Friday, January 31, 2014

Voices of Ascension - Beethoven & Brahms - 01/30/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Dennis Keene
Beethoven: Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Anna Shelest: Pianist
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45
Martha Guth: Soprano
Richard Zeller: Baritone
Anna Shelest: Pianist
Arlene Shrut: Pianist

Although the beginning of the year had been so far - and by sheer chance - exclusively dedicated to contemporary classical music, my momentum was gloriously broken last night in the beautiful Church of the Ascension right down Fifth Avenue in the company of the Voices of Ascension, two musical giants and two of their most arresting achievements, among so many others. Beethoven's Sonata 32 was his last piano sonata and comprises only two movements. But then again, what was there left to say? And Brahms' popular Requiem easily stands out in a crowded fields thanks to its irresistible non-liturgical human touch.
Although I had willingly bought it, I was dearly hoping that my no-view seat would not be a crappy-sound seat. Fortunately, it was not. My view of the choir was predictably blocked by the pulpit, but while the sound was not coming to our section completely intact, it was not noticeably distorted either. So with all of this established, it was finally time to be in with the old and out with the new for one evening.

A little bit of a stripped down version of his majestic Symphony No. 9, what with the life struggle leading to all-encompassing transcendence, Beethoven's Sonata No. 32 has the piano do all the work. And what work! The composition is technically daunting, and yet both movements conclude with spiritual serenity. Throw in a little jazzy tune for the sheer heck of it (Seriously), and you have a brilliantly self-contained masterpiece. Anna Shelest did not let the challenge intimidate her and played with plenty of aplomb and vitality.
Interestingly inspired by the German Luther Bible instead of the more traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem is also well-known and much loved for its compelling emotional power. Simply accompanied by a most capable piano four-hands, the voices opened softly, all understanding and comfort for the mourners. Many memorable episodes followed, like the epic third movement, with its extraordinary combination of baritone and chorus, quietness and intensity, and the short fourth one, in which the famous "lovely dwelling place" sounded in fact downright inviting. The mysterious and dramatic sixth movement was another terrific moment for baritone and chorus, whose culmination was a thrilling Death- and Hell-defying victory. Every time he appeared, Richard Zeller displayed a remarkable voice and a strong presence. Soprano Martha Guth progressively gained confidence in the fifth movement, the most intrinsically intimate and the most sublimely sad. It all ended up with more soothing singing and a peaceful closure, back to the beginning.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

VERGE Ensemble - Modern Mystics - 01/26/14

Mohammed Fairouz: Ka-Las
Paul Rudy: East: Wind
John Luther Adams: High Places
Paul Rudy: South: Fire
Paul Rudy: November Sycamore Leaf
Paul Rudy: West :Water
Gareth Farr: Kembang Suling
Paul Rudy: North: Earth
Mark Winges: Shapeshifter
Lina Bahn: Violin
David Jones: Clarinet
Jonathan Richards: Viola
William Richards: Percussion
Tobias Werner: Cello
Davie Whiteside: Flute

Now that the non-stop craziness of the holiday season is long gone and normal life has resumed, I figured that it was high time to pay a little visit to our nation's capital. The choice of this past weekend was mainly motivated by the presence of dear friends of mine in the area as well as the likely reduced number of tourists in the city and travelers on the road during the first month of the year. The hope for a quick and easy trip was, however, mercilessly rushed some by road works and a major accident on the Baltimore-Washington parkway, but we made it at the end.
Finding at least one music performance during those couple of days turned out to be surprisingly challenging. Even the timing of the National Symphony Orchestra's concerts, which is usually predictable, was off the mark and did not work out this time. But my persistence was eventually rewarded when I found a contemporary chamber music concert intriguingly titled "Modern Mystics" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which would be presented by the museum's ensemble-in-residence, the 40-year old VERGE Ensemble, on Sunday afternoon. How about that?

The program consisted of five short musical works interspersed between four even shorter pieces of recorded electronic music by Paul Rudy, which represented nature's four elements. A computer is not the first conduit that would come to mind to convey nature's manifestations, but those musical snapshots were delightfully evocative: "East: Wind" fiercely blew while church bells rang, "South: Fire" crackled and generated an intense heat, "West: Water" mercilessly rained on us as a thunderstorm was booming, and "North: Earth" featured, among other bucolic sounds, a bird singing and a river gurgling. Just as we were sitting in an urban amphitheater in downtown Washington, DC, Mother Nature kept on making appearances that were at the same time organic and high-tech.
The concert opened with "Ka-Las" ("Time" in Sanskrit) by Mohammed Fairouz, the only composer on the program whose name I was slightly familiar with. Winningly combining the two unusual bedfellows that are the viola and the clarinet, the piece brought out the best of the former's lower register and the latter's upbeat sounds. By turns fierce, whimsical and melancholic, the two instruments played off and with each other for a downright virtuosic journey. I did not know it at the time, but this compelling mix of appealing melodies and spiritual influences ended up being the most vibrantly lyrical, unfussily accessible work of the whole afternoon.
John Luther Adams' "High Places" was composed as an homage to a friend of his, with whom he shared a deep love for music and Alaska. And sure enough, both elements were unmistakably present in the three movement for solo violin which were epitomizing three moments of their long-lasting friendship. In Lina Bahn's expert hands, the sometimes crystalline, sometimes whistling, occasionally grating, but always pure-to-the-core, sounds were subtly reminiscent of emotional turmoil and natural wonders.
Paul Rudy was also on the program with his computerized composition "November Sycamore Leaf", which took its inspiration from a photography by Missouri photographer John Hess, which he had received as a Christmas card. On Sunday, over the course of about nine minutes, not only did we get to marvel at a detailed musical description of the leaf in all its endless intricacies, but we got to watch an accompanying video of its metamorphosis too. Barely perceptible at first, the visual changes eventually picked up pace all the way to a spectacularly colorful finale.
At this point, New Zealand's superstar composer and percussionist Gareth Farr injected a bright touch of exoticism into our cold January afternoon with his gamelan-influenced "Kembang Suling". Whether blending together or engaging in an increasingly spirited dialog, the flute and marimba let their ethereal but nevertheless assertive personalities discreetly make themselves heard before vividly blossoming for a fun trip to far-off Asia.
Introduced by the composer himself, Mark Winges' "Shapeshifter" was a VERGE commission for flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello. As the title indicates, there was a lot going on among the various instruments, which all seemed to freely wander in and out of the fray, forming at times likely or less likely alliances, coming up with ever-changing rhythms and unexpected harmonies. The five musicians onstage bravely and brilliantly kept on shifting the shapes, creating a music as unpredictable, elusive and, yes, mystical, as the human soul. Then it was back to the cold Sunday evening.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prototype Festival - Thumbprint - 01/18/14

Composer: Kamala Sankaram
Conductor: Steven Osgood
Director: Rachel Dickstein
Mukhtar: Kamala Sankaram
Mother, Prime Minister, Villager, Reporter: Theodora Hanslowe
Father, Judge, Villager, Reporter, Elder: Steve Gokool
Faiz, Police Chief, Villager, Reporter, Elder: Manu Narayan
Reporter, Abdul, Shakur, Imam, Reporter, Elder: Kannan Vasudevan
Annu, Young Woman, Villager, Reporter: Leela Subramaniam

When earlier this week my friend Dawn asked me if I'd be interested in attending a depressing opera on Saturday night at Baruch College, she immediately piqued my interest. After I had heard that it was based on a true, inspiring story about universal human issues in an exotic land that, when all was said and done, concluded with a happy ending, I was sold. And apparently I was not the only one because the show was completely sold-out and we had to content ourselves with standing-room tickets. But hey, whatever it takes to support the performing arts and human rights, right?
The title Thumbprint describes the only way a young illiterate woman could file a complaint after being gang-raped by four men of another tribe as payback for her little brother's alleged "honor crime". In a place and time (Pakistan in 2002) where the expected course of action would then be for the disgraced victim to kill herself in order to wipe out the dishonor she had brought to her family, Mukhtar eventually decided against all odds to stand up for herself and fight in the court of law... and won.

The main character, Mukhtar, was convincingly impersonated by emerging Indian-American composer Kamala Sankaram, who had also written the score. As one of the main instigators of the project, she displayed an attractive, flexible, if not particularly powerful, voice, decent acting skills, and a genuine interest in conveying the young woman's exceptional progression from innocent country girl to global human rights activist.
The other singers proved to be generally reliable, although their playing various characters could lead to confusion if attention was not properly paid. The two performers who resolutely rose above the fray were Theodora Hanslowe, as the strong, loving and supporting mother, and Manu Narayan, who made a delectable villain caught up in his ancient chauvinistic traditions.
The intriguing blend of Western and Hindustani influences was performed by a small but proficient orchestra of six musicians, who were capably conducted by Steven Osgood. While the musical and vocal base had an essentially conventional operatic structure, including some typically lyrical lines, one could also find plenty of other elements, such as Pakistani and Indian devotional chants, and an unstoppable driving pulse worthy of a thriller. Some of it was overly repetitive, some of it did not sound fully thought out, but the often harmonically rich, occasionally fascinating, score nevertheless efficiently supported the plot for the most part.
The set had very little in terms of décor, but that was never really a problem, clearly demonstrating, if need be, that a lot can be accomplished with less. As for the two main scenes - Mukhtar's rape and her eventual transformation - they worked with various degrees of success. The ingenious use of light and shadows, frozen poses, fearful gasps of breath, as well as the harsh slashing of bags of rice at the back of the stage, during the relatively short rape scene had a downright harrowing effect. On the other hand, Mukhtar's shift from suicidal victim to entitled citizen could have been carried out without the background screen turning bright red and the surging music regretfully covering her (as far as we could tell) appealing singing. This was both too much and not enough.
The story ends well on the stage. Mukhtar wins her case and opens a school to help down-trodden women in her community. While real life is slightly less rosy - despite, and because of, her remarkable subsequent achievements in her village and throughout the world, the men that had been sentenced were all acquitted on appeal and she regularly receives death threats - what the audience will likely remember is the empowering Urdu handwriting of her name on the projection screen, triumphantly making her thumbprint obsolete once and for all.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gryphon Trio & James Campbell - Ravel & Messiaen - 01/16/14

Ravel: Piano Trio in A Minor
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time - James Campbell: Clarinet

After the resolutely contemporary concert by Yefim Bronfman and the New York Philharmonic on Monday, I was back in SubCulture's cozy little space on Thursday night for an intimate concert by the boundary-pushing Gryphon Trio, which would present two prominent 20th-century works written by two major French music luminaries. Just as the underground venue was celebrating its 4th month anniversary that evening, it was proving one more time its keen interest in offering high-quality performances in a casual setting.
While Ravel's Piano Trio is well-known for its overall engaging qualities, Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" is as famous for its ground-breaking nature as for its peculiar genesis. Written for the most part in the war camp of Görlitz, where the already established Messiaen was a prisoner during the winter of 1940-1941, the quartet prosaically owes its unusual combination of instruments because those, as well as musicians able to play them, were the only ones available on site. Add to that a music-loving German guard kind enough to provide paper and pen, and one of the most seminal works of the chamber music repertoire was born. Its very first audience was the few hundreds of camp members, including the guards, the prisoners and the quarantined, who attended the concert of January 15, 1941, the crushed body heat blissfully bringing the temperature inside the barrack to just above freezing. A fleeting ray of hope in humanity in spite of the apocalyptic world raging outside.

From its leisurely Basque-infused Modéré to its brilliantly vivacious Final: Animé, Ravel's Piano Trio is an attractive multi-faceted piece, and after a brief introduction by pianist James Parker, the Gryphon Trio made sure to vividly highlight all its complex intricacies, bright colors and rich sonorities for a truly enjoyable performance.
The "Quartet for the End of Time" being an unquestionably unusual composition, eminent guest clarinetist James Campbell took the time to introduce it with a few explanations and excerpts. Once those enlightening insights dispensed, we all eagerly embarked on a 50-minute spell-binding journey, Messiaen's masterwork boldly mixing up Biblical Revelations, Indian mysticism and bird songs. And nowhere was its quintessential uniqueness more obvious than in its technically daunting and emotionally haunting "Abyss of the Birds", during which the clarinet took center stage and seemingly lost itself in both time and the lack thereof. This remarkable feat even prompted frenetic applause from one lone audience member while the rest of us sat in stunned silent.
In "The Praise to the eternity of Jesus" it was the cello that very slowly unfolded its endless majestic lines. Not to be outdone, the violin impeccably rose in the "Praise to the immortality of Jesus", which concluded the piece with transcendental luminosity. A lot had to be admired in the team work as well, such as the four instruments whole-heartedly playing in unison for the "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets", or the glorious melodic chaos of the "Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Time". As we were listening to Messiaen stubbornly challenging the notion of time itself to dizzying effect, it was hard not to be in awe at the master's command of his craft in what had to be dire circumstances and mesmerized by the composition's spectacularly achieved timelessness and universality.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

CONTACT! at SubCulture - Yefim Bronfman & Friends - 01/13/14

Host: Marc Neikrug
Marc Neikrug: Passions, Reflected for Solo Piano
Yefim Bronfman: Piano
Poul Ruders: String Quartet No. 4
Eileen Moon: Cello
Robert Rinehart: Viola
Fiona Simon: Violin
Sharon Yamada: Violin
Marc-André Dalbavie: Trio No. 1 for Violin, Cello and Piano
Yefim Bronfman: Piano
Quan Ge: Violin
Maria Kitsopoulos: Cello

After a rather quiet beginning of the year, I was back in business last night, and back in the Village as well, for the second CONTACT! at SubCulture event of the season, again presented by the New York Philharmonic and the 92Y. This time, a few musicians from the orchestra would be supporting pianist extraordinaire Yefim Bronfman, to whom I owe my first and fabulous Rach 3 live back at Strathmore, for another short and intimate concert of eclectic contemporary music, hosted by New York composer Marc Neikrug.
Uncompromisingly serious when it comes to music, the coolest new performance venue on Bleecker Street enforces a mandatory closing of the bar during the performance, an atypical but welcome step that was, on the other hand, lightheartedly lamented by Yefim Bronfman. Then all we needed to fully enjoy our evening was for the two young kids in the front row to do us all a favor and sit still for just a couple of minutes, but that was apparently too much to ask, even when offered plenty to eat and drink. Peace was, however, finally restored when their clearly overwhelmed father eventually decided that they would skip the last work and call it a night. Better late than never.

The concert started with the world premiere of a new piece by our host for the evening, Marc Neikrug. Inspired by Schumann and constituted by one large structure made of 12 segments of various lengths, "Passions, Reflected" for Solo Piano was a wonderful opportunity for Yefim Bronfman to display his far-reaching musical skills. Each small vignettes had its own mood - stern, romantic, assertive, gentle, animated, jazzy, explosive - but also occupied a special and unchangeable spot in the carefully thought-out configuration. Bronfman handled this ever-changing work with masterful command and unwavering commitment, not leaving anything to chance.
Next was the US public premiere of the String Quartet No. 4 by Danish composer Poul Ruders. After the quick first two movements, the Adagio sognante leisurely unfolded in all its ethereal lyricism. We did not get to indulge in it for too long though, as the Presto alla breve soon exploded with fierce and unapologetic intensity, before a gentle Adagio brought the whole piece to an understated end. The pleasure of having some remarkably accomplished string players from the New York Philharmonic was nothing but duplicated by having them work their expert bows on such a self-assured, stylish composition.
The concert concluded with the Trio No. 1 for Violin, Cello and Piano by French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, for which Yefim Bronfman was back onstage in the company of two decidedly brilliant ladies. Imbued with plenty of mystery and featuring captivating weird sounds, this one long movement opened with a spiky dialog (argument?) between the piano and the strings, to which it would eventually return. The limited palette of notes somehow did not prevent the composition from being unpredictable and exciting, au contraire. From the strings' no-holds-barred urgency to the piano's random outbursts, among many other unexpected twists and turns, the Trio's refreshing originality couldn't help but keep musicians and audience happily on the edge, and that was a very good thing indeed. Then it was time for a drink.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The North/South Chamber Orchestra - Gentile, Maican, Zelenaia & Lifchitz - 01/12/14

Conductor: Max Lifchitz
Ada Gentile: Ho scritto una canzone
Tudor Dominik Maican: Sinfonietta No 2
Margarita Zelena: Lamentation - Claudia Schaer: Violin
Max Lifchitz: Expressions

As 2014 is slowly getting underway and winter is dragging on, I was in fact pretty happy not to have to go out in the evening this week as the city was grappling with the merciless "polar vortex". Today the temporary sub-zero temperatures, which were quickly followed by unusual warm weather and torrential rains, are already forgotten, and life is more or less back to normal, which essentially means some live music was scheduled to brighten up an otherwise still rather gloomy winter Sunday.
This afternoon's contemporary chamber music concert actually constituted an exciting leap of faith as I was not familiar with The North/South Chamber Orchestra, the Christ & St Stephen's Church, the various composers or the program's works. But the venue is in my neighborhood and the concert was free, so why not go check out what was going on there in the company of my intrepid friend Ruth?

Every time I go to a contemporary music performance and do not know the œuvre of the composers on the program, I always brace myself, just in case. Today, however, this precaution turned out to be completely unnecessary as the music was filling up the understated, lovely little Episcopal church. The North/South Chamber Orchestra may be refreshingly casual in its look, but there was nothing even remotely nonchalant in their playing, and nothing off-putting in what they were playing either. The first piece, "Ho scritto una canzone" by Italian composer Ada Gentile, could not have been more welcoming, all pretty melodies and soothing mood, with a heart-on-your-sleeve lyricism that would have made Tchaikovsky proud.
Then we moved on to the first-ever performance of "Sinfonietta", inspired by two Greek Orthodox prayers for children, was written especially for the orchestra by Tudor Dominik Maican, a former child prodigy from the Washington, DC area, who was born in Germany to Romanian parents. Besides being bombarded with prizes and commissions for the past few years, the 24-year-old is currently busy overseeing the rehearsals of his first opera in Romania, so he was not able to be with us to introduce this new work of his. We easily got into it nonetheless. The first movement's glowing strings beautifully described the unadulterated bliss found in heaven, and the second movement conjured up a highly rhythmical, care-free dance that ended on a triumphant chord. Nothing ground-breaking, but an engaging, solid crowd-pleaser.
Russian composer Margarita Zelenaia, on the other hand, had made it to the concert and graciously introduced her "Lamentation", which was having its US premiere this afternoon, as being inspired by the aria "Dido's Lament" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and which she had dedicated to the memory of Russian writer Chingiz Aiitmatov. That's when we switched from the generally uplifting mood of the first part of the concert to an on-going storm of urgency, turbulences, anguish, calm and instability. The solo violin was vibrantly played by Claudia Schaer while the cellos and bass added some unsettling dark shadows to the whole piece.
The last number on the program, "Expressions", was by no other that The North/South Chamber Orchestra's founder and conductor, Mexican composer, conductor and pianist Max Lifchitz. The four movements succeeded one another fast and lean, four drastically distinct parts of a harmonious whole. It all started with the Expressivo's melodic power, continued with the Scherzo's jagged aggressiveness, went on with the Dramatico con calore's convoluted passion, and ended with the Dolce's newly found serenity. This concluded our short but delightful concert with a wide array of colorful sounds and heart-felt emotions, and helped us revive our spirits to finish off the weekend.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Nico Muhly & Pekka Kuusisto - Bach, Pärt, Glass & Muhly - 01/03/14

Bach: Partita for Violin Solo No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 - Allemande
Pärt: Fratres
Bach: Partita for Violin Solo No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 - Courante
Glass: The Orchard
Bach: Partita for Violin Solo No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 - Sarabande
Muhly: Drones & Violin
Bach: Partita for Violin Solo No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 - Gigue
Muhly: Drones & Piano
Bach: Partita for Violin Solo No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 - Chaconne
Traditional Finnish songs

After my 2013 ended with Rachmaninoff's magnificent All-Night Vigil in the landmark Trinity Church on Wall Street, my 2014 started with New York composer/pianist Nico Muhly and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto performing an intriguing smorgasbord of musical works in the Village underground venue Le Poisson Rouge last night. Not a bad transition into the new year and the future, although I hadn't planned the mercilessly frigid temperature as the city was still recovering from its first and big snow storm of the season.
Hotness oblige, Nico Muhly's name was first in the marketing material for this concert, but his adventurous buddy is a popular name in experimental music circles and others as well. As soon as the two casual-looking musicians took the stage yesterday evening, it became apparent that Kuusisto would actually be the one in the spotlight, whether he was tackling head-on the five movements of Bach's monumental Partita No. 2, charming the audience while talking about the program, or simply thanking Le Poisson Rouge's management for ordering the typical Finnish weather that was making him feel right at home.

Before the concert started, Kuusisto explained that he had decided to have the five movements of Bach's Partita interspersed with short contemporary pieces in order to make the work appear less "massive". Also, it does not hurt that the timelessness of Bach's music guarantees that it can easily adapt to all sorts of idiosyncratic arrangements. And the fact is, the fearless duo did manage to make each one of those pieces seamlessly blend into the Partita's movement that had preceded it. The effect was organic and cool, even if we had to do with semi-funky acoustics.
Arvo Pärt's "Fratres" is famous for its sublime combination of frenzy and serenity, which of course may bring up all kinds of existential questions. One can, however, also just marvel at the composition's intrinsic beauty, which impeccably transcends time and place, and gives the work its universal quality. The magic unquestionably happened in the packed club last night, when the haunting piano and the intense violin treated the captive audience to 10 minutes of musical bliss.
Although Philip Glass' "The Orchard" does not depart from the composer's signature minimalism, it does refrain from using repetitions and instead offers stunningly lyrical lines for the violin. They were gorgeously rendered yesterday, fully displaying their long-winded melancholy over the piano's achingly broken chords.
There was nothing militaristic about Nico Muhly's "Drones & Violin" and "Drones & Piano", but there were plenty of fascinating harmonic intricacies. This ever-evolving but always minimalist mix of musical instruments and genres, which included evocations of everyday noises and some actual brief chanting, sounded both inconspicuously avant-garde and unexpectedly relatable, like experiencing a new cacophony of familiar sounds for the very first time.
The official program ended with Bach's Chaconne. Even though he had been handling quite a few demanding pieces up to that moment, Kuusisto faced this new challenge with poise, virtuosity and a whole lotta love. His Chaconne unfolded almost leisurely while remaining incisive and colorful. A major final bang to a rather atmospheric concert.

But we were not quite done yet. Since we had Finnish weather outside and a Finnish musician inside, we had to have some Finnish music. The first song was all low-key sweetness while the second one was an infectious dance tune. Strumming his violin as he was singing, Kuusisto eventually picked up his bow for the last few notes of the performance, reminding us all that he is first and foremost a world-class fiddler of all trades. After just over an hour of music, I was back on an even more eerily quiet and bitterly cold Bleecker Street, which efficiently prolonged my Finnish evening.