Manhattan was like a mausoleum yesterday evening, where most likely the smallest crowd ever to witness a Ken Thomson album release show gathered under low, somber lights at the Poisson Rouge. Between the steady downpour outsde and the sobering news that defied the exit polls, New Yorkers were stunned, processing, asking themselves and each other some gravely fundamental questions – such as, should we stay or should we go?
On one hand, the two suites on Thomson’s darkly compelling new vinyl release made an aptly elegaic soundtrack for post-election shock and horror. On the other, both pieces are imbued with a sardonic, even playful wit along with plenty of gravitas. Thomson took a couple of moments onstage as emcee for the night, himself in something of a state of shock. The night’s opening triptych, Me Vs., was played with dynamism and a vivid austerity by pianist Karl Larson, Thomson explained that it had taken on new meaning as “We Vs.” and that he was perfectly ok with that.
Larson gave meticulous attention to its broodingly colorful details. Emphatic, trickily polyrhythmic, exasperatedly minimalist insistence early on gave way to an achingly overcast Satie-esque resonance and then a return to a steady, ominously rhythmic drive, a sort of mashup of Mompou belltones and the outro from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The acidically climactic final movement alluded to the baroque, shifted to stormy neoromantiv cascades, then through more subtly shifting polyrhythms, with a triiumphant coda.
Cellist Ashley Bathgate joined Larson for the second half of the program – and the album – the four-part, aptly tilted Restless. As the moody, low-register first moment slowly brightened and picked up steam, there was a subtle change of roles, the cello taking on more of a rhythmic propulsion while the piano moved futher toward lowlit background color. The duo wove a tight, balletesque lattice, with lots of friendly chemistry and interplay throughout the second movement, then took an uneasy, syncopated stroll that dipped into creepily clustering, murky depths in the third. Bathgate returned to the wounded vibrato she’d employed strongly in the opening movement over Larson’s eerie, close-harmoined chimes, winding up the suite with some enigmatically energetic glissandos, an unexpected end to a rather harrowing journey.
It’s hard to imagine a more colorful pianist in Manhattan than Karine Poghosyan, which comes as no surprise when you learn that she’s the daughter of the great Armenian-American painter Razmik Pogosyan. She’s got a larger-than-life stage persona, striking costumes, fearsome technique, and an irrepressible sense of humor. No other pianist seems to have as much fun onstage as she does: anyone who thinks that classical music is stuffy needs to see this fearless spirit in action. Last night at the DiMenna Center, she earned a couple of standing ovations for her signature, breathtaking pyrotechnics but also for her counterintutive insight and unselfconsciiously deep, meticulous, individualistic interpretation of a daunting program of works by Grieg, Liszt, Komitas Vardapet and Stravinsky.
She divided the program into two parts, essentially: reckless abandon, then spellbinding, rapidfire phantasmagoria. The attention to detail and revelatory, dynamic approach she brought to a trio of lyric pieces by Grieg – To Spring, Minuet: Vanished Days, and the famous Wedding Day at Troldhaugenand – gave each a cinematic sweep that puts to shame the kind of rote versions you might hear on WQXR. The first was as suspenseful as it was verdant: Poghosyan is unsurpassed at finding fleeting details and jokes that other players might gloss over, and then bringing them front and center, whether that might have been a defiant “take that!” swipe at the low keys, or a “yessss!” moment when a big crescendo reached exit velocity. And what a surprise the last of the three turned out to be. Where others find straight-up pageantry, Poghosyan channeled sarcasm and subtle parody. As the big processional took shape, Grieg might not have been throwing a stinkbomb at the assembly of Nordic gentry, but he was definitely putting something in the punch bowl.
Poghosyan did the exact opposite with the Liszt. Where other players would most likely find bombast, she looked for poignancy and then brought that out, with shapeshifting interpretations of three Hungarian Rhapsodies. After the intermission (and a new gown, and a ponytail to keep her hair in check as she swayed and flung her head back) she followed with her own innovative, harmonically rich arrangement of three bittersweet miniatures from the Komitas Vardapet book. Komitas, widely considered to be the father of modern Armenian music, was a sort of Middle Eastern amalgam of Allen Lomax and Bela Bartok, and his exhaustive archive – compiled under cruelly difficult circumstances – deserves to be vastly better known. Hypnotically stately motives gave way to what could have been the roots of Erik Satie as the balletesque pulse grew more prominent, glistening in its otherworldly unresolve.
Poghosyan wound up the bill with three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: how she managed to maintain such fluid, legato phrasing at such high volume, with such a pummeling attack, defies the imagination. But it wasn’t always so seamless. As clever and amusing as the first part of the bill was, she was all business, matching surgical precision to chainsaw ferocity through the anvil chorus of the Russian Dance, then the surrealism and schizophrenic contrasts in Chez Petrouchka – in Poghosyan’s hands, a loony puppet to rival anything Schoenberg ever envisioned. The closing theatrics of Le Semaine Grasse were riveting in every sense of the word, her dynamic shifts giving her extra headroom for raising the rafters with its gritty, ironic, harrowingly difficult closing cascades.
This performance was staged by Project 142, whose popularity as a house concert series on the Upper West Side outgrew its original West End Avenue digs. They’ve since found a new home at the DiMenna Center: their next concert there, on June 12 at 3 PM features solo and chamber music by female composers Jessie Montgomery, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, Florence Price and Rebecca Clark. Cover is $15.
On one hand, it’s risky to call a classical pianist an individualist. In some circles, that might imply that the artist takes liberties which could range from debatable, to suspect, to completely unwanted. On the other hand, pianist Alexandra Joan has such fearsome technique that she’s able to interpret whatever emotion she can evince from the material in front of her. And when that’s unexpected, as it often is, it’s a revelation. Classical musicians are expected from their earliest days at conservatory to be all things to all people and all music, and Joan’s performances in the recent past have reflected those demands. With that in mind, there’s no question that she likes the Romantics, yet she’s also a great advocate for new music and especially the protean and colorful Mohammed Fairouz. And she likes a challenge, which is exactly what she’ll tackle this Friday, December 11 at 8 PM at Bargemusic where she’ll contend with a program including works by Bach, Arvo Part, Elliott Carter, Kaija Saariaho and Schumann’s famously difficult Etudes Symphoniques. Cover is $35/$30 srs/$15 stud., and early arrival is advised; Joan is popular.
Her most recent solo album is titled Dances and Songs. Interestingly, the most striking piece on it isn’t the physically taxing Liszt works, or the richly enigmatic Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; it’s Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor. She plays it as if she was playing a harpsichord, giving full weight to the ornamentation and grace notes, proportionate to the rest of the score rather than lettting them just flit off the page. It’s a neat trick, and one that requires vastly more lightness of touch and completely different technique than if she was playing an actual harpsichord. And then, she finds the one part of the suite where she can make the greatest contrast with what, up to then, has been just short of lickety-split, and the effect is explosive. At that point, she hits a dirge tempo, so slow that it seems that the rhythm has fallen conpletely out. Essentially, she looked for the one place where she could wring every ounce of contrast (and raw, unvarnished angst) out of it, and pulled it off.
The album opens with a precise, emphatic take of Valse-Caprice No. 6 from Liszt’s Soirees de Vienne; she’ll return to waltzing Liszt at the end of the program to bring the album full circle. As the Ravel picks up steam from a stately tempo, Joan lets the distant gleam shine through, seemingly allowing the cascades to tumble from her hands rather than evoking a climb in one direction or another. It seems effortless even though it’s not.
After the intensity of the Bach, Liszt’s take of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman offers a dynamically shifting emotional respite. However, Joan’s muted approach at the end sets up another far more moody performance, Lizst’s arrangement of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger. Such segues are typical in her repertoire: she can’t resist making a connection where she can find one. The album isn’t up at any of the usual streaming spots, although Joan’s performances are well represented on youtube and at Instantencore.
Pianist Romain Collin is one of those rare artists who can’t be pigeonholed. His music defies description. Much of it has the epic sweep and picturesque quality of film music, although his noir-tinged new album, Press Enter is not connected, at least at the moment, to any visual component other than your imagination. Some of it you could call indie classical, since there are echoes of contemporary composers throughout all but one of its ten tracks. And while it’s not jazz per se, it ends with a muted, wee hours solo piano street scene take of Thelonious Monk’s Round About Midnight. For those of you who might be in town over the Thanksgiving holiday, Collin and his long-running trio, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Kendrick Scott are playing a three-night stand, November 27-29 at Iridium at 8:30 PM.Cover is $27.50.
The opening track, 99 (alternate title, at least from the mp3s this blog received: Bales of Pot). Is it a reggae number? Nope. It’s a brief series of variations on a tersely circling, Philip Glass-inspired theme. If Rick Wakeman could have figured out how to stay within himself after, say, 1973, he might have sounded something like this. Like Clockwork, true to its title, takes that motorik riff and then expands on it, with echoes of both Glass and Keith Jarrett, slowing it down for more of an anthemic sweep. It sets the stage for how Collin will use his trademark textures – acoustic piano echoed by very subtle electroacoustic textures, from simple reverb, to doubletracking on electric keys, to light ambient touches.
Raw, Scorched & Untethered actually comes across as anything but those things: it’s a stately, brooding quasi horror film theme that picks up with a jackhammer insistence, in the same vein as Clint Mansell might do. Cellist Laura Metcalf adds elegantly austere textures as she does in places here. Holocene hints that it’s going to simply follow a rather effete series of indie rock changes but then edges toward pensive pastoral jazz before rising with a catchy main-title gravitas and then moving lower into the reflecting pool again. The Kids circles back toward the opening track, but with a wry, Monkish sensibility (although that whistling is awful and really disrupts the kind of subtly amusing narrative Collin could build here without it).
The darkest, creepiest and most epic track is Webs, alternating between stormy menace and more morose foreshadowing over stygian, bell-like low lefthand accents. Another menacing knockout is Event Horizon, which eerily commenorates the eventual exoneration – courtesy of the Innocence Project – of seven wrongfully convicted men. Separating them, San Luis Obispo is an unexpected and pretty straight-up take of the old Scottish folk song Black Is the Color. Collin then reverts to no-nonsense macabre staccato sonics with The Line (Dividing Good and Evil). The album isn’t up at the usual places on the web, although there are three tracks streaming at ACT Records’ site, and Collin has an immense amount of eclectic material up at his Soundcloud page.
Romanian-born Judit Gabos was Gyorgy Ligeti’s go-to pianist, so it’s no surprise that she would negoatiate a series of pieces from the composer’s rhythmically challenging Musicaricercata as precisely and effortlessly nimbly as she did in a “composer portrait” of Bela Bartok at the Hungarian Consulate last night. And as much as her performance of works by Bartok and Liszt were nothing less than a revelation, the icing on the cake was how she took the audience on a journey that connected the dots between the late Romantic period and postminimalism. Piano music doesn’t often get performed with as much insight and emotionally attuned prowess as Gabos gave to this program
She opened with Liszt’s Sursumcorda, explaining that Bartok often played it in concert early in his career. It’s awash in resonant lustre that eventually gives way to…well, it’s Liszt, you know what’s coming, it’s just a matter of time before the pyrotechnics appear. So an aptly triumphant, blazing take of Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro made for a good segue. Then Bartok the individualist appeared. Gabos reveled in the creepily cartoonish hide-and-seek of the dyptich Out of Doors, raising the question of whether or how much Raymond Scott or Bernard Herrmann might have stolen from its poltergeist cinematics.
Gabos then spanned the emotional spectrum, illustrating both Bartok’s meticulousness as a musicologist as well as his irrepressible penchant for using folk themes as a launching pad for his signature, thorny blend of chromatics and rustically bracing close harmonies. She began with his suite of Three Folk Songs from Csik County, then his expansive Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20 and closed with a rousing take of his Romanian Folk Dance. On one hand, the Ligeti pieces afterward couldn’t help but be anticlimactic even as they offered a look at where one composer springboarded off of Bartok. But Gabos’ decision to close with a change of pace, a rather stately, consonantly anthemic segment brought the program full circle: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
This recital was staged by the Balassi Institute, who program all sorts of excellent Hungarian cultural events around the globe. The next one in New York is a concert by adventurous large jazz ensemble the Modern Art Orchestra downstairs at Symphony Space on November 11, with sets at 6:15 and 7:30 PM; advance tix are $16.
A Darkly Riveting Concert and an Upcoming Parkside Show by Diana Wayburn’s Dances of the World Ensemble
You might think from the name of the group that pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble play ballet music. That might be possible, but while their music is kinetic and intensely rhythmic, it has an edge and an individuality that transcend the boundaries of African music, classical, jazz, rock and film music while combining elements of all those styles. While Wayburn’s music often reminds of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopiques, or Astor Piazzolla’s shapeshifting, tango-based compositions, her sound is unique. There is no band in the world who sound anything like this group. If darkly glimmering, intense, energetic sounds are your thing, they’re playing the Parkside tonight, Nov 2 at 7 PM. Which might seem a strange place to see a chamber ensemble, but this group is just as at home in a rock venue as on a classical stage or in a jazz club.
Wayburn’s recordings – up at her Soundcloud page – encompass influences from West Africa to Spain, Argentina and beyond. The group’s concert at St. Marks Church this past September was much darker, more intense and seemingly jam-oriented than any of those tracks suggest: this is first and foremost a high-voltage, dynamic live band. Their opening number at that show began as a leapfrogging dance, Wayburn opening with a jaunty flute solo before handing off to trumpeter Marco Coco and violist Adam Matthes’ lingering lines. As the piece took on a moodily hypnotic Ethiopiques groove, trombonist Spencer Hale and then guitarist Ken Silverman took it deeper and deeper into the shadows, the guitar finally leading them up with a spiraling 70s art-rock feel before the band took it back down again. They let it wind out on an unsettled, unresolved note.
Switching to piano, Wayburn brought to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal, but with a towering, art-rock grandeur lit up with eerie chromatics and passing tones as the brooding second tune got underway. Coco added a tinge of the Middle East, Silverman some more traditional jazz phrasing and then Wayburn played bitingly rippling, incisive neoromantic lines all the way through to a triumphant downward cascade out. She and the band would revisit a similarly epic intensity with a brisk tango of sorts later in the show.
They played a more spacious, spare, bouncy number in between, with methodical solos from flute, trumpet and trombone over an insistent pulse reminiscent of American Indian music. They followed that with a gorgeously cinematic number fueled by Silverman’s insistence and Wayburn’s glistening minor-key piano, the most distinctively Ethiopian-flavored tune in the set. Andy O’Neill’s tumbling drums fueled the one-chord jam they closed with, Coco taking his time, choosing his spots and finally getting pretty wild before the group took it down into an ominously moody interlude fueled by Hale’s mournful trombone, then rising as the guitar and trumpet lept and jabbed over the murk underneath. Obviously, the lows resonated more mightily and maybe more menacingly in the church’s boomy sonics than might be the case in another room, but the intensity of this band – and Wayburn’s catchy, deceptively simple phrasing and intricate thematic variations – will be a factor no matter where they play. Catch them now before Wayburn gets a big Hollywood film score deal and all of a sudden the only place you’ll be able to find them is in much larger, pricier venues.
“Just about every piece of music that we can play is a song,” pianist Alexandra Joan nonchalantly told the audience at her luminous performance Thursday night at Bargemusic. That pretty much explains everything you need to know about her. Matter-of-factly and meticulously, she built a dynamically rich program with lyrical, cantabile, highly individualistic interpretations of a diverse program. from Bach to early Modernism, most of the works taken from her new album Dances and Songs.
She explained to the crowd that while not everything on the album is a dance per se, the material on it shares a kinetic character. She began the evening with a suite of Chopin mazurkas that aren’t on the album, but they turned out to make an apt opening salvo, Joan giving the audience a sort of guided tour via ample but judicious amounts of rubato, as if to say, “Watch this, here comes a really good one!”
Her take of Bach’s English Suite in G Minor, BWV 808 was especially gripping, not only because it’s an interesting piece of music, but because of how she accented the work’s rigorous and challenging ornamentation, awash in grace notes and trills. That made Bach’s tight rhythm all the more of a suspenseful contrast – and the plaintiveness of the second movement all the more affecting. Likewise, the high point of the night was Liszt’s solo piano arrangement from Schubert’s Der Doppelganger, vividly giving voice to a guy who can’t figure out if he’s himself or someone else and is completely lost as a result.
The program lightened from there, but just a little, with an edgy, acerbic run through Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, drawing a straight line back to the Schubert suite that inspired them even if the tonalities were from a completely different idiom (and radical enough in Ravel’s day to get him slammed by the critics). Joan ended the night on a celebratory note with the “champagne bubbles” of a couple of lighthearted if cruelly challenging Liszt pieces, the Valse Impromptu and then his whirling arrangement of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Which in turn made her careful, plaintive Debussy encore all the more astringently gripping. Joan is also an impresario, so the idea of going from Bach to Romantic to Modern and linking it all together is less unlikely (and less ostentatious) for her than it would be for a lot of other pianists. She’s appearing next with the fantastic Grneta Ensemble performing Gerald Cohen’s Sea of Reeds at le Poisson Rouge on Nov 11 at 6 PM; advance tix are $15 and very highly recommended.
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.
Staging Friday night’s Terry Riley concert in the round at Federal Hall on Wall Street was a brilliant idea, making full use of the space’s majestically enveloping natural reverb. An eclectic program featuring choral, guitar, chamber and piano works drew equally on the minimalism that Riley is best known for along with elements of the baroque, jazz, blues and plenty of lively improvisation. As a portrait of where the composer is right now and where he’s been, it made a strong case for the argument that Riley might be the most influential composer associated with the avant garde, ever.
A string quartet including violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Jenny Choi, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the peripatetic Ljova Zhurbin on viola joined with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City for the lush swells and ebbs of Riley’s new work Another Secret eQuation, making their way methodically from jaunty, lighthearted swoops to a close harmony-fueled lushness that was considerably more pensive. Riley’s son Gyan followed with a solo classical guitar piece, shifting from fragmented baroque motives to a bit of a fugue, then teaming with electric violinist Tracy Silverman for a canon of sorts that cleverly cached microtones in the violin melody.
Riley’s own work at the piano, predictably, drew the most applause of the night. Riding the pedal, he slowly and measuredly built elegant permutations on simple, three or four-note phrases that morphed, sometimes completely unexpectedly, from Philip Glass-like circularity to passages steeped in the blues, gospel, a couple of graceful swing jazz interludes and some glimmering neoromantic balladry. His son and then Silverman joined him, trading bars and riffs with a steely grin. Riley’s music is so exacting and so economical that it’s a tight fit: only a similar precision will do, but the junior players onstage were up to the old lion’s challenge.
John Zorn joined the festivities for the evening’s most adrenalizing and thematically varied number, adding his signature noir resonance on alto sax before pushing the music toward hard bop as Riley anchored it with a stately lefthand. The pianist wound up the night with what appeared to be a mostly improvised piece, imbuing it with an apt wee hours feel, moving nonchalantly from a contemplative bluesiness to something of a jazz ballad where for the second time he threw in a brief quote from In C, his legendary 1964 composition that inspired seemingly every keyboard-driven European art-rock band from the 70s. Stylistic puddlejumping has seldom seemed so effortless or natural; then again, Riley has been doing this for a long time.
Pianist Yoonie Han has a passion for the Romantic repertoire, and chops that make her ideally suited to play it. At her midtown Manhattan recital last night, she employed what seemed to be an effortlessly silken legato, evincing the most minute timbral and tonal shifts from the keys with a touch that she varied stunningly from muted and wounded, to an icepick incisiveness, depending on the demands of the music. The program featured material from her forthcoming Steinway album Love and Longing, a showcase for her meticulously lyrical, vividly cantabile approach.
Han’s fondness for Spanish culture and music informed her richly dynamic take of a solo piano arrangement of Granados’ El Amor y La Muerte, from his opera Goyescas. Its narrative is a love triangle that ends with a duel, the guy who got the short end of it dying in his lover’s arms. Han lit its red-light sections luridly in contrast to the tender lullaby theme she wound it down with: the effect was unselfconsciously breathtaking. She gave a similar, rubato-tinged restraint to the Melodie from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, then evoked the plaintiveness of a couple of famous Chopin and Rachmaninoff preludes via a bitterly glimmering take of the Schubert song Gute Nacht from the Franz Liszt solo piano arrangement of the Winterreise suite. Her approach was much the same with an arrangement of Liebestod, from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as well as her encore, where she shifted to a somewhat more ebullient side of Schubert.
A new commissioned work, Theodore Wiprud‘s El Jaleo mingled otherworldly, starlit upper-register ripples with an insistent, flamenco-inflected lefthand drive echoing the night’s opening number. Han’s most adventurous – and arguably contentious – moments came during the Busoni arrangement of a Bach violin chaconne written following the death of the composer’s first wife. Han’s fluid rhythmic constancy dovetailed with the rest of the material…but then she decided to take it forward in time a few hundred years with rubato and dynamics that perhaps Busoni but probably not Bach would have envisioned. Thrilling? Absolutely, and the crowd loved it. An exercise in artistic license? That’s Han’s prerogative, she’s earned it. Better than the original? Debatable. Ironically, all the rapture, and suspense, and poignancy and longing that she brought out so memorably from the other material might also have shown itself a little more with this had she held back a little and let the broodingly elegant exchanges of voices speak for themselves. But that’s nitpicking.