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A Subtly Harrowing, Incredibly Timely Musical Parable From David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford

In the west, extrasensory perception has typically been associated with women. Those believed to be clairvoyant were typically shunned or banished….or worse. Among women in Europe in the Middle Ages who weren’t gruesomely murdered for ostensibly possessing a well-developed sixth sense, one option was to be walled up inside a church. Townspeople could come and consult the mystic through a small window, her only connection with the outside world. In their new cantata The Anchoress – streaming at youtube – composer David Serkin Ludwig and poet Katie Ford relate an incredibly timely and understatedly disturbing narrative about one woman so confined.

In the title role, soprano Hyunah Yu demonstrates as much remarkable clarity as range: she’s not one to let the challenges of hitting the notes get in the way of telling a story. Behind her, the looming resonance and mysterious microtones of saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet contrast with the lively flurries of Renaissance ensemble Piffaro. Informed by minimalism and spectral music as much as the baroque works he frequently quotes here, Ludwig’s themes are dynamic and dramatic if usually on the quiet side.

Priscilla Herreid‘s dancing, leaping, occasionally shrieking recorder is a persistent contrast with the sustained clouds of massed saxes. Terror is more of an omnipresent threat than actually front and center, for the most part, although when it is Yu and the ensembles make that ineluctably clear. Ford’s tale begins as Yu’s stricken narrator starts to come to grips with the prospect of never again being part of the outside world. It ends as you would expect, considering the circumstances. Some details are left to the listener to fil in, because Ford has built ommissions into the text, as if it had been censored, in “A time of great mortality.”

A theft, an injury while making an escape, and an angry mob are involved, or at least alluded to, through sudden swoops and dives over a more-or-less persistent calm. Ludwig and Ford wrote this before the lockdown, so this isn’t specifically a parable of the perils of being unmasked in a world of psycho maskers. But it’s hardly a stretch to read it that way.

After the story has run its course, the ensembles conclude with an instrumental triptych: puffing winds in contrast with stillness, a cantabile Debussy-esque interlude and an increasingly ghostly conclusion. As accessible and profoundly relevant as this is, it should reach an audience far beyond the avant garde.

September 10, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Latest Chapter in the PRISM Quartet’s Crusade to Establish Four-Sax Repertoire

Are a saxophone quartet a brass band? Not really. A wind ensemble? Strictly speaking, yes, but the PRISM Quartet are different. “New music superstars,” is how composer Emily Cooley – who’d discovered them as a kid at summer camp at Interlochen, the Juilliard of the midwest – characterized them. She was one of four composers whose works the group gave world premieres to Monday night in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

They opened with Nina C. Young‘s Tarnish, a playful evocation of how oxidation changes the surface of metal yet also acts as a sealant for what’s underneath. Brief tectonic shifts between pairs of instruments and then the full ensemble – Timothy McAllister on soprano sax, Zachary Shemon on alto, Matthew Levy on tenor and the New Thread Quartet‘s Geoffrey Landman, subbing for Taimur Sullivan and adding welcome growl and purr on baritone – led to a series of circular themes with a nod to Steve Reich, a trope that would dominate the rest of the program. They wound it up with unexpectedly coy cheer.

Jacob TV‘s The Waves drew its inspiration not from Virginia Woolf but from the medieval Japanese poet Dogen. A study in the passage (and ultimately, ravages) of time, in addition to the minutiae of attack and decay of individual notes, its calm, lustrous slowly mutating riffs built a baroque-tinged quasi-canon. Philip Glass also came to mind frequently.

Young composer Francesca Hellerman drew a round of chuckles from the audience, explaining how she’d come up with what turned out to be a very apt title for From Here to There, a commission from the ensemble in a long, long line of new repertoire for sax quartet dating back to the group’s inception. Its quirky charm, developing variations on a couple of catchy, lithe riffs, made a good pairing with Young’s work.

Cooley’s Dissolve went in the opposite direction, a meticulous interweave slowly distilled to its underlying essence. Counterintuitively, she ended the first part of the diptych on a jaunty, upbeat note. The second half was awash in airy, sustained phrases, ending soberly and matter-of-factly in the same vein as Jacob TV’s composition

There was another piece on the program which posed more questions than it answered. To what extent does it make sense to try to control chaos? How possible is it to orchestrate genuine chaos if you begin with a specific game plan? Music may ultimately be all math, but to what degree, if at all, can an audience realistically be engaged by a severe, dispassionate depiction of what sounds like an interminably abstruse equation – especially if it’s the longest number on the bill?

June 6, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment