Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Yo-Yo Ma: Conspicuously Absent at Summerstage

New York’s Central Park Summerstage series of free concerts was not originally devised as a marketing mechanism to lure tourists to town, even though that’s how they’ve been presented for well over ten years: this city has a long tradition of free concerts in public spaces, many of them historic. Some landmark performances have taken place in this very space: the North American debut of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, to name just one. Tonight’s scheduled show with the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma promised to be a highlight of this year’s season. Unfortunately, as a marketing device, it backfired, sending all the wrong messages to any visitor who might have had the misfortune to be there.

The opening act was a mix of professional musicians and public school students, ostensibly an attempt at some sort of music mentoring program that obviously isn’t working. That this particular unit wasn’t ready to perform in front of an audience in their own auditorium, let alone at an established venue, was frustrating, but it shouldn’t have been – although it raises the question of whether or not the promoters were able to afford a real opening act. High school bands aren’t necessarily inept. There are dozens of genuinely superb New York student ensembles who would have been more than happy to do the show for nothing, and would have delivered a performance that would have made this city proud. But this band was just plain awful. Even though it was a free concert, subjecting the audience – many of whom had stood in line in crushing heat for an hour and a half before the doors opened – to yet another an hour and a half of this travesty was insulting to the extreme. That the musicianship was less than competent is beside the point: no virtuoso could have made the program listenable. A ragged brass ensemble opened, unable to keep a simple vamp together despite the fact that there were no chord changes. Along with the music, there was a great deal of talking – apparently there was some kind of storytelling going on as well. After a brief, haphazard stab at opera, a couple of vaguely Asian passages and some funkless funk, a choir was brought up to sing a pop song that sounded like a Meatloaf arrangement of a nursery school alphabet rhyme. Apparently this group’s music director is unaware of the fact that a considerable amount of great music is very easy to play: had he or she never heard of Bach, or James Brown, or the Ramones? Even done raggedly, the Ramones are fun. But this band couldn’t do that. Or, they weren’t allowed to. While many of today’s struggling music students are tomorrow’s virtuosos, it’s safe to say that no student in this band has any future in music: anyone with real talent at the schools involved (Edward Bleeker Junior High School #185, Frederick Douglass Academy III, Granville T. Woods Middle School #584, and Public School/Middle School #161) would have quit after the first day.

Ultimately, the message that this sends to the audience is,”New York public school students are so retarded that they can’t be trusted to play Bach, or James Brown, or even the Ramones, so we have to make the music as stupid as they are.” And this will reverberate wherever this concert is discussed by the tourists who were there. “Our village band in [fill in the blank: Upper Volta, Kyrzygstan, the Azores] can play better than these losers. My kids are way better than any of these dumb Americans – and my kids never even practice!”

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble were scheduled to play afterward: when, who knows. The interminable student “performance” was still going on as the mercury rose closer to the hundred-degree mark, eight PM came and went and audience members began filtering out in disgust.

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June 7, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map

Their most adventurous album. For ten years, the Silk Road Ensemble has been bringing some of the most fascinating, intense and pioneering Asian and Asian-inflected music to western audiences. On their latest cd, an all-star cast of some of the most imaginative players on the planet – literally – take a flying leap into a rich, cutting-edge program of cross-pollination with equal parts gusto and finesse. For one reason or another, it’s arguably the least Asian of the Silk Road albums, and also the most demanding – while some of the compositions here are among the most accessible the ensemble has recorded, others are far from that – but a close listen pays tremendous rewards.

The cd opens with a three-part suite by the reliably multistylistic Gabriela Lena Frank (who just won a Latin Grammy!), titled Ritmos Anchinos. The opening piece, as Frank puts it, has Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man discovering her inner latina. The second is a blissful little dance inspired by a Chinese-African village in Peru; the third hitches a raw, clattering, rhythmically tricky, reverb-driven pipa piece to a second part where the pipa takes on some particularly imaginative jazz guitar voicings.

Hong Kong-born composer Angel Lam’s phantasmagorical, shapeshifting Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain follows, building to a dark, dramatic crescendo following a sparse buildup in the Asian scale, Kojiro Umezaki’s rustic shakuhachi flute bringing back a rain-drenched, ambient feel. The second part is a mysterious narrative of the events of the first part, sweeping along uneasily on the wings of the strings.

Evan Ziporyn’s compositions draw deeply on his gamelan work, and his trio suite here, Sulvasutra is no exception. Based on an ancient treatise on the proper proportions for Hindu altars, there’s a definite symmetry here, circular, echoey and insistent, the extraordinary string quartet Brooklyn Rider interpolating atmospherics within tabla player Sandeep Das’ hypnotic rhythms. The second part sounds like what another adventurous string composer, Ljova Zhurbin, might have done with a gamelan, adding a raw Carpathian edge to the pointillistic ambience; Wu Man reappears deviously in the concluding segment, taking the piece rousingly back to Fiji.

The concluding suite – if you can call it one – is the album’s star attraction, the latest from Osvaldo Golijov, alternatingly rousing, joyous, raptly hypnotic and haunting. On the slinky, seductive first section, the Argentinian avant garde luminary proves himself adept and frankly exhilarating (if not exactly innovative) at lush Mohammed Abdel Wahab-style levantine orchestration. The still, brooding, mystical tone poems that follow fall in stark contrast with the ecstatic, defiant Sardinian protest song that fades up and blasts along like the Pogues, Galician bagpipe star Cristina Pato fueling the blaze. And then it’s over. It’s out now on World Village Music and it makes a particularly suitable holiday gift for the cutting-edge listener on y0ur list.

November 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Monika Jalili – Elan

This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.

Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.

Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.

Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):

Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,

Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments