Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The New York Philharmonic Premiere David Lang’s Chillingly Relevant New Opera

David Lang has more contempt for a police state than he does for capital letters. That’s a lot. A sold-out audience last night were treated to the New York Philharmonic‘s world premiere of his sometimes allusively haunting, sometimes horrifyingly realistic new opera “enemy of the state” [all lowercase, as is the style throughout his catalog]. It’s easy to read Lang’s new take on the theme Beethoven followed in his lone opera, Fidelio, as a Julian Assange parable. Although with the iconic Wikileaks founder reportedly near death from mysterious causes in a British prison, he doesn’t seem to have anyone as willing amd able to spring him as the central prisoner’s wife is in Lang’s new magnum opus. It’s an important work for our time: $34 tickets are still available for tonight and tomorrow night’s 8 PM performances. You should see it.

Lang has always been an anomaly, a brilliant tunesmith in a field too often dominated by both pigheaded obscurantism and twee amateurishness. The music of this new work (Lang also wrote the lyrics) resembles the Hindustani-influenced art-rock of singer Peter Gabriel, the late 70s recordings of the rock band King Crimson at their most purposeful, and the anthemic, artsy side of 80s new wave, more than it recalls Beethoven. Strings and percussion dominate throughout. Late in the narrative, a trumpeter perched on one of the balconies will sound a particularly sardonic variation on an already cynical fanfare. The sheer gorgeousness of the vocal overlays and harmonies of singers Julie Mathevet, Eric Owens and Alan Oke offer cruelly sarcastic contrast with a relentlessly grim, profoundly philosophical narrative that quotes Arendt and Macchiavelli and coldly references Bentham on what the ideal prison should be.

How did maestro Jaap van Zweden tackle the music? Bouncing on his heels as he pulled subtle variations on Lang’s tersely expanding, cellular, Glass-ine themes from the orchestra, he validated every claim about his dedication to new music. Lang’s metrics are challenging, to say the least, and the conductor had those rhythms in his pocket. He was having as much fun as anyone can have leading an orchestra, choir and soloists through the story of a potentially averted execution (you will not find out here how it ends).

The acting is as strong as the singing. Mathevet’s tantalizingly brief flights upward are matched by a resolute presence (as in Fidelio, we are expected to believe that in costume she can pass for a boy, a real stretch). Owens is almost as imperturbable as a would-be Eichmann, just doing his job, but not 100% completely devoid of humanity. Oke, as prison honcho, exudes pure evil as coldblooded sociopath and executioner.

We never even get to see the titular Prisoner, played with depleted, almost-out-of-gas determination by Jarrett Ott, until the third movement. Nor do we ever learn why he’s behind bars – although, as the Jailer avers, he probably has powerful enemies. The difference between life behind bars and outside, as the Prisoner puts it, is that inside, you can see the bars. In this Hobbesian terror state, ruled by greed, corruption and (allusively) Instagram, the jailers are as much prisoners as those they watch over. And somebody’s always watching.

Behind the scenes, Donald Nally matched van Zweden for mastery of uncanny rhythms, leading the orange-clad prisoner choir personfiied by the many men of the Concert Chorale of New York. Elkhannah Pulitzer’s direction sets the stage aptly, with imaginative use of projections and a Guantanamo-like set. When van Zweden emerged from an unexpected entry point, he set off the lone flicker of laughter in this otherwise chillingly relevant retelling of an all-too-familiar story.;

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June 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shimmering and Shattering Mozart This Week From the New York Philharmonic

Last night the New York Philharmonic went from a whisper to a scream in a performance of two iconic Mozart works that even by this orchestra’s standards were revelatory. The Philharmonic are pairing the Requiem with Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B Flat, featuring soloist Richard Goode tomorrow night, March 15 at 8 PM, as well as March 16 at 8 and March 19 at 7:30 PM. If you’ve never seen these pieces before, go – this is a rare chance to get a foundational understanding. If you have, these performances may reorient you, profoundly.

This was not a particularly loud Requiem. Notwithstanding that harrowing jolt where Mozart realizes that things are not going to end well – “Rex! Rex!” the choir implores – and that several later passages are as grand as guignol gets, the orchestra didn’t play them that way. In the early going, conductor Manfred Honeck put his hand to his ear, an admonition to remain hushed, and both the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir standing against the back wall stayed as sotto-voce and dead serious as they possibly could have been. Many ensembles can’t resist the temptation to make Halloween out of it, but this Requiem fulfilled its function as elegy and also as liturgical music, true to the commission Mozart accepted. Employing his motet Ave Verum Corpus as a solemn summation to this uncompleted version was a respectful acknowledgment that we’ll never know how the composer wanted it to end.

As David Bernard has astutely observed, eighty percent of the Requiem is either repetition or Mozart understudy Franz Sussmayr. How do you save repetition from being redundant? Change the dynamics. What a difference Honeck’s choice made when the introductory theme came around again, this time closer to pine box than velvet. Contrasts between mens’ and women’s voices were striking and distinct, other than in the two bewildering series of quasi-operatic, Handelian eighth note volleys that are so out of place that one assumes it was Sussmayr, not Mozart, who came up with them.

Among the four vocal soloists, soprano Joelle Harvey’s forceful delivery was particularly impactful, as was mezzo-soprano Megan Mikhailovna Samarin’s more understated, moody approach, in her Philharmonic debut. Tenor Ben Bliss and bass Matthew Rose exchanged roles as voices of doom and hope against hope. Snippets of somber Mozart Masonic funeral music made an apt introduction and brought everything full circle.

Much as the Requiem was played through a stained glass window, darkly, the Piano Concerto sparkled with coy humor. Goode’s floating articulacy on the keys, through jaunty, fleeting crescendos, jeweled cascades and some jousting with the orchestra, was unselfconsciously joyous. Likewise, the orchestra were seamless unless a particular moment called for some goofy peek-a-boo from an individual voice – Mozart uses the flute a lot for that. There were a few slight transitory glitches early on, but things like that typically get ironed out after opening night.

March 14, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic Bring Epic Relevance to a Grim, Pivotal Moment in New York History

Has there ever been such a massive, grimly determined crowd of musicians onstage – and in the aisles – as there were at Lincoln Center last night for the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth? For an especially lavish production of Beethoven’s Ninth, conceivably. But even in that case maestro Jaap van Zweden wouldn’t have had to signal four separate choirs behind his back while facing the orchestra and choirs in front of him.

That he and the ensembles could keep the composer’s maze of insistent counterpoint so steady and seamless speaks to a genuinely epic commitment to do justice to Wolfe’s theme: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its 146 victims. The title of the piece is actually a quote from labor organizer Clara Lemlich, referring to her passion for battling factory owners’ private gestapos in her early days as an advocate for worker’s rights. In an era where working people around the world are facing Industrial Revolution conditions, and amazon.com employees in the UK forego bathroom breaks for fear of being fired, the legacy of the most deadly calamity on New York soil prior to 9/11 has more relevance than ever.

Wolfe has made a career of writing impactful, historically rich work. To be clear, this isn’t her most harrowing composition: that would probably be her utterly macabre string orchestra piece, Cruel Sister. This latest extravaganza follows the insistently rhythmic, towering, Pulitzer Prize-winning intensity of her oratorio Anthracite Fields. Both are unflinching and relentless: the lives of early 1900s New York sweatshop employees and Pennsylvania coal miners are cruelly similar.

As theatre, this performance was immersively effective: there’s no escaping the angst of these exploited women, in their matching smocks, when they’re singing in unison right next to you. Choral ensemble the Crossing remained onstage while several subsets of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City migrated matter-of-factly from station to station. Dead center amid the maelstrom, van Zweden remained a calm guide through what was often a hailstorm of beats. One of Wolfe’s favorite tropes is to shake up the music with all sorts of rhythmic complexity when a melody is more or less horizontal, and she does that a lot here. The result, tight as a drum, was impressive to say the least.

The introduction took awhile, requiring some patience from the audience before the massed groups gathered steam. “Crushing poverty” became a vivid motif amid a constant, flitting interchange of voices as a transatlantic immigrant’s tale finally offered foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. The interpolation of a plaintive Yiddish song and a phantasmagorical tarantella – most of the fire victims were either Eastern European Jewish or Italian immigrants – was stunningly executed.

Sharply menacing sheet metal shears are a new addition to the world’s symphonic instruments: the choirs were choreographed to employ them to snap out a rhythm attesting to the dangers and mind-numbing repetition inherent to sweatshop labor. Likewise, the way the singers hammered on the word “want” over and over again, a bit later on, resonated on every conceivable level. The coda to this all-too-familiar tale turned out to be more dynamic, and longer, than expected, ending with a kaleidoscopically arranged incantation of the victims’ names.

The first half of the program underscored the difference between decent music direction and genuine brilliance. Maybe it was just a stroke of fate van Zweden had been on the podium for the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s oratorio, August 4, 1964, but making a segue with Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra was as perfect as it was counterintuitive. The instrumental Elegy from Stucky’s suite, and the first part of Copland’s would-be diptych share eerie Twin Peaks vamps and variations, and also jazz influences: crepuscular Gil Evans-like lustre in the former, jaunty faux dixieland in the latter. Clarinetist Anthony McGill matched coyness to muscle while van Zweden couldn’t resist shaking a tail feather, a chance to blow off steam before reality returned with a vengeance in the second half of the program.

There’s a final performance tonight, Jan 26 at 8 PM. Although last night appeared to be pretty much sold out, tickets are available as of this writing (Saturday, 11 AM); at yesterday’s show, the box office was doing brisk business right up til curtain time. This is an important moment in New York history: you should see it.

January 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defiance, Relevance and Transcendence With the New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park

So many inspiring conclusions to take away from the New York Philharmonic’s phantasmagorically majestic performance this past evening in Prospect Park. In the year of the Metoo movement, that the orchestra would choose a centerpiece celebrating a mythic heroine who disarms a psychotic dictator using only her wits spoke volumes.

As does the organization’s long-running Very Young Composers mentorship and advocacy program. Two of those individuals were represented on the bill, each a young African-American woman and a native Brooklynite. And in what’s been a challengingly transitional interregnum between music directors, the choice of James Gaffigan to lead the ensemble through some stunningly fresh, meticulously articulated, relevatory interpretations of material they’ve probably played dozens of times before paid mighty dividends.

At a concert pitched to pull a family audience, local city council representative Brad Lander’s commentary on the ongoing anguish of families being broken up by the ongoing extremist clampdown on immigrants was the night’s most overtly political moment. A polyglot crowd echoed their fervent, familial solidarity, then the orchestra spoke to how triumphantly this scenario could actually play out.

They foreshadowed the suspense and splendor of their romp through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade with an arguably even more carnivalesque stampede through the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Delilah. Even if its creepy chromatics aren’t much more than Hollywood hijaz, those Arabic inflections were another crushingly relevant reference point.

If the program’s two brief, kinetic works by young composers Jordan Millar and Camryn Cowan are any indication, the blues are as much alive in Brooklyn as they were during the Harlem Renaissance, a most welcome meme throughout the New York City public schools this year and a vivid theme for these two gradeschoolers. Each composer’s piece put simple, emphatic blues hooks front and center in lieu of expansive harmony or flourishes, the former with a neat, cold stop midway through and some unexpected, Mozartean lustre afterward.

The orchestra made it to the concert’s midway point with three jaunty, frequently coy excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Town. The Philharmonic’s pretty-much-annual tour of the New York City parks system, from the Bronx to Staten Island, always features a little bit of everything, including what in another century would have been called “pops” material from outside the classical canon. But as with the rest of the program, Gaffigan didn’t deviate from the game plan or phone these in, airing out the composer’s exchanges of voicings with a painterly charm.

And as much as the park programming is standard repertoire, the Philharmonic never picks tired or cheesy material. Over the last few years, we’ve been treated to plenty of Stravinsky – notably a conflagration of The Firebird in Central Park a couple years back – as well as a similarly colorful tour of Respighi’s Pines of Rome a little before then. Considering both the political subtext and the stunning attention to detail from both Gaffigan and the orchestra, this could have been the best of all of them since the turn of the decade.

Getting to witness it from the best seat in the house – about the equivalent of row L at their Lincoln Center home – no doubt colored this perception. Looking out into the wide swath of greenery in front of them, it must be tempting for everyone onstage to want to play loud, but Gaffigan mined the entirety of the sonic spectrum in keeping with the composer’s top-to-bottom orchestration. When there was suspense, it was relentless; when there was menace, it was a carnival of potentially dead souls; when there were dreamy interludes, they had a celestial vastness.

And the solos, tantalizingly brief as they were, were mesmerizing. Concertmaster Frank Huang spun joyously expert filigrees and flickers, up to an almost shocking cadenza in the final movement where he dug in so hard it seemed that he might break a violin string. Similar effects – especially bassoonist Judith LeClair’s silken, mutedly bittersweet solo – further underscored a triumphant narrative mirroring both the angst and transgressive victories in so many of the world’s ongoing struggles and rebellions.

The Philharmonic’s 2018 tour of the boroughs concludes on Sunday, June 17 indoors at 3 PM at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.

June 15, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment