Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stormy Surprises from the Greenwich Village Orchestra

There are plenty of joyous, exciting orchestras in town, without even mentioning the kind of electricity that the New York Philharmonic can generate. Recent concerts here by the Park Avenue Chamber SymphonyEast Coast Chamber Orchestra and Spectrum Symphony have all been high-voltage, and the Chelsea Symphony across town can always be counted on for an entertaining performance. But the Greenwich Village Orchestra seems to have a little more fun than anybody else.

Their concert this past Sunday on Irving Place didn’t start out that way. Conductor Barbara Yahr led them gracefully through Samuel Barber’s Adagio, to open on a somber note. There’s only one way to play that piece – it’s funeral music, and you either do it that way, or you do it wrong. Yahr and orchestra took care to take no chances and the music was better off for it.

They brought the volume up, slowly and methodically, with Barber’s Violin Concerto, from 1939, the year after the Adagio was written. And the first two movements made a fantastic segue because they sound like a continuation of it. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim met the lush sonics with a judiciously silken tone, handing off to the ensemble on more than one occasion with a perfectly measured dignity and grace, the results were so seamless. But the third movement was as electric as anyone could have hoped for and Kim dug into it with relish. When she wasn’t sprinting through rapidfire volleys of chromatics, she had a grin on her face, tapping out the rhythm on her hip, lost in the sway of the music. Kim has gone on record as dedicating herself to illuminating the emotion in what she plays, and she nailed the triumph and surprise in this one, over the lively, balletesque pulse that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Behind her, bassist Jeff Rozany and oboeist Shannon Bryant contributed lushly fluid intros that stood out in contrast.

Here are two theories about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, both of which could be wrong. For starters, the symphony is such a hodgepodge – if a brilliant one – that it seems that the composer was emptying the tank, fleshing out every idea that might have been kicking around his songbook. Was there a doubt that he’d survive World War II – or survive Stalin? That’s hardly implausible. Another theory relates to subtext, that what Prokofiev is saying, other than rejoicing in telling the Nazis to take a hike, is that now that we’ve sent one bunch of fascists packing, it’s high time we got our own house in order. Whatever the case, what’s inarguable about this work is that its multi-facetedness makes it very difficult to play. Yahr’s approach was to raise the bar and the volume as high as it would go, right out of the gate, setting up all kinds of suspense for when the triumph dies down and the distantly ominous foreshadowing begins. Yahr remarked beforehand that there are passages of “pure evil” in this, and she’s right – the caricatures of mechanistic Nazis and various fascist buffoons, staggering with the weight of the low brass and the timpani, are brutal. That surrealism left a vivid mark, through the stormy conclusion, which was almost too giddy to be true – yet unshakably true to the composer’s vision

The GVO’s next concert, on May 18 at 3 PM, is an especially high-voltage one, with an eclectic Spanish-tinged program that spans the emotional spectrum: Copland’s El Salón México; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Ginastera’s Estancia suite, and largescale arrangements of Piazzolla tangos.

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March 31, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A World-Class Symphony Orchestra on the Upper East Side

Intimacy with a group of performers has its pros and cons. If the crew onstage are on their game, everyone in the audience feels like they’re in it with them. By the same token, in close quarters you hear every mistake. So it was especially rewarding to watch the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony from up close this past Sunday on the Upper East Side, through an unselfconsciously triumphant, blemish-free, world-class performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 as well as Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915 and Bartok’s paradigm-shifting Dance Suite, Sz. 77, 86a.

The subtext of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 mirrors its triumphant bursts and dips: “So you think I’m deaf,” the composer retorts: “Wait til you hear the tunes I’ve got in my head.” Conductor David Bernard led the ensemble from memory, quickly establishing a dichotomy between lingering lustre from the brass and winds and a brisk efficiency from the strings. He brought out every bit of that dreamy/acerbic contrast with a pinpoint, precise articulation, through the the regal waltz of the second movement, the bubbly dynamic leaps and dips of the third and the sweeping, majestic crescendos of the third, unafraid to let Beethoven’s puckish wit peek out from between the towering peaks at the end.

If the subtext of the Beethoven is beating the odds, the subtext of the Barber is apprehension, the calm of a southern night veiling a relentless alienation. Soprano Tamra Paselk channeled that with a minutely focused, dynamically rich performance that didn’t shy away from the waiting gloom in James Agee’s lyric. At one point early on she seemed overcome by the bittersweetness of the imagery: watching her fight and quickly pull herself out of that emotional abyss was shattering to witness. The classical world abounds with cookie-cutter singers: how refreshing to hear a singer who articulates not only the syllables – something too few classically-trained voices consistently do – but also the underlying content. The orchestra provided an aptly pillowy and then cloudy backdrop.

As joyous and refreshing as the Beethoven was, the Bartok was even better. It’s an early post-World War I piece, as challenging as anything Stravinsky ever wrote, sort of a less rhythmic take on what the Russian composer was going for with Le Sacre du Printemps. Like Stravinsky, Bartok uses his native land’s folk dances as a stepping-off point, if he doesn’t go back as many centuries (or maybe even millennia) as Stravinsky did. This performance was awash in rich irony: a caustically sarcastic pairing of bassoon and cello; deadpan noir Keystone Kops romps; Balkan chromatics and agitation alternating with the occasionally calmer, balletesque pulse. Bernard kept the suspense relentless, a look of eager anticipation on his face, as if to say, “Just stay with it, I can tell you’re feeling it,” and the orchestra responded in kind. The future may be cloudy for big metropolitan symphony orchestras but it looks positively sunny for community-based groups like this one. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next performance is May 3 at 8 PM, repeating on May 4 at 3 PM with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring soloist Spencer Meyer. And a smaller ensemble closer in size to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s name performs wind quintets and sextets by Mozart, Taffanel and Poulenc on March 16 at 3 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues).

February 27, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Catching Up On Last Month’s Concerts

In an earlier incarnation, this space was devoted almost exclusively to live music. Then the publicists found us and the deluge of albums began. If you’ve been wondering where all the concert coverage went, that’s part of the answer. But there’s more to come – and there’s been a lot happening that hasn’t been mentioned here recently, in the scramble to wrap up this year’s crop of recordings.

This blog has been a longstanding advocate for the Sunday, 5:15 PM organ recitals at St. Thomas Church on 53rd Street at 5th Avenue, whose presence in the New York music scene become more precious since the massive old organ there is slated to be replaced at some unspecified future date. The mighty beast is actually a hybrid whose innards are in a more precarious state than they sound. But organists from around the world still make it sing, particularly the church’s director of music, John Scott, a New York treasure if there ever was one. His recordings of the complete organ works of Mendelssohn are definitive; he’s done the entire Buxtehude and Messiaen cycles for organ at this very same console. His October concert there saw him pull out the stops with nimble elegance on a towering Bach fantasia and then a quietly lustrous hymn, followed by a Charles Villiers Stamford setting of a different hymn, Maurice Durufle’s transcription of Louis Vierne’s thunderously atmospheric Meditation and then Jean Langlais’ even more blazing Te Deum from his Gregorian Paraphrases triptych completed a thrilling program. Suffice it to say that any time Scott plays, he is worth seeing. In the coming weeks he’ll be busy with church choir concerts – which are also worth seeing. His next scheduled recital here is February 10 of next year.

Another concert that delivered a titanic majesty was the New York Repertory Orchestra’s late October performance of Prokofiev’s phantasmagorically shapeshifting Divertimento followed by a lush, richly dynamic performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto with guest soloist Inbal Segev at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. As one random concertgoer perfectly capsulized it, this was an welcome surprise. It would have been even more enjoyable to have been able to stick around for the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, but there were other things on the agenda here (and hence no fair and just way of giving the orchestra the fullscale review they deserved). They’re back here on Dec 15 with a program of Delibes, Walton and the New York premiere of Tubin’s Symphony No. 8.

Two other concerts that deserve a mention are the Hugo Wolf Quartett’s performances at Trinity Church the Thursday before the hurricane, and then a week later at the Austrian Cultural Center, where they’d been camping out since they weren’t able to fly home. At Trinity, they opened with a rousing performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K421. This is the second of the two Mozart quartets in minor keys; it’s focused, and as deep and dark as the composer ever got. The quartet had a ball with it, soaring through its wary exchanges with abandon and in the process almost upstaging Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 74.

That piece is loaded with plenty of the did-you-just-hear-that cadenzas and sudden shifts between voices that the composer loved so much, well beyond the pizzicato section that inspired its nickname. A work so iconic  isn’t supposed to sound different from program to program, but this one did at the ensemble’s temporary midtown campground, and it was better. That is to say, more intimate and at the same time more energetically lush, although that interpretation might be colored by the superior sonics at the small concert hall here…and the group’s ability to roll out of bed, at least theoretically, and play. Also on the bill and delivered with meticulous nuance were Mendelssohn’s rousing early Romantic String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 and Philippe Hersant’s 1988 String Quartet No. 2, which juxtaposed airy atmospherics with bracing twelve-tone melodicism arrayed with High Romantic rhythms and dynamic swells. A gesture of appreciation from violinists Sebastian Gürtler and Régis Bringolf, violist Gertrud Weinmeister and cellist Florian Berner to the community for having put them up at a moment of crisis, they ended up giving back far more than they could have taken.

November 17, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment