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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Subtly Dynamic, Individualistic Live Recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7,

For the last few years, the London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda have been releasing live recordings of the complete Shostakovich symphonic cycle, with frequently transcendent results.

Their performance of Symphony No. 4 is as savage and venomous as the composer could have possibly wanted. Their live album with No. 10 is among the most grimly picturesque in recent memory (it’s packaged as a twofer with an aptly deadpan, witheringly cynical version of No. 9).

Interestingly, Noseda’s take on Symphony No. 7, recorded on December 5, 2019 and streaming at Spotify, is much more sleek. Fans of more rugged versions, as Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have dug into in recent years, may find this lightweight, possibly superficial. But if you love Shostakovich, you may hear things here that you won’t elsewhere.

The backstory is both grim and colorful. The score was smuggled out on microfilm on an American warship; the New York Philharmonic’s North American premiere helped solidify the composer’s reputation here. Back in Stalingrad, in the early days of the siege, Shostakovich joined his local volunteer fire department, but eventually fled the city before the eventual Soviet victory. The party line at the time was that this was more or less a straight-up narrative, Shostakovich’s 1812 Overture. But as we know, he had both barrels aimed at Stalin in just about everything he wrote. Noseda and the orchestra bring to life a lot more here beyond those two general plotlines.

What Noseda has done is to dial up a vast dynamic range that errs on the side of caution. There are moments where the orchestra are no more than a whisper, The first movement here comes across as more of a “what happened to my city” tableau, most notably via Daniel Jemison’s poignantly reflective oboe solo toward the end. For New Yorkers in particular (and until recently, Londoners), this carries enormous if quiet emotional resonance. The dialogue between blithe flute and chuffing cellos is muted, but Noseda uses that as a springboard to wring irresistible humor from the oboe/bassoon conversation immediately afterward. And it doesn’t seem snarky, although that seems more of a possibility in the Gershwinesque fugue that follows.

Noseda finally brings out the artillery for a strange pageant of a march, more of a war movie than an actual war and an interpretation that the cinephile composer probably would have loved. One plausible interpretation that’s been widely promoted over the years is that the theme is a paraphrase of a song from one of Hitler’s favorite operas.

The string section takes over the distant drum riffage in the second movement, Olivier Stankiewicz’s plaintive oboe bringing back a visceral sense of absence and loss. From there we get one of Shostakovich’s signature danses macabres, executed with considerable grace, then a return to wistfulness with the exchanges between harp and bassoon.

Hypnotically circling brass and warmly enveloping woodwinds almost subsume the persistent, bellicose rhythm deep beneath the third movement: this is where it would have been most beneficial for Noseda to pump up the volume a little. But the eerie chromatic theme afterward – which the composer recycled for maximum horror in his String Quartet No. 8 – makes a grisly contrast. Similarly, sotto-voce Romantic escapism gives way to a more sober, windswept, wintry reality.

Noseda and the orchestra finally raise that dichotomy to an efficiently robust if not overwhelming angst in the final movement, up to a surgically spiraling mountainscape straight out of Moussorgsky. In the dream sequence that follows, the drums of war slow to halfspeed and the intruders seem to slink off without much fanfare. The heroic coda is so straightforward that it’s suspicious.

February 9, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Insightful, Powerful New Recording of Harrowingly Relevant Shostakovich String Quartets

While classical musicians are expected to be able to play anything put in front of them, there’s no denying that harrowing emotional content makes it more difficult. So when a string quartet decides to record Shostakovich’s haunting String Quartet No. 8 – arguably the greatest and most relevant string quartet ever written – it’s worth checking out. Classical fans know the backstory well: the composer, fearing for his life as he was being pressured to join the Soviet communist party, decided to go for broke and write his own obituary. As protest music, it is unsurpassed for sheer horror…and for sheer bravery.

How does the Novus Quartet’s new recording – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the other fearless ensembles who’ve tackled it? They play this one in very high definition. For example, right from the first of the innumerable instances where the composer writes his own initials into the piece, the hazy overtones are front and center, especially from Wonhae Lee’s cello. Violinists Jaeyoung Kim and Young-Uk Kim slowly work a somber interchange alongside violist Kyuhyun Kim over elegaic cello drones as the first movement journeys to the grave.

The chase scene in the second movement, the KGB in frantic pursuit, has as much jagged menace as anyone could want, through fleeting references to some of the composer’s other works. Likewise, the sudden crescendos in the gleefully tiptoeing danse macabre of movement three are sharply executed. Movement four is the creepy scene where the death squad comes knocking, in this case done with a bit of restraint that underscores the sense of terror. At a time when big pharma, their puppets in government and law enforcement are waging war against majority populations who won’t take the kill shot, there’s never been a better time to take inspiration from Shostakovich’s insight into how fascists work.

The movement’s conclusion sets up the relentlessly drifting, especially lustrous mournfulness of the quartet’s last movement. The Emerson and Jerusalem Quartets have put out more distantly ominous, and arguably more suspenseful recordings, but this one is strong and needs to be heard as widely as possible, given the state of the world right now.

The Novus Quartet open the album with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, which he wrote in 1945, hot on the heels of his crushingly cynical Symphony No. 9. In view of that work’s less-than-triumphant response to Soviet victory in World War II, this comes across as more serious and straightforward – although Shostakovich’s unsurpassed sense of irony is everywhere.

The group tackle the first movement, a Bartokian, reharmonized folk dance, with a visceral starkness, the babushkas at the local market surveying the damage with an energy that’s more wary than weary. From there, the ensemble waste no time in developing a sense of foreboding in the briskly waltzing second movement. Is the tiptoeing, balletesque interlude that follows an evocation of hope and renewal, or a typical Shostakovich caricature of the face of evil? Considering the brisk, pouncing, driving rhythms, chase sequences and witchy coda of the third movement, it would seem the latter.

The quartet let the pall linger in the fourth movement: Kyuhyun Kim’s righteously indignant viola out in front of the solemnity packs a wallop. The group return to an emphatic rusticity in lieu of courtly grace in the final movement’s dance sequence. The war may be over, but the dynamics that fueled it are still there, the composer seems to remind us. These insightful performances deserve an encore from the rest of the Shostakovich catalog.

January 26, 2022 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

An Electrifying Debut Album by Cellist John-Henry Crawford

Cellist John-Henry Crawford obviously wanted to make a splash with his debut album, which hasn’t hit the web yet. First he tackles an old Germanic warhorse, then a cruelly challenging solo sonata and closes with prime Shostakovich. And he leaves a mark with each piece.

Brahms’ Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99 may be a pleasant if unmemorable work, but Crawford goes deep under the hood and finds innumerable ways to hold the listener’s attention. He airs out his vaunted technique in Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello And Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40 is as sardonic and vibrant as anyone could want.

Right out of the gate in the first movement of the Brahms, Crawford explores the fullness of his range, with a stark, stygian resonance on the lows and contrasting airiness in the highs. His use of vibrato is intuitive and varied, depending on the phrase: he tends to be sparing with it, eschewing full-blown High Romantic drama. Meanwhile, pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion matches that dynamic attack, from distant glimmer to the occasional insistent peak.

There’s a welcome spareness to the second movement, from both cellist and pianist. Yet Crawford’s versatile attack in the pizzicato sections, from a stomp to a whisper, are attention-grabbing to say the least. The two really dig into movement three: this is far more of a boisterous country waltz than tiresome Viennese high-society gala. They close it out with a finely detailed wariness and wistfulness: if only others would play it that way more often.

Crawford’s approach to Ligeti’s completely different, elegaic Sonata for Solo Cello is similar in that dynamic contrasts and shifts are every bit as finely honed, and striking when a sudden, troubled moment appears. The steadiness of the first movement harks appropriately back to Bach; the chase scenes of the second are less furtive than simply breathtaking.

The duo close out the album with Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40. It’s the composer putting an acerbic modernist edge on his early Romantic influences, with a vividly lyricism. The first movement shifts between a rather nostalgic glimmer to more enigmatic insistence, aching crescendos and a stunning move to a mutedly stalking theme out of a poignantly resonant passage.

The elegantly off-center dervish dance of a second movement is pure fun: Crawford’s harmonic glissandos are hilarious (and brutally tough to play). The third’s slow, broodingly upward drift from minimalism to an increasingly wary pavane and back is otherworldly and unselfconsciously affecting. The two wind up the sonata, and the album, with a gremlinish playfulness, trading off breathlessly between torrential streams of notes and an irresistibly wry jauntiness. It’s reason to look forward to whatever else these two choose to do together – and let’s hope they will.

June 7, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dragon Quartet Tackle a Harrowing, Transgressive Masterpiece and Other Russian Works

Today it’s time to salute transgression, and freedom fighters, and one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written.

Is it transgressive for a Chinese string quartet to play play popular and less popular but underated Russian repertoire? That probably depends on who you ask, and where you ask that question.

The Dragon Quartet – violinists Ning Feng and Wang Xiaomao, violist Zheng Wenxiao and cellist Qin Liwei – released their second album in the spring of last year. It’s streaming at Spotify; the centerpiece is Shostakovich’s chillingly immortal String Quartet No. 8. Having outlived Stalin, who had murdered so many of his friends, the composer wrote this piece in less than a week, fearing that he might not live to finish it since the tyrant’s successor, Krushchev, had gone on the warpath against artists again. If you know classical music, you undoubtedly know this one, where the composer inserts his initials thousands of times into the score (in German). If you don’t, you are in for a treat.

The slow, sheer despondency of the first movement is an especially severe contrast with the haggard chase scene (and sarcastic Wagner quotes) in the second. The dynamics of the marionettish dance of death in the third enhance the relentlessly sinister quality, particularly its ghostly swirls.

The fourth movement is where the gestapo knock on the door, one of the most iconic sequences in all of classical music. The quartet really dig into the lushness and desperation that follows: Ning’s muted lines as hope runs out pack a wallop, quietly, as does the resonance of the conclusion and Qin’s stark, solemn cello.

Mieczyslaw (Moishe) Weinberg was for several years Shostakovich’s neighbor and drinking buddy, and a vastly underrated, wildly prolific composer. He’d escaped the Holocaust only to be jailed by Stalin: although Shostakovich advocated for him, it was Stalin’s death that saved his life. Here the group play his String Quartet No. 2, which he wrote in 1945. It makes a good segue.

Ning soars uneasily over moody, sometimes insistent lows, with the group supplying vividly aching low/high contrasts as the piece gets underway. They give the second movement a fin-de-siecle, Debussy-esque wistfulness but also a marching cynicism and then flurry vigorously yet very warily through the third. The melodies hypnotically circling over the ghostly backdrop of the fourth movement are another higlight of the album. The group find a melancholy song without words and then get their hands dirty with the bracing round-robin counterpoint of the concluding movement.

Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 is an attractive piece of music, played expertly and thoughtfully, but it’s not going to blow you away like Shostakovich. It’s a love song to Borodin’s wife that ends as the happy couple go on a brisk stroll together. Before that there’s clever, Haydn-influenced counterpoint and shadowing, old world pensiveness, some stately waltzing, balletesque grace, and hummingbird-like speed from Feng when the conclusion calls for it.

May 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Savagely Brilliant Shostakovich Symphonies From the London Symphony Orchestra

In a time when global tyranny and repression have reached levels of terror not seen since the Middle Ages, it makes sense to revisit two great antifascist works from a composer who narrowly managed to survive under one of the world’s most evil regimes. Only Dmitri Shostakovich’s popularity saved him from the fate so many of his friends suffered under Stalin. Fortuituously, maestro Ginandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra have just released a live album of two completely different but equally relevant Shostakovich symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10, streaming at Spotify. The former is from 2018, the latter from performances at the Barbican in January and February of 2020, just a few weeks before music there was banned by the Boris Johnson regime.

During his lifetime, Shostakovich explained away the savage irony, caricatures and stricken horror in his music as reflecting on the evil of the Tsarist regime, even though it was clear that he was taking shots at Stalin and then Krushchev. Symphony No. 9 is an oddball, the only one of its kind in the composer’s repertoire. It’s a goofy little piece of music whose sarcasm is almost completely deadpan. It’s impossible to imagine a more dispassionate celebration.

Written ostensibly in tribute to the Soviet victory over the Nazis, the blithe little flourishes of the first movement seem to ask, “So we aren’t going to find out if life under Hitler would be any better than it was under Stalin? It couldn’t be any worse.” Ultimately, history would validate that gruesome premise. Noseda leads the orchestra through a very individualistic interpretation, muting the turbulent undercurrent and practically turning it into a concerto for flute and violin.

The conductor takes the second movement slowly, letting the brooding reflection of Juliana Koch’s oboe speak for the weariness of millions of Russians. This depleted, exhausted waltz really drags. Then in the third movement Noseda really picks up the phony pageantry, a familiar trope in the Shostakovich playbook: trumpeter Philip Cobb’s facsimile of a martial Russian victory riff is a hoot.

But it doesn’t last. Timothy Jones’ sotto-voce, lightly vibrato-laden horn brings back the sullen atmosphere in movement four. The sober oboe introduction to the conclusion foreshadows a familiar, troubled hook from Symphony No. 10. The coda is appropriately rote, a whole nation bustling through the motions.

No. 10 might be the greatest symphony ever written: Noseda and the ensemble go deep into its innumerable layers for gravitas and historical impact. Grounded in the low strings, the vast expanse of pain and anguish in the first movement is visceral, a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror. Noseda’s choice to mute the flickers of hope against hope, as a pulsing sway grows more and more harrowing, is an apt template for the rest of the recording.

The furtive chase scene of the second movement gains coldly sleek momentum as it morphs into a danse macabre: holocausts throughout history are always carefully orchestrated. Movement three, in contrast, seems especially restrained in its most desolate moments, setting up the iconic, eerily syncopated, Scheherezade-like theme at the center.. Individually voices of mourning rise over a grim hush in the fourth movement: that brief, bubbly respite may only be a coded message to the composer’s girlfriend at the time, and it isn’t long before it becomes a completely different kind of pursuit theme.

Ultimately, Shostakovich’s best-known symphonies are cautionary tales. Look what happened in my country, he tells us. Don’t let this happen in yours. How crushingly ironic that an orchestra from the UK – sufffering under one of the most sadistic totalitarian regimes in the world at the moment – would be responsible for such deeply insightful performances.

March 31, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hauntingly Relevant New Shostakovich Concert Recording From the London Philharmonic

Dmitri Shostakovich would find no small irony in that one of the most chilling recent recordings of his Symphony No. 11 would be released by a British orchestra during the (hopefully short) reign of the most brutally repressive regime in that nation’s history. The composer titled the symphony 1905, to commemorate the massacre of over two hundred unarmed Russian protestors by Tsarist militia in the St. Petersburg city square that year. In reality, it’s a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s genocide and possibly the martyrs of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary The gold standard for recent recordings remains the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 2012 performance under Valery Gergiev. But this one – by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and streaming at Spotify – is also stunningly vivid.

This undated live performance from London’s now-shuttered Royal Festival Hall doesn’t have quite the dynamic range of the Mariinsky recording, and if anything, it’s more hushed in places. But it’s hardly any less haunting. In Jurowski’s hands, this comes across as more of a series of grisly memories than any kind of linear narrative.

As the morose first movement slowly rises from a doomed predawn ambience, the foreshadowing leaves no doubt that these brave souls don’t have a prayer. Faintly hopeful twin flutes and a solemn solitary oboe give voice to variations on a sturdy worker’s song, which immediately grows more and more defeated over a grimly looming backdrop. Could this be an indictment of Stalin’s bastardization of Marxist ideology, maybe? Meanwhile, the sentries’ trumpets are lurking and don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Jurowski’s resoluteness in maintaining a vast, distant expanse behind them enhances the impact considerably.

Forces mass on each side as a standoff develops in the second movement, lustrously drifting and swirling strings against marching brass hitting a cruelly heroic peak. Are those furtive, muted pizzicato strings going to succeed? Or is the bronzed return of the suicidal opening theme the real portent here? By now, we know where all this is going. Shostakovich doesn’t even acknowledge Stalin by giving him as much as a simple tune: the massacre itself is all drums and cymbal crashes.

But this isn’t half over yet. The contrast between the almost inaudible, massed basses and violins behind the funereal chimes as the smoke clears (and those sentries with their trumpets, who just refuse to shut up) is viscerally intense. The third movement’s long dirge of a folk song, its muted, syncopated bassline and macabre low brass quietly remind the listener to grasp the consequences of this horror. Shostakovich wants us never to forget that fascists don’t just kill once: they do it again and again until we get rid of them.

A slightly different view emerges in the conclusion: amid its richly grim textures, some of these freedom fighters seem considerably more adrenalized and disciplined than what we’ve seen earlier on. In 2021, we will need such energy and discipline as we resist the enticements behind the lockdowners’ genocidal agenda: we can have our orchestras and concerts again, if only we take their needle of death. Obviously, if we do, there won’t be any orchestras left by then anyway.

Like many symphonic ensembles these days in parts of the world which haven’t yet broken free of the lockdown, the London Philharmonic have been releasing a steady stream of archival live recordings and this is one of their very best, reason to keep a close eye on what else they may have in the vault for us.

March 8, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

October 2, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Starkly Relevant New Album and a Governors Island Show by the Very Serious Sirius Quartet

The album cover illustration for the Sirius Quartet‘s latest release, New World – streaming at Spotify – has the Statue of Liberty front and center, against a backdrop that could be a sunset with stormclouds overhead…or smoke from a conflagration. She’s wearing a veil. The record’s centerpiece, New World, Nov. 9, 2016 won the Grand Prize in the the New York Philharmonic’s New World Initiative composition competition a couple of years ago. The message could not be more clear. It’s no wonder why the group are so troubled by the events since then: both of their violinists are immigrants.

They’re playing a free concert featuring their own materal plus original arrangements of Radiohead and the Beatles this Sept 7 at the park in the middle of Governors Island, with sets at 1 and 3 PM. You can catch the ferry from either the old Staten Island Ferry terminal at the Battery – to the east of the new one – or from the Brooklyn landing where Bergen Street meets the river.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s Beside the Point opens the album. In between a wistful, trip hop-flavored theme, the group chop their way through a staccato thicket capped off by a big cadenza where the violin finally breaks free, in a depiction of the struggle against discrimination.

Currents, a tone poem by cellist Jeremy Harman has stark, resonant echoes of Irish music and the blues: it could be a shout out to two communities who’ve had to battle bigotry here. The epic title track sarcastically juxtaposes contrasting references to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8: look how far we haven’t come, violinist/composer Gregor Huebner seems to say.

Still, another Huebner composition, is based on Strange Fruit, the grisly chronicle of a lynching and a big Billie Holiday hit. Ron Lawrence’s viola chops at the air along with the cello over an uneasily crescendoing violin haze, the group coalescing somberly up to a horrified, insistent coda. Their version of Eleanor Rigby has a bittersweet, baroque introductory paraphrase and some bluesy soloing, finally hitting the original melody over a propulsive, funky beat. As covers of the song go, it’s one of the few actually listenable ones.

The album’s second epic, More Than We Are rises slowly through allusions to Indian music to a persistently wary, chromatic pulse fueled by Harman’s bassline: you could call parts of it Messiaenic cello metal. To a New Day is even more somber, flickering pizzicato passages alternating with a brooding sway grounded by a hypnotically precise, stabbing rhythm.

The Chinese-inflected 30th Night has a dramatic vocal interlude amid quavering cadenzas as well as phrasing that mimics the warpy tones of a pipa. The album’s second cover, Radiohead’s Knives Out is louder and more jagged than Sybarite5‘s lush take on the Thom Yorke catalog. The group return to the neo-baroque with the album’s rather sentimental closing cut, simply titled Cavatina. Contemporary classical protest music doesn’t get more interesting or hauntingly diverse than this.

September 3, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chelsea Symphony Celebrate Audacity in the Face of Terror

The New York Philharmonic’s newfound dedication to socially aware programming is a welcome development, but among New York orchestras, the Chelsea Symphony got there first. This year their entire season has been devoted to music celebrating freedom fighters and the struggle against fascism. The coda of Saturday night’s program, Shostakovich’s audaciously transgressive Symphony No. 5, was arguably the most deliciously redemptive piece they’ve played in the last several months, at least from this perspective.

It was a loud yet remarkably distinct performance. It often makes perfect sense for an orchestra to play the lulls close to the vest, in order to max out the dynamics, but conductor Reuben Blundell did the opposite, right from the somber opening riffs, a paraphrase nicked from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The effect was the same: gloom and doom, in your face, and the rest of the symphony was as impossible to turn away from.

One by one, the ensemble absolutely nailed many of the composer’s future signature tropes: a creepy, satirical danse macabre, buffoonish phony pageantry, cynically strutting militarism and the terror and soul-depletion all those things create. In moments of guarded hope, the brass section, in particular, distinguished thesmelves with their lustrous clarity. Solos throughout the performance – notably from Michael Dwinell’s oboe, Sarah Abrams’ flute, Hannah Murphy’s harp and Tyler Hefferon’s timpani – had guided-missile precision.

The piece was an enormous gamble for the composer. In 1937, Stalin’s secret police were rounding up and murdering his friends; meanwhile, he was under fire from the censors for drifting too close to the Second Viennese School, i.e. ‘western” sounds, notwithstanding that so many of the leading figures in that movement were also Slavic. Shostakovich’s response was this wickedly catchy, emotionally panoramic, occasionally harrowing masterpiece.

Notwithstanding all its drama and hope against hope, the one section that might have been the group’s greatest triumph could have been the surreal, atmospheric interlude in the third movement, one which often gets away from other orchestras. Blundell seemed to offer contrasting hope with the robustness of the conclusion, which others often leave much more unsettled.

One thing that did get away from the orchestra was beyond anyone’s control. The DiMenna Center’s air conditioning kicked in hard and sent the string sections’ tuning awry as Nell Flanders led the ensemble matter-of-factly through Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A Minor. Soloist Bryn Digney played it from memory. She knew what she was doing, but stringed instruments tend not to adjust well to unexpectedly cold air on a warm night.

Fortunately, that wasn’t a factor in the beginning and end of the concert, which the group kicked off with minute attention to sudden stylistic shifts throughout Courtney Bryan‘s Sanctum. A portrait of the attempt to stake out solid ground amid relentless police brutality and attacks on black Americans, it requires split-second timing to sync up with a backing track including field recordings  from the Fereguson, Missouri protests. But the Symphony were up to the task of elevating stark bluesiness out of the murk – and vice versa.

The Chelsea Symphony conclude their season on June 29 at 8 PM, repeating on the 30th at 2 at the DiMenna Center with a performance of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 plus the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor with soloist Adam von Housen.  For Sunday’s performance, they switch out Mendelssohn for Beethoven’s violin cnncerto in that same key.. Suggested donation of $20 is about half what the Philharmonic is charging for the Corigliano ealier next month. It will be interesting to compare the two.

May 24, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment