Lucid Culture


Concert Review: Duo Firenze at Trinity Church, NYC 4/2/09

Not an Italian group: in fact, there’s another Duo Firenze, a piano/guitar unit and they’re from Virginia. This duo, violinists Brooke Quiggins and Elizabeth Young of the Larchmont Music Academy made their stage debut together in Italy, therefore, probably, the name. If you think that playing in an orchestra might be difficult, imagine playing a duo show. Your timing, interplay and phrasing have to be flawless. But these two moved as close to the audience as the space would allow, then locked in and delivered a performance that had the crowd roaring. Not bad for just two unamplified violins.


They warmed up with Haydn’s speedy, comfortably consonant Duetto VI in D Major, then offered a stark contrast with the pensive atmospherics of It Don’t All Come Easy by contemporary composer Kyle Saulnier. The high point of the show was Romantic composer Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite in G Minor, Op. 71, a beautiful four-section partita that deserves to be better-known than it is. Duo Firenze brought up an unannounced guest pianist to join them in the two warmly bright allegro sections, the strikingly dark, practically morbid lento assai and then reverting to the vividly Chopinesque color of the opening movements. Pablo de Sarasate’s Navarra, Op. 33, a fiery Spanish dance was a clinic in split-second synchronization;  the two then concluded the show with Limerock by contemporary composer Mark O’Connor, plaintive and somewhat astringent but still a showcase for sizzling yet seemingly effortless runs down the scale. The crowd wanted more but didn’t get it: time was up. Since Trinity archives all their concerts, you can see the whole performance streaming here for free.

April 3, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The New York Scandia Symphony Plays Nielsen and Svendsen at Trinity Church, 3/12/09

The New York Scandia Symphony dedicates itself to popularizing the work of Scandianavian composers here in the US. That a staggering ninety percent of their repertoire is American premieres is reason alone to put them on your calendar. The other, obviously is that they rank with any other orchestra in New York in terms of talent. Who would have thought that one of the the year’s most stunning moments in classical music so far would have taken place in the middle of the day at a landmark, downtown church?


On the podium, Dorrit Matson calmly and assuredly led the ensemble through a seamless yet thrilling Romantic program rich with feeling and melody. They opened with Carl Nielsen’s warmly dreamy Prelude from Maskarade, Mattson vigorously bringing out the striking accents in the horns behind the lush, sweeping strings. Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen’s Cello Concerto, from 1870, was next, a wrenchingly beautiful work that deserves iconic status alongside the best of Brahms or Rachmaninoff. Built around a six-note theme extraordinary both in its simplicity and evocation of longing, it has both a slightly subdued, elegaic feel and something of a noir sensibility. It’s a shock that a rock band or two haven’t nicked one or more of the variations. Leaping into it with abandon, the orchestra only backed off when soloist Lawrence Zoernig joined them. Displaying a warm vibrato and a seemingly effortless familiarity with a relentless series of rapidly cascading arpeggios, he worked his role as an ensemble member rather than showboating, which fit the piece perfectly.


Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony closed the program. It’s somewhat odd, stark in places, with a persistent, recurrent feel of unease, notably whenever everything finally seems as if it’s ok. It has an almost mathematical symmetry, not only as the themes change but also in the interior of those themes, whether the melody is being passed from strings to winds (as happens more than once) or during one of its many crescendoing, increasingly complex fugal passages. It frequently reminds of Shostakovich, a constant tug-of-war, peace versus aggression and instability.


The first movement evolves from a slow, hypnotic trill on the viola, echoed and eventually returned by the rest of the orchestra. Then, the first of a series of disquieting, martial passages is introduced by the percussion, the first a sarcastic march. From there it builds methodically to a bell-like choir of violins followed by a loudly resigned, almost funereal crescendo, horns bubbling behind the lushness of the strings. The second movement begins as a stormy waltz, horns sounding the alarm once again, then fading into a big, full-steam procession where everything seems to be fine. And then the strings are scurrying once again, crisis admist what once was calm, again and again until it all ends on an unresolved note. To hear this on an ipod is inspiring; to watch this orchestra make their way through it with such intensity and command of its emotional sensibilities was far more satisfying than anything a recording could possibly deliver.   


The New York Scandia Symphony’s next performance is at their usual home, Trinity Church on May 28, with pieces by Kuhlau, Larsson and Weyse on the bill along with US premieres by Gunnar Berg and Vagn Holmboe. Classical music fans who are able to make it to the church around lunchtime would be crazy to miss it.

March 13, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Alistair MacRae and Heather Conner at St. Paul’s Chapel, NYC 12/8/08

Those who braved the cold or who were sufficiently at liberty to spend their lunch hour at the historic downtown landmark were treated to a gorgeously Romantic performance. Cellist Alistair MacRae began solo with Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 in C Major (BMV 1009), essentially a big, ambitious prelude followed by five dances (although one, the Sarabande, is sad, slow and in MacRae’s hands exquisitely beautiful). The cello not being the first instrument that comes to mind for dance music, the composition is one of Bach’s more puckish numbers, and MacRae gave it a robust treatment that often made it seem as if there was a whole string section playing. The Prelude was dark and majestic, MacRae taking advantage of the melody playing off a single low string for a sort of raga effect; the Allemande (first of the dances) was handled with briskness and efficiency. After the slow, 6/8 Courante and the Sarabande, he wrapped it up with the rather plaintive, multi-part Bouree (not the one made famous by NPR and Jethro Tull) and a brief, somewhat blustery Gigue that brought back the dark note on which the piece begins.


University of Utah Assistant Professor of Music Heather Conner then joined him on piano for a rich, emotional take of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119. Ostensibly the piece is in C major, but the overall effect was dark and windswept, Conner’s playing in the opening andante grave section beautifully plaintive and bell-like against the washes of cello. The piece began to brighten and scurry as the second movement got underway, both musicians carried along by the intensity of the melody, seamlessly riding out its frequently percussive fire. They wrapped up the hourlong show with Tschaikovsky’s brief Melodie from Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher (Memory of a Favorite Place), a somewhat wistful song without words which would seem to be a prime target for a contemporary balladeer searching for a catchy melody on which to hang a pop song.


The show was part of Trinity Church’s ongoing lunchtime free concerts (though contributions, all of which go to the musicians, are highly encouraged), held on Mondays at St. Paul’s and on Thursdays at Trinity, a superb way to experience topnotch artists playing a wide range of styles from classical to jazz to folk that would otherwise cost megabucks at the big concert halls uptown.  

December 8, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Englewinds at Trinity Church, NYC 10/23/08

Yesterday at Trinity Church, the environmentally-conscious wind, piano and percussion sextet Englewinds put on a show that was as captivating as it was cutting-edge. Celebrating their tenth anniversary, the group features a new environmental theme every year. This year’s is the monarch butterfly, which relies on milkweed for a place to lay its eggs. With milkweed in decline, the next stop on oboeist Sarah Davol’s intinerary after the show was to meet with the NYC Parks department and try to convince them to let milkweed grow, literally on the fringes, of city-owned parks. As an aside, just think what might happen if, say, AC/DC would start a campaign to plant trees. You may think the idea is incredibly corny, but just imagine…


In any event, Englewinds proved to be first and foremost about the music. They opened with a brief and intriguing piece by Davol titled Long Road Back, opening brisk and springlike, picking up the pace with the highs of Marcia Hankle’s flute playing contrapuntally against the lows of Davol’s oboe and Maureen Strenge’s bassoon. The next work on the bill was a tongue-in-cheek partita by Douglas Townsend, who when given a chance to introduce it to the audience, revealed that he’d written it for music students with sufficient technique to play the simpler Beethoven sonatas. The way the group played it, it was clear that Townsend must have had a great time writing it: it’s a dead ringer for Beethoven, Tomoko Ohno’s darkly incisive, subtly textured piano foreshadowing and then joined by winds as the melody rises. Only at the end did she allow herself to cut loose, keeping the quick crescendo at the end of the third section terse and memorable. It was the kind of piece that a clever programmer on, say, WNYC could sneak into a set of Beethoven and nobody would know the difference.


Hankle played Katherine Hoover’s open-skies anthem Kokopeli solo, vivid and evocative. It’s an American Indian themed work: Kokopeli is something of a pied piper figure in Hopi mythology. Then the group provided a comic interlude with Dawn Avery’s Tulpe Interlude, getting some audience participation going as the oboe and bassoon each took on a persona, the oboe a graceful, fluid water turtle and the bassoon a big, clumsy box turtle. That the crowd didn’t prove all that good at following along was a blessing in disguise because a more vigorous response would have drowned out the music.


They closed on a high note with their clarinetist Monte Morgenstern’s composition The Flight of the Monarch Butterfly. As he told the crowd, the piece actually depicts the creature’s entire life cycle, from the eerie, confusion and eventual shock as it first leaves the cocoon, to a beautiful interlude introduced by stately piano chords, and ending on a sad, hypnotic, Messiaen-esque note, Ohno’s plaintive high notes ringing against gentle washes of winds. More groups should be doing what Englewinds are, raising consciousness in a way that’s compelling without being the least bit strident. Watch this space for further info on upcoming NYC area shows.

October 24, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joyce Jones in Concert at Trinity Church, NYC 7/24/08

The reliably superb, annual summertime festival of organ concerts at Trinity Church always has a theme, and this year’s is “Organ Divas.” The artist who played today is perhaps the prototype. A legend in organ circles, Baylor University Professor Joyce Jones is something of a ham, a performer just as likely to play a supersonic Flight of the Bumblebee on the pedals as she is to keep the audience in stitches with a seemingly endless supply of puns, some of them pretty corny, delivered in a deadpan Texas accent. Self-effacing, down-home persona aside, Jones reaffirmed what an extraordinarily imaginative, sensitive and original a player she is.

Virtually every organist good enough to tour major cities has superior chops, and Jones’ are among the best. But what invariably impresses the most is how different her approach is, and how much fun she clearly has playing. Today “The Accidental Organist,” as she bills herself – a piano major in college, she hurt her hand and only turned to the organ as a way to practice to keep herself sharp until it healed – opened with Leo Sowerby’s Pageant. As the title implies, it’s a big, stately, optimistic piece that opens with the kind of pedal figure that Jones has made her trademark. She followed that with an idiosyncratic but absolutely brilliant version of the famous Bach Passaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BMV 582). Introducing the piece, she told the crowd that while a student, her playing had come to sound “like it was sprayed with Lysol disinfectant” due to overwork and perhaps overthinking. But this was anything but sterile. A lot of organists hurry through it to get to the big crescendos, but Jones took her time, making it a casual but deliberate stroll through the work’s swells and ebbs, using several different registrations to vary the tonal quality of particular sections she’d singled out. In Bach’s day, registrations were left pretty much up to the individual organist, meaning that Jones was fully within her rights to do this. And it was stunning, particularly when she balanced a fast pedal solo with screaming, upper-register chords, against which the pedal melody was only semi-audible.

She then played Marcel Dupre’s brief Fileuse, a striking contrast and showcase for speed with its somewhat hypnotic, circular upper-register motif, something akin to the Flight of the Bumblebee as the melody circles against an airy, repetitive arpeggio. Introducing the final number on the program, Liszt’s remarkably melodic, climactic Fantasie and Fugue on the hymn Ad Nos, ad Salutarem Undam, she explained how it was influenced by the composer’s student Julius Reubke (who went on to write the legendary, vengeful Sonata on the 94th Psalm) as well the Merrybeer opera The Prophet. Which makes sense: Liszt seems like someone who would be especially fond of bombast. Jones made the point that the work could be called the first real organ symphony, considering how long and segmented it is, and like the Bach she absolutely nailed it. Afterward, she rewarded the audience for their two standing ovations with a brief, percussive transcription of a Prokofiev piano toccata – a sort of organist’s revenge for all the piano and orchestral transcriptions of classic organ works – and then a classicized arrangement of The Church in the Wildwood. “If you didn’t hear this growing up, well then, you were deprived,” Jones deadpanned. No doubt she would have kept playing, and the audience would have stayed much longer, had this been possible.

July 24, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments