Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Music Before 1800 Gets Radical

One of the great things about Music Before 1800‘s programming is that it’s not just standard repertoire. Sure, a lot of baroque and early chamber music sounds quaint to us today since it wasn’t written to be anything more than a backdrop for courtly dancing or whatever else the dictators or petty dictators who commissioned it were up to. But a lot of it has as much resonance now as it did then. Last night at the Kosciusko Foundation, violinist Lina Tur Bonet and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss took paradigm shifts from the early 1700s and brought them to life with equal parts adrenaline and meticulousness.

The program was titled “La Petite Merveille and the Red Priest.,” the latter referring to Vivaldi, two of whose dynamic, so-called Graz Sonatas moved seamlessly through graceful, balletesque leaps to gritty, rapidfire riffage, Weiss providing a steady, purposeful safety net beneath Bonet’s charges through volleys of sixteenth notes and biting minor-key cadenzas.

As exciting as all that was, the pieces de resistance were two similarly dynamic works by pioneering French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was given her marvelous little nickname by Louis XIV. Beyond the challenge of being a woman composer of concert music in a field that was a a thousand times more of a boys’ club then than it is today, she singlehandedly introduced the Italian sonata form and its virtuoso playing to French court music, in the process transforming it. That it took such an outsider to pull off that feat has many implications for royalty of the era.

The duo first played her Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, possibly dating from as early as 1695. From its plaintive, moody adagio introduction, throgh fascinatingly fugal, waltzing counterpoint, a handful of strikingly rapidfire passages for Bonet to relish, and a bitingly edgy coda, it was a radical piece of music for its era. There was somewhat less bite but no less innovation in the alternatively wistful, pensive and eventually triumphant variations in Jacquet’s Sonata No. 4 in G Major, which the two performed after a voluptuous yet precisely considered Weiss interpretation of Louis Marchand’s Suite in D Minor for solo harpsichord.

Weiss also put a close spotlight on the intricacies and playful japes in a quartet of solo harpsichord sonatas by Scarlatti. It’s one thing to multitask with this kind of music in the background: up close in concert, it was impossible not to be surprised and tickled by the composer’s occasional use of modern-sounding close harmonies, or the irrepressible humor that bubbled throughout Sonata K. 56. The duo encored with a brief Bach piece that sent the crowd downstairs to the after-show reception with a pre-party nocturnal glimmer.

In addition to their pretty-much-monthly series of concerts by top-tier choral ensembles, Music Before 1800 sometimes features rare treasures and familiar favorites from the chamber repertoire. Their next concert at the Kosciusko Foundation is on March 3 at 7 PM, featuring rising star Beiliang Zhu playing all six Bach Suites for Solo Cello.

February 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Afghan Youth Orchestra Shifts the Paradigm at Carnegie Hall

With a nod and a grin to Astor Piazzolla and Ravi Shankar, last night the Afghan Youth Orchestra mixed and mingled canonical western classics with material from their native land which, evidenced by the thunderous response from the expat contingent of what appeared to be a sold-out Carnegie Hall crowd, is equally iconic where they come from. The highlight of their US debut was William Harvey’s mashup of Vivaldi with traditional Afghani themes. As he did throughout the concert, Harvey conducted his jaunty, irresistibly iconoclastic arangement, The Four Seasons of Afghanistan, from memory. Any untightness – this was a student performance, after all – was rendered meaningless by the sheer fun the ensemble had with it. Voicing the opening parts of the suite in turn on rubab and tanbur lutes and ghichak fiddle added both surrealism and humor, balanced by alternately rousing and rapt Afghani folk interludes, most of them brief and succinct with the exception of an interminable sitar improvisation midway through. A buzz of excitement was in the air: who was going to get the next introduction or carry the next famous motif? Trumpeter James Herzog wowed the crowd by unleashing a long, sustained pedal note via circular breathing; percussionist Norma Ferreira spun perfect cut-glass ripples from her xylophone, getting some of the juiciest passages. And the sight of young Afghani women onstage playing instruments, their faces unveiled, was even more delightfully radical than the music.

It wasn’t long ago that what they were doing here would have earned them a death sentence back home (and to be truthful, still might in more backwater areas). But to see how far the Kabul-based Afghan National Institute of Music’s showcase group has come in the years since the organization’s revival in 2001, following years of inactivity and Taliban persecution, was heartwarming to the extreme. Pianist Said Elham Fanous teamed up with violinist Mikail Simonyan for an almost nonchalantly fluid, unselfconsciously haunting take of a Chopin nocturne. A litte bit later, the whole ensemble, joined by members of the Scarsdale High School Orchestra, romped through the Ravel Bolero, lutes and native fiddles and sitar and sarod joining in the fun just as with the Vivaldi as Harvey took it higher and higher.

Pioneering third-stream Afghani composer Salim Sarmast’s arrangement of the catchy, pulsing folk song Shakoko Jan, which served as both closer and encore, was one example of how ably this group and its leaders – including Ahmad Sarmast, the composer’s son – are able to merge traditions which differ in virtually all aspects including the scales employed by the instruments. The concert’s pensively anthemic opening theme – another Salim Sarmast chart – quickly established a visceral sense of teamwork and camaraderie among the ensemble. There were also brief interludes of folk themes, including a mini-raga highlighting sitar and sarod. Other instances revealed the interpolation of non-western modes to be a work in progress. As the arabesques built toward the conclusion of the Bolero, this worked like a charm. There were also places where the overtones of the sitars or the microtones of the ghichaks contrasted jarringly against western intervals. Sometimes it seemed to be intentional, a hair-raisingly effective device; elsewhere, it just sounded out of tune. Anyone who’s tried to bridge the gap between two dissimilar musical cultures has to grapple with the often minute distinction between paradigm shift and pitfall. This concert revealed this talented young ensemble to be as well-suited to such a challenge as anyone could possibly want.

February 13, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Devious, Witty, Swinging Tunefulness from the Broken Reed Saxophone Quartet

The Broken Reed Saxophone Quartet’s album The Sound of a Broken Reed is a quintessentially New York creation. With its edgy humor and intelligence, it’s steeped in history but just as irreverent, pretty much what you would expect from a bunch of longtime downtown types jazzing up Debussy, Piazzolla and Led Zep. Yet as entertaining and amusing as the covers here are, it’s bandleader Charley Gerard’s compositions that stand out the most. As you may have guessed, the album title is sarcastic: the charts are lustrous, the ensemble plays seamlessly and the songs swing just as hard as they would if there were bass and drums on them. The only other instrument besides the saxes (Gerard on alto, Jenny Hill primarily on soprano, Chris Bacas mostly on tenor and Alden Banta on baritone) is Carl Banner’s elegant piano on the first two suites. Most of the album, as well as a considerable amount of equally intriguing, more recent material, is streaming at the group’s Soundcloud page.

The opening diptych is Gerard’s Quintet for Carl and Saxes, Banner’s third-stream lyricism followed by lush four-part harmonies that grow to a majestic waltz. The second part is a wry series of interwoven miniatures that’s basically a non-linear history of jazz: ragtime, lounge, a little noir amd sumptuous big band swing, capped off by a genial soprano solo by Bacas.

The second suite is Dick Hyman’s droll Novelties for Piano and Sax Quartet: jaunty ragtime, a couple of lively staccato strolls and a comedic polka/ragtime hybrid. They follow that with Gerard’s Quartet No. 3, bookending a pensive exchange of voices led by Banta with variations on a theme that very artfully coalesces out of lively, dancing counterpoint.

The Led Zep comes after that. Humor-wise, it’s a lot like the Threeds Oboe Trio’s take on the Doors or Michael Jackson, equal parts spoof and opportunity to have fun with taking old themes to new places. Whole Lotta Love and an unexpectedly anxious, rather radical remake of Dazed and Confused are barely recognizable until halfway through, while miniature versions of Heartbreaker and Kashmir are as irresistibly over the top as you could possibly want. Living Loving Maid falls somewhere in between.

Tom Olin takes over for Bacas on tenor (with Hill playing soprano, as she does with a judicious elan on most of the tracks) on three Gerard remakes of Summer, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The first has a balmy Miles Ahead vibe and adheres closest to the baroque, the second a lively, bluesy exchange of voices, the third a mashup with Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, done as a clave tune

Bacas moves back to his usual tenor, Olin to soprano for his arrangement of Debussy’s Syrinx for Solo Flute, fleshed out with a nod to Gil Evans, weaving the pensive melody through the whole ensemble. Gerard’s medley of popular Cuban melodies (De Cuba Para La Habana, Guantanamera, Bilonto and El Manicero) bops along with a sunny pulse, followed by Hill’s pensively airy, understatedly majestic waltz arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Chiquilín de Bachín. It’s a rare blend of edgy fun and razor-sharp chops.

For anyone who might take exception to giving this much ink to an album that came out in 2009, that’s old thinking. Exciting as the past year has been, if the only music we listened to was brand-new, nobody would have heard of Coltrane or Mingus.

January 4, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Herve Duteil Pulls Out All the Stops Uptown

On one hand, musicians are always highfiving each other in public. But when an artist as imaginative and original as Kent Tritle introduces a fellow organist as having those exact same qualities, that endorsement carries a lot of weight. Yesterday evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, concert organist Herve Duteil stepped into the console and delivered a program that was as impressively eclectic as it was thrilling. He began with his own arrangement of the opening theme from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Other organists should track this down: it’s every bit the showstopper it should be. Duteil built a suspenseful wash of murky pedal tones before hitting the big explosive riff, which reverberated throughout the cathedral from the dramatic trumpet stops located in the ceiling. And just for fun, he played the timpani’s bump-BUMP, bump-BUMP on the pedals.

That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to the quality of the musicianship and diversity of the program that Duteil brought along. He gave Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations an aptly saturnine restraint, after which soprano saxophonist Daniel Glaude joined him for a vivid rendition of contemporary composer Paul Halley’s The Lake. As it rose from plaintive, desolate atmospherics to more lively, wavelike imagery, the two paced it expertly to maximize the cathedral’s cavernous echo sonics: it was as if there was a whole saxophone section playing a rondo along with the organ. On Gabriel’s Oboe, by Morricone, oboeist David Diggs joined Duteil for a rapt, hymnlike version of this well-known (and decidedly un-Morricone-esque) theme from the soundtrack to the film The Mission.

Duteil played the rest of the program by himself. Again, he paced sections of the Bach transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) to match the echo in the space, notably the fugue and then the Largo e Spiccato movement, which became more of a matter-of-fact, guardedly optimistic march. He followed with the rapidfire echoes of the Joseph Jongen Toccata, whose barrage of tradeoffs between hands Duteil said in the program notes would acoustically generate a “pat on the back.” This was an understatement: it’s not every day when a rousing, cascading finale like this one can be so reassuring at the same time. Before its concluding chord had echoed into silence, the large crowd – Duteil’s passionate wizardry has earned him a considerable Manhattan following – exploded in applause and wanted more, but it was time for the church to revert to being a house of worship once again. By the way, fans of organ music should know that Tritle himself will be playing one of these Sunday evening recitals on March 18 at 5:15 PM.

March 5, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivaldi for All Seasons

Acclaimed German early music group joins forces with Canadian cellist for a romp through an impressively diverse selection of Vivaldi works for cello and string ensemble: the operative question here is, why cover the same ground that so many other artists have over the centuries? Maybe because it’s so much fun. This vividly enjoyable assemblage of cello concertos by Vivaldi and his contemporary Antonio Caldera, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras with the Akademie fur alte Musik Berlin, conducted by Georg Kallweit, is recently out on Harmonia Mundi. Some of these pieces are parts of other suites: there’s a selection from L’Estro Armonico, and even a vignette from the Four Seasons. The production is lush and rich, considerably more so than typically is the case with recordings of music from Vivaldi’s era. Queyras plays with the clear, direct, somewhat more trebly cantabile tone common to 300-year-old instruments over arrangements still striking in their buoyancy. That this music resonates as much as it does to modern ears – bracing, unexpected chord changes and dynamic shifts within familiar period architecture – testifies to how far ahead of its time it was. The album is best enjoyed as a whole: it really sets a mood (uploading the whole thing as a playlist will help facilitate this). But there are many individual treats here that leap out at the listener.

The theme from the second movement of the Sinfonia in C has been used (and ripped off) for film music for decades, while the blustery Concerto in G Minor gives Queyras a chance to dig for gravitas through the rapidfire staccato passages. After opening with Raphael Alpermann’s wary, dark harpsichord and strings, the second movement of the Concerto in F lets Queyras revel in its chocolatey beauty. The Concerto for Cello and Bassoon in E Minor has the stark counterpoint between the cello and Christian Beuse’s bassoon making a mighty contrast with practically frantic strings. And the Concerto No. 11 in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) plays up its subtle yet striking echo effects. The Caldera pieces include the richly brooding Sinfonia No.12 in A minor, a Christ on the Cross tableau; a dressed-up country waltz, and the wary, sometimes rapt, fugal Sinfonia No.6 in G minor. Though most of the 30 individual tracks here clock in at less than three minutes, the effect is seamless. It’s a triumph for everyone concerned, including the listener.

November 25, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephen Price Rattles the Walls in Midtown

He may be only a couple years out of college, but Stephen Price proved Sunday night at St. Thomas Church that he’s a rising star of the organ circuit. He did it with a diverse and difficult program which, even if was pieces fairly well known to devotees of the classical organ repertoire, gave him the opportunity to showcase his grasp of pretty much everything that’s possible with a big pipe organ. He started on the rear gallery organ with Sweelinck’s Echo Fantasia No. 1. Rather than employing actual echo effects, it’s a fugue whose call-and-response eventually shifts from the stately to the comic; with a deft precision, Price let it speak for itself. Bach’s arrangement of three segments from Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico were next, played on the somewhat quieter gallery organ as well; though designed specifically with the Northern European repertoire in mind, the pieces would have been better suited to the louder and more Romantically-hued front Skinner organ. In the Vivaldi oeuvre, L’Estro Armonico ranks second only to the Four Seasons; perhaps predictably, Bach’s arrangement added Teutonic gravitas to the uneasy Mediterranean shades of the original. Price agilely navigated the dynamic shifts of the opening Allegro/Grave/Fugue section, the more ominous Largo e Spiccato and the brief, apprehensive Allegro.

Switching to the Skinner, he brought out every cubic foot of airy, atmospheric suspense in Dupre’s Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, Op. 7, tackling its breathily bustling, captivatingly melodic pedal passages with a virtual effortlessness. He then closed with the showstopper, Marcel Durufle’s arrangement of Charles Tournemire’s famous Improvisation on Victimae Paschali. Ablaze with massive, full organ chords, abrupt little digressions and the long, final swirling crescendo to its blazing coda, he made it sing, more like a choir of devils than angels. That, and everything he’d done before, earned him a standing ovation.

March 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 9/28/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #854:

Vivaldi – The Four Seasons – Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert

For two years now we’ve been engaged in one daily countdown or another on this page: it started out simply as a way to keep a steady supply of fresh content flowing, whether or not we had anything else ready to go or not. When we reached the end of our alltime 666 Best Songs and began this one, we started out not with a single album but an “obvious suspects page” listing all the great, iconic albums we could think of that everybody knows, that didn’t really need any explanation. In our haste to get the page up, we forgot this one. The best recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s iconic suite that we’ve actually heard is an unfortunately unlabeled cassette copy recorded off a vinyl album. But this one, from 1976, is pretty close. Pinnock conducts from the harpsichord with goodnatured inspiration, and the group play period instruments, so it’s a little quieter than a lot of the other recordings out there. The good omens of Spring lead auspiciously into a very visceral, heartfelt Summer; the wariness of Fall is understated, as is the angst of Winter, to the point that fans of darker music may prefer other, more boisterous recordings. But this is awfully close to what Venetian audiences got to witness circa 1725. Even if classical music is not your style, you have to admit that this is catchy and evocative stuff. And it’s a century ahead of its time. What else can we say: many of you probably own this already. If not, there are a gazillion recordings kicking around the internet, follow your instincts and see what you find. Here’s a random torrent.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment