Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gil Morgenstern Doesn’t Blink in the Lights

It’s worth remembering that the true test of a live performer is how well they hold up under duress. Maybe because of this latest spell of global warming, it was visibly hot onstage during violinist Gil Morgenstern’s latest edition of his Reflections Series concerts at WMP Concert Hall last night. To say that he didn’t break a sweat wouldn’t be close to true – instead, he and New York Philharmonic pianist Jonathan Feldman went with the heat and delivered a program that even when it wasn’t searing, was characteristically captivating. Morgenstern’s technique is such that he’s able to play anything he wants, which typically means challenging and exhilarating material. He also likes themes – this one was, as he put it, “exile and unfinished journeys,” inspired by a recent Isaac Julien exhibit in Miami, where Morgenstern also performs this ongoing series.

Morgenstern opened solo with Bruce Saylor’s Dante Suite, originally written as a theatre work, but as the violinist noted, he commissioned it to be workable as a concert piece as well. To call it a trip through hell and then out would be accurate in a general sense, although this particular tour has unexpected nuance. As Saylor (who was in attendance) wrote it, the Gates of Hell offer an understated drama, while the unconsummated adulterers Paolo and Francesca – destined to spend eternity with their backs to each other – receive a vividly plaintive, sad theme. Brunetto Latini gets to experience if not enjoy a fiery, gypsyish passage in the remarkably interesting Circle of Sodomites; the Woods of the Suicides, a powerfully evocative, brooding segment, became a showcase for Morgenstern’s judiciously vibrato-laden dynamics. The suite closed with a finale that ran from a repetitive circular theme to a crescendo packed with sizzling riffs that played against open strings.

Feldman joined in on Janacek’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a suite about life under an enemy occupation (in this case, Austria’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in World War I) and finally the joy of overthrowing the oppressors. Feldman’s rippling precision gave Morgenstern the perfect backdrop for his apprehensive cadenzas and wounded, lyrical sustained lines. The piece ends somewhat unexpectedly on a theme of bitter remembrance rather than exuberance, and the duo brought it down, hushed, for a quietly potent impact. Morgenstern then tackled Erwin Schulhoff’s 1927 Sonata for Solo Violin, a gripping four-part suite that runs from an almost Celtic dance, through a bracingly intense overture, an off-center, Bartok-esque scherzo and finally an aptly titled Allegro Risoluto which was nothing short of hypnotic.

Morgenstern is also something of a raconteur, and as he cautioned the audience, his explanation of the intrigue behind Ernest Chausson’s Poeme, Op. 25 might take longer than the piece itself. It didn’t, but it was worth hearing Morgenstern relate how the piece related to an Ivan Turgenev short story, a couple of mistresses, a May-December marriage and a possible case of mistaken paternity: such things were common in the artistic classes in the Nineteenth Century. The piece itself seems to be an elegy for a failed or broken romance: it takes awhile to get going, but when it does it sounds suspiciously like Erik Satie stole a secondary theme for his Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. Morgenstern and Feldman ended it with a bright melancholy, as Ravel might have done it. They closed the program with methodical renditions of a couple of late-career Smetana pieces which were pleasantly if generically consonant, in an early Romantic vein; the duo could have finished with the Chausson and taken a well-deserved breather and the show wouldn’t have suffered. Morgenstern’s Reflections Series returns to WMP Concert Hall on April 14, followed by stops in Italy in May and Boone, North Carolina in June.

February 18, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Minamo – Kuroi Kawa – Black River

Minamo is the Japanese term for the water’s surface. Beneath this particular surface runs an aptly titled Black River, occasionally bubbly and playful but often murderously powerful. This might be the best jazz album of the year, or the best album of the year in any style – the latest Tzadik cd by the duo project of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and American violinist Carla Kihlstedt is equal part avant-garde/new music, with frequent references to Japanese folk themes. With its often violent drama,  much of it would make a killer (sorry) horror film score.  It’s a double cd, one featuring subtly and cleverly improvised, often Satie-esque miniatures, the other a live recording far more expansive and dangerous. What’s most immediately striking is the practically telepathic interplay between Fujii amd Kihlstedt – one would think they were twins, or at least sisters. Both use the totality of their instruments, Kihlstedt adept at hair-raising overtones, Fujii raking the inside of the piano with what sounds like steel wool when she isn’t generating tonalities on the keys that literally run the length of the sonic spectrum. For those with the courage to take the plunge, it’s an exhilarating ride.

Everything here seems rubato – while each musician will often introduce a steady rhythm, they’ll both cut loose without warning, yet without losing their grip on the atmosphere at hand unless they do so deliberately. The opening cut, The Murmur of Leaves sets a brooding, pensive tone that will recur again and again, sometimes much more harshly. The third track, East comes skidding in, Kihlstedt’s violin like a banshee astride a steed from hell, moving to a full-on horror-film assault before ending on a surprisingly subdued if still disquieting note. A music-box theme matching midrange piano against pizzicato violin maintains the suspense, which lets up with a completely silly if equally evocative vignette, two girls struggling to open what must be one heavy window. Another lighthearted number is literally a musical lolcat – it’s hard to imagine a funnier or more evocative depiction of ADD. Elsewhere, a pretty, reflective tone poem grows menacing; Fujii glimmers ominously in the upper registers against Kilhlsted’s graceful glides; Kihlstedt plays what sounds like a rousing bagpipe tune against Fujii’s circular hypnotics; and finally, with a big, fluttery crescendo, the sun emerges triumphantly from behind the clouds! But that’s not til track twelve.

The second cd opens with the title track, which explodes with a crash and a scream (Fujii and Kihlstedt, respectively), moving hauntingly in the span of almost fourteen minutes to the most minimal, plaintive ambience punctuated dramatically with empty space, Kihlstedt finally leading a hauntedly resigned, swirlingly hypnotic climb out of the hole.  The compositions here are all color-coded, though musically their colors don’t vary much from various shades of black and grey. Blue Slope scrapes and murmurs with rain-drenched sadness until Kihlstedt lets loose a couple of shrieks at the end, to which Fujii replies gracefully and sympathetically. Purple Summer is raw and aggressive, accentuated with vigorous vocalese. Red Wind is a game of tag, both instruments introducing playful, rather carefree motifs that sometimes make a strikingly jarring contrast with the darker tinges that rise up unexpectedly. Green Mirage – what’s up with these titles, huh? – masterfully works a slow crescendo into characteristically murky call-and-response. The concert concludes with a deadly snowstorm, Kihlstedt’s insistent wail signaling the start of the avalanche that they’re going to ride as it devastates everything in its path. Whew! There isn’t a rollercoaster around that can compare with this. Look for it at the end of the year around the top of the Best Albums of 2009 list here.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment