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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Boston Symphony Orchestra Release a Rivetingly Detailed, Harrowing Shostakovich Album

It might be unfair to artists playing original material to say that Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra‘s new live recording of three Shostakovich symphonies and an immortal smaller-scale theme – streaming at Spotify – is the frontrunner for best album of the year. Even so, the conductor and orchestra go unusually deep into these profoundly troubled, relevant works: they couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate era to be releasing their Shostakovich symphonic cycle. It’s riveting and timely music, subtly and sensitively performed. Nelsons and the ensemble work a vast dynamic range from a whisper to short of a scream. Unorthodox as this program is, it makes sense in context, the phantasmagoria of the composer’s ambitious first symphony coming into full, savage bloom in two late symphonies and also the Rudolf Barshai string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.

Let’s start with that piece, the last one on the album, since it’s the most apropos to our time. Shostakovich wrote the string quartet thinking it could be his final work since Krushchev was strong-arming him to join the Communist Party, or else. It’s as timely now as it was when the composer frantically wove his initials into it, in musical notation, over and over again. In 1960, those creepy chromatics meant a knock on the door from the KGB, its drifting desolation a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s regime, its chase scenes being the gestapo coming for a composer who’d finally crossed too far over the line. This remarkably subdued, solemn, utterly chilling interpretation makes an apt soundtrack for the health department marching into an elementary school, lethal needles in hand. Or a New York City hospital ward filled with comatose Medicare patients being sedated to death in order to create the illusion of a pandemic. Or the Australian police ruthlessly tracking some poor guy who’d escaped from solitary confinement after testing positive for a bioweapon-induced illness that went extinct months ago.

Symphony No. 1, which opens the recording, has withstood the test of time well and gets a triumphantly carnivalesque treatment here. There’s a balletesque lilt to the first movement… and that bassoon strut makes an eerie predecessor for a much more macabre theme in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6.

The lithe, cynical bustle of movement two is irresistible, the orchestra’s vaunted strings adding a gossamer, deep-space twinkle and not the slightest hint of the whirlwind coda that will soon follow. Nelsons’attention to the pulsing echo effects in the forebodingly crescendoing third movement is a characteristically insightful touch, as are the plaintive soloists, foreshadowing the horror-stricken calm of the composer’s Symphonies No. 10 and 11. He holds back the fireworks in the fourth movement until the hordes are at the great gate of Kiev, with the xylophone-like piano a stunning contrast. What a picturesque exhibition.

Shostakovich liked to recycle some of his most twisted themes, and he does that a lot in his final Symphony, No. 15, from 1971. It’s arguably his most death-obsessed work. The flutey intro, followed by an even more cynical bassoon melody and faux pageantry that quotes liberally from the William Tell Overture could be read as death dancing outside the window, whether that’s the gestapo or just the ravages of time – although it’s hard to imagine this composer failing to add his usual sociopolitical context. When the brass come stomping in, the orchestra’s pinpoint precision leaves no doubt what’s going on. In case you wonder what that whiplash percussive effect is, it’s a real whip.

Seamlessly switching gears, Nelsons holds the lingering, vast stillness of the second movement in check: somber passages from solo cello, winds and horn are muted in the face of seemingly inevitable doom, a throwback to Symphony No. 11. The brief third movement is all portents and marionettish evil, underscored by the orchestra’s sheer matter-of-factness. In the final movement, Nelsons puts the spotlight on the parade of wistful figures flickering as the curtain behind draws closer. So the point where someone – or a whole society – meets a sudden, tragic end midway through really packs a punch. At the end, the gulag and the executioner – or just a haunted witness to a hideous period in Russian history – dissolve into shadow puppets.

Symphony No, 14, from 1969, is a lavish, death-obsessed song cycle of sorts much in the same vein as the Babi Yar Symphony, No. 13. Soprano Kristine Opolais and bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk take turns in alternately brooding and acidically surreal interpretations of poetry by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire and Wilhelm Kuchelbecker – hardly doctrinaire Soviet-approved artists.

The utter solemnity of Garcia Lorca’s De Profundis cedes to the grand guignol ballet of his macabre Malaguena. The duet of Apollinaire’s Lorelei is every bit a depiction of a twisted, beckoning Aryan witch as the poet could have imagined.

Similarly, the contrast between Opolais’ angst and the still backdrop in his portrait of a suicide’s grave is downright chilling, as is the carnivalesque antiwar message in On Watch. Those qualities pervade the rest of the symphony, through a whisperingly grim prison-cell tableau, martial belligerence and incessant grim imagery: exactly what the entire world has been forced to grapple with since the spring of 2020.

Except that these are only cautionary tales.

August 31, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Shimmering, Potently Relevant New Album From Fearless Composer Susie Ibarra

Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra‘s rapturous, starkly orchestrated new album Walking on Water touches on the two most deadly ecological crises of our time: the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and global warming. Inspired by a breathtaking series of paintings by Mako Fujimura dedicated to the victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear explosions, Ibarra also addresses a familiar theme in her work, the perils of climate change. With the Japanese government threatening to dump millions of gallons of lethal radioactive water from the still-unstable Fukushima site into the Pacific, Ibarra could not have picked a more appropriate time to release this record of what she terms as “spirituals” at Bandcamp.

Ibarra’s DreamTime Ensemble here includes Jennifer Choi on violin, Yves Dharambaj on cello, Claudia Acuna on vocals, Jake Landau on guitar and keys, with Yuka C. Honda adding electronic elements. The music is much more dynamic than you would expect from such troubling central themes and includes many field recordings of water, from melting ice in the Himalayas to water tanks in Washington State.

The first track is Elegy in Azurite, a shimmery, circling theme, part terse, lush classical atmosphere aloft with Acuna’s vocalese, and part pointillistic Filipino kulintang music. Landau’s spiky acoustic guitar pierces the mist in the bouncy Light East of Sendai. His organ falls away, leaving Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs to mingle with melting ice sonics in Waterfalling.

Assertive, flamenco-tinged guitar chords anchor resonant, shivering phrases from violin and cello over Ibarra’s rustles in Coastal Birds The next track is High Wave, a mashup of found sounds of water amid nebulous acoustic and electronic ambience. Acuna sails soulfully above a syncopated organ groove and Ibarra’s slinky drums in the aptly titled Natural Lightness.

Night Rain sounds like exactly that, a field recording with birds chattering away as they take cover. Violin and cello rise warily over Landau’s lush arpeggios in Divine Forgiveness, followed by a fluttery tone poem, Celestial Migration. Floating Azurite makes a good segue, somber atmosphere contrasting with the mandolin-like delicacy of Landau’s guitars.

The bossa-tinged swing of New York With Grace comes as a real surprise, Landau’s spiny textures and the strings adding a surreal, disquieted edge. The album’s big epic is aptly titled Listening at Himalayan Waterfalls, a found-sound pastiche which Ibarra captured with underwater microphones. The group close with Floating Along Banares, a summery field recording of a boat trip mashed up with distantly Indian-flavored melodies. The implication seems to be that this kind of natural camaraderie is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of what we stand to lose if we don’t stop burning things to power the world. The apocalypse never sounded so dreamy. Count this as one of the best and most captivating albums of 2021.

July 7, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Classical and Rock Acts Shake Off the Rust at the Naumburg Bandshell

It was weird seeing a rock band onstage at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night. There hasn’t been any rock there since the early teens, when some promoter put on a stupefyingly awful disco night. Then again, it wasn’t always unusual for rock acts to play there: it happened a lot back in the 90s.

Twenty years earlier, the Grateful Dead did a show there. Now that must have been weird.

There were other aspects relating to yesterday evening’s show that seemed weird. But most of them were welcome, and reason for guarded optimism at a time when we desperately need it.

The rock band onstage was singer/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan and her low-key rhythm section. She was joined by a chamber orchestra subset of the Knights for a tersely symphonic, imaginatively arranged take of what seemed to a suite inspired by early 20th century suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt. Although O’Donovan’s roots are in Americana, and she was playing acoustic, the songs had more of a classic 60s pop feel, sometimes in a Jimmy Webb or Lee Hazelwood vein. O’Donovan’s work has never been more political, or relevant than this, another welcome development.

A number that quoted from a letter to Catt from then-President Woodrow Wilson had a mutedly rich, brass-infused chart. O’Donovan then led the ensemble into syncopated, Joni Mitchell-esque territory and closed with a more enigmatic, indie rock-flavored number. O’Donovan has obviously done her homework and is encouraging everyone to rise up and fight: a rousing amen to that.

The Knights shook off the rust of over a year of inactivity with conductor Eric Jacobsen leading them through a haphazard take of his arrangement of Kayhan Kalhor‘s exhilarating, Kurdish-tinged theme Ascending Bird. The way the low strings emulated the starkness and shivery intensity of an Iranian kamancheh was a tasty touch. The (presumably) new presence of brass and woodwinds seemed forced, and extraneous to the music’s ecstatic trajectory.

The orchestra left the bumps in that road behind for a sleek and empathetic version of George Walker’s Lyric For Strings, whose canonic cadences evoked the Barber Adagio with less angst, more fondness, and somewhat more modernist tonalities.

Violinist Gil Shaham joined them for the night’s coda, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 from memory. This may have been just another day at the office for him, but the technique he put to use was just plain sizzling. Which is not to say that this piece sizzles per se: it’s a carefully orchestrated celebration. Needless to say, Shaham’s quicksilver vibrato, the quartz crystal solidity of the endless volleys of high harmonics, and his unassailably confident attack in the most robust moments reaffirmed his vaunted stature.

The first movement seemed fast, at least in the beginning, the orchestra clearly relishing the opportunity to reconnect with their soloist since they’d recorded this together a couple of years ago. The second movement was unusually muted and practically a lullaby in places. The conclusion, with its rounds of triumphant, anthemic riffage, ended the night on an aptly ebullient note. There was no encore.

In a stroke of serendipity, this was the day when Andrew Cuomo apparently caved to the pressure to relinquish some of the dictatorial powers he’d seized in the March 16, 2020 coup d’etat – presumably to give a last-gasp shot of hydroxychloroquine to a political career that’s on a vent and flatlining. The details are still shaking out. It’s not unreasonable to worry that the psy-op squads at the World Economic Forum, the Gates Foundation and the Bloomberg cartel, who have been pulling Cuomo’s strings over the past sixteen months, will attempt to sneak all sorts of New Abnormal surveillance or divide-and-conquer schemes into any so-called reopening plan.

Because the concert was arranged before yesterday’s unexpected events, the organizers had been giving out free tickets online. Trouble was, the ticketing system didn’t work. An anxious message at their webpage timidly asked for proof of needle of death or meaningless PCR test, presumably to satisfy Cuomo’s office: this isn’t the kind of demand the Naumburg organization, who have always been the epitome of genteel, would typically impose on an audience.

While ticketed patrons were being let into the seats – which never came close to reaching capacity – there was clearly no surveillance going on. As far as muzzle-mania goes, oxygen-deficient people generally took the seats, those of us breathing normally situated mostly in back. Standing five feet to the left of this blog’s owner was one of the world’s great cellists: she wasn’t muzzled, nor was one of the world’s great violists, a couple of paces behind her. Sea change, or sign of imminent New Abnormal apartheid? We’ll find out next time.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on June 29 at 7:30 PM when the Ulysses and Emerson String Quartets team up for music by Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss and others. Since tickets for the performance have already been issued, rushing to the space early to score a seat – a winning strategy in years past – may not be worth the effort. You will probably be better off standing, taking a place on the benches immediately to the south, or on the lawn to the west where the sound is still reasonably audible. Bring a picnic and some wine!

June 16, 2021 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

May 31, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Savagely Brilliant Shostakovich Symphonies From the London Symphony Orchestra

In a time when global tyranny and repression have reached levels of terror not seen since the Middle Ages, it makes sense to revisit two great antifascist works from a composer who narrowly managed to survive under one of the world’s most evil regimes. Only Dmitri Shostakovich’s popularity saved him from the fate so many of his friends suffered under Stalin. Fortuituously, maestro Ginandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra have just released a live album of two completely different but equally relevant Shostakovich symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10, streaming at Spotify. The former is from 2018, the latter from performances at the Barbican in January and February of 2020, just a few weeks before music there was banned by the Boris Johnson regime.

During his lifetime, Shostakovich explained away the savage irony, caricatures and stricken horror in his music as reflecting on the evil of the Tsarist regime, even though it was clear that he was taking shots at Stalin and then Krushchev. Symphony No. 9 is an oddball, the only one of its kind in the composer’s repertoire. It’s a goofy little piece of music whose sarcasm is almost completely deadpan. It’s impossible to imagine a more dispassionate celebration.

Written ostensibly in tribute to the Soviet victory over the Nazis, the blithe little flourishes of the first movement seem to ask, “So we aren’t going to find out if life under Hitler would be any better than it was under Stalin? It couldn’t be any worse.” Ultimately, history would validate that gruesome premise. Noseda leads the orchestra through a very individualistic interpretation, muting the turbulent undercurrent and practically turning it into a concerto for flute and violin.

The conductor takes the second movement slowly, letting the brooding reflection of Juliana Koch’s oboe speak for the weariness of millions of Russians. This depleted, exhausted waltz really drags. Then in the third movement Noseda really picks up the phony pageantry, a familiar trope in the Shostakovich playbook: trumpeter Philip Cobb’s facsimile of a martial Russian victory riff is a hoot.

But it doesn’t last. Timothy Jones’ sotto-voce, lightly vibrato-laden horn brings back the sullen atmosphere in movement four. The sober oboe introduction to the conclusion foreshadows a familiar, troubled hook from Symphony No. 10. The coda is appropriately rote, a whole nation bustling through the motions.

No. 10 might be the greatest symphony ever written: Noseda and the ensemble go deep into its innumerable layers for gravitas and historical impact. Grounded in the low strings, the vast expanse of pain and anguish in the first movement is visceral, a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror. Noseda’s choice to mute the flickers of hope against hope, as a pulsing sway grows more and more harrowing, is an apt template for the rest of the recording.

The furtive chase scene of the second movement gains coldly sleek momentum as it morphs into a danse macabre: holocausts throughout history are always carefully orchestrated. Movement three, in contrast, seems especially restrained in its most desolate moments, setting up the iconic, eerily syncopated, Scheherezade-like theme at the center.. Individually voices of mourning rise over a grim hush in the fourth movement: that brief, bubbly respite may only be a coded message to the composer’s girlfriend at the time, and it isn’t long before it becomes a completely different kind of pursuit theme.

Ultimately, Shostakovich’s best-known symphonies are cautionary tales. Look what happened in my country, he tells us. Don’t let this happen in yours. How crushingly ironic that an orchestra from the UK – sufffering under one of the most sadistic totalitarian regimes in the world at the moment – would be responsible for such deeply insightful performances.

March 31, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Subtly Powerful Album of Protest Jazz From Afro-Peruvian Bandleader Gabriel Alegria

“Social distancing.”

Ewwwwww.

Of all the oxymorons in lockdowner newspeak, that’s the most odious. In terms of being self-contradictory, it’s second only to “remote learning” – a very, very, very, very remote approximation of the real thing.

Trumpeter Gabriel Alegría‘s new album of protest jazz – streaming at Spotify – is titled Social Distancing. It’s almost all-instrumental, and the few moments that are not speak to healing, or are cached in metaphorical terms rather than leveling any specific accusation. Yet as a parable of and reaction to the fascist horror of 2020, it’s unsurpassed.

The centerpiece is The Mask, a stark urban noir soul tableau which is almost all bass and percussion until horns and violin join in shivering terror behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved.

Kitty O’Meara reads her lockdown poem And the People Stayed Home in the opening track, And the People, which is balmy yet somber, Alegria terse and resonant alongside Alex Gonzalez’s violin, backed by Jocho Velasquez’s acoustic guitar, Mario Cuba’s bass, and Hugo Alcázar’s drums. The group reprise it in Spanish at the end of the album: its message of hope and transformation (but not in a bastardized New Abnormal way) went viral a year ago.

The rest of the album explores a wide range of dynamics, with both optimism and some searing critiques. In Mirando El Shingo, a catchy tropical anthem, the percussion section work a gusty groove as the bass dances, Alegria and then saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía sail overhead. The next track, titled COVID-19, has both a boisterous New Orleans-flavored rhythm but also acidic twelve-tone harmony grounded in Russell Ferrante’s piano and the guitar. Leguía’s modal solo has an aptly distant ominousness: five out of six people had natural immunity, but the fake news media kept the fear blaring 24/7.

George and Breonna, a shout-out to the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is built around a festive exchange of trumpet and sax riffs over a cantering 12/8 groove, in the Mingus tradition: exuberant song, grimly relevant title. The New Normal turns out to be a slinky organ tune with Monklike blues phantasmagoria from Yuri Juarez’s guitar and an increasingly dissociative raveup from the rest of the band.

Leguía switches to soprano sax for Any Day Now, whose initial, jaunty brightness grows more enigmatic as the harmonies get more complex and the percussion kick up a storm: she delivers another killer, modally-spiced solo midway through. Amaranta is an uneasy, airy take on late 50s Miles Davis and the best song on the album. The false start into a waltz, Alegria’s sobering, crystalline solo over crashing cymbals, and Leguía’s spine-tingling legato are just a few highlights.

Driven by energetic trumpet and sax over a churning groove, Octavio y Natalia was inspired by Alegria’s and Juarez’s kids playing together. Both dads want to make sure their kids get to enjoy a normal childhood, but knowing that their lives could be imperiled by racist hate is part of the picture. This one’s on the shortlist for best jazz albums of 2021.

March 20, 2021 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dan Blake Offers Hope in the Midst of Terror on His Powerfully Relevant New Album

Saxophonist Dan Blake‘s new album Da Fé – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t just a brilliant, darkly picturesque, tuneful record: it’s an important one. Blake has gone to great lengths to capture much of the perilous state of the world, 2021. And as grim as so many of the themes here are, with plenty of gallows humor, ultimately this is optimistic. We’re going to get through this, even if it takes us a lot of work, Blake seems to say. He’s got a fantastic band: Carmen Staaf on piano, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, and Jeff Williams on drums with Leo Genovese adding both piano and multi-keys. The ensemble seem much larger than they are in places since Blake overdubs himself frequently for extra intensity.

Staaf builds an increasingly bewildering, creepy belltone ambience in her solo introduction, A New Normal: clearly Blake is wise to the inhumanity of the lockdowners’ totalitarian schemes.

Cry of the East, dedicated to the Palestinian people, begins as an edgily modal Coltrane-inspired jazz waltz, Blake multitracking a sax chorus overhead, Staaf following with a sagacious blues-infused solo setting up the bandleader’s angst-fueled, trilling crescendo. Blake sticks with the soprano sax in Like Fish in Puddles, at first flurrying if not actually flappping around, over a hypnotically energetic backdrop. Staaf signals the first cautious moves out of the trap, Blake an insistent voice of reason overhead; the squall and surreal synth flickers as tension mounts aptly captures the past year’s relentless anxiety.

The next number is simply titled Pain, Genovese building an increasingly macabre, echoey pool beneath Blake’s circles and cries. The band rise to a dissociative, grimly bluesy sway from there, part somber Coltrane, part menacing Messiaen. The Grifter is a brilliantly constructed portrait of a guy who seems like a real blithe spirit, but as Staaf and the rest of the band quickly make clear, that orange wig can’t conceal what’s lurking underneath. Blake’s solo at the end is too good to give away.

The Cliff comes across as a sardonic mashup of Monk and modal Miles: well, you needn’t go over the edge, Blake seems to say with his multitracks over the rhythm section’s terse syncopation and bracing scrambles. Dr. Armchair is the album’s most cynical track: this guy keeps flogging the same dead horse even as his logic doesn’t stand up, Staaf taking charge of the demolition with relish. This person could just as easily be someone you know, or someone on tv.

The album’s title track is not a bossa or a samba but instead begins as a surreal, sci-fi tableau of sax and synthy squiggles, answered by the band’s ruggedly Monkish melodicism, up to a long, sharp-fanged Blake alto solo. The album’s epilogue is It Heals Itself, a disquieted tone poem of sorts. Blake’s soprano sax still channels a persistent pain, but his layers of melody seems to offer a very guarded hope as the group sway patiently behind him. One of the most relevant and musically rich albums of 2021 in any style of music.

March 15, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hauntingly Relevant New Shostakovich Concert Recording From the London Philharmonic

Dmitri Shostakovich would find no small irony in that one of the most chilling recent recordings of his Symphony No. 11 would be released by a British orchestra during the (hopefully short) reign of the most brutally repressive regime in that nation’s history. The composer titled the symphony 1905, to commemorate the massacre of over two hundred unarmed Russian protestors by Tsarist militia in the St. Petersburg city square that year. In reality, it’s a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s genocide and possibly the martyrs of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary The gold standard for recent recordings remains the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 2012 performance under Valery Gergiev. But this one – by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and streaming at Spotify – is also stunningly vivid.

This undated live performance from London’s now-shuttered Royal Festival Hall doesn’t have quite the dynamic range of the Mariinsky recording, and if anything, it’s more hushed in places. But it’s hardly any less haunting. In Jurowski’s hands, this comes across as more of a series of grisly memories than any kind of linear narrative.

As the morose first movement slowly rises from a doomed predawn ambience, the foreshadowing leaves no doubt that these brave souls don’t have a prayer. Faintly hopeful twin flutes and a solemn solitary oboe give voice to variations on a sturdy worker’s song, which immediately grows more and more defeated over a grimly looming backdrop. Could this be an indictment of Stalin’s bastardization of Marxist ideology, maybe? Meanwhile, the sentries’ trumpets are lurking and don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Jurowski’s resoluteness in maintaining a vast, distant expanse behind them enhances the impact considerably.

Forces mass on each side as a standoff develops in the second movement, lustrously drifting and swirling strings against marching brass hitting a cruelly heroic peak. Are those furtive, muted pizzicato strings going to succeed? Or is the bronzed return of the suicidal opening theme the real portent here? By now, we know where all this is going. Shostakovich doesn’t even acknowledge Stalin by giving him as much as a simple tune: the massacre itself is all drums and cymbal crashes.

But this isn’t half over yet. The contrast between the almost inaudible, massed basses and violins behind the funereal chimes as the smoke clears (and those sentries with their trumpets, who just refuse to shut up) is viscerally intense. The third movement’s long dirge of a folk song, its muted, syncopated bassline and macabre low brass quietly remind the listener to grasp the consequences of this horror. Shostakovich wants us never to forget that fascists don’t just kill once: they do it again and again until we get rid of them.

A slightly different view emerges in the conclusion: amid its richly grim textures, some of these freedom fighters seem considerably more adrenalized and disciplined than what we’ve seen earlier on. In 2021, we will need such energy and discipline as we resist the enticements behind the lockdowners’ genocidal agenda: we can have our orchestras and concerts again, if only we take their needle of death. Obviously, if we do, there won’t be any orchestras left by then anyway.

Like many symphonic ensembles these days in parts of the world which haven’t yet broken free of the lockdown, the London Philharmonic have been releasing a steady stream of archival live recordings and this is one of their very best, reason to keep a close eye on what else they may have in the vault for us.

March 8, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting, Potently Relevant New Protest Music From the Imani Winds

In French, “bruit” means “noise.” In English, it’s the medical term for a heart murmur caused by a vascular blockage, and pronounced as “brute.” The Imani Winds‘ new album Bruits – streaming at Bandcamp – references both meanings, in terms of access to justice for people of color as well as stirring up a mighty noise about it. New classical music doesn’t get any more relevant than this in 2021.

The group – flutist Brandon Patrick George, oboe player Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mark Dover, horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis – open with the title track, a five-part Vijay Iyer suite inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cory Smythe circles ominously on microtonal electric piano as individual wind voices pulse and swirl, darkly tropical Miami bustle giving way to still nocturnal foreshadowing. The second movement has a recitation of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law – under which Martin’s murderer was acquitted – set to terse, grim piano syncopation.

Low, lingering suspense contrasts with uneasily wafting tones in the third movement; a tense, relentless rhythm returns in the fourth, only to recede to a haze and a grim quote from Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath, whose own son was murdered less than a year after Martin. Somber and agitated themes conjoin in the conclusion, rising to a cold, fateful stop.

Spellman-Diaz and Ellis exchange Indian-tinged melismas as Reena Esmail’s The Light Is the Same gets underway, its mashup of contrasting raga themes rising to a delicate intertwine. John Whittington Franklin reads the words of his historian dad, John Hope Franklin in Frederic Rzewski’s triptych Sometimes. The first movement has Ellis playing somber variations on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child behind a characteristically commonsensical observation: “We need a new American Revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man and woman can face tomorrow, unencumbered by the burdens of the past or the prejudices of the present. This calls for a revolution in the heart and soul of every American. This is what the first American Revolution did not have. This is what the new American Revolution must have.”

The harmonies grow more brooding over a stately pace, then the voices diverge in steady counterpoint before circling back in the second movement. Soprano Janai Brugger sings a Langston Hughes text in the bitterly circling conclusion. Rzewski has never shied away from tackling important political issues, from the Attica massacre onward, and this is one of his most memorable and unselfconsciously vivid works.

March 2, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Angelica Olstad Captures the Terror and Alienation of the First Few Months of the Lockdown

Pianist Angelica Olstad ls one of the few New York artists to be able to put the tortuous first several months of the lockdown to creative use. Her new solo release Transmute – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, often downright chilling, rather minimalist recording of a series of themes from four French Romantic works. Olstad reimagines them as a suite illustrating the terror and isolation of the beginning of the most hideously repressive year in American history. And it isn’t over yet. In the meantime we owe a considerable debt to Olstad for how indelibly and lyrically she has portrayed it.

Rather than playing any of the four pieces here all the way through, she deconstructs them, usually to find their most menacing or macabre themes. Then she pulls those even further apart, or loops them. Erik Satie is the obvious reference point. The first and most troubled segment is based on The Fountain of the Acqua Paola from Charles Griffes’ Roman Sketches, Op. 7. It turns out to be a creepy, loopy arpeggio matched by skeletal lefthand, with light electronic touches and snippets of field recordings. Yes, some of them are sirens. A simple, icy upper-register melody develops, then recedes, the menacing music-box melody returning at the end.

Track two, Death + Sourdough is a mashup of a handful of themes from the Ravel Sonatine, at first reducing it to a rising series of Satie-esque snippets. Then Olstad hits an elegant, ornate series of chords, but once again loops them. She returns with an even more troubled, resonant minimalism.

An Awakening, based on the Oiseaux Triste interlude from Ravel’s Miroirs has spacious glitter over spare lefthand, distant sirens and crowd noise from Black Lives Matter protests panning the speakers

The closest thing to a straightforward performance of the original is her steady, rippling, picturesque take of Cygne sur l’eau from Gabriel Faure’s Mirages; she titles it Brave New World. Here and only here does the music grow warmer and offer a glimmer of hope, tentative as she seems to see it. Let’s hope that’s an omen for days to come. If she’s brave, maybe we’ll be lucky to see Olstad in concert somewhere in New York this year.

February 26, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment