New York Music Daily

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Otherworldly Central Asian Ensemble Alash Bring Their Throat-Singing Alchemy to Midtown

In the perennially popular demimonde of Tuvan throat-singing ensembles, Alash are akin to what Huun-Huur-Tu were doing in the early days before they were discovered by the ambient and techno crowds. At this point, Alash’s music is both more rustic and upbeat than their grey-sky brethren’s recent work. The trio of multi-instrumentalist/singers Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-Ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik also distinguish themselves with a puckish sense of humor that really comes across in their live show. Their latest album Achai is streaming at Spotify; the World Music Institute is bringing them to Merkin Concert Hall on Oct 1 at 7:30 PM for $25.

For newcomers to the genre, or those who haven’t tried throat-singing themselves (it’s not that difficult), music from the central Asian steppes is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Flute melodies sail over clanky, trebly acoustic doshpuluur and chanzy lutes, and frequently, clicking percussion instruments made from animal bones while the singers create strange, high harmonics oscillating from the back of their throats. Some of the melodies utilize the Asian pentatonic scale, but more often than not they don’t. Alash like methodically crescendoing one-chord jams, but also tend to keep their songs on the short side. This album makes a good introduction.

The first track, For My Son, sets a super-low bass vocal melody beneath what’s essentially a brisk boogie blues guitar tune – it’s amazing how low these guys can sing. The flute-and-guitar tune Let’s Fatten the Livestock starts out with a whisper and builds to a mighty, bullish anthem, then rises and falls with a spring breeze of a flute solo.

Stark, bluegrass-ish igil two-string fiddle wafts over delicate guitar fingerpicking on the next track, Don’t Let Me Freeze, which never slides into the terror it alludes to. The briskly strolling Karachal is a launching pad for some pretty spectacular low-register vocals: unlike other groups, Alash sing actual lyrics, not just vocalese, from the stygian depths of their registers!

Mezheegei has a grimly cinematic, windswept feel punctuated by delicate guitar and flute over resonant fiddle. Only You is a spare, brooding accordion waltz. The long, slow, moody ballad Kosh-Oi and Torgalyg is the catchiest, most anthemic number here.

The Black Bird has a hypnotically galloping bounce, while My Throat the Cuckoo  is a droll, catchy exercise in birdsong riffs. The album’s title track is its darkest and most atmospheric, while the final cut, Let’s Relax, is its gentlest yet most epic. There’s also a perambulating flute-and-percussion solo and a pensive, overtone-spiced atmospheric fiddle-and-vocal piece. Count this as one of the most strangely beguiling albums of recent months.

Pianist Leann Osterkamp Plays One For the History Books at Steinway Hall

A major moment in the history of classical music in New York took place last night at Steinway Hall, where Leann Osterkamp gave a breathtaking and often breathless performance of Leonard Bernstein works for solo piano. Had such a program ever been staged in this city? Definitely not in the last thirty years, possibly never. There have been thousands of all-Bernstein programs performed here over the decades, and Bernstein conducted a handful of those from the piano. But beyond playing for his friends and family, it’s not clear if the composer himself ever gave a solo recital here.

Even Osterkamp, whose new Steinway album comprises all kinds of rare Bernstein solo works which she unearthed during some herculean research at the Library of Congress, couldn’t solve that mystery. If this was in fact a first, it was one worthy of the composer. As Nancy Garniez has asserted, a composer’s private works can be even more interesting than those written for public performance, and some of these pieces were exactly that. One of the most revealing numbers was written for his daughter Jamie, who was in the audience. On one hand, Osterkamp reveled in its lively, balletesque passages, but she also gave every considered ounce of gravitas to its knotty, pensively workmanlike explorations in Second Viennese School melodicism.

That lighthearted/rigorous dichotomy pervaded much of the rest of the material. Many of the pieces were miniatures, including a concluding set of five of Bernstein’s Seven Anniveraries. Osterkamp revealed how rather than being written with specific friends in mind, Bernstein had devised them as a suite of neo-baroque dance numbers: they’d been kicking around his “song junkyard” for years before the composer started doling them out as presents.

Much of the material on the album has never been previously recorded. Who knew that Bernstein wrote a piano sonata? That he could actually play its jackhammer staccato and whirlwind curlicues at age twenty is impressive, to say the least, and Osterkamp held up her end mightily. There’s also a lingering deep-sky passage in the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from the final movement of the Quartet For the End of Time.

Wait – Messiaen hadn’t written that yet. Which speaks to the astonishing range of idioms Bernstein had assimilated by that time. Was this juvenalia? In the sense that it’s gratuitously cross-genre and showoffy, sure. But it was also a rewarding glimpse into the young composer’s mindset.

The rest of the program followed suit, from enigmatic twelve-tone-ish romps that recalled Bernstein’s contemporary Vincent Persichetti, to the briefest flicker of West Side Story riffage that flashed by in what seemed like a nanosecond. Osterkamp couldn’t resist telling the crowd to keep their eyes open for that one.

She played the concert on a Spirio, Steinway’s analog player piano which can deliver both perfect playback of what’s just been played on it, as well as dynamically nuanced versions of the hours and hours of digital “rolls” available. She left it alone to recreate Bernstein’s own interpretation of Ravel while video of the actual performance, from Paris in the late 50s, played on the screen overhead. For pretty much everyone in the crowd, it was as close to seeing Bernstein himself playing solo onstage as we’ll ever get.