Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Shattering Roulette Performance of Mary Kouyoumdjian Works Commemorating the Genocide in Armenia

Last night’s concert at Roulette included what were arguably the most harrowing moments onstage at any New York performance since Sung Jin Hong premiered his rumbling, macabre real-time depiction of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing at a Chelsea show with the One World Symphony a couple of years ago. This one commemorated the centenary of an even more lethal series of events, the holocaust in Armenia, via four works by the riveting, individualistic composer Mary Kouyoumdjian.

For those with gaps in their history, no nation in the past hundred fifty years was depopulated by mass murder to the extent that Armenia was, dating from the 1890s through the Ottomans’ mass extermination campaign of 1915-22 .The exact death toll is not known: if the pogroms of 1894-96 and subsequent mass killings are included, the number is upwards of two milllion men, women and children murdered, confirmed by the fact that barely fifteen percent of the pre-genocide population remained afterward. And if genocide wasn’t bad enough, who then formally annexed Armenia? The Soviet Union.

Kouyoumdjian’s music is rich with history, notably The Bombs of Beirut, her first Kronos Quartet commission, an examination of the effects of the civil war in Lebanon in the early 80s. That ensemble premiered an even more intense new string quartet, Silent Cranes, while adventurous chamber ensemble Hotel Elefant performed an equally gripping trio of works. The music was propulsively and often insistently rhythmic, and texturally rich, with some group members doubling on multiple instruments including accordion, vibraphone and electric piano. Kouyoumdjian worked the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from murky lows to whispery highs, often balancing them for a dramatic, cinematic effect.

A quintet including pianist David Friend, flutist Domenica Fossati, violinist Andie Springer, clarinetist Isabel Kim and cellist Rose Bellini played Dzov Erky Koonyov (Sea of Two Colors), a homage to legendary singer/composer/musicologist Komitas, who was sort of the Alan Lomax of early 20th century Armenia. An acidic, biting diptych blending elements of spectral, microtonal and circular indie classical idioms, it challenged Friend with its long series of pointillistic anvil motives, which he finally and remarkably gracefully handed off to Springer as the rest of the group provided a lush but stark interweave. Komitas spent the last two decades of his life institutionalized, broken by the horrific torture he’d suffered, referenced by Koyoumdjian’s endlessly cycling, aching phrases and distant Middle Eastern allusions.

Baritone Jeffrey Gavett gave an understatedly poignant tone to Royce Vavrek’s lyrics throughout Everlastingness, a trio piece, over the brooding backdrop of Friend’s piano and Gillian Gallagher’s viola. This was a portrait of doomed surrealist artist Arshile Gorky, who survived the holocaust and escaped to America after losing his mother to starvation. The first half of the concert peaked with a full thirteen-piece ensemble, heavy on percussion, playing the eleven-part suite This Should Feel Like Home. Inspired by the composer’s first trip to the land of her ancestors a couple of years ago, it referenced the seizure of national landmarks, forced displacement, longing for home and savagery that rose to a long, horrified, searing crescendo that left Josh Perry’s huge bass drum to roar and resonate and finally fade down. While the previous piece on the bill offered elegant variations on an austere, chromatically-charged piano melody, this was replete with vividly Middle Eastern riffs and cadenzas against constantly shifting atmospherics: as an evocation of mass agony, it was almost unendurable.

The Kronos Quartet were given a more plaintive work, Silent Cranes, sort of a synthesis of the meticulous insistence of the first part of the program and the raw angst that followed. To make things more complicated, they were challenged to keep time with with a similarly vivid series of projections of often grisly archival images as well as snippets of haunting old recordings (including one of Komitas himself) and testimony from survivors. It’s a severely beautiful, dynamically vibrant if unceasingly pained and mournful portait of an injustice that’s far too often overlooked, and ended on an almost mystical note to accompany historian/investigative journalist David Barsamian’s recorded commentary which essentially echoed that if we forget events like these, those things might well happen to us.

On one hand, what Kouyoumdjian has done with this is important historical work, and puts the music in an appropriatingly horrifying context – which the stunned audience eventually rewarded with a standing ovation. On the other hand, it would be also be rewarding to hear that string quartet by itself: it’s certainly strong enough to stand on its own. The best concert of 2015 so far? By far, the most intense.

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May 13, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sqwonk and Redshift Light Up Saturday Night

It’s hard to imagine a more fun way to spend a Saturday night than watching Sqwonk and then Redshift in the West Village. Their doublebill at the Greenwich House Music School’s absolutely charming, woodpaneled, Jacksonian era upstairs auditorium was full of humor, both in the musicianship and the compositions, as much a part of the show as the ensembles’ dazzling technique and out-of-the-box creativity. Sqwonk, the aptly named bass clarinet duo project of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle, played first. The bass clarinet is delightful for more reasons than you can count, and for anyone who plays it, it must not be easy to resist going completely over the top (or under the hedge) with the thing. By that logic, having two of them the same stage must be doubly difficult. Russell and Anderle never went straight for the funny bone, although they frequently hinted that they might.

Marc Mellits’ Black, the title track of their most recent album, sounded like a double bassline from a late 70s Kraftwerk album. With its split-second choreography, motorik rhythm and serpentine eighth-note precision, it was great deadpan fun, and literally danceable: who needs synthesizers or drum machines when you have bass clarinets? Cornelius Boots’ Sojourn of the Face contrasted, slow, spacious and thoughtfully paced, with klezmer echoes in its chromatically-tinted march followed by a sad waltz. Strict9, by Aaron Novik, brought back a jaunty vibe, Russell’s blippy staccato pairing off against Anderle’s fluid legato. They two reversed roles throughout the tricky interplay of James Holt’s Action Items and then got the chance to take the staccato/legato dialectic to its logical extreme with Ryan Brown’s perfectly logical yet deviously amusing Knee Gas (On), a series of permutations that switched back and forth between the two voices, working circular motifs, parallelisms and register shifts intermingled with peevish, insistent accents that would occasionally move in from mere enchroachment to completely hog centerstage – and must have been as fun to assemble as they were for Sqwonk to play.

Redshift – Andie Springer on violin, Rose Bellini on cello, Kate Campbell on piano and Anderle on clarinet – had the good sense to maintain the goodnatured atmosphere that Sqwonk had mined, at least for awhile, with Mellits’ Fruity Pebbles. As the title implies, the suite of nine miniatures began whimsically but shifted to dramatic for a distantly tangoish dedication to Leonard Bernstein, a playfully minimalist one for Michael Gordon and then ended with an almost shocking, cinematically plaintive sweep, an elegy that pulsed along on Campbell’s poignant, incisive sustained chords. She would get the choicest, most intense parts to work with throughout the evening, and made the absolute most of them, most vividly on David Heuser’s Catching Updrafts. Meant to evoke the patterns of birds gliding on the wind and then suddenly changing course, it alternated apprehensive atmospherics with bustling chase scenes along with the occasional, sudden scream and frequent detours that were downright macabre – “Halloweeny,” as one of our crew described them, a gleeful grin lighting up the corners of her face. Anderle got to play good cop to Campbell’s prowling slasher, Springer and Bellini collaborating so seamlessly that for anyone not watching, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what. All together, it was nothing short of riveting. Both groups joined forces to wrap up the evening with Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion and its 1960s avant stoner vibe – it’s one of those pieces where the individual musicians decide how long they want to run a series of simple, catchy motifs, and decide where to begin and end as well. For whatever reason, the group members eventually converged, gravitating toward a center where others might have found a maze.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment