Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax’s New Beethoven Album: A Party in a Box

If classical music is party music for you, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax‘s new all-Beethoven album Hope Amid Tears – streaming at Spotify – is a party in a box. It’s two old friends playing familiar material in a very defamiliarized way. You think you know Beethoven’s music for cello and piano? If you’ve listened to Beethoven for any length of time, you probably know at least the first couple of sonatas; the three sets of variations for cello and piano have not withstood the test of time so well. Throughout this collection, the fun these guys are having is irresistible, finding all sorts of hidden gems, and jokes, and poignancy. What’s more, they play the sonatas chronologically, so you can follow Beethoven’s development as a composer, cautiously emerging from Haydn’s shadow to become the crazed genius he was by the end.

This is a long record, a real feast: to fully appreciate it, you probably will not want to try to digest it all in a single setting. The highlights are too numerous to chronicle. The recording levels vary somewhat in places: Ma is serendipitously high in the mix, especially in Sonata No. 1 where he doesn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight, so that’s a big plus.

There’s a lot of space in this disarmingly intimate music. Moments that others might play as straight-faced pageantry are sly or just plain goofy here. Likewise, Ma and Ax linger here in calmer interludes that less seasoned musicians might gloss over, emotional context is everything. If you thought this was comfortable, routine wine-hour music for the World Economic Forum types of the early 19th century (not that such a thing existed – oligarchs back then hadn’t figured out how to conspire), these two prove definitively otherwise.

If you’re not a classical music fan but might be curious enough to check this out, start with Sonata No. 3. By that point in his career, Beethoven had moved on from endless sequences of clever chord changes to writing with more reckless abandon. And at this point, the cello has become much more than a mere support instrument for flash from the piano. That hymnal theme in the first movement is far more restrained and rustic than is the custom, and that absolutely gorgeous initial tradeoff between cello and piano really sings. The pogo-sticking introduction to movement two – essentially a country dance – is just plain ridiculous. And the third movement, where Ma soars free of the cello’s midrange for the first time, is packed with dynamic subtleties.

By the time we get to Sonata No. 4, Beethoven has grown into himself (and his obsession with false endings, some more devious than others). Nocturnal lustre interchanges with dark heroics, and Ma gets to sink his fingers and bow into more regal, symphonic parts. You could make a strong case that No. 5, saturnine triumph bookending an elegy, is the album’s title track.

The first two sonatas are more predictable but hardly without moments of joy or solemn discovery. The sheer matter-of-factness of No. 1, the crescendos far from florid, the dips far from languid, makes for steady fun. Ax’s decision to let the upper-register ornaments in No. 2 flit away, while using their counterparts in the lows as integral to upward cascades or arpeggios pays off strongly. Ma opting to hang just a bit behind the beat in the beginning of No. 2, before the two join in a memorably commingled rumble, is another insightful touch.

The three sets of variations are the closest thing to wine-hour sonic wallpaper for oligarchs here, although the sudden change to minor-key plaintiveness in the first is unselfconsciously striking, as is the subtler shift toward a similar atmosphere in the variations on a rather prayerful Handel theme in the second.

June 14, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yo-Yo Ma: Conspicuously Absent at Summerstage

New York’s Central Park Summerstage series of free concerts was not originally devised as a marketing mechanism to lure tourists to town, even though that’s how they’ve been presented for well over ten years: this city has a long tradition of free concerts in public spaces, many of them historic. Some landmark performances have taken place in this very space: the North American debut of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, to name just one. Tonight’s scheduled show with the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma promised to be a highlight of this year’s season. Unfortunately, as a marketing device, it backfired, sending all the wrong messages to any visitor who might have had the misfortune to be there.

The opening act was a mix of professional musicians and public school students, ostensibly an attempt at some sort of music mentoring program that obviously isn’t working. That this particular unit wasn’t ready to perform in front of an audience in their own auditorium, let alone at an established venue, was frustrating, but it shouldn’t have been – although it raises the question of whether or not the promoters were able to afford a real opening act. High school bands aren’t necessarily inept. There are dozens of genuinely superb New York student ensembles who would have been more than happy to do the show for nothing, and would have delivered a performance that would have made this city proud. But this band was just plain awful. Even though it was a free concert, subjecting the audience – many of whom had stood in line in crushing heat for an hour and a half before the doors opened – to yet another an hour and a half of this travesty was insulting to the extreme. That the musicianship was less than competent is beside the point: no virtuoso could have made the program listenable. A ragged brass ensemble opened, unable to keep a simple vamp together despite the fact that there were no chord changes. Along with the music, there was a great deal of talking – apparently there was some kind of storytelling going on as well. After a brief, haphazard stab at opera, a couple of vaguely Asian passages and some funkless funk, a choir was brought up to sing a pop song that sounded like a Meatloaf arrangement of a nursery school alphabet rhyme. Apparently this group’s music director is unaware of the fact that a considerable amount of great music is very easy to play: had he or she never heard of Bach, or James Brown, or the Ramones? Even done raggedly, the Ramones are fun. But this band couldn’t do that. Or, they weren’t allowed to. While many of today’s struggling music students are tomorrow’s virtuosos, it’s safe to say that no student in this band has any future in music: anyone with real talent at the schools involved (Edward Bleeker Junior High School #185, Frederick Douglass Academy III, Granville T. Woods Middle School #584, and Public School/Middle School #161) would have quit after the first day.

Ultimately, the message that this sends to the audience is,”New York public school students are so retarded that they can’t be trusted to play Bach, or James Brown, or even the Ramones, so we have to make the music as stupid as they are.” And this will reverberate wherever this concert is discussed by the tourists who were there. “Our village band in [fill in the blank: Upper Volta, Kyrzygstan, the Azores] can play better than these losers. My kids are way better than any of these dumb Americans – and my kids never even practice!”

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble were scheduled to play afterward: when, who knows. The interminable student “performance” was still going on as the mercury rose closer to the hundred-degree mark, eight PM came and went and audience members began filtering out in disgust.

June 7, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map

Their most adventurous album. For ten years, the Silk Road Ensemble has been bringing some of the most fascinating, intense and pioneering Asian and Asian-inflected music to western audiences. On their latest cd, an all-star cast of some of the most imaginative players on the planet – literally – take a flying leap into a rich, cutting-edge program of cross-pollination with equal parts gusto and finesse. For one reason or another, it’s arguably the least Asian of the Silk Road albums, and also the most demanding – while some of the compositions here are among the most accessible the ensemble has recorded, others are far from that – but a close listen pays tremendous rewards.

The cd opens with a three-part suite by the reliably multistylistic Gabriela Lena Frank (who just won a Latin Grammy!), titled Ritmos Anchinos. The opening piece, as Frank puts it, has Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man discovering her inner latina. The second is a blissful little dance inspired by a Chinese-African village in Peru; the third hitches a raw, clattering, rhythmically tricky, reverb-driven pipa piece to a second part where the pipa takes on some particularly imaginative jazz guitar voicings.

Hong Kong-born composer Angel Lam’s phantasmagorical, shapeshifting Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain follows, building to a dark, dramatic crescendo following a sparse buildup in the Asian scale, Kojiro Umezaki’s rustic shakuhachi flute bringing back a rain-drenched, ambient feel. The second part is a mysterious narrative of the events of the first part, sweeping along uneasily on the wings of the strings.

Evan Ziporyn’s compositions draw deeply on his gamelan work, and his trio suite here, Sulvasutra is no exception. Based on an ancient treatise on the proper proportions for Hindu altars, there’s a definite symmetry here, circular, echoey and insistent, the extraordinary string quartet Brooklyn Rider interpolating atmospherics within tabla player Sandeep Das’ hypnotic rhythms. The second part sounds like what another adventurous string composer, Ljova Zhurbin, might have done with a gamelan, adding a raw Carpathian edge to the pointillistic ambience; Wu Man reappears deviously in the concluding segment, taking the piece rousingly back to Fiji.

The concluding suite – if you can call it one – is the album’s star attraction, the latest from Osvaldo Golijov, alternatingly rousing, joyous, raptly hypnotic and haunting. On the slinky, seductive first section, the Argentinian avant garde luminary proves himself adept and frankly exhilarating (if not exactly innovative) at lush Mohammed Abdel Wahab-style levantine orchestration. The still, brooding, mystical tone poems that follow fall in stark contrast with the ecstatic, defiant Sardinian protest song that fades up and blasts along like the Pogues, Galician bagpipe star Cristina Pato fueling the blaze. And then it’s over. It’s out now on World Village Music and it makes a particularly suitable holiday gift for the cutting-edge listener on y0ur list.

November 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment