Sunday, September 28, 2014

New York Classical Players - Rachmaninoff, Bartok & Beethoven - 09/27/14

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14
Bartok: Divertimento for String Orchestra, Op. BB118
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (NYCP edition, arr. by David Schneider) - Itamar Zorman

After a peculiar Friday evening with the amplified strings of Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, I was very much looking forward to spending a more conventional Saturday evening with the pristine strings of the New York Classical Players. "Conventional", however, never means predictable or boring when it comes to this tight group of young musicians talented way beyond their years. And if they typically create their program from a solidly classical repertoire, you can always count on the execution to be technically assured and refreshingly vibrant, often bearing their own special touch.
True to form, their first concert series of the season, which as always was free, presented time-tested values such as Rachmaninoff, Bartok and Beethoven, with the latter's violin concerto having just been arranged for them. Enticed by such an attractive proposition, my Russian friend Julia, with a small international entourage of young adults in tow, decided to join me yesterday evening, smack in the middle of a decidedly summery weekend, and we all met up in the rather minimalist but indiscriminatingly welcoming Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side, right around the corner from the Juilliard School.

The last of Rachmaninoff's "Fourteen Songs", "Vocalise" does not have any words, and evidently does not need any to make an immediate impact. Whether actually sung with one vowel or performed with instruments only, this six-minute little jewel never fails to shine its discreetly seductive colors in many different ways, depending on the combination being used. Last night we expectedly heard the string ensemble version of it, and the delicately haunting quality of the music immediately earned Julia's spontaneous and unreserved Russian seal of approval.
Then we moved to Hungary for Bartok and his mood-swinging "Divertimento for String Orchestra". There was actually a lot going on in this somewhat deceptively named composition, and all was not fun and games. Book-ended by two admittedly exuberant movements, the middle one distinguished itself by its slow pace, dark mood, dissonant sounds and sharp contrasts. Undaunted by the numerous challenges and soundly conducted by Dongmin Kim's spot on baton, the orchestra admirably handled the work's numerous twists and turns before coming out a total winner.
Although it was not popular when it first came out, Beethoven's formidable violin concerto needs no introductions these days. Although the version we heard yesterday was brand new, it respectfully kept the irrepressible spirit of the original masterpiece alive and well while being perfectly adapted to the reduced orchestra at hand. Young but already much praised and in high demand all around the world, violinist Itamar Zorman brought invigorating spontaneity and rigorous technique to the proceedings, resolutely giving this concerto the virtuosic treatment it so deserves. Although the spotlight remained on the soloist as soon as he had made his entrance, The NYCP delivered a robust performance that could not but beautifully bring the whole piece together.

As it was becoming obvious that our enthusiastic applause was going to be rewarded, I briefly wondered: "What on earth do you play after the Beethoven violin concerto?!" Well, you go back to the man with whom it all began of course, and that's just what the unstoppable Itamar Zorman did with a stunning Largo from Bach's Sonata in C Major. As it clearly could not get any better than that, we all called it a night and headed back to the still unusually warm reality.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Laurie Anderson for Kronos Quartet - Landfall - 09/26/14

Laurie Anderson: Landfall

When two long-time tirelessly adventurous musical forces such as Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet finally decide to get to work on a long overdue collaborative effort, it is hard not to be curious about the end result. That's why yesterday evening I found myself crossing the East River to appropriately oh so cool Brooklyn and its beautifully restored historic BAM Harvey Theater, whose main focus is, incidentally, contemporary performances.
The inspiration for the intermission-free, 70-minute composition for electric string quartet, amplified voice and electronics was partly Hurricane Sandy, which in its ruthless path of destruction also happened to flood Laurie Anderson's basement, sending all her mementos floating on the water and prompting her to link the loss of some of her work to the stories she had been working on with the quartet. From the look of it, the program could not but resonate with New Yorkers, certainly enough to have a five-day run in the sizable venue, but it unquestionably had a universal appeal as well.

The evening ended up being musically satisfying, albeit sometimes unnecessarily repetitive and slightly puzzling. In the steadily unfolding score one could easily notice some classically lyrical moments, a few deeply grating sounds, plenty of eerie computerized utterances and the occasional pop-up surprise, such as a short and infectious Middle-Eastern dance tune. A lot of it though, was imbued by confusion and melancholy, with an unmistakable hint of futurism thrown in, not the least because everybody's instrument was plugged in.
The visual element of the performance, a blank background screen on which from time to time appeared fragments of text and icons, added to the feeling of chaos and randomness. I am not sure its presence was always necessary, but on the other hand, I have to admit that, for example, the series of words being generated on it at the breakneck speed created by violinist John Sherba's erratic playing had an intriguing otherworldly quality to it.
The irrepressible Ms. Anderson, who was unperturbedly presiding over the happenings, also fulfilled the double duty of electric viola player and mesmerizing, unpredictable speaking voice. She took full advantage of the latter to deliver casual anecdotes about, among other things, the irrelevance of other people's dreams, her attempt to sing in Korean in a Dutch karaoke bar, the project of cataloging all the extinct species - with the actual list unfolding on the screen - and the fascinating letter Aleph, with her trademark dead-pan humor.
The fearless musicians of the Kronos Quartet were constantly busy all evening too, although they did not get much of an opportunity to display their remarkable chops. The music did not sound particularly challenging for such seasoned pros, and it did not have enough of a truly emotional impact to register deeply. It was, however, extremely efficient at creating a very atmospheric performance, which made the sporadic highlights stand out even more.
The capacity crowd gave the performers an enthusiastic ovation, although it was unclear if they were saluting the commendable effort or the overall enjoyable, sometimes riveting, but not undisputedly flawless, result.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Gregg Kallor: Piano Music - 09/16/14

Greg Kallor: Excerpts from A Single Noon
A Single Noon
Broken Sentences
Straphanger's Lurch
Espresso Nirvana
Ginastera: Dance of the Old Shepherd
Bartok: Bulgarian Dance No 6
Rachmaninoff: Prelude Op. 32, No 12
Scriabin: Feuillet d'album
Greg Kallor: Untitled
Greg Kallor: Ballerina gone bad
Greg Kallor: The good kind of crazy

After an exhilarating Mahlerian feast uptown on Monday night, 24 hours later I was heading down Broadway to the historic neighborhood of NoHo for a more sedate evening of piano music at Subculture. That’s where the house's newly appointed composer-in-residence, Gregg Kallor, would help celebrate the first anniversary of the cool underground music and performing arts venue. For the occasion, the seats were placed almost full circle around the piano, the dimmed lights emphasized the cozy atmosphere of the intimate space and the mood was decidedly casual, as if everybody was ready to enjoy an informal get-together with old friends and new music.

Living in New York City has often been described as a constant and priceless source of inspiration for artists of all kinds, and Gregg Kallor seems to agree with that statement too if we are to believe the excerpts from his recent solo recording A single Noon that opened the concert and were the hands-down highlight of the performance.
Inconspicuously starting the concert with a nonchalant stride, the title track was soft and understated, like those oases of peace and quiet that are typically so hard to find in an urban environment, and all the more savored for it. This was a bit unexpected for the opening of a tribute to the Big Apple, but it set a clean canvas for the colorful turbulence to come.
And sure enough, "Broken Sentences" and its rebellious spikes of energy rowdily exploded and threw us right into the hustle and bustle of downtown during rush hour before we knew it. Welcome to real city life!
As Kallor explained it himself, "Straphanger's Lurch" is about his refusal to hold on to the poles in the subway cars, which naturally prompts all sorts of disasters, each of which was funnier than the next, as soon as the conductor hit the brakes. Accordingly, a feeling of instability, but also excitement, permeated the piece and made it the most whimsical nugget of the set.
Then, we were back to a calmer state of mind with "Found", which conjured up a pensive mood that extended leisurely, almost as if time, this precious New York commodity, had become irrelevant.
"Espresso Nirvana", his self-confessed "ode to caffeine", was predictably fast-paced, quirky fun, but also had some downbeat times. Granted, they never lasted long, and then we were off to another delirious jaunt.
If Gregg Kallor The Composer was clearly inspired, Gregg Kallor The Pianist was equally apt at impeccably mixing sharp classical exactness with debonair jazz coolness. It is probably a safe bet to assume that A Single Noon was premiered at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in 2011 primarily due to its solidly classical pedigree, but this totally engrossing "tableau of life in New York City" could easily headline The Village Vanguard too.
Although it felt like the main course had been served before the hors d'œuvres, the evening winding down nicely with, among other goodies, some familiar names, such as Bartok with a vivacious rendition of his Bulgarian Dance No 6 as well as Rachmaninoff and a wistfully melancholic Prelude Op. 32, No 12. Those were a couple of pieces that Kallor "wished he had written" and his informed approach to those old favorites made us appreciate his technique and their appeal even more.
He had also composed three short works especially for Subculture, which we got to hear ahead of the rest of the world. The first one was still untitled and had a wandering feel to it; it was followed by a "Ballerina gone bad", although her badness was still attractive, if uneven, while "The good kind of crazy" oozed positive vibes and was dedicated to the well-deserving staff at Subculture.

The enthusiastic ovation earned us a memorable encore, which started as a ballad before taking a dramatic turn for the better and compellingly concluding a very busy hour. Happy Anniversary, Subculture!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Music Mondays - Gustav Mahler: After Nine - 09/15/14

Conductor: Michel Galante
Matthew Ricketts: After Nine: Fantasia on Mahler - Argento Chamber Ensemble
Taylor Brook: Arrhythmia - JACK Quartet
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (arr. Klaus Simon) - Argento Chamber Ensemble

Now that summer has gone for good and real life has unquestionably resumed, cultural organizations are busily kicking off their 2014-2015 season. Few of them, however, are doing it with such bold ambition as Music Mondays, which had invited two of the most innovative groups of musicians around - the Argento Chamber Ensemble and the JACK Quartet - to perform a program focusing on no less than a rarely performed chamber version of Mahler’s Symphony No 9 as well as two short modern compositions inspired by its first movement for good measure.
The intimate space of the pretty Advent Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side providing the perfect setting for such an exciting occasion, I found myself liking Mondays after all as I was taking my seat among an overflowing crowd, which included people piling up on the balcony while others were resigning themselves to standing room on the main level.

The evening started on a subdued note with the Matthew Ricketts’ discreetly atmospheric "After Nine", a kind of orchestral version of the original work which featured two pianos and two percussions. On Monday night, a small group of musicians from the Argento joined forces with a solo pianist and a solo timpanist to create an occasionally discombobulated mood that would eventually get a healthy dose of reality when the earthy strings resolutely fused into a fierce crescendo smack in the middle of the work for an uneven but still rewarding journey.
Speaking of strings, some could be heard at their most gritty and assertive in Taylor Brook’s "Arrhythmia", whose wild, highly textured ways were a fitting tribute to Mahler’s constantly searching mindset. The formidable musicians of the JACK Quartet, for whom the piece was created, readily threw themselves right into the thick of the turbulent action to deliver an urgent and virtuosic performance.
After a short intermission finally came the star of the evening with Klaus Simon's arrangement of Mahler's Ninth, which, if nothing else, must be commended for keeping the overall structure and the general spirit of the sprawling original pretty much intact despite its obvious limitations (On the other hand, did it really need an accordion? Probably not). And equally commended must be the Argento musicians for playing the still fiendishly complex score with so much brilliance and eloquence, all the way to an achingly beautiful finale and a rousing ovation. My season has started well.