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.

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