How many great string ensembles does New York have? An unlimited supply, apparently. One especially intriguing group is the quartet Karavika, who play alternately lush and lively compositions based on Indian motifs that span from Bollywood back to ragas. Violinist Trina Basu and cellist Amali Premawardhana, bassist Perry Wortman and tabla player Avi Shah combine forces for a diversely melodic, often hypnotic original sound that also occasionally reaches toward Appalachian rusticity or a brisk Celtic mood. They’re playing the album release show for their new one, Sunrise, tonight at 7 at Drom.
It takes nerve to open your album with a solid minute of solo drums, but that’s what they do with On the Wing, a brightly swaying blue-sky theme with both American folk and Indian inflections, meticulous madrigalesque counterpoint and a suspenseful, percussive interlude midway through. The carefree Little Road Song is a minuet in disguise, with its tricky tempo changes, vividly rustic arrangement and then an unexpectedly pensive cello solo. The most striking composition here is Song That Floats on the Breeze, with its subtly crescendoing handoffs between violin and cello, allusions to both sitar music and Pink Floyd, and an intense buildup at the end that winds out gracefully in a fluttery star-shower of violin and cello.
The longest song here is the aptly titled Moonbeam, a nocturne that artfully works the album’s only extended minor-key theme through alternately soaring and stately passages to wind up on with an unexpectedly mysterious pulse. The Dancer, which is almost as long, is basically a partita, Basu and Premawardhana switching between austere and animated roles, then building to a full-steam ensemble workout that they take down again with a distantly reflective cello solo. The title track is the most distinctly Indian piece here, from its fluttering staccato intro, to a series of insistent turnarounds and a deliciously incisive, bluesy cello solo that Basu follows with an upwardly swirling, circling sweep. It sounds quite a bit like Brookyn Rider taking an inspired stab at classical Indian music. Whether quiet and reflective or joyously energetic, the melodies are as bright as the musicians’ tone: this is music for celebrating or getting lost in. As you would expect from an ensemble with a new album out, Karavika are busy this month; they’re also at Caffe Vivaldi on 4/20 at 8:30 PM.
Brooklyn string ensemble Trio Tritticali have just released their new Issue # 1, one of the most gripping, intelligent, richly eclectic albums of recent years. Drawing on elements as diverse as Egyptian dance vamps, the baroque, bossa nova, tango and European Romantic chamber music, they blend those styles together seamlessly and imaginatively for a bracingly intricate sound that’s uniquely their own. The chemistry between violinist Helen Yee, violist Leanne Darling and cellist Loren Dempster is intuitively playful. As the songs slowly unwind, the band exchanges thematic variations, converses, intertwines and occasionally locks horns, individual voices often disappearing or reappearing when least expected: they may be a trio, but there are surprisingly many moments when it’s only two or even one of them. They love minor keys, and have a thing for chromatics, no surprise considering that Darling also jams with the Near East River Ensemble. Yee also plays yangqin dulcimer in Music from China; Dempster also performs with the avant-garde Dan Joseph Ensemble and with well-known dance ensembles.
Which makes a lot of sense: Dempster’s rhythmic, often funky edge is key to this group, right from the title track, which alternates stark, dark funk, then goes quiet and mysterious, then finally explodes in a blaze of chamber metal. It’s the most dramatic moment on the album. They follow that with a bracing tango, La Yumba, which takes a detour into early Beethoven with a cello solo that rises imperceptibly until it’s sailing over the lushness of the other strings. The dynamic shifts in this one are especially yummy.
A long, suspensefully crescendoing Middle Eastern piece, Azizah begins with a casually ominous series of taqsims (individual improvisations), shifting methodically from tone poem to processional to triumphant swing, voices constantly shifting and handing off ideas to each other. By contrast, Corcovado is a nostalgic bossa ballad that takes a turn in a more wistful direction, Dempster’s brooding solo leading to an intricate, stately thicket of violin and viola. A jazz-pop song in disguise that goes unexpectedly dark, Stolen Moments is a showcase for Dempster’s walking basslines, pensively swinging lines and bluesy accents. The sarcastically titled Ditty is actually one of the album’s most stunning compositions, another long detour into the Middle East with a funky modal edge, a memorably apprehensive Darling solo and an equally memorable lead-in from Yee, who comes in buzzing like a mosquito with an off-kilter, swoopy edge while the cello and viola lock in an intense, chordally pulsing bassline.
The seventh track, Who Knows Yet is a gorgeous, starkly wary waltz with a series of artful rhythmic shifts and a series of bitingly bluesy variations – it reminds a bit of Rasputina in an especially reflective moment. Psychedelic and very clever, Sakura is a diptych: an austere tone poem with the cello mimicking a koto, then a pensive, minor-key 5/4 funk theme with yet more deliciously unexpected tradeoffs between instruments. The concluding tone poem, Heart Lake, evokes Brooklyn Rider’s adventures in Asian music, viola and violin trading atmospherics over Dempster’s hypnotic, circular bassline – it’s like Copal at their most ambient, with distantly Asian motifs. This is one of those albums where every time you listen to it, you’ll discover something new – you can get lost in this music. With compositions like this, it won’t be long before Trio Tritticali will be playing big stages like Symphony Space; for the moment, you can catch them at low-key Brooklyn brunch spot Linger Cafe (533 Atlantic Ave. between 3rd and 4th Aves) on frequent Sundays – the next one is December 10 – starting around 1 PM.
Lately we’ve been scoping out little-known neighborhood enclaves for first-class live music. Music Mondays is not one of them. Despite temperatures in the teens last night, the church at 93rd St. and Broadway quickly filled to standing-room capacity, testament to the popularity and vitality of this ongoing monthly series. Sixteen-piece string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, a.k.a. ECCO rewarded the house full of brave souls with a genuinely transcendent, unflinchingly direct, rawly emotional performance.
The conductorless group opened with a warmly nocturnal take of Janacek’s Suite for String Orchestra. Within its comfortably glimmering cantabile and cirrus-cloud atmospherics, they focused on wistfulness and wariness, notably in the song without words that comprises its first adagio movement, and the searching overture that brought it up to end on a hopeful note. They followed with a performance of Shostakovich’s Sinfonia, Op. 110, based on his String Quartet No. 8, which literally stunned the crowd. Composed three years after his elegaic Eleventh Symphony, like so much of Shostakovich’s post-Stalin era work, it’s a requiem. From the quietly stumbling anguish of the opening solo violin figure, the ensemble left no doubt as to how harrowing this would get, as much a homage to those who managed to survive Stalin’s years of terror as to those who didn’t. Like the Eleventh Symphony, its opening funeral scene is interrupted by a series of salvos and a crushing stampede, contrasting mightily with the suspensefully macabre, carnivalesque dance that follows. This interpretation let the composer’s depiction of complete emotional depletion speak for itself, through the whispery, exhausted anguish of the concluding atmospherics, solo violin or cello rising just to the point of serving as witness to unspeakable evil. The audience – an impressively knowledgeable bunch, from all appearances – didn’t know what hit them.
The rest of the program was anticlimactic, but not by much. Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 10 in B Minor essentially pairs off two themes, a mostly breezy waltz versus darker martial shades, the group emphasizing the latter. They closed with another real stunner, Ginastera’s Concerto Por Corde, Op. 33. Like the Shostakovich that preceded it, this has long, stampeding passages, except that these don’t let up – and like Shostakovich, there’s considerable angst, here finally rising to a scream as the piece wound up after several false endings. To say that this was a workout for the musicians is quite an understatement: they played as if it was the triumphant marathon (albeit a bitter one) for which they’d been feverishly training. For a group that typically limits itself to a few performances per year since all the members have busy careers as soloists and with other ensembles, they displayed a remarkable singlemindedness.
The next concert in the Music Mondays series is February 21 at 7:30 PM featuring the Enso Quartet at the multipurpose, multicommunity church at 93rd and Broadway: early arrival is very strongly advised.
Hypnotic string band Copal’s brand-new second album Into the Shadow Garden is for dancing in the dark. Alternately lush and stark, vibrant and mysterious, bouncy and sultry, their violin-fueled grooves mix elements of Middle Eastern, Celtic, Nordic and Mediterranean styles. Violinist Hannah Thiem leads the group alongside cellists Isabel Castellvi and Robin Ryczek, bassist Chris Brown, drummer Karl Grohmann and percussionist Engin Gunaydin (of the NY Gypsy All-Stars). Right off the bat, it starts hypnotically with a drone that gradually fades up – then the drums come in, then a plaintive, Middle Eastern-tinged violin melody and the first of Thiem’s many gripping, suspense-building solos that will recur throughout the album. About halfway through, it becomes clear that this is a one-chord jam. Eventually, a second violin voice is introduced; some terse harmonies follow over the slinky beat, then it fades down to just an oscillating drone, the dumbek drum and violin, and out gracefully from there. In a way, it reduces the essence of this band to its purest form. It’s music that sets a mood, gets your body moving and keeps it going – it’s awfully easy to get lost in this.
There are a couple of vocal tracks. Ether is a slow, dirgelike piece with a spoken-word lyric – in German – that builds to a fullscale string orchestra groove over almost a trip-hop beat and a trance-inducing bass pulse, and then fades down like the first number. Velvet begins with an austere fugue between the violin and cello and then begins to sway on the waves of a catchy descending progression. It builds intensely with dramatic cymbal crashes and a cello bassline, then ends cold when you’d least expect it.
There are three other long pieces here, all of them instrumentals. Ungaro is a playful, bouncy tarantella dance. Cuetara gets a brooding minor-key vamp going over a slinky Levantine-tinged groove, Thiem soaring over a lush bed of strings and stark, staccato cello accents. The album ends as it began with a majestic one-chord jam, the aptly titled Shadows, Thiem’s long Middle Eastern opening taqsim building slowly, picking up other textures along the way, taking a bit of a lull for another long solo and ending on a surprisingly jaunty note. Although pegged as electroacoustic, there isn’t much going on here that’s electro other than the occasional atmospheric keyboard part. Copal are a deliriously fun live band – they play the cd release for this album on Nov 4 at Drom, headlining at 10 PM on a killer triplebill with haunting Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat opening at 8 followed by Middle Eastern-flavored rockers Raquy & the Cavemen at 9.
Going to see a concert by the New York Scandia Symphony is something akin to being a member of a secret society. They are an organization after our own heart. The NY Scandia dedicates itself to popularizing Scandinavian works from over the centuries, some of which are well-known or even iconic on their native turf but completely obscure here. You can also count on them for at least one US or New York premiere at every show. Thursday night in the comfortable Victor Borge Auditorium at Scandinavia House in midtown they brought their smaller String Symphony chamber ensemble for a program that even by their exacting standards was riveting.
They took their time opening up with Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Flute Concerto, whose highlights were a handful of dexterously ornamented yet understatedly precise solos by Lisa Hansen. As a composition, it shows its age, fugal and predictable, yet the ensemble lit into it with such insistent gusto that it was impossible not to believe: they completely sold it. By contrast, the largo from early 20th century Danish composer Poul Schierbeck’s song cycle I Was Born in Denmark was nothing short of transcendent. Schierbeck was an organist, and the string arrangement is unsurprisingly a lush blend of subtle textures, a perfect match for the stately longing and distant anguish of the melody. A piece by Norwegian Romantic composer Johan Svendsen contrasted with its attractive, comfortably steady ebullience.
Making his North American debut, hotshot Danish accordionist Bjarke Mogensen joined the ensemble for a richly genre-blending, emotionally intense yet frequently very playful US premiere of Anders Koppel’s Concerto Piccolo. Koppel began his career as a rock musician while still in his teens, playing psychedelic pop with popular Danish export Savage Rose, but in the following years he moved to film music. This three-part suite proved as fascinating as it was well-played, leaping from jazzy, bass-driven Mingus-esque suspense to macabre Bernard Herrmann atmospherics to a surprisingly upbeat, subtly amusing conclusion. Mogensen matched a whirlwind attack through a knotty thicket of accidentals to several wrenchingly beautiful, minimalistically ambient passages while conductor Dorrit Matson worked overtime but didn’t break a sweat. They closed with another string piece, Frank Foerster’s Suite for Scandinavian Folk Tunes, the composer himself the featured soloist on viola, a similar feast of contrasting emotions, timbres and attacks. The piece interpolated a series of rousing hardanger-style fiddle dances meant to symbolize the five Scandinavian nations against a haunting, ominous “song of the sea” theme that cleverly worked variations on a minor sixth arpeggio. In the depths of the sway and the swells of the string section, the heart of a very inspired noir garage band – or Norwegian surf band from the sixties – had come alive, in a very subtle way. The Scandia Symphony’s next full-orchestra concert is on March 9 at 1 (one) PM at Trinity Church playing yet another premiere-packed program.
And by the way, Scandinavia House’s cute, lowlit cafe makes a good date-night spot – the organization’s dinner-and-a-movie and dinner-and-concert packages are quite the bargain and the regionally-themed cuisine (notably: fish, berries and fresh greens) turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.
A cynic might call the Real Vocal String Quartet the happy Rasputina. But that doesn’t give the all-female new music ensemble enough credit – considering the global diversity of styles they play here, a better comparison would be genre-smashing jazz/Americana violinist/composer Jenny Scheinman. Founded by former Turtle Island String Quartet violinist Irene Sazer, the Real Vocal String Quartet blend classical, avant garde, bluegrass, Balkan and African influences; the ultimate result is completely unique. While Sazer writes most of the material, violinist Alisa Rose, violist Dina Maccabee and cellist Jessica Ivry also contribute. Everybody sings.
The album opens with a circular arrangement of Kenyan composer and nyatiti lute player Ayub Ogada’s Kothbiro, alternating rhythmic pizzicato with lush washes of ambience in a striking call-and-response. They follow that with a traditional Appalachian dance done as hypnotic Tinariwen-style desert blues, string quartet style. The single best number on the album is the darkly crescendoing, cinematic instrumental Night Game, which nonetheless finds a way to end on a cleverly playful, upbeat note. A diptych here sounds like traditional Italian folk music, but it’s actually a couple of covers from the catalog of early Brazilian jazz pioneer Pixinguinha. Green Bean Stand harmonizes high vocalese with the strings, morphing into a hypnotically swaying one-chord dance vamp evocative of the ensemble’s Turtle Island cousins. There’s also a hauntingly rustic country song, the violins playing a guitar chart; a hypnotic, ambient tone poem with strings and vocalese; a tricky art-rock song with rousing harmonies, and a wistful vocal tune that gives way to a stately baroque theme. There’s so much here that it ought to appeal to a lot of fanbases: neoclassical types, world music and chamber music fans, and just your average pop/rock person looking for something good for the ipod.
The Chiara String Quartet are winding up their Beethoven cycle this year. Maybe it’s all the practice, or that they play a lot of concerts in more sonically challenging places like bars and rock clubs, but either way their mastery of the material is such that they can command the subtlest dynamics, some of which when even gently applied make an enormous difference in the music. Not only was their show Friday night a clinic in how to locate the gems tucked away in the corners of a piece and then shine them up so everybody knows they’re there, it was just as much an emotionally charged overview of Beethoven’s career. In the spacious confines of Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church (tucked into the back of the Lincoln Center complex, home to the Jupiter Symphony players), the Chiara Quartet took the audience along for a vivid ride from Beethoven’s first string quartet through one of his last.
The String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3, actually the first that Beethoven ever wrote, dates from the end of the 1700s and really needed all those dynamics. It must be a lot more fun to play than it actually is to listen to: all those endless volleys of call-and-response get tedious after a couple of minutes. How to draw in a 21st century audience far more sophisticated (and probably far larger) than the small circle of courtesans who heard it first? Accentuate its occasional astringencies, its atonalities and proto-modernisms, because there are a bunch of them (Brahms’ more stodgy chamber works are the same way). Perhaps Beethoven craftily wove them in to see how closely everybody was paying attention.
He wrote the String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 in 1808: what a difference ten years made. From the first few tricky syncopations of the opening movement, it was clear that the paradigm had been shifted, and as a result the quartet could ease back and let the piece speak more for itself. The second movement was a feast of little pleasures – a neat pianissimo climb to Vivaldiesque insistence; a clever, artfully orchestrated series of riffs making the rounds, violinist Rebecca Fischer passing off to her counterpart Julie Yoon, to violist Jonah Sirota and cellist Gregory Beaver, who would soon afterward deliver several snappy, intense pizzicato passages including a potently plucked bass solo to end it.
The piece de resistance was the A Minor, Op. 132, one of the late quartets from just two years before Beethoven’s death. It has reputation for transcendence and was precisely that. Yoon held wary and unwavering early on while the other voices conversed around her; Sirota led them into wintry terrain, viola and cello adding a gravitas mostly absent from the rest of the program. The highlight was the third movement, written after the composer had recovered from what he’d thought was the illness that would finally kill him, and in this ensemble’s hands it took on the raptly hymnal, plaintive tone of a giant, haunting accordion chord and successive permutations – minimalism, 1825 style.
The Chiara String Quartet are here tomorrow, 2/7 playing the same program at 4 PM at Union Church of Bay Ridge, 8101 Ridge Blvd. and 80th St. in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; they’re back on 4/26 at Symphony Space for the Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival.
Kayhan Kalhor is having a hard time doing anything wrong right now: pretty much everything the renowned Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player touches turns into something magical. Like most of his contemporaries, Kalhor delights in cross-cultural collaboration, and this latest cd, created with inventive string quartet Brooklyn Rider is typical. Brisk, bracing, exhilarating and often wrenchingly haunting, it’s a spectacularly successful achievement. It’s less an attempt to blend East and West than simply a collaboration between friends. Kalhor – founder of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music – has two lengthy compositions here, playing kamancheh and also santur (a four-string lute) on his own darkly rustling retelling of the Persian flight myth, Parvaz. Fascinatingly arranged by maverick violist/composer Ljova, its recurrent refrains slowly builds, inexorably gaining intensity..
The cd opens with a vividly evocative traditional piece, Ascending Bird, an imaginative musical rendition of the same myth that Kalhor explores in Parvaz. The piece begins with the strings bristling with anticipation and urgency before taking flight over the rapidfire strumming of guest setarist Siamak Aghaei. At this point, for all intents and purposes, it becomes a rapidly, fascinatingly shapeshifting acoustic rock song. The album’s centerpiece is its title track, a Kalhor composition, perhaps the most intense and emotionally wrenching work he’s written to date. It’s a dead-accurate portrayal of the aftereffects of shock on the human psyche. An evocation of Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah, it begins almost inaudible with a faint hum that only gradually grows into a wash of numb atmospherics. Slowly, the city’s residents make their way back, piecing together whatever may be left of their families, their lives and their memories. Running their instruments through a delay effect, both individually and in unison, the group create a hypnotic, echoey, otherworldly ambience that goes on for minutes on end: this is a long piece, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Only at the end does the melody erupt in raw outrage, and when it does, it ranks with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 49th Psalm or Elvis Costello at his most excoriating as a potent expression of despair followed by fury. Even if it is much quieter.
The cd’s final piece Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged begins stately and atmospherically before growing to a lively dance with what could be an attractively major-key pre-baroque English folk melody rearranged for strings: Henry Purcell, anyone? Based on a 16th century verse by the Turkish poet Fuzuli, its theme is crazy love: interestingly, while the players attack the melody with considerable abandon, it never gets completely out of control.
Perhaps because of the diversity of the performers’ backgrounds, this cd sounds neither particularly Middle Eastern nor American. Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider just might have created a a new genre here: dark ambient modernist Persian-American classical, for lack of a better term. It’s accessible enough to appeal to mainstream classical fans, although more adventurous listeners will undoubtedly spin this over and over. To completely appreciate it, headphones are an absolute necessity. Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyably pioneering cds of the decade.