Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Up-and-Coming Verona Quartet Bring a Vivid Program to MOMA Summergarden This Sunday

Among urbane hot-weather New York traditions, nothing beats a trip to MOMA Summergarden on a Sunday evening. The thematic programming that they used to have here has given way to a more eclectic series of acts. Doors open at 6 on the 54th Street side; the music starts at 8 and getting there on time is always a good idea. This Sunday, July 23, the auspicious young Verona Quartet, who got their start at Juilliard just a year ago, play US premieres by a global cast of contemporary composers: Japan’s Teizō Matsumura, Costa Rica;s Alejandro Cardona and Poland’s Elżbieta Sikora. Admission is free.

The quartet’s concert last month at WNYC’s Greene Space was a showcase for their close emotional attunement and versatility. The only questionable choice they made was the sequence of works. On one hand, it makes total sense to open with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 7 and then follow it with Ravel’s String Quartet in F, which is more physically taxing. And maybe the group didn’t want to send the crowd home on a down note – although the Ravel concludes enigmatically. Whatever the case, the program packed a wallop,

The Shostakovich is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. It’s a requiem for the composer’s first wife, who left him, then he persuaded her to come back, then she left him again for keeps. As the quartet portrayed her, she was graceful and elegant…and fatally flawed. “If only…:” Is the central theme. Violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky and cellist Warren Hagerty channeled that with a spare, poignant intensity, from its elegaic, balletesque introduction, through moody circles foreshadowing the danse macabre and eventual, sepulchral defeat that followed – and itself foreshadowed the hunted grimness of the composer’s next quartet.

Their performance of the Ravel was fueled by precise gearshifting between idioms – written on the cusp of late Romanticism and early Modernism, you can hear Cesar Franck’s calm amidst the Parisian bustle, but also Debussy’s Eureka moment when he saw the  gamelan for the first ttime.  The quartet simmered the balmy lustre in the opening movement, then made a meticulous, surgically precise run through the sharp, emphatic pizzicato of the second movement and the carnivalesquely waltzing variations that followed.

It was on the third movement that they really dug in. Ravel wrote this piece very generously – everybody gets time in the spotlight, and this is where the viola and cello get called on to lead the trail out of a revisitation of the summery first movement as it takes a turn in a far darker direction, and Rojansky and Hagerty both rose to the occasion. Likewise, Hagerty didn’t hold back as he anchored the shivery flurries and uneasy, often aching waltz of the concluding movement. The material this Sunday is completely different, but it’s fair to assume that the quartet will go just as deeply into it.

July 20, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philip Glass’ Agenda Remains the Same

“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.

It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.

Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.

The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.

Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.

What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.

January 31, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roger Nierenberg’s InSight Concert Provides a Rapturous, Under-the-Hood Look at a Symphony Orchestra

What was it like to be seated between the basses and the kettledrums at conductor Roger Nierenberg‘s InSight Concert at the DiMenna Center Saturday night? For those who gravitate toward the low registers, pretty close to heaven, when those instruments were part of the sonic picture. The rest of the audience was interspersed between various other orchestral sections…and then were encouraged to move to a new spot for the second half of the evening’s program. Not a brand-new idea – the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony played a revelatory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this same configuration last winter – but in any event, a memorable one.

Nierenberg has carved a niche for himself helping corporate clients employ orchestral-style teamwork, and the orchestra’s performance of a very smartly chosen program made a striking reminder just what a monumental feat it is to pull off a successful symphonic performance – the primary difference between a musical ensemble and a corporate environment being that backstabbing musicians have very short careers. To get a piece of music to work, everyone playing it has to trust each other.

On the podium, Nierenberg personified purpose and clarity, and a sense of call-and-response, delivering an agenda that the ensemble made good on. As a bonus for concertgoers, he invited them onto a big platform behind him, to watch over his shoulder for a conductors-eye view of the concert throughout a dynamic reading of Kodaly’s Galantai Tancok. It was the third and most vivid of a trio of folk-themed suites on the program, alternating between upbeat airs and more brooding Balkan themes, oboe and clarinet delivered crystalline, minutely nuanced solos front and center.

Britten’s Suite of English Folk Dances came across as sort of an etude for orchestra, packed with all sorts of high/low dichotomies that kept audience heads turning as the focus shifted in a split-second from the flutes, to the low strings, to percussion and then brass. Nierenberg’s own Playford Dance Suite, drawing on the very same folk melodies that Britten appropriated for his, packed considerably more emotional impact, and was much more clearly focused as well.

As many conductors do, Nierenberg also had the orchestra pull illustrative quotes from the program’s concluding numbers, Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – a birthday wake-up present from the composer to his wife, the conductor explained – and Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet. Again, the contrasts – balmy atmospherics versus kinetic phantasmagoria – were striking to the point where the crowd was left with a takeaway that most likely lingered long after the concert. If Nierenberg gets his way, it’ll leave a much more lasting impact: mission

September 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mimesis Ensemble Plays Vigorous, Dynamic Andalucian-Inspired Premieres at NYU

Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Mimesis Ensemble delivered an insightful, often irresistibly fun, historically vivid performance of Spanish-themed works by Ravel as well as two New York premieres by Mohammed Fairouz. Violin soloist Rachel Barton Pine stunned the crowd with her wildfire cadenzas, rapidfire riffage and hair-raising high harmonics throughout the second Fairouz premiere, the violin concerto Al Andalus.

Fairouz’s music is as colorful and vividly lyrical as he is prolific – and he’s very prolific. And he doesn’t’ shy away from political relevance or controversy. This triptych was typical, and it made a tantalizing launching pad for Pine’s virtuoso sorcery. The first movement, Ibn Furnas’ Flight referenced the legendary eighth-century poet and philosopher whose attempt at human flight may be apocryphal, or may have made him the world’s first successful hang-gliding enthusiast. Expressive flutes and aggressively dancing motives leaping up throughout the orchestra contrasted with a muted low resonance, tension and suspense juxtaposed with moments of sheer joy, and a brief bolero. As the music told it, Furnas eventually got to take to the sky, but getting there wasn’t easy.

The second movement, meant to evoke a love poem by the 11th century intellectual Ibn-Ham, made a stark contrast, with slow, spacious, considered minimalist introduction and moody minor-key atmospherics that alluded to Middle Eastern modes more than it actually employed them. The final movement drew on a famous homoerotic poem, jaunty yet suspenseful, full of humor and drollery, from pianist Katie Reimer’s salsa-tinged tumbles, to a snippet of Hava Nagila and a big, pulsing, tango-flavored crescendo. Conductor Laura Jackson did an adrenalized ballet of sorts on the podium, seemingly willing the music to life with her muscles as  as much as with her baton.

Fairouz himself conducted the other premiere, his Pax Universalis. In the program notes, he cited the piece’s carefree pageantry as the most lighthearted thing he’s ever written, and he was right about that. Echoes of Afrobeat and bubbly 1930s Hollywood film music livened the theme, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s concept of a universal peace fueled by citizen engagement, as opposed to a truce enforced by a major world power.

Jackson and the group set the tone for the evening with Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole: she really had them on their toes as they slunk their way suspensefully through the opening nocturne into the series of folk dance-themed variations that followed. This was all about tension and then a payoff, as the music rose and fell, through liltingly rhythmic crescendos and a triumphant conclusion. Then they tackled the Ravel Bolero, which actually isn’t a bolero at all: it’s basically a vamp, a one-chord jam. And it’s a real challenge to play, whether you’re one of the winds or strings who have to pedal the endless rhythmic pulses that push it along, or you’re picking up the melody for a fleeting few seconds. Everyone did their part, seamlessly: the only thing missing was Grace Slick belting, “Feed your head!”

April 11, 2016 Posted by | classical music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Alexandra Joan Brings Her Imagination and Intuition to a Solo Show at Bargemusic

On one hand, it’s risky to call a classical pianist an individualist. In some circles, that might imply that the artist takes liberties which could range from debatable, to suspect, to completely unwanted. On the other hand, pianist Alexandra Joan has such fearsome technique that she’s able to interpret whatever emotion she can evince from the material in front of her. And when that’s unexpected, as it often is, it’s a revelation. Classical musicians are expected from their earliest days at conservatory to be all things to all people and all music, and Joan’s performances in the recent past have reflected those demands. With that in mind, there’s no question that she likes the Romantics, yet she’s also a great advocate for new music and especially the protean and colorful Mohammed Fairouz. And she likes a challenge, which is exactly what she’ll tackle this Friday, December 11 at 8 PM at Bargemusic where she’ll contend with a program including works by Bach, Arvo Part, Elliott Carter, Kaija Saariaho and Schumann’s famously difficult Etudes Symphoniques. Cover is $35/$30 srs/$15 stud., and early arrival is advised; Joan is popular.

Her most recent solo album is titled Dances and Songs. Interestingly, the most striking piece on it isn’t the physically taxing Liszt works, or the richly enigmatic Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; it’s Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor. She plays it as if she was playing a harpsichord, giving full weight to the ornamentation and grace notes, proportionate to the rest of the score rather than lettting them just flit off the page. It’s a neat trick, and one that requires vastly more lightness of touch and completely different technique than if she was playing an actual harpsichord. And then, she finds the one part of the suite where she can make the greatest contrast with what, up to then, has been just short of lickety-split, and the effect is explosive. At that point, she hits a dirge tempo, so slow that it seems that the rhythm has fallen conpletely out. Essentially, she looked for the one place where she could wring every ounce of contrast (and raw, unvarnished angst) out of it, and pulled it off.

The album opens with a precise, emphatic take of Valse-Caprice No. 6 from Liszt’s Soirees de Vienne; she’ll return to waltzing Liszt at the end of the program to bring the album full circle. As the Ravel picks up steam from a stately tempo, Joan lets the distant gleam shine through, seemingly allowing the cascades to tumble from her hands rather than evoking a climb in one direction or another. It seems effortless even though it’s not.

After the intensity of the Bach, Liszt’s take of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman offers a dynamically shifting emotional respite. However, Joan’s muted approach at the end sets up another far more moody performance, Lizst’s arrangement of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger. Such segues are typical in her repertoire: she can’t resist making a connection where she can find one. The album isn’t up at any of the usual streaming spots, although Joan’s performances are well represented on youtube and at Instantencore.

December 7, 2015 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan Sings Through Her Fingers at Bargemusic

“Just about every piece of music that we can play is a song,” pianist Alexandra Joan nonchalantly told the audience at her luminous performance Thursday night at Bargemusic. That pretty much explains everything you need to know about her. Matter-of-factly and meticulously, she built a dynamically rich program with lyrical, cantabile, highly individualistic interpretations of a diverse program. from Bach to early Modernism, most of the works taken from her new album Dances and Songs.

She explained to the crowd that while not everything on the album is a dance per se, the material on it shares a kinetic character. She began the evening with a suite of Chopin mazurkas that aren’t on the album, but they turned out to make an apt opening salvo, Joan giving the audience a sort of guided tour via ample but judicious amounts of rubato, as if to say, “Watch this, here comes a really good one!”

Her take of Bach’s English Suite in G Minor, BWV 808 was especially gripping, not only because it’s an interesting piece of music, but because of how she accented the work’s rigorous and challenging ornamentation, awash in grace notes and trills. That made Bach’s tight rhythm all the more of a suspenseful contrast – and the plaintiveness of the second movement all the more affecting. Likewise, the high point of the night was Liszt’s solo piano arrangement from Schubert’s Der Doppelganger, vividly giving voice to a guy who can’t figure out if he’s himself or someone else and is completely lost as a result.

The program lightened from there, but just a little, with an edgy, acerbic run through Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, drawing a straight line back to the Schubert suite that inspired them even if the tonalities were from a completely different idiom (and radical enough in Ravel’s day to get him slammed by the critics). Joan ended the night on a celebratory note with the “champagne bubbles” of a couple of lighthearted if cruelly challenging Liszt pieces, the Valse Impromptu and then his whirling arrangement of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Which in turn made her careful, plaintive Debussy encore all the more astringently gripping. Joan is also an impresario, so the idea of going from Bach to Romantic to Modern and linking it all together is less unlikely (and less ostentatious) for her than it would be for a lot of other pianists. She’s appearing next with the fantastic Grneta Ensemble performing Gerald Cohen’s Sea of Reeds at le Poisson Rouge on Nov 11 at 6 PM; advance tix are $15 and very highly recommended.

October 25, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Symphonic Music Losing Its Charm? Not If the Greenwich Village Orchestra Get Their Way

Audiences don’t typically go to symphony orchestra concerts to be held rapt by meticulous counterpoint, or a perfect balance between ominous strings and animated brass, or to watch the orchestra trace a line straight back from Brahms to Bach. People come out to be swept away by the beauty of the music. We’ve all heard the horror stories about how classical music is in its death throes, with the graying of its fan base, the New York City Opera in bankruptcy, ad nauseum. But by judging by the size, enthusiasm, and sheer diversity of the crowd at the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s Sunday performance, there are some circles where classical music is absolutely thriving.

And it’s safe to assume that these crowds wouldn’t be so engaged and supportive if the GVO didn’t deliver such spirited performances. Obviously, ensembles like this one benefit from a lighter workload, a greater number of rehearsals and fewer of the hassles that bedevil higher-profile orchestras, including but not limited to recycling the same old warhorses night after night while juggling an incessantly erratic barrage of newer works that often clash ridiculously with the older repertoire.

It’s a familiar formula: get the crowd’s attention with something lively, bring it down with something quieter and more substantial and then up again for a big rousing finale. And for the GVO it worked like a charm this time out. With a meticulous attention to dynamic shifts and contrasts, guest conductor Pierre Vallet brought the curtain up with a trio of pieces from Berlioz’s “concert opera” The Damnation of Faust. The first selection, Menuet des Follets, got a jolly, balletesque sway balanced by pillowy strings; the second, Ballet des Sylphes, had a nocturnal if not particularly nymphlike sweep; the third, the Rakoczy March (based on the Hungarian national song) broght the boisterously dancing energy back up.

Vallet then switched gears with a richly uneasy triptych from Ravel’s Sheherezade, a potently intense counterpart to the blitheness of the Berlioz. This particular suite, in contrast to the famous one by Rimsky-Korsakov, doesn’t bother to so much as hint at the Middle East: instead, it’s a moody, atmospheric series of art-songs. Soprano Sasha Cooke blended seamlessly into the washes of strings with a judicious wariness that was far from arioso and all the more effective for it. The opening piece, Asie, wasn’t the least bit Asian, the orchestra and singer hanging back on its swells and dips, letting the brooding, underlying stillness linger: after all, at this point Sheherezade doesn’t yet know that the finicky sultan isn’t going to kill her. The second, La Flute Enchantée, set Simon Dratfield’s bubbly yet cautiously measured flute against similarly measured rises and falls from the ensemble. The third, L’indifferent, achieved the same persistent suspense.

The concert ended joyously with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. What was most enjoyable about Vallet’s interpretation from this particular vantage point was how historically informed it was, putting the music in context. That luxuriantly driving first movement quickly got a chance to reveal itself as a fugue, albeit one all dressed up for a night out! The second was done as proto Southwestern gothic, the orchestra playing up its Spanish tinge for all it was worth before moving on to bright string/brass contrasts.The sheer fun of the third movement, complete with cinematic chase scene midway through, provoked spontaneous applause from the crowd. The symphony and concert concluded on an appropriately impactful, rhythmic coda that was just short of puglistic, with its triumphant, Beethovenesque series of false endings awash in equal amounts lustre and neo-Baroque counterpoint. The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert, on March 30 at 3 PM, has an even more auspicious program, maestro Barbara Yahr leading the group with guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim through Samuel Barber’s Adagio and Violin Concerto plus Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. The concerts take place at the sonically excellent Washington Irving Auditorium, Irving Place at 17th Street; tickets are a $15 suggested donation, with a reception to follow.

February 11, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Awestruck, Terrifying Quartet for the End of Time

It’s a pretty open-and-shut case that Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is the most riveting piece of music ever written in the bathroom. True story: as clarinetist James Campbell recounted to a mostly sold-out house at Subculture Thursday night, the composer came up with most of the angst-ridden eight-part suite in the latrine at a Nazi prison camp in 1940. A guard there had recognized the French composer and offered him the use of a dilapidated piano, which was moved into the warmest room in the camp…you can guess where that was. The rest is history.

Out of necessity, Messiaen wrote the Quartet for clarinet, piano, violin and cello, considering that was the extent of the available talent pool. Because of this unorthodox instrumentation, the work is rarely staged, although over the years it’s developed a rabid cult following who flock to infrequent performances such as this one. What made this particular concert so auspicious was that it was the Gryphon Trio, arguably the world’s foremost currently active ensemble to tackle the piece with any regularity, joining forces with Campbell. The four recorded it at the Banff Centre a couple of years ago and have performed it perhaps more often than any other group in recent memory other than the quartet Tashi, who made a career out of it.

What special insight would this group bring to the piece? Tons. Campbell and the rest of the ensemble painstakingly parsed brief fragments from the work beforehand to demonstrate how Messiaen’s apocalyptic liturgical themes corresponded with his confinement. As Campbell dryly put it, Messiaen had no assurance that he’d ever leave alive, let alone that the war would end with the Nazis on the losing side.

Because most ensembles who play the piece are essentially pickup groups – not to mention that Messiaen’s tempos thoughout it are so slow – those groups tend to rush it. How did this four approach it? Methodically and intimately: what they grasped more than anything was Messiaen’s defiant subtext of rescue and redemption. Pianist James Parker gave the opening movement more of a mechanically marching rhythm (which could be read as a satire of life in Nazi captivity) and also paired off steadily against Annalee Patipatanakoon’s literally unearthly violin on the rapt outro. But in between, they let the music linger, resonant, otherworldly, sometimes macabre, sometimes alluding to the soul-crushing, numbing effects of being behind bars. Roman Borys’ desolately panoramic, emotionally depleted cello solo against Parker’s bitter resonace in the fifth movement was one of many literally transcendent moments, as were Campbell’s series of long crescendos that suddenly burst into birdsong in the second. These are among the most difficult passages in the chamber music repertoire for a clarinetist, but Campbell matched crystalline nuance to a nimble, picturesque, avian attack. And he captured the offhand cruelty of Messiaen being haunted by hearing but not being able to see the birds he loved so much outside his cell window.

Before the Messiaen, the Gryphon Trio treated the audience to a vivid, energetic, dynamically rich performance of the Ravel Piano Trio. Parker explained that the group would not be shying away from its pre-World War I unease (the composer hurried to finish it so that he could go off to volunteer as an ambulance driver). And the ensemble did exactly that, through the distantly flamenco-tinged opening movement, continuing with what the pianist called its “Cirque de Soleil” interlude and then the kinetic finale which saw the return of the flamenco theme flicker out with a guarded optimism.

January 17, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Afghan Youth Orchestra Shifts the Paradigm at Carnegie Hall

With a nod and a grin to Astor Piazzolla and Ravi Shankar, last night the Afghan Youth Orchestra mixed and mingled canonical western classics with material from their native land which, evidenced by the thunderous response from the expat contingent of what appeared to be a sold-out Carnegie Hall crowd, is equally iconic where they come from. The highlight of their US debut was William Harvey’s mashup of Vivaldi with traditional Afghani themes. As he did throughout the concert, Harvey conducted his jaunty, irresistibly iconoclastic arangement, The Four Seasons of Afghanistan, from memory. Any untightness – this was a student performance, after all – was rendered meaningless by the sheer fun the ensemble had with it. Voicing the opening parts of the suite in turn on rubab and tanbur lutes and ghichak fiddle added both surrealism and humor, balanced by alternately rousing and rapt Afghani folk interludes, most of them brief and succinct with the exception of an interminable sitar improvisation midway through. A buzz of excitement was in the air: who was going to get the next introduction or carry the next famous motif? Trumpeter James Herzog wowed the crowd by unleashing a long, sustained pedal note via circular breathing; percussionist Norma Ferreira spun perfect cut-glass ripples from her xylophone, getting some of the juiciest passages. And the sight of young Afghani women onstage playing instruments, their faces unveiled, was even more delightfully radical than the music.

It wasn’t long ago that what they were doing here would have earned them a death sentence back home (and to be truthful, still might in more backwater areas). But to see how far the Kabul-based Afghan National Institute of Music’s showcase group has come in the years since the organization’s revival in 2001, following years of inactivity and Taliban persecution, was heartwarming to the extreme. Pianist Said Elham Fanous teamed up with violinist Mikail Simonyan for an almost nonchalantly fluid, unselfconsciously haunting take of a Chopin nocturne. A litte bit later, the whole ensemble, joined by members of the Scarsdale High School Orchestra, romped through the Ravel Bolero, lutes and native fiddles and sitar and sarod joining in the fun just as with the Vivaldi as Harvey took it higher and higher.

Pioneering third-stream Afghani composer Salim Sarmast’s arrangement of the catchy, pulsing folk song Shakoko Jan, which served as both closer and encore, was one example of how ably this group and its leaders – including Ahmad Sarmast, the composer’s son – are able to merge traditions which differ in virtually all aspects including the scales employed by the instruments. The concert’s pensively anthemic opening theme – another Salim Sarmast chart – quickly established a visceral sense of teamwork and camaraderie among the ensemble. There were also brief interludes of folk themes, including a mini-raga highlighting sitar and sarod. Other instances revealed the interpolation of non-western modes to be a work in progress. As the arabesques built toward the conclusion of the Bolero, this worked like a charm. There were also places where the overtones of the sitars or the microtones of the ghichaks contrasted jarringly against western intervals. Sometimes it seemed to be intentional, a hair-raisingly effective device; elsewhere, it just sounded out of tune. Anyone who’s tried to bridge the gap between two dissimilar musical cultures has to grapple with the often minute distinction between paradigm shift and pitfall. This concert revealed this talented young ensemble to be as well-suited to such a challenge as anyone could possibly want.

February 13, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Geoffrey Burleson: Effortless Virtuosity

To what degree is a player responsible for individual interpretation of a piece of music? When playing a piece of composed music, should the question be whether or not a performer should add any individual interpretation at all beyond the dynamics suggested by the composer? Geoffrey Burleson’s virtuosic performance of French Baroque and Romantic piano works at Trinity Church on Thursday tackled those questions.

His careful, precise, rippling approach of Rameau’s Gavotte avec Six Doubles set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. It’s court music: a stately dance and variations. As Burleson did it, it’s almost a march. That he found that inner core and worked it as hard, yet as effortlessly as he did, was an auspicious beginning. Saint-Saens’ Suite, Op. 90 was next. Burleson played it from memory with the same seamless precision. The question is, do you take chances with this? Or, are there any chances that can be taken with this, short of turning it into salsa, or hip-hop, or punk rock, in the process alienating many of those who know and love this music? Saint-Saens wove a series of variations on familiar themes together into this characteristically bright, warmly melodic partita: a prelude and fugue, a minuet, a gavotte and a gigue, and Burleson made them completely at home with a comfortable, fluid approach. Interestingly, he followed with Saint-Saens’ Allegro Appasionatto, Op 70 which is anything but, until its slow starlit crescendo kicks in.

The revelation in the program was Roy Harris’ Sonata, Op. 1, gospel-inflected fervor followed by fierily rumbling melody, equal parts blues and Romanticism and then a murky, martial fugue that hinted at the macabre but never quite went there. Whatever the dynamics for that piece were, it was a showstopper. He went back to carefully precise, rippling mode for Ravel’s Ondine and Scarbo from the Gaspard de Nuit suite, letting the nocturnal atmospherics ring out simply and unaffectedly without adding any fireworks or mist. That he could do this all from memory, all of it comfortably in his fingers, speaks volumes. His next performance is at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, 319 W 107th St. on February 19 at 5 PM with violinist Janet Packer, playing music of Debussy, Pierne, Kryzsztof Meyer and Vittorio Rieti, a chance to hear an entirely different side of a gifted performer.

January 21, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment