Violinist Dana Lyn is as adept at Bach and Celtic dances as she is at searchingly acerbic string music. There’s a lot of the the latter on her latest album Aqualude. Last night at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, she and her shapeshifting band from that album – Clara Kennedy on cello, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – aired out some of the spiraling, entrancing pieces on it as well as a number of even more intriguing new compositions. One of those Lyn had just finished earlier in the day, but the group approached it with relish, Kennedy’s stark solo intro giving way to a lively balletesque theme that worked back and forth through all kinds of permutations, Goldberger hinting at skronk against an uneasy wash of strings.
Another began with an elegant eight-note clarinet hook that Lyn and Goldberger used as a springboard for lilting, dancing harmonies. One of Lyn’s main tropes is to loop a phrase and then use that to anchor an intricate interweave of voices. and the band did that often throughout an expansive set that went well over an hour. Lyn also has a fascination with the ocean and its creatures, carefully and wryly explaining how those often very strange beings influence her music. The guardedly explosive centerpiece of the Aqualude album, she said, was inspired by the hairy crabs who frequent the volcanic vents on the seabed. Another piece drew on the plight of the octopus, whose male and female basically go insane and die after they mate (does that remind you of another species?).
Kennedy opened the show with a stark intro that grew into a metrically tricky loop in tandem with the guitar, McGinnis adding counterrythmic staccato accents as Lyn’s violin wafted overhead. Sperrazza – who felt the room’s sonics instantly, keeping his masterfully counterintuitive accents and colors low-key with his brushes and sometimes just his hands – kicked off the next one as loudly as he’d go, with an almost baroque counterpoint from the clarinet and strings.
Along with the web of melodies, there’s a lot of contrast in Lyn’s music, and the band worked those dynamics with a comfortable chemistry: hazy atmospherics versus a kinetic drive, loud/soft and calm/agitated dichotomies, Goldberger hitting his pedals for an unexpected roar or McGinnis leaping from the murk of the bass clarinet to the top of his register. Lyn also counters the pensiveness and gravitas of her music with a surreal sense of humor. It was her birthday, so she supplied paper and pens so that everyone in the crowd could draw a cadavre exquis. Some of the audience came up with intriguing or amusing stuff; from an artistically-challenged point of view, it was impossible to concentrate on drawing for very long because it was such a distraction – and a lot more fun – to watch Lyn’s magical sonic tableaux unfold.
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.
In the spirit of spreading the word about releases that slipped under our radar when they initially appeared, here’s one from last year. The Cypress String Quartet discovered composer Elena Ruehr’s work by listening to an unlabeled recording. Eight years later, they finally consummated their affinity for her compositions, and have captured that passion in an album. The Quartet’s next-to-most-recent cd How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr could not be more aptly titled. Throughout her First, Third and Fourth String Quartets, rhythm is everywhere: sometimes jaunty, often incredibly tricky, occasionally outright aggressive. The three quartets here, (Nos. 1, 3 and 4), performed in reverse chronological order here, are extraordinarily melodic, with tinges of Afrobeat, and Irish dances alternating with modernist astringencies and enticing consonance.
Quartet No. 4 is Ruehr’s response to the Cypress Quartet’s request for her to compare Beethoven’s Ninth Quartet with Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet (which isn’t all that dissonant – that one has a longish intro that takes longer than usual until the anticipated call-and-response kicks in). But it sounds nothing like either. It’s essentially variations on a circular, West African-flavored theme, beginning terse and pizzicato and ending with a flurry of stormclouds. In the meantime, there’s an absolutely riveting, pensive interlude featuring a long, windswept cello solo and alternating variations on the initial theme and its shadow. The same process repeats in Quartet No. 3: the two back-to-back make a marvelous suite. More rhythmically-oriented and somewhat more lighthearted – although not completely – it closely resembles some of maverick violist Ljova Zhurbin’s more playful work. Beginnings and endings are more aggressive here; the album title, based on a broken triad that first appears in what’s basically a minuet in disguise, derives from a Celtic-tinged theme. Its two themes intertwine and become friends on the way out.
Quartet #1, from 1991, won the ASCAP award that year. It’s the most cinematic of the three, introducing the African rhythms as shifting segments rather than a full-on drumbeat with pizzicato or staccato bowing. When it’s not establishing a dreamy, cantabile mood, there’s a hypnotic, tricky rondo anchored by the cello and hints of a levantine dance introducing the unexpectedly tense, unresolved finale. Spirited performances by violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel shine throughout the album. The Cypress String Quartet’s next New York appearance is on April 28 at 8 PM, playing works by Benjamin Lees at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th St.
Many of you have heard of this album because it contains a remix by Thom Yorke (which in this case is pretty inconsequential – he phoned it in). Be that what it may, John Matthias’ and Nick Ryan’s new Cortical Songs album, just out on the British Nonclassical label, is an intriguing and ambitious electroacoustic effort inspired by the most ancient instrument of them all, the human body. Matthias is an adept violinist and also a proficient singer, although he doesn’t contribute vocals on this album; Ryan is his laptop-toting sidekick. Together with the Trinity College of Music String Ensemble conducted by Nic Pendlebury, they’ve created an innovative suite based on the patterns of neurons firing in the brain. These “cortical songs” follow definable patterns – which makes sense, considering how much of human activity involves repetition – which lend themselves to musical interpretation. Matthias and Ryan don’t follow actual cortical patterns here, but instead a computer program that’s designed to replicate them. They’ve also added elements of improvisation via cues that add a sense of randomness: hence, this particular performance can never be exactly replicated. It’s an interesting mix of the baroque and the modern, emphasis on the modern, heavy on minimalism and horizontality.
It opens as pensive minuet, Matthias leading the procession, which quickly bulks up with layers of atmospherics and counterrythms that fades into and out of the wash of sound. The second movement is an insistently hypnotic tone poem with overtones wafting overhead, evoking the more ambient work of the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor, up to a big sudden swell. The third fades up even more atmospherically, with minute suspenseful shifts against the wash that build until Matthias reenters pensively, leading to a bracing crescendo that fades down again to a quiet angst. The fourth reprises the opening minuet, then strips away the rhythm, leaving the motif to mutate and expand with considerable unease. It’s a compelling chamber work.
And that’s where it ends for us. A series of remixes of parts of the suite follows: one skips around ludicrously as if the recording program suddenly went haywire, and the engineer kept what was left because he’d been paid and had to turn in something. Toward the end there are a couple that allude to a familiarity with dub, or at least dubstep. What someone like Lee “Scratch” Perry could have done with this – with analog equipment, of course – one can only wonder.
The tendency is to ignore a composer’s practice pieces. Sometimes that’s a mistake. The Bach Clavierubung is a goldmine of obscure treasures, the Schumann etudes transcend the genre as they grow more cruelly difficult – and let’s not forget old Fur Elise. In the early 1930s, at the suggestion of a colleague, Bela Bartok decided to take many of the Eastern European folk themes he’d collected over the years and turn them into a series of etudes. His agenda: to further his own cause and get the kids playing bitonalities, atonalities and the astringencies found here which are often more Bartokian than Balkan. Violinists Angela and Jennifer Chun have artfully assembled them as a suite, making for segues that are literally seamless: most of these brief, barely minute-long miniatures blend together. Likewise, their playing is seamless: the two violins often literally join together as one, which might not seem so remarkable considering that the Chuns are sisters.
The melodies are austere, plaintive and often poignant: for the most part, the violins set a steady pace and keep it going. Dances often sound more like marches; the most memorable of the wedding songs here would make a more appropriate theme for a divorce. The most vivid of the traditional themes here include a deliciously fast, chromatically-fueled Ruthenian dance; a Transylvanian theme which disquietingly shifts from the Arabic hijaz scale to hypnotic major-key ambience; a brief, evocative “mosquito dance,” a rather macabre “counting song,” and an eerie Romanian dance tune that’s more closely related to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring than might seem possible. A whirling bagpipe theme over steady pedalpoint resonates equally well, along with a distantly anguished Hungarian march and a couple of original themes that Bartok snuck in here: a “burlesque” melody that’s more scary than seductive, and a bucolic, atmospheric harvest passage that works as a tone poem (or a tone couplet – it’s over just a handful of bars after it begins). The quieter material here tends to be more brooding and acidic, with the exception of a couple of amusing interludes like one of the “teasing songs” and a handful of blithe dance themes. This one’s out now on Harmonia Mundi.
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.
Concert Review: The American String Quartet with Natsumi Kuboyama at the Fabbri Library, NYC 5/12/10
Eighteen-year-old Japanese pianist Natsumi Kuboyama, the winner of all sorts of competitions and a performer since the age of six, opened last night’s program at upper East Side hideaway the Fabbri Library with the Sinfonia from Bach’s C Minor Partita. With a surprisingly forceful attack in the opening measures, she showed some moxie that otherwise never made itself known during the rest of her solo performance. Instead, she showed off a turbo-hydramatic legato and world-class articulation throughout perfect if perfectly safe renditions of two Chopin works, the Ballade in F, Op. 38 and the Andante Spinato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, a schlocky Japanese rock ballad and then, most strikingly, the bracingly modernist, otherworldly, Toru Takamitsu-esque Prelude by Kunihiro Nakamura.
To fans of classical and new music alike, the American String Quartet needs no introduction, combining an avant garde enthusiast’s passion and counterintuitive intelligence with a historically-informed purism and a seemingly effortless technical skill. Effortless, possibly, because, as violist Daniel Avshalomov opined, they play the most exciting repertoire anywhere. Last time we caught them they were tackling the abrasive intensity of Irving Fine along with Robert Sirota’s anguished, haunting 9/11 Triptych. This time out, they ran through a pleasantly familiar program with special flair and an unaffected sensitivity to joy. The highlight was the Schubert Quartetsatz in C Minor, D. 70s, which as Avshalomov reminded was as close to a complete string quartet as Schubert ever wrote (he left behind only this first movement). Ablaze with unpredictable counterpoint and gemlike melody, it left no doubt as to how much fun it is to play: it is a team effort with star turns for everyone. When cellist Wolfram Koessel’s delightfully casual, growling undertones led the rest of the ensemble into the final series of little exchanges, it was nothing short of exquisite.
They also brought Kuboyama out of her shell with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat, Op. 44. Avshalomov explained the piece as Schumann’s unabashedly delighted response to having discovered what a piano and a string quartet can do together – it gave Kuboyama the chance to take her game up a level, notably throughout its many nocturnal, cantabile ripples and bends, towards which she seems to have a natural inclination. The rest of the ensemble romped through the call-and-response volleys of the opening Allegro Brillante, gave the swells of the second movement’s march an apt epic grandeur, barrelled through the playful dance of the Scherzo and made the most of the brilliant bittersweetness of the finale.
They closed with the first of the “late” Beethoven Quartets, Op. 127 in E-flat. “After the first part, you might imagine all the lights turned off, especially in this room,” Avshalomov suggested, which considering the medieval wood-paneled ambience, made sense. After they’d negotiated the tricky waves of the Maestoso Allegro, the Adagio provided a warmly cantabile architecture for violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney to embellish with a silvery vibrato, Avshalomov and Koessel each enhancing the plaintiveness in the lower registers. After all that, the symphonic crescendos of the Scherzando Vivace and the sterner, somewhat heroic Allegro finale were delivered with equal amounts spot-on precision and gusto. The crowd snapped out of their reverie and hoped for an encore, but by now it was ten in the evening and time for wine and snacks. The American String Quartet’s next two concerts are at Bargemusic on May 15 at 8 PM, repeating on May 16 at 3 PM with music of Mozart and Shostakovich along with Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” This is it for the Fabbri Library’s season, a sonically and visually delightful (and refreshingly friendly) space whose concert series will continue in the fall.
It could have been billed as Schoenberg and His Descendents, a beautifully uneasy, otherworldly upper westside evening of art-songs and some austerely compelling instrumentals that more than did justice to the composer’s legacy. The Loki Ensemble’s mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer has developed not only a great affinity but also a strikingly resonant aptitude for Schoenberg’s paradigm-shifting Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 18, an otherworldly suite based on a series of heartbroken, imagistic poems by Stefan George. The group played four of those songs: on number two and eleven , pianists Jacob Greenberg and then Wes Matthews wrenched every brooding, moody atonality from the score as Fischer brought a remarkably visceral unease, longing and intensity to the vocals. In the stylized world of classical legit voice, individuality is not an easy quality to channel, but Fischer put her own steely, forcefully indelible stamp on everything she touched. To liven things up further, the group added their own instrumental improvisations, notably tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan (of marvelously creepy art-song practitioners Dollshot), whose precise yet breathy, baritone-like timbres matched the murk perfectly. Greenberg hinted at an McCoy Tyner bluesiness in his solo on song fourteen, number fifteen dramatically juxtaposing Fischer’s pyrotechnics against Matthews’ plaintive minimalism.
A very recent work for piano trio and vocals (based on an Octavio Paz text), Reinaldo Moya’s La Rima, with the JACK Quartet’s Christopher Otto on violin and Kevin McFarland on cello made a solid segue, strings swooping over a pensive piano rumble, building to a contrast between terse, incisive piano methodically punching against sostenuto atmospherics. A world premiere, William Cooper’s An Den Wassern Zu Babel was an intense and poignant interpretation of Psalm 137 (you may know it from Bach or the Melodians’ By the Rivers of Babylon). Cooper explained how affecting he found the end of the passage, which concludes with “Blessed are those who bash the bones of their children against the rocks,” and while the music, with considerable echoes of Bartok, never reached that level of violence, there was considerable anger and even more frustration. Over the course of seven movements, pianist Liza Stepanova worked the variations of a simple ascending progression lyrically and dynamically, through a sad, angry march, a hypnotically chilling, late Rachmaninovian-style passage and then the methodical, wounded sway of the final movement which ended sudden and cold.
The final piece, Nathan Shields’ Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking set text by Hart Crane and Walt Whitman to severe, sometimes acidic, evocatively wavelike piano played by Ed Neeman, Fischer speaking the final stanzas with a dramatic flair. The counterpoint between vocals and piano was both striking and hypnotic, the unease of the strings adding to the menace (the theme ponders the role of the ocean as both nurturer and destroyer), but as assured and engaged as the performers were, ultimately this was Horse Latitudes: awkward instant, and the first horse of many was jettisoned. What a treat it would be to hear this without the poetry – or with vocalese instead!
Like their big sister the NY Scandia Symphony, the Scandia String Quartet dedicate themselves to popularizing Scandinavian composers who are too frequently unknown here. Violinists Mayuki Fukuhara and Elizabeth Miller, cellist Lawrence Zoernig and violist Frank Foerster are the orchestra’s power hitters. Conveniently and fortuitously, Foerster also happens to be a first-rate composer. This program at MOSA uptown Sunday evening featured several of his stark, dramatic arrangements of folk songs from throughout Scandinavia in addition to the world premiere of his composition Summer in Fort Tryon Park. Whimsical but hardly shallow, it painted a lively, multicultural weekend afternoon scene with latin, klezmer and Polish flourishes (the latter an ode the joys of morphine), a brief, torrential downpour and an ice cream truck. The central theme took the shape of a surprisingly somber canon, the audio equivalent of a Time Out NY cover collage by Diane Arbus.
Foerster and the quartet gave the folk songs a majesty that transcended their humble origins. Finland was represented by a heroic theme, a wistful waltz and a carefree dance tune, Iceland by a handful of striking, otherworldly modal numbers, a “winter dance” that moved from a disquietingly modal march to Vivaldiesque revelry, and a potently staccato interpretation of the famous Dangerous Journey on Horseback. Another contemporary composer, Zack Patten was represented, his warily atmospheric, aptly titled Kierkegaard floating uneasily on a series of ninth intervals up to a powerful crescendo sung by contralto Hanne Ladefoged Dollase, and then out much the way it came in.
All this made the big finale, Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27. somewhat anticlimactic, testament to the quality of what had preceded it rather than the Quartet’s inspired performance as they played up its tensions for all they were worth. Written after the composer had left the city for the famous country fiddling town of Hardanger, it’s a tug-of-war, comfortably convivial urbanity (which eventually wins out in the end) versus the wild lure of the unknown. Zoernig described it beforehand as something of a missing link between the late Beethoven quartets and Debussy or Bartok, which vividly made sense, notably toward the end in the evil gnomish stampedes straight out of the Mountain King’s cave. This along with the heroic central theme (an Ibsen song) gave Zoernig and Foerster their chance to blaze through the darkness and they seized each moment as it came along.
The Scandia String Quartet’s next performance is May 13 at Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. featuring many of the most appealing works from this bill including the Foerster original, the Patten and Grieg along with works by Sibelius. And as they’ve been doing for the past few years, the Scandia String Quartet will present a series of outdoors concerts in Ft. Tryon Park this June on Sunday afternoons.
The New York Scandia Symphony’s marathon concert yesterday at Trinity Church was exhausting yet exhilarating for musicians and audience alike, reaching a level of intensity envied by most players and rarely experienced by the average concertgoer. On one level, the members of the ensemble are spoiled rotten. While other orchestras roll out the same tired warhorses night after night, the Scandia dedicate themselves to obscure and rarely heard masterpieces by Scandinavian composers. Which means at least one premiere of some sort at every concert. The price of such riches? Hard work, but this one was well worth being out of breath for (as several in the orchestra literally were by the end).
The concert had a clear trajectory. They started with just a string orchestra playing a selection by late Romantic Danish composer Poul Schierbeck that sounded like a cheery organ prelude rearranged for strings (which it well could have been – Schierbeck was an organist). They then brought up guest cellist Jonathan Aasgaard for the Prayer by Ernest Block from his suite From Jewish Life. Broodingly cinematic in its Rachmaninovian sweep, it gave Aasgaard a chance to show off a strongly sostenuto, almost hornlike attack. There’s a movement afoot among cellists to hold notes as strongly as possible – the decay on a cello string is almost instantaneous, after all – and whether or not that trend might be part of his agenda or just his usual M.O., it resonated powerfully. It was even more notable as he swooped and dove over the full orchestra on the U.S. premiere of Hungarian/Danish Romantic composer Franz Neruda’s Cello Concerto, a somewhat martial dance theme taking on more of an apprehensive tone as it grew.
Another work from the Danish Romantic school, Emil Hartman’s Cello Concerto moved through an understatedly heroic theme with echoes of Cesar Franck, to quieter, more introverted, hypnotic territory, to a surprisingly upbeat dance of a conclusion. With considerably more solo parts for cello, it was more of a showcase for Aasgaard than the previous two pieces and he met the challenge head-on, climbing to a ferociously slithery, chromatic solo cadenza toward the end of the first movement.
They closed with Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony. With its constant, tidal tempo shifts, motifs that make their way around the orchestra and its distant sense of dread, it’s mightily difficult to play, but conductor Dorrit Matson kept a mighty hand on the tiller, maintaining as much ease as there can be while directing such an uneasy composition. In their hands, it took on the shape of cautionary tale about the perils of complacency: snooze and you lose. It opened with a seemingly carefree splash of bells, orchestra playing a rather mundane series of permutations until suddenly the violins gave off a muffled scream. And suddenly those silly bells made sense: they were an alarm, and nobody was paying attention! That violin motif returned again, and again, if never quite as fully horrified as the first time around – horror becomes less horrifying the more you get used to it.
The second movement, dubbed a “humoresk” by Nielsen, has been called a parody of modernism, and that could be true (it also could be a portrait of a clueless, selfish narcissist, or a political statement – it dates from 1926, you figure it out). Scored for just horns and percussion, the drums were clearly having fun stepping all over the melody, whenever they were needed least. As random as the time seemed, Mattson swung it to make sure it was not so that there wasn’t a millisecond lost when some rhythm reemerged. So the juxtaposition of the strikingly astringent, modernist third movement made quite a contrast, cellos somber, violins aflutter over the horns’ atmospherics. The concluding movement took on the feel of a Mediterranean aria filtered through the lens of Debussy, a careening, out-of-focus, dizzyingly rhythmic series of frozen-rain motifs, from a nail-biting waltz to almost a parody of a march to the sarcastic honk that ended it all cold. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the orchestra knew exactly what had.
The Scandia roll out their string quartet for their next concert, 5 PM on April 18 at Our Savior of Atonement, 189th St. and Bennett Ave. in the Bronx for an intriguing bill of Grieg, Frank Foerster, Zack Patten, C.E.F. Weyse, Langgaard and Nielsen. Admission is free.