One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.
Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.
Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.
Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.
Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,
For those who gravitate toward towering, majestic sonics, it’s hard to imagine anything more exciting than the Spectrum Symphony‘s upcoming concert tomorrow, Nov 4 at 7:30 PM at St. Peter’s Church at Lexington Ave. and 54th St, where they’ll be playing the first program devoted exclusively to music for organ and orchestra staged in this city this year. In fact, this might be the first concert of its kind staged in this city in this CENTURY. Admittedly, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, symphonic repertoire that also incorporates organ is hard to find. Whatever the case, history will be made when conductor David Grunberg leads the enterprising ensemble through Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra along with the world premiere of Hungarian composer Balint Karosi‘s new Concerto with organ soloist János Pálúr. Suggested donation is $25/$15 stud/srs.
Since 2016 is the Ginastera centenary, it was no surprise that the orchestra would conclude their spring 2016 season on the Upper West Side with a concert highlighted by a meticulously dynamic, uneasily thrilling performance of Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, with special guest harpist Melanie Genin. A sort of synthesis of the early neoromantic Ginastera and his chilling, Messiaenesque later works, it’s a surrealistically riveting mashup of eras and idioms, making it hard to shift gears between them. Grunberg and the orchestra pulled it off with an impressive seamlessness.
They opened quietly with uneasily terse, moonlit glimmer from the harp and strings. The suite grew to a somber, meticulously lowlit lustre that gave way to a sudden, striking trumpet cadenza and then a swirling ballet theme of sorts. There was both precision and irresistible fun as the spiraling woodwinds wound up the opening movement.
From there, austere strings rose with eerie close harmonies to a warmly lush nocturnal, neoromantic interlude. The orchestra followed a spare, brooding oboe solo over a richly misty backdrop More of those uneasy close harmonies shifted to the brass as the fourth movement built, followed by vividly acidic violin. Slowly looming horns in counterpoint with the winds and a hushed passage with strings and harp gave not the slightest hint of how triumpantly pulsing the piece’s triumphantly Stravinskyian coda would be, with its shivery strings and stilletto brass. If this performance is any indication, the energy will be through the roof (or the pavement – the space is below ground) tomorrow night.
In an exciting new development for Upper Westsiders, the Spectrum Symphony has migrated uptown and has found new digs at Broadway Presbyterian Church at 114th and Broadway, just steps from the 1 train. Sure, it’s not much of a shlep down to Lincoln Center or Carnegie, but what this orchestra plays is close enough to what you can get there to make staying in the neighborhood worthwhile, if lush symphonic sounds are your thing. And the Miler Theatre, with their adventurous series of free “pop up” concerts, is just up the block!
Last night conductor David Grunberg led the ensemble through a comfortable, confident program of mostly familiar Beethoven amd Mozart material from the WQXR playlist, along with an unexpected new treat. It was a lustrous, workmanlike performance, more European than American in its matter-of-factness. There was a comforting, homey quality to the music: it was like being at the concerts or recording sessions that QXR typically plays, but present and immersed in the music rather than multitasking as it wafts in the background.
And much as most of the program enabled calm and quiet reverie, the orchestra nailed all of Beethoven’s signature “is anybody listening” tropes, one by one, with verve and good cheer. That slithery chromatic climb toward the end of the Leonore Overture? Check. The series of speed bumps that the composer throws into the orchestra’s path right before the coda of his Symphony No. 1? Doublecheck. Grunberg brought an uncluttered precisoin to those moments as well as the gleaming interweave and exchange of short phrases that dominated much of the rest of the two works.
Clarinetist Vadim Lando took centerstage in a surprisingly brisk, adrenalized version of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. If you grew up in the pre-youtube era with QXR on your parents’ radio, or on yours, you know this piece and the Beethoven too. The extra jolt of energgy – Lando really working up a sweat in the final volleys – encouraged attentive listening rather than simply drifting along with the composer’s joyous and then suddenly grim narrative: you mean that it’s all over, this soon? But it’s been so much fun…and the party was just getting started!
As enjoyable as these old favorites were, the highlight of the program was the world premiere of film composer Russell J. Courter‘s Atmospheres, a trumpet concerto of sorts backed by an uneasy tone poem. Soloist Christopher Scanlon set the tone with his tersely moody resonance as the orchestra rose from tense ambience to a cautious round-robin of exchanges and finally an anguished swell. Grunberg may have sensed a similar unease in the audience, as far as new music is concerned, and addressed that by reminding that there’s really no difference in listening, whether to something familiar or brand-new: you just do it. And when the piece was over, he led the orchestra through it a second time, which worked because it’s only about five minutes long – and a second go-round was even more rewarding, and might have been a little more amped up.
Just four beats into the last of the Beethoven, Grunberg stopped the music and turned to the crowd, encouraging them to join him and the orchestra at a bar down the block after the show. Which made sense: Beethoven would have done the same thing. For that matter, he was known for not waiting until the end of the show. Watch this space for upcoming Spectrum Symphony performances – all of which will have free admission for the rest of the 2015-16 season.
Orchestras are like restaurants in that new ones usually take awhile before they work out all the quirks. The Spectrum Symphony, on the other hand, have a lush, experienced gravitas, and sound as if they’ve been around a long time, even as they’ve taken a promising role in advocating for new music. Their previous concert in the comfortable, surround-sound sonics of St. Joseph’s Church on 6th Avenue in the West Village was a characteristic mix of ideas and emotions from across the ages, delivered with meticulous detail under the baton of conductor David Grunberg. The group’s next concert is this Wednesday, March 25 at 7:30 PM, with an auspicious program featuring Anthony Iannaccone’s From Time to Time, Fantasias on Two Appalachian Folksongs; Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, with soloist Victoria Mushkatkol and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 at St. Joseph’s Church, 371 6th Ave. south of Waverly. Cover is $20.
The ensemble’s previous concert here featured a dreamy diptych of Elgar’s Sospiri paired with Massenet’s popular Méditation (from the opera Thaïs), Susan Heerema’s terse, masterfully nuanced violin imbuing it with both lullaby calm and a distant restlessness over pillowy strings. By contrast, the world premiere of Jun Yi Chow’s Serenade mashed up a lively neoromantic drive, a big, acidic fanfare and an austerely otherworldly, circular string conclusion, in the process channeling a hundred years of orchestral music.
Soloist Gerard Reuter’s alternatingly dancing and richly resonant oboe fueled Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, K.314 over a lush backdrop equally infused with stateliness and joyously precise teamwork. The concert concluded with a Haydn masterwork, Symphony No. 101, “The Clock,” which earned its nickname from the playfully metronomic rhythm of its second movement. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than that. The orchestra brought out all the earnestly driving, singalong bustle in the opening movement and its waltzing reprise in the third, a balletesque, goodnatured precision in the famous second movement, and eventually a conclusion rich with color and attention to dynamic shifts. This week’s concert promises as much or even more, considering the program.
The Spectrum Symphony of New York put on a tremendous performance including a world premiere as well as two dynamic, electrifying versions of a couple of perennial symphonic favorites in the West Village about ten days ago, more than hinting at the kind of brilliance they’re capable at their next performance. The natural reverb at the Church of St. Joseph on Sixth Avenue added a welcome sonic dimension as conductor David Grunberg led the ensemble tightly and conversationally through the world premiere of the string orchestra arrangement of Ljova Zhurbin‘s Mecklenburg, then the Brahms Double Concerto and an alternatingly lickety-split and ravishing interpretation of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3.
Ljova writes a lot of film music, so it was no surprise that his work would be a mood piece, a concerto of sorts for pizzicato viola, a moodily vamping contrast between dancing motives building to a lushness awash in austere, misty harmony. The cello added a vibrato-fueled ache as it circled along, Steve Reich adrift on the Gowanus.
Violinist Artur Kaganovskiy and cellist Miho Zaitsu joined forces on an acerbically intertwining take of the Brahms Double Concerto. Majestic lushness alternated with plaintive angst through sinuous climbs and tradeoffs as the two soloists dug in hard on the lustrous lament in the second movement, then pulled back as Brahms’ hynmlike raptness took centerstage. The composer’s take on a Romany dance and its variations was a delicious romp before the final Beethovenesque coda.
Grunberg and the orchestra wrapped up the program with an astonishingly good performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3. It was so good, it’s releasable: if the orchestra wants to record it at some point, it should be an album. It was on the brisk side, but, hey, it’s the Eroica Symphony: bring it on! And that’s exactly what they did. It was a rollercoaster ride of leaping, lively, bubbling voices, but also a measured appreciation of the angst and suspense in the troubled second movement, giving way to jaunty triumph and balletesque acrobatics in an almost breathless salute to one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever scored. There’s a famous George Szell recording of this symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra up at grooveshark that’s pretty much unrivalled for sheer fun factor, but this orchestra’s version delivered a challenge. The Spectrum Symphony’s next concert is this coming January 14 at 7:30 PM at St. Joseph’s Church, 371 Sixth Ave.just north of W 4th St, featuring the world premiere of JunYi Chow’s Serenade along with a Massenet piece, Mozart’s Concerto for Oboe and Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, “The Clock.”
Makiko Hirata charged through the raging, ominously cascading torrents of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, conductor David Grunberg animatedly leading the Spectrum Symphony through the stormy gusts in tandem with her, through the series of menacing, twistedly marionettish passages. At the end, Hirata’s face lit up in an unselfconsciously triumphant grin as the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. It was the high point of the pianist and orchestra’s concert a couple of days ago in the West Village, yet another indication of how some big city orchestras may be in trouble, but there are many young, hungry ensembles who are clearly on their way up and the Spectrum Symphony are paradigmatic of that shift. As one member of the crowd enthused afterward, “They just get better and better with every show.”
The concluding movements of the Prokofiev are both more subtle and dynamic, not to mention less charged with angry subtext, and the pianist and orchestra focused in on the methodically rising and falling glimmer of the second movement and the richly intricate, often biting interweave between piano and orchestra on the concluding one. This performance was a prime illustration of how composers by Prokofiev’s time had transformed the concerto form from what had been basically a showcase for piano against a wash of orchestration, into a fully cohesive creation where piano and orchestra join forces in developing the architecture.
The orchestra had opened with the New York premiere of an even more explosive if considerably shorter piece, Philip Wharton‘s There Was a Star Danced, which followed the initial big bang resonance of Matthew Beaumont’s huge gong through rapifire showers of sparks from the violins and then what became wryly jaunty, rhythmic jousting. The composer, who was in the audience, explained that the piece had originally been conceived as a work for students to get them to let off some steam. So the ensemble played it again!
The program’s concluding work was an only slightly less kinetic interpretation of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. From the perspective of having seen three different performances of this piece this year, this was the most exciting. Grunberg conducted from memory, the orchestra taking this old warhorse to war with an aptly heroic, no-holds barred intensity. The balance between Brahms’ lavishly highlighted, individual voices was clear and distinct throughout the sonic spectrum, through a rewardingly boisterous first movement, a lustrous second, and a final fourth that emphasized more of the high drama in the composer’s Beethovenesque series of false endings than its inherent humor.
It’s always a treat to discover an excellent new orchestra. Saturday night on the upper west side, the Spectrum Symphony and the New York Festival Singers joined forces for a concert as richly captivating as anything that could have possibly been happening just a couple of blocks east at Lincoln Center or at Carnegie Hall. A member of the string section noted sardonically during the intermission that this orchestra is “the pickup group of pickup groups.” If that’s the case, one can only wonder what kind of transcendence they could deliver with a few more rehearsals. As it was, the whole orchestra was cohesive, nuanced and responsive to conductor David Grunberg’s matter-of-fact, determined focus.
They opened with the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20. This isn’t Mozart in hurried, let’s-get-this-over-with mode. It’s a lively, tuneful piece that recycles a few motifs from Don Giovanni, lit up with dynamic shifts and energetic exchanges between voices. Guest Steven Graff brought an agile, rapidfire, imaginative edge to the piano, notably his own improvised cadenzas, which were as bitingly entertaining as they were anachronistic, taking the piece two hundred years into the future. Yet these made a perfect fit with the music.
A percussionist supplied a single, funereal bell note as the strings swirled and rose in Arvo Part’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten with a restrained shimmer, hypnotic and vividly regretful (Part was reputedly chagrined that he never met Britten). The concert concluded with a rewardingly lush, ornate take on the Faure Requiem. Conventional wisdom is that it’s a lighthearted view of death, and that’s hardly the case. Faure reputedly wrote it on a lark, but this ensemble gave it majesty and depth, the richness of the choir blending with the swells of the orchestra, the organ utilizing stops in the center of the church, creating an all-emcompassing, surround-sound experience for those lucky enough to be in the right place.
The soloists, soprano Beverly Butrie and baritone Alec Spencer were superb as well. Butrie has a voice that ought to be heard more. It’s original, and it’s grounded in a considerably lower resonance that you would expect from a true soprano, even though she hit the high notes in this piece with a nonchalance and a liquid yet firmly anchored vibrato that fit like a glove with the demands of her solos. A delivery like hers is more typically found in the Middle East and India, but not so much here, all the more reason to seek her out. By contrast, Spencer went for intensity, stayed in the haunted zone and never left. As the work shifted from methodical and somber to more airy and ethereal, Grunberg and the orchestra maintained an unhurried focus, letting the piece breathe and the polyphonics reach toward something closer to a spree than a sepulchre. The Spectrum Symphony performs regularly but not frequently; watch this space for future concerts.