Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Imri Talgam and the Greenwich Village Orchestra Play the Real Rachmaninoff

“This is extremely sarcastic, cynical music,” conductor Barbara Yahr explained, introducing the selections from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije suite that she’d chosen to open the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert last night. “Particularly apt for our time, I think,”she added, alluding to the upcoming events this Tuesday. The crowd chuckled knowingly. Beyond simply bringing the music to life, Yahr usually has a way of focusing on its most relevant aspects.

The five segments she’d chosen illustrate something completely different: the ineptitude of of the Soviet army and its bureaucracy. The joke is that the officer in the suite’s title doesn’t officially exist, and his eventual death has to be covered up: otherwise, there would be paperwork to deal with, and who really wants to fill out a death certificate, anyway? Yet as broad as the satire is, the music came across as surprisingly subtle – other than a completely over-the-top passage from the high woodwinds, portraying the army as a ragtag little regiment that can barely keep up with itself. Which was a stretch for this ensemble: ragtag is not their thing. Sleekness and formidability are more like it.

Both of which came to the forefront during the phony pageantry that followed: taken out of context, absent a few funny cadenzas from the trumpets and a little little over-the-top squonkiness from the bass trombone, the music almost could have passed for a particularly sophisticated soundtrack to a Thanksgiving parade making its way down Central Park West. Then there’s that silly, famous sleigh ride scene, as pointillistically precise and deadpan funny as it could have been.

Next on the program was a similar mini-suite taken from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Yahr introduced the selections as a sort of synopsis of the plot. Does a more venomously emveloping introduction – illustrating the bad blood between the Montagues and the Capulets – or a more lushly sensual interlude – the two lovers on the balcony – exist in classical music? Maybe not. Yahr had the ensemble working every inch of the sonic picture, from top to bottom, as she typically does.

Although she did just the opposite with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which came across as lush and luscious rather than static. A lot of orchestras play it like an early classical piece, or like chamber pop: piano backed by a string section, more or less. But it’s actually the opposite of that, and Yahr seized the opportunity to meet the towering, glittering angst that soloist Imri Talgam was channeling, from his first harrowing, haggard steps out of the shadows. As stormy as the symphonic arrangement is, most of it is pretty straightforward and simple, as opposed to the rapidfire virtuosity required of any pianist with the nerve to tackle it in public.

There’s a slithery cascade downward early in the second movement where the composer basically says, “OK, pity party is over, it’s time to party for real.” If you know the piece, you know the backstory: it’s as good advertising for the benefits of therapy as anyone has ever written. Basically, Rachmaninoff’s therapist told him, “Repeat after me, ‘I’m gonna write something great!’” And a pretty full house got to revel in that epic sweep and rewarded both orchestra and soloist with several standing ovations.

The concerto is about being hurt – to the quick, to the core – and eventually being pulled off the ledge. Or maybe pulling oneself off the ledge. Which goes a long way in explaining its perennial appeal. Talgam played the most poignant passages with an intuitive restraint, often with a genuine tenderness, acutely attuned to context. As a young composer, Rachmaninoff was regarded as erratic, if capable of moments of brilliance; the dismissive critical reaction to his Tschaikovsky-esque First Symphony, which is actually a decent if derivative piece of music, crushed him. This was his big comeback, after which there was no looking back for the man many consider to be the greatest classical pianist of all time and the unrivalled king of Russian Romanticism. Talgam kept a steely focus through one challenging stampede and cadenza after another while Yahr kept the orchestra front and center in tandem with the piano, a welcome and ultimately exhilarating change from how this piece is so frequently performed.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is their annual family show December 4 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 17th St. and Irving Place featuring some of the talented youngsters from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Suggested donation is $20/$10 stud/srs, reception to follow.

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November 7, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Karine Poghosyan Reinvents Late Romantic Piano Classics with Spot-On Humor and Sensational Chops

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.

May 23, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stormy Surprises from the Greenwich Village Orchestra

There are plenty of joyous, exciting orchestras in town, without even mentioning the kind of electricity that the New York Philharmonic can generate. Recent concerts here by the Park Avenue Chamber SymphonyEast Coast Chamber Orchestra and Spectrum Symphony have all been high-voltage, and the Chelsea Symphony across town can always be counted on for an entertaining performance. But the Greenwich Village Orchestra seems to have a little more fun than anybody else.

Their concert this past Sunday on Irving Place didn’t start out that way. Conductor Barbara Yahr led them gracefully through Samuel Barber’s Adagio, to open on a somber note. There’s only one way to play that piece – it’s funeral music, and you either do it that way, or you do it wrong. Yahr and orchestra took care to take no chances and the music was better off for it.

They brought the volume up, slowly and methodically, with Barber’s Violin Concerto, from 1939, the year after the Adagio was written. And the first two movements made a fantastic segue because they sound like a continuation of it. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim met the lush sonics with a judiciously silken tone, handing off to the ensemble on more than one occasion with a perfectly measured dignity and grace, the results were so seamless. But the third movement was as electric as anyone could have hoped for and Kim dug into it with relish. When she wasn’t sprinting through rapidfire volleys of chromatics, she had a grin on her face, tapping out the rhythm on her hip, lost in the sway of the music. Kim has gone on record as dedicating herself to illuminating the emotion in what she plays, and she nailed the triumph and surprise in this one, over the lively, balletesque pulse that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Behind her, bassist Jeff Rozany and oboeist Shannon Bryant contributed lushly fluid intros that stood out in contrast.

Here are two theories about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, both of which could be wrong. For starters, the symphony is such a hodgepodge – if a brilliant one – that it seems that the composer was emptying the tank, fleshing out every idea that might have been kicking around his songbook. Was there a doubt that he’d survive World War II – or survive Stalin? That’s hardly implausible. Another theory relates to subtext, that what Prokofiev is saying, other than rejoicing in telling the Nazis to take a hike, is that now that we’ve sent one bunch of fascists packing, it’s high time we got our own house in order. Whatever the case, what’s inarguable about this work is that its multi-facetedness makes it very difficult to play. Yahr’s approach was to raise the bar and the volume as high as it would go, right out of the gate, setting up all kinds of suspense for when the triumph dies down and the distantly ominous foreshadowing begins. Yahr remarked beforehand that there are passages of “pure evil” in this, and she’s right – the caricatures of mechanistic Nazis and various fascist buffoons, staggering with the weight of the low brass and the timpani, are brutal. That surrealism left a vivid mark, through the stormy conclusion, which was almost too giddy to be true – yet unshakably true to the composer’s vision

The GVO’s next concert, on May 18 at 3 PM, is an especially high-voltage one, with an eclectic Spanish-tinged program that spans the emotional spectrum: Copland’s El Salón México; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Ginastera’s Estancia suite, and largescale arrangements of Piazzolla tangos.

March 31, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Powerful, Kinetic Performance From the Up-and-Coming Spectrum Symphony

Makiko Hirata charged through the raging, ominously cascading torrents of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, conductor David Grunberg animatedly leading the Spectrum Symphony through the stormy gusts in tandem with her, through the series of menacing, twistedly marionettish passages. At the end, Hirata’s face lit up in an unselfconsciously triumphant grin as the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. It was the high point of the pianist and orchestra’s concert a couple of days ago in the West Village, yet another indication of how some big city orchestras may be in trouble, but there are many young, hungry ensembles who are clearly on their way up and the Spectrum Symphony are paradigmatic of that shift. As one member of the crowd enthused afterward, “They just get better and better with every show.”

The concluding movements of the Prokofiev are both more subtle and dynamic, not to mention less charged with angry subtext, and the pianist and orchestra focused in on the methodically rising and falling glimmer of the second movement and the richly intricate, often biting interweave between piano and orchestra on the concluding one. This performance was a prime illustration of how composers by Prokofiev’s time had transformed the concerto form from what had been basically a showcase for piano against a wash of orchestration, into a fully cohesive creation where piano and orchestra join forces in developing the architecture.

The orchestra had opened with the New York premiere of an even more explosive if considerably shorter piece, Philip Wharton‘s There Was a Star Danced, which followed the initial big bang resonance of Matthew Beaumont’s huge gong through rapifire showers of sparks from the violins and then what became wryly jaunty, rhythmic jousting. The composer, who was in the audience, explained that the piece had originally been conceived as a work for students to get them to let off some steam. So the ensemble played it again!

The program’s concluding work was an only slightly less kinetic interpretation of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. From the perspective of having seen three different performances of this piece this year, this was the most exciting. Grunberg conducted from memory, the orchestra taking this old warhorse to war with an aptly heroic, no-holds barred intensity. The balance between Brahms’ lavishly highlighted, individual voices was clear and distinct throughout the sonic spectrum, through a rewardingly boisterous first movement, a lustrous second, and a final fourth that emphasized more of the high drama in the composer’s Beethovenesque series of false endings than its inherent humor.

March 26, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching Up On Last Month’s Concerts

In an earlier incarnation, this space was devoted almost exclusively to live music. Then the publicists found us and the deluge of albums began. If you’ve been wondering where all the concert coverage went, that’s part of the answer. But there’s more to come – and there’s been a lot happening that hasn’t been mentioned here recently, in the scramble to wrap up this year’s crop of recordings.

This blog has been a longstanding advocate for the Sunday, 5:15 PM organ recitals at St. Thomas Church on 53rd Street at 5th Avenue, whose presence in the New York music scene become more precious since the massive old organ there is slated to be replaced at some unspecified future date. The mighty beast is actually a hybrid whose innards are in a more precarious state than they sound. But organists from around the world still make it sing, particularly the church’s director of music, John Scott, a New York treasure if there ever was one. His recordings of the complete organ works of Mendelssohn are definitive; he’s done the entire Buxtehude and Messiaen cycles for organ at this very same console. His October concert there saw him pull out the stops with nimble elegance on a towering Bach fantasia and then a quietly lustrous hymn, followed by a Charles Villiers Stamford setting of a different hymn, Maurice Durufle’s transcription of Louis Vierne’s thunderously atmospheric Meditation and then Jean Langlais’ even more blazing Te Deum from his Gregorian Paraphrases triptych completed a thrilling program. Suffice it to say that any time Scott plays, he is worth seeing. In the coming weeks he’ll be busy with church choir concerts – which are also worth seeing. His next scheduled recital here is February 10 of next year.

Another concert that delivered a titanic majesty was the New York Repertory Orchestra’s late October performance of Prokofiev’s phantasmagorically shapeshifting Divertimento followed by a lush, richly dynamic performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto with guest soloist Inbal Segev at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. As one random concertgoer perfectly capsulized it, this was an welcome surprise. It would have been even more enjoyable to have been able to stick around for the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, but there were other things on the agenda here (and hence no fair and just way of giving the orchestra the fullscale review they deserved). They’re back here on Dec 15 with a program of Delibes, Walton and the New York premiere of Tubin’s Symphony No. 8.

Two other concerts that deserve a mention are the Hugo Wolf Quartett’s performances at Trinity Church the Thursday before the hurricane, and then a week later at the Austrian Cultural Center, where they’d been camping out since they weren’t able to fly home. At Trinity, they opened with a rousing performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K421. This is the second of the two Mozart quartets in minor keys; it’s focused, and as deep and dark as the composer ever got. The quartet had a ball with it, soaring through its wary exchanges with abandon and in the process almost upstaging Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 74.

That piece is loaded with plenty of the did-you-just-hear-that cadenzas and sudden shifts between voices that the composer loved so much, well beyond the pizzicato section that inspired its nickname. A work so iconic  isn’t supposed to sound different from program to program, but this one did at the ensemble’s temporary midtown campground, and it was better. That is to say, more intimate and at the same time more energetically lush, although that interpretation might be colored by the superior sonics at the small concert hall here…and the group’s ability to roll out of bed, at least theoretically, and play. Also on the bill and delivered with meticulous nuance were Mendelssohn’s rousing early Romantic String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 and Philippe Hersant’s 1988 String Quartet No. 2, which juxtaposed airy atmospherics with bracing twelve-tone melodicism arrayed with High Romantic rhythms and dynamic swells. A gesture of appreciation from violinists Sebastian Gürtler and Régis Bringolf, violist Gertrud Weinmeister and cellist Florian Berner to the community for having put them up at a moment of crisis, they ended up giving back far more than they could have taken.

November 17, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cross-Pollination at the Gershwin with Inna Faliks

Virtuoso pianist Inna Faliks’ latest installment of her innovative Music/Words series last night was a throwback to the Paris salons of the late 1800s, in the aptly lowlit atmosphere of the back room at the Gershwin Hotel. As she describes it, the concept of the series is to match music with poetry that shares a mood or evokes similar emotions, rather than referring to specific ideas or events. As an attempt to link two worlds that otherwise don’t usually intersect, it’s an admirable idea. Musically, this program was extremely diverse, spanning from classical to late Romantic, with Faliks pulling one of the obscurities she’s so fond of out of the woodwork as well. Lyrically, it was surreal, impactful, and relevant. Poet Tom Thompson doesn’t waste words: he finds the logic in cruel irony, assembles scenes vividly yet economically, and makes connections – like the commonalities in the desires of a child at play and a hungry spider – that might seem farfetched at face value but make perfect sense as he describes them (spiders got a lot of time this time out). “The lake is tired of being a mirror…it closes its one historical eye before we ever get to use it,” he observed bleakly. In an understatedly moving account of his son’s experience with seizures, Thompson coldly acknowledged how in one culture, people who suffer from them get killed, while in another they’re worshipped. A New York water tower became a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the dead leaves that get under the screws that hold it together; people and insects in Central Park shared a fate brought on by their inability to escape their desires. If insightfully ominous, loaded imagery is your thing, Thompson has a couple of collections out from alicejamesbooks that you should investigate.

The music was good too. In between trios of poems, Faliks alternated with pianist Dimitri Dover, who warmed up the performance with the Haydn’s uncharacteristically pensive Sonata in C Minor., Hob. 16:20. A bit later, he played three selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, the best being the anxiously stately “Montagues and Capulets” scene followed by Mercutio’s scampering cinematics. He joined Faliks for a perfectly synchronized four-handed take of another uncharacteristic piece, Liszt’s reflective, remarkably terse Symphonic Poem #4: Orpheus, eventually ending the show with three intuitive, energetic Debussy preludes and then a rather stern take on Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31.

Although the program put her on the bill lower than Dover and Thompson, Faliks was still the star of this show, playing with her signature blend of lithe grace and raw power, particularly as she made her way through the nocturnal scenes of Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir, and then the composer’s transcription of Paganini’s La Campanella, which she imbued with playful charm and then maintained it all the way through the dance’s knotty, rapidfire thicket of staccato. Her obscurity du jour turned out to be 20th century Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato, a fascinatingly biting, expansively acidic prelude that built from a walking bassline to echoes of Alban Berg and Vincent Persichetti. Faliks’ next program in the Music/Words series, on April 22 at 7:30 PM at the Cornelia Street Cafe with Brazilian pianist Clarice Assad and poet Irina Mashinski promises to be equally intriguing.

February 11, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Isabelle Demers Plays a Stunning Program at Trinity Church

Equal parts lightning and enlightening, organist Isabelle Demers showed off both her supersonic chops and insightful wit at her concert today at Trinity Church. She opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 54. It was the last one he wrote during his time at Liepzig, and as Demers mentioned, there’s definitely a sense of the sun coming out. And, “It gives your feet a rest,” Demers laughed: there’s very little for the pedals, very atypical for Bach.

James Blachly’s Meditation on Captain Kidd was next. Moving from otherworldly atmospherics to dramatic and wamly melodic, and then back again, it gave Demers the chance to showcase some of the organ’s upper-register stops that aren’t typically heard by themselves in most standard repertoire. She noted wryly that the real Captain Kidd was once a prominent member of Trinity Church: like a lot of other bad guys, he gave a lot of money to the church but not for altruistic reasons. Henry Martin’s showy Prelude and Fugue in E Major, which followed, was all endless volleys of B-A-C-H references, bluegrass riffs and rapidfire rivulets: it was breathtaking to watch Demers play, but not so much to hear.

The high point of the concert was Demers’ own transcription of selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The opening Street Awakens scene, where the characters are introduced, and the gently disheartened Romeo at the Fountain (before Romeo met Juliet) were understatedly graceful, Demers playing as if for dancers. The balmy Madrigal, Romeo chatting up Juliet on her balcony gave no indication of the eerie intensity that was to come with the twisted music-box ripples of the Morning Serenade, more of a dirge or contentious wake than any kind of serenade, and arguably the high point of the entire suite. Demers closed with the lickety-split, atonally-spiced fight scene where Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio’s death – “If it sounds like wrong notes, it’s not me,” Demers told the crowd – and then the macabre martial theme Duke’s Command, a staple of a million horror movies. She closed the program with fellow Canadian Rachel Laurin’s Toccata from her Symphony No. 1, whose lickety-split staccato created a tremolo effect it was so fast, but Demers made it seem almost nonchalant. Without losing momentum, it shifted from ferocious apprehension to a simple, memorable Romantic theme: it made a good conclusion to a fascinating concert. There was an encore, too! Unfortunately, this being the middle of the day, we had to stay on schedule and missed it.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil Shows Their Mettle

Last night’s concert was a tough gig. The New York Philharmonic have played tougher ones, but this was no walk in the park (pardon the awful pun). And guest conductor Andrey Boreyko pushed them about as far as he could, on a Central Park evening where the air still hung heavy and muggy, helicopters sputtering overhead and, early on, the PA backfiring a little. During the sixth segment of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (the section where the two lovers finally get together), the strings led a long flurry of sixteenth notes and it was only there that any trace of fatigue could be heard. That they got through it with as much aplomb as they did – and then had enough in reserve to triumphantly pull off the roaring swells of the ominous concluding march – speaks for itself. The Russian conductor’s careful attention to minutiae is matched by a robust (some might say relentless) rhythmic drive. The Phil responded just as robustly, resulting in a mutually confident performance that often reached joyous proportions.

This wasn’t your typical outdoor bill of moldy oldies with a thousand forks stuck in them, either. The ensemble opened with fairly obscure Russian Romantic composer Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga, a witch’s tale. With a bit of a battle theme, an elven dance, suspenseful lull and something of a trick ending, it could be the Skirmish of Marston Moor (did Roy Wood know of it when he wrote that piece? It’s not inconceivable).

Branford Marsalis joined them for Glazunov’s Concerto in E Flat for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra, Op. 109. The textural contrast between his austere, oboe-like clarity against the lush, rich atmospherics of the strings was nothing short of exquisite, through the majestic ambience of the opening section, a couple of perfectly precise solo passages and the comfortable little dance that winds it up. He got the opportunity to vary that tone, shifting matter-of-factly through bluesier tinges on twentieth century Czech composer Ervin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonate. A smaller-ensemble arrangement, the suite ran from genial, Kurt Weill-inflected bounce to more complex permutations that could have easily been contemporary big band jazz (imagine an orchestrated Dred Scott piece).

The big hit of the night, unsurprisingly, was the Prokofiev. The ballet could be summed up as unease within opulence, a tone that resonated powerfully from the opening fortissimo fireball and the bitter, doomed martial theme that follows it, through its stately but apprehensive portrayal of Juliet as dancing girl, a richly dynamic take on the masked ball theme, the cantabile sweep of the two lovers parting, Friar Lawrence’s bittersweetly crescendoing scene, and the irony-charged intensity at the end. There were fireworks afterward, none of which could compare with what had just happened onstage – and which provided a welcome opportunity to beat the crowd exiting the park, and the storm that had threatened all evening but never arrived.

July 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brick from the Wall to Wall Behind the Wall

In a good year, Symphony Space’s annual Wall to Wall music marathon could easily be the best concert of the year – for those who have the time. Fortuitously, for those whose schedules don’t allow a Shoah-length commitment, the venue begins these early in the day (hey – 11 AM on a Saturday is early). This year’s program was titled Wall to Wall Behind the Wall, i.e. music by former Soviet bloc composers, an eye-opening parade of first-class performers and works, many of them either New York or world premieres – the Symphony Space folks really outdid themselves this year.

The program opened on a familiar, cosmopolitan note with Bartok’s jazz-inflected Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. It was premiered here in New York with Benny Goodman on clarinet and Bartok himself on piano; the Israeli Chamber Project – Tibi Cziger on clarinet, Itamar Zorman on violin and Assaff Weissman on piano – cleverly mined its surprisingly playful jumps and characteristically jarring, percussive riffage.

Russian Jewish composer Alexander Krein’s Esquisses Hebraiques was performed hauntingly and beautifully by the Colorado Quartet plus clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg. It’s a series of klezmer themes, laments as well as a dance. Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes made a particularly choice if obvious segue, on balance heavier on West than East, played by the same crew plus pianist Margaret Kampmeier.

Contemporary Armenian composer Tigram Mansurian’s Agnus Dei, done by Sternberg, Julie Rosenfeld of the Colorado Quartet on violin and her bandmate Katie Schlaikjer on cello plus Artur Avanesov on piano was a New York premiere, a wondrously soulful, ambient Henryk Gorecki-ish suite of shifting voices and warm, rapt textures. A world premiere, Zurab Nadarejshvili’s Dialogue with Urban Songs grew sneakily and very effectively from jaunty ragtime to creepy, played by the Poulenc Trio (Vladimir Lande on oboe, Bryan Young on bassoon and Irina Kaplan Lande on piano).

Russian-American composer Nataliya Medvedovskaya’s cinematic First Snow proved to be a vivid and apt work for the global warming era – she misses her home country’s ever-present winter snow. She described it to the audience beforehand as a cold piece, and as much as it relies on astringent atonalities, the way it tracks a winter storm – or two – is often unabashedly amusing. The Poulenc Trio were joined here by Anton Lande on violin. After that, another Twentieth Century Armenian, Arno Babajanyan was represented by his Poem, played by Avanesov on piano, knotty and dramatic but more mathematical than it was emotionally resonant. By now, it was around one in the afternoon; a flute suite was next on the bill, which for our crew of low-register fans was a signal that it was time to attend to a long list of Saturday chores (and then celebrate in the evening at Barbes with Serena Jost and Chicha Libre). Steve Smith of the Times got to Symphony Space at six and offers his insights on the rest of the program.

May 17, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Go Behind the Iron Curtain 2/21/10

Is it because the Greenwich Village Orchestra has a shorter season, with more rehearsals per concert, that they get everything so right, time after time? Or is it just a fortuitous match of inspired players with a conductor who is such a passionate advocate for the music on the bill? Whatever the case, our roughly weeklong tour of under-the-radar New York orchestras, beginning with the New York Scandia Symphony, then the Chelsea Symphony ended with the GVO on Sunday afternoon playing a characteristically rich, intense program that actually could have been staged somewhere in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

First on the bill was the Sailor’s Dance from Russian Romantic composer Reinhold Gliere’s nationalistic 1927 ballet The Red Flower (f.k.a The Red Poppy). Far from being opiated, it’s essentially orchestrated Soviet surf music, such that there could have been thirty years before the Ventures at least. On the podium, Maestro Barbara Yahr led the ensemble matter-of-factly, without the hint of a grin – that was left to the audience. It’s something of a shock that a surf rock band hasn’t discovered this yet. The theme is a two-minute hit just waiting to happen.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was next. Around the time the piece debuted, a critic called it “Mendelssohnian.” He meant that as a slur, but ironically that description is spot-on. There’s considerable unease in the work, a Modern-versus-Romantic push-pull of astringency versus warm melodicism, but there’s also a dreamy, ethereal beauty to it, most notably in the concluding moderato movement where the line back to Mendelssohn is straight and true. Whether slipping so seamlessly from 3/4 to 4/4 time that it was practically unnoticeable, bringing the wash of atmospherics to a suspenseful pianissimo or guiding a vivid oboe melody casually out of the glimmering, nocturnal strings below, Yahr, guest violinist Joseph Puglia and the ensemble worked themselves into what seemed a trance and brought the crowd into the ether with them.

The piece de resistance was Shoshakovich’s Fifth Symphony. You know this one even if you don’t think you do, most likely either the big, Beethovenesque diptych of an opening theme, or the creepy waltz of a second movement that’s been featured in a thousand horror films. Shostakovich was thirty when he wrote it: he’d just been taken to task by the Soviet censors for being too western, too bright and by extension too dangerous. This was his response: by contrast to the Fourth Symphony and its cerebral, rigorously acidic architecture, the Fifth is all big hooks, a slap back at the Stalinists as if to say, be careful what you ask for. It established Shostakovich as one of the alltime great musical satirists, yet as Yahr took care to explain before the orchestra played it, parts of it are also extraordinarily beautiful. Essentially, it’s love under an occupation, a requiem for those murdered in the purges as well as an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy while the outside world collapses.

What made this performance so utterly unique and such a perfectly lucid portrayal of the circumstances in which it was written was how integrally it was played, a unified whole torn but never completely ripped apart. Others have oversimplified it, exaggerating the tension between highs and lows, melody and atmospherics or between strings and horns: not this orchestra. Rather than highlighting one particular phrase over another, Yahr held it together with a steeliness that mightily enhanced Shostakovich’s clenched-teeth exasperation, irony and bitterness. The KGB is everywhere here, the horns, winds, or a single horn or woodwind voice signaling the alarm before the drums start up and the secret police pound at the door, whether as the bufoonishness of the waltz gives way to unfettered, sadistic menace, the gestapo interrupt the calm of a requiem by literally stepping on the melody (as they do in the wrenchingly beautiful third movement), or in the big boisterous finale where even as the party is winding up, seemingly on a triumphant note, the fascists are about to break down the door again. Shostakovich’s pal Mstislav Rostopovich was cited in the program notes as having said that if this symphony hadn’t met with such thunderous public approval, the composer would have paid for it with his life. Happily, he would go on to even greater heights of satire and savagery with his Tenth Symphony and its unsparingly brutal dismissal of Stalin (played with equally intuitive sensitivity by the GVO a couple of years ago). There was a reception afterward, a visceral sense of both triumph and relief in the air, which made perfect sense on so many levels. The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is vastly different yet equally ambitious, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1914 and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, to be performed at 3 PM on April 11.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment