Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pitch Black American Pie

That the American Composers Orchestra’s program Saturday night at the World Financial Center, closing this year’s SONIC Festival, would be saddled with a title that evoked boomer nostalgia made no sense at all. Maybe it was an inside joke, or a stroke of sarcasm. Instead, the ensemble treated the crowd to a fiery, frequently noir and brilliantly played series of ambitious new works by up-and-coming American composers. Conductor George Manahan led them with an almost casual but ironclad confidence, beginning with Paul Yeon Lee’s showstopper Echo of a Dream. A towering, often ferocious work that arranged modern tonalities in familiar High Romantic architecture, it was a tour of a monstrous landscape with fear and apprehension at every turn. A bellicose March of the Orcs! A swooping, darting, terrified Flight of the Nazgul! And The Siege of Minas Something, which ended minus the orchestra as Lee deftly dropped almost everything out for a split-second of cliffhanger suspense. For all the sturm und drang, the orchestra delivered it so matter-of-factly that it couldn’t have been anything other than genuine. Such storms do in fact exist, and it was a blast to hear this one and know that Lee is keeping an old flame very, very much alive while fueling it with something that could only have been invented in this century.

Ruby Fulton’s Road Ranger Cowboy was much quieter, but packed just as much of a wallop. Based on a caricature used by the Road Ranger chain of truck stops in the midwest, it’s a portrait of both incongruity – a horseman at a truck stop? – and clinical narcissism, and its pathological effects on the personality. Like the best political art, it manages to be very funny: a cowboy theme that disintegrates slowly and inevitably, leading up to an absolutely hilarious ending, in this case where the first violinist got to deliver the punchline and was obviously having such a good time that she could barely keep a straight face.

Ryan Gallagher’s Grindhouse might have been sarcastically titled as well. A classy, sometimes macabre film noir mini-suite, it was the high point of the night. Eerily shifting atmospherics contrasted with an aghast crescendo with the brass and high winds shrieking, skeleton key percussion, a furtive pizzicato spy vs. spy theme scene, a handful of pummelling, murderous scenes and a titanic ending that wouldn’t be out of place in Shostakovich. Suzanne Farrin’s equally gripping Infinite Here was brooding and more ambient but maintained the dark mood, slowly and methodically building tension and apprehension. In this piece, here is limbo, next door to hell.

Andrew Norman’s Unstuck was the most diverse piece on the bill, matching some of the drama of Lee’s work with Gallagher’s noirisms and Farrin’s vividly overcast milieu. Creepy swirls of strings, doppler brass and unpredictable percussion made a lethal combination that set off a chain of ominous little explosions which grew absolutely ballistic, then went down morosely and back up again to a surprise ending.

The biggest surprise of the night was Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, on which he and his brother Aaron joined the orchestra on electric guitars. The Dessners’ band the National is a derivative but very effective cure for insomnia: this piece was anything but. Inspired by Kerouac’s Big Sur, it’s supposed to evoke loneliness and lost love. From its windswept, desolate overture, carefully articulated thematic shifts throughout the orchestra, and pensive circular motif that ran over and over as an underpinning toward the end, the ensemble took what could have been an awkward 5/4 tempo and made it comfortable and effortless. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the guitar melodies were the least memorable, whether recycled 17 Seconds-era Robert Smith meandering or sotto-voce Grey McMurray tremolo-picking. Maybe the Dessners were just trying to blend in with the orchestra. Either way, it looks like Bryce Dessner has found his muse in a big way.

Much of this will be airing at some future date on Q2 – tune in and find out.

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October 24, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brazil’s Camerata Aberta Plays a Stunning Program at SONIC

The SONIC Festival, a weeklong marathon of indie classical/new music performances, continues through this Saturday, winding up with a free performance by the American Composers Orchestra at the World Financial Center at around 7:30. Last night at the Americas Society, Brazilian new music ensemble Camerata Aberta treated a sold-out audience to a challenging, eclectic program that may well have been the highlight of the entire festival. If the Brazilian composers represented on this bill are typical of the new-music scene there, it’s time for American fans of this stuff to pay attention.

The show began on a jaunty note with Carlos Freitas on trombone and Pedro Gadelha on bass, playing the world premiere of Igor Leao Maia’s Caminantes III. A comedic piece that evoked the ordeal of trying to start a car with a rapidly dying battery, its unfinished swoops and dives and “fail” motifs were thoroughly amusing. Pianist Lidia Bazarian played Tatiana Catanzaro’s Kristallklavierexplosionschattenspliter (say that three times fast), contrasting icy, minimalist upper-register incisions with drones and roars created by striking or brushing the piano strings. On one hand, it was something any kid could have done…if that kid had remarkable patience and an ear for getting the max out of long sustained notes.

Joao Victor Bota’s Zenite, performed solo by violist Peter Pas, made vivid use of harmonics as it began bracingly atonal, then more rhythmically and consonantly and then back and forth, with the hint of a dance and more than one tongue-in-cheek joke. Marcilio Onofre’s powerfully evocative Estudo Sobre Os Arrependimentos de Valasquez was inspired by the famous painter’s brush-over technique, where he’d correct his mistakes, only to have those mistakes reappear as the repair work faded over the centuries. Charles Augusto held the center with potently dramatic percussion, whether on marimba, kettledrum or otherwise while the full ensemble took turns adding incisive accents, sometimes with a brooding, furtive call-and-response, against a drone or sustained drum tone. Frequently, the effect was organic versus mechanical, bucolic versus urban, as if to say, maybe those mistakes should have been left as is.

The most transcendent piece on the bill was another world premiere, Lan, by Valeria Bonafe, featuring all but the viola and percussion. Building from a somber bass/piano intro, it crescendoed with a creepy inevitability and highly sophisticated architecture, timbral contrasts, and an absolutely noir, circular motif that Bazarian grabbed solidly and imbued with a lurid neon glitter flecked with major-on-minor menace. It’s a suspense film theme – opening and closing credits included – waiting to happen.

The American composers on the program did not fare quite as well. A Matthias Pintscher solo trumpet tune played by Adenilson Telles had the misfortune of following the Bonafe, leaving the listener pondering questions like when it would end, or what jazz rhythm section might have been able to elevate its halfhearted, hastily minimalist bop-isms to the level of something meaningful (maybe Art Blakey and Jaco Pastorius, who might have bludgeoned it into something even less recognizable?). And while Clint Needham’s Color Study – a New York premiere, played by the whole ensemble plus Ken Thomson on alto sax – got off to a slow start with warped New Orleans jazz allusions, it eventually picked up steam and morphed into smartly counterintuitive variations on bustling, noirish motifs that the group passed among themselves with considerable relish.

October 19, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment