New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Wins by Unanimous Verdict

How do you judge an orchestra? Here’s one way: bring a posse of critical listeners, all of whom either play music, or at least used to. It didn’t take them long to return a unanimous verdict on the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s all-Dvorak performance yesterday, which should be no surprise: the GVO is well-respected, but especially among musicians. The most lukewarm endorsement came from the singer from across the river, whose passion is three-minute songcraft rather than extended orchestrations: as much as this was not her usual cup of tea, she found the concert enjoyable and relaxing. On the other hand, the esteemed Brooklyn rocker and the lone member of the posse who’s been a regular at GVO concerts since the 90s, marvelled at the performance, and was particularly blown away by cello soloist Na-Young Baek’s fluidity and seamlessness with the orchestra on the Dvorak Cello Concerto.

The crew’s harshest critic, a Lower East Side tunesmith who prefers chamber music - especially the string quartet repertoire - to larger-scale symphonic works, began by trying to figure out the time signature of the Dvorak Symphonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 8 that opened the bill, and ended up being won over by the orchestra. “Let me rephrase what I said about not liking brass,” he clarified. “I do like brass, if it’s well done. Like these guys,” referring to their passionately but meticulously articulated final movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. And the most enthusiastic endorsement came from the former punk rock bandleader who’s been known to get a little lifted before shows. “Who needs drugs?” she scoffed. “This music is a drug.”

Personally speaking, from the point of view of someone whose passion for classical music was initially fueled by dollar vinyl from street fairs and the old Tower discount outlet, this concert was akin to the movie Pleasantville, like finally being able to see in color after years of black-and-white. Some of those old dollar records weren’t particularly well-recorded, so being able to witness this orchestra’s crystalline clarity was literally an eye-opener. They have a soft spot for Dvorak because he’s from their hood: he taught at a music school just a couple of blocks away from the Irving Place auditorium where the GVO holds their concerts. And they did his work skillfully, accentuating the subtleties and minimizing the occasional drift toward bombast. For example, consider the final movement of the Cello Concerto: if you watch old movies, you’ve heard this before (this youtube clip doesn’t do justice to the GVO version). It’s a big-cheese theme – quick, everybody into your cubicles and look busy, here comes the boss! – and it typically gets played rather broadly. But this orchestra didn’t do it broadly: instead, conductor Barbara Yahr led them on a casual walking pace rather than a swagger. And when the strings rose as the final ascent began, it wasn’t a simple, predictable swell: they gave it a minutely fluttering apprehension, with microtones clearly audible in the mix! A prime example of the kind of magic that gets lost in translation from youtube to earbuds…or in the dusty grooves of a record.

Baek’s performance on the Cello Concerto was as one with the rest of the group: she blended into it perfectly. If you know a classical work, it’s always fun to play conductor and figure out what sections you’d single out for the orchestra to really dig deeply into. There are three instances in this one where the cello takes a variation on the theme and hands it over to the high woodwinds, and every time the turnover was executed with a precision that stopped just this side of unrestrained joy. The same applied to the final handoff, where Dvorak very cleverly flips the script and sends it back the opposite way, through the basses to the cello, and no one involved let on about what was about to happen until the transition was already underway.

As the program notes alluded, much of Dvorak is far more brooding and grim than this particular bill. It might be an overstatement to characterize the entire performance as classical party music, but much of it was. And where it wasn’t – the lush nocturne, and then the austere waltz in the Symphony – it put the good cheer in perspective, all of it choreographed with perfect clarity from one section of the orchestra to the next. For example, timpani is not one of that piece’s focal points, nor is it particularly loud when it appears: but whenever it came around, it was brightly arresting, impossible to ignore. When the ensemble came to the final movement, Yahr visibly held the strings in check, as if to say, hold your horses, it’s not your turn yet, you’ll get yours when the time comes. At the end, she finally let them go, throwing caution to the wind and being rewarded for her trust in them as they stampeded for the finish line.

The GVO’s next concert, November 20 at 3 PM, is a return to their usual eclecticism: the unselfconsciously beautiful overture from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and Moussourgsky’s creepy Pictures at an Exhibition.

M Shanghai String Band Serenades Robin Hoffman’s Illustrations at the Jalopy

Great musical scenes usually get chronicled by their era’s most happening visual artists. Consider: Toulouse-Lautrec in the Paris cabarets in the 1800s; Bob Gruen in and around CBGB in the late 70s; and Robin Hoffman at the Jalopy in the late zeros and teens. If you’re a musician in the New York Americana roots scene, and lucky enough to have been in her illustrations- if you’ve played the Jalopy in the last three years, you probably have – you’ve seen yourself in action, intent on your craft, in motion. Hoffman is one of those artists who is able to perfectly capture the essence of a musician in just a few deft brushstrokes. The best of her pencil-and-watercolor sketches currently on display at the Jalopy – which just turned five years old - catches the Roulette Sisters in classic poses: resonator guitarist Mamie dipping just a bit, raising her eyebrows; guitarist Meg just thisclose to deadpan but having a great time; violist Karen unselfconsciously lost in the music, and washboardist Megan holding down the rhythm with a grin. Then there’s Craig Chesler smiling, chilling, playing ukulele; the Newton Gang in characteristically intense mode, even in a rare acoustic setting; Kelli Rae Powell off to the side while her band wails, wryly smiling as she hits what’s probably another devious double entendre; the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues careening through yet another boisterous solo; and the M Shanghai String Band’s offhandedly excellent clawhammer banjo player/singer in a couple of characteristically intense moments. These are just a few of the many new drawings Hoffman has on display at the Jalopy (she’s offering any print from this series, signed, for $30).

Friday night, the M Shanghai String Band played the opening party for Hoffman’s show. They’re well known, well-loved and well documented via Hoffman’s art, and supposedly the other day on the cover of the New York Post. Hoffman started drawing at the Jalopy simply because she’s in the neighborhood and it was a cool way for her to perfect her craft while her baby slept; likewise, M Shanghai have a community feel, having taken their name from the now-defunct Chinese restaurant whose basement was their original home. They seem to be a mix of everybody in Williamsburg who really loved oldtime country songs and string band music and decided to get together to create it, without regard to age, or whoever’s trust fund was most extravagant, or who happened to have the lowest body-fat percentage or could go the most consecutive years without taking a shower. If you listen closely, you hear references to the Q train or other New York institutions in their songs: they’re literally taking oldtime acoustic country music to new places. Frontwoman Philippa Thompson played a neat solo on the spoons; resonator guitarist Austin Hughes turned in one casual, cool urban country tune after another, often punctuated by Jalopy regular Shakey Dave Pollack’s soulful, tersely bluesy harmonica. Because the show was right after work, they didn’t seem to have the full contingent onstage, but no matter: it was a trip to a different world.

So if you’re new to the Jalopy, prepare to enter that world. Let your guard down. It’s a good place. Forget the horrible experience you just had at Arlene’s, or at Pianos last week: the Jalopy is warm and welcoming. The moment you walk in the door, you could be making new friends. For the moment, Hoffman’s exhibit is still up the club, an extra good reason to make the trip.

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