Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Trio Karénine Play Transformative Music For a Transformative Time

We are in the midst of a shift of ages, watching the final ugly convulsions of centuries-old systems of repression and murder as they self-destruct. To paraphrase Dr. David Martin, the global totalitarians are the brontosaurus that ate itself out of existence since its pea brain couldn’t adapt. At such a transformative time in history, there’s plenty of music to inspire us as we find our way out of the wreckage and regroup. One particularly timely recording is Trio Karénine‘s imaginative version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, from their latest album La Nuit Transfigurée, streaming at Soundcloud.

This group’s take of the piano trio transcription by Eduard Steuermann is an eye-opener. Pianist Paloma Kouider sets an understatedly crushing funereal mood to introduce the first movement, violinist Fanny Robilliard leading the troubled upward drive, cellist Louis Rodde a disquietingly lingering presence. The trio’s gusty but minutely attuned attack lures the inner, surrealist beast out of its comfortable lair in the second movement.

They give movement three a more strikingly emphatic ache, only to watch it sepulchrally flit away. The thread loosens with Kouider’s Romantic glitter and the strings’ matter-of-fact counterpoint in the fourth movement, setting the stage for a wistful if guardedly forward-looking conclusion that fits in alongside the composer’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

The album’s first piece is Liszt’s Tristia, a transcription from his suite Années de Pèlerinage. The sparseness and wounded restraint are stunning, particularly Kouider’s muted, chromatically chilling pedalpoint behind Rodde’s plaintive solo and then the strings’ understatedly conjoined angst. Likewise, the sudden descent from a stately (some might say cliched) pavane into increasingly explosive torment on the wings of the violin and Kouider’s eerily twinkling riffs. In context, the homey sentimentality of the finale comes as a real surprise.

The group also follow a matter-of-fact, dynamically sensitive but also playfully jaunty trajectory through Schumann’s Studies in Canonic Form, op.56

October 10, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Iconic Horror Film For the Ears

Here’s one of the alltime great horror movies for the ears. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1936, when he first earned the wrath of Josef Stalin for daring to create interesting and relevant music that didn’t glorify the genocidal Soviet regime.

Sound familiar?

Censorship and totalitarianism existed long before the lockdown, the needle of death, Facebook and Google. The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was pressured not to premiere the symphony, which wouldn’t see the light of day until 1961. The composer reputedly called it his favorite.

As political satire, it’s one of the most withering pieces of music ever written. It’s a mashup of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Schoenberg, but more venomously political than anything any of those composers ever wrote. There’s a spellbinding live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, streaming at Spotify, that you should hear if you can handle savagely troubled music right now.

This particular album is taken from two concerts at the Barbican in November 2018. Noseda’s dynamics are vast and dramatic to the extreme, as they should be. Whether explosive, or shuddering with horror, or ruthlessly parodying Stalin’s campy pageantry, the orchestra are a force of nature.

The first movement comes in with a shriek, a pulsing post-Sacre du Printemps dance of death and all kinds of foreshadowing of how Shostakovich would expand on this kind of phantasmagoria, far more politically. All the strongman themes in Shostakovich’s symphonies, from the third on, are phony: he never lets a tyrant, whether Stalin or Krushchev, off the hook.

Coy cartoons suddenly appear livesize and lethal. This is a cautionary tale, the composer telling us not to take our eye off the ball, or else. A rite of the dead of winter, intertwined with terrified individual voices, rises to a vicious crescendo. The first of many references to Anitra’s Dance, the Grieg theme, appears. Concertmaster Roman Sinovic and bassoonist Rachel Gough become plaintive and persistent witnesses to history.

Movement two is nothing less than an indictment, a sometimes ghostly, pervasively anxious waltz wafting in and out, the ruthlessness of the regime baring its fangs to a terrorized citizenry. The concluding third movement begins too casual to be true, as the orchestra calmly allude to another macabre Russian classic, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The chase scene early on doesn’t have quite the horror of the KGB pursuit theme in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but it’s close.

The ensemble offer a twisted parody of a Germanic minuet as a spitball at the entitled Russian collaborator classes, Noseda getting maximum cynical gossipy fervor out of the strings. Stormtroopers gather and wreak havoc, the orchestra building a devastatingly phantasmagorical parody of Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Clashes of ideologies, musical and otherwise, grow more combatively surreal. The seemingly ineluctable, gruesome march out doesn’t get to fade down without a series of accusatory ghosts.

As with all of Shostakovich, there are innumerable other details that could take up ten more pages to chronicle: buckle up for this carnival of dead souls. The London Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of live albums comprise some incredible performances and this might be the very best of recent years.

October 1, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Revealing New Take on an Iconically Scary Suite From Patricia Kopatchinskaja

As a student, Patricia Kopatchinskaja fell in love with Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. But she didn’t stop with the music: “All my life I have felt that I was Pierrot,” she reveals.

Scary admission. Now we know why she would seize the opportunity to be the macabre Michael Hersch’s go-to violinist. For fans of Schoenberg’s iconic portrait of mad obsession (and staple of horror movie scores), Kopatchinskaja has recorded the suite on her new album, streaming at Spotify. It’s truly a dream (or nightmare) come true for her, since she doubles as both violinist and vocalist.

And she revels in it. The way her voice matches that fleeting glissando early in the opening miniature attests to how deeply she dives into the rest of it. Having seen the great Lucy Shelton gleefully tackle these pieces more than once, it’s fair to say that Kopatchinskaja’s approach just as fearlessly entertaining, and surprisingly nuanced. Shelton would really dig in and try to half-sing Albert Giraud’s texts. Kopatchinskaja is more of an otherworldly narrator sprite.

Pianist Joonas Ahonen and the rest of an inspired ensemble join her in giving a stately strut to Colombine, providing sotto-voce, cynical cheer in Der Dandy, flitting mystery in Ein blasse Wascherin, a moody stroll for Madonna, and a distant moroseness to Der kranke Mond. Beyond just those highlights, the attention to detail throughout the twenty-one short segments is spectacular, from film noir furtiveness to deep-space gloom, unexpectedly restrained phantasmagoria and flickers of sardonic humor.

There are a handful of other pieces on the record. Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.7 drift sepulchrally and offer stygian mystery alongside puckish cheer. Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen bounce slyly through Fritz Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese and its ersatz Romany riffage.

To close the album, Ahonen parses Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces op.19 for moody acidity, lingering unease and peek-a-boo humor. The inclusion of Schoenberg’s pointless arrangement of Johann Strauss’s schlocky Emperor Waltz makes an awful segue out of Pierrot Lunaire: punk classical this is not. Going straight to Schoenberg’s Phantasy For Violin and Piano, op.47, which Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen play colorfully and acerbically afterward, would have been perfect.

April 27, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Massive, Exhilarating Double Album From the Spektral Quartet

One unexpectedly entertaining feature of the Spektral Quartet’s lavish double album Experiments in Living is an “online card deck emulator” that facilitates very strange, quirky yet also insightful ways to create playlists from its vast range of material. Modeled after a tarot deck, it’s meant to defamiliarize the listener and, one suspects, lure them into hearing something they might not otherwise choose. Plenty of diehards will see the Ruth Crawford Seeger quartet here and immediately dial up all four movements, in order. But the card deck is a cool idea: it never hurts to listen outside the box. And if you just want to listen to the album inside the box, literally, it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The material ranges from the well-worn to the once-and-still-radical to the more recent, adventurous sounds the group are best known for. How do they approach the Brahms String Quartet No. 1? The first movement seems fast, a little skittish, very acerbically rhythmic: they’re keeping their ears wide open. Even if you find the music impossibly dated, this version definitely isn’t boring. Those echo effects really come into sharp focus!

By contrast, the nocturnal second and third movements come across as careful, pastoral tableaux, the changes very proto-ELO. The group – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – cut loose on the intertwining finale. The close-miked clarity of the individual instruments in the mix is superior: Rolen’s quasi-basslines have a welcome presence.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 is right up their alley, from the first movement’s icepick exchanges to its hypnotic yet restlessly acidic counterpoint and a paint-peeling ending. Dynamic contrasts are subtle but striking, particularly in the more muted second movement. Balletesque precision alternates with sullen sustain and soaring highs in the third; the quartet’s unexpectedly slinky groove in the fourth is a revelation. Defiance has seldom been more resolute than this.

It’s a hard act to follow, but the Seeger quartet is every bit as gripping and a brilliantly contemporaneous segue (1931 for her, 1927 for him). In a word, wow. The ensemble attack it with a light-fingered, sometimes almost fleeting pointillism, an endess thicket of echo effects and sudden tradeoffs in the first couple of movements. The griptite resonance of the third seems almost backward-masked as phrases or single notes pass around the sonic frame; the group, particularly Rolen, really dig in vigorously up to a sudden end that’s just as coy as Schoenberg’s.

The first of the 21st century pieces is a Sam Pluta diptych, a shivery, punchy round-robin punctuated with droll, often cartoonish extended technique: harmonics, white noise, things that go bump in general, all of it amusing to hear and brutally hard to play.

Flutist Claire Chase joins the quartet for Anthony Cheung‘s 2015 suite The Real Book of Fake Tunes. Her assertive, rhythmic swells balance with the strings’ pizzicato bounce, then a microtonal haze sets in, punctuated by wry echoes and leaps. The third segment, with its stark microtonal chords and flute scurrying amid them, is edgy fun, as is the alternatingly whirling and grittily suspenseful fourth part. The conclusion bristles with good jokes and peek-a-boo riffage: it stands up amidst some very formidable material here.

Singer Charmaine Lee, who writes and improvises in phonetic language, teams up with the group for her surrealistically playful 2018 piece Spinals. This is what the word “sillypants” on the tarot card generator will get you, complete with what sounds like turntable scratching, whether acoustic or electronically generated.

The quartet close with George Lewis’ String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, from two years earlier. Keening glissandos and flickers dance and swing over chugging, sputtering, often ridiculous riffage, with circular, microtonal clusters punctuated by droll flicks and punches. Definitely sillypants – with daunting extended technique and a little horror movie ambience to keep you (and the band) on your toes.

January 7, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Been a Typically Eclectic Year at Upper Manhattan’s Home for Adventurous New Classical Sounds

If new classical music is your thing, don’t let any possible twee, gentrifier associations scare you away from the Miller Theatre‘s series of so-called “pop-up” concerts. For almost a decade now, Columbia’s comfortable auditorium at the top of the stairs at the 116th St. stop on the 1 train has been home to an often spectacularly good series of free, early evening performances of 21st century works along with the occasional blast from the past. The name actually reflects how impromptu these shows were during the series’ first year, and while the schedule now extends several months ahead, new events still do pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes there’s free beer and wine, sometimes not, but that’s not the main attraction, testament to how consistently solid the programming here has become.

This past fall’s first concert was a revelatory world premiere of John Zorn’s new JMW Turner-inspired suite for solo piano, played with virtuosic verve by Steven Gosling; that one got a rave review here. The October episode, with indie classical chamber ensemble Counterinduction playing an acerbic, kinetic series of works by their charismatic violist Jessica Meyer, was also fantastic. Various permutations of the quintet, Meyer joined by violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, clarinetist and bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland and pianist Ning Yu began with the dappled shades of I Only Speak of the Sun, then brought to life the composer’s many colorful perspectives on Guadi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in a dynamic, high-voltage partita. The most bracing number of the evening, Meyer explained, drew on a David Foster Wallace quote regarding how “ the truth will set you free, but not until it lets you go,”

There were many other memorable moments here throughout the past year. In February, Third Sound played an assured but deliciously restless take of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 along with a mixed bag of material from south of the border. A month later, pianist Marilyn Nonken parsed uneasily lingering works by Messiaen and Tristan Murail.

Then in April, Rebecca Fischer delivered a fascinating program of solo violin pieces along with some new solo arrangements. The highlight was a solo reinvention of Missy Mazzoli‘s incisively circling Death Valley Junction. Fischer also ran through an increasingly thorny, captivating Paola Prestini piece, along with brief, often striking works by Lisa Bielawa, Gabriela Lena Frank and Suzanne Farrin.

Last month, Tak Ensemble tackled elegantly minimalist chamber material by Tyshawn Sorey and Taylor Brook. And December’s concert featured firebrand harpist Bridget Kibbey, who played the Bach Toccata in D faster than any organist possibly could, then slowed down for simmering, relatively short pieces by Albeniz and Dvorak among others.

The next Miller Theatre “pop-up” concert on the calendar is next January 21 at 6 PM with violinist Lauren Cauley.

December 23, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Student Orchestras Rule!

Among the ever-shrinking, rarefied elites who sometimes actually get paid to go to concerts and then share their experiences, there’s a feeling that student orchestras often do a better job than the pros. There are many logical reasons for this. Conservatory kids get more rehearsals, more guidance (which could cut both ways), they’re playing for a grade, and they’re not yet jaded to the point where they feel like phoning it in.

Yesterday’s Juilliard performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony at Alice Tully Hall validated all of those arguments. There was no backing off: everybody dug in, and went as deeply as possible into the composer’s stubborn dedication to being counterintuitive. This is a mighty tough piece to play, with its constantly shifting web of counterpoint, sudden blustery exchanges of short riffs between instruments, and tantalizing fragments of melody that, just when you start to hum along, disappear into thin air.

It was a friendly and animated guided tour of eerie close harmonies, petulant defiance of any genuine resolution, and Schoenberg’s sometimes outrageous sense of humor. There’s a point about two thirds of the way through where he basically stops the music to make sure that the cello and bass are both in tune – and then makes a theme and variations out of it. The group nailed it with deadpan aplomb: it was shocking that the audience, at least the string players in the crowd, weren’t completely cracking up.

And has anybody noticed what a great string section the Columbia University Orchestra has this year? It’s Boston Symphony quality: lush, rich, epic and tight as a drum. Dynamics weren’t at the top of the list, it would seem, at their mighty performance of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite at Symphony Space last month, but their forceful presence gave the music a stunning freshness. This piece is proto heavy metal, and that’s exactly how the ensemble played it, going in hard for every bit of clever humor and grand guignol that the composer weaves for the strings.

They did the same thing with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Anybody who’s gone to any of the classical halls over the past few years has probably been exposed to more New World than they probably could ever want. Yet, having heard maybe a half dozen different versions live since the New York Philharmonic made it their theme for a season, this ranked with the best of them. The rest of the orchestra wasn’t up to the level of the strings, but the rest of those other orchestras weren’t up to that level, either. What an undeniable, emphatic attack! It validated any bellicose interpretation of the symphony, and was every bit as fresh and new as the Grieg.

The Columbia University Orchestra’s next performance is a program TBA on April 6 at 8 PM at Lerner Hall on the Columbia Campus. And next month at Juilliard is the Focus Festival, featuring several public concerts of music originally commissioned for radio airplay, many of which are free. The first one is on Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at Alice Tully Hall, with orchestral works by Ligeti, Betty Olivero and Michael Tippett; tix are available at the hall’s box office.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

December 25, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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