Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Imani Winds Festival: Cutting-Edge Young Composers and Players

The Imani Winds are on a mission to create a repertoire for wind ensembles that rivals what string quartets have to choose from. It’s a daunting task, but the way they’re going about it is very savvy. They’re not only commissioning works by established composers, but starting on the ground floor with up-and-coming talent who in many cases may still be in conservatory. If the idea of witnessing a performance of student works doesn’t exactly set you on fire, then you obviously missed Sunday’s concert at Mannes College of Music, one of the highlights of this year’s Imani Winds Festival, cleverly designed to entice the next generation of topnotch composers to join the crusade.

The big drawing card on the bill was Mohammed Fairouz. Still in his twenties, Fairouz is one of this era’s enfants terribles, an astonishingly eclectic and vivid composer with a knack for small-ensemble works – and an auspicious, recently released collection of chamber pieces on Sono Luminus. He and the Imanis had selected and then coached the composers whose works were being showcased, which goes a long way toward explaining the impressively high level of the compositions on the bill. Not everything was memorable, but most of it was. And Fairouz himself contributed a bracingly airy, microtonally-tinged work carried matter-of-factly to a warmer crescendo by clarinetist Patricia Billings and the Imanis’ Toyin Spellman-Diaz, taking an impressive turn on vocals.

If Amorphous Moment, a pensive trio piece by Sam Parrilla, age nineteen, is typical of his work, he’s someone to keep an eye on. Driven by Parrilla’s brooding piano, Matthew Bennett’s violin and Madelyn Moore’s clarinet carried it suspensefully and rather minimalistically through tense microtonal shifts to a terse, impactful exchange of voices. The most ornate work on the bill, Molly Joyce’s Vintage (another world premiere) balanced dancing contrapuntal harmonies within a vividly tense, pensive framework, carried to more towering heights with poise and assurance by flutist Briana Oliver, oboeist Marissa Honda, clarinetist Lara Mitofsky-Nuess, french hornist Amr Selim and bassoonist Blaire Koerner. The biggest audience hit was a third world premiere, Matthew Taylor’s The Sphinx’s Riddle, a subtly rhythmic triptych illustrating Oedipus’ three stages of life (quadruped, biped and limping triped). Insistent and defiant but envelopingly hypnotic as well, the first movement set the stage for the second’s steadily paced, biting atonalisms and the quietly raw, elegaic power of the third, delivered with both vigor and nuance by Phil Taylor on piano, Bennett on violin, Genesis Blanco on flute, Lee Seidner on clarinet and Brian McKee on bassoon.

Yuan-Chen Li’s rippling, balletesque Butterfly, another triptych, got a lively New York premiere from flutist Ileana Blanco, oboeist Ross Garton, clarinetist Katherine Vetter, bassoonist Nick Ober and Li herself on piano. Pianist Taylor’s Watercolors (also a New York premiere) launched spaciously and dreamily and then vaccillated for awhile before being pulled out of the ether with considerable, welcome oomph by flutist Jessie Nucho, oboeist Perry Maddox, clarinetist David Valbuena, french hornist Kalyn Jang and bassoonist Tyler Austin.

In its own quiet way, Alex Weston’s GOST 7845-55 was a knockout. The composer explained it as an attempt to mimic the wavering quality of poor radio reception, but that was just the beginning. With its interchange of straight-ahead tonalities and fluttering on/off-pitch microtones, it was a workout for the ensemble, but they were up to it, JT Tindall’s flute, Katie Haun’s oboe and Jeffrey Boehmer’s clarinet austere and enigmatic (and then swooping with unexpected delight) over the autumnally hued resonance of Dakota Corbliss’ french horn and Ronn Hall’s bassoon.

Obviously, not all of these performers, nor perhaps all of the composers, will go on a career in concert halls. But a lot of them will. If staying in touch with the most exciting developments in serious music is important to you, ignore these people at your peril. A big shout-out to the Imani Winds for giving them a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.

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August 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Quiet Knockout from Bruce Levingston

Pianist Brue Levingston’s new Still Sound is a gorgeously conceptual album of nocturnes that follows a concert-like trajectory. It would be simplistic to reduce it to the mechanics of stately lefthand and glimmering upper righthand, although that’s a fairly accurate description of the most traditionally nocturnal pieces here. Intriguingly, Erik Satie is the connecting link, a brave move considering how specifique Satie is.  Levingston doesn’t take any chances with the famous Gymnopedie No. 2, but he does with Gnossiennes No. 2 and 3, and there his whispery, lento interpretation is a knockout, a welcome change from how most players shy away from anything more than letting Satie’s creepy, otherworldly angst speak for itself. Augusta Gross’ Dance of the Spirits makes a great segue: derivative yet inspired, it could be the long-lost Gnossienne #7.

The spaciousness of the Satie is aptly foreshadowed in Levington’s choices of openers, Arvo Part’s minimalist Fur Alina and the more rhythmic Variationen zur gesundung von Arinuschka. Gross, who serves as a parallel connecting element here, is first represented by the quietly macabre allusions of a brief diptych, Venturing Forth Anew. The brisk twinkles and ripples of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 9, No. 4 make another tremendously successful segue; Levingston takes full advantage of the opportunity to hit it harder as it moves along and darkens before bringing back the opening ambience. Chopin’s distantly uneasy Chopin Nocturne in B flat, Op. 9, No. 1 leaves no doubt what Satie’s stepping-off point was. The album’s concluding tracks include William Bolcom’s New York Lights, which gets a wistful reading, Levingston’s lefthand mimicking the sonics of an upright bass feeling for steady ground around a central tone, and then a steadily gleaming take on Gross’ Reflections on Air. Out now on Sono Luminus, it’s a quietly powerful reminder of why Levingston has become the go-to pianist for many of this era’s most intriguing composers.

May 6, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mohammed Fairouz’s Chamber Works Defy Categorization

Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz, the composer’s debut collection, came out on Sono Luminus last year. WQXR did a little piece on it: they didn’t really get it. The album title is something of a misnomer: while there is considerable rigor in Fairouz’s work, he also happens to be one of the great wits in contemporary composition. But his wit is biting and edgy, sometimes caustic, qualities that elevate even the most obvious pieces here (and there are a couple) above the frivolity that defines so much of what’s considered “indie classical.” The rest of the album, a remarkably diverse collection of works for wind quartet and bass, violin-and-sax duo, solo piano, guitar and string quartet, imaginatively and utterly unpredictably blends postminimalism, neoromanticism, bracing atonalities and occasional satire. In places, it’s harrowing; elsewhere, it can be hilarious.

The opening composition, Litany, performed by bassist James Orleans and a wind quartet of Claire Cutting on oboe, Jonathan Engle on flute, Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and Thomas Fleming on bassoon could easily be titled “Pensively Apprehensively.” A sense of longing pervades as the ensemble strolls plaintively with chilly, fanfare-ish counterpoint and a rondo of sorts; it ends unresolved. The title’s Critical Models are violin/sax duos, two questions,each followed by a response. The first, Catchword: A Modernist’s ‘Dilemma,’ employs a bustling, anxious semi-conversation between Michael Couper’s alto sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. If this is to be taken at face value, it will. Its rejoinder employs tersely quavery microtonal intricacies and a stillness-vs-animation tension, inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A satirical faux-bellydance theme with actually quite lovely violin, Catchword: An Oriental Model illustrates a hideous anti-Arab screed by British Victorian playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer; its vividly optimistic response, inspired by Edward Said, has Couper playing the voice of reason via mystical, airy microtones, and when Ahn gets the picture, she grabs it with both hands.

Pianist Katie Reimer plays six delicious miniatures with a potently precise understatement: she clearly also gets this material. The first is an uneasy, distantly Ravel-esque etude of sorts; the second, a creepy phantasmagorical march; a bustling, ragtimish variation on that theme; an exercise in creepy faux operatics; an obvious but irresistible exercise in descending progressions; and a minimalist, spacious nocturne.

The Lydian String Quartet play a diptych, Lamentation and Satire. The first part builds from mingling, dissociative funereal voices to a rather macabre crescendo, followed by austere, brooding solo viola and foreboding cello passages. The second seems to be a cruel parody of funereal music, with sarcastic rustles, a snide martial passage and a predictable if still quite moving solo cello passage to end it. Reimer and Couper than team up for Three Novelettes: the first, Cadenzas, cleverly interpolates satirical motifs within a moody architecture; the second, Serenade, has to be the saddest serenade ever written and is the most haunting work on the album; and a simply hilarious Dance Montage that has to be heard to be appreciated.

The album concludes with four works for solo classical guitar, played with deadpan clarity by Maarten Stragier. Baroque rhythms and tropes get twisted up in modern tonalities, tongue-in-cheek staccato stomps alternate with skeletal Italianate melody; the suite ends with a slowly spacious work that Fairouz calls a toccata, with seemingly snide, offhand references to both Bach and Elizabethan guitar music. Eclectic to the extreme and very successfully so, it’s an accurate portrait of where Fairouz is right now. Unsurprisingly, his latest project has him branching out into opera: last week, his first, Sumeida’s Song, based on a classic Tawfiq El Hakim play, debuted at Carnegie Hall. It’s something of an understatement to say that he’s a composer to keep your eye on.

April 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bruce Levingston’s Nightbreak: Nocturnes for a Dark Time of Year

Bruce Levingston, one of the go-to pianists in the shadowy world where indie classical meets the Romantics, has an excellent new album of nocturnes just out on Sono Luminus, titled Nightbreak. The new album’s big drawing card is the world premiere of a new piano arrangement of Philip Glass’ Dracula Suite. It’s a characteristically hypnotic, circular theme based on a descending progression, Glass at his catchiest and most accessible: in fact, this version bears a closer resemblance to the dark rock music of artsy 90s bands like Blonde Redhead or DollHouse, than it does to the Indian music that Glass has drawn on for decades. Levingston plays this stripped-down version of what was originally a string quartet plaintively and sensitively: this Dracula is a genuinely tragic character.

There’s more eye-opening (or ear-opening) material here as well. The Liszt homages long since reached overkill point this year, but Levingston has pulled a trio of particularly vivid, impressively dynamic, lesser-known works out of the archives. Levingston takes the crescendoing overture Vallee d’Obermann from Chopinesque pensiveness to a carefully precise crescendo and follows that with warm, contemplative takes on the Nocturne from Les Cloches de Geneve and Les jeux d’eaux. The Brahms pieces which follow: Intermezzo, Op.116, No.4; Ballade in D minor, Op.10, No.1;and the Waltz in D minor, Op.39, No.9 are period pieces, nothing special, even if they’re as warmly melodic as you would expect. And then Wolfgang Rihm’s Brahmsliebewaltzer, just a hair strange enough to be really creepy instead of the Brahms homage that the title hints at, sets the stage. Alone in a darkened room, The Count!

December 25, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment