New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

The Mimesis Ensemble Plays Vigorous, Dynamic Andalucian-Inspired Premieres at NYU

Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Mimesis Ensemble delivered an insightful, often irresistibly fun, historically vivid performance of Spanish-themed works by Ravel as well as two New York premieres by Mohammed Fairouz. Violin soloist Rachel Barton Pine stunned the crowd with her wildfire cadenzas, rapidfire riffage and hair-raising high harmonics throughout the second Fairouz premiere, the violin concerto Al Andalus.

Fairouz’s music is as colorful and vividly lyrical as he is prolific – and he’s very prolific. And he doesn’t’ shy away from political relevance or controversy. This triptych was typical, and it made a tantalizing launching pad for Pine’s virtuoso sorcery. The first movement, Ibn Furnas’ Flight referenced the legendary eighth-century poet and philosopher whose attempt at human flight may be apocryphal, or may have made him the world’s first successful hang-gliding enthusiast. Expressive flutes and aggressively dancing motives leaping up throughout the orchestra contrasted with a muted low resonance, tension and suspense juxtaposed with moments of sheer joy, and a brief bolero. As the music told it, Furnas eventually got to take to the sky, but getting there wasn’t easy.

The second movement, meant to evoke a love poem by the 11th century intellectual Ibn-Ham, made a stark contrast with its slow, spacious, considered minimalist introduction and moody minor-key atmospherics that alluded to Middle Eastern modes more than it actually employed them. The final movement drew on a famous homoerotic poem, jaunty yet suspenseful, full of humor and drollery, from pianist Katie Reimer’s salsa-tinged tumbles, to a snippet of Hava Nagila and a big, pulsing, tango-flavored crescendo. Conductor Laura Jackson did an adrenalized ballet of sorts on the podium, seemingly willing the music to life with her muscles as  as much as with her baton.

Fairouz himself conducted the other premiere, his Pax Universalis. In the program notes, he cited the piece’s carefree pageantry as the most lighthearted thing he’s ever written, and he was right about that. Echoes of Afrobeat and bubbly 1930s Hollywood film music livened the theme, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s concept of a universal peace fueled by citizen engagement, as opposed to a truce enforced by a major world power.

Jackson and the group set the tone for the evening with Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole: she really had them on their toes as they slunk their way suspensefully through the opening nocturne into the series of folk dance-themed variations that followed. This was all about tension and then a payoff, as the music rose and fell, through liltingly rhythmic crescendos and a triumphant conclusion. Then they tackled the Ravel Bolero, which actually isn’t a bolero at all: it’s basically a vamp, a one-chord jam. And it’s a real challenge to play, whether you’re one of the winds or strings who have to pedal the endless rhythmic pulses that push it along, or you’re picking up the melody for a fleeting few seconds. Everyone did their part, seamlessly: the only thing missing was Grace Slick belting, “Feed your head!”

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays One for the Ages

The buzz after the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert yesterday evening was that they’d just made their definitive live album. There were mics prominently set up toward the front at Murray Hill’s sonically magnificent Church of the Incarnation: if the recording is in any kind of decent shape, they’ve got as good a representation as anything the New York Philharmonic have ever put out. Some audience members credited this sleek, insightful, literally flawless performance to the church’s sonics. Others more cynical considered that the shock of having to adjust to new digs might have jarred the ensemble into one of their firest performances of recent years, considering that their usual Irving Place home base is currently shuttered and under repairs in the wake of a fire.

Whatever the case, conductor Barbara Yahr led the group through an exquisite performance. They opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo, Andres Cardenes the soloist on violin. Playing from memory, he approached the music with a purposeful drive and a subtlety of tone, very light on the vibrato and incisive rather than keening, in a Yehudi Menuhin vein. Yahr’s interpretation of the Agadio was as a pillowy nocturne, strings and winds so seamless that they seemed like one single, plush instrument. Sometimes Mozart gets carried away with his stereo effects, but not in the Rondo, and the orchestra matched that subtlety, both with dynamics and detail, Cardenes sailing overhead.

Interestingly, the program notes mentioned how Max Bruch had some doubts about how to characterize his Violin Concerto No. 1. Was it contiguous enough to be a real concerto, or is it just, say, some kind of partita or fantasy? Bruch’s virtuoso violinist pal Joseph Joachim reassured him that it was plenty cohesive enough. Which is kind of funny, because it’s sort of all over the place… in a good way. It’s a study in contrasts, amplified by both orchestra and soloist, tenderness juxtaposed against a marching theme that, after a lustrous, meticulously moody, spaciously paced second movement, takes a long upward climb toward a rather droll coda. It made a good segue with the Mozart.

Yahr explained to the crowd that she saw Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “The Reformation” as cycle of transformation on a very personal level, mirroring the religious paradigm shift that the composer sought to illustrate. We don’t know for certain, but some think that Mendelssohn didn’t think too highly of it since it was never published in his lifetime. What became crystal clear from the moment the orchestra launched into it is how clever, and often very funny, it is. It’s a big shout-out to Bach and has the same kind of drama as the St. Matthew Passion, with quotes from both Bach and the German Lutheran hymnal deftly interspersed amidst the increasing drama. Typical Mendelssohnian ebullience and optimism took a dip into a stately waltz and then an absolutely luscious, cantabile third movement before rise to epically anthemic proportions that had Yahr, usually a very meticulous and composed presence on the podium, caught it up its irresistible sway. Forget the album for a minute: this would have made a great DVD.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on May 22 at 3 PM, with works by Gershwin, Hindemith, Mozart and Tschaikovsky’s Capriccio Italian, the fantastic trumpeter Brandon Ridenour as soloist at a venue TBA. Watch this space.