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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Counterintuitive, Macabre Rachmaninoff?

The live recording of Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninoiff’s legendary Symphony No. 1 is hardly a definitive performance…but the album’s opening number is, What a treat it was to discover their version of The Isle of the Dead, streaming at Spotify. It’s astonishingly energetic, dynamic and vivid. Most orchestras play it very close to the vest, as they might do with, say, Death and Transfiguration. Yet Jurowski’s take on it is a revelation, unfolding layer upon layer of color so often subsumed in moody armospherics in interpretations by other ensembles.

You can almost feel the strain and the reach of the ferryman’s oars as the low strings dig into the macabre opening theme, in restless 5/4 time. The swirl of the woodwinds as the sway rises to a stormy crescendo is just as sharply defined. Likewise, the descent to distant bass and a lone horn in the distance after the deluge subsides.

There’s great timbral richness as the brass joinis the cellos in the angst-ridden, stairstepping crescendo of the second movement. The subtle echo effects of cellos against a lone horn amid the waves are just as meticulously focused. Taken as an integral work, this is a clinic in how to build a haunting tableau from the simplest ideas: Twin Peaks, Russian style, 1909

For something approaching the ur-text of the Symphony No. 1, try Leonard Slatkin’s recording with the St. Louis Symphony. That one’s a confident tour of the young composer’s brash, sometimes uproariously funny symphonic debut  – which was played exactly once, viciously panned by the critics and only resurrected after the composer’s death. This one’s a little ragged in places – the chase scene in the first movement, for instance – and yet, there’s a certain charm and poignancy in that all-too-human frailty. And it’s an audacious piece of music: name another symphony where the composer uses a slur as a main theme! Diehard Rachmaninovians will probably want to hear this as a point of comparison, but there are other options for those seeking to relish it for the first time.

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July 24, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loreto Aramendi Delivers Chills and Thrills at Central Synagogue

Musicians may be nocturnal creatures, but church organists have to be on their game at pertty much every hour of the day..So it was no surprkse when Spanish organist Loreto Aramendi played one of the year’s most exhilarating programs in the middle of the day, a couple of weeks ago on the gorgeously colorful organ at Central Synagogue

The highlight of her eclectically thrillling performance was the great organ composer Louis Vierne’s transcription of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude. It was a revelation: anchoring its grim counterpoint with a single, blackly portentous pedal note, Aramendi really took her time with it, a dirge to end all dirges.

Louis Robillard’s transcription of Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre was another deliciously phantasmagoriacal treat. Aramendi reveled in a bief volley of sepulchral gliasandos with as much relish as the talse ending and the finale where the ghost goes on its merry way.

She opened the program with a Buxtehude toccata that was more of a song without words, reminding what a paradigm-shifter Bach’s biggest influence was. Another Robillard transcription, Liszt’s Funerailles, aptly foreshadowed the Rachmaninoff, A final Robillard arrangement, the Prelude and Scicilienne from Faure’s Peleas et Melisande matched High Romantic grandeur to lilting grace.

Ligeti’s tensely circling Coulee, from his Etudes for Organ? was the most monochromatically bleak, and in that sensse, darkest piece on the bill. Aramendi closed with a blaze of fury, giving Charles Tournemire’s cult favorite Victiae Paschali chorale every bit of torrential power she could muster. A small but raptly attentive midday crowd gave her a robust standing ovation.

This concert was the ifnal episode of this spring’s series of monthly Prism Organ Concerts in the magnificent Lexington Avenue space just north of 54th Street, programmed by organist Gail Archer, who’s put out an unusually adventurous series of albums over the past several years, ranging from obscure American repertoire to iconic Messiaen works.  Watch this space for news about next season.

May 22, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Powerful, Relevant Performance by the Best Orchestra in New York Not Called the Philharmonic

There was a moment at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concert Saturday night at the Lincoln Center complex where the bassists got to share a brief, gleefully triumphantly grin. They’d just played the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, one of the most viscerally evil pieces of music ever written. It’s also one of the most viscerally thrilling. It doesn’t require the virtuoso technique of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra played with similar passion earlier this year. This was a different kind of adrenaline.

Conductor Barbara Yahr summed it up succinctly beforehand. “The first movement is conflict, and struggle…a memorial to the victims of Stalin. The second is pure evil: a portrait of Stalin. The third is like an old Russian guy with his tea and his vodka – something isn’t right, but we’ve managed to survive, and there’s hope. The fourth movement is revenge, Shostakovich going [she thumbed her nose] to Stalin, ‘Haha, I survived and you didn’t.’ But even there,” she motioned, “The music is still digging at you.”

And this was one for the books. Like the New York Philharmonic, the GVO typically record their concerts, so hopefully the rest of the world will be able to hear what the sold-out crowd here did. At the reception afterward, there was more than a buzz: it was more like a roar. Yahr had called out individual soloists for an ovation, something she never does, since she knew she’d caught lightning in a bottle.

Amid the turmoil, and bustle, and sheer horror – massed violins rising to a terrified, sustained shriek in the first movement – the composer allows for many momentary glimpses of hope, voiced starkly by soloists throughout the group. The effect is meant to be striking, and leaves zero room for error in in a cold and essentially merciless spotlight. And everybody was at the top of their game, including but not limited to oboeist Shannon Bryant, clarinetist Gary Dranch, french hornist Andrew Schulze, bassoonist Nisreen Nor, trumpeter Andrew Jeng and flutist Simon Dratfield.

They’d opened what turned out to be a very auspicious, aptly cantabile performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, glistening with Andrew Pak’s crystalline, powerfully poignant violin out in front of the orchestra. Then the group’s longtime timpanist, Gerard Gordon got a long-overdue turn in the spotlight with a resounding, lush romp through Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof. It’s a rare work that uses the timpani for extended melodic sequences – remember, those drums are tuned – as well as all sorts of dynamics, from misty washes to hailstorms and a few, tantalizingly thunderous volleys.

The night’s theme, in typical GVO fashion, was in the here and now. If the wheels of impeachment stall out, somebody’s going to have to vocalize and raise the roof and put an end to a bad idea gone viral – something the second movement of Shostakovich’s symphony expands on with withering sarcasm.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is their annual family concert, which is happening this year in the comfortable auditorium at the Third Street Music School Settlement at 235 E 11th St. on December 17 at 3 PM.

December 5, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sonically Thrilling, Disquieting North American Premiere For Karmina Silec’s Toxic Psalms

Last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the mighty but graceful Slovenian women’s choir Carmina Slovenica premiered their founder Karmina Silec’s breathtaking and equally relevant multimedia suite, Toxic Psalms to open this year’s Prototype Festival. It only makes sense that this work would come out of a part of the world which has seen so much trouble in the past couple of decades, yet it transcends national identity. Themes of absence and distant, implied horror were ever-present, as was a defiant feminist sensibility. The choice of music spanned the centuries and the globe and was all the more fascinating, and relevant, for the ambitious and striking arrangements of all but one of the older works. And while it wouldn’t be exactly accurate to characterize the movements of the choir as dance – Silec calls it “choregie” – the choreography was just as ambitious, and amplified the disturbing quality of the performance. The program repeats tonight at 8 PM as well as at 3 and 8 PM on Saturday, Jan 10, and at 5 PM on Jan 11. As of the wee hours of today (Jan 9), there are still a handful of tickets left for tonight’s and Sunday’s performances as well as a few more some for Saturday’s shows. From the stunned reaction of the crowd last night, if you’re on the fence about seeing this, you’d better move.

The somberly clad choir opened with their backs to the rear wall of the stage beneath a black veil, justice depicted by a lone member gingerly balancing a couple of upside-down umbrellas on her head. The women massed and mingled apprehensively and took their time approaching what could have been a graveyard, yet in doing so they seemed to find empowerment and maybe closure. They walked in line through a field of lemons (what that was about was never clear) and managed not to make lemon zest out of them. Silec’s direction toyed with crowd dynamics on both the conformist and nonconformist sides with a coldly sardonic humor that offered momentary respite from the lingering bleakness of the music. The group artfully employed mirrors;, finally one of them broke the fourth wall in a flittingly comedic but ultimately chilling bit of narration.

Of the music on the bill, seemingly only the excerpt from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which concluded the program on an unconvincingly calm, benedictory note, was left more or less intact. Eerie Slavic close harmonies, from resonantly brooding to jarring and horrific, were everywhere, as was dizzying yet meticulously orchestrated counterpoint, from a sarcastic Karin Rehnkvist arrangement of a medley of Finnish folk songs through an aptly titled Lozje Lebic sound mosaic. Brief passages from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and a plaintive more-or-less solo performance of a Syrian hymn offered a familiar, sheltering ambience before the storm that exploded at the edge of the crowd in Orwellian terror, a long excerpt from the Kalevala with music by Veljo Tormis. Some of the program’s early narration suggested that citizens of the current crop of democratic countries may be ill suited to overthrowing evil forces in power: this brought that idea full circle with an in-your-face intensity that would make Pussy Riot proud.

January 9, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The North/South Chamber Orchestra Plays Transcendent Contemporary Works

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.

June 22, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cameron Carpenter Launches an Organ Odyssey at Lincoln Center

Sunday afternoon’s concert at Lincoln Center was as much about the organ as it was about the organist. It’s likely that the current generation remembers Les Paul as a paradigm-shifting pioneer of electric guitar (and stereo) technology far better than as a brilliant jazz guitarist, so maybe someday the organ demimonde will refer to the Marshall & Ogletree International Touring Organ as the Cameron Carpenter. It’s essentially a digital mellotron. Where the mellotron plays analog samples of notes recorded by various configurations of an orchestra, this new organ plays digital samples taken from some of Carpenter’s favorite organs around the world. It’s an architecturally imposing instrument with a huge cockpit of a console, five manuals of stops played through eight large banks of twin speakers plus two banks of four trumpets each, and four more with large bass woofers. All this likely requires a couple of tractor-trailers and heavy-duty concert hall electrical power. Carpenter, with his rare blend of judicious dynamic choices and astonishing, whirlwind technique, reaffirmed that he is the obvious choice to play it (and to be involved in crafting its design and function). He was a force of nature nine years ago when he performed a dramatic weekend stand downtown at Marble Church; that he has grown even further as a musician since then is mind-boggling.

This was apparent from watching him leap from rank to rank with millisecond-precise athleticism, airing out every inch of sonic capability from the mighty beast, which he played with his back to the audience so everyone could see how much agility is required by so much of the organ repertoire. The program seemed designed to showcase that, not to mention Carpenter’s omnivorous and adventurous taste in works from throughout the centuries and the various schools of organ composition, all of which are influenced greatly by national and regional traditions of organ-building. Carpenter’s attempt to transcend all of those boundaries resulted in three massive standing ovations and calls for more than the two encores that the organist delivered. Bells and whistles – monsoon soundscapes, mighty thunderclaps and timpani, glockenspiel, celeste and other more whimsical effects – featured in the sturm und drang of the world premiere of Carpenter’s own Music for an Imaginary Film. They took centerstage even more prominently in the encores: Eric Coates’ The Dambusters, a jaunty, triumphantly Gershwinesque mini-epic, and a boisterously playful reworking of the Gordon Lightfoot folk-pop hit If You Could Read My Mind.

Carpenter’s virtuosity was most evident in Rachmaninoff’s almost sadistically difficult, waterfalling keyboard arrangement of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, as well as Nicolai Medtner’s Messiaenic partita Faity Tale in E Minor, rising from raptly atmospheric wonder to furious, blunderbuss volleys and cascades. Carpenter made also made the relentless staccato of another cruelly challenging piece, Jeanne Demessieux’s Etude VI, look easy. His take of Cesar Franck’s Chorale No. 1 in E Major, a familiar and unselfconsciously gorgeous piece in the standard repertoire, was rather brisk and as a result somewhat brusque. But Carpenter nailed the sense of wonder and rapture in his own transcription of Albeniz’s Evocation (from the Iberia suite), and then the climactic ninth movement from Messiaen’s La Nativite. The organist averred to being “About as interested in Lent as your average telemarketer,” but nonetheless explained how the mighty payoff in the French composer’s evocation of God finally making an earthly appearance struck a nerve that transcended any liturgical meaning.

What was missing in all this was reverb, the swirling vortex and lusciously lingering decay of the organ stops you find in the world’s great cathedrals – and no doubt this can be adjusted mechanically to accommodate divergent acoustical spaces. Part of that issue stemmed from the sonics of Alice Tully Hall, which are world-class, but the space is not a “live room” – it was designed for singers and orchestras, and it serves those needs exceptionally well. So the notes faded away here much in the same way they would have if Carpenter was playing in a rock concert space. But that’s being picky. What Carpenter left unsaid was that this organ frees him to play music from pretty much any period in history, written for widely differing instruments, pretty much anywhere that will accomodate his new organ and to take that crusade global. Here’s to that adventure.

March 11, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Auspicious Survey of the Ages by Pianist Mackenzie Melemed

It’s always a good sign when a pianist’s best-performed pieces onstage are by Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Last night at the sonically superb auditorium at Temple Emanu-El just off Central Park, Mackenzie Melemed played a diverse program spanning from baroque to modern and excelled at all of it. There are other good eighteen-year-old pianists out there; what distinguishes Melemed from his peers is how attuned he is to emotional content. That, and blazing technique.

Melemed bookended the highly ornamented animation of Bach’s Aria Variata alla Maniera Italiana, BWV 989 with opening and concluding statements that were downright elegaic. After making his way through the alternately elegant and torrentially waltzing initial movements of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 26, Melemed sensed the proto-Chopin in the murky third movement and brought that plaintive foreshadowing into the dirge. And he gave a saturnine, deeply felt reading to Brahms’ Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. These are late works, in fact the last that the composer wrote for solo piano, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder narrative that finally reaches to a heroic overture, giving Melemed a chance to air out a blazing fortissimo. Obviously, there are dynamics in all but the Bach that suggest specific emotions. But Melemed clearly didn’t just have those works in his fingers (he played from memory); they were in his head.

A brisk, precise take of a Scarlatti sonata was the curtain-lifter. Melemed established a similar upward trajectory after the intermission with a matter-of-factly crescendoing and eventually wrenching, emphatic take on Liszt’s Funerailles, then four Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux. These little preludes are brief but extremely challenging: Melemed charged through diabolically difficult, lightning-fast chromatics, a vivid two-handed conversation or two, stygian spaciousness versus twilit glitter and seemed to be having a ball – you would too, if you had the technique to play them. He wound up the concert with similarly acrobatic romps through Avner Dorman’s recent, equally knotty, picturesque Three Etudes. Melemed speed-painted Sundrops Over Windy Water, let the spacious, jazz-tinged block chords of the Funeral March linger and concluded with Snakes and Ladders, a showstopper with its rumbling low lefthand, crazily dancing motives and machinegunning chromatics. Sensing that the need for more fireworks was in order, he encored with a magnificent, express-train coda, Chopin’s famous Winter Wind Etude, Op. 25, No. 11.

The Sunday concert series here features a lot of similar first-rate, up-and-coming talent. The next concert is January 19 at 3 PM with pianist Hannah Sun.

December 16, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Brings Their Lush, Towering Sound to Carnegie Hall This October 27

The massive, lush Park Avenue Chamber Symphony with David Bernard on the podium make their latest appearance at Carnegie Hall on Oct 27 at 2 PM at Stern Auditorium, playing Dvorak’s  Carnival Overture, the Brahms Violin Concerto with Jourdan Urbach on violin,  Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Daniela Liebman on piano and then Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture. The Upper East Side’s counterpart to the ensembles across the park at Lincoln Center also regularly release recordings of their concerts, just as the NY Phil does, and many of them are very choice. It’s a great marketing concept: truth in advertising, what you hear is exactly what you get in concert. More orchestras should do this.

The latest in this orchestra’s ongoing releases pairs Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1 and 7. The full-bodied performance of the former captures the joy of Beethoven exploring the sonic extremes that the relatively newfangled symphonic form allowed, and in his case encouraged: that his symphonies would become his most popular works comes as no surprise after hearing this. The recording of No. 7 is similarly dynamic – a consistent quality of this orchestra – pairing understatedly explosive pageantry against the tightly controlled, richly creative songcraft that dominates the final three movements.

The orchestra’s previous release is one of the most tantalizing recordings in their extensive catalog, an irresistibly high-spirited take of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony along with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It’s easy to take the Mendelssohn as a romp, but there’s also an almost conspiratorial calm to counter the dancing themes that dominate the work: again, Bernard has the ensemble working rich dynamic contrasts. Another treat in the orchestra’s catalog, from a few years back, is arguably the most plush, luxuriant recent recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. For anything that remotely resembles this, you have to go back to the 1970s for Yevgeny Svetlanov’s version with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. No doubt they will record the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, for which tickets are still available as of this writing.

October 22, 2013 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Magnum Opus from Marcel Khalife

Often considered a Lebanese counterpart to Bob Dylan, oud virtuoso and bandleader Marcel Khalife has been a freedom fighter for decades, even before founding the Al Mayadine Ensemble in 1976. Jailed and exiled for championing peace and human rights in the Middle East, his stance has never wavered. Today, his work continues to inspire fellow activists as the Arab Spring spreads around the world. For decades, he maintained a close friendship with the late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, turning many Darwish poems into songs that would become anthems throughout the levantine world and beyond. It would not be an overstatement to compare Khalife to another artist, legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, who also blended sounds from around the globe with classical Arabic song. Even by Khalife’s eclectic standards, his latest album Fall of the Moon, with the Al Mayadine Ensemble and Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Sirinko, is a titanic achievement. A lavish double-disc set streaming in its entirety at Khalife’s Bandcamp site, it juxtaposes ornate western classical orchestration with stark Middle Eastern melodies, both songs and instrumentals. Khalife and guest chanteuse Oumaima Khalil sing in Arabic; the cd booklet supplies English translations. Lyrical themes are alluded to via imagery far more often than they’re stated outright: it’s typical of Darwish’s poetry that what isn’t said that often resonates most powerfully. This is one of the most gripping and powerful albums in recent memory.

The title cut, a lavish, balletesque orchestral piece, could be Morricone, or a Rachmaninoff symphonic dance with Middle Eastern tonalities. The most vividly affecting of all the songs is Mohammad, a plaintive portrait of a child in a battle zone, sung a-cappella by Khalil. Themes of exile and longing for home run deep here, unsurprising considering that Darwish was Palestinian. The concluding song, The Damascene Collar of the Dove, pictures a fugitive back in Damascus, knowing that absolutely nothing will ever be the same again. Like many of the songs here, it’s a diptych, a vintage-style levantine melody that begins with an unnamed qanun player taking the lead and follows an increasingly haunting series of variations on a brooding theme that rests uneasily between traditional motifs and an angst-driven western sensibility: in that sense, the music perfectly matches the lyric. That occurs again and again not only throughout the album, but throughout the collaboration between Khalife and Darwish, brothers in arms in so many respects.

The rest of the album is more elusive, and allusive. The opening track, The Pigeons Fly begins with elegantly pensive piano by Rami Khalife, son of Marcel. Even when he solos, Marcel Khalife’s oud playing here, and throughout the album, is precise and biting but also understated, as are his vocals: his music has always been about intention rather than ostentation. What’s essentially a deftly orchestrated, acoustic levantine pop song speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring edge, following Darwish’s surreal imagery: “We are ours when a shadow enters its shadow in marble, and when I hang myself it is myself I resemble on a neck that embraces only clouds.” A refugee’s tale, And We Love Life sets a dark vamp to funky syncopation that grows more insistent as the melody weaves between the oud, the bass (played either by longtime Khalife collaborator Peter Herbert or Mark Helias – the liner notes don’t say who) and Khalife’s percussionist son Bachar. It’s a chilling piece of music: “We find a place to settle, plant some fast-growing crops and harvest the dead.”

The Stranger’s Bed, a sonata of sorts, features intricately wary interplay between Bachar Khalife’s piano and Fabio Presgrave’s cello. Oh My Proud Wound, a habibi ballad for a lost land, has Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet reaching the highs usually carried by a ney flute in this kind of music, with a characteristically soaring, terse solo as it reaches a distantly anguished swell. Houriyeh’s Instructions – a rather nostalgic litany of advice from mom – evokes the classic Ya Rayyeh, from an otherworldly intro to its lush guy/girl harmonies. Of all the diptychs here, Now, In Exile is the most eclectic, with a suspenseful but punchy opening bass solo with Led Zep echoes, then a dancing theme that first goes carefree but soon brings in the clouds. From Darwish’s final work, In the Presence of Absence, it’s an elegy for an old lion of the revolution who can see the end coming.

A Song on My Mind, with Anthony Millet’s accordion playing sleek lines in the midst of all the strings, has the cinematic sweep of a classic Abdel Wahab number, juxtaposing bloody wartime imagery with the memory of when the locals were the only ones who fenced off the olive groves. Two other tracks, Remember and The Poem of the Land (an “over my dead body” theme) set trickly rhythmic Middle Eastern themes to swirling art-rock arrangments not unlike the Moody Blues at their peak. The most memorable of all the melodies here might be Palestinian Mawwal, whose warily circling string intro grows into a gingerly crescendoing Middle Eastern orchestrated dance interrupted by gunshot percussion.

There’s also an Andalusian-flavored dual-guitar instrumental played with precision and fire by Mahmoud Tourkmani; a couple of magnificently orchestrated, acoustic habibi pop tunes; and a lavishly orchestrated waltz with echoes of Beethoven, Celtic music and also a theme from Marcel Khalife’s austerely intense Taqasim album from 2008. For sheer majestic sweep and vision, there’s no other album released this year that can touch this.

April 30, 2012 Posted by | classical music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment