Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Telegraph Quartet Channels a Hundred Years of Vigorous, Dark, Relevant Revelry

In their sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall last night, the Telegraph Quartet took one of the richest sources in the history of music and traced how profoundly it could resonate in the here and now.

They started in the middle, then leapt into the precarious present with the world premiere of Robert Sirota’s harrowing String Quartet No 3: Wave Upon Wave. Closing with Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor might have been the respectful thing to do – or simply a decision to end the night with equal amounts fun and fire. Either way, the cutting-edge thread that Schoenberg first spun off with that 1905 work gave the group a strong seam from which to weave their magic.

As the night went on, commonalities among the works broke the surface forcefully: tonalities, riffs, humor and sarcasm. All that, and an intuitive camaraderie within the ensemble, as well as the quartet’s close attunement to the music. From the first smoldering cello notes and then the snarling introduction of Leon Kirchner’s riveting String Quartet No. 1, they had come to conquer.

It’s a shattering piece of music, and a showcase for chops, whether the slithery harmonics of violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, Chin’s plaintive tradeoffs with violist Pei-Ling Lin, or cellist Jeremiah Shaw’s deep washes of grimness and sometimes sheer wrath. They made a case that eerie close harmonies, subtly wafting microtones and an elegant roller-coaster ride through its dynamics were to be reveled in rather than shunned for their harshness and relentlessness.

Sirota’s quartet was just as relentless, and drove the vector home – he studied with Kirchner, and Schoenberg was Kirchner’s mentor. Of the three works on the bill, it was the most chillingly cinematic. Terror growing amidst bustling crowds, a sinisterly marching fugue of sorts, lingering funereal ambience and a cruelly reharmonized snippet of a Presidential anthem brought to life Sirota’s search for hope within the human soul in an era “rife with threats of tyranny, environmental catastrophe and the human potential for evil,” as the composer’s liner notes put it. The incessant dynamic push-pull and inventive pairings between voices mirror Kirchner’s work: he would be proud of this. It doesn’t have the sheer terror of Sirota’s unforgettable Triptych, his 9/11-themed first string quartet, but it’s close.

Schoenberg’s quartet came across as a sardonic celebration of a paradigm shift – and maybe an audience being dragged against their will into it. What a crushingly sarcastic piece of music…or at least that’s how the quartet played it. Proto-Shostakovian faux-pageantry and a mockery of a dainty minuet were highlights, but hardly the only moments when the group seemed to be saying, “To hell with these antediluvian conventions: let’s party!” In their hands, even the surprising calm of the final movement seemed tacked on, an afterthought: “After all you’ve been through, ok, you deserve a little lullaby.” The long procession through precise, expertly coordinated contrasts between serene and agitated, stolid placidity and the ache to bust loose more than validated that unlikely payoff. The crowd rewarded them with three standing ovations.

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February 7, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moonstruck Menace at Merkin Hall

This year may the centenary of the Rite of  Spring, the Da Capo Chamber Players’ pianist Blair McMillen reminded the crowd at Merkin Hall last night, but it’s also the centenary of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Lucy Shelton opened the group’s performance of the iconic avant garde work – a staple of hundreds of horror films over the years – by placing a puppet in a tiny wicker chair at the edge of the stage directly in front of the ensemble. One hand on her hip, the other holding herself up on the piano, wild grin straining across her face, Shelton made a delectably demonic moonstruck matron. Crooning, imploring, one second petulant, the next gleeful. she played the role to the hilt. At one point she fanned herself energetically (which may not have been an act – it could have been hot onstage), then ostentatiously took a couple of hits off a snifter of red liquid (vodka cranberry? Nyquil?)  and then offered some to the rest of the musicians. Everybody declined.

As dark, carnivalesque, deliberately ugly music – and as a prototype for serialism – Schoenberg’s suite is pretty much unsurpasssed. The Da Capos’ version last night was particularly impactful because they played the calmer sections with such a low-key elegance, leaving plenty of headroom for the piano or the violin or the flute to fire off the occasional savage, atonal cadenza. Watching the group, what was most striking was how minimalist so much of the piece is:  the entire group is in on it only a small fraction of the time. Otherwise, it was left to a combination of perhaps three or even fewer instruments out of the piano, Meighan Stoops’ clarinet or bass clarinet, Curtis Macomber’s violin, James Wilson‘s cello and Patricia Spencer’s flutes beneath the vocals. In many places, the music mocks those vocals, sometimes overtly, sometimes by maintaining a perfect calm while the crazy puppet coos and rasps and pulls against imaginary shackles.

Many of the melodies are parodies of circus music. The famous circus riff that everybody knows  – dat-dat, da-da-da-da, DAT-dat, da-da – or rather a twisted version thereof, gets played by the cello about midway through the suite. Otherwise, the phantasmagoria is sometimes enhanced, sometimes weirdly masked by the composer’s use of tritones and dissonance in place of anything resembling a resolution. At the end, Shelton took it down with just the hint of a cackle for good measure and won the group three standing ovations.

A Mohammed Fairouz suite that appropriated the title of the Schoenberg work opened the night. Hubristic a move as it was, Fairouz is fearless about things like that. This suite didn’t have his usual politically-fueled edge but it did have his signature wit and eclectic tunesmithing. The ensemble gamely tackled a rather difficult series of switches from uneasy operatics, to lush chamber pop, noir cabaret, gleeful circus rock and finally a plaintive art-rock anthem that morphed into Queen-y histrionics. It was too bad that the vocals and the lyrics weren’t up to the carefully measured melodicism and clever layers of meaning that Fairouz had given the music. As the piece stands, it has a bright future as a suite of songs without words.

June 7, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jenny Q Chai Captures a Moment in New York History

In a mighty stroke of coincidence, or the kind of luck that an artist would never wish on an audience, Jenny Q Chai sure picked the right program for her Poisson Rouge debut last night. In the low lights of the downstairs space, less than 48 hours after it reopened in the wake of the hurricane, the pianist went into Lynchian mode and stayed there for pretty much the duration of her concert. Maybe the effect was enhanced by having just come from Zirzamin around the corner – a Twin Peaks room if there ever was one – but all of downtown has been in a surreal, uneasy mood since the storm. Chai captured it perfectly, a mix of ambitious contemporary solo works along with some unexpected relief that blended in seamlessly even as it contrasted with the rest of the program. This wasn’t about pyrotechnics: it was about the mist afterward.

Chai began with Satie’s Three Gymnopedies, whose ghoulish nuances are as difficult to capture as the notes themselves are easy to play. She took the easy route with them, straightforwardly hinting at waltz time. Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke, Op.11 made a perfect segue, ramping up the chilly, surreal nocturnal ambience. Another Klavierstücke, this one by Stockhausen, was next on the bill, but instead, an attractively fugal melody wafted from the piano. Did Stockhausen ever go for baroque and comedic? It wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility, but it became clear from a glance at the program that these were in fact genuine Scarlatti pieces. True to form, Chai did the two sonatas totally straight-up without any kind of dancing lilt. What happened to Stockhausen? Turns out that Chai had nixed the work since there was already plenty of heavy stuff on the bill.

The rest of the program was nocturnes, more or less. Marco Stroppa’s Innnige Cavatina utilized muted notes and plucking inside the piano to enhance the otherworldly lunar ambience; Chai reverted to the same atmosphere a bit later with Andre Bouchorechliev’s Orion III. Nils Vigeland’s Barcarolle, from Life Sketches, etched a more spacious and suspenseful deep-space tableau with its muxic box tonalities and muted low lefthand notes creating a sound like a Fender bass: for a minute or two, Chai was a one-woman band. She closed with the Chopin Barcarolle, which is as far from Twin Peaks as this city is. But even this lullaby got a cautious understatement, perhaps a conscious allusion to the moment’s persistent unease, perhaps not. The audience – larger than expected under the circumstances – refused to let Chai leave without an encore, so she sang them Victoria Jordanova’s Prayer, a simple and vividly anxious piece with lyrics in several languages, and then sent everyone home on a peaceful note with Child Falling Asleep, from Schumann’s Kinderszenen.

November 5, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dollshot Has Creepy Fun with Classical Art-Song

This is a Halloween album. New York ensemble Dollshot’s M.O. is to take hundred-year-old classical “art songs,” do a verse or a chorus absolutely straight-up and then matter-of-factly and methodically mangle them – which might explain the “shot” in “Dollshot.” Usually the effect is menacing, sometimes downright macabre, but just as often they’re very funny: this group has a great sense of humor. Pigeonholing them as “punk classical” works in a sense because that’s what they’re doing to the songs, but they also venture into free jazz. And all this works as stunningly well as it does because they’re so good at doing the songs as written before they get all sarcastic. Frontwoman Rosalie Kaplan’s otherworldly beautiful, crystalline high soprano, which she colors with a rapidfire vibrato in places, makes a perfectly deadpan vehicle for this material. Pianist Wes Matthews circles and stabs with a coroner’s precision in the upper registers for a chilly, frequently chilling moonlit ambience. In the band’s most punk moments, tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan is the ringleader: when he goes off key and starts mocking the melodies, it’s LOL funny. Bassist Giacomo Merega alternates between precise accents and booming atmospherics that rise apprehensively from the depths below.

The three strongest tracks are all originals. The Trees, written by Matthews, sets nonchalantly ominous, quiet vocals over a hypnotic, circular melody with bass and off-kilter prepared piano that hints at a resolution before finally turning into a catchy rock song at the end. “The trees are falling…the trees are choking…the pail is falling…” Surreal, and strange, and also possibly funny – it perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band. Noah Kaplan’s Fear of Clouds is the most stunningly eerie piece here, ghost girl vocalese over starlit piano and then an agitated crescendo with bass pairing off against quavery saxophone terror – it would make a great horror movie theme. And the closing cut, Postlude, layers sepulchral sax overtones over a damaged yet catchy hook that refuses to die.

The covers are more lighthearted. Woozy sax pokes holes in an otherwise dead-serious and absolutely spot-on version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Galathea and his twisted little waltz, Der Genugsame Liebhaber, which by itself already seems something of a parody. Poulenc gets off a little easier: the band adds add murky apprehension to La Reine de Coeur and leaves the gorgeously ominous Lune d’Avril pretty much alone other than adding some sepulchral atmospherics at the end. Bouncing gently on some completely off-center, synthy prepared piano tones, Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here Comes That Rainy Day is reinvented as art-song with a comic wink, yet while bringing the lyrics into sharper focus than most jazz acts do. And a Charles Ives medley of The Cage, Maple Leaves and Evening makes a launching pad for the unexpected power in Rosalie Kaplan’s stratospheric upper registers, as well as Matthews’ mountains-of-the-moon piano and an unexpected minimalist, ambient interlude that only enhances the nocturnal vibe. You’ll see this high on our list of the best albums of 2011 at the end of the year.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Loki Ensemble at Music Mondays, NYC 4/26/10

It could have been billed as Schoenberg and His Descendents, a beautifully uneasy, otherworldly upper westside evening of art-songs and some austerely compelling instrumentals that more than did justice to the composer’s legacy. The Loki Ensemble’s mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer has developed not only a great affinity but also a strikingly resonant aptitude for Schoenberg’s paradigm-shifting Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 18, an otherworldly suite based on a series of heartbroken, imagistic poems by Stefan George. The group played four of those songs: on number two and eleven , pianists Jacob Greenberg and then Wes Matthews wrenched every brooding, moody atonality from the score as Fischer brought a remarkably visceral unease, longing and intensity to the vocals. In the stylized world of classical legit voice, individuality is not an easy quality to channel, but Fischer put her own steely, forcefully indelible stamp on everything she touched. To liven things up further, the group added their own instrumental improvisations, notably tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan (of marvelously creepy art-song practitioners Dollshot), whose precise yet breathy, baritone-like timbres matched the murk perfectly. Greenberg hinted at an McCoy Tyner bluesiness in his solo on song fourteen, number fifteen dramatically juxtaposing Fischer’s pyrotechnics against Matthews’ plaintive minimalism.

A very recent work for piano trio and vocals (based on an Octavio Paz text), Reinaldo Moya’s La Rima, with the JACK Quartet’s Christopher Otto on violin and Kevin McFarland on cello made a solid segue, strings swooping over a pensive piano rumble, building to a contrast between terse, incisive piano methodically punching against sostenuto atmospherics. A world premiere, William Cooper’s An Den Wassern Zu Babel was an intense and poignant interpretation of Psalm 137 (you may know it from Bach or the Melodians’ By the Rivers of Babylon). Cooper explained how affecting he found the end of the passage, which concludes with “Blessed are those who bash the bones of their children against the rocks,” and while the music, with considerable echoes of Bartok, never reached that level of violence, there was considerable anger and even more frustration. Over the course of seven movements, pianist Liza Stepanova worked the variations of a simple ascending progression lyrically and dynamically, through a sad, angry march, a hypnotically chilling, late Rachmaninovian-style passage and then the methodical, wounded sway of the final movement which ended sudden and cold.

The final piece, Nathan Shields’ Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking set text by Hart Crane and Walt Whitman to severe, sometimes acidic, evocatively wavelike piano played by Ed Neeman, Fischer speaking the final stanzas with a dramatic flair. The counterpoint between vocals and piano was both striking and hypnotic, the unease of the strings adding to the menace (the theme ponders the role of the ocean as both nurturer and destroyer), but as assured and engaged as the performers were, ultimately this was Horse Latitudes: awkward instant, and the first horse of many was jettisoned. What a treat it would be to hear this without the poetry – or with vocalese instead!

The popular, reliably adventurous Music Mondays at Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd and Broadway continues on May 31 with the Brentano Quartet.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment