Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Auspicious Glimpse of This Year’s Greenwich Village Orchestra Season

The buzz at the reception after Sunday’s Greenwich Village Orchestra concert was electric. On one hand, that’s to be expected after a show full of thrills like this one was. But people were still raving about the season’s first program, one veteran concertgoer venturing so far as to call that particular performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 the best she’d ever seen. “I keep telling people, you can spend a hundred and fifty bucks for the New York Philharmonic…or you can drop twenty bucks here, and it’s every bit as good,” said another. Much as Alan Gilbert has done very good things with the Philharmonic, one thing he hasn’t – to be fair, this probably isn’t part of his job description – is to lower ticket prices. The cheapest advertised seats to a recent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances – a suite that’s a lot of fun but hardly the composer’s best work – were forty bucks. Suggested donation to the GVO is $20, $10 for seniors and kids. And afterward you can schmooze, grab a glass of wine or a snack if you’re so inclined and bask in the magic of what  you’ve just witnessed.

And the GVO draws a crowd that’s more committed and critical than most, an artsy bunch, many of them musicians themselves. They’re considerably younger, more diverse and more representative of the population of this city as a whole, compared to your typical blue-haired Lincoln Center audience. This time out there were plenty of families and kids along with the expected slate of retired folks and just average everyday people. If you’d put everyone who’d been at this performance n the same train, you’d never guess that they were all coming from the same concert. What did they see that made them so excited?

Music Director Barbara Yahr led them through Verdi’s Forza del Destino Overture to get things started. It’s not heavy or particularly profound music, but it is a way to get a quick read on how ready an orchestra and conductor are to shift on a dime, from lush and sweeping, to lively and balletesque, or to wistful and pensive, and this performance quickly reminded how friendly and intuitive the long relationship between this orchestra and conductor continues to be.

Baritone Jesse Blumberg joined them for Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer, which posed different challenges, again an easy barometer for how well an ensemble can rise to meet them. The song cycle is typical Mahler in that it uses the entirety of the sonic spectrum, meaning that everyone in the group has to be on their toes, and they were. Especially Blumberg. There’s a point in this lovelorn suite where the singer really has to reach back and belt over the orchestra as the angst rises, and Yahr made it clear that she wasn’t going to sacrifice any passion in the dynamics of her interpretation, but Blumberg made clear that his destino was to go to the well for all the extra forza required. As a bonus – something that often happens at GVO concerts – the more somber, subtle Mahler song that followed, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), was a surprise, not originally on the program.

The piece de resistance was the best performance of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration that this blog has ever witnessed – and there have been several. Some will disagree with this opinion, but it’s the composer’s greatest work. In the hands of this orchestra, it became the most dynamic and explosive tone poem ever written, complete with a member of the violin section providing an informative reading of the poetry that inspired it. It was here that the thematic sense of this concert – the GVO loves theme shows – became most vivid, an uneasy and bittersweet late-life reflection heavy on dubious choices and missed opportunities. The confidently pulsing orchestration early on was steady and suspenseful, voicing the waves of regret as the narrative went on, all the more potently affecting in contrast to the silky calm as the strings took the piece out with a pillowy touch. The Greenwich Village Orchestra has been a downtown fixture for decades and has a devoted following, but this season looks like the best in years. The orchestra’s next performance, December 13 at 3 PM, is their annual interactive family concert, featuring the children of the Actionplay chorus along with works by Bizet, Beethoven and Richard Strauss.

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November 26, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Stares Down a Hurricane and Wins

Sometimes facing a threat brings out the best in musicians. Knowing that they’d have to wrap up their concert before the subway shut down at seven in anticipation of the “Frankenstorm,” did the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony hurry their show yesterday on the Upper East Side? No: whatever tension they must have been feeling, they transcended. Which is what music is all about, right?

For those who’d grown up with the pieces on the program, it was like reconnecting with old friends after a long time away and noticing that they’ve obviously been working out and are in great shape. Between those two – Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto – was a merry prankster who for all his clowning around turned out to be as deep if not deeper than the old friends. That was Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel.

Anyone who might have been introduced to the Schubert wafting from the radio over the kitchen table on, say, WQXR at dinner time was treated to a welcome rediscovery. And pity those hearing this for the first time here – they’re spoiled for life. Both movements were cinematic and bursting with energy: what a career Schubert would have had in the movies if he’d been born a century later! Conductor David Bernard drew a genuinely suspenseful anticipation from the low strings in the introduction, and likewise from the brass as the second movement made its way out of a lustrous gleam.

But the revelation on the bill was the Strauss. The composer was quoted as saying that he wanted to offend audiences with this, and it’s easy to see how that could have happened: in its own precise, Teutonic way, it’s a musical satire, a raised middle finger at some of the very same conventions that Strauss would cave to later in Ein Heldenleben and elsewhere. But that’s another story: this was the young Strauss being as much of a proto punk rocker as he could have been under the circumstances. The orchestra drew obvious relish from all the mockery: the snidely swaggering elisions in mock-heroic passages and the spritely little cadenzas that always draw laughs whenever this is staged. And they made it clear that this was an angry little sprite, all the way through the bombastic march leading up to the scene where he’s on the gallows and even that can’t kill him. In its own sarcastic way, it was as much about joie de vivre as the opening piece.

After that, it was almost impossible to take the heroic first movement of the Beethoven seriously, especially because the orchestra shifted gears and embraced it with a remarkable gravitas. But pianist Terry Eder had something of the sprite in her, which came to the forefront as the second movement opened, slipping into an elegant glide with just a tinge of rubato matched expertly by the conductor and the rest of the ensemble. Bernard is not the kind of maestro who plays his cards close to the vest, and at this point he had a triumphant “yessssss” grin on his face as he did throughout much of the show. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is on February 9 of next year at 8 PM, repeating on February 10 at 3 PM with an all-Beethoven program bookending the Concerto for Piano No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 with Symphonies No. 1 and No. 7.

October 29, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Choice Performance by the American String Quartet Uptown

The classical music world is just like the rock world, in the sense that the most interesting shows usually take place outside the big concert halls. Case in point: the American String Quartet at Manhattan School of Music uptown Sunday afternoon. The Borden Auditorium there has excellent acoustics and accommodated a pretty full house who had come out to see a decidedly non-stodgy program for an attractive $15. What gives? The American String Quartet are in residency there. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that their name wasn’t taken until the original members made it theirs in 1974 while still students at Juilliard; on the other, there was still plenty of snobbery in the old European guard at that point. The Quartet’s 37 year history since then speaks for itself.

This time out they played a slightly offbeat, absolutely fascinating program of Richard Strauss and Beethoven, opening with the sextet from Capriccio, the 1941 Strauss opera, augmented by Karen Dreyfus on viola and Alan Stepansky on cello. The concept is late Romantic orchestration of a baroque-style theme, sort of Strauss’ equivalent of Rachmaninoff beefing up late Renaissance Italian chamber works. It’s probably more interesting from an architectural point of view than it is to hear, although for that reason it’s probably a lot of fun to play. And that’s what the Quartet had with it, but with plenty of old world vibrato and careful attention to the endless exchanges of voices. Violist Daniel Avsholomov seized the chance to fire off some deliciously shivery filigrees early on; Stepansky got to burn plenty of high-tension, low-register amperage as the piece went on.

The other Strauss work was an eye-opening septet arrangement of the Metamorphosen. With Metropolitan Opera bassist Timothy Cobb joining the ensemble, would this alternate version, posthumously discovered in 1990 in a sketch by the composer, be starker and darker than the fullscale tone poem for string orchestra? Not really. The overall balance and the alternate voices of the seven strings delivered a pillowy lushness that sounded like a considerably larger group, credit being due to both the composer and the ensemble. The piece, written as bombs were falling on Germany, is a requiem of sorts for a cosmopolitan Europe (or at least the romantic notion of a cosmopolitan Europe) gone forever. What metamorphosis there is develops very subtly, pulsing with a hypnotic swirl, finally quoting Beethoven as it reaches the brief dirge that ends it. It was a feast of minute timbral contrasts: violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney worked tones with such depth and clarity that it seemed as if there were a couple of oboes in the group.

Is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130 the greatest of all works for string quartet? Some would say that: it’s also cruelly difficult to play. But this group first completed their Beethoven cycle decades ago, and they have it in their fingers, going deep into it for an especially revealing, emotionally charged performance. They let the rather tongue-in-cheek initial movements speak for themselves with a matter-of-factness which gave away absolutely no inkling of the fireworks in store. The little German dance that’s been used as a backdrop for a million PSA’s on NPR was delivered with an unexpected tinge of Teutonic gravitas. By contrast, the famous Cavatina was anything but weepy: its hushed somber restraint packed a quietly mighty wallop. And then they dug into the original conclusion, the Grosse Fugue, with its maze of interwoven polyphony and jarring tonalities that sound almost as radical now as they did in 1822. Nobody got offstage without breaking a sweat after this one, especially cellist Wolfram Koessel, leaping across the fingerboard with equal parts fire and aplomb. It falls to the violist to blaze through the highest point of the concluding crescendo: Avshalomov didn’t allude to it visually, but there’s no doubt that he was grinning inside.

These Manhattan School of Music concerts are a bargain (they have a whole slate of jazz as well as chamber and orchestral music), and they’re easy to get to (straight uptown on the 1 train to 125th Street; exit the back of the train if you’re coming from downtown and walk three blocks back to 122nd). Don’t rule out another similarly exciting program from the American String Quartet there this season.

September 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Herve Duteil Pulls Out All the Stops Uptown

On one hand, musicians are always highfiving each other in public. But when an artist as imaginative and original as Kent Tritle introduces a fellow organist as having those exact same qualities, that endorsement carries a lot of weight. Yesterday evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, concert organist Herve Duteil stepped into the console and delivered a program that was as impressively eclectic as it was thrilling. He began with his own arrangement of the opening theme from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Other organists should track this down: it’s every bit the showstopper it should be. Duteil built a suspenseful wash of murky pedal tones before hitting the big explosive riff, which reverberated throughout the cathedral from the dramatic trumpet stops located in the ceiling. And just for fun, he played the timpani’s bump-BUMP, bump-BUMP on the pedals.

That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to the quality of the musicianship and diversity of the program that Duteil brought along. He gave Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations an aptly saturnine restraint, after which soprano saxophonist Daniel Glaude joined him for a vivid rendition of contemporary composer Paul Halley’s The Lake. As it rose from plaintive, desolate atmospherics to more lively, wavelike imagery, the two paced it expertly to maximize the cathedral’s cavernous echo sonics: it was as if there was a whole saxophone section playing a rondo along with the organ. On Gabriel’s Oboe, by Morricone, oboeist David Diggs joined Duteil for a rapt, hymnlike version of this well-known (and decidedly un-Morricone-esque) theme from the soundtrack to the film The Mission.

Duteil played the rest of the program by himself. Again, he paced sections of the Bach transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) to match the echo in the space, notably the fugue and then the Largo e Spiccato movement, which became more of a matter-of-fact, guardedly optimistic march. He followed with the rapidfire echoes of the Joseph Jongen Toccata, whose barrage of tradeoffs between hands Duteil said in the program notes would acoustically generate a “pat on the back.” This was an understatement: it’s not every day when a rousing, cascading finale like this one can be so reassuring at the same time. Before its concluding chord had echoed into silence, the large crowd – Duteil’s passionate wizardry has earned him a considerable Manhattan following – exploded in applause and wanted more, but it was time for the church to revert to being a house of worship once again. By the way, fans of organ music should know that Tritle himself will be playing one of these Sunday evening recitals on March 18 at 5:15 PM.

March 5, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tension and Transcendence from the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony are not unknown – they’re touring China late this year – and their Manhattan concert yesterday appeared to be sold out. If you’re a fan of classical music and they’re not on your radar, they should be: they are a world-class orchestra, and not as small as “chamber symphony” necessarily implies. Sunday evening they offered fresh, inspired takes on a couple of old favorites – Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61 – as well as Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations.

They opened with the Britten, an orchestral setting of Rimbaud poems on diverse themes, sung here by soprano Tamra Paselk. The program notes suggested that there may be a gay subtext to Britten’s interpretation, which may or may not be true – when he wrote them, the composer might simply have been glad to be hanging out in America, far from the stodginess of British high society. Throughout the nine-part suite for strings and voice, there was a recurrent sense of unease in the orchestra, counterbalanced, sometimes to triumphantly joyous extreme, by Paselk’s interpretation. With the occasional, unexpected sudden leap and chromatics that play against the orchestra, these were not easy songs to sing, but she owned them, moving from clenched-teeth intensity to redemptive joy to end on an unexpectedly rapt note.

This orchestra’s version of Death and Transfiguration wasn’t much about death, but it was all about transfiguration – still, intense apprehension giving way to hope. Conductor David Bernard didn’t leave an inch of headroom, taking it to the rafters with a bang at the first opportunity, which worked magically because the dynamics to come later would bring it all the way back down, a monumental contrast. It’s amazing how modern this piece is. A lot of orchestras have done it fairly safely as a tone poem of sorts; this version, for all its blazing crescendos, was an impressive reminder of how little the melody actually moves around, how much of it foreshadows “horizontal music,” and how dynamics can transform it from decently suspenseful to absolutely electric. Nietzsche, who wasn’t far behind (Strauss would write Zarathustra only a couple years later), would have approved.

Metropolitan Opera orchestra concertmaster David Chan played the violin concerto from memory with an intuitive sense of touch, varying from crystalline to split-second doublestops and more than one subtly modulated vibrato approach. There’s a series of three big insistent chords that leap unexpectedly out of one of the early solo cadenzas, and Bernard brought the orchestra in to land with an understatedly nimble assurance. Although the work dates from 1806, Beethoven is already hinting amidst the comfortably nocturnal Haydn-influenced highclass alehouse consonance – this was from a time before cocktails were invented – at the kind of melodic and architectural paradigm shifts of his last sonatas and string quartets. Through subtle and then more dramatic melodic variations, with and without the ensemble, Chan methodically assembled a launching pad for the final victory round. After their Chinese tour, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony wrap up their season with Beethoven’s Symphony #4 and Mahler’s Symphony #1 on May 5 and 6.

October 24, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 6/8/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #601:

Richard Strauss – Death and Transfiguration – The Berlin Philharmonic/Ivan Fischer

Strauss is best known these days as a composer of opera and lieder: his trademark is lavish arrangements, most of them possibly devised to conceal the fact that the music is not all that deep. This is his career highlight, a massive multi-part tone poem inspired by the Nietszche work. It has the potential to be stormy: it usually isn’t. What makes it work is the tension: it’s meant to portray a relatively incessant struggle for redemption. We picked this 2009 release because it works the dynamics more boisterously than other recordings: it’s not supposed to be all ambience and suspense, and when they reach a peak here, it packs a wallop. Here’s a random torrent.

June 9, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Simone Dinnerstein with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, NYC 7/8/09

The pretext of the evening’s performance was “From the Danube to the Rhine,” the two feeder rivers of northern Europe and some of the composers associated with them. Simone Dinnerstein’s warmly lyrical recording of the Goldberg Variations topped the classical charts a couple of years ago: this time out, she matched rapidfire precision to a fluidly expressive style , joining the orchestra on Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto in A. Essentially, it works two themes, a nocturne and a stomp, variations on some glimmering upper-register work and a fiery cascade down to the lowest registers, respectively. Dinnerstein pulled out every piece of shimmering moonlight in the former and a gatling-gun staccato on the latter. Musicologists disagree on how many movements the piece has: the conventional wisdom is six; thematically, there seem to be half as many, the highlight being a deliciously anthemic, crushingly chordal Rachmaninovian run up the scale in what would be the second. She didn’t make it look easy, because it wasn’t, and her unaffected intensity earned her a well-deserved standing ovation. Not bad for her second-ever Lincoln Center performance.

After the intermission, conductor Bramwell Tovey led the orchestra on an inspired romp through Brahms’ Hungarian Dances #4 and #10. In 19th century western Europe, popular composers’ gypsy themes tended to be of the ersatz variety, akin to most of what fueled the 1950s’ mambo craze here. With this suite, Brahms sought authenticity, and the first of the pair show off some stark chromatics and trills, set aloft on the wings of the strings. The second could have been a pretty folk dance from pretty much anywhere.

The orchestra had warmed up with Johan Strauss’ Overture to Der Zigeunerbaron, a perfect illustration of faux-gypsy if there ever was. To the credit of conductor and orchestra, they did their best to endow it with the dynamics and passion of a work far more substantial, but even that failed to elevate it above the level of schlock. In a perhaps intentional stroke of irony, they closed the program with Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite. The opera itself is completely buffo, a drag drama that plays off all kinds of buffoonery created by multiple disguises. Yet the incidental music, first assembled as an integral suite decades after the opera’s 1909 debut, is impressive, from the strikingly modernist atonalities that begin the soaring, passionate overture, to several spot-on parodies of Johan Strauss waltzes that recur throughout. There’s also a recurring “uh-oh” motif, usually before Baron Ochs, the opera’s lumbering bull in a china shop, gets to wring some cheap laughs from his lines. As much as everyone onstage was obviously having a good time with the silliness, it was the lush, cinematic string-driven exaltation that carried everyone away. It was a worthy sendoff for retiring bassist Shelly Saxon, bowing out after 38 distinguished years with the ensemble.

The NY Philharmonic has some tantalizing outdoor concerts coming up in the next week before departing for Vail for a series of shows (see our live music calendar for dates and programs); Simone Dinnerstein plays selections from her highly anticipated cd of Beethoven works for piano and cello with cellist Zuill Bailey at le Poisson Rouge on August 27.

July 9, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adrenaline for the Soul: The Greenwich Village Orchestra in Concert 11/18/07

It’s hard to believe that this world-class orchestra has somehow managed to fly so far below the radar. For a $15 donation, classical music fans can see reliably good, frequently exhilarating performances of both popular and obscure works, discover new composers and watch some of the best up-and-coming talent at the top of their game. Shows as good as this afternoon’s spiritually-themed program by the Greenwich Village Orchestra usually cost a hundred dollars or more at the Midtown concert halls. Plainly and simply, there is no better music value in New York.

While the afternoon’s theme (this orchestra LOVES theme programs) was spirituality, it would have been better put as a celebration of everything that makes life worth living, a frequently riveting, exuberant, passionate performance. They began slowly with two orchestral arrangements of Bruckner motets, the first a pretty generic, post-baroque melody, the second slightly more interesting but ultimately nothing more than a standard pre-Romantic Northern European piece, nothing Mendelssohn didn’t do a hundred times better.

But they brought out every bit of drama in the next piece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture. It’s a celebration of the Resurrection, opening all quiet and suspenseful but building quickly to a fiery, galloping, gypsyish folk dance in three movements. On the podium, Barbara Yahr spurred the orchestra to play with wild abandon, and they delivered.

In keeping with the spiritual theme, three representatives of New York spiritual communities each delivered a short introduction to a particular piece of music. Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah impressed the most by quoting influential civil rights crusader Rabbi Abraham Heschel on how prayer is by definition transgressive, that one’s spiritual life necessarily works against the status quo in seeking higher ground. It was an apt way to kick off Max Bruch’s heart-tugging Kol Nidrei, based on the prayer invoked the night before the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Guest soloist Eric Jacobsen played his part on the cello from memory with an intensity that made it look as if he was about to break strings. He’s a rising star, and for good reason, with a seemingly effortless vibrato and a sense of dynamics that doesn’t stop at fortissimo. His blazing interpretation burned away any trace of sentimentality that could have insinuated itself into this highly emotional composition.

The following work was a world premiere, young Hong Kong-born Angel Lam’s Her Thousand Year Dance. If this piece is typical of her other material, it instantly establishes her as a first-rate composer, blending the windswept, pastoral beauty of traditional Chinese classical music with western tonalities. Beginning abruptly with a few bursts from special guest Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi (an oversize Japanese wood flute), it rose to an ethereal, atmospheric yet rhythmically difficult altitude and pretty much stayed there for the duration, aside from a couple of breaks with light percussion. That the afternoon’s final piece, Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, would be anticlimactic speaks volumes about what preceded it. Yahr led the ensemble through a highly idiosyncratic yet extremely successful reading. Although there are no breaks written in the music, Strauss wrote this ultimately triumphant chronicle of struggle and redemption in four distinct parts. While the piece is frequently played with an emphasis on overall ambience, Yahr spelled out the dynamics in capital letters, putting teeth in both the ebbs and swells, an unexpected thrill ride to close what had to be the most exciting classical bill anywhere in town this week.

The media typically holds classical musicians to a higher standard than rock or jazz players (which is grossly unfair: everybody, even the greatest virtuosos, make mistakes). If there were any technical flaws in this afternoon’s performance, it would be the sluggishness of the horns early on in the Bruckner and some general weirdness (tuning issues?) in the violins early during the Lam. Otherwise, Yahr steered this careening unit directly into high winds and stormy seas and then brought everyone back into port unscathed, the crowd (on the docks, if you want to bring the metaphor full circle) all on their feet, roaring their approval. The GVO’s next concert is December 16, billed as a kid-friendly show featuring Saint-Saens’ witty, interesting, multi-part Carnival of the Animals (which gets pegged as a children’s piece even though it’s quite sophisticated), along with pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn.The GVO’s best deal is their series subscription, especially considering what lies in store: in addition to the December 16, the remainder of the season features works by Shostakovich, Bach, Brahms and others. The concerts continue to be held at Washington Irving High School auditorium as they’ve been for several years, considering the room’s excellent sonics (it seems to date from the 19th century and at one time even housed a concert organ, whose pipes still stand to the left and right of the stage).

November 19, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment