Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Valerie Coleman’s Bustling Compositions Spring to Life at Symphony Space

If anybody deserves a lavish three-hour “composer portrait” concert, it’s Valerie Coleman. The esteemed Imani Winds flutist and founder got just that at Symphony Space in a program featuring her bandmates along with the Da Capo Chamber Players and other musicians. Coleman’s compositions bustle without being busy. They’re electric with color and rhythm, reflecting the New York milieu she represents. Balancing that kinetic energy is a somber side steeped in history, infused as much with the blues and gospel music as with classical and the avant garde. And as serious and in-your-face as her music can be – very in-your-face, if she feels like it – she can also be uproariously funny. There were several moments of LOL vaudevillian jousting during the performance that made for considerable relief from the intensity that permeated the rest of the show. Ultimately, Coleman’s music is deep, and the performers seized that and brought out all the rich color in a series of diverse chamber works as they flashed by, or resonated with a gritty, irony-drenched gravitas.

The night’s most spine-tingling moment of many might have been the tightly spiraling interplay between Coleman and clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki midway through an unselfconsciously haunting, Langston Hughes-inspired trio work (one of a half-dozen on the bill) with pianist Dmitri Dover. Or it could have been the Da Capos’ world premiere of Lenox Avenue, a fascinatingly boisterous cityscape that does for Harlem what Respighi did for Rome. The rousing, minutely jeweled closing partita Tzigane for Wind Quintet also delivered plenty of chromatically-charged thrills, notably from the Imanis’ Toyin Spellman-Diaz’s oboe, set up by longer, more expansive, suspenseful interludes.

The Imanis delivered an alternately rapt, darkly reflective and celebratory take of Coleman’s triptych, Afro-Cuban Concerto for Wind Quintet. Coleman said before the concert that she envisioned her ensemble as having more of the spirit of a brass band than a “light and fluffy” group, and this reaffirmed that she doesn’t have to worry about the latter ever being the case. The world premiere of Rubispheres, for the wind trio of Coleman and her bandmates – propulsive bassoonist Monica Ellis and the similarly incisive Mariam Adam on clarinet – followed a similar, dynamically charged trajectory, echoed later in the program by the DaCapos’ take of the blues-infused suite Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. All three of those richly ambered, reflective works made a powerful contrast with the unfettered joie de vivre that had taken centerstage for so much of this fascinating and rewarding program.

April 7, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Da Capo Chamber Players Jumpstart Black History Month

Gil Scott-Heron famously observed that Black History Month could only happen in February. Last night at Merkin Concert Hall the Da Capo Chamber Players gave it a vigorous jumpstart with a program of music by contemporary black composers that was often as gripping as it was provocative. Da Capo flutist Patricia Spencer and clarinetist Meighan Stoops chose the works, inspired in particular by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and its revelation that the percentage of blacks currently incarcerated in the United States is higher than it was in South Africa under apartheid.

Da Capo pianist Blair McMillen opened with a trio of Nkeiru Okoye miniatures: a tightly assembled group of children at play, a droll rain dance and a beautifully nuanced take of Dusk, an elegaic nocturne mingling oldtime gospel and 70s soul themes. A similar darkness and mystery would recur a little later in the night’s quiet showstopper, Alvin Singleton’s La Flora. From the perspective of not having read the liner notes beforehand, it conjured up images of early morning New England industrial parks, plots being hatched among sleepy accomplices who slowly begin to focus as the light grows and then leap into action. However it might be interpreted, it’s a hushed, lush, conspiratorial, powerfully cinematic piece, part minimalist tone poem, part Lynchian noir narrative. The ensemble (McMillen, Stoops, Spencer on bass flute, Curtis Macomber on violin and James Wilson on cello) took their time with it, Wilson working its pianissimo drones for all the tension they were worth, McMillen and guest vibraphonist Matthew Gold adding eerie glimmer in turn alongside the lushness of the winds and strings and percussionist Samuel Nathan’s terse, distantly menacing accents. As it turns out, Singleton’s inspiration was Botticelli’s La Primavera and its subtext-loaded assemblage of dieties and nymphs: go figure. Either way, the foreshadowing lingered long after it was over. The composer was present and seemed pleased: he had every reason to be.

The ensemble’s approach to Jeffrey Mumford’s complex, alternately harsh and balmy A Diffuse Light That Knows No Particular Hour was judicious and matter-of-fact,  its calm/agitated dichotomies highlighted by a swaying, conversational interlude between flute and clarinet that recurred memorably as the work hit a trick ending and then continued an upward arc, developing a visceral sense of longing.

A series of miniatures by the Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman drew on Langston Hughes poems which were recited in between: a resilient and surprisingly bubbly portrait of Helen Keller; wry jazz and blues-inspired Paris nightclub romps; a Debussy-esque rainstorm and a dark, understatedly majestic Harlem nocturne that was equal parts blues, gospel and art-rock. The ensemble closed with Wendell Morris Logan’s Runagate, Runagate, a jarringly cinematic, shapeshifting, often chilling portrait of slaves escaping to freedom. Trouble was, it was paired with a long Robert Hayden poem – both spoken and sung – on a similar theme. Taken separately, music and lyrics have much to recommend them; together, it seemed that the poem had been grafted haphazardly to the suite, a fault of composition rather than performance. The vocal line never wavered far from a central tone since there was nowhere to go over the leaps and bounds of the rest of the arrangement, and there were moments, especially early on, where operatics actually drowned out the music behind them.

The Da Capo Chamber Players return to Merkin Hall on June 6 at 8 PM to play a new commission from Mohammed Fairouz plus Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with soprano Lucy Shelton.

January 30, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious Start to This Year’s Imani Winds Festival

This year’s third annual Imani Winds Festival of cutting-edge chamber music kicked off auspiciously last night on the upper west side with the pioneering wind quintet performing a sometimes haunting, sometimes exhilarating mix of relatively new (and brand new) compositions. Imani Winds flutist Valerie Coleman’s Tzigane made a deliciously high-octane opening number: an imaginative blend of gypsy jazz and indie classical with intricately shifting voices, it was a showcase for the entirety of the ensemble, notably clarinetist Mariam Adam’s otherworldly, microtonal trills and Coleman’s slinkily legato snakecharmer lines.

Phil Taylor’s Prelude and Scherzo was next. Brooding, apprehensive, atmospheric cinematics built matter-of-factly to an anguished flute cadenza, then backed away and the process repeated itself; the Scherzo cleverly took the wary introductory theme and disguised it with a jaunty bounce which the group built to an unexpectedly triumphant ending.

The piece de resistance was a new Mohammed Fairouz suite, Jebnal Lebnan (meaning “Mount Lebanon,” the historical name for the mountainous country), which the Imani Winds recently recorded. The composer explained beforehand that its withering opening segment, Bashir’s March, was inspired by his visit to the site of a former refugee camp there, “the most horrific thing” he’d ever seen. Monica Ellis’ bassoon drove it with a chilling nonchalance, the rest of the ensemble fleshing out a coldly sarcastic, Shostakovian martial theme that Jeff Scott’s french horn took to its cruelly logical, mechanically bustling extreme. After a solo interlude where Coleman got to subtly  imitate an Arabic ney flute, the group hit a high note (if you’re willing to buy the premise of a dirge being a high note) with the second movement, Lamentation: Ariel’s Song. Ominous atmospheric washes led to an elegantly plaintive bassoon solo and a methodical crescendo that built from elegaic to fullscale horror, its fatalistic pulse suddenly disappearing, leaving the atmospherics to linger ominously before ending on a more lively but equally wary note. This angst subsided somewhat but still remained through the rest of the work: the tango-like Dance and Little Song, with their bracing close harmonies and Scheherezade allusions, and Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh, a cleverly interwoven rondo of sorts featuring Coleman on pennywhistle that ended energetically with a confluence of klezmer, gypsy and Arabic tonalities, an apt evocation of a land that’s been a melting pot (and a boiling point) for centuries.

Derek Bermel’s Gift of Life made a terrific segue. Inspired by a visit to Jerusalem, it built suspensefully with a Middle Eastern melody anchored by brooding bassoon, its atmospherics finally falling apart in a bustling cacaphony. Another short work by Bermel, Two Songs from Nandom, drawing on Ugandan xylophone music, made a sprightly contrast as its rhythmic central theme shifted further and further away from the center. The group closed with Scott’s artfully voiced, passionately animated arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango and encored with a grin from the edge of the stage with what sounded like a brief, matter-of-factly improvised theme from a late Dvorak work. The Imani Winds Festival continues through August 7, with a whirlwind of master classes and performances featuring a deluge of up-and-coming talent; the full schedule is here.

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