocking rhythm between strings and brass, into a circular, looping staccato passage for the winds over gentle string/brass swells…the winds work their way into the swells, every section stepping on the last beat of the previous note. Muhly said there wouldn’t be any detail in this and he wasn’t lying. It’s clever and well thought-out and holds the listener with its rhythmic devices rather than any particularly compelling melodic ideas….now they’ve got a nice atmospheric passage going on with flute accents (wait, this wasn’t supposed to be ornamented at all, ha!).

Second movement starts out pensive and sostenuto…Gilbert really has his hands full with the tricky rhythm but he’s got them legatissimo here…makes it look easy. It’s not. In the movie, if this was a movie, this would be the scene before the funeral, lulling but with the flute keeping everybody awake….sans flute it goes warmly lower, a tone poem, harp and low horn voices at the top/bottom of the spectrum.

Third movement is a gypsy dance, basically, keyboard bouncing around, flute carrying the melody…a suspenseful trombone/cello dialogue….Muhly likes to run a riff over and over again against a tonal wash….flute and harp now running the loop – and a cold ending. The crowd likes it but isn’t blown away – but then the piece wasn’t written to blow anybody away.

The machine says 58 minutes worth of juice left, so we should be able to stay live for the whole thing…

Matthias Pintscher – Songs from Solomon’s Garden featuring baritone and NY Phil Artist-in-Residence Thomas Hampson:

Larger ensemble than for the previous two (more strings). This seems as if it might be intended as a Song of Solomon type thing, Hampson singing in Hebrew, not one of his usual languages (it’s tempting to say “ca m’est hebreu”)…voice out in front of sparse percussive accents and little fluttery runs up the scale from the high strings….stark astringent washes with the occasional burbling accent and the first of probably several big crescendos…the vocal part seems forced, it doesn’t move around much or ask the singer to add much of anything in the way of character or individuality. The instrumental passages, by contrast are getting creepier and creepier, little jumps against the ambience…oooh a morbid swell, the temperature just dipped thirty degrees in here…and the occasional little macabre piano accent. With the addition of the vocal part, is this supposed to be some sort of study in contrasts?

A lull, a burst of drums, Santa has fallen all the way down into the fireplace. Now he’s up and dusted himself and creeping around again…and now he’s singing….and not singing…pianissimo upper-register atmospherics swirling and whooshing…no disrespect to Hampson, he’s doing what he does well but the vocals in this one were superfluous – first adventurous ensemble to do this as the eerie soundtrack piece that it is gets a prize!

 Q2 will broadcast the performance on April 22 at 7 PM and also on April 22 at 4 PM – the care they’ve taken to make sure they get a good recording (virtually all of the instruments have been close-miked) is pretty extraordinary.

April 16, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s Contact! Demystified

The New York Philharmonic’s debut performance of Contact!, their new series dedicated to cutting-edge music by contemporary composers got off to an auspicious start at Symphony Space last December. They’re doing another program at Symphony Space featuring pieces by Nico Muhly, Matthias Pintscher and Sean Shepherd this Friday, April 16 at 8, which we’ll be liveblogging (wave to us up in the balcony but please don’t disturb your neighbor). The program repeats at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 7 PM on the 17th. John Mangum, the orchestra’s Artistic Administrator, didn’t let a computer crash stop him from helping us shed some light on what promises to be an equally auspicious performance:

Q: The first question is the most crucial one: are tickets still available for the April 16 show at Symphony Space and the one on the 17th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

A: Yes.

Q: The New York Philharmonic are not strangers to championing contemporary composers. Other than the fact that Contact! so far has featured pieces for smaller ensembles, what differentiates this series from other programs featuring the avant-garde?

A: The Contact! series for the current season, 2009/10, features exclusively commissioned works – each program is comprised entirely of world premieres. In future seasons, we’re looking at expanding the series’ mandate to make room for some of the classics from the last two decades. For example, in November 2010, we’ll have a program pairing a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg with the “Quatre chants pour franchir le seiul” (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshhold”), the last work of Magnus’ teacher, the pivotal French composer Gerard Grisey, which he completed in 1994.

Q: Is there a common link between the composers that led to their selection for this program? Or a common thread, musical or thematic, that links the compositions?

A: They’re all crucial voices from among the younger generations of composers living and working in the New York area – both Matthias Pintscher and Nico Muhly are here in the City, and Sean Shepherd, who recently graduated from Juilliard, is working at Cornell with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. The striking thing is how different each composer’s approach is, and that really comes to the fore when their works are placed on the same program. It makes a strong statement about the variety and vitality of music today.

Q: What criteria and whose decisions determine who gets a commission from the NY Phil as Muhly, Shepherd and Pintscher have here? Is there a line around the block, or is is the secret star chamber that decides immune to persuasion?

A: We try to be really aware of who is out there. Members of the Orchestra, Magnus Lindberg (our Composer-in-Residence), Alan Gilbert (our Music Director), and I all play a part. We meet, talk, look at scores – both those we’ve requested and those that have just come in unsolicited – and make the decision based on what turns us on. It’s exciting to be part of creating new art, and we want to share that excitement with our audiences.

Q: The debut of Contact! had minimalism, an intricate rondo, horizontal music, orchestrated Mongolian throat-singing chants and a jungly thicket of Brazilian percussion. What do audiences have to look forward to in this program?

A: Matthias’ piece is a wonderfully refined, tremendously thoughtful setting of sacred Hebrew texts for our Artist-in-Residence Thomas Hampson. There are strikingly beautiful sonorities, and really sophisticated use of the instrumental ensemble. Sean’s work is very energetic, full of all sorts of references to itself and other pieces. It’s a piece in seven sections, with a real arc, a real shape to it, and the use of the ensemble is, like Matthias’ work, again very sophisticated, though the result is different. Nico’s piece also has that same sense of energy and structure – there seems to be something about New York that brings this energy, this life out in composers.

Q: The ensemble was divided into unusual permutations last time around – for example, one of the pieces featured four string quartets with a bass at each end of the stage. Can the audience expect any such thing like on this bill?

A: The ensembles for these three pieces are similar, so there won’t be that kind of contrast like we had last time, with Lei Liang’s piece for four string quartets and two double basses. The contrast in this program comes from the different styles of the three composers, and it is striking.

Q: This is the first time Contact! has featured vocal music – will there be vocal music at upcoming performances?

A:Yes. On the November program next season, the Grisey work is for high soprano and ensemble.

Q: Why do this at Symphony Space and the Met? Why not just stay home at Avery Fisher Hall?

A: We really wanted to take this project out into the city, and after considering several different venues, these two proved ideal for a variety of practical and artistic reasons. At Symphony Space, the programming is a good fit with the work Laura Kaminsky, their artistic director, is doing there. It’s also right in the heart of the Upper West Side, close to Columbia as well. At the Met Museum, I like the statement it makes – we’re putting contemporary music on stage there, streaming new art into the flow and tradition of millennia of artistic achievement. That you literally go from ancient Egypt to New York, 2010 – I think that’s pretty cool.

April 14, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Philharmonic Makes Solid CONTACT!

The debut concert of CONTACT!, the New York Philharmonic’s new-music series proved auspiciously to be a lot more than just a PR opportunity, a brazen attempt to court a younger audience: these people mean business. The NY Phil has commissioned works for decades, but the fact that they selected Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang, Marc-Andre Dalbavie and Arthur Kampela to create an inaugural program of world premieres for a series devoted exclusively to the avant garde underscores the seriousness of their commitment. Under the direction of composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg – making his NY Phil debut as a conductor – players from the Orchestra demonstrated a versatility and an unabashed enthusiasm for a program that was challenging and often highly unorthodox (and thus a welcome break from the familiar canon – it probably couldn’t have been timed better for the musicians).

Sierra’s Game of Attrition was described beforehand in a brief dialogue between composer and conductor as essentially math-rock for orchestra, a Darwinian competition  for space between instruments of similar timbres. Composers have been sending motifs on a journey around the orchestra, or from one rank of the organ to another, since before Bach. But with a playfulness and an understated deliberation, Sierra’s simple ideas grew as she said they would into larger, more expressive figures: evolution on display, the warmth of the lows contrasting with the ominous portents of the highs and what sounded like a deliberate quote from The Eton Rifles by 70s mod punk rockers the Jam. The tension was most appealingly apparent toward the end in a detente-breaking conversation between marimba and piano. And then it was over.

Lei Liang’s Verge, for 18 Strings was another successful attempt to put new spin on an old idea, in this case using the notes of the scale to spell out a name. It’s been done scores of times – you assign a note to the first twelve letters of the alphabet, and then you start over. Google Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H., for example and see what you get. Liang dedicated this one to his infant son: he’d started the piece before the child was born, hence the title. With the strings arranged T.S. Eliot style in four quartets with a bassist at each end of the stage, it was a hypnotic, ambient, oscillating tone poem replete with quadrophonic effects that built to a dramatic, windswept crescendo of Mongolian tonalities on the second movement, evocative of  throat singers Huun Huur Tu’s most recent work. It was the high point of the evening.

Marc-Andre Dalbavie and Lindberg met in Paris in the 80s and bonded over their passion for spectral music. Dalbavie told the audience that he was moving further and further toward a horizontality in his composition, and his Melodia, for Instrumental Ensemble cleverly blended in the well-known Dies Irae theme from Gregorian chant, an effective update on what Rachmaninoff did with Isle of the Dead. While the tonalities would shift ever so slightly, the dynamics bubbled and lept, often in considerable contrast with the stillness of the melody, such that there was.

Arthur Kampela’s Macunaima takes its title from a seminal Brazilian magic-realist novel from the 1920s. To be fair to the composer, it seemed from the point of view of one unfamiliar with the book to be a narrative, and for that matter, it might have been spot-on. But for those in the crowd who hadn’t read it, it sounded – as one cynic put it – “like the four-year-olds in my morning class when you pass out the instruments.” It actually wasn’t that bad, percussive and carnivalesque, but like the kind of carnival that takes place on the far side of a Stop and Shop parking lot in northern New England, where it seems that the carnival guys have left all the best rides back in Massachusetts, and the sounds that make their way across to the folks on the other end aren’t exactly enticing enough to lure the eight-year-olds who make up their target audience. It was impossible to tell whether the ensemble were enjoying themselves or just counting time until the end, which they did perfectly: the composition didn’t afford them the opportunity to do much of anything else.   

Don’t just take our word for all this: the entire concert will be rebroadcast in its entirety on q2, WQXR’s contemporary online classical music stream this Sunday, December 27 at 2 PM. And even more auspiciously, CONTACT! continues on April 16 at 8 PM at Symphony Space, Alan Gilbert conducting world premieres by Sean Shepherd, Nico Muhly and Matthias Pintscher.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment