Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stile Antico’s Otherworldly Voices Defy Death in the Heart of Manhattan

Stile Antico’s concert Saturday night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown was a vivid illustration of the kind of entertainment found inside the velvet rope in 1550 – or in the death chamber of a composer’s dreams, in 1474. In the earlier case, Guillaume Dufay couldn’t hold out long enough for a choir to be assembled to sing him the dizzying counterpoint of his Ave Regina Caelorum, which he’d written for the hour when he lay dying: the work made its world premiere at his funeral instead. It was a vivid echo of the night’s theme: the world’s most popular early music choir had brought along a series of Renaissance compositions associated with death, in a program optimistically entitled In Paradisum. As much as Stile Antico’s recordings are otherworldly and gripping, this concert was paradise for the ears. And as tenor Andrew Griffiths had explained over the phone a couple of weeks prior, it was hardly all gloom. In medieval Europe, death may have been a far more constant presence than it is now, yet the music the group had assembled was a celebration, albeit one made in the midst of despair. So good to be alive while the whole world is dying.

Stile Antico are conductorless, like a string quartet: members of the ensemble take turns setting the wheels in motion and directing the occasional change. Such an arrangement no doubt not only explains the group’s striking chemistry and collaborative spirit: it makes those qualities prerequisites. William Byrd’s Retire My Soul was the opening piece, one of his final works. The group creatively assembled themselves to allow the call-and-response of its harmonies to pan around the semicircle, creating a stereo effect similar to his well-known organ compositions. Dufay’s requiem for himself was one of three pieces where the ensemble stashed members of the group out of sight to further enhance the sonic spectrum. The most extraordinary portion of the night was the roughly twenty-three minutes of John Sheppard’s Media Vita (centerpiece and title of the group’s album from last spring), a titanically lush, majestic wash of six-part harmony punctuated by disarming, ominous cadenzas whose subtle dissonances added a wary edge that bordered on the terrifying. Soprano Rebecca Hickey led the ensemble from the center of the stage with a seemingly effortless, potently resonant, crystalline clarity. Sheppard, composer at the Queen’s Chapel, wrote it about a year before died in 1558: even today, its ethereal harmonic sophistication is stunning. In the middle of the piece, Sheppard inserted a somber plainchant, perhaps to give his choir a breather, or to enhance the immensity of the finale. After that marathon, an intermission was the only option.

The rest of the program could have been anticlimatic but it wasn’t, as the group explored more diverse emotional terrain. Josquin des Prez’ O Bone et Dulcissime, written to placate a warlord, had a gentler feel, almost a lullaby in places, basses Oliver Hunt and Will Dawes taking on a more prominent role and exhibiting impressive range alongside the tenors and altos. Alto Carris Jones used a similarly striking upper register introducing the fifteenth century Alonso Lobo’s Versa Est in Luctum, somber but with soaring highs, one of many places where soprano Helen Ashby’s diamond-cutter voice carried the crescendos to new summits. While the spirit of the group seems to be a clearly democratic one, if there’s one star here, it’s her – her two sisters in the group, soprano Kate and alto Emma, would probably not dispute that. The concert wound up with the fugal, funereal In Paradisum, a seventeenth century piece by Heinrich Schutz, and the outright anguish of sixteenth century Orlande de Lassus’ Vide Homo, the words of Christ on the cross, pierced equally by the pain of the nails and his followers’ lack of appreciation for what he endured. After three standing ovations, the group rewarded the sold-out pews with a richly warm, comparatively brief Byrd antiphon from their brand-new advent-and-Christmas cd Puer Natus Est. On one level, it was impossible to watch the concert without feeling somewhat vicarious: after all, when these compositions were current, many of those who heard them live were probably also singing them. On the other hand, it was a stunning reminder of how colossally much musicians of the era did with so little, and especially with so little time.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dreamy, Otherworldly Soundscapes from Lesley Flanigan

Imagine you had a recording session but for some reason you ended up in the studio with just a microphone and some random speakers whose hums, crackles and occasional roars you could amplify. Could you make it interesting, something that would speak to anyone besides yourself? That’s what Lesley Flanigan did on her album Amplifications. Flanigan is a sculptor, and the compositions here are designed as sound sculptures. Using only her voice and a collection of speakers that she builds herself out of abandoned parts, she’s crafted an intriguing series of soundscapes that transcend any avant-garde cred she may have achieved by creating them. Some of her compositions are simple and stunningly direct, while others rely on dizzying layers of studio effects. Either way, they draw the listener in, and they’re vastly more accessible than they might seem. Flanigan’s vocals are mostly wordless, with a timbre that ranges from high and clear to take on a smoky tone on the album’s last number.

She begins with the aptly titled Retrobuild, harmonies methodically layered over and over again, almost an exponential expansion of a simple two-note phrase. She bends the notes and adds a tinge of longing before cutting off the piece abruptly. Following that is a vivid dreamscape, vocals alternating with oscillating, droning textures buzzing and swirling from the speakers, creating simple, sustained chords. Sleep comes down, is interrupted for a second, shifts to a distantly nightmarish interlude with uneasy, Middle Eastern inflected vocalese and ends on a calm, balmy note.

Snow pits the drones, buzzes and frequent shrieks of the speakers against the voice. As with the previous track, Flanigan carefully adjusts the frequencies to create a chordal drone, voice eventually emerging resolute and triumphant over the lo-fi squall as the melody from the first piece returns. Thinking Real Hard finally introduces lyrics and a cinematic theme: “Would you star in my picture?” the narrator asks, with a torchy longing. The album concludes with the pensively layered Pinkish White, shades of the Cocteau Twins, and the restless, all-vocalese nocturne Say You. It’s a marvelous late-night album.

October 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stile Antico’s Andrew Griffiths Speaks for the Choir

Stile Antico, one of the world’s most popular and exciting choirs, made their New York concert debut less than a year ago at Corpus Christi Church uptown. They’ve topped the Billboard classical charts; toured with Sting; and have been nominated for Grammies twice for their innovative and spirited performances of both rare and iconic sixteenth and seventeenth-century compositions. They return to New York on Saturday, October 16 at 8 PM at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. Andrew Griffiths, tenor in the group, took some time out of his schedule to give us some insight into what promises to be a particularly intriguing concert:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First an obvious question – what is the program you’ll be singing on October 16?

Andrew Griffiths of Stile Antico: It’s called In Paradisum, a program of Renaissance music. All the music is either the last piece that the composers wrote, or a piece that bows out with big questions.

LCC: That’s intense.

AG: Surprisingly, it’s very contrasting. Actually we were all very worried that it was going to be very gloomy. But there’s a lot of upbeat music as well as the intense stuff.

LCC: Your new album, Puer Natus Est (A Child Is Born) is medieval Christmas music. Most of us typically equate Christmas music with a festive, celebratory feel. Is there a festive characteristic to this, or another defining characteristic?

AG: I don’t think that it’s your average seasonal holiday album…Christmas was an important time then as now, as the season approached they certainly pulled out all the stops. This actually has as much to do with Advent as Christmas: you have the waiting for Christmas, the anticipation, and then Christmas itself. There won’t be any music on the disc that will be recognizable as Christmas music to people who don’t know anything from this time period…

LCC: At the October 16 concert, are there specific highlights that the audience should be listening for? Any pieces or passages that are personal favorites of yours?

AG: Personally, and for a lot of us, Media Vita by John Sheppard is actually a huge one. It’s one of the longest pieces from the whole period of Tudor music in England. Sheppard is a composer we’ve done a lot, and something that I feel suits us really, really well. This has amazingly sustained passages in six parts; it’s a bit like running a marathon to perform it.

LCC: I think a lot of people over here don’t realize that choral music in the UK is undergoing a sort of renaissance, with an American Idol/Eurovision style tv show and competing choirs. Is it fair to say that you’re rock stars in the UK?

AG: Not really! I think we’re not terribly well known outside the circle of people who know this music. We feel we’ve done more in the US actually than we’ve done at home. We had a NPR feature at very good moment – we started getting emails from truck drivers in the south telling us that they were listening to this on the interstate. It takes a little bit longer to establish yourself in the UK. We now feel that we’re finding our place at this point.

LCC: Are you aware of the Seraphic Fire phenomenon over here in the US?

AG: Actually not…

LCC: They’re a Florida choir who achieved the unexpected by knocking Lady Gag off the top of the itunes charts: they were actually number one in the nation for awhile. They did it with a wonderful recording of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610…

AG: How extraordinary! That’s brilliant…I think when people get the chance to listen to this music, it can be a real revelation. A lot of people have never heard of Monteverdi. To think that there are that many people who will listen to two hours of it is really wonderful…

LCC: Is there a single mission behind Stile Antico, by comparison, say, to the Tallis Scholars? Something that makes you stand out from the other well-known early music choirs out there?

AG: I guess in that we don’t have a conductor…that our collaborative way of making music is unique, I think at least in a group of our size. We explore things much like a string quartet would. We have a lot of rehearsals, so when we get into concert we really know the material inside out. If you haven’t got someone to remind you what a certain gesture means, you really have to know what it’s going to be, or else…

LCC: Since you don’t have a conductor, do you have a signal system of sorts between members, for cues? Or is that necessary?

AG: Only at very specific moments – at the very beginning or ends of things. The analogy of the string quartet, with the first violin having everyone come in at the same time, works here. Remember, we’ve been together for ten years and we still have eight of the original twelve members. It’s very, very important to us that the turnover in the group is as little as possible: we have to know how the others work!

LCC: Given the sheer complexity of what you sing, there are bound to be a few glitches here and there. How do you handle mistakes? Do you go to the trouble of recording yourselves and listening back afterward?

AG: We do listen to things afterward. But remember, if someone misses a key, chances are at least two other people are singing, which minimizes it. More disruptive than hitting the wrong note is a rhythmic mistake: potentially much more of a problem. We’ve actually never had a disaster like that. Most of us have sung since age eight or ten so we’re very used to this.

LCC: What is your preparation for shows? You’ll be on your feet singing for the better part of  two hours, most of it without a break, and you have to hit the notes. Do you have a pre-concert ritual?

AG: We rehearse in the afternoon like everyone else…we do gather before we go on, about five minutes before the show and go over what we want to think about…and we try to keep pretty quiet after that to let ourselves concentrate!

LCC: Your sound is seamless, really together as one – there seems to me to be a lot of chemistry in the group. Are there friendships within Stile Antico that extend beyond the concert hall and rehearsal room? Not that I’m trying to dig up dirt or anything…

AG: We are very good friends actually. There are three sisters in the group, and two of us are married. So that helps when we sit down and just talk about what our goals are, and what we are achieving. But the premise from the beginning was that we were keen to keep it a social thing as much as a musical thing and that’s still true today.

LCC: Rock star question: let’s compare Stile Antico to a rock band for a minute, shall we? Is there a dominant personality? A mystic? A class clown?

AG: Various clowns at various times. We all take the lead on different things, and that spills over into how it organizes us. One of us does the travel, another does the website, we try to play to our different strengths. I don’t think there’s a ringleader…

LCC: Does it ever astound you that you’ve achieved popularity with music that, much of it at least, went centuries without being performed?

AG: I think it’s very exciting. We all really feel strongly that we’re not presenting these in pieces, out of context. We’re sort of taking them out of the museum…people think that it’s such a big thing to play and sing, but these are works that were sung and enjoyed by everyday people hundreds of years ago. We rarely speak of dynamics, per se: we speak about the character of the music…we try to find something in it that resonates with us to resonate with other people as well. We find again and again that people are engaging emotionally with our music. You don’t necessarily have to know the rules and understand it in a scholarly way to appreciate it.

LCC: Your album Media Vita, which came out earlier this year, is not only exquisitely sung, it’s also sonically exquisite. I’m curious as to where you recorded it…

AG: We were so lucky to find a special church in North London: All Hallows, Gospel Oak. It’s not a particularly well-known church. If you’re a recording musician, a lot of people know about it, otherwise not. What actually happened with the church is that they ran out of money as it was being built. The columns are in stone, with a wooden roof. It’s acoustically fantastic.

Stile Antico sing a program including pieces from the 15th to the 17th century by William Byrd, Guillaume Dufay, Nicolas Gombert, Josquin des Prez, Alonso Lobo, Heinrich Schutz, and Orlande de Lassus as well as John Sheppard’s massive, haunting Media Vita at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 338 W 46th St., on Saturday, October 16 at 8 PM. Tickets are available at the Miller Theatre box office, 116th St. and Broadway, open noon-6 PM Monday-Friday, via phone at 212-854-7799 and online.

For those outside of NYC, the rest of the tour schedule is below:

OCT. 7 – DURHAM, NC – Duke Chapel

OCT. 8 – WASHINGTON, DC – NPR – Tiny Desk Concert (national broadcast)

OCT. 9 – PITTSBURGH, PA – Calvary Episcopal Church/Renaissance & Baroque Society

OCT. 11 – CINCINNATI, OH – St. Peter in Chains Cathedral

OCT. 13 – DURHAM, NH – Johnson Theater/University of New Hampshire

OCT. 15 – CAMBRIDGE, MA -St. Paul Church/Boston Early Music Festival

September 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 9/22/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #860:

Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – Volume II

The 1985 debut by le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, or the Bulgarian Voices as they’re more popularly known, was one of the landmark albums in the history of recorded music and spearheaded a global phenomenon. Every choir and every woman who’ve ever sung this repertoire, especially those in the west, owe something to this long-running ensemble. First established in the early 1950s, their self-released 1975 album was issued worldwide ten years later. But this one, their first recorded for the 4AD label in 1988, is even better (we aim to be counterintuitive here). With its eerie ninth and eleventh intervals, strange, guttural trills and sepulchral ambience, these large-scale choral arrangements of traditional Bulgarian folksongs are nothing less than otherworldly, especially to western ears. The women perform them a-cappella with the exception of one which has an accordion on it. The high point is the insistently catchy folk tune Dragana I Slavei, memorably covered in a new arrangement for four voices by groundbreaking Brooklyn quartet Black Sea Hotel in 2008. You can hear the whole thing here: it’s still in print from Nonesuch. If you’re looking for a torrent, here’s a random one.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obscure Church Music Recording Knocks Lady Gag Off the Charts

The big story is that a self-released album of a 400-year-old Italian choral work by a couple of respected but little-known choirs from Florida and Michigan knocked Lady Gag off the top of the charts. It happened last month: the independently-released album of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 by Seraphic Fire with the Western Michigan University Choir actually reached the top of the itunes charts and then, after a little help from NPR, settled into the top ten of the itunes classical chart alongside the London Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma. As welcome as this news is, there’s considerable historical precedent for it. As far back as the 1950s, high-quality recordings by symphony orchestras from such unlikely spots as Rochester, New York and Louisville, Kentucky reached sizeable audiences, at least for the pre-internet era. And 2010 just happens to be the 400th anniversary of the Monteverdi Vespers, spurring renewed interest in a piece which has been a staple of the choral music repertoire practically since the year it was written.

The early music movement sprang from the desire to take medieval compositions out of the museum and play them with the same verve and raw energy with which they were created. This album is a sublime example of how well a group can bring that desire to life. Seraphic Fire director Patrick Dupre Quigley empasizes in the cd liner notes that Claudio Monteverdi, being a resourceful composer, wrote the piece with sufficient flexibility to make it suitable for ensembles both large and small. The intimacy of this performance vividly spotlights one of many possibilities offered by its writer, and one that’s been overlooked. Chorus master James K. Bass leads the choir along with understated accompaniment by Joel Spears on lute and theorbo, Philip Spray on violin and Scott Allen Jarrett and Karl Schrock on chamber organ. Plainly and simply, this rocks. The joyous, hypnotic insistence of the opening cantus firmus, the energetic counterpoint of the Dixit Dominus, the pinpoint inflections of the Duo Seraphim and the alternately lush and energetic dynamics of the Nisi Dominus are just a few of the highlights. By contrast, the Magnificat-a-6 here is rapturous and tersely otherworldly. As old as all this is, it’s amazing how modern it sounds. Over the centuries, the ideas in this piece have spread from Bach to Mozart to the art-rock bands of the 60s and many other places besides, testament to how far ahead of his time Monteverdi was.

So far the popularity of American Idol and all its spinoffs has not translated to renewing interest in early music as it has in the UK, with the popularity of Stile Antico et al. But it’s not out of the question to think that this album might help spur a resurgence on this side of the pond. After all, you can do this at home: the Choral Public Domain Library is the perfect place to start.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Bosnian Emerald Gleams in the Dark

In Bosnia, the title of singer Amira Medunjanin and accordionist Merima Kljuco’s new album Zumra means “emerald,” which is a double entendre: it has a nonconformist connotation. Together the two musicians offer a new approach to a wide variety of traditional folk songs from the region, alternating between terse, starkly intense arrangements and more avant-garde interpretations. The group they most closely resemble is innovative Balkan/Appalachian vocal duo Æ, substituting Medunjanin’s stagy, operatic, traditional delivery for Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker’s otherworldly, primal intensity. Most interestingly, Kljuco’s accordion goes a lot further out than Medunjanin’s voice, firing off bracing, whistling overtones, breathless staccato passages and crashing waves of atonalities along with menacing chromatic runs and cadenzas that contrast with an eerie stillness. The songs are strung together as something of a suite: if you don’t speak the language or aren’t paying attention to beginnings and endings, you can get completely lost in this. It’s a brooding, beautifully atmospheric album.

The songs evoke a difficult and war-torn past. People long for home and lovers can’t consummate anything because of differences in their religion – in fact many of these songs concern people who go mad with love because society won’t let them have what they want. Kljuco meanders her way sadly through a gracefully ornamented, rubato solo instrumental of Svedah, a song from the 1920s, a bitter account of wartime destruction. The duo harrowingly deliver a metaphorically charged tale of a mother ripping out her child’s heart, white noise of the accordion quietly panting with understated anguish. The album winds up with a love song to a nonconformist – the best kind – and a Bosnian Sephardic song sung in Ladino, a vivid illustration of the kind of cultural cross-pollination that went on in their part of the world despite centuries of repression. It’s out now on World Village Music.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tim Eriksen – Soul of the January Hills

This is definitely not folk music for the faint of heart, but it’s heaven for fans of gothic Americana. Tim Eriksen is one of the world’s more fearless performers: long admired as a singer, steeped in Americana and particularly the eerie northern New England tradition, the multi-instrumentalist is no stranger to singing a-cappella. What’s most impressive is how this album was made: Eriksen sang all fourteen songs solo with neither band nor instrumentation, in a single take, in a tower along the wall of the Benedictine Abbey in Jaroslaw, Poland. His slightly twangy baritone is a potent instrument, but he doesn’t overdo it: this is an album of interpretations, a voice alone setting and maintaining a mood with the lyrics. Yet it also doesn’t offer the impression that he’s holding anything in reserve, waiting til the end when he knows he can empty the tank and blow out his voice if he wants. And what technique! Eriksen is pitch-perfect, working those blue notes with a sorcerer’s subtlety. Tenacity in the face of hardship, mourning and even gruesomeness is the feeling that links most of the often centuries-old songs here: many of them, even a hymn like Son of God, are absolutely macabre. Most of them are in minor keys; and to Eriksen’s credit, he doesn’t sing them all in the same key. The tension lets up a little at the end of the English folk song Gallows Tree, where the prisoner at the end of the rope is finally rescued as the hangman is paid his bribe (for another, absolutely lights-out solo vocal performance of this song, check out the version on Robin O’Brien’s album The Apple in Man).

By contrast, Eriksen gives the narrator of Drowsy Sleeper – dying of food poisoning – a chance to make a forceful last stand. He works segues between several of the songs so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins. A couple of them are traditionally sung by women, but Eriksen pulls them off, notably the ominously gleeful A Soldier Traveling from the North, where the girl begs the traveling soldier not to leave (the implication is that she’s pregnant). Eriksen recasts Amazing Grace as rustic Appalachian folk, and finally lets the clouds dissipate with a rousing, revival camp-style version of Better Days Coming to end the album. This ought to appeal to a wide audience, from fans of groups like the Handsome Family to otherworldly Balkan-Applachian singers Æ.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | folk music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s Contact! Demystified

The New York Philharmonic’s debut performance of Contact!, their new series dedicated to cutting-edge music by contemporary composers got off to an auspicious start at Symphony Space last December. They’re doing another program at Symphony Space featuring pieces by Nico Muhly, Matthias Pintscher and Sean Shepherd this Friday, April 16 at 8, which we’ll be liveblogging (wave to us up in the balcony but please don’t disturb your neighbor). The program repeats at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 7 PM on the 17th. John Mangum, the orchestra’s Artistic Administrator, didn’t let a computer crash stop him from helping us shed some light on what promises to be an equally auspicious performance:

Q: The first question is the most crucial one: are tickets still available for the April 16 show at Symphony Space and the one on the 17th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

A: Yes.

Q: The New York Philharmonic are not strangers to championing contemporary composers. Other than the fact that Contact! so far has featured pieces for smaller ensembles, what differentiates this series from other programs featuring the avant-garde?

A: The Contact! series for the current season, 2009/10, features exclusively commissioned works – each program is comprised entirely of world premieres. In future seasons, we’re looking at expanding the series’ mandate to make room for some of the classics from the last two decades. For example, in November 2010, we’ll have a program pairing a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg with the “Quatre chants pour franchir le seiul” (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshhold”), the last work of Magnus’ teacher, the pivotal French composer Gerard Grisey, which he completed in 1994.

Q: Is there a common link between the composers that led to their selection for this program? Or a common thread, musical or thematic, that links the compositions?

A: They’re all crucial voices from among the younger generations of composers living and working in the New York area – both Matthias Pintscher and Nico Muhly are here in the City, and Sean Shepherd, who recently graduated from Juilliard, is working at Cornell with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. The striking thing is how different each composer’s approach is, and that really comes to the fore when their works are placed on the same program. It makes a strong statement about the variety and vitality of music today.

Q: What criteria and whose decisions determine who gets a commission from the NY Phil as Muhly, Shepherd and Pintscher have here? Is there a line around the block, or is is the secret star chamber that decides immune to persuasion?

A: We try to be really aware of who is out there. Members of the Orchestra, Magnus Lindberg (our Composer-in-Residence), Alan Gilbert (our Music Director), and I all play a part. We meet, talk, look at scores – both those we’ve requested and those that have just come in unsolicited – and make the decision based on what turns us on. It’s exciting to be part of creating new art, and we want to share that excitement with our audiences.

Q: The debut of Contact! had minimalism, an intricate rondo, horizontal music, orchestrated Mongolian throat-singing chants and a jungly thicket of Brazilian percussion. What do audiences have to look forward to in this program?

A: Matthias’ piece is a wonderfully refined, tremendously thoughtful setting of sacred Hebrew texts for our Artist-in-Residence Thomas Hampson. There are strikingly beautiful sonorities, and really sophisticated use of the instrumental ensemble. Sean’s work is very energetic, full of all sorts of references to itself and other pieces. It’s a piece in seven sections, with a real arc, a real shape to it, and the use of the ensemble is, like Matthias’ work, again very sophisticated, though the result is different. Nico’s piece also has that same sense of energy and structure – there seems to be something about New York that brings this energy, this life out in composers.

Q: The ensemble was divided into unusual permutations last time around – for example, one of the pieces featured four string quartets with a bass at each end of the stage. Can the audience expect any such thing like on this bill?

A: The ensembles for these three pieces are similar, so there won’t be that kind of contrast like we had last time, with Lei Liang’s piece for four string quartets and two double basses. The contrast in this program comes from the different styles of the three composers, and it is striking.

Q: This is the first time Contact! has featured vocal music – will there be vocal music at upcoming performances?

A:Yes. On the November program next season, the Grisey work is for high soprano and ensemble.

Q: Why do this at Symphony Space and the Met? Why not just stay home at Avery Fisher Hall?

A: We really wanted to take this project out into the city, and after considering several different venues, these two proved ideal for a variety of practical and artistic reasons. At Symphony Space, the programming is a good fit with the work Laura Kaminsky, their artistic director, is doing there. It’s also right in the heart of the Upper West Side, close to Columbia as well. At the Met Museum, I like the statement it makes – we’re putting contemporary music on stage there, streaming new art into the flow and tradition of millennia of artistic achievement. That you literally go from ancient Egypt to New York, 2010 – I think that’s pretty cool.

April 14, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Las Rubias del Norte – Ziguala

The new cd by las Rubias del Norte would make a great Bunuel soundtrack. Otherworldly, surreal and frequently haunting bordering on macabre, it’s a characteristically eclectic, syncretic mix of old songs from around the world done as Veracruz’s best musicians might have imagined them circa 1964. Most of the melodies are in minor keys, the perfect backdrop for the sepulchrally soaring harmonies of the band’s two frontwomen, Allyssa Lamb (who’s also the band’s keyboardist) and Emily Hurst. Lamb and Hurst are a lot closer to Stile Antico than Shakira (or Jeanette, who sang the 1976 latin pop classic Porque Te Vas that the band turn into ghostly, organ-driven reggae to open the album). Which the two ought to be, considering that they met as members of the New York Choral Society. As the band’s website aptly points out, the album is more psychedelic rock than latin, “the opposite of Rock en Espanol,” even though most of the lyrics are in perfectly enunciated Spanish.

The title track is a Greek rembetika song with a bluesy, oldtimey gospel verse that gives way to a latinized chorus, followed by a clip-clop clave number a la Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, shuffling along with the muted strokes of Olivier Conan’s cuatro. A slyly levantine-inflected S.D. Burman Bollywood number lights up with Lamb’s eerily twinkling piano and the lushly brisk atmospherics of the Parker String Quartet, while a Brecht-Weill song gets an oversize margarita, a big sombrero and a balmy, slightly Jerry Garcia-ish electric guitar solo from Giancarlo Vulcano.

The rest of the album alternates psychedelia with stately, period-perfect angst and longing. A couple of the songs are dead ringers for Chicha Libre (with whom this band shares two members, Conan and percussionist Timothy Quigley). Navidad Negra turns a Caribbean big band number into cumbia noir, Lamb’s sultry organ passing the torch to Vulcano, who takes a surprisingly biting turn, while the traditional Viva La Fiesta becomes the theme to the saddest party ever. They close with hypnotic, classically inflected tropicalia that throws some welcome shade on the pitch-perfect brightness of the vocals, a Bizet cover bubbling with Lamb and Hurst’s contrapuntal sorcery and a downcast ballad, restrained melancholy over funeral-parlor organ. It’s gentle, scary and beautiful like just about everything else here. Look for this one high on our best albums of 2010 list at the end of December. Las Rubias del Norte play the cd release show for the album this Friday, March 12 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub followed by a midwest tour.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Æ at the Delancey, NYC 3/8/10

Aurelia Shrenker had just graduated NYU earlier in the day; her musical cohort Eva Salina Primack looks about the same age. But their voices are the voices of old souls, wary, a little battlescarred, passionate with the knowledge that lack of passion equals death. Opening this week’s Small Beast gathering at the Delancey, the two women of Æ (pronounced “ash,” after the Saxon rune meaning “exactly two”) turned in a riveting, otherworldly performance of both Americana and exotic, bucolic songs from considerably further east of Appalachia. The two are like sisters – their camaraderie and shared intuition for tempos, harmonies and dynamics are as uncanny as the music they sing, strikingly evident from the first few slow swoops up the scale on the old Appalachian folk song Fly Away. Their voices are much the same as well – although the sound system tonight exaggerated the treble in Shrenker’s timbre while bringing out more of the lows in Primack’s register. Primack played accordion on a plaintive minor-key Balkan number from the band’s new album (recently reviewed here, enthusiastically); Shrenker strummed through the tricky changes on a handful of Georgian tunes – a genre she specializes in – on her panduri. She explained how she’d learned Across the Blue Mountains in the White River Junction, Vermont Greyhound bus station (for those who haven’t been there, it’s a place that quietly screams out for escape, just like the song). Primack did an intense a-capella version of a Yiddish ballad and swung it dramatically, even as she added all kinds of subtly luminous microtonal shades. They also steered their way through their trademark labyrinthine interpolations of Appalachian and Eastern European or Georgian folk tunes, an especially neat discovery since the two styles mingle far better harmonically than you might think.

Primack offered the insight that American singers who do as much foreign-language material as she does always look forward to the vocalese, because it’s there where a performer can express herself or himself most individually. Shrenker mused about living to see the day when one of their stark, rustic, obscure songs is one that everyone in New York knows. That’s a hope whose genuine audacity deserves to come true. Æ will be on Pacific Northwest tour for the rest of the month beginning on 3/15 at 8 PM at Cafe Solstice, 4116 University Way Northeast in Seattle, returning to NYC in April,watch this space for show dates.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment