Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Up-and-Coming Verona Quartet Bring a Vivid Program to MOMA Summergarden This Sunday

Among urbane hot-weather New York traditions, nothing beats a trip to MOMA Summergarden on a Sunday evening. The thematic programming that they used to have here has given way to a more eclectic series of acts. Doors open at 6 on the 54th Street side; the music starts at 8 and getting there on time is always a good idea. This Sunday, July 23, the auspicious young Verona Quartet, who got their start at Juilliard just a year ago, play US premieres by a global cast of contemporary composers: Japan’s Teizō Matsumura, Costa Rica;s Alejandro Cardona and Poland’s Elżbieta Sikora. Admission is free.

The quartet’s concert last month at WNYC’s Greene Space was a showcase for their close emotional attunement and versatility. The only questionable choice they made was the sequence of works. On one hand, it makes total sense to open with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 7 and then follow it with Ravel’s String Quartet in F, which is more physically taxing. And maybe the group didn’t want to send the crowd home on a down note – although the Ravel concludes enigmatically. Whatever the case, the program packed a wallop,

The Shostakovich is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. It’s a requiem for the composer’s first wife, who left him, then he persuaded her to come back, then she left him again for keeps. As the quartet portrayed her, she was graceful and elegant…and fatally flawed. “If only…:” Is the central theme. Violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky and cellist Warren Hagerty channeled that with a spare, poignant intensity, from its elegaic, balletesque introduction, through moody circles foreshadowing the danse macabre and eventual, sepulchral defeat that followed – and itself foreshadowed the hunted grimness of the composer’s next quartet.

Their performance of the Ravel was fueled by precise gearshifting between idioms – written on the cusp of late Romanticism and early Modernism, you can hear Cesar Franck’s calm amidst the Parisian bustle, but also Debussy’s Eureka moment when he saw the  gamelan for the first ttime.  The quartet simmered the balmy lustre in the opening movement, then made a meticulous, surgically precise run through the sharp, emphatic pizzicato of the second movement and the carnivalesquely waltzing variations that followed.

It was on the third movement that they really dug in. Ravel wrote this piece very generously – everybody gets time in the spotlight, and this is where the viola and cello get called on to lead the trail out of a revisitation of the summery first movement as it takes a turn in a far darker direction, and Rojansky and Hagerty both rose to the occasion. Likewise, Hagerty didn’t hold back as he anchored the shivery flurries and uneasy, often aching waltz of the concluding movement. The material this Sunday is completely different, but it’s fair to assume that the quartet will go just as deeply into it.

July 20, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Wouldn’t Go to Staten Island for Shostakovich?

Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”

An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.

Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues  – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.

Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.

The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.

That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?

In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known

The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.

February 13, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ensemble Pi Commemorate the Iraq War with an Understatedly Harrowing Program

Even by avant garde standards, chamber group Ensemble Pi stand out not only for the adventurousness of their commissions and their repertoire, but also for their fearlessly political stance. Their annual Peace Concert at Subculture Wednesday night, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bush/Cheney war in Iraq, held to loosely interconnected themes of how language may be interpreted. Group leader and elegantly eclectic pianist Idith Meshulam joined with cellist Katie Schlaikjer and violinist Airi Yoshioka to premiere a Susan Botti song cycle, J’ai tant rêvé de toi, a setting of the famous Robert Desnos love poem that was inscribed posthumously on the Monument to the Martyrs of World War II in Paris. Soprano Kristin Norderval dedicated the performance to Eric Garner and his survivors – with its acidic tonaliites, the vocals, accompaniment and instrumental passages maintained a bracing, tense, precise walking pace punctuated by the occasional horrified cadenza.

It set the stage for an early Krzysztof Penderecki work, his Violin Sonata No. 1. Ostensibly written with the death of Stalin in mind, its harshness never wavered and eventually dissapated in endless if precisely played waves of twelve-tone acidity. Clarinetist Moran Katz then joined the trio for another world premiere, Laura Kaminsky‘s strikingly intense diptych, Deception. Katz’s moody, richly burnished low register in tandem with the cello built an air of mystery and foreboding, occasionally punctured by the piano. The second movement worked clever variations via individual voices in a very Debussy-esque arrangement that also offered a nod to Shostakovich and possibly Penderecki as well.

The evening’s funniest moment was when Norderval sang a brief Bryant Kong setting of Donald Rumsfeld doublespeak about known knowns and known unknowns and so forth: it brought to mind Phil Kline‘s Rumsfeld Songs, a lengthier and even funnier take. Jason Eckardt‘s Rendition, for clarinet and piano, made an apt segue, exploring the concept of rendition in both lethal and less lethal forms. It made for a portrayal of both the chillingly robotic, lockstep mentality that justifies the use of torture as well as its numbingly dehumanizing aspects. To close the program on a particularly chilling note, the ensemble switched out the cello for soprano Rachel Rosales, who sang selections from Shostakovich’s subversive 1967 suite Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok. Blok’s hundred-year-old poems celebrate the downfall of the Tsarist regime, but they also make good anthems for freedom fighters looking to destroy any evil empire: they’re hardly pacifist, and Shostakovich was keenly aware of that. And it was there that the horror of totalitarianism came front and center, Rosales’ dynamic delivery ranging from steely irony to fullscale terror over a backdrop that spoke of shock and awe, from the perspective on the receiving end.

December 19, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philippe Quint Shows Off His Address Book and His Exquisite Chops on the Violin

The bill Tuesday night at the Times Center was a casual “Philippe Quint and friends,” but these friends are in high places, musically speaking. Great players never have trouble finding similar top-level talent, but this violinist has a particularly deep address book. Introducing his own Caprices from the film The Red Violin, John Corigliano attested to Quint’s eclecticism. “He can do bluesy swing, salsa, anything you ask him to,” he marveled. Quint validated him with an alternatingly terse and sizzling performance of the plaintively neoromantic solo theme and variations, through daunting octave passages, lightning descents and nail-biting intensity as they reached a peak.

A bit later on, his fellow violin virtuoso Joshua Bell joined him along with pianist William Wolfram for an effortlessly gleaming version of the opening movement from Moszkowski’s Suite for 2 Violins, followed by an equally gorgeous performance of Shostakovich’s Prelude for Two Violins and Piano, from the composer’s variations on the Jewish folk themes collected by legendary songfinder Moishe Beregovsky in the 1930s. There was a scripted false start and some banter about how Quint had appropriated the Corigliano suite, which Bell had played for the film score and which has since become a signature of sorts: here and elsewhere, Quint revealed himself as quite the ham when he wants to be.

The evening ended on an even more emotionally charged note with the wryly named Quint Quintet – comprising some of the world’s top talent in nuevo tango – playing a trio of Piazzolla classics. Bassist Pedro Giraudo anchored the songs with a spring-loaded pulse while Quint and bandoneon genius JP Jofre worked magical, angst-ridden dynamics while electric guitarist Oren Fader spiced them with measured, incisive figures. Pianist Octavio Brunetti led the group with a relentlessly mysterious majesty through a lushly crescendoing version of Milonga del Angel, then the rising and falling, utterly Lynchian Concierto para Quintetto and then a triumphantly pouncing take of Libertango. Quint favors a singing tone – he released an album of violin arrangements of opera arias a couple of years ago – so it was no surprise to see him literally give voice to the longing and passion in Piazzolla’s melodies.

Pianist Matt Herskowitz delivered an equally thrilling, all-too-brief set with his trio. Quint joined them for a jauntily swinging, exuberantly latin-tinged reinvention of Bach’s Cello Prelude, then a tender rendition of the Goldberg Aria. Herskowitz and the trio ended with a long, ferally cascading arrangement of a familiar Prokofiev theme. All three of these pieces will appear on a forthcoming album recorded by Quint with Herskowitz and his band.

There were also a couple of cameos with singer-songwriters where Quint proved himself adept at chamber pop and quasi-Romany jazz. This concert was a benefit for the Russian-American Foundation, known for similarly intriguing, cross-pollinational events, this one being the kickoff for their twelfth annual Russian Heritage Month. In Russia, classical music is a spectator sport: this audience, weighing in at about 50/50 Russian and American, responded with a Moscow-class enthusiasm.

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

The Lysander Piano Trio Revels in Beauty at Carnegie Hall

The history of classical trio music for keyboard and strings spans from flat-out jamming, to a sort of proto-concerto form with the piano as a solo instrument supported by violin and cello, to more intricately arranged composition where the individual voices intermingle and share centerstage. While Thursday night’s sold-out Carnegie Hall concert by the Lysander Piano Trio hewed mostly to the middle of that ground, it served as a vivid platform for pianist Liza Stepanova’s stuniningly nuanced sense of touch and ability to bring a composer’s emotional content to life. Even by rigorous conservatory standards, she’s something special. With an attack that ranged from a knife’s-edge, lovestruck determination throughout Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8, to a lushly nocturnal sostenuto glimmer on Schubert’s Adagio in E Flat, Op. 148, she caressed the keys, but also let them grow fangs when the music called for it. It is not often when a pianist’s most stunning moments are her quietest: that Stepanova pulled off that feat amidst all sorts of stormy virtuosity speaks to her technical skill, but more to her ability to use that skill to channel the innermost substance of a diverse array of material from across the ages.

John Musto‘s 1998 Piano Trio gave the threesome a chance to revisit some of their performance’s earlier, Schubertian lustre and triumph, but also anticipation and suspense, through the sweepingly melancholic third movement and jaunty, cinematic concluding passages, spiced with a breathless chase scene and allusions to noir. The world premiere of Jakub Ciupinski’s The Black Mirror, an attractively neoromantic diptych, offered an opportunity to take flight out of a sumptuous song without words to a somewhat muted revelry.

All the while, Itamar Zorman’s violin and Michael Katz’s cello provided an aptly ambered, seamless backdrop, until Brahms’ Piano Trio in C Major, Op. 87, where both finally got to provide something more demanding than accompaniment, in graceful counterpoint through lush cantabile, an intimate fugue morphing into a jaunty waltz and then the Beethovenesque, concluding ode to joy. Yet the best piece on the bill actually wasn’t even on it, at least at the start of the show. It was the encore, a fiery, searingly chromatic, kinetic dance by noted Israeli composer Moshe Zorman (Itamar’s dad) based on a traditional Yemenite melody. This had the most virtuoso passages for the strings, the violin’s rapidfire volleys anchored by a tersely misterioso cello bassline. the night’s most visible demonstration of chemistry between the group members. All things being even, it would have been nice (ok, this is being a little greedy) to have had more of a taste of the kind of electricity this violinist and cellist are capable of delivering: maybe something by Ravel or Rachmaninoff?

April 3, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniela Liebman Makes a Stunning Debut with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

The big story at the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony‘s performance at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday was pianist Daniela Liebman‘s debut. But the orchestra did their best to pre-empt that. They exploded with their introductory piece, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, more curtain-burner than curtain-lifter. Maestro David Bernard conducted from memory, as he did with all but one of the works on the program. He’s a lot of fun to watch, a very kinetic presence, big smile stretched across his face, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The work has the same romping energy as the composer’s Slavonic Dances, but with considerably more dynamics, done plushly, with pinpoint precision and an unexpectedly delicate balance between the brass and strings for such a robust piece of music.

If the thought of an eleven-year-old tackling Shostakovich in front of a sold-out house makes you wince, you’re not alone. What’s the likelihood that a young middle-schooler, with her limited life experience, slight build and small hands, would have the stamina and technique, let alone the emotional depth, to deliver anything more than a rote version of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 102? This isn’t Shostakovich the outraged witness; this is the 20th century’s greatest musical ironist at the peak of his sardonic, puckish, satirical power. Shostakovich wrote it in 1957 as a showcase for his pianist son Maxim, obviously something of a parody of the sturm und drang of the traditional High Romantic concerto form. But the simple fact that Daniela Liebman would choose this darkly amusing piece, with its seething anti-fascist subtext, over, say, something more straightforward by Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart, says a lot. And she seemed to intuitively grasp it, playing with a deadpan intensity and just the hint of a wink, whether adding a touch of evil when the dancing first movement morphed into a coldly marionettish mockery, or with a coolly singleminded focus as the piece playfully slid into 7/8 time in the final movement. Shostakovich himself had a hard time getting his own hands around several of the rising unison passages that occur about midway through, but Liebman pulled them off with aplomb. Depth is not a quality that only older people can access, and Liebman left no doubt that she is a deep soul. She also loves the spotlight, treating the crowd to rapidfire, triumphant solo versions of Vitaly Fillipenko’s cruelly difficult, staccato Toccata as well as a Chopin etude, earning more than one standing ovation in the process.

The closing work on the bill was Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, which Bernard and the ensemble immersed in a dreamy unease that never quite relented, an apt illustration of the doomed lovers, through long crescendos to a stormy dance, an absolutely lustrous brass interlude and a series of big Beethovenesque endings. This was a world-class, majestic performance.

The orchestra also played a steady, Teutonically matter-of-fact version of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Featured violinist Jourdan Urbach got an old-fashioned standing ovation after the first movement, but to be fair, the solos from the oboe and then Alix Raspe’s harp a bit later on were every bit as compelling. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is February 22, 2014 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St (between 2nd and 3rd Aves) featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer 1915 and Dvorak’s Dance Suite for Orchestra.

October 29, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ACME Revisits the Holocaust, Memorably

Thursday night at the Morgan Library, in a program sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) played a wrenchingly powerful trio of requiems for victims of the Holocaust and World War II.  While there’s so much live music in this city that it’s never really safe to pick a particular concert as the year’s best, for 2013, this one was as transcendent as they get.

First on the bill was Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, Op. 18. The Polish composer had an extraordinarily prolific career as both a concert pianist and composer in the former Soviet Union, supporting himself mainly by writing scores for film and animation. He had musical roots: his mother was a pianist and his father ran Warsaw’s Jewish theatre. Both were murdered in the Holocaust. The cinematic aspect of Weinberg’s compositions is potently foreshadowed in this work, witten in 1944 when he was 25. It’s essentially a narrative about a cabaret gone horribly wrong. Its phantasmagorical menace, savage irony and gallows humor may reflect both Weinberg’s dread concerning the fate of his family, and also a contempt for the low-rent theatre types of his new digs in Tashkent, a safe if backwater haven where he ran the local opera company until the war’s end.

The piece has three main themes. Pianist Timothy Andres led the distantly macabre, title theme of sorts with a moody, nonchalant foreshadowing, setting up the series of twisted, tumbling circus interludes, the frantic horror of a couple of chase scenes and the funereal bell motif that eventually serves as its coda. In between there were twisted waltzes, a bit of a lurid stripper vamp and sarcasm in abundance, their edgy counterpoint delivered dynamically by violinists Ben Russell and Caroline Shaw, violist Nadia Sirota and cellist Clarice Jensen.

Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1992 Kronos Quartet commission, was next, quite the contrast with the savagery that preceded it. Taking its inspiration from an elegaic poem by Velimir Khlebnikov, it juxtaposes grief-stricken cumulo-nimbus ambience with a hushed, prayerful theme. Jensen probed sharply for plaintive tonalities and struck gold, Sirota bringing a similarly cello-like richness to the raw, austere passages where Gorecki spotlights the viola.

That Shostakovich’s 1944 Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 was almost an anticlimax speaks to the power of what preceded it. And this is Shostakovich at his most savage: the piece introduces a wounded klezmer melody that would reappear in his String Quartet No. 8, as well as a mincing, cowardly caricature in the warped, marionettish closing danse macabe. The composer never alluded to exactly who its target was: it could be Hitler, but it could also be Stalin. Pretty much every classical ensemble not specifically dedicated to a particular era claim to be advocates for new music, but ACME really walk the walk. That this adventurous collective would go as far back in time for this particular program is unusual; that they’d advocate so powerfully for the underrated Weinberg, and go as deeply into the rest of the program as they did is characteristic.

April 19, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Riveting, Eternally Relevant Holocaust Remembrance from the Cassatt String Quartet

The Nazis murdered approximately 14,700 children out of the 15,000 interned at the Terezin transit camp. Of course, this happened after using the camp as a showcase for how well the prisoners throughout the death camps were ostensibly being treated. Red Cross observers, for example, were shown musical and theatrical performances by captives there. As documented in Hannelore Brenner’s The Girls From Room 28 and elsewhere, Terezin contained a vital artistic community – it might seem laughable to call it a “scene,” but that’s what it was – in the brief months before most of its victims were shipped off to be killed. Thursday night at Symphony Space, the Cassatt String Quartet paid tribute to those performers’ extraordinary fortitude under the worst kind of duress.

Opening a concert with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 runs the risk of rendering the rest of the program anticlimactic, or even redundant: after that work’s harrowing cinematics, there’s just about nowhere to go but down. That the ensemble – who are in residence at Symphony Space and making the absolute most of it – managed to avoid that pitfall speaks to the power and resonance of the rest of the bill, and how well they played it. Titled Music for a Vanished World, the show also featured Terezin prisoner Viktor Ullmann’s  Quartet No. 3, contemporary American composer Gerald Cohen’s Playing for Our Lives, and a conversation midway through with eloquent, charismatic Terezin survivor and author Ela Weissberger, famous for her role there playing the cat in several stagings of the musical Brundibar.

Taken out of context, Ullmann’s work is fascinating, an intricate, strikingly modern web of countermelodies that run the gamut from unabashedly somber to a joyous romp at the end as everybody rushes out through the gates. As a work made under circumstances as cruel as they were, it’s an extraordinary achievement. A sort of more defiant counterpart to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, the quartet took it full throttle at the end, leaving no doubt that this was one big “sieg heil” right in Der Fuhrer’s face. Cohen’s suite, a recent composition, worked austere, sometimes acidic permutations on three themes: Beryozhkele (Birch Tree), the plaintive Jewish folk song; the lullaby from Brundibar; and the Dies Irae section of Verdi’s Requiem, another piece that was actually performed at Terezin. Working its way through them, stately and methodically, with tinges of horror, the suite’s most memorable section was when Cohen took the lullaby – a rather saccharine, schlocky melody – and twisted it into a cartoonish menace.

As for the Shostakovich, it was as shattering as it possibly could have been: one can only hope that this performance might have been recorded. One of the most vivid and chilling pieces of music ever written, it is as cutting-edge and difficult to play today as it was over fifty years ago when it was premiered. The familiarity of the narrative makes its introductory lament, tumbling microtonal chase scene, satanically phantasmagorical puppet’s dance and gunshot-ridden dirge even more resonant. The ensemble played as a single instrument: there were places, especially early on, where it was impossible to tell who was playing what, among violinists Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violist Sarah Adams and celllist Nicole Johnson. The swooping tumble of bodies being chased down by the gestapo in the second movement fell to the violins to echo an endless warning siren, over and over, and they did it relentlessly. As the piece grew quieter and more elegaic, it fell to Johnson to carry many of the work’s most plaintive melodies, which she did with equal parts grace and stunned horror. The group seemed moved almost to the point of tears by the end, a feeling clearly shared by the audience: in an era when Iran executes women for blasphemy, drones rain death down on weddings in Iraq and Palestine, and the prison at Guantanamo is still open, this quartet could not be more relevant. The Cassatt String Quartet return auspiciously to Symphony Space early next spring; watch this space. Happy Hanukah, everybody.

December 8, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Conductor’s-Eye View from Yaniv Segal

This coming Sunday, May 20 at 3 PM the Greenwich Village Orchestra plays Shostakovich’s lively and entertaining yet subtext-loaded Symphony No. 9, conducted by Yaniv Segal of the eclectic Chelsea Symphony, followed by the GVO’s own Barbara Yahr conducting Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at Washington Irving HS Auditorium at Irving Place and 16th Street. A $15 donation gets you in; there’s a reception to follow. Segal is widely sought out as a guest conductor; luckily, he had a little time to discuss what promises to be a characteristically rich program.

Lucid Culture: You’ve had a very eclectic background in the arts, having been involved with the theatre and in music since childhood. Let me ask you, is your acting background something you draw on as a conductor, and if so, how?

Yaniv Segal: Being on stage from a young age has helped me to become very comfortable as a performer in front of an audience. I very rarely get nervous, but if I do get a little antsy before a performance, as soon as I step on stage I am over it and able to focus on the music at hand.

Conducting is different from acting in many ways but a big difference is the timeframe – whereas acting requires emoting in real-time, a conductor must show what is about to happen in the near future while reacting to what is going on in the present. It is a constant mind trick to be both involved and aware of shaping the present while preparing the future and considering how the present will impact something that occurs in the music down the line.

A similarity between conducting and acting is that the end result must be apparent..and communicated. If an actor were to feel a certain passionate scene in some way – let’s say Maria’s reaction to Tony’s death at the end of West Side Story – but the reaction were internal, and not communicated to the audience, the actor might feel personally devastated, but the audience may not be moved at all. Thus the good and successful actor must not only be able to feel the emotion in the story, but also to communicate that in a way that the audience feels the same way. A conductor must resonate with the music but also must translate that into some kind of physical or spiritual communication so that the musicians all feel it and thus are able to bring the emotions and power of the music to the audience.

LC: You’re also a trained violinist. Does that inform your approach to conducting an orchestra – and especially the string section?

YS: I have a lot of experience playing in orchestras. I still play violin and viola regularly, and that has definitely influenced my conducting. Perhaps one of the biggest areas of influence is on my rehearsal technique. As an orchestral musician, I have been frustrated by conductors who are not efficient with their time on the podium during rehearsal. We want to make music together and the best way to do that is through more playing and less talking. I think that a successful conductor knows how to manage their limited rehearsal time and knows how to get the most out of an orchestra using the fewest words possible.

As to my specific string playing knowledge, it is certainly helpful for conducting. The strings are the most numerous members of an orchestra. Although I have learned a little bit about playing all the instruments in the orchestra in order to feel a connection to them, I will always feel a close relationship with string sound and technique—and that certainly informs my conducting and rehearsing.

LC: You are a founder of the Chelsea Symphony, that excellent and eclectic orchestra across town on the west side. It’s good to see cross-pollination going on between these two ensembles. As up-and-coming orchestras from neighborhoods long known for their artsiness, is there any competition between you? Or is it more collaborative – you know, in classical circles, everybody tends to know everybody else…

YS: I don’t think that there is competition between the two organizations. We have had a very positive working experience between the two organizations and in the past GVO has graciously lent some of their equipment, and there are some players who play in both orchestras. If I can make a general statement, I would say that competition is created by people and not by organizations. The two orchestras serve different communities and have different aspirations and specific goals. It makes more sense to work together to bring more music to New York’s diverse and wonderful neighborhoods than to think of ourselves as in competition.

LC: To what degree, if at all, do you have to throw a switch, transition from one work or one era to another? I’ve seen you conduct Tschaikovsky, you just conducted a massive symphonic poem for choir and orchestra, Mario Jazzetti’s The Profile, the Life, and the Faith Across the Notes at Avery Fisher Hall. Now you’re moving to the Shostakovich Symphony No. 9. Both of those pieces have a triumphant sensibility, on the surface at least: does this make the shift easier for you?

YS: Conductors these days are expected to do the impossible and to have a command of all types of repertoire, styles, time periods, etcetera. A single concert might typically juxtapose a world premiere with a classical warhorse. Basically we have to be able to switch gears on a dime. I think if anything makes shifting between pieces easier, it is the quality of the music that makes the difference. When there is music that we love to perform, it doesn’t matter when it was written.

LC: Many listeners hear considerable sarcasm along with triumph in the Shostakovich. Do you agree?

YS: For sure. It is very important to listen to this piece in the context for which it was written. At the end of World War II, the Soviets, Stalin especially, expected a triumphant Ninth Symphony from their country’s leading composer, Shostakovich, along the lines of Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead, he gave them this 30-minute chamber symphony full of wit, humor, and sarcasm. Every seeming development towards a climax dissipates before it fully materializes. The symphony has a witty scherzo and an enormous faux-serious and plaintive bassoon solo which negates the weightiness of the low brass (the fourth movement). Finally in the last movement Shostakovich gives us what seems to be a true military march and perhaps the final triumph, but that two disappears into a childlike “nyah nyah” moment.

LC: Is there something in this work – a message, an emotional resonance maybe – that you hope send listeners home with?

YS: Perhaps Shostakovich was trying to point out the folly of war, perhaps he was just sticking it to the authorities… I think the message is clear from Shostakovich. He stayed true to his artistic integrity regardless of what was expected of him from an authority he didn’t believe in. It is important for all of us, even when faced with tremendous calamities, to remember that we have our own voices.

LC: Have you ever conducted the GVO before? If so, you’re in for a treat…

YS: Yes, I have. I was their assistant conductor when I lived in New York. I got to work with them a lot in rehearsal and conducted several pieces in performance. The last time I conducted them was Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals, and Barbara Yahr played the piano part.

LC: Any other questions I should be asking?

YS: I met my wife through the GVO. She was playing flute and piccolo in the orchestra as a grad student, and I was called to sub for Barbara for a rehearsal. Joanna and I hit it off and started dating a few weeks later. I ended up becoming the assistant conductor of the orchestra, she ended up serving on the board, and we are about to celebrate our two-year anniversary!

May 13, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment