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Category: 21st century music

The New York Composers Circle Keep the Creative Torch Burning Through Troubled Times

Last night at the cozy little Church of the Transfiguration on East 29th Street, the New York Composers Circle staged an intriguing performance of five world premieres and a New York premiere that featured a persistent unease as well as moments of puckish humor and considerable outside-the-box imagination.

Pianist Craig Ketter opened the concert with Hubert Howe‘s Moments of Uncertainty, which followed a staggered, increasingly spacious, warily Messiaenic call-and-response through a series of subtle dynamic shifts, some of them increasingly stark and minimalist. In less prosaic terms, a cautious stroll through a briar patch: daunting, but doable with care, as Ketter made sure.

He followed with four preludes and fugues from the second collection that Dary John Mizelle had written to keep himself entertained during the lockdown. Stern blues and oldtime gospel riffs in oddly strolling tempos would disintegrate into atonal ambiguity or push up against a steady, grimly looped walking bassline. A tongue-in-cheek sensibility sometimes percolated to the surface amid the thorns, especially in the baroque gestures of the fugues.

Bill Zito played Richard Brooks‘ Sonata for Guitar, a harmonically biting pavane descending to lithe fingerpicking and back as the first movement warmed with some Elizabethan tinges. The remainder of the work was an acerbic blend of baroque stairstepping with wry jazz phrasing, hints of flamenco and some welcome, recurringly humorous bits.

After the intermission, Ketter returned to the piano for Roger Blanc‘s Fantasy Variations, which the composer described as an attempt to get “maximum bang for buck” out of a seven-note scale. Uneasy close harmonies persisted in the opening stroll, which became more of a hauntingly hypnotic, rising and falling march. Ketter reveled casually in the fanged chromaties of the warily swinging fugue that followed. Blanc invested his buck well here.

Guitarist Oren Fader played Igor Vorobyov’s 2019 piece Elegy in the Old Style, a New York premiere springboarded by the Composers Circle’s ongoing cultural exchange with some of their Moscow colleagues. A call-and-response between spiky harmonics and spare, broodingly resonant chords harked back to Scriabin, an unexpected influence for guitar music. As Fader alternated between steady cascades and a brooding, spacious minimalism, it became a pensive ballad, interrupted.

The final piece on the bill was Consolations, a solo piano partita by Dana Dimitri Richardson. Ketter methodically parsed an increasingly agitated, chromatically-charged ballad for angst and rippling poignancy, then found a missing link between Rachmaninoff and Mompou. The progression from chiming, insistent belltones to High Romantic echoes amid a clenched-teeth, syncopatedly punching drive was the high point of the night.

The third part came across as a somber mid 20th century homage to the Chopin E minor prelude, the fourth a ringing, resounding mashup of a Balkan funeral ballad, Russian romanticism and late-period Ligeti, maybe. It made for a darkly glittering driving coda.

The New York Composers Circle’s next concert is Nov 20 at 2 PM with a program of works-in-progress TBA at the National Opera Center’s 7th floor studio at 333 7th Ave. in midtown. Space is limited and a rsvp is a good idea

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A Dynamic, Rewarding Choral Concert at Trinity Church

Two and a half years ago, it was uncertain if choral music in New York that wasn’t clandestine would ever exist again. So it was rewarding to walk into Trinity Church yesterday to see the Downtown Voices and the Novus NY string quartet gathered together onstage, and to see hardly a single surgical mask amid an impressively sizeable crowd who’d assembled in the pews.

Yet it was ironic to the extreme to view the blue-and-gold color scheme – ubiquitously associated with lockdown propaganda in Europe, less so here – projected behind the choir and ensemble, on a day when news of a cryptocurrency ponzi scheme laundering American taxpayer money through Ukraine to the Democratic Party was exploding around the world.

The music was a welcome diversion. Reduced to most basic and prosaic terms, the theme was minimalism in counterpoint. The effect was at times hypnotic, at times entrancing and frequently exhilarating. The highlight of the evening was Ola Gjeilo‘s partita Dark and Luminous Night. Once the quartet had introduced a fleetingly uneasy theme, the choir joined in a series of kinetic peaks and icy lulls, conductor Stephen Sands leading them from just short of a stampede to echoes of dark European folk and heroic Romanticism.

A more quietly captivating if equally dynamic piece was an arrangement of Jessie Montgomery‘s Source Code for choir and string quartet. An anxious chromatic violin theme and variations stood out over a quiet drone, quite a contrast with the orchestral version that A Far Cry played in Central Park last summer. Infused with bluesy cello glissandos over stark sustained chords, the two groups descended to a hazier, more wary ambience and eventual whispery rapture.

The singers and quartet nimbly negotiated the subtle but rhythmically tricky and demandingly spacious, characteristically cell-like development of the concert’s centerpiece, David Lang‘s National Anthems. A soprano soloist who resonated over the methodically staggered pulse of her choirmates added an air of poignancy. Lyrically, this seemed less a celebration of sovereignty than a distantly troubled and disjointed prayer for liberation, a profoundly relevant work for our time.

The concert’s most traditional and briefest moment was a calmly nocturnal Undine Smith Moore arrangement of the spiritual We Shall Walk Through the Valley.

The next concert at Trinity Church is December 4 at 3 PM with Jamaican jazz piano legend Monty Alexander and his trio. Admission is free; it couldn’t hurt to get there about ten minutes early if you want a good seat.

A Picturesque, Darkly Kaleidoscopic Album of New Wendy Griffiths Piano Music

Wendy Griffiths is best known as the primary songwriter, lead singer and one of three keyboardists in brilliantly shapeshifting New York art-rock band Changing Modes. In addition to her eleven records with the band, she’s also a prolific classical composer who’s written ballet music, string quartets and works for piano. The latest album of Griffiths’ instrumental music is Views from the Keyboard, a collection of solo piano pieces played by Elizabeth Rodgers, streaming at youtube.

Unsurprisingly, these short pieces reflect the same outside-the-box sensibility, quirky humor and vividness of Griffiths’ rock songs. Rodgers plays with grace and fluidity throughout a series of often labyrinthine idiomatic twists which flash by in a split second. This is 21st century composition as entertainment, informed by a sensibility that’s sometimes phantasmagorical, at other times irresistibly comedic. The intensity of the music on both sides of the emotional spectrum rises as the album goes along.

Three Views From Mexico has hints of flamenco modalities, ragtime, Webern and a brisk close-harmonied stroll which could be Mompou in a rare high-energy moment. A suite of miniatures, Rogue Taxidermy includes the tiptoeing, playfully sotto-voce Consider the Hortle; the deviously phrased Tortitude; the evocatively kinetic, neoromantic Moth Frog; the delightful Meowl; Lone Wolf, a defiantly individualistic vignette; Lunar Mothfish, a slightly turbulent mini-nocturne; the determined March of the Pengupines and finally, the disquietingly warped Zebra Prawn Blues.

The Sheltering Suite comprises My Corona, a light-fingered romp which is about neither beer nor a vintage Toyota; the self-explanatory Jumping Bean; Climbing the Walls, which is more troublingly self-descriptive; Dream Song, which is essentially a synopsis of the whole album; an opaque Lamentation; and the mutedly strutting Danse Mechanique.

Christmas, 1989 appears to have been less than festive time. Griffiths’ Seven Places in America captures Los Angeles as thisclose to frantic (a recent portrait, maybe?); paints Miami as a danse macabre; and uncovers a sinister poltergeist amid San Francisco fog. In fifty-seven seconds, New York decays from steady forebearance to a somber, unresolved lull, while the picture brightens considerably for Maine’s Isle au Haut and the bluesy solidity of Chicago.

The concluding suite, Four Strong Winds begins with the icy pointillisms and clusters but also the friendlier sway of Boreas. Zephyr hops and skips between blithe and brooding; Eurus comes across as a moody, insistent Balkan dance. Rodgers closes the album with Notos, an early Ligeti-flavored coda. Much like Griffiths’ rock band, this is as charming as it is disconcerting.

Changing Modes are playing Bar Freda, 801 Seneca Ave. in Ridgewood on Nov 13 at 8 PM; cover is $10. Take the M to Seneca Ave.

A Thoughtful, Understatedly Gorgeous Live Album From Eric Vloeimans and Will Holshouser

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and accordionist Will Holshouser‘s new album Two for the Road – streaming at Bandcamp – is yet more proof that more artists should make live records. The duo recorded it about a year ago while on tour in the Netherlands. Vloeimans has a richly lyrical resonance which is ideally suited to this unorthodox duo format, and Holshouser – a connoisseur of Punjabi music – has found a similarly simpatico sparring partner. There’s lots of unselfconscious beauty here, whether you call this pastoral jazz, or new classical music, or folk tunes for that matter.

Vloeimans opens Tibi Gratias, a stately, gentle canon, with a wafting solo; later, Holshouser builds it to a lush, steady chordal drive. The miking on the accordion is fantastic and captures the entirety of Holshouser’s range, including the lows that some accordion recordings miss out on. In general, he gets more time in the spotlight here than his collaborator.

There are three “innermissions” by Vloeimans here, all composed during the 2020 lockdown. The first makes a good segue, the two slowly working their way out of waltz time to more trickier syncopation, an unexpectedly murky accordion interlude and a gorgeous, distantly flamenco-tinged conclusion.

Deep Gap is even more straightforwardly bright: it could be a Civil War-era march with moments of unexpectedly puckish humor. The duo continue in a playful vein with Innermission 12 as they build around a goofy quote, Holshouser spiraling and blipping steadily, Vloeimans picking up the pace. The good cheer continues in the bluesy waltz Innermission 2, Vloeimans choosing his spots with a New Orleans flair.

The two musicians remain in 3/4 time to reinvent a Muppets movie theme as a spare, surprisingly pensive, terse ballad. They take more of a charge into the album’s most expansive track, Redbud Winter, lithe trumpet over puffing, emphatic accordion with echoes of Indian music. Holshouser introduces an enigmatically balmy waltz interlude followed by a jaunty contrapuntal conversation before they bring it full circle.

They emerge from a bit of a haze to minimalist variations on a slowly staggered ballad theme in MoMu and follow with Innermission 9, working an insistent bounce over a moody, vampy 70s soul-inflected tune. It has more bite than anything else on the album, Vloeimans picking up with his jovial arpeggios as the two wind it out.

To Louis seems to be a homage to someone beyond the obvious, a slinky 6/8 tune where Vloeimans ranges from hazy, to incisive, to some of the album’s most soaring moments. Variations on a tensely rhythmic, Indian-flavored theme alternate with balmy balladry in Innermission 1l, then the two musicians make catchy reggae out of it. They close with a lullaby.

Enigmatically Ominous Michael Hersch Works for Soprano, Orchestra and Small Ensemble

[Editor’s note: it has become something of an annual ritual to feature an album of this particular composer’s works here during the October-long Halloween celebration, which continues through the end of the month]

Michael Hersch might be the most macabre of all contemporary classical composers. While the macabre is one of many themes in his music, it’s hard to think of anyone who goes as deeply into it as he has, from his chilling musical portraits of the inmates of a closed ward in a mental hospital, to the torments of terminal cancer patients. His latest album The Script of Storms – streaming at New Focus Recordings – comprises two suites.

The first is Cortext and Ankle, a setting of texts by the doomed writer Christopher Middleton, sung by soprano Ah Young Hong and backed by innovative chamber group Ensemble Klang. In the second, she sings the words of Fawzi Karim with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz.

There’s horror, and fingertips being torn off, “the dead tangled in a heap,” and an ineluctable end to all things in the initial eleven-part sequence. It’s prime material for prime Hersch, although the music itself is generally more airily portentous than sinister.

The brief overture is the closest thing to traditional film noir music that Hersch has written: an anxious, acidic bustle with furtive percussion flickers. Hong enters with a poignant, wistful resonance, until the group explodes with brassy growl and dramatic intensity behind her, a recurrent and judiciously utilized device. Austere, slowly shifting segments follow in turn. Hersch is known for employing a lot of space, and he does that here.

Anton van Houten’s determined trombone crescendos along with sudden bursts of activity from saxophonists Michiel van Dijk and Erik-Jan de With contrast with Hong’s resolute calm, but she leaps without warning to a full-throttle arioso power. Pianist Saskia Lankhoorn is often required to do the same. Percussionist Joey Marijs gets to contribute occasional surreal, clanking industrial textures, while guitarist Pete Harden’s contributions are even more skeletal.

The nine-part title suite, a grim reflection on the 1958 coup d’etat in Iraq and summary execution of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said, is closer to Hersch’s earlier work, even as it follows much of the same template as the album’s first piece.

Ominous trombone also features heavily here. Anxious clusters of strings and reeds burst in, only to disappear. Familiar and juicily spine-tingling Bernard Herrmann tropes appear everywhere: shrieking high winds, ghostly slithers, and doppler crescendos. The drifting close harmonies and microtonal mist toward the end of the suite are particularly delicious, if disquiet is your thing. The persistent rhythmic overlays are just as clever as they are effective. As fits the subject matter, this is a horror film for the ears and a mighty effective one. Not for the faint of heart, but Hersch is the rare composer who seems committed to never backing away from any subject matter, no matter how disturbing.

A Magical, Deviously Dynamic, Cutting-Edge Debut Album From Violinist Sarah Bernstein’s Veer Quartet

Violinist Sarah Bernstein inhabits one of the most magically otherworldly and distinctive sound worlds around. She’s the rare composer who can write catchy, riff-based microtonal music, and she’s also a rapturous improviser. One of the most enjoyable concerts anyone at this blog has been at over the past few years was an afternoon with her intricate Veer Quartet in an East Village community garden in the fall of 2019.

Shortly thereafter, she recorded her debut album with the group: of all the releases which were derailed by the 2020 plandemic, this is arguably the best and is up at Bandcamp. It’s more chromatically focused than microtonal, and it’s the high point among Bernstein’s many and often somewhat more jazz-oriented albums. She and her bandmates – violinist Sana Nagano. violist Leonor Falcon and cellist Nick Jozwiak – are playing the album release show this Halloween at 8 PM at the Zurcher Gallery at 33 Bleecker St. off Lafayette. Cover is $20. And Nagano has a show with her louder but similarly otherworldly Atomic Pigeons band on Sept 28 at 8 PM at Mama Tried in Gowanus.

The quartet open the first number on the new record. Frames No.1 with an irresistibly goofy joke, then Jozwiak racewalks a bassline, Falcon climbs and descends with an uneasy calm. The group coalesce, first with stabbing unison motives that expand into spacious washes, gracefully dancing pizzicato and another couple of ridiculous jokes juxtaposed with bracing glissandos and rhythmic accents. All string quartets should be this diversely funny – and not just when they’re playing Beethoven.

There’s a sense of longing and loss in the second cut, News Cycle Progression, a diptych which begins lingering and resonant and shifts to a series of increasingly agitated, incisive flickers; Bernstein makes a palimpsest out of them at the end.

The group open the album’s big epic, Clay Myth as a ballad without words, Bernstein’s wistful melody over a hazy vamp from the rest of the ensemble. An enigmatic, blues-tinged solo from Jozwiak over circular pizzicato eventually cedes for a tantalizingly acerbic variation on the opening theme. The quartet take it out with a bouncy, tightly ornamented, increasingly biting folk-tinged violin theme and a couple of unexpected detours.

Bernstein interpolates stabbing riffage within an uneasy, steadily crescendoing theme in World Warrior, then the individual voices square off. With its paint-peeling, slithery breaks it’s the closest thing to violin metal here.

The ensemble open Nightmorning with a stern heroic theme, Bernstein quickly disassembling and scattering it to the wind across a vast, mostly vacant lot. A shivery, cello-fueled return, simmering fires bobbing up among slides and misty microtonal harmonies follow in turn, with striking hints of a cheery swing jazz tune. Ligeti’s most haunting work from the 1950s comes to mind: it’s the most adventurous and gripping piece here.

There’s a similarly somber, circling, Bartokian sensibility as well as a furtive Bernard Herrmann passage in the final cut, Hidden, a hauntingly insistent coda. Barring the unforeseen, you’ll see this on the best albums of 2022 page here at the end of the year.

Getting Lost in Cassie Wieland’s Warmly Enveloping Minimalist Sonics

Cassie Wieland‘s music is purposeful to a fault: if there’s any composer working today who doesn’t waste notes, it’s her. Last night at Roulette, she and a shapeshifting cast of ensembles played a series of recent instrumental and vocal pieces that came across as Radiohead at one-tenth speed – or Sigur Ros playing Anna Thorvaldsdottir, maybe. Either way, it was frequently a night to get lost in.

Space is a crucial component of Wieland’s work: she will often leave a whole bar or more in between calm, minimalist motives. The effect is less suspenseful than simply calming and hypnotic, each a persistent quality in her music as well.

Playing brooding organ loops on a mini-synth, she led a string quartet subset of chamber ensemble Desdemona through the night’s central suite, Birthday. Weiland explained to the crowd that this was not a bday celebration since she’s a January baby: this was the rescheduled date for the performance originally planned for last winter. That month was reflected in the hazy, broodingly drifting second segment, where she sang through a vocoder while the strings built a slow crescendo assembled from the sparest of raw materials to either simple, emphatic chords or close harmonies. There were striking textural contrasts in the opening segment, stark harmonics against the sleekness of the organ. Subtle counterpoint developed as the piece wore on, concluding with a warm lullaby atmosphere awash in comforting, accordion-like timbres. That cocooning ambience persisted throughout the matter-of-fact tectonic shifts of the night’s final number, Home.

Pianist Isabelle O’Connell and vibraphonist Adam Holmes teamed up for equally mesmerizing textures in the concluding pieces in the first half of the program: the former with her steady, glacially paced accents, the latter bowing a glistening, humming, harmonium-like backdrop which he artfully ornamented with the occasional percussive flicker. The two brought the music full circle, to Plutonian Radiohead, at the end.

There were a few moments of surprising animation in that work, as well as in the night’s opening performance by the trio Bearthoven. Pianist Karl Larson let Wieland’s judicious, minimalist chords linger while percussionist Matt Evans alternated between atmospherics and the occasional sudden crescendo, bassist Pat Swoboda bringing crackling harmonics up out of a spare, wintry atmosphere.

The next concert at Roulette is on Sept 22 at 8 PM with electronic sound artists Victoria Keddie and Rose Kallal; advance tix are $25. The memorial concert for the late, great trumpeter Tomasz Stanko on the 18th is sold out.

Fearless Solo Electroacoustic Vocal Explorations with Stephanie Lamprea at Roulette

Nothing takes more bravery in concert than singing a-cappella. Last night at Roulette, soprano Stephanie Lamprea threw caution to the wind, pushing her voice to the far fringes of her formidable technique throughout an eclectic program of relatively short, minimalistic works which were often bracing, sometimes downright scary, other times immersively atmospheric or very funny. And switching to a wireless headset mic to open the night’s second set, she also treated the crowd to an elegantly gliding dance performance.

The night’s first song turned out to be a slow, resonant walk up the scale, with portentous glissandos and diversions into guttural extended vocalese which in places seemed to echo Asian intonations.

Lamprea followed with Lucy Corin‘s Bathing, a semi-spoken word piece about plandemic-era paranoia, with a deliciously snarky ending: sometimes the funniest things are left unsaid. Next up was an Erin Thompson graphic score based on land map images: Lamprea interpreted it with echoey exhalations, goofily processed pointillisms and gentle resonance that she built to sudden swells, enhanced by generous amounts of digital reverb from Alex Van Gils’ mixer

She laughingly telegraphed how closely composer George Gianopoulos had aligned his music to match a florid Edith Wharton text in his diptych An Autumn Sunset. As amusingly over-the-top as it was, it also gave Lamprea a long launching pad for pyrotechnics in her uppermost registers.

She returned to subtler dynamics in James May‘s Flowers for Eurydice, spaciously pacing the ballad’s portrait of its heroine’s post-Orpheus life. The Birds They Stare At Me From the Window, by Melissa Rankin, was one of the more evocatively drifty works, awash in gentle doppler-like effects punctuated by unexpected, increasingly Hitchcockian drama. It was a real workout for Lamprea. Much as you could see the ending coming a mile away, that fleeting moment of horror was worth waiting for.

She moved matter-of-factly and dexterously through baroque solemnity and hazy horizontality to operatic fervor in Mid-Day, a circularly-driven work by Hannah Selin.

Selections from Kurt Rohde‘s nine-song series Water Lilies ranged from distantly spacious and mysterious, to steady and agitated or looming and mystical, floating on a cloud of reverb. Feeding the loop machine while maintaining a smooth continuity (and then competing with fusillades of recorded birdsong) was no easy task, but Lamprea was undeterred. The backdrop of projections on the screen above her was a bonus: some of the imagery, in the context of the world since March of 2020, was crushingly spot-on.

The duo onstage wound up the night with an audiovisual improvisation, Lamprea sirening and inventing new consonants, channeling both outright joy and outrage as Van Gils sent gentle washes and a few pulsing quasars through the ether.

The next concert at Roulette is tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 8 PM with a trio of first-class jazz improvisers: pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Harvey Sorgen. Cover is $25.

Playful and Pensively Picturesque Themes with the Knights at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park

Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell was the second performance of the summer by irrepressible, shapeshifting orchestra the Knights. It wasn’t as deviously thematic as their first night here last month, where they paired Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” In a more general sense, yesterday evening’s theme was pastiches, both musical and visual.

The group opened with the world premiere of a collaboration between several of their members, Keeping On, whose genesis dates back a few years to when they were messing around with a famous Beethoven riff during practice.

Fast forward to the 2020 lockdown: conductor Colin Jacobsen pondered what John Adams might have done with it, then emailed his sketch to members of the orchestra – which disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo had infamously put on ice – and asked for their contributions. Several sent theirs back; horn player Mike Atkinson wove them together into a contiguous whole. The famous, fateful riff eventually revealed itself midway through; otherwise, it was a characteristically entertaining little work, from its insistent, minimalist intro to a series of briskly crescendoing phrases making their way around the orchestra, Carl Nielsen style, then bells from the percussion section and hip-hop-influenced vocal harmonies from violinist Christina Courtin and flutist Alex Sopp! An insider orchestral joke that translates to general audiences, who would have thought?

Violin soloist Lara St. John then joined them for the New York premiere of Avner Dorman‘s Violin Concerto No. 2, Nigunim, based on a series of traditional Jewish melodies. The opening Adagio Religioso rose from a hazy theme in the hauntingly chromatic freygische mode to a brief, somber stateliness, then St. John immediately slashed her way through her first cadenza. The pregnant pause afterward was a striking setup for the otherworldly drift and then the undulatingly acidic dance afterward, St. John’s razorwire waltz sailing overhead.

Her fleeting, ghostly incisions flitted over a mist as the second movement got underway, the orchestra almost imperceptibly returning to the astringency and chromatic bite of the previous interlude. Their leap into a suspensefully pulsing klezmer dance was irresistibly fun; St. John led the procession back to disquieting close harmonies and strangely celestial harmonics radiating throughout the string section, up to a jaunty coda.

She and a handful of the string players then surprised the crowd by literally dancing through a lightning-fast, wryly harmonically-infused jam on a traditional klezmer dance.

After the intermission, they concluded with an insightfully picturesque take of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. A Bach-like somberness pervaded the anthemic, initial andante movement, underscoring how much that rugged coastline had impacted a 20-year-old urban Jewish classical rockstar. The brief, massed stilletto passages from the brass were all the more impressive considering that this was an outdoor show, although by half past eight the temperature had dropped to a perfect mid-seventies calm.

The luscious textural contrast between the midrange brass and strings fell away for a ragged run through the goofy country dance that introduced movement two: a moment of sarcasm, maybe? Whatever the case, it worked with the crowd.

The somber lushness of the adagio third movement was inescapable: it’s one thing to credit the young composer for his balance of brass, winds and strings throughout moody and occasionally portentous, martial themes, but the orchestra nailed them, one by one. The succession of Mozartean motives and punchy Germanic phrases on the way out – and deftly executed melismas from the strings – wound it up with a characteristic ebullience.

The final Naumburg Bandshell concert in Central Park this summer is on August 2 at 7:30 PM with self-conducted string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra playing works by Adolphus Hailstork, Peruvian themes arranged by Maureen Nelson and the group’s arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden.” Take the 72nd St. entrance; get there an hour early, at least, if you want a seat.

A Far Cry Bring Their String-Driven Elegance Back to Central Park Under Friendlier Skies

A little over a year ago, A Far Cry played the first Naumburg Concert since 2019, to relaunch the annual series of Central Park performances which had run uninterrupted for 114 years until the 2020 lockdown. This blog joked at the time that the chamber orchestra stormed back into action – something of an understatement. In a decade of covering concerts in all sorts of thunderous and near-thunderous conditions, that was, shall we say, the most immersive of them all. After awhile, the hundred or so of us who stuck around for the whole thing would break out laughing when yet another thunderclap exploded overhead, and what felt like a bucket of summer rain would be dumped on us.

Tuesday night, the group picked up where they left off under similarly ominous skies with an alternately lilting and lulling series of imaginatively voiced string orchestra arrangements of Bartok’s Lullabies For Children. The ensemble had the most fun with the bouncy, minor-key Hungarian folk-flavored numbers, ornamenting them with plucky pizzicato and acerbic accidentals. Interspersed among them were traditional tunes from the Canary Islands and Japan arranged by A Far Cry violinist Alex Fortes, along with a cantabile miniature by Emily Irons

Next up was Franghiz Ali-Zadeh‘s Shyshtar: Metamorphoses for String Orchestra, in an arrangement expanded beyond the original version for twelve cellos. Tectonically shifting, persistent unease drifted through an allusive chromaticism reflective of the composer’s Azeri heritage. A strutting Bartokian edge gave way to hazy suspense that grew more surrealistically foreboding with a series of gentle downward glissandos. They took it out by digging in for a buoyantly wary march. Maybe it wasn’t the optimal segue, but what a gorgeously bracing piece of music!

Fortes also contributed a new arrangement of the famously mystical, hymnal third movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, which the group approached steadily, soberly, and a little on the fast side. With its lushness and sweep, it left the crowd breathless. Fortes has arranged the whole quartet; hopefully we’ll get to hear all of it someday.

By the time the intermission was over, the skies had cleared for a similarly sweeping take of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. There seemed to be extra deliciousness from the low strings in the cheerful sway of the first movement; likewise, the waltzing second movement was steely and robust, the third especially vivace, yet with an uneasy undercurrent. The group resisted any temptation to simply roll with the lullaby quality of the fourth movement, opting for symphonic grandeur, then dancing through the conclusion. The final piece on the bill was Castles, a baroque-tinged piece with a carefree chorale by one of the ensemble’s own, bassist Karl Doty.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on July 26 at 7:30 PM with perennial favorites the Knights and colorful violinist Lara St. John playing Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony plus works by Avner Dorman. Enter at 72nd St.; get there early (like, an hour, at least) if you want a seat.