Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Abraham Brody Brings His Mystical Reinventions of Ancient Shamanic Themes to Williamsburg

Lithuanian-American violinist/composer Abraham Brody covers a lot of ground. In a wry bit of Marina Abramovic-inspired theatricality, he’ll improvise as he stares into your eyes, a most intimate kind of chamber concert. He also leads the intriguing Russian avant-folk quartet Pletai (“ritual”) with vocalist-multi-instrumentalists Masha Medvedchenkova, Ilya Sharov and Masha Marchenko, who reinvent ancient Lithuanian folk themes much in the same vein as Igor Stravinsky appropriated them for The Rite of Spring. The group are on the bill as the latest installment in Brody’s ongoing series of performances at National Sawdust on Oct 5 at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $20 and highly recommended.

Brody’s album From the Dark Rich Earth is streaming at Spotify. It opens with the methodically tiptoeing It’s Already Dawn, its tricky interweave of pizzicato, vocals and polyrhythms bringing to mind a male-fronted Rasputina. The ominously atmospheric Leliumoj goes deep into that dark rich earth, disembodied voices sandwiched between an accordion drone and solo violin angst.

Green Brass keeps the atmospheric calm going for a bit and then leaps along, Brody’s wary Lithuanian vocals in contrast with increasingly agitated, circular violin. Aching atmospherics build to a bitterly frenetic dance in Orphan Girl.  In Linden Tree, a web of voices weaves a trippy round, joined by plaintively lustrous strings.

Father Was Walking Through the Ryefield begins with what sounds like an old a-cappella field recording, then dances along on the pulse of the violin and vocal harmonies, rising to a triumphant peak. Oh, You Redbush, with its hazy atmosphere, and insistently crescendoing bandura, reaches toward majestic art-rock and then recedes like many of the tracks here. Likewise, the mighty peaks and desolate valleys in The Old Oak Tree.

Spare rainy-day piano echoes and then builds to angst-fueled neoromanticism in the distantly imploring I Asked. Strings echo sepulchrally as the ominous, enigmatic Litvak gets underway. Then the band build an otherworldly maze of echoing vocal counterpoint behind Brody’s stark violin in Trep Trepo, Martela.

The group revisit the atmosphere of the opening cut, but more gently, in Green Rue, at least until one of the album’s innumerable, unexpected crescendos kicks in. The final cut is the forcefully elegaic piano ballad A Thistle Grows. Fans of Mariana Sadovska’s bracing reinventions of Capathian mountain music, Aram Bajakian’s sepulchral take on Armenian folk themes or Ljova’s adventures exploring the roots of The Rite of Spring will love this stuff.

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September 27, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crazy Segues and a Transcendent Lincoln Center Performance by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

Anyone who experienced Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time in concert Sunday at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center is spoiled for life. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s recording of the piece is good; their performance this time out was transcendent. One hopes that they recorded this as well, because it will supersede their previous one. Conductor David Bernard remarked privately before the concert that his game plan for what might otherwise seem like a bizarre juxtaposition of the Stravinsky with Lorin Maazel’s mashup of Wagner opera melodies, The Ring Without Words, was to illustrate how both suites draw from folk themes. And he’s right on both counts, but what he didn’t allude to is what the orchestra was challenged to say with the music: “Just look what this mighty beast can do.” And they delivered.

Mechanically speaking, the Rite of Spring is a minefield in more than one sense of the word: there’s always something going off unexpectedly somewhere, and there are pitfalls everywhere. But the orchestra danced around them, with passion and fervor, methodically one by one. Solos were precise and emphatic, from Gabriel Levine’s looming bassoon, to Brett Bakalar’s similarly resonant english horn and the thunderingly meticulous percussion of Robert Kelly and Paul Robertson, among other standout moments. Segues were similarly seamless, contrasts were vivid and Stravinsky’s whirling exchanges of voices were expertly choreographed. And much as the orchestra left no doubt that the composer’s “stone age ballet” was a dance party, Bernard had his serious hat on all the way through, conducting from memory with a clenched-teeth intensity in contrast to his usual bounding, beaming, joyous presence in front of the ensemble.

On face value, following with the suite of popular Wagner tunes was a rather drastic change, requiring the orchestra to shift abruptly from high gear to low, to switch on a dime from staccato thrash to recurrent washes of atmospherics, a daunting task to say the least. But the group proved they could do it. On one hand, the music was everything Stravinsky was ostensibly trying to upend: comfortable, audience-friendly heroic themes laced with nostalgia. And Maazel’s artful segues may not have completely eliminated the camp factor, even though the vocals were edited out. But his arrangement does manage to sidestep what Sir Thomas Beecham famously groused about during one particular Wagner rehearsal: “Three hours later, and we’re still playing the same bloody theme!” And those melodies’ unselfconscious, singalong attractiveness is due at least in part to the folk tunes that Wagner fell back on. Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy segue after all. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is on May 16 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St. just west of First Ave., where they’ll be playing music of Hindemith, Schumann and Bach.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.

Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.

The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.

When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game  – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.

The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief  Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring.  It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.

Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass,  Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hypnotically Memorable Solo Viola from Brooklyn Rider’s Nicholas Cords

Violists don’t usually play solo. It’s rarer still that a violist puts out a solo recording, considering the relative paucity of solo works for the instrument. But Brooklyn Rider’s brilliant Nicholas Cords – “The Sheriff” to his string quartet bandmates – has just released his solo debut, Recursions. Inspired by the theoretical glimpse into the infinite – some would say the supernatural – created by setting two mirrors face to face, the album explores repetitive patterns from across the ages. In so doing, Cords potentially puts himself on the hot seat in terms of sustaining interest. And he pulls it off – as he reminds in the liner notes, with repetition comes familiarity and then insight. Not only is this a very comforting album, it’s sonically gorgeous: the natural reverb at the “Orchard” where it was recorded enhances the music’s often otherworldly quality.

Cords opens with a Heinrich Biber passacaglia (postlude to the composer’s 1676 Rosary Sonatas), variations on a simple four-chord descending progression, hypnotic yet dynamically-charged, with subtle rhythmic shifts and a resilient sostenuto. A violin piece that’s translated well to the viola, it sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Cords’ trance-inducing, marvelously ambient arrangement of the Irish traditional tune Port Na BPucai follows. Edmund Rubbra’s Meditations on the Byzantine Hymn O Quando El Cruce works its way methodically from an oddly Celtic-sounding pulse to vibrant pizzicato chromatics, suspensefully crescendoing, insistent motives and then a rapt calm. Alan Hovhaness’ Chahagir (Armenian for torchbearer) is plaintive and haunting, emotionally what one would expect from the year 1945 – although it has a baroque tinge – Cords loosening his vibrato and letting the phrases linger. His own multitracked suite Five Migrations builds a series of looped melodies: an echoing Kayhan Kalhor-esque miniature; slow wary circles spiced with edgy doublestops; and Middle Eastern allusions (no surprise considering Cords’ long association with the Silk Road Ensemble).

Cords achieves cello-like lows throughout a tersely brooding take of Stravinsky’s Elegie for Solo Viola. The album closes with Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Viola, its somewhat peevish motives getting a lively bit of Bartokian agitation and moving from there through bracing morosity, jauntiness and austerity. Who is the audience for this album? Anyone with a taste for quiet, contemplative sounds with an edge.

March 20, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil’s Contact Series Hits a Couple of Bullseyes

It’s heartwarming to see an organization as estimable as the New York Philharmonic taking notice of young composers whose work they can deliver as only such a formidable ensemble can. One would think that every major orchestra would have the same agenda, but sadly that’s not the case. For every nineteen-year-old Shostakovich whose first symphony was premiered shortly after it was written, there are dozens of Iveses slaving away at the insurance company by day and directing the church choir on the weekend. So it’s good to have the NY Phil’s Contact series, focusing on chamber orchestra-scale works written mostly by emerging composers. Last night’s program at Symphony Space featured two rather stunning world premieres, a resonant suite of songs from a lion of the 20th century avant garde and a New York premiere, bravely played but less successful.

The stunner on the bill was the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s Oscillate, for string ensemble, percussion and piano, nimbly conducted by Jayce Ogren. Akiho is a percussionist whose unlikely main axe, at least in the classical music world, is the steel pan. There was nothing remotely calypsonian about this work: excellent and eclectic as Akiho’s debut album from last year was, this is the best thing he’s written. Inspired by Nicola Tesla (the title is an anagram of “Tesla coil”), it’s meant to illustrate an inventor or creator’s toil over a span of many sleepless nights, a battle to remain inspired as fatigue becomes more and more of a problem. Beginning with sirening strings against a restlessly mechanical pulse, shades of Julia Wolfe with hints of Bernard Herrmann, it took on an increasingly noirish, dissociative atmosphere, livened by a familiar Messiaen quote. A series of increasingly hallucinatory chase scenes driven by insistent staccato cellos finally gave way to uneasy ambience at the end: the triumph in question here seemed simply to be to get through a waking nightmare.

Another world premiere, Jude Vaclavik’s Shock Waves, for brass and percussion took rousing advantage of the vast expanses of sonics at the composer’s disposal, mutes being employed from time to time on virtually all of the wind instruments throughout the piece. Tuba player Alan Baer drew a round of chuckles as he nonchalantly stuck a huge mute the size of a couple of french horns into his instrument’s gaping bell. Inspired by the mechanics of sonic booms, the piece is built around a series of doppler-like swells that mutate, pulse,  blast and intermingle with a Stravinskian elan. Like Akiho’s work, the suspense was relentless: it was impossible to know what was coming, and what would be next.

Coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sang four Jacob Druckman songs from the 1990s: two ethereal but bracing settings of Emily Dickinson poems and two utilizing Apollinaire lyrics with considerably more unease. In both cases, her melismatic lower register was especially strong and vividly plaintive. The composer’s son Daniel Druckman played percussion as he had on the premiere of this particular chamber arrangement fifteen years ago.

The one piece on the bill that didn’t work was Andrew Norman’s Try, a portrait of a composer concocting and then nixing motifs one by one before he finally comes up with something he likes. While it wasn’t without wit, the ideas flew by in such a breathless, whizbang fashion that it was impossible to focus on any one of them until they were already gone. And the minimalist piano ending felt forced, and interminable. This work screamed out for shredding more of those ideas and maybe taking what’s left at halfspeed.

December 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Emerald Trio Shines at Trinity Church

It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of the Emerald Trio’s gem of a show at Trinity Church this past Thursday. Flutist Karen Bogardus, pianist James Matthew Castle and violist/violinist Orlando Wells teamed up for a fascinating and vividly affecting mix of relatively obscure material that gave them the chance to push the envelope and deliver a remarkably robust show that sounded considerably more hefty than one would think just those three instruments could deliver. Even by bigtime concert hall standards, Bogardus’ intonation was a clinic in nuance and subtlety, her attack ranging from crystalline directness to an earthy throatiness with an easy vibrato in lighter moments.

They opened with the comfortable late Romantic cinematics of 20th century composer Seymour Barab’s Suite for Flute, Viola and Piano: bright introduction, a dance theme that shifted from stately to swaying, a crescendoing anthemic Alegretto and carefree closing Giocoso movement. They followed that with the insistent, propulsive Allegro Energico from Castle’s own Sonatina, moving back and forth from an uneasy modernism to more predictably warm, consonant tones; it brought to mind the recent work of Robert Paterson.

Their take on Nino Rota’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Piano had majesty and suspense galore: its opening Allegro with gravelly piano and biting conversational reparteee from Wells, followed by the low-key anthemic Andante and then concluding Allegro, with more low-register piano, harmonies whirling in tandem above Castle’s brooding rumble. Next on the bill was Davide Zannoni’s Le Pressioni del Passato, beginning with an uneasy, steadily marching theme that unwound from plaintiveness to fullscale angst fueled by Wells and Bogardus, then a cosmopolitan bustle on the wings of the piano before Bogardus got to dive deeply into Middle Eastern allusions. As it wound out with vividly intense simplicity, it packed a wallop: it was the showstopper of the afternoon. The trio closed with Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance from the Firebird, in an arrangement by Castle which by force of necessity lacked the bulk of the orchestral version, although it was authentically infernal: pity the listener too close to the business end of Bogardus’ instrument. What a treat it would be to see this fascinating and passionately eclectic group in a smaller room, although realistically they deserve a much larger one.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz Connect the Unexpected

If you listen to NPR or watch PBS, this is old news, so here’s to all of you who’ve made the switch from the small screen to an even smaller one and might not have noticed that pianist Christopher O’Riley and adventurous cello virtuoso Matt Haimovitz have a new album out. It’s titled Shuffle. Play. Listen., and they’ll be touring it next year, with a stop at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Jan 22. Pianist O’Riley, host of the NPR/PBS program From the Top, is no stranger to making neoromantic instrumental albums out of rock and pop songs: this double cd makes three in a row. It’s a lively and often exquisitely good duo performance, simply the best thing O’Riley’s ever put his hands on.

To succeed with a music show, you ought to know something about connections, which is what the first cd is all about. Who knew how much Bernard Herrmann’s classic soundtrack to the equally classic Hitchcock film Vertigo had in common with works by Stravinsky, Janacek or Martinu? This guy, obviously. To make those commonalities crystal-clear, imaginatively potent new arrangements of parts of the Herrmann score are interwoven between the other pieces, a concept that might seem preposterous but works brilliantly. Haimovitz gets most if not all of the juiciest parts, perhaps logically since Herrmann’s score was heavy on the strings, and also because O’Riley has the good sense to stay within himself. His playing is distinguished by smartly thought-out dynamics, pacing and elegantly terse embellishments rather than pyrotechnics.

The first cd opens on a deliciously macabre note with Prelude from the Vertigo Suite, done here as a creepy waltz with artful, unexpected cello/piano overlays. The duo follow that with Leos Janacek’s Fairy Tale, which follows a similar trajectory: after the minimalistic first movement (with some striking, Kayhan Kalhor-style echo effects from Haimovitz), it grows more wary and winds up with an understated menace. The nightmare scene from Vertigo follows, impressively understated with its agitated cello flurries. Martinu’s Variations on a Slavic Folk Song makes an unexpected but rock-solid segue, growing from stark to forceful, with a suspenseful edge very similar to Herrmann’s.

They segue back to the Vertigo Suite for the hypnotic Carlotta’s Portrait, then take a detour for a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, its highlights being the sad waltz that precedes the dynamically-charged, surprisingly quiet Aria and then the Tarantella, which pushes the limits of how far and how fast O’Riley can go. The Scotty Tracks Madeline scene from the film gorgeously juxtaposes longing with blitheness and a rapt upper-register duo between Haimovitz – who can get tones out of his cello that no one else can – and O’Riley. From there, a spirited take on Piazzolla’s Grand Tango – with each instrumentalist assigned to cover a little of the ground that Piazzolla’s bandoneon did on the original – is spot-on. The disc concludes with the thinly disguised, mournful minuet that serves as the film’s love theme.

The second cd reverts to the random vibe of O’Riley’s two other classical-rock piano albums, with generally good results. There’s a marvelously successful instrumental version of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, right down to the cello winkingly spinning off a fade or a psychedelic riff straight off the record as O’Reilly rubatos the piano with just the right touch of suspenseful anticipation. And that band’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi gets a graceful, circular indie classical treatment, focusing on its subtle counterpoint, as does the almost unrecognizable version of A Perfect Circle’s Three Libras. A couple of Cocteau Twins tunes reach for a slightly less hypnotic atmosphere than the originals, while two Blonde Redhead tunes – Misery Is a Butterfly and Melody – run richly memorable hooks over and over for an approach that builds toward grand guignol. There are also two John McLaughlin compositions here – Dance of Maya, whose austere acidicism doesn’t stop it from matching up well with Herrmann as it morphs into a bitterly bluesy minor-key romp, and A Lotus in the Back Seat, done as Ravel might have orchestrated it.

Another Cocteau Twins track, the lightweight Heaven or Las Vegas, isn’t as well-suited to this kind of serioso treatment as the other tracks are, and the derivative faux-baroquisms of the first movement of the Stravinsky make for two minutes of what-are-we-doing-here. And as far as the two Arcade Fire covers here are concerned, the two players take an energetic stab at elevating them to Herrmann-ish grandeur, but ultimately, garbage in, garbage out: Arcade Fire is a boring band. But those are only small complaints about an otherwise mammothly successful effort. O’Riley also has a very cool, gospel-flavored free download available, Time of My Time inspired by Kris Saknussemm’s recent novel Reverend America.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Deviant Septet’s Boisterously Entertaining Debut

It’s an auspicious sign any time a good band sells out a room. In the case of new music ensemble Deviant Septet’s debut performance Thursday night at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, a wired young audience found its perfect match onstage. The Deviants’ signature piece is Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat; their raison d’etre is to play that piece and, hopefully, new commissions for unorthodox mini-chamber orchestra. Featuring members of Alarm Will Sound, the Knights and Metropolis Ensemble, Deviant Septet comprises Bill Kalinkos on clarinet; Brad Balliettt on bassoon; Courtney Orlando on violin; David Nelson on trombone; Doug Balliett on bass; Mike Gurfield on trumpet; and Shayna Dunkelman on drums and percussion.

The first half of the performance was the Stravinsky. It’s not one of his major works, but it is a lot of fun. It’s sort of Stravinsky for kids, in a good way: it’s very entertaining. The story, a surreal, wryly Russian update on the Faust myth, was energetically directed by Rafael Gallegos, with Sean Carvajal lending a deadpan, sardonic, hip-hop edge to the character of the soldier, bassist Balliett serving as Greek chorus of sorts, with bassoonist Balliett playing the role of the Devil and Dulce Jimenez subtly developing the role of the Princess from guileless to femme fatale. Interpolating the story within musical passages that pulsed along on the tireless good cheer of the bass (Doug Balliett got a real workout but held up his end mightily), the group shifted amiably from martial bounce, to plaintive austerity, to the bracing astringencies of the final theme where it seems that the composer decided to dig in and get serious. It was the most intense passage, it was worth the wait, and the ensemble took it out on a high note.

The second half of the program began with the world premiere of Dutch composer Ruben Naeff’s For the Deviants. Meant to illustrate another deal with the devil – in this case, concessions to the right wing made by the Rutte administration in Naeff’s home country – it came across as the kind of piece written more to appeal to those who play it than those who have to hear it. Based on one of those circular themes all the rage in new music circles, the ensembled opened together against a drone, then took turns individually sending out bits and pieces of permutations, one by one. Toward the end, there was a passage with some semi-contrapuntal vocalese. Trying to keep her blippy ba-ba’s together, Orlando couldn’t keep a straight face and backed off, a reaction that was as completely honest and appropriate as it could have been.

They amped up the fun factor with another world premiere, Stefan Freund’s The Devil Dances with Tom Sawyer, a mashup of the Stravinsky with the classic rock radio stinkbomb by Rush. That song offers endless possibilities for comedy: Freund chose the high road, rather doing anything with lyrics like “He gets high on you!” and “Catch the spit!” Taking both pieces out of context, the Stravinsky took a backseat to the satire, the group opening it with a deadpan Dixieland feel, trombone playing Geddy Lee’s silly bassline. What became obvious from the first minute or so is what a boring song it is: after giving it a spirited thrashing and having fun rearranging its most hobbity aspects, they let it go. The group finished with Frank Zappa’s Titties and Beer, a funk-metal update on the Stravinsky, sung with sardonicism and soul-drenched relish, respectively, by Matt Marks and Mellissa Hughes, Doug Balliett switching to electric bass to fatten the slinky low end. It was a good way to bring the arc of the concert up as high as it could go – and the crowd screamed for more.

May 30, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dark and Stormy Night at the Tank

In their debut performance Thursday night at the Tank, Dark and Stormy revealed not only the amazing amount of nuance, but also the raw power that two badass bassoonists can deliver. It’s not clear which one is Dark and which is Stormy, Adrian Morejon or Rebekah Heller – or if they’re only Dark and Stormy when they’re together – but it definitely was an exciting night, affirmed by the roar of the audience at the end of the show, clearly hoping for an encore. “As far as the repertoire for two bassoons, this is pretty much it,” laughed Heller.

It was a feast of low tonalities. They opened with a playfully brief Stravinsky fragment, unpublished during his lifetime. Then they brought the intensity up with Louis Andriessen’s eerily dreamy Lacrimosa for Two Bassoons, beginning with meticulously shifting microtones, building to stately, shifting textures based on a series of memorably minimalist little walks down the scale. Heller shadowed Morejon for awhile, while he got to toss off a couple of unexpected flourishes, building to a crescendo that signaled a return of the minute pitch modulations of the earlier part of the piece.

The next work was Francisco Mignone’s Sonata Para 2 Fagotes. Through its three movements, Heller and Morejon paired off on its baroque-tinged introduction as it built momentum with some perfectly synched glissandos and then a droll conclusion. The second movement was surprisingly dark and austere, melody versus long, suspensefully sustained notes; the third was peppy and pretty comedic in places, a showcase for the duo’s goodnatured, energetic attack (both played standing up, swaying in time, throughout the show). They followed with the premiere of a Nicholas deMaison work possibly titled A Field of 46 Fissures. Beginning cyclical and micotonal, Morejon leading Heller, it grew faster and blippier, took a grave downturn before a smooth-versus-screechy interlude that managed to be both ominous and playful at the same time.

The show closed with a duo sonata by Sofia Gubaidulina, who as Heller explained has probably written more for the bassoon than any other living composer. Once again layering a tune over a low sustained note, working brooding chromatic territory for maximum suspense, Heller eventually took over agitatedly as Morejon maintained his calm until that was no longer possible. From there it was back to mysterioso – and then the two reversed roles. Since this seems to be pretty much everything that exists for bassoon duo, these two need more material. Who’s up to the challenge? Missy Mazzoli, Mohammed Fairouz, Ana Milosavljevic? Time to get busy!

May 2, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Louis Andriessen – La Passione: Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose

This is an important album – to the unitiated, it may seem strange, but stay with it, there’s a payoff at the end. Louis Andriessen is no stranger to adventurous listeners: he’s been a fixture of the avant garde for over forty years. This album begins with a carillonesque instrumental and then a series of art songs, all but one based on poems by legendary, mad Italian poet Dino Campana. Campana spent much of his life institutionalized, including his final years: his surreal, twisted, horrific imagery and sense of anguish compare with Baudelaire at his most crazed. Taking an approach which is severe yet atmospheric, the subtlety of Andriessen’s interpretation underscores its often extreme intensity. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose vigorously emphasizes the compositions’ otherworldy ambience, enhanced by the incisive violin of Monica Germino (selected specifically by Andriessen  for this project) and vocals of Cristina Zavalloni. Throughout the songs, her voice serves as an key ensemble instrument rather than a narrator, sometimes leading, sometimes taking a complementary role.

The first piece, Bells for Haarlem layers several keyboards including a macabre synthesizer patch to mimic churchbells, starting out minimalistically before its permutations set in: with its unsettling overtones, there’s a considerable resemblance to Phil Kline’s work. The first of the Campana pieces is a seven-minute song that marks the beginning of an ongoing collaboration between Andriessen and Zavalloni, a singer he credits as being as versatile as another longtime performer of his works, the legendary Cathy Berberian. Utilizing more strangely ringing keyboards in the beginning, Zavalloni follows with her own call-and-response over starkly acidic ambience from the orchestra. As they will later on, restless atonalities illustrate images of madness, in this case an understated depiction of a train ride to hell – or from hell perhaps.

The following piece, Letter from Cathy cleverly illuminates the complete text of a letter from avant garde vocal legend Berberian to Andriessen relating how Stravinsky almost didn’t choose her to sing his Elegy for JFK. The composition is a portrait – Andriessen’s melody matches Berberian’s exact wording, capturing his favorite singer in all her many moods: capricious, exacting, divaesque, irrepressible, with a childlike, rapt creativity and similar response to same. Minute passages of jarring dissonance, dreamy ambience, echoes of disappointment and a big, catchy pop ballad all make their entry and depart just as quickly. Those familiar with Berberian’s work will find it picture-perfect.

The cd’s title track is a suite, a remarkably tense, suspenseful work especially considering the madness and of its subject matter: there’s limitless potential for grand guignol here, but Andriessen doesn’t go there. It begins with a vividly wary fanfare, then Zavalloni comes in, gleefully eerie over bustling, Mingus-esque strings. The third poem is about abandonment and despair, an interesting place for Andriessen to have the electric keyboards do an echoey, surreal clog dance.

Satan enters, to a vigorous violin solo: this is where Andriessen most closely evokes his big influence, Stravinsky. He follows it with a severe, understated prayer to Satan, a supremely satisfying, fullscale horror movie segment that stalks along to the first of only two big crescendos. Only during the execution scene that concludes the suite is the orchestra allowed to unleash a scream at full, roaring volume and the effect is visceral. And then it ends as quietly and atmospherically as it began. Who is the audience for this? Bang on a Can and more adventurous NPR fans, certainly, as well as more open-minded opera devotees – Zavalloni’s unadorned, crystalline voice is not mined for its beauty here, but she comes across as someone who could sing pretty much anything. Play this back to back with the Rites of Spring and enjoy both the similarities and the innovations of this strange and often riveting album.

September 5, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment