Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Halloween Thrills and Chills from the American Modern Ensemble

At Merkin Concert Hall Thursday night, American Modern Ensemble director and virtuoso percussionist Robert Paterson explained to the sold-out crowd that the show had been eight years in the making. And he made it worth everyone’s while. It might or might not have been a rather brazen attempt to upstage works by George Crumb and David Del Tredici with a trio of his own compositions, but that was the ultimate result. Whatever the intention, it made for a great night of music.

The ensemble began as a sextet and by the time they hit the intermission, they’d grown to a nineteen-piece chamber orchestra, heavy on the percussion as you would expect from a composer like Paterson. He’s one of the most cinematic around: it’s a shock that his work hasn’t appeared in more films than it has. He credited both other composers on the bill as being major influences, and while there were echoes of Crumb’s flitting, ghostly motives as well as Del Tredici’s edgy, carnivalesque tunefulness throughout these works, there was as much ghoulish narrative, comparable with Bernard Herrmann – or Danny Elfman on steroids. Which made sense, this being a Halloween show.

The first number, Hell’s Kitchen, included everything AND a kitchen sink (ripped from its frame and hanging over the marimba). Methodically and with not a little gleeful intensity, the group made their way through a chuffing steam-train theme, a lively chase scene and horror-stricken tritones punctuated by brief moments of relatively less unease. Paterson’s second work, Closet Full of Demons, was more of a longform horror theme and variations, veering between cartoonish drollery and moments of sheer terrror. The concluding work, Ghost Theater took the wry ghoul-humor to a logical conclusion, sort of a 21st century update on Raymond Scott.

Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (from his Makrokosmos IIII suite) had a creepy aspect, and a nocturnal one, but also a big, agitated twin-piano cadenza from Blair McMillen and Stephen Gosling early on, not to mention plenty of anticipated autoharp-like figures emanating from inside the piano as the two went under their respective lids to brush the strings. The two percussionists, Paterson and Matt Ward, really got a workout, shifting in a split second between many, many objects, building vivid contrasts between murk and momentary, marionettish motives. As the piece went on, there were persistent references to dreamy Asian-tinged folk themes – and also occasionally maddeningly weird, awkward, seemingly random vocal shouts and mumbles that under different circumstances might have cleared the room. A work with so many other interesting things going on deserves to have those parts discreetly omitted.

Del Tredici’s Dracula came across as the kind of piece that would have been staged at Tonic ten years ago, part Vera Beren avant garde horror tableau, part nimbly macabre theme and variations. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy sang the daylights out of it when presented with a few opportunities to do that. Otherwise, she was relegated to narration, which was luridly fun as the story took shape but quickly became a distraction from what is in every sense of the word a fantastic piece of music. Echoes of Roaring 20s swing, disquieting circus rock and Weimar cabaret juxtaposed with the clenched-teeth intensity from the winds, brass, percussion and strings – violist Jessica Meyer and cellist Dave Eggar getting some of the juiciest parts. Looking back, you could see the twistedly funny ending coming a mile away.

This was it for 2014 for this group, other than a couple of characteristically eclectic trio performances led by Gosling coming up at 5 PM on December 5 and 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art balcony bar. But 2015 promises to be especially ambitious for an already ambitious ensemble: a weeklong festival of new music from American composers staged at a reputedly amazing new complex in Danbury, Connecticut, in late summer, and the creation of a fullsize American Modern Ensemble symphony orchestra.

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November 1, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exciting New Harp Music from Duo Scorpio

Much as the harp has been celebrated for its angelic sound, it’s also been a staple of horror movies. The rather ominously named Duo Scorpio transcend any preconceptions about harp music, whether heavenly or horrible (they are capable of both and everything in between) on their debut album. Virtuosos Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade share a birthday, November 5 (hence the ensemble name), a vivid chemistry and a strong attunement to emotional content throughout an exciting, diverse mix of new and recent compositions that push the limits of what can be done with the instrument. With its ambitious scope, energy and extended technique (percussive effects, rubbed and muted strings and more), it often evokes the similarly pioneering work of Bridget Kibbey.

Bernard Andrès is represented by two tracks here. Le Jardin des Paons, which opens the album, is a lush triptych with Asian allusions, alternately dancing and severe, bringing to mind both Bernard Herrmann and Erik Satie with its moody insistence before ending on a warmer, more verdant note, glissandos paired off against brightly attractive, incisive motifs. The album closes with Parvis, an otherworldly, tango-flavored piece with a long, understatedly Lynchian crescendo over velvety swells.

A triptych commission from Robert Paterson, Scorpion Tales is the centerpiece here. Terse noirisms, creepy syncopation and divergent, Andriessen-esque bell-like tones span the entirety of the harps’ sonic capabilities in the opening segment. In the middle section, an eerie twinkling gives way to a courtly, anthemic waltz lowlit by coyly baroque harmonies. It concludes with The Tale of Orion, a rhythmically playful, Brazilian-tinged narrative bookended by starlit austerity.

Caroline Lizotte’s Raga builds increasingly catchy, hypnotically circling variations out of minimalist atmospherics, while Sebastian Currier‘s Crossfade, the most nebulous piece here, pushes toward and then retreats from clenched-teeth suspense with artfully shifting polyrhythms. The most challenging and jazz-oriented work here, Stephen Taylor’s Unfurl employs what seems to be alternate tunings and gritty low overtones, shifting from menacingly exploratory ripples to a bit of a dance and then back. You might not expect a recording for harp to be as much of a fun ride as this one is.

March 10, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Contrasting Albums of High Notes

The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Robert Paterson’s Star Crossing was one of last year’s most enjoyable albums, a noir film for the ears. Right now the eclectic composer/percussionist is about to unleash a suite about former New York Mets star and suspected steroid juicer Mike Piazza. Sandwiched between those two works is the Book of Goddesses, which is essentially his Pictures at an Exhibition, a bright, rippling, generally upbeat theme and variations which takes its inspiration from illustrator Kris Waldherr’s Book of Goddesses. Rather than being a depiction of female archetypes, Paterson’s intent here is to employ a vast palette of motifs from all over the globe to breathe sonic life into a series of pictures from the book. Eclectic concert harpist Jacqueline Kerrod is the central performer here, whether in the trio Maya, with Sato Moughalian on flutes and John Hadfield on percussion; the duo Clockwise, with violinist Marc Uys; or the American Modern Ensemble, with Moughalian plus violist Danielle Farina. The compositions are more rambunctious, less delicate than this instrumentation might imply, a series of interwoven variations on themes reflecting the origin of the goddesses themselves – or not. For example, the Chinese fertility goddess Xi Wang Mu, if this is to be believed, has some Bollywood in her – and santeria goddess Oya is smartly introduced by a bolero. Maybe by design, maybe not, the composer whose work this collection most closely resembles is Bollywood legend S.D. Burman.

The opening overture is titled Sarasvati – the Hindu goddess of knowledge, whose portrait is included in the album’s lavish cd booklet along with the rest of Waldherr’s pantheon. Rippling Chinese-inflected ambience gives way to a Bollywood theme which then goes north again, followed by Aphrodite, which is essentially an acoustic take on Greek psychedelic rock (think Annabouboula or Magges) – not exactly what you’d expect from a chamber music trio, with a rhythmic pulse and catchy melodicism that has become Paterson’s trademark. A swirling Irish reel named after the Celtic goddess Brigit is followed by cleverly polyrhythmic interpolations of previous themes, dreamy ethereality, bouncy Mexican folkloric inflections, that Nigerian bolero, and a balletesque, vividly contrasting number titled Yemaya, where the percussion comes to the forefront against Moughalian’s graceful flute.

There are also two companion pieces here. Freya’s Tears is a triptych building from pensive spaciousness, to mysterioso ripples, to echoes of a baroque minuet and then delicate Middle Eastern allusions. The concluding work, Embracing the Wind, a portrait of a runner who seems more of a fugitive than an athlete, harks back to the ominous unease of Star Crossing. On one hand, there’s a “look, ma, I’m writing Indian music now” feel to some of this, but it’s less showoff-y than simply diverse: clearly, Paterson listens widely and has a passion for the global styles he’s so enthusiastically embraced. Play this loud and it becomes party music: play it softly and it makes for good late-night ambience

Where the Book of Goddesses is lively and animated, Due East’s Drawn Only Once: The Music of John Supko is often blissfully dreamy and nocturnal. Flutist Erin Lesser and percussionist Greg Beyer join forces to create a frequently mesmerizing, intricate upper-register sonic web. There are two works here. Littoral, a lush, balmy, minutely nuanced seaside scene (including two spoken-word narrations comfortably back enough in the mix that they intrigue rather than drowning out the music) reaches symphonic length and sweep. Crescendoing almost imperceptibly, the flute flutters and then builds playful clusters over long, sustained, hypnotic tones and elegant vibraphone, becomes a dance and then a gamelan anthem that slowly and warmly winds down, a comfortable shoreline at dusk.

The second work, This Window Makes Me Feel, also rises with a slow, hypnotic elegance, growing closer and closer and finally achieving an optimistic resolution, with pianist David Broome and soprano Hai-Ting Chinn adding subtle textures to the mix. It’s a terrific late-night album and comes with an accompanying DVD, not viewed at press time.

February 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monday Night at the Classical Recording Foundation Awards

Music awards ceremonies can be funny, and not in a good way – for example, when’s the last time you watched the Grammies? A better question would be, have you ever watched the Grammies? At their 2011 awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall Monday night, the Classical Recording Foundation chose the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio to receive their “collaborative artist award,” named in honor of Samuel Sanders, the longtime Itzhak Perlman collaborator and a sensitive pianist. Other than that they have excellent taste – and that maybe they should call this award the Classie – what does this say about the Classical Recording Foundation? Do celebrated pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson deserve yet another award? Without question, yes, as they reminded when they played a fresh, cliche-free take of the opening Allegro Moderato from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1, acerbic and sometimes stingingly direct where they could go in that direction, redemptively cheery when that path wasn’t an option. This was especially impressive considering that they’ve probably played this piece hundreds if not thousands of times. But do they need this award? At this point in their career, having debuted as an ensemble at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural, they have their choice of concert halls worldwide and audiences who will fill them and walk away afterward in awe – and tell everyone about it.

If that particular award set the bar, the others upheld it. The first of two “composers of the year” was Robert Paterson. The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Paterson compositions, Star Crossing, is one of 2011’s best and most richly enjoyable albums, a feast of noir flourishes, accent on flutes and percussion, from someone who’s a somewhat unlikely combination of percussionist and composer. Imaginative, often magical trio Maya got to play several selections from Paterson’s considerably more lighthearted but equally original new Book of Goddesses album. Paterson’s keen sense of melody and remarkable eclecticism were evident throughout the four pieces on the bill. The first, Aphrodite, took on a bracing Middle Eastern edge with Sato Moughalian’s full-throated flute, Bridget Kibbey’s characteristically lithe, incisive harp and percussionist John Hadfield’s slinky levantine groove. After an ersatz Andean folk tune, Oya was a showcase for Kibbey, who switched effortlessly from percussive fire to funky rhythm and back, while The Muses gave the group a chance to work their way with a casual elegance from the ancient Middle East to current-day downtown New York. The other composer of the year, Arlene Sierra, was represented by piano duo Quattro Mani, whose pianists Susan Grace and Alice Rybak merged singlemindedly on the otherworldly Wuorinen-esque atonalisms of her 1997 composition Of Risk and Memory, which gave way to a cruelly difficult, insistent, staccato rhythmic attack and then extrapolated on both themes.

Young Artist of the Year went to Metropolitan Opera star Susanna Phillips, who delivered Debussy’s six Ariettes Oubliees, pianist Myra Huang getting the enviable assignment of playing them, turning in a richly sustained, spacious interpretation that essentially got the max out of the composer’s otherworldly minimalism. Phillips is a force of nature and sang like one, but the songs wouldn’t have had the same impact without Huang.

Awards are just a small part of the Classical Recording Foundation’s agenda (to an outsider, this concert felt like an exclusive party: everybody seemed to know each other, with several famous or least semi-famous faces scattered throughout the crowd). The Foundation’s agenda is to raise funds for important recordings, without regard to commercial appeal. The roster of acclaimed artists they’ve worked over the years includes such familiar names as Simone Dinnerstein, Donald Berman and Ann Marie McDermott. The CRF also has an ongoing collaboration with the Library of Congress and Bridge Records, both fortuitous relationships for an organization clearly not afraid to take risks in the spirit of making our era’s important works and performers available to future generations.

November 23, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment