Since the early zeros, virtuoso violist Ljova a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin has built one of the most colorfully eclectic repertoires of any string player anywhere. Lush, enveloping film themes, tangos, wild Russian string band music, original arrangements of some of the ancient folk themes that Stravinsky drew on for the Rite of Spring, and hypnotic loopmusic are just the tip of the iceberg. Thursday night, Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh was clearly psyched to have him back after having booked his high-voltage, cinematic Kontraband a few years back. To her, Ljova is fam – and as he confided late in the show, he and his kids became big fans of the mostly-weekly free concerts here. This time out, joined by a brilliant and similarly diverse cast from the worlds of latin music, classical and the avant garde, he aired out some of the rarer material in his ever-increasingly vast songbook.
Using a loop pedal, he built the night’s opening piece, Say It from a gorgeously bittersweet, Gershwinesque four-chord riff to a soaring, bittersweet anthem: it was like watching a one-man string quartet, bolstered by the cello-like low end from his signature six-string fadolin. He’s come a long way since that cold night at Barbes a few years back where he broke out the pedal in concert for the very first time.
Another solo piece, Healing, was dedicated to his late friend, the great tango pianist Octavio Brunetti – whose final show, Zhurbin noted, was across the campus at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. With Zhurbin bowing on and off the low strings and inducing skittish high harmonics, its wounded austerity shifted in and out of focus, a subtle showcase for the violist’s vaunted technique.
“I’d like to start inviting people up here in batches,” Zhurbin grinned, as cellist Yves Dharamraj, violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Ariana Kim joined him for a series of ballet pieces. Asha, dedicated to legendary Indian playback singer Asha Bhosle, echoed one of the Bach cello suites. Melting River, the title track from his 2013 one-man band recording, seamlessly blended the High Romantic with Philip Glass-ine minimalism.
Zhurbin was in top form as cynical raconteur, explaining that when he was in music school, those who deviated from twelve-tone severity were dismissed as potential film composers. So he decided to try his hand at an ad jingle or two. Window Cleaner, which he and the group delivered live for only the second time ever, was the night’s most irresistibly amusing piece, shifting from brooding Russian Romanticism – dirty windows? – to a swinging romp through a shiny faux French musette.
Bassist Pedro Giraudo had joined the ensemble by the time they got to Mecklenburg, another ballet number, which was far more serious, considering it originated as an improvisation and attempt to get the kids running around the room at an upstate house concert to chill out. But by the end, it seems the kids had won, as the circling motives gave way to latin flair.
Violinist Melissa Tong and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Nicholas and cellist Joshua Roman took the stage with the rest of the ensemble for the final three numbers. The high point of the evening was The Comet, a swirling, turbulent, troubled piece written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. Through its muted images of troops massing on the border to a volcano of leaping, jarring, searingly atonal riffs, it brought to mind the work of Kurdish composer and kamancheh mastermind Kayhan Kalhor, with whom Zhurbin has worked in the past. He’d premiered it as a loopmusic piece on that same that cold night at Barbes in 2016.
They closed with Holodomor, a wounded, elegaic narrative of the deadly displacement of Russian peasants under Stalin, and then a surrealistically bittersweet, punchy string band approximation of Balkan brass music dedicated to the late composer Harris Wulfson, an old Golden Fest pal, It’s hard to think of any other composer other than Ljova writing as fluently and playfully across so many styles.
This year’s mostly-weekly free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. winds up on Dec 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic tropicalia dancefloor personality Miss Yaya; get there early if you’re going.