Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gil Morgenstern Recreates the Ambience of a Fin-de-Siecle Paris Salon

For the past few years, violinist Gil Morgenstern‘s Reflections Series has imaginatively and fascinatingly blended both classical and new music with drama, literature and history. Thursday night at WMP Concert Hall, he offered a revealing look back at the musical life of the long-running Paris salon run by Winnaretta Singer, an heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune who commissioned works by many major composers including Stravinsky, Debussy and Satie. The program, featuring Morgenstern along with pianist Hiromi Fukuda and soprano Deborah Selig, was especially interesting in that it included both major and less important works. Because that’s what the programs were like at these salons – as Morgenstern explained, composers would use the events as a focus group or open mic of sorts to work up new material, gauge the audience’s reaction and explore collaborations with other musicians. These gatherings also served as an important way of connecting ambitious (or impoverished) composers with patrons of the arts. These days, you send off a grant proposal and cross your fingers: in 1896, you schmoozed someone like Singer. Morgenstern related an anecdote of how Maurice Ravel brazenly dedicated a piece to her before he’d even met her, a faux pas if there ever was one – and yet, as the work began to make waves and Singer’s following began congratulating her for having such cutting-edge taste, she had no choice but to play along as if she’d actually commissioned it.

Ravel’s Tzigane was the last piece on the bill, and one of the highlights. It’s a showstopper, Morgenstern gritting his teeth and blazing through its strenuously challenging gypsy-inflected passages with equal parts passion and skill, firing off lightning pizzicato passages, plucking his strings mandolin-style or launching a series of airy overtones requiring a touch completely the opposite of the pyrotechnics of the rest of the piece. The most gypsyish passages belonged to Fukuda, who dug into them with similar verve when she joined in about halfway through.

Debussy’s Sonata No. 3 in G Minor, the last work the composer finished prior to his death in 1918, was only slightly less intense and equally gripping. Lively but ridden with unease, it undoubtedly reflects a wartime ambience. Morgenstern and Fukuda brought a warily conversational feel to the fugal pizzicato of its “fantasque et leger” middle section and wound out with a brisk ominousness through the distantly gypsy-tinged concluding dance. Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole, a series of 1925 miniatures written for a puppet show, were delightfully evocative, shifting from the Spanish ragtime, to hypnotic counterpoint, to a blustery, brief fight song, to a genial, laid-back “good guy theme” of sorts. And Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante and Divertimento was a fascinating look at the composer in full-blown Romantic mode, or at least as immersed in the tropes of the era – a dramatic overture, a playful gypsy dance and a rather blissed-out coda – as he ever was.

And as much of as Singer’s salon, and others like it, were fertile incubators for talent, they were also the pops concerts of their day. Most of the vocal numbers on the bill were a reminder that top 40 has been with us long before there was such a thing as the top 40. A series of Ravel settings of French poetry were early examples of the power ballad, foreshadowing Freddie Mercury; several similar works by Faure featured some demanding, insistent staccato passages that Fukuda managed to glide through with impressive ease – or what looked like it, anyway. This was a tough gig for Selig – these were hard songs to sell. Her approach was to deliver them with a full, round intonation, more in the style of a chorister, a clever and very effective strategy: words took a backseat to color and dynamics. A trio of Schubert songs at the end of the program became a canvas for her to vividly draw a playful butterfly – “keep your hands off my flower!” – a lovelorn riverside tableau, and then ecstasy, or at least a version thereof.

The next Reflections Series concert, here at 7:30 PM on February 17 of next year, explores the effect of location, dislocation and diaspora on composers and their works, featuring pianist Jonathan Feldman, music of Chopin, Schulhoff and Smetana, and a not-yet-announced literary component.

November 20, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Gil Morgenstern’s Reflections Series at the Rubin Museum of Art, NYC 1/24/10

Violinist Gil Morgenstern‘s imaginative multimedia Reflections Series is one of the most original and interesting cultural events bubbling around the surface of the radar here in New York. Beginning at the Rubin Museum of Art a couple of years ago – with this season’s series continuing there through April 25 – Morgenstern’s vision was to create programs that semi-thematically blend chamber music with theatre, visual art and/or literature. Since the Rubin Museum is currently hosting the first-ever public exhibit of Carl Jung’s legendary Red Book, it only made sense to put together a bill that linked to Jung, even if tangentially through the work of Sylvia Plath – who as it turns out was a rather enthusiastic advocate of the archetypal archetypist.

As memorably as Morgenstern and pianist Donald Berman played their dream-themed mix of Schubert, Sibelius, Cage and Enesco, it was Elizabeth Marvel who held the crowd rapt with a powerful, vivid and strikingly nuanced evocation of Plath. Reading from a diverse selection of prose, sometimes solo, sometimes over the music, Marvel’s portrayal gave the doomed writer an energy that bordered on manic-depressive, a brightness and unselfconscious joie de vivre that made her darker moments and the foreshadowing thereof all the more ominous. From rapt, early morning connect-the-dots dream interpretation, to divaesque yet genuine alienation brought on by the nightmare to end all nightmares, to a delectably deadpan reading of a Plath story about a woman jousting with her husband’s overactive imagination and its brutally ironic consequences, Marvel was…well, you guess the word. She’s no stranger to theatre devotees – she’s won Obies and done everything from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to tv, so it’s hardly a stretch to imagine how easily she could springboard this role into a one-woman show. It would bring down the house.

The musicians were no less inspired in what was essentially a dusk-to-dawn sequence. Both Morgenstern and Berman are best known as advocates of new music, yet they sank their teeth just as avidly into the pre-Romantic material on the bill. Morgenstern’s incisive staccato right before the coda of Schubert’s Fantasie Suite beautifully reprised the understated portent of Berman’s chords opening the first movement, and his subtle vibrato added glimmer and warmth to the composer’s nocturne Night and Dreams. Georges Enesco’s Impressions of Childhood got an appropriately varied treatment: an uneasy country dance; a nervous lullaby; the brooding beauty of Wind in the Chimney, and a couple of pastoral miniatures. The most nightmarish moment was John Cage’s Dream, Berman’s piano casually colliding with Morgenstern’s effectively acidic textures.

Fortuitously, the Reflections Series has expanded across the United States and beyond, with performances from Florida to Italy – the next one here is April 25 featuring music of Poulenc with readings from Dante’s Inferno. And the Red Book continues to be on display at the Rubin Museum through February 15. The other current exhibits are also worth a look, notably the Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan religious and mystical paintings, mandalas, sculptures and miniatures. Free day is Friday starting at 7 PM.

January 25, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment