Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Soar Through an Ambitious, State-of-the-Art Program at National Sawdust

To paraphrase Rebecca Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to hold a lot of beautiful voices. Last night at the newly opened and sonically exquisite National Sawdust in Williamsburg, approximately fifty of those voices performed an exhilarating, richly dynamic program of new works for choir and chamber ensemble by four of this era’s outstanding women composers. The singers’ average age, from the looks of it, was around sixteen. In case you haven’t seen them, director Dianne Berkun-Menaker has shaped the Brooklyn Youth Chorus into a magnificent, meticulous powerhouse of an ensemble. There are young women in this group who will be able to sing for a living, especially the two high sopranos on the far end, stage right. To the young blonde lady in the black suit and her bandmate in the peroxide pageboy and glasses: stick with this and you’ll never need a dayjob.

As if we need further proof that music doesn’t have to be dumbed down to appeal to younger musicians, this concert was it. These works were sophisticated, employed all kinds of intricate counterpoint, required considerable amounts of what an instrumentalist would call extended technique, and the group rose to meet those demands efficiently and expertly: they schooled the old people in the house. Caroline Shaw was represented by two works, Its Motion Keeps and Anni’s Constant. The former was pinpoint-precise, full of quirky staccato, dizzying polyrhythns, a delightfully dancing groove and the occasional playful, hair-raising accent leaping in unexpectedly. The latter took a comfortable, homespun folk tune and made an ecstatically swinging, sometimes stomping celebration out of it – with some hilariously goofy vocalisms midway through.

For Sarah Small‘s Around the Forest, A Youth Roams – an electrifying, bracing mashuup of Bulgarian folk and postminimalism – the paradigm-shifting composer/arranger and Balkan music specialist was joined by both the choir and her a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel with Shelley Thomas and Willa Roberts. The trio handled its challenging whoops, microtones and exotic ornamentation while the chorus grounded the piece with equal parts lushness and austerity, bolstered by Rima Fand’s darkly ambered string score.

National Sawdust impresario Paola Prestini joined the chorus to narrate the choral segments of her forthcoming multimedia work Aging Magician, a soberingly surreal collaboration with director Julian Crouch, with lyrics by Rinde Eckert. The pieces worked well as a stand-alone suite, sharing a trickily rhythmic and dynamically-charged playfulness with the Shaw works, but were both more pensive and more baroque-tinged in places. While it wouldn’t be fair to spoil Prestini’s occasional musical jokes, they were pretty hilarious. Throughout the program, the chorus were accompanied seamlessly by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Ben Russell and Caleb Burhans on violins, Hannah Levinson on viola and Clarice Jensen on cello, augmented by Dave Cossin on percussion, David Dunaway on bass and Geremy Schulick on electric guitar plus a pianist uncredited in the program.

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ next performance will also be alongside Black Sea Hotel to celebrate the opening of the new space at St. Ann’s Warehouse on October 17 featuring works by Shaw, Aleksandra Vrebalov and others plus world premieres from Mary Kouyoumdjian and Sahba Aminikia. There are two performances, one for free beginning at noon and another at 8 PM for $25.

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October 7, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Federico Garcia Lorca Inspires a Twisted, Funny, Cruelly Ironic Puppet Show

Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are the Spanish equivalent of Punch and Judy. In their new show Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, Luminescent Orchestrii multi-instrumentalist Rima Fand and puppetry designer-director Erin Orr intersperse Federico Garcia Lorca poems set to haunting, flamenco-tinged original music within a sly, innuendo-fueled program that’s part dirty puppet show, part shadowplay and part farce. Lorca several times hinted that Don Cristobal may be deeper than a mere one-dimensional buffoon, a character study that this piece develops by leaps and bounds with plenty of laughs but also an undercurrent of existential angst that eventually takes centerstage.

The fourth wall comes down quickly and for all intents and purposes stays down the rest of the way. Many of the jokes and sight gags are theatre-insider humor, but they’re not so abstruse as to go over the heads of the audience. The plotline is pretty straightforward: having been tantalized by the prospect of life beyond the stage, Don Cristobal suddenly finds his predictable role mauling the other puppets much less interesting than usual. To complicate matters, he’s become hopelesssly infatuated with Rosita. Both characters are portayed with small stage puppets, Don Cristobal also via a creepy, toddler-size Japanese bunraku-style puppet manipulated expertly and voiced by Brendan McMahon. Claudia Acosta plays Rosita with an unwavering sweetness and blind taskfulness, literally unable to think outside the box. John Clancy is a smash hit as Don Cristobal’s smarmy stage director, with a malicious relish completely lacking either boundaries or scruples. David Fand is his meek, downtrodden antagonist, the Poet, who gets a few plaintive, gentle folk songs; Alice Tolan-Mee sings a handful of numbers for Rosita in Lorca’s original Spanish with a lively Broadwayesque flair.

As Don Cristobal’s existential crisis deepens, his dedication to his job as a puppet begins to waver; he slips out of character and his health declines to the point where his prospects of surviving a repair appointment with the Puppet Maker (a deadpan Quince Marcum, who also doubles on horn and percussion) don’t look good. Racy shadowplay interludes alternate with vaudevillian tomfoolery, a bizarre witches’ dance of sorts and endless messing with the audience. At yesterday’s matinee, there was a possible technical malfunction early on. If this was scripted, it fooled everyone; if it was a genuine snafu, the players improvved their way through it seamlessly.

And the music was the high point of the show. Multi-instrumentalist Fand (who primarily played keyboards and mandolin) was joined by guitarists Kyle Senna and Avi Fox-Rosen for a twisted overture, a plaintive, dramatic bolero, skeletal folk-rock interludes, a couple of absolutely chilling, macabre, carnivalesque Lynchian piano themes and an artsy mandolin-fueled goth-rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Black Fortresss of Opium catalog. Fand’s music matched the mood of Lorca’s lyrics, whether voicing longing (Midnight Hours), lust (Rosita’s Song) or suspenseful narration (El Rio Guadalquivir). A score this memorable deserves a DVD, or at least an original soundtrack release. The show continues at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. on the lower east side on February 22-23 and March 1-2 at 8 PM; February 23 and March 2 at 3 PM; and February 17, 24 and March 3 at 5 PM. Tickets are $20; the discount code for $15 tix this weekend is Rosita.

February 17, 2013 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ansambl Mastika’s Second Album is Raw Adrenaline

Combining the raw power of gypsy punk with the precision of jazz, Ansambl Mastika’s new album Songs and Dances for Life NONSTOP is literally the best of both worlds. They call their sound the “new Balkan uproar.” It’s got the same instrumentation as the pop music currently coming out of the Balkans, but without the wanky fusion sound or stiff, robotic, computerized rhythms that plague so much of it. Reedman Greg Squared leads the band on clarinet and tenor sax, with unearthly speed and relentless intensity: his formidable chops obviously draw deeply on legends like Ivo Papasov and Husnu Senlendirici. The rest of the band displays a similar blend of ferocity and virtuosity. Ben Syversen – whose unhinged, assaultive noiserock/jazz album with his band Cracked Vessel was one of 2010’s best – plays trumpet, along with Matthew Fass on accordion, Joey Weisenberg on electric guitar, Reuben Radding on bass and Matt Moran on percussion. These are long songs, typically clocking in at seven minutes or more – more than anything, Ansambl Mastika haven’t forgotten that what they play is dance music.

The opening track, Zurlaski Cocek (a Greg Squared original) sets the stage for what’s to come. It begins with a suspenseful clarinet solo into a long, burning vamp, a triumphant solo from Syversen, and a big reggae-tinged crescendo roaring with bass chords that the clarinet finally launches into whatever’s out there past the stratosphere. They bring it down a little bit afterward with a biting, Cypriot-flavored traditional Greek medley with some interesting flamenco rhythms, stately ambience from Fass and distant menace from the clarinet again. The Turkish-themed march Mahkum Efe is something of an Istanbul street scene through the mist, with a powerfully building trumpet solo from Syversen. And the Slovenian Memede Zlatna Ptica has the feel of a classic, anchored by fat, crescendoing bass and a long, smoldering sax interlude.

A collaboration with the innovative all-female Brooklyn Bulgarian folk choir Black Sea Hotel, Ispukav Poema sets Ruzica Apostolova’s Macedonian lyrics to lushly otherworldly four-part harmonies that soar over a catchy, jangly turbo-folk tune. Nova Zemja is a brilliantly bizarre, eclectic mash-up of surf music, psychedelic rock and Serbian brass with a raga undercurrent: it might be the best song on the album. A dramatic, dark duo of Macedonian songs features some neat harmonies between Greg and Rima Fand (who has an exciting new project setting Frederico Garcia Lorca poems to music); a couple of Turkish numbers veer from wry wah funk to scorching, melisma-driven exhilaration. The album ends with an irrepressible psychedelic rock arrangment (with cautionary English lyrics) of the old folk song Dafina – watch out, the girl’s dangerous! – and a hallucinatory, shapeshifting version of the Greek To Spiti kai o Dromos. All this is as exhilarating as it is eclectic. It may only be February, but right now it’s the frontrunner for best album of 2011. Watch this space and see where it lands in December.

February 11, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Luminescent Orchestrii at the World Financial Center, NYC 7/9/09

It was a strange match of venue and band: a fiery, erudite, practically pan-global string band playing the plaza out behind an utterly anonymous office tower. Still, the lunchtime crowd was obviously psyched to see something this unexpectedly good. Musicians typically being nocturnal, daytime shows tend to either get phoned in or turn into a trainwreck, yet under the blazing sun, Luminescent Orchestrii played as if it was midnight at Barbes – or in Barbes. They opened with a Romanian gypsy number, Yarba, violinists Rima Fand (who also plays in Jan Bell’s band) and Sarah Alden matching stark twin vocals, then taking the intensity up a notch on the chorus. They followed with a witchy tango written by Alden, the two violins firing off eerie trills, then taking it doublespeed at the end. Fand sang another tango, a slow, somewhat menacing number by resonator guitarist Sxip Shirey: “You won’t come back if you walk along the beach tonight – the moon has turned the sand too white to see.”

An Andy Statman cover got a particularly haunting treatment, driven by some powerfully chordal bowed bass from upright player Benjy Fox Rosen with a completely evil, chaotic breakdown in the middle into a bass solo that managed to put the crew back on course. Then he sang a stately, minor-key yet tongue-in-cheek klezmer tune told from the point of view of an old geezer stuck at a wedding he probably never wanted to go to, not wanting to dance, but very much enjoying the opportunity to raise a glass of mashke (booze) at the end.

The two women sang a sultry soul number over Shirey’s human beatboxing, followed by a darkly staccato, even funky tango and then a somewhat otherworldly Bulgarian song about an abduction, the two women’s acidly striking vocals alternating with instrumental passages. They closed their first set of the afternoon with a dark Moldavian instrumental, guitar and bass walking it apprehensively: supposedly it interpolated a Jimi Hendrix theme that didn’t really make itself clear. Shirey encouraged the crowd to stick around for another set, but it was clear that for most of the attendees, lunchtime was either over or would be soon. Gypsy music comes from (at least what used to be) cold climates: if what Luminescent Orchestrii delivered on a sunbaked porch by the river yesterday is any indication, they ought to be even more ecstatically fun after the sun goes down. Their next show is July 16 at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7, early arrival very strongly advised.

July 10, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jan Bell and Jolie Holland Live at Union Pool, Brooklyn NY 4/16/08

Pity the act who has to follow Jan Bell. Put aside any preconceptions you may have of sad-eyed ladies of the luxury highrises singing in an affected faux-Southern drawl at places like the Living Room: Bell is not one of them. She’s a true original, someone who seems to be right on the brink of something big. She reminded tonight how she got there, with uncommonly good original songwriting, smart guitar playing, a confidently swaying stage presence and a voice like hard cider, rustic and bittersweet but packing a knockout punch. Not bad for a “Yorkshire lass,” as the British expat bills herself. Imagine Kasey Chambers if she’d spent her teenage years hanging out after hours in bars with Loretta Lynn and her 1960s band instead of hunting kangaroos in the Australian outback with her dad, and you get a picture of what Bell is about. She got the chatty crowd to shut up, more or less, for the better part of forty minutes (a less impressive feat than it may seem, since a considerable portion of the sold-out house had come out for her and left after she finished). Accompanied only by Luminescent Orchestrii violinist Rina Fand (who proved as brilliant at vocal harmonies as she is at gypsy music), Bell ran through several numbers from her latest cd Songs for Love Drunk Sinners (which is an IMA finalist for best alt-country album of the year). The high point of the set was her big audience hit Leaving Town, a haunting, fast Texas shuffle that wouldn’t be out of place on a Patricia Vonne album. “They’re watching over you,” she cautioned at the end, all the more reason to leave. Although Bell’s strongest suit is dark minor keys, she also held up her end on a small handful of slow, melancholy waltz numbers. Fand’s violin work was amazing: from start to finish, she stuck with blues, eschewing any traditional country fiddle licks. Although she often went for the jugular, she didn’t waste a note all night. They closed with a fetching, evocative love song for New York.

“Thank you for putting up with my incompetence,” Jolie Holland told the audience, and there was considerable sarcasm in that because she’s perfectly competent at what she does, Tom Waits-style, alternately bluesy or country-inflected ballads. Completely self-aware, she turns any deficiency in her performance – forgetting lyrics, having to stop songs and start them over because she crunched a chord or forgot the tune – into an opportunity to make frequently laugh-out-loud funny repartee with the audience. “You know, I know the guy who invented the teleprompter,” she told the crowd, out of the blue. “He’s a bum on Haight Street.”

After playing an audience request, Old Fashioned Morphine, her popular tribute to the drug set to an oldtime, minor-key gospel tune, she explained how that song and the one that followed came about. As it happened, she’d had a dream that she was William Burroughs’ girlfriend, waking up next to him in bed and wondering what the hell she was doing there. When she suggested that they take a walk together, he growled, “Don’t treat me like an old man.” She then explained how she’d told a Lawrence, Kansas audience that story and that during the show, somehow, word had gotten back to Burroughs’ longtime boyfriend, who then came down to the show, introduced himself as Burroughs’ “wife,” and then kissed Holland on the lips. Then, a couple of years later, she was offered a part in a musical, which turned out to be the role of – you guessed it – William Burrough’s wife.

Holland was bedeviled by the sound, which had suddenly gone haywire after being impressively crystal-clear for Bell. She brought up her twin sister Sam Parton of the Be Good Tanyas, who contributed charming, spot-on harmonies just like she does in her own band. But ultimately, Holland got schooled by the New Yorkers. What she does is stylized: Billie Holiday did it, Rickie Lee Jones does it and they’re perfectly valid artists, as Holland is. But she didn’t vary her vocal delivery all night. When she invited up a bunch of A-list Brooklyn types to close the show with an obviously under-rehearsed set of country harmony tunes, the crowd finally started getting impatient and it fell to blues guitarslinger Mamie Minch to take charge. “Hush, now,” she cautioned and it was clear she meant business. Along with Parton and Bell, they brought up a couple of guys including another mean blues artist, Will Scott, whose distinctive baritone would have been a terrific addition to the mix had it been audible. Not to be jingoistic or disrespectful to Holland – who’s no dummy and makes excellent albums – but the story of the night here was the hometown acts.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, country music, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment