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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Holocaust Story with a Happy Ending?

It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, except that it’s true. Jaap Polak survived the Nazi death camps with his wife and his girlfriend – barely. Tuesday night at the Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium, their improbable story was brought to life in chilling detail in a semi-staged performance of the new opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with music by Gerald Cohen and book by Deborah Brevoort. The narrative, vividly portrayed via both music and dialogue, is rich with cruel irony and grim humor but also the irrepressible joie de vivre that kept Polak, his wife Manja and girlfriend Ina alive despite staggering odds against them. It has a happy ending, which at this performance moved several audience members to tears.

Jaap Polak, now 100, and his wife Ina, now 90, reside in Scarsdale, and attend the congregation where Cohen is cantor, a connection that springboarded the opera. Both husband and wife were in the audience, and remain sharp as a whistle. Two years from now, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. That such a thing would be possible considering that the former Amsterdam residents were kidnapped by the Nazis, first sent to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 defies the imagination. Beth Greenberg’s stage direction was understated and fit the material – one doesn’t expect dancing in a piece about the Holocaust. Baritone Robert Balonek was fervent and winningly steadfast in his portrayal of the irrepressible Jaap. Soprano Ilana Davidson radiated hope against hope that transcended the aptly drab costuming (everyone has a yellow Star of David pinned to their coats). Among the supporting cast, soprano Cherry Duke brought a sardonic edge to her role as semi-reliable interlocutor, passing furtive love notes between Jaap and Ina.

Cohen’s music follows a natural, conversational rhythm, and because of that, must be murderously difficult to play. Perhaps with a nod to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble Cohen pulled together – clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, cellist Chris Finckel, violinist Sasha Margolis and pianist Lynn Baker – rose to the occasion, nimbly conducted by Ari Pelto. The vocal melodies are not particularly cantabile, which makes sense considering the overwhelming sense of impending doom that settles in with the opening scene in Amsterdam, a party that quickly goes to hell when the Nazis show up and abduct Ina’s boyfriend Rudi (portrayed by baritone Nils Neubert as a comforting figure who recurs to Ina in surreal, dreamlike interludes) and take him off to be murdered. For the most part, Cohen eschews fullscale horror in favor of a bleakly monochromatic, relentless unease, waiting until the cast arrives at Belsen to let the strings rise with a Bernard Herrmann-esque, shivery terror. Cohen’s cantorial background informs and enriches the larger-scale choral segments, notably a mesmerizingly hypnotic, intricately contrapuntal crescendo toward the end which interpolates a triumphant Passover theme within murky, brooding, enveloping sonics. His characterization of the Nazis works mechanical, coldly monotonous circular motives: the banality of evil captured in sound.

Brevoort powerfully evokes the sheer surrealism and the increasing sense of dehumanization and despair that befalls the cast, but also moments where humanity emerges triumphant when least expected. Lisette, who at first betrays the burgeoning affair between the two lovebirds, has a change of heart and becomes their ally again, enabling Ina, who’s been given a menial job in the commandant’s office, to steal a pencil for Jaap so that he can continue to write her clandestine letters. The affair between them unwinds with not a little suspense, especially since Jaap’s wife and Ina’s father are both in the camp and prove to be a considerable impediment. In particular, the character of Manja is underwritten. The implication that she was a shrew with a wandering eye doesn’t go very far, and the reality – as Jaap Polak emphasized in a brief address to the audience afterward – is that she was the unsung heroine of this twisted adventure, nursing him back to health from a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever and then handing him off to Ina to live happily ever after. She deserves better. Somewhere there’s a circus rock band who ought to do the song “I Lost My Husband to a Rich Younger Woman in a Nazi Death Camp.”

As far as getting the message of this piece across, it would work better as a musical than an opera, which is not to say that Cohen should rewrite it as Springtime for Hitler. As it is now, the lyrics are likely more easily understood by regular operagoers than by general audiences: all too often, a particular nuanced moment, a shift in the plotline or even a punchline get lost in arioso vocal pyrotechnics. Considering the talent of the cast onstage, it’s a good gamble that they’d be equally capable of rendering the story in a more musically accessible, less stylized manner. Those who buy into the argument that in the age of microphones and vocal individualism, the bel canto style of singing has reached the end of the line, will probably agree with that statement. Those who don’t probably won’t. And it’s an argument that’s probably academic, anyway, since where this is ultimately bound is most likely the big screen. Steven Spielberg, are you out there?

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May 2, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mohammed Fairouz’s Chamber Works Defy Categorization

Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz, the composer’s debut collection, came out on Sono Luminus last year. WQXR did a little piece on it: they didn’t really get it. The album title is something of a misnomer: while there is considerable rigor in Fairouz’s work, he also happens to be one of the great wits in contemporary composition. But his wit is biting and edgy, sometimes caustic, qualities that elevate even the most obvious pieces here (and there are a couple) above the frivolity that defines so much of what’s considered “indie classical.” The rest of the album, a remarkably diverse collection of works for wind quartet and bass, violin-and-sax duo, solo piano, guitar and string quartet, imaginatively and utterly unpredictably blends postminimalism, neoromanticism, bracing atonalities and occasional satire. In places, it’s harrowing; elsewhere, it can be hilarious.

The opening composition, Litany, performed by bassist James Orleans and a wind quartet of Claire Cutting on oboe, Jonathan Engle on flute, Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and Thomas Fleming on bassoon could easily be titled “Pensively Apprehensively.” A sense of longing pervades as the ensemble strolls plaintively with chilly, fanfare-ish counterpoint and a rondo of sorts; it ends unresolved. The title’s Critical Models are violin/sax duos, two questions,each followed by a response. The first, Catchword: A Modernist’s ‘Dilemma,’ employs a bustling, anxious semi-conversation between Michael Couper’s alto sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. If this is to be taken at face value, it will. Its rejoinder employs tersely quavery microtonal intricacies and a stillness-vs-animation tension, inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A satirical faux-bellydance theme with actually quite lovely violin, Catchword: An Oriental Model illustrates a hideous anti-Arab screed by British Victorian playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer; its vividly optimistic response, inspired by Edward Said, has Couper playing the voice of reason via mystical, airy microtones, and when Ahn gets the picture, she grabs it with both hands.

Pianist Katie Reimer plays six delicious miniatures with a potently precise understatement: she clearly also gets this material. The first is an uneasy, distantly Ravel-esque etude of sorts; the second, a creepy phantasmagorical march; a bustling, ragtimish variation on that theme; an exercise in creepy faux operatics; an obvious but irresistible exercise in descending progressions; and a minimalist, spacious nocturne.

The Lydian String Quartet play a diptych, Lamentation and Satire. The first part builds from mingling, dissociative funereal voices to a rather macabre crescendo, followed by austere, brooding solo viola and foreboding cello passages. The second seems to be a cruel parody of funereal music, with sarcastic rustles, a snide martial passage and a predictable if still quite moving solo cello passage to end it. Reimer and Couper than team up for Three Novelettes: the first, Cadenzas, cleverly interpolates satirical motifs within a moody architecture; the second, Serenade, has to be the saddest serenade ever written and is the most haunting work on the album; and a simply hilarious Dance Montage that has to be heard to be appreciated.

The album concludes with four works for solo classical guitar, played with deadpan clarity by Maarten Stragier. Baroque rhythms and tropes get twisted up in modern tonalities, tongue-in-cheek staccato stomps alternate with skeletal Italianate melody; the suite ends with a slowly spacious work that Fairouz calls a toccata, with seemingly snide, offhand references to both Bach and Elizabethan guitar music. Eclectic to the extreme and very successfully so, it’s an accurate portrait of where Fairouz is right now. Unsurprisingly, his latest project has him branching out into opera: last week, his first, Sumeida’s Song, based on a classic Tawfiq El Hakim play, debuted at Carnegie Hall. It’s something of an understatement to say that he’s a composer to keep your eye on.

April 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Young Lions Celebrate An Old One At Weill Hall

Rude as it is to eavesdrop, some conversations are worth repeating. Saturday night’s concert at Weill Hall featured characteristically eclectic and enormously entertaining music from Gunther Schuller and his younger colleague Mohammed Fairouz, seated together inconspicuously in the crowd. After one of Fairouz’s pieces had reached its end, Schuller nudged him. “About one note – I think it’s an “A” – in the second movement…it’s like punching a hole in it. It doesn’t work. With such beautiful atonalities, to have this bland note? You have to take it out.”

Which sums up the enduring value of Dr. Schuller – whose recent 85th birthday the musicians and composers were celebrating – better than any accolade ever could. Imagine: a composer who would use any means necessary to avoid blandness. Rather than taking umbrage, Fairouz was grateful that the former New England Conservatory president had given the work such a close listen. “I’ll find it,” he responded confidently.

This was a celebration of substantial music, which took itself with the utmost seriousness at times; other times, not at all. In a brief onstage discussion prior to the concert, Schuller – “A guy who doesn’t rely on the system,” as Fairouz understatedly explained – campaigned to expand his concept of third-stream to a “brotherhood or sisterhood of music,” to include not only jazz and classical but all global musical styles as well. Schuller pointed to the internet era’s explosion of available recordings as reason for optimism and the eventual triumph of complete syncretism, but reminded that effort and willingness to abandon outdated preconceptions would be necessary to cement the paradigm shift.

The music was just as much a celebration of eclecticism. Schuller’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone opened the program, pianist Katie Reimer nimbly negotiating its starlit expanses and trickily skipping passages, alternating and then converging with Michael Couper’s effectively dynamic birdcalls and pensive deliberateness. Farouz’s Furia, from 2010, followed, a string quartet of Tema Watstein and Michelle Ross on violins, Mary Sang-Hyun Yong on viola and Michael Katz on cello establishing a grave, foreboding ambience for baritone Mischa Bouvier to stoically deliver a lyric by Borges. In essence, it’s about reaching the pinnacle of success and hating every minute of it. As Katz coyly injected a little swoop and dive into the horror-movie sonics, Bouvier stern and immobile, it took on an amusing surrealism.

A far more serious suite, Fairouz’s Four Critical Models was next. Assembled as two statements, each followed by a response, the first, a bustling, agitated semi-conversation between Couper’s sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin sought to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. Its rejoinder employed marvelous microtonal violin intricacies inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A hideous anti-Arab screed by British playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer was surprisingly downplayed via some bright and probably intentionally generic Middle Eastern tropes; its response, inspired by Edward Said, worked a beautifully still, logical series of gently shifting sostenuto notes or simple motifs.

The evening’s showstopper was Schuller’s Paradigm Exchanges, a series of witty, shapeshifting vignettes that often segued seamlessly from one to another, with echoes of both Bartok and Messiaen. Here Reimer, Katz and Watstein were joined by Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Magdalena Angelova on flute. Through its fourteen movements, pretty much every possible permutation of the quintet was utilized. Watstein’s confidently eerie tritone-packed solo made a high point in the opening fanfare, followed by a vivid conversation, Dukovski maintaining a perfect cool as Katz’s cello grew more agitated. As the segues continued, it became impossible to figure out where one movement ended and the next began. Angelova provided strikingly apprehensive accents against Messiaenesque stillness; a bit later, Reimer got to hint gleefully at an evil buffoon theme, and then illuminate a murky bass clarinet drone. Eventually a canon emerged; the whole ensemble brought it to an end with an eerie flourish, an escape from a roomful of funhouse mirrors. Somewhere there’s a surreal suspense movie that needs to be made to utilize this literally mesmerizing, cinematic work.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series: Fearless Otherworldly Beauty

Just as the most exciting things in rock music are happening in the small clubs rather than in stadiums, the most exciting classical and chamber music these days typically happens off the beaten path. On and off, over the past several months, we’ve been peering into some of these dark but fertile corners: pianist Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall in Murray Hill may the most exciting of them all. Wednesday night she and her cohorts – cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and violinist Erno Kallai – tackled a program that was as diverse as it was individualistic, and frequently exhilarating. “Thank you for not watching American Idol,” Joan laughed.

First up was Brahms’ Trio in A Minor (Op. 114). Dating from 1891, it’s one of his final works. With its characteristic melodic beauty and alternating wary/warm passages, it follows a straight line back to Beethoven. There’s also some Brahms thinking outside the box, the gypsy passage at the beginning of the concluding allegro section being the most notable. This may be overly reductionistic to say, but essentially it’s a piece with assigned roles: the clarinet pensive, the cello mournful and the piano providing the energy and lighter contrasts. Joan, Thorsteinsdottir and Dukovski took those roles and gave them flair and personality.

For anyone who might have found that piece too predictable in its unselfconscious, pensive beauty, Bartok’s Contrasts, from 1938, was a feral, snidely joyous, jazzy treat. As Joan and Dukovski explained beforehand (they do that a lot, with a genuine passion for the music, which helps more than any pedantic program notes ever could), it was commissioned by Benny Goodman as a way to get Bartok an American visa just as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was looming. The concept was to get the composer to deliver something sufficiently short to release as a 78 RPM single: for whatever reason, Bartok didn’t exactly comply. What he did was shoot a savagely gleeful spitball right in Der Fuehrer’s face. Joan has a vividly acute emotional intelligence, and she went on the assault from the beginning behind Kallai’s slashing incisions while Dukovski got to demonstrate the “mellow tone” mentioned in his bio (he’s actually an electrifying player, as he would remind a bit later on). Warped Romanticism made way for lurid ragtime, a feast of creepy atmospherics and a conclusion delivered with the glee of an escapee from certain death. Kallai put down his Strad and picked up the house Guarneri for that one since the violin part is out of tune: the vicious humor in his tritone-packed solo was viscerally delicious.

The quartet then took on the formidable challenge of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written in a Nazi prison camp for piano, clarinet, violin and cello because those were the instruments that the musicians captured with Messiaen happened to play, it was premiered there on the same day that the clarinetist made a failed escape attempt yet sufficiently charmed his captors with his playing, Dukovski related, so that he escaped what would otherwise have been a summary execution. To say that it is harrowing is an extreme understatement. As with so much of Messiaen, its movements correspond to Catholic liturgy: beforehand, Joan encouraged the audience to experience it for its universality. Which makes perfect sense: Messiaen may well have written it primarily as an illustration of the coming of a heavenly eternity, but its subtext screams out defiantly, an anthem for escape from and victory over the Nazis.

Which is where interpretations of Messiaen differ: where some hear otherworldliness and mysticism, others hear the macabre. Clearly, Messiaen found the prospect of heavenly rest nearly as daunting as being murdered by the Nazis, and horror is everywhere in this piece, from the ominous early-morning exchange of birdcalls that open it, to the stunned, jagged, wounded cadenzas that punctuate the tense stillness, to the seemingly endless, almost horizontal clarinet solo that may be its most riveting point. Dukovski pulled that off without a hitch: with its endless sostenuto wash, it requires an almost interminable sequence of circular breathing, and is extraordinarily difficult to play as a seamless whole, but that’s exactly what Dukovski turned it into. Like her collaborators, Thorsteinsdottir is a fearless player who will rise to any intensity required, and she dug in with a mighty vibrato. A final cry for rescue was followed by still, judicious piano that signaled an eventual if hardly unscathed victory over the demons. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the musicians clearly felt the music as overwhelming, intense and cathartic as the crowd did. Alexandra Joan’s next Kaleidoscope Series concert at WMP Concert Hall (31 E 28th St. between Madison and Park Avenues) is on April 27, a characteristically intriguing program featuring piano works by Enesco, Ravel and Mohammed Fairouz.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Gypsy Festival Closes Summerstage With a Blast of Sound

Year after year, the NY Gypsy Festival remains one of New York’s most consistently exciting concert series. There are four shows remaining, all of them at Drom: flamenco band Espiritu Gitano on the 30th; eclectic world dance group Delhi 2 Dublin on October 1; ferocious Balkan brass with Veveritse Brass Band and Zlatne Uste on the 2nd, and the Django Reinhardt tribute on the 3rd with Stephane Wrembel and Balval. A festival pass is $32, which translates to $8 a show, or about six bucks a band. But a vastly more persuasive enticement for prospective concertgoers was put on display Sunday at Central Park, with upbeat and often deliriously fun performances by a global cast including Yuri Yunakov, Tecsoi Banda, the NY Gypsy All-Stars and Mahala Rai Banda.

Yunakov hails from Bulgaria, where he famously collaborated with the legendary Ivo Papasov. Wedding gigs there got out of hand when literally thousands of people would crash the party to see them. Running his alto sax through a glistening veneer of reverb and delay, his tone was so close to a string synthesizer at times that it was hard to differentiate between him and his two keyboardists. But when he’d light into a casually frenetic solo riddled with lightning, chromatic doublestops, there was no doubt it was him. In fact, everyone in the band made it look easy, including his sparring partner, clarinetist Salaedin Mamudoski and also his percussionist, who kept a smoothly sputtering clatter going throughout the set, adding a hypnotic edge. Chanteuse Gamze Ordule joined them as they introduced her with a tongue-in-cheek striptease theme and added a bracing, throaty insistence as she swayed and undulated out front. One of her vocal numbers bounced along on almost a reggae bassline; another was a punchy, cocek-style dance. For all the ominous, brooding minor keys and bracing chromatics, it was a party, as the growing line of dancers to the left of the stage made absolutely clear.

Tecsoi Banda had made their North American debut the night before at the Ukrainian National Home, but they hit the stage ready to party again. Like American blues musicians of the 1920s and 30s, they’re all-purpose entertainers. They’ll do a Russian Orthodox wedding, a Jewish one, it doesn’t matter: they’re sort of the ultimate Ukrainian roots band. With Joska Chernavets on accordion, Ivan Popovych on fiddle, Vassili Gudak sadly pretty much inaudible on his tsymbaly (a kanun-style hammered dulcimer), bass drum player/singer Juri Chernavets with his little plastic mouth flute that he’d occasionally squawk on like a Jamaican with a whistle at a reggae show, and American klezmer fiddler Bob Cohen sitting in and adding a brisk intensity, they ran through a mix of upbeat and more stately material. As far removed from Ireland and Appalachia as their music is, there were familiar licks and melodies that wouldn’t be out of place in an Irish reel or a bluegrass breakdown. They used a lot of dynamics, varying their tempos, going doublespeed and then back again. Their best numbers had a somber, minor-key klezmer tinge; they closed with a couple of scurrying Carpathian dances, the second one finally featuring a funny solo from the drummer’s mouth flute.

The NY Gypsy All-Stars had the most modern sound, which ironically gave them the most authenticity of any of the acts on the bill: their fusion-tinged bounce is the one you’ll find in clubs all the way around the Black Sea. Compounding the irony is that they kept it very terse: Jason Lindner’s electric piano and Pangeotis Andreou’s five-string electric bass never took it to Jaco-land. Frontman/clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski is one of this era’s giants of the instrument – check him out sometimes with the Grneta Duo +1 with Vasko Dukovski and intense pianist Alexandra Joan for his more austere, purist side. Like Yunakov, he has blistering speed, but he doesn’t make it look easy: there’s an untamed, feral side to his playing that contrasted well with guest Selim Sesler (a frequent sparring partner). Sesler may be known as the Coltrane of the clarinet but his style is closer to vintage Lee Konitz, or for that matter, Miles Davis, and he chose his spots to cut loose against Lumanovski’s barrages. The rapidfire rivulets flowing from Tamer Pinarbasi’s kanun added yet another layer of turbulence, a very good thing considering the slick sonics.

By the time the headliners, Mahala Rai Banda (which in Roma, the gypsy language, means “hot ghetto band”) hit the stage, the occasional drizzle had subsided and the arena was clearly filled to capacity, most everyone dancing. The eleven-piece Romanian brass orchestra may play traditional instruments, but their vibe is pure gypsy punk (Gogol Bordello, naturally) with a frequent ska beat and the occasional hint of reggae or hip-hop. And with all those horns, the sound is titanic: they use them the way Gogol Bordello use guitar, at full volume. Accordionist Florinel Ionita is their lead player, blasting through one supersonic, microtonal riff after another, Peter Stan style, with the pulse of the tuba and the drum skulking behind the horns’ chromatic assault. They even did a song with an oldschool disco beat – for whatever reason, the crowd decided that was the time to pelt the band with the cheap foam rubber frisbees that were being handed out (BAD idea). Another hitched an oldschool American soul feel to a dancehall reggae interlude. But the best was what they started with, three blistering, anthemic minor-key numbers that shifted tempo suddenly, hitting the crowd with a trick ending and then restarting when least expected. They ran out the clock until their last second of stage time with a long series of outros: the crowd wanted more but didn’t get them, sending this year’s Summerstage series out on a deliriously high note.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | concert, folk music, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment