Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Defiance, Relevance and Transcendence With the New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park

So many inspiring conclusions to take away from the New York Philharmonic’s phantasmagorically majestic performance this past evening in Prospect Park. In the year of the Metoo movement, that the orchestra would choose a centerpiece celebrating a mythic heroine who disarms a psychotic dictator using only her wits spoke volumes.

As does the organization’s long-running Very Young Composers mentorship and advocacy program. Two of those individuals were represented on the bill, each a young African-American woman and a native Brooklynite. And in what’s been a challengingly transitional interregnum between music directors, the choice of James Gaffigan to lead the ensemble through some stunningly fresh, meticulously articulated, relevatory interpretations of material they’ve probably played dozens of times before paid mighty dividends.

At a concert pitched to pull a family audience, local city council representative Brad Lander’s commentary on the ongoing anguish of families being broken up by the ongoing extremist clampdown on immigrants was the night’s most overtly political moment. A polyglot crowd echoed their fervent, familial solidarity, then the orchestra spoke to how triumphantly this scenario could actually play out.

They foreshadowed the suspense and splendor of their romp through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade with an arguably even more carnivalesque stampede through the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Delilah. Even if its creepy chromatics aren’t much more than Hollywood hijaz, those Arabic inflections were another crushingly relevant reference point.

If the program’s two brief, kinetic works by young composers Jordan Millar and Camryn Cowan are any indication, the blues are as much alive in Brooklyn as they were during the Harlem Renaissance, a most welcome meme throughout the New York City public schools this year and a vivid theme for these two gradeschoolers. Each composer’s piece put simple, emphatic blues hooks front and center in lieu of expansive harmony or flourishes, the former with a neat, cold stop midway through and some unexpected, Mozartean lustre afterward.

The orchestra made it to the concert’s midway point with three jaunty, frequently coy excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Town. The Philharmonic’s pretty-much-annual tour of the New York City parks system, from the Bronx to Staten Island, always features a little bit of everything, including what in another century would have been called “pops” material from outside the classical canon. But as with the rest of the program, Gaffigan didn’t deviate from the game plan or phone these in, airing out the composer’s exchanges of voicings with a painterly charm.

And as much as the park programming is standard repertoire, the Philharmonic never picks tired or cheesy material. Over the last few years, we’ve been treated to plenty of Stravinsky – notably a conflagration of The Firebird in Central Park a couple years back – as well as a similarly colorful tour of Respighi’s Pines of Rome a little before then. Considering both the political subtext and the stunning attention to detail from both Gaffigan and the orchestra, this could have been the best of all of them since the turn of the decade.

Getting to witness it from the best seat in the house – about the equivalent of row L at their Lincoln Center home – no doubt colored this perception. Looking out into the wide swath of greenery in front of them, it must be tempting for everyone onstage to want to play loud, but Gaffigan mined the entirety of the sonic spectrum in keeping with the composer’s top-to-bottom orchestration. When there was suspense, it was relentless; when there was menace, it was a carnival of potentially dead souls; when there were dreamy interludes, they had a celestial vastness.

And the solos, tantalizingly brief as they were, were mesmerizing. Concertmaster Frank Huang spun joyously expert filigrees and flickers, up to an almost shocking cadenza in the final movement where he dug in so hard it seemed that he might break a violin string. Similar effects – especially bassoonist Judith LeClair’s silken, mutedly bittersweet solo – further underscored a triumphant narrative mirroring both the angst and transgressive victories in so many of the world’s ongoing struggles and rebellions.

The Philharmonic’s 2018 tour of the boroughs concludes on Sunday, June 17 indoors at 3 PM at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.

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June 15, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ambitious Take on Some Familiar Challenges by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

It’s often overlooked how changes in one field of music often mirror those in another. The rise of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into a reliably bonafide vehicle for first-class classical performance mirrors how the demise of the big record labels has relegated the realm of rock and other amplified original music to independent artists. Other volunteer New York orchestral ensembles – the well-loved Greenwich Village Orchestra, the innovative Chelsea Symphony and the fearlessly individualistic new Queensboro Symphony Orchestra – deliver quality programming, but in the past several months especially, none of them have surpassed their Park Avenue colleagues. Nor, it seems, has the New York Philharmonic.

Conductor David Bernard never made a connection he didn’t want to share with the world, an especially ambitious goal at the Park Avenue group’s concert this past Saturday night. First on the bill was a spine-tingling take of Borodin’s Polyvestian Dances. As a curtain-lifter, it was a whale of a challenge, but the maestro’s clenched-teeth, “we’re going to pull this off come hell or high water” presence pulled every available ounce of energy and impassioned playing out of the musicians onstage. A few years back, this group’s weak spot was the high strings, which would lag sometimes or fall out of sync. No more. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear the shivery, staccato cascades of this rampaging Russian dance suite fly with equal parts abandon and minute focus from stage right.

The intensity continued courtesy of guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who stunned the crowd with a fiercely and similarly impassioned, marathon run through the fortissimo torrents and machinegunning virtuoso volleys of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. While the dynamically rich, goosebump-inducing High Romantic swells and dips through triumph and angst and finally more triumph in the end were centered in the piano, the orchestra is also highly engaged rather than a backdrop, and the lushness and frequent solo passages from throughout the group were robust and assured.

Concluding the program was a particularly ambitious multimedia performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, with violinist Bela Horvath in the solo spotlight with his silken, often downright plaintive resonance. There were also projections, and narrator Peninnah Schram in the role of “storyteller.” Many times an orchestra will provide a program listing the various points in a piece that illustrate one thing or another; Schram, with her precise, rhythmic cadences, kept perfect pace with the music as she related the story, a triumph of feminist pacifism over a power-and-grief-crazed tyrant.

Here’s where things got crazy, and not because the orchestra and Schram weren’t locked in, because they were. When the narration was audible, the effect was a refreshing change from, say, flipping through the program like you might do with a paperback edition of Shakespeare at Shakespeare in the Park to follow along with the plotline. Trouble is, it wasn’t always, and this was neither the fault of the orchestra – which Bernard kept on a steady, dynamic pace through the work’s famously austere, ambered quasi-orientalisms – nor Schram either. The problem was that the speakers she was running through were placed too close to the stage, and facing the crowd rather than, say, facing each further back, along the sidelines where sonic competition with the mighty group onstage wouldn’t have been an issue. And this wouldn’t even have been a factor had the orchestra been playing Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, both venues where they’ve performed before with richly good results.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is December 6 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, focusing on a theme of innovation and paradigm shifts, pairing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Ted Rosenthal alongside Bartok’s challenging, high-voltage Concerto for Orchestra.

October 29, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Dances to the End of the Season

Is it fair to expect a five-year-old to be able to identify ballet music? At the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s joyously kinetic performance yesterday, the five-year-old along for the ride with this crew did exactly that, without any prompting. Does that make her precocious…or simply normal? Is a physical response to music an innate human trait? If a child doesn’t respond to music in a visceral way, is that a trouble sign …or just that the kid might need some sleep, or might not like a particular style of music? How many parents ask themselves questions like these?

Although this particular program was not devised as a children’s concert, there were several, ranging from preschool through middle school age, scattered throughout the crowd with their parents…and they were into it! And aside from boisterously applauding between pieces, they kept still. And that probably wasn’t easy, considering how much fun the orchestra was having. Who had the most? The pointillistic trumpet section – Warren Wernick, Ian C. Schaefer and Richard Perry Woodbury III? The percussion section – Gerard Gordon, Jamie Reeves, Julian Bennett Holmes, Sunita deSouza and and Benjamin Vokits – who got to air out a carnival’s worth of rhythms on everything from deep timpani to clashy cymbals to twinkly vibraphone? Conductor Barbara Yahr, a lithe and meticulously graceful presence in front of the ensemble, finally signaling the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappricio Espagnol with an unselfconsciously triumphant reach for the rafters?

The concert’s unifying theme (pretty much every performance by this orchestra has one) was global music with a Spanish tinge. The simplest and most obviously derivative was Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, fleshed-out variations on folk themes to open the show. Four dances from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia suite vividly evoked field hands conspiring, a balmy romantic waltz deep in the wheat, and cowboys on a race across the plains (this is where the trumpets had a ball), up and out on a victorious vamp.

Dancers Orlando Reyes and Adriana Salgado swayed and intertwined elegantly against the alternately stately and plaintively lyrical pulse of a couple of Astor Piazzolla works. As a bonus, the noir-tinged Fracanapa and a lush, string-fueled arrangement of Milonga del Angel, then Osvaldo Pugliese’s earthier Negracha were lit up with guest soloist JP Jofre’s wistfully lyrical bandoneon.

Yahr grinningly introduced the Rimsky-Korsakov as anything but authentically Spanish, and she was right on the money, but it made for a delirious romp just the way it was, an indelibly Slavic suite spiced with Russian Romany riffs rather than anything genuinely evoking flamenco, or Romany sounds from west of the Balkans. And there were hints of klezmer in there too, throughout the boisterious overture and variations and the more subdued waltz that later on becomes a “Scene e canto gitano” or well-intentioned, propulsively lyrical facsimile thereof. This was the concluding concert in the GVO’s 2013-14 season, sending both parents and kids out into the reception afterward humming what they’d just heard.

May 19, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, 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