Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alexandra Joan Stuns and Surprises at WMP Concert Hall

There are innumerable cookie-cutter classical pianists out there. They do as their teachers tell them and play it safe. Most of the time, they succeed with what’s put before them, since the composers they play knew how to enable just about anyone with sufficient chops to get the job done, more or less. Then at the other extreme there are players who say, “To hell with dynamics, this is MY interpretation, my way or the highway!” Alexandra Joan is neither, and she doesn’t fit the middle ground either. What she does is distinctive, and stunningly intuitive, as her solo program Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall so vividly reaffirmed. Joan is not only a musician, she’s also a scenemaker. Her ongoing Kaleidoscope Series – this season’s final concert is June 1 – brings together music, and sometimes art, and people, a diverse mix much younger than the typical Lincoln Center crowd. If this is one of classical music’s many possible futures, it’s something to look forward to.

This program’s theme was music by French composers, “Unconventional ways to feel or convey French culture,” Joan explained (she’s Romanian-French; she lives here). Focusing on the auspicious moment where Romanticism was busting out of its cocoon into Modernism, she opened with Faure’s Theme and Variations in C Sharp Minor, Op. 73. It’s a lot harder to play than it sounds, especially as the rather poignant, cantabile theme expands. Joan let its glittering moodiness speak for itself: the theme itself draws a straight line all the way back to Haydn, and she let that history resound, particularly throughout the expansive passage of high/low contrasts about three-quarters of the way in.

Enesco’s Sonata in F Sharp Minor, Op. 24, No. 1 was a showstopper, and an eye-opener. Joan is a leading advocate for the late Romantic composer who shares her heritage, “A visionary,” as she put it. Playing from memory, she took on its tense astringencies and restless unwillingness to resolve as if they were her own. In the repetitive, bruised pulse of the lefthand attack in the opening allegro, the twisted, staccato dance that builds to a galloping intensity in the second, presto movement and the walk through Monet’s back garden in the final andante, she gave it an otherworldly gravitas worthy of Debussy. The crowd was stunned.

The waves of intensity, if not the intellectual rigor, lifted for a minute with a handful of miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, who was in attendance. Still relatively young (he’s in his twenties) and amazingly prolific, Fairouz is a wide-ranging thinker with several considerably powerful, unselfconsciously deep works to his credit – and he can also be very funny. Joan assembled a set that was both amusing and captivating: an attempt to make an etude interesting, in a very successful, Schumann-esque way; a challenge to write a piece containing no dissonances (it was mostly arpeggios); a joke that began way up the scale and ended way down; an austere twelve-tone piece and a brief, vividly autumnal requiem.

She closed the concert with Ravel’s rippling Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, written as a homage to Schubert, explaining that the wit and diversity of these pieces would make a good segue with Fairouz, and she was right. The suite is emotionally diverse, from balminess to poignancy to turbulence, with a comfortable sense of resolution missing from the rest of the program, a rather triumphant way to wrap up the concert. The audience wouldn’t let her go without an encore, so she treated them to a sparkling, bustling excerpt from Ravel’s Ondine.

Also worth a mention is Raphael Haik’s witty, pun-laden photo exhibit held in tandem with the concert. Toddlers in a fierce wrestle portrayed as “speed dating;” an airhead Eiffel Tower; park chairs arranged in several clever configurations, and an enigmatically bemused traveler who just missed his commuter train  delivered quietly provocative questions and plenty of laughs.

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series concludes its 2011 spring season at WMP Concert Hall, 31 W 28th St. on June 1 at 7:30 PM with a diverse program that includes both original works and improvisations, featuring jazz guitar virtuoso Peter Mazza, saxophonist Timothy Hayward and bassist Thomson Kneeland.

Advertisements

May 2, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sqwonk and Redshift Light Up Saturday Night

It’s hard to imagine a more fun way to spend a Saturday night than watching Sqwonk and then Redshift in the West Village. Their doublebill at the Greenwich House Music School’s absolutely charming, woodpaneled, Jacksonian era upstairs auditorium was full of humor, both in the musicianship and the compositions, as much a part of the show as the ensembles’ dazzling technique and out-of-the-box creativity. Sqwonk, the aptly named bass clarinet duo project of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle, played first. The bass clarinet is delightful for more reasons than you can count, and for anyone who plays it, it must not be easy to resist going completely over the top (or under the hedge) with the thing. By that logic, having two of them the same stage must be doubly difficult. Russell and Anderle never went straight for the funny bone, although they frequently hinted that they might.

Marc Mellits’ Black, the title track of their most recent album, sounded like a double bassline from a late 70s Kraftwerk album. With its split-second choreography, motorik rhythm and serpentine eighth-note precision, it was great deadpan fun, and literally danceable: who needs synthesizers or drum machines when you have bass clarinets? Cornelius Boots’ Sojourn of the Face contrasted, slow, spacious and thoughtfully paced, with klezmer echoes in its chromatically-tinted march followed by a sad waltz. Strict9, by Aaron Novik, brought back a jaunty vibe, Russell’s blippy staccato pairing off against Anderle’s fluid legato. They two reversed roles throughout the tricky interplay of James Holt’s Action Items and then got the chance to take the staccato/legato dialectic to its logical extreme with Ryan Brown’s perfectly logical yet deviously amusing Knee Gas (On), a series of permutations that switched back and forth between the two voices, working circular motifs, parallelisms and register shifts intermingled with peevish, insistent accents that would occasionally move in from mere enchroachment to completely hog centerstage – and must have been as fun to assemble as they were for Sqwonk to play.

Redshift – Andie Springer on violin, Rose Bellini on cello, Kate Campbell on piano and Anderle on clarinet – had the good sense to maintain the goodnatured atmosphere that Sqwonk had mined, at least for awhile, with Mellits’ Fruity Pebbles. As the title implies, the suite of nine miniatures began whimsically but shifted to dramatic for a distantly tangoish dedication to Leonard Bernstein, a playfully minimalist one for Michael Gordon and then ended with an almost shocking, cinematically plaintive sweep, an elegy that pulsed along on Campbell’s poignant, incisive sustained chords. She would get the choicest, most intense parts to work with throughout the evening, and made the absolute most of them, most vividly on David Heuser’s Catching Updrafts. Meant to evoke the patterns of birds gliding on the wind and then suddenly changing course, it alternated apprehensive atmospherics with bustling chase scenes along with the occasional, sudden scream and frequent detours that were downright macabre – “Halloweeny,” as one of our crew described them, a gleeful grin lighting up the corners of her face. Anderle got to play good cop to Campbell’s prowling slasher, Springer and Bellini collaborating so seamlessly that for anyone not watching, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what. All together, it was nothing short of riveting. Both groups joined forces to wrap up the evening with Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion and its 1960s avant stoner vibe – it’s one of those pieces where the individual musicians decide how long they want to run a series of simple, catchy motifs, and decide where to begin and end as well. For whatever reason, the group members eventually converged, gravitating toward a center where others might have found a maze.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment