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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Fearlessly Kaleidoscopic, Diverse Album of Modern Harpsichord Music From Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani bristles at the idea that his instrument could possibly be archaic, or that its usefulness is limited to music from the Renaissance or before. In the liner notes to his paradigm-shifting new album Musique, he credits “One perhaps unlikely source of inspiration…the people who, over the years, booed, cat-called and/or walked out of halls worldwide in anger and confusion (in other words, fear) during the live performances of these and many other modern and contemporary works. Be assured, my friends, that much more of this is on its way.”

If fearlessness is your thing, this album – streaming at Bandcamp – is for you. Esfahani plays a custom-made 2018 model by Jukka Ollikka, with an additional soundboard which essentially turbocharges the sustain – and Esfahani uses all of it. The album’s first piece is Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming, Esfahani’s steady, precise, eerily twinkling close harmonies contrasting with spare, pensive phrases. The washes of overtones reverberating from inside are nothing short of otherworldly: this piece alone proves Esfahani’s point about the harpsichord’s enduring vitality.

Henry Cowell wrote his Set of Four in 1960, twenty-six years before Takemitsu’s piece. The first, a rondo, is a disquietingly flamenco-inflected number with big, splashy glissandos and crashing, reverberating chords intermingled within shifting, stairstepping phrases. The ostinato of a second movement is a darkly bristling twelve-tone baroque invention that gives Esfahani a chance to take some jubilant leaps out of its otherwise rigid, brisk counterpoint. The third movement, a chorale, comes across as both homage to and devious parody of Bach. The conclusion blends quasi-Chopin with more conventional twelve-tone exchanges and a fleetingly deliciously chugging low lefthand attack

Kajia Saariaho‘s Jardin Secret II, written in the same year as Takemitsu’s work, is a rapidfire, minimalist electroacoustic piece with electronics by the composer herself: the contrast between organic and robotic is striking. A swordfight ensues: it’s not clear who wins.

Gavin Bryars‘ 1995 partita, After Handel’s “Vespers” is a rhythmically shifting exploration of baroque gestures, alternating methodically between harmonic worlds old and new, minimalism and medieval loquaciousness.

Esfahani has his hands full with the pointilllistic needles and epic, organ-like crush of Anahita Abbasi‘s 2018 Intertwined Distances, but his attack is unrelenting, the cumulo-nimbus ambience amplified by light electronic enhancements. A distant carillon effect is a clever touch.

He closes the record with Luc Ferrari’s 1972 Programme Commun – Musique Socialiste?, which could be a sardonic commentary on Pompidou-era French politics, or a prescient attempt to replicate the staccato sound of a Fender Rhodes elecric piano via one of its most venerable predecessors. This is the album’s most overtly amusing and pulsingly accessible piece, Esfahani reveling in how it seemingly inevitably falls apart, held together only by a pulsing electornic drone.

It’s a good bet that even the most diehard devotees of new music have never heard timbres or textures anything like this, especially not over the length of a whole record. Let’s hope Esfahani lives up to his vindictive promise in the album booklet, many times over.

August 27, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Compelling, Lushly Relevant Orchestral Works in Washington Heights

This past evening a string subset of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra played a lush, majestic, sweeping, potently relevant program of works by 20th and 21st century composers. The performance validated conventional wisdom in real estate bubble-era New York: the fringes are where the most cutting-edge artists are supposed to be. Ask yourself how many members of the Philharmonic actually walk to work: it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of this talented ensemble did.

The group echoed Music Director Chris Whittaker’s poise on the podium, at least with as much poise as a string section can maintain playing distinctly troubled music. The central theme was Japanese, comprising works by composers with Japanese heritage, setting up a harrowing look back at the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima wasn’t addressed, but it might as well have been, considering how plaintive and elegaic the overall ambience was.

Both the opening and concluding pieces, Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum and Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes opened with percussive rustles from the bass section, a neat pairing. The former was an alternately kinetic and stark interweave of 19th century gospel-inflected pentatonic melody and more distinctly Asian motives. Permeated with the call-and-response of chain gang chants, it spoke for itself as a reminder of how little has changed in over a century.

The showstopper was an understatedly aching, enveloping take of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem For String Orchestra. Moving gracefully from an austere pavane to stabbing close harmonies that foreshadow Julia Wolfe’s work, and then to to cellular Glass-ine phrasing, the group locked in on its relentless, overcast atmosphere.

Karen Tanaka’s Dreamscape suite often had a similarly circular but more distinctly nebulous effect, their group parsing its starry pointillisms and sparely memorable hooks with delicacy to match their lustre, harpist Tomina Parvanova and concertmaster Mark Chien tracing lively comet tails and deep-space bubbles.

Theofanidis’ piece was inspired by the Japanese tradition of making paper cranes. As the myth goes, producing a thousand of them allows for a wish to come true. That activity became a meme among those stricken with radiation poisoning and all kinds of other horrible illnesses after August of 1945.

The triptych is a hard piece to play, partly because it covers so much ground, emotionally speaking. There was unexpectedly calm jubilance in the opening overture of sorts, which disappeared as reality sank in. The group nimbly tackled the precisely dancing pizzicato section and then let the mournful washes afterward linger. The steady procession up to a decidedly unresolved ending was just as poignant.

The orchestra are staging monthly concerts  this spring: the next one is March 23 at 3 PM at at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, 729 W 181st St. just up the hill from the 1 train, with works by Korngold, Britten, Anna Clyne and Michael Torke. Admission is free; $25 gets you into the reception afterward and for the rest of the season as well.

February 23, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment