Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Salute a Beloved, Tireless Champion of Classical Music in This City

Beethoven was just about to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon, but then Napoleon got too big for his britches, crowned himself emperor…and missed his chance to have a Beethoven symphony named in his honor. Last night at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s sold-out performance in the Lincoln Center complex, conductor Barbara Yahr dismissed the speculation of what unnamed “great man” the composer actually dedicated the mighty piece to after Napoleon went over to the dark side. “I’ve decided that it’s for the greatness in every one of us,” Yahr intimated, and with that, dedicated this concert to the orchestra’s late cellist and longtime publicist Trudy Goldstein.

We lost Trudy a couple of months ago. She insisted that the shoulder problems that brought an end to her performing career were caused by years of tuning cellos for her school students: she was that dedicated. Publicly, she was always first in line to champion young performers. Privately, she lamented the Sovietization and one-size-fits-all approach that’s become so commonplace in music education. Ever the individualist, Trudy wanted everybody to be themselves.

Where an awful lot of people on the business end of classical music tend to be stuffy and stand on ceremony, Trudy was a bon vivant. Her beaming smile, big hugs, unselfconsciously down-to-earth personality and infectious enthusiasm won her a wide circle of friends, but also paid dividends in terms of growing the fan base.

Big-hearted, determined and generous to a fault, Trudy’s biggest dream was to share the transcendence and thrills she’d experienced in a lifetime in classical music. She listened widely and voraciously: she was always up for hearing a new idea or interpretation. She loved everything oldschool about her city: diners, neighborhoods holding their own against an onslaught of gentrification, traipsing all over Chinatown and Greenpoint with her husband Sidney, an erudite and passionate devotee of jazz and fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. In her own sweet way, Trudy was a potent influence on an awful lot of people over the years, one of the real unsung heroes of classical music in New York in the late 20th and early 21st century. She is dearly missed.

She would have loved what the orchestra did with Beethoven this time out. His symphonies are all about punchy, catchy hooks and this might be the hookiest and punchiest of all of them. The constant rhythmic shifts are daunting, but the group negotiated these mini-mazes with a seamless grace. And this wasn’t a steamrolling performance: it was a translucent, nuanced one. The way Yahr held the orchestra in check through a deadpan, winking interpretation of the scherzo, where Beethoven is saying, “What on earth are we doing, getting our underwear all up in a knot over this guy,” was almost devastatingly funny. Likewise, the triumph of the coda was more ballet than ballroom blitz. There are some new faces in the brass section, crisp and clear and on their game. Let’s hope they stick around.

As good as that was, the Sibelius Violin Concerto was arguably even better, in context a requiem that packed a wallop. What a haunting tale this one told. Soloist Tosca Opdam painted a harrowing portrait of inconsolable sadness with her angst-fueled shivers, austere grey-sky harmonics and mournful cadenzas as the basses and timpani fluttered through the gloom below. And oboeist Jason Smoller hit a bullseye with his silky solo in a boisterous take of the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture to open the night.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s season last year was ambitious to the extreme, the centerpiece being Beethoven’s Ninth. This year is all about relevance and some heavy issues we’ve all had to deal with since last November. Their next concert is on December 2 at 7:30 PM, back at Good Shepherd/Faith Presbyterian Church at 52 W 66th St with Rachmaninoff’s poignant Vocalise, Michael Daughterty’s explosively kinetic Raise the Roof and Shostakovich’s savagely anti-fascist Symphony No. 10. Tix are $20/$10 stud/srs and considering that last night sold out, this concert probably will too.

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October 22, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love Slays Multitasking Yesterday Evening

If there was ever a symphony for our time, it’s Sibelius’ No. 7. And it’s practically a hundred years old:  completed in 1924, to be precise. Before leading the Greenwich Village Orchestra through it yesterday, conductor Barbara Yahr cautioned the audience that it would be as challenging to hear as it is to play. “But it’s one of my alltime favorite pieces,” she smiled. “What Sibelius says in a phrase would take twenty minutes in Mahler.”

As usual, she was right on the money. She’d always intuited that the symphony’s central theme is love: “It grows more human,” she explained, pointing to how the first movement coalesces and brightens out of ambiguous, restlessly shifting cell-like phrases. She pointed out that the program notes validated that understanding: the scherzo in the second movement is a lively dedication to one of the composer’s daughters, and the warm major-key theme in the third refers to his wife.

The notes also dismissively characterized the work as domestic. Domestic, shmomestic! It’s a relentlessly harried, sometimes haggard piece, and although more optimistic themes take centerstage as it goes on, it ends more enigmatically than anyone would probably expect given the triumph that comes before. Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for us. On an intellectual level, this is the late Romantic Sibelius listening to Modernism and thinking, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to be said for this twelve-tone stuff.” This performance focused on the emotional content, “I know we’re crazy busy, but I still love you.” And if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. The barrage of ideas and motives flies by like a fast-forward film until at last the sun comes out – and what a warm sun that was, how funny that Nordic music has so many memorable “it’s finally not dark anymore” moments, huh? Yahr managed to bring her signature precision and attention to minute, revelatory detail to this vexing but ultimately rewarding work, one that nobody’s about to conduct from memory, let alone play without the music in front of them.

She and the ensemble bookended it with two considerably more accessible pieces about love: love for freedom, and pure undiluted passion and joie de vivre. The concert opened with a fervent, insistent take of Sibelius’ Finlandia, leaving no question that this was no mere national anthem: it was about giving Russian invaders a swift kick. That spirit brought to mind the similarly unleashed version that Dorrit Matson and the New York Scandia Symphony played at Symphony Space last year.

Pianist Ko-Eun Yi brought equal parts fire and luminosity to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Together, she and the orchestra made it swing, made it rock, at the end threatening to crush the piano keys with her savage, fortissimo chords as the coda swung in like a construction crane run amok. No wonder its themes have been plundered by so many rock acts – for example, ELO, who made surf rock out of it, and the Fugs, who would have made it x-rated had their 1967 record label let them. From that bristling, wickedly anthemic six-chord hook that Yi really took her time with, making it resound for all it was worth, through gleaming cascades and dazzling sunset-on-the-waves ripples, she had come to bring the party, and Yahr and the group behind her were only too glad to raise a sturdy foundation and a wide-angle backdrop for all the Romany and flamenco-tinged festivities.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on April 10 at 3 PM at Irving Auditorium, 17th and Irving Place (cattycorner from Irving Plaza), featuring the Mozart Adagio and Rondo, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Suggested donation is $20, reception to follow.

February 8, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Queensboro Symphony Orchestra Play a Refreshingly New Take on Old Sounds

In concert, at least, symphonic music varies much more than you might think, considering how specific the instructions are from composer to conductor and musicians. Then again, that difference of interpretation is what makes orchestral concerts so much fun (and sometimes, so painfully disappointing) to be immersed in. Last night the up-and-coming Queensboro Symphony Orchestra offered two highly individualistic, richly successful takes on a couple of popular works from the standard repertoire, as well as a smooth run-through of another.

That one was Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. “Here’s what’s gonna happen,” says Mozart. “This will give you a basic idea of what to expect. This isn’t heavy, it’s upbeat and fun and sometimes funny, and you’re going to be entertained. And I’m gonna keep the musicians on their toes, make it conversational, so they’re entertained too.” And that’s how this ensemble played it.

Next on the bill was an intensely dynamic take of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor. Conductor Dong Hyun Kim led the orchestra very calmly and precisely out of the sub-basement, setting the thermostat very low so that when the stormy ambience finally kicked in during the second movement, the contrast packed all the more wallop. Violin soloist Yosub Kim delivered frenetic, spectacularly shivery flights against a slowly pulsing, rather ominous backdrop for much of the piece, another study in contrasts that drew spontaneous applause from the crowd between every movement. When the orchestra finally cut loose in a series of triumphantly foreboding waves at the very end, a battering ram in a velvet glove, it made for a mighty payoff.

The concert ended with a similarly individualistic version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Listen to just about any recording of the third movement, and the high strings will barely be present. At this concert, they were very loud, completely transforming the music with a whole new level of suspense. Beethoven is foreshadowing here: that this conductor caught that, where so many others don’t, wasn’t the only exciting development in full effect at this concert. There were other contrasts, notably in the high winds and brass, that added considerable color, especially throughout the symphony’s ebullient first movement.

The abrupt transition from major to minor toward the end of that movement was vividly reflected in the somber second; the ending was everything it’s known for, Beethoven at his most Beethovenesque. It’s basically a very long outro, one false ending after another, the composer going for laughs at every juncture, teasing the conductor, the musicians and most of all you. What a fun way to end a broodingly overcast Sunday night.

The Queensboro Symphony Orchestra makes a move outside their usual digs for a special young people’s concert of vocal music and concertos by Haydn, Mozart and others at St. Ann’s Church, 58-02 146th St. in Flushing this coming Sunday, December 13 at 7 PM. If you don’t live in the neighborhood, it’s a comfortable 25-minute walk from the Main St. 7 train (last stop); go straight up Main and continue through this quiet residential area to 58th Ave and make a left, then walk three blocks. You can also take the Main St. bus right from the subway.

December 7, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Scandia Symphony Sell Out Symphony Space

Many years – maybe decades – before Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic were thrilling audiences with the sweep and majesty and blustery fun of Carl Nielsen’s symphony cycle, maestro Dorrit Matson was doing the same thing and more with the New York Scandia Symphony. She and the orchestra specialize in both classical repertoire and new music from the Nordic countries. Much of what they play is rare and relatively obscure, at least south of where the aurora borealis is flickering. Which makes them a unique and important part of this city’s cultural fabric.

And they’re not such a secret anymore: from the looks of it (a few empty seats in the balconies), their Thursday night concert at Symphony Space was sold out. The orchestra rewarded the crowd with rousing, dynamic versions of material that for the most part is not typical for them. This time out, the program wasn’t about discovery as much as it was revisiting some of Scandinavia’s greatest global classical hits via a joint 150th birthday salute to both Nielsen and Jean Sibelius.

The one lesser-known piece on the bill was Nielsen’s quirky, strikingly modernist Flute Concerto, quite a departure from the late Romantic material he’s best known for, but characteristically flush with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) good humor. Soloist Lisa Hansen held the center with minute command of dynamics while jaunty motives made their way through a characteristically labyrinthine arrangement that was closer to a series of funhouse mirrors than the often stormy intensity of Nielsen’s earlier works. One of those on the program, the Overture from the opera Maskarade, balanced stiletto precision from the strings against the goodnatured rambunctiousness of the brass section (this orchestra’s brass has a visible camaraderie and chemistry, and will sometimes perform as a separate ensemble).

Drama, suspense and foreshadowing permeated the lushness of Sibelius’ At the Castle Gate (from his Pelease et Melisande suite). Matson brought the drama up several notches further with a roller-coaster ride through his Karelia suite, unleashing the triumph of the first movement, dipping to a long, enveloping sweep upward and then a graceful balletesque pulse that alternated with mighty stadium bombast. The orchestra closed with a similarly triumphant yet warily colorful take of Finlandia, leaving no doubt that this was written not as a piece of nationalistic pageantry but as a slap upside the head of Russian Tsarist aggression.

In addition to performing in concert halls, The New York Scandia Symphony puts on an annual free summer series at Fort Tryon Park, typically on Sunday afternoons in June: check back at their site for details.

April 12, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lush Sonics and Angst-Fueled Grandeur from the Greenwich Village Orchestra

It’s been a good season for edgy orchestras around town, and it was a particularly good evening for the Greenwich Village Orchestra this past Sunday, performing a program heavy on the late Romantics packed with twists and turns, and nuance, and thrills. They opened with Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ overture of sorts, The White Peacock, completed as an orchestral piece just a year before the American composer died at 35 in 1920. How such a lush, buoyant, attractively enveloping and quite cinematic tableau could have been inspired by such a horrible, florid poem (the program notes reproduced the text in full) is hard to fathom. The orchestra either said the hell with the poem or never paid any mind, letting emotion fly free before reining it back in with the Schumann Cello Concerto. Soloist Brook Speltz played methodically and confidently, adding a robust quality that had him breaking a sweat before the first movement was over (it may have been seasonably cold outside, but it was comfortably toasty in the auditorium). The orchestra matched his steady, commanding presence as conductor Barbara Yahr led them through the contrasting tempo shifts, matter-of-fact exchanges of voices and sudden gusts with an aptly Teutonic aplomb.

All that seemed like an afterthought in light of the showstopper they made out of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. Yahr reminded the crowd that although Sibelius is known for vast, sweeping vistas, and picturesque panoramics, the portait this symphony paints is an interior one, uneasy to extremes. Verging on manic depression would be another way to put it. Gary Dranch‘s clarinet, plaintive and searching, opened it and provided calmly chilling moments throughout, as the ensemble pounced and swept their way through racing flurries of strings and eventually a mad dash upward as the opening movement hit one of its many peaks.

Apprehension recurs constantly in this symphony, and the orchestra seized every opportunity to keep the tension at redline, whether when building a brooding lustre with dancing strings overhead, or when a delicate Joy Plaisted harp solo set off volleys of brass, or switching in a split-second from a sarcastic fanfare to shivery pulses of winds. All of the back-and-forth dynamics could only be described as mood swings. What inner demons was the composer exorcising?

Next on the bill for the GVO is their annual family concert, an East Village institution which features favorites like Tubby the Tuba and the famous “instrument petting zoo” afterward where kids can get friendly with a violin, or the timpani, or whatever they might find intriguing. It’s at 3 PM on Sunday, Dec 7; suggestion donation is $20/$10/srs and kids get in free, reception to follow.

November 19, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Raptly Thematic Lincoln Center Concert by All-Star Choir Cantus

One of Minnesota-based all-male choir Cantus‘ signature traits is theme programs. As one concertgoer put it, they can get a lot wilder than they were Sunday at Lincoln Center. Then again, this program was part of the spiritually-themed White Light Festival, continuing here through November 11. There are plenty of groups who mine the standard Renaissance repertoire, some who specialize in rediscovering treasures from that era, but Cantus are just as likely to juxtapose the ancient with the most current and make it all flow together seamlessly, and in that respect this was a characteristic performance.

They began with a precise, pulsing, even bouncy take of a twelfth century Perotinus piece, then a more traditional, somberly contemplative one by Josquin Des Prez. With its intricately echoing counterpoint, Randall Tompson’s 1940 Alleluia made a good segue, especially when the group hit an unexpectedly celebratory peak right before the end. In a way, it brought the early part of the concert full circle.

Jumping ahead sixty years to a lush, ambered take of Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled Lux Aurumque, they followed that with a bucolic 1942 nocturne by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven. Negotiating the tricky metrics, sudden dynamic shifts and otherworldly close harmonies of a diptych by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was no easy task, but the group made it look almost easy. In a choir, the individuals on the low and the top end always end up standing out, and this group was no exception, basses Chris Foss and Samuel Green paired against tenors Paul John Rudoi, Shahzore Shah, Aaron Humble and Blake Morgan. But the midrange benefited especially from the efforts of tenor Zachary Colby and baritone Matthew Goinz; Matthew Tintes, in particular, showed off an unexpectedly far-reaching range for a baritone.

From there they moved through brief works celebrating the comfort of home, or home country, via works by Sibelius, Dvorak, Janacek and Kodaly – the latter being the Hungarian national song, more or less, awash in a warmly consonant harmony that hardly seemed possible, from someone with such a thorny repertoire. It was music to get lost in. The group closed on a much more acerbic note, maybe as to draw the crowd out of their dream state, with a 2006 diptych by Edie Hill and encored by going deep into the 19th century hymnal. Cantus’ current tour continues onward: the next stop along the way is November 13 at 7 PM at Central Christian Center, 5th & Virginia in Joplin, Missouri.

November 4, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching Up with the Album Countdown – Sort Of…

As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album was #486:

Sibelius – Symphony #4 – The BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham

This early 50s recording by one of the great late Romantic composer’s most forceful advocates captures all the brooding magnificence of this dark, stormy piece: the pensive first movement, with its vivid cello/bass figure; the more upbeat second movement, the big crescendoing third movement and its breakneck, anthemic conclusion. If you like this kind of stuff, the rest of his repertoire (especially if you can find Beecham recordings) is worth seeking out, including smaller-scale works like the Karelia suite. Here’s a random torrent via Vinyl Fatigue.

And Monday’s album was #485:

Eric Burdon & the Animals – Best of, 1966-68

This one is as good a mix of songs by the iconic white bluesman as there is. Some of this showcases him as a blues shouter, the rest as a surprisingly good hippie songwriter, without any of the Brill Building schlock other than Don’t Bring Me Down (a cursed title if there ever was one). There’s straight up blues with See See Rider, soul including Help Me Girl and a surprisingly strong River Deep, Mountain High; pensive, philosophical songwriting like Inside-Looking Out and Winds of Change; upbeat psychedelic pop period pieces including San Franciscan Nights and Monterey; and the real classic here, the swirling, phaser-driven Sky Pilot, one of the most potent antiwar anthems ever written. “You’ll never, never, never reach the sky!” If you like this stuff, the original albums, especially the 1968 Love Is album, are also worth a spin. Here’s a random torrent.

October 5, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment