New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: choral music

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

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A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

Captivating Cutting-Edge New Indian Sounds from  the Women’s Raga Massive

True to their bandname, the Brooklyn Raga Massive draw on a huge talent base, including but not necessarily limited to players who specialize in Indian classical music. Their rise from their early days at a grungy little Fort Greene bar to big summer festivals is a rare feel-good story in recent New York music. These days, they reinvent John Coltrane and Terry Riley, put on all-night raga parties and push the envelope with where Indian music can go.

Because all of their members are busy with their own careers, the cast is constantly rotating. The Brooklyn Raga Massive also have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, whose new compilation, compiled by brilliant violinist Trina Basu, is steaming at Bandcamp. 20% of the proceeds from the album are being donated to the nonprofit Indrani’s Light Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and combating gender violence. They’re playing Joe’s Pub tonight, March 31 at 7 PM; cover is $20.

The artists here are a mix of singers and instrumentalists. Although most of the tracks ultimately draw on centuries-old melodies, most of the arrangements are brand-new and very innovative. The album opens with flutist Rasika Shekar’s Uproar, rising from a brightly modal swirl to a mashup of Afro-Cuban jazz and modal carnatic riffage fueled by Hooni Min’s emphatic piano.

Basu’s string band Karavika contribute The Time Is Now, its warmly undulating melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion. Cellist Amali Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo sets up a brightly soaring response from Basu. A bit later on she and her violinist husband Arun Ramamurthy join forces with the aptly titled, epic Tempest, building from a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse to echo effects, a funky sway and all kinds of juicy, microtonal bends and churning riffs before a final calm.

Multimedia artist/singer Samita Sinha represents the avant garde with the sparse, childlike vocal piece Suspension. Arooj Aftab’s poignantly melismatic vocals swirl over Bhrigu Sahni’s delicate acoustic guitar and Baqir Abbas’ bansuri flute in the sparse, spacious Man Kunto Maula, a more traditional piece.

Mitali Bhawmik’s vocal ornamentations rise from restraint to pure tremoloing bliss in Miyan Ki Malhar, above a stately backdrop of Ramachandra Joshi’s harmonium and Meghashyam Keshav’s tabla.

Pianist/singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s Nithakam: Dedication to Prashant Bhargava is a somber Indian take on Gershwin’s Summertime. Violin/piano sister duo Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan team up with guitarist Sam McCormally for the broodingly modal Indian gothic trip-hop anthem Ocean of Sadness. Then paradigm-shifting carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective flip the script with their playfully hip-hop tinged Urban Gamaka (Hindolam Thillana), singers Roopa Mahadevan and Shiv Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal licks over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Navayee, by Persian-American singer/guitarist Haleh Liza Gafori is a balmy love ballad animated by Matt Kilmer’s clip-clop percussion. Psychedelic soul singer Shilpa Ananth works subtle dynamics with similarly lush atmospherics in Enge Nee, against Takahiro Izumikawa’s bubbly Rhodes piano.  

The album’s longest and most trad track is sitarist Alif Laila’s twelve-minute-plus segment of Raga Kedar, a brisk romp right off the bat that doesn’t wait to get to the shivery, spine-tingling heart of the matter. It’s arguably the high point of the album; the ending is a complete surprise.

Violinist Nistha Raj matches and then jauntily trades riffs with alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal in Jayanthi, which is only slightly shorter. Yalini Dream narrates an imagistic antiwar poem over Ganavya’s vocalese and atmospherics to close the album. Fans of cutting-edge Indian sounds like these should also check out the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s other albums, especially their Coltrane covers collection, which feature some of these artists.

Some Great December Shows Reprised This Month

Who says December is a slow month for live music in New York? The first three weeks were a nonstop barrage of good shows. And a lot of those artists will be out there this month for you to see.

Last summer, Innov Gnawa played a couple of pretty radical Barbes gigs. With bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s hypnotically slinky sintir bass lute and the chorus of cast-iron qraqab players behind him, they went even further beyond the undulating, shapeshifting, ancient call-and-response of their usual traditional Moroccan repertoire. Those June and July shows both plunged more deeply into the edgy, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern sounds of hammadcha music, with even more jamming and turn-on-a-dime shifts in the rhythm. Innov – get it?

So their most recent show at Nublu 151 last month seemed like a crystallization of everything they’d been working on. The usual opening benediction of sorts when everybody comes to the stage, Ben Jaafer leading the parade with his big bass drum slung over his shoulder; a serpentine chant sending a shout out to ancient sub-Saharan spirits; and wave after wave of mesmerizing metallic mist fueled by Ben Jaafer’s catchy riffage and impassioned vocals.

Ben Jaafer’s protege and bandmate Samir LanGus opened the night with an even trippier show, playing sintir and leading a band including Innov’s  Nawfal Atiq and Amino Belyamani on qraqabs and vocals, along with Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on drums, Dave Harrington on guitar, plus alto sax. Elements of dub, and funk, and acidic postrock filtered through the mix as the rhythms changed. Innov Gnawa are back at Nublu 151 on Jan 12 at around 6:30 with trumpeter Itamar Borochov for ten bucks; then the following night, Jan 13 they’re at Joe’s Pub at 7:45 PM for twice that, presumably for people who don’t want to dance.

The rest of last month’s shows that haven’t been mentioned here already were as eclectically fun as you would expect in this melting pot of ours. Slinky Middle Eastern band Sharq Attack played a mix of songs that could have been bellydance classics from Egypt or Lebanon, or originals – it was hard to tell. Oudist Brian Prunka had written one of the catchiest of the originals as a piece for beginners. “But as it turned out, it’s really hard,” violinist Marandi Hostetter laughed. The subtle shifts in the tune and the groove didn’t phase the all-star Brooklyn ensemble.

Another allstar Brooklyn group, Seyyah played an even more lavish set earlier in the month at the monthly Balkan night at Sisters Brooklyn in Fort Greene. With the reliably intense, often pyrotechnic Kane Mathis on oud behind Jenny Luna’s soaring, poignant microtonal vocals, you wouldn’t have expected the bass player to be the star of the show any more than you’d expect Adam Good to be playing bass. But there he was, not just pedaling root notes like most American bassists do with this kind of music, his slithery slides and hammer-ons intertwining with oud and violin. The eight-piece band offer a rare opportunity to see a group this size playing classic and original Turkish music at Cornelia St. Cafe at Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

When Locobeach’s bassist hit an ominous minor-key cumbia riff and then the band edged its way into Sonido Amazonico midway through their midmonth set at Barbes, the crowd went nuts. The national anthem of cumbia was the title track to Chicha Libre’s classic debut album; as a founding member of that legendary Brooklyn psychedelic group, Locobeach keyboardist Josh Camp was crucial to their sound. This version rocked a little harder and went on for longer than Chicha Libre’s typically did – and Camp didn’t have his trebly, keening Electrovox accordion synth with him for it. This crew are more rock and dub-oriented than Chicha Libre, although they’re just as trippy – and funny. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 15 at 10. 

There were four other Barbes shows last month worth mentioning. “Stoner,” one individual in the know said succinctly as Dilemastronauta Y Los Sabrosos Cosmicos bounced their way through a pulsing set blending elements of psychedelic salsa, cumbia, Afrobeat and dub reggae. Their rhythm section is killer: the bass and drums really have a handle on classic Lee Scratch Perry style dub and roots, and the horns pull the sound out of the hydroponic murk. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 10 at around 10.

Also midmonth, resonator guitarist Zeke Healy and violist Karen Waltuch took an expansive excursion through a couple of sets of Appalachian classics and a dadrock tune or two, reinventing them as bucolic, psychedelic jams. For the third year in a row, the all-female Accord Treble Choir sang an alternately majestic and celestial mix of new choral works and others from decades and centuries past, with lively solos and tight counterpoint. And the Erik Satie Quartet treated an early Saturday evening crowd to stately new brass arrangements of pieces by obscure 1920s French composers, as well as some similar new material.

At the American Folk Art Museum on the first of the month, singer/guitarist Miriam Elhajli kept the crowd silent with her eclecticism, her soaring voice and mix of songs that spanned from Venezuela to the Appalachians, including one rapturous a-capella number. And at the Jalopy the following week, another singer, Queen Esther played a set of sharply lyrical, sardonic jazz songs by New York underground legend Lenny Molotov, her sometime bandmate in one of the city’s funnest swing bands, the Fascinators. She’s at the Yamaha Piano Salon at 689 5h Ave (enter on 54th St) on Jan 14, time tba.

The Resistance Revival Chorus Sing a Fiery, Fearless Benefit for Immigrant Rights

When the Resistance Revival Chorus hit the stage Tuesday night for the first of their rousing, oldschool gospel-style protest songs, there seemed to be about two dozen women in the group. By the time the show ended, individual choir members and special guests treating a sold-out crowd at City Winery to a tantalizing series of cameos, it seemed that the size of the chorus had doubled. Are they New York’s largest ensemble? At the rate they’re growing, they will be, and in the current political climate it’s not going to take long.

Much as booking a group with a ton of people in it is a surefire way to pack a club, there’s never been more of an audience for protest music. The chorus had put together a short video to kick off the show, tracing the history and profound influence of protest songs on this continent from field hollers and back-to-Africa anthems thinly disguised as Christian hymns, all the way to hip-hop.

There was a little bit of that, but most of the material was songs that drew on decades of soul music. And this was as much of a populist rally as concert. Three of the group’s founding members were organizers of the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year. They’re also affiliated with many pro-democracy and advocacy groups including Communities for Change and pro-immigrant organizations working under that umbrella. A couple of group leaders took the stage midway through the show and delivered a defiant, grimly entertaining bilingual English-Spanish account of the perils of being an undocumented immigrant, even in a so-called sanctuary city.

Laurie Anderson’s cameo was the funniest, with a bit of droll, satirical faux-autotune pop and a story about narrowly sidestepping what could have been a grisly stage mishap bookending a communal scream. The artist who got the crowd to scream even louder was Amy Leon, who otherwise held everybody rapt with her fearless, individualistic, witheringly acerbic blend of Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron and what might be called avant garde soul. She picked up where Simone left off with a misterioso take of Bob Dylan’s Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and added her own scathingly insightful commentary on coping with white supremacy: things haven’t changed all that much in half a century.

Nigerian-American songstress Ayo – who has an album release show coming up at Drom this Dec 20 at 9:30 -,led her trio through a couple of spare, withering roots reggae tunes dealing with the murder of young black men at the hands of the police, and resistance in general. Trixie Whitley reached for similarly hypnotic ambience with a single psychedelic folk-blues number, solo on electric guitar. And a smaller subset of the choir got the crowd bouncing to their intricate interweave of voices, from Sam Cooke to classic gospel.

The catchiest of all the songs might have been the two by singer Alba Ponce De Leon and her band the Mighty Lions. The latin soul diptych they opened with veered into psychedelic Chicano Batman territory, then they raised the roof with the big, funky vintage-style soul anthem Love Army, which as the bandleader said, needed no explanation.

At one point, the chorus situated themselves throughout the room, for a neat stereo effect. At the end of the show, the whole crew finally made it onto the stage for a soaring, imperturbable take of their big youtube hit Under My Feet, where the narrative starts out at the rich man’s house and ends up at the White House speaking truth to power. And as one of the chorus’ founders reminded, their next performance may be at a rally or with a flashmob if it’s not at City Winery, which has become their home base. Pick an issue, find an advocacy group and then go out and represent – how ironic that at this point in history, we’ve never had so many to choose from.

The Navatman Music Collective Take Rapturous Indian Classical Sounds to New Places

Last night at the Navatman Music Collective’s sold-out show at Symphony Space, choir leader Roopa Mahadevan took what otherwise would have been a pretty generic blues riff and transformed it into shiveringly melismatic, sultry R&B, echoed by guest tenor saxophonist Pawan Benjamin. Not something you would expect at a performance of centuries-old south Indian classical music.

There was another point where singer Shiv Subramaniam took a series of flying leaps from his crystalline low register to a spot much further upward, his voice a comet tail of grit and overtones. Then there was the split-secomd where Preetha Raghu’s brief vocal solo hit a sudden spiraling climb, Mahadevan closing her eyes and shaking her head in wonder that another person could create such beauty with just a brief flurry of notes.

There were thousands of similar moments during the carnatic choir’s epic, magically shapeshifting performance. The Navatman Music Collective are one of three carnatic choirs in the world, and the only one in this hemisphere. If you think that playing one rapidfire, microtonal volley after another on, say, a sitar, is challenging, try singing that in perfect sync with seven or eight other people, some of whom may be an octave above or below you.

Obviously, the reason why carnatic choirs are so rare is that in Indian classical music, there’s no need for more than one voice at a time to sing the melody line. While this group is shifting the paradigm by introducing harmony into the equation, they didn’t do that at this show: this was all about spine-tingling solos, and group improvisation, and spellbinding interplay between the voices, Anjna Swaminathan’s elegantly swooping violin and Rohan Krishnamurthy’s precise, emphatically reverberating mridangam rhythms.

And as easy as it was to get completely lost in much of the music, this group has a sense of humor. That became apparent right off the bat after the stately cadences and tantalizingly brief solos of their first number, an original by Subramaniam utilizing an old Sanskrit poem about a new bride feeling completely lost in her in-laws’ house. Singer Asha Unni was in the middle of what was actually a spot-on description of how its deliciously distinctively Indian microtones differentiate from the standard western scale when Subramaniam and Raghu winkingly interrupted her, shifting the conversation from music theory to the dilemmas among newlyweds across cultures and centuries.

Relevance means a lot to this crew, underscored by a lilting suite by 19th century Tamil composers Papanisam Sivan and Ghopalakrishna Bharan whose subtext was the struggle to abolish the caste system in the midst of a murderous invasion by the British. That number turned into a launching pad for various types of improvisation: Mahadevan’s rapidfire microtones, Parthiv Mohan’s precise, majestic cadences and Subramaniam’s unearthly mesmerizing leaps and bounds. More than once during the show, Mahadevan emphasized how new and often radical this repertoire once was – like the elegant, lush waltz, a real rarity in Indian music, which ended the ensemble’s first set.

Indian mythology is a trip.  Another Sivan piece illustrating the Monkey King, Hanuman and his fixation with Lord Rama was more lighthearted, as were Subramaniam’s artfuly interwoven raga themes in a new arrangement of an ancient Kalidana piece depicting Lord Shiva slumming among the peasantry.

The group really picked up the pace at the end with a tongue-twisting display of takadimi drum language: turns out that Sahasra Sambamoorthi, best known for her work in dance, has daunting vocal dexterity to match her footwork. The group closed with a similarly spectacular round-robin of solos. As singer Shraddha Balasubramaniam explained, the title of the group’s latest album An Untimely Joy refers to how great music transcends time even as a particular era’s most fearless musicians take it to new places. As lavish as this concert was, for this group that seems to be no big deal.

And you can learn to do this too: the Navatman organization also runs a Manhattan music and dance school.

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics, El Gavilan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlik what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Gavilan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.

Rapturous Vocal and Sitar Ragas Last Night at the Drive East Festival

There was a point last night at the ongoing, weeklong 2017 Drive East Festival of Indian music at Dixon Place where tabla player Dibyarka Chaterjee looked up at singer Indrani Khare with a sudden grin, all the while maintaining a steady, syncopated volley of notes. Was she going to throw something else like that him again?

Although the greatest Indian classical musicians are all great improvisers, when they fly without a net those flights tend to be on the subtle side. An elegant, graceful presence onstage, Khare had begun her vast, profoundly bittersweet interpretation of raga Puriya Kalyan with a velvety calm, slowly adding ornamentation, up to a big, meticulously modulated crescendo where her melismatic vocalese became a tightly wound trill that basically required her to be in chest voice and falsetto at the same time. It’s a common if breathtaking device in carnatic music, and she was obviously taking some unexpected liberties. Meanwhile, her singing guru, Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik, watched approvingly, occasionally signaling to her star protegee from the front row.

There was another point where Chaterjee and young harmonium prodigy Srikar Ayyalasomayajula exchanged a momentary, wide-eyed stare as Khare sang unacompanied for a few bars: was this really happening? Could a human being possibly channel such depths of tenderness, and sadness, and guarded hope, so unselfconsciously? Chaterjee has obviously played with countless A-list Indian musicians, but something special was clearly going on here.

He eventually got a solo spot where he flickered through similar low-key simmer, matched occasionally by Ayyalasomayajula, whose nimble phrasing often doubled or shadowed the bandleader. Shifting back and forth between crystalline, unadornedly warm phrasing and the occasional fluttering cadenza, even her most dramatic moments never reached for the kind of stratospheric, chirpy tone that a lot of Bollywood singers embrace. At the end of her hour onstage, she incorporated all those same devices in a more concise context with a devotional bhajan ballad.

The next performance on the night’s bill was by sitarist Kinnar Seen, who played a similarly dynamic if much more wildly energetic take of two evening pieces, raga Rageshwari and raga Mishra Bhairawvi. Seen had programmed this as a suite, barely taking time between the two. With a slow, purposeful, nocturnal stroll punctuated by the occasional emphatic low bent note, he followed a series of tangents through torrents of upward and downward riffage, sometimes adding stark accents that brought to mind ancient British folk music.

There were a lot of surprises in the music: the only point where Seen telegraphed where he was about to go was when he hit chopped his strings for what seemed like a minute, building a deep mist of overtones that would resonate when he finally resumed his frenetic cascades down the fretboard.

It’s not often that students get to play with an acclaimed international touring artist, but the two teenage tabla players behind him held their own and were given several turns in the spotlight, the most engaging one being a rapidfire charge together which was a triumph of seamlessness – and these dudes aren’t afraid of showing how much fun they’re having. By contrast, tanpura player Melissa Cheta lingered in the background with her stately accents. 

The Drive East Festival at Dixon Place (161A Chrystie St., just north and around the corner from Bowery Ballroom) continues tonight with music and dance tonight starting at 6 PM with a cross-pollinated Indian-Korean percussion-and-dance piece by Jin Won and Seu Yeon Park, followed at 7:15 by the festival’s artistic director Sahasra Sambamoorthi’s Navatman Dance ensemble with Sridhar Shanmugam and then carnatic vocal crooner Shankar Ramani at 8:30; tix for all of these shows, in various price ranges, are still available as of this hour. Be aware that last night’s performances were pretty full, so some of you might want to reserve those before they’re gone.

Lavish, Paradigm-Shifting Indian Choral Sounds from the Navatman Music Collective

Like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the Navatman Music Collective are a semi-rotating cast of some of New York’s most innovative Indian instrumental and vocal talent. Just the fact that they’re the only carnatic choir in this hemisphere attests to the group’s adventurousness. Bands have been making rock music out of ancient carnatic themes since the days of the Beatles and Grateful Dead, and then there’s Bollywood, but Indian classical ensembles typically have no use for harmony because it doesn’t exist in the tradition.

When the Navatman Music Collective harmonize, their sound is lush, and otherworldly, and unlike any other choir in the world. Other times, they’ll all sing a single melody line in unison, or with the men and women at each end of an octave. The group are playing the final day of their enticingly eclectic Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at 2 PM on August 27 at Dixon Place; $20 tix are available along with numerous multiple-show deals and full-festival passes.

The group’s debut album, An Untimely Joy is streaming at youtube. They open strikingly with An Ode in Eight Verses, a stately processional set to an uneasily melismatic, Arabic-tinged mode over an oscillating drone and mysterious bell accents.

The second track, Offering (an excerpt from raga Gavati) features percussionist Rajna Swaminathan and violinist Anjna Swaminathan, cantering along on a tricky but elegantly boomy rhythm: the interweave of voices is rapturously kaleidoscopic.  The movie theme Sweet Infatuation showcases the ensemble’s core mens’ and womens’ voices, bandleader Roopa Mahadevan alongside Kamini Dandapani, Vignesh Ravichandran, Janani Kannan, Preetha Raghu, Kalpana Gopalakrishnan, Shraddha Balasubramaniam and Shiv Subramaniam. They bolster a balmy, conversational duet between Subramanian and Mahadevan over airy violin and bubbly flute.

The ensemble sing the album’s most epic. majestically kinetic, unpredictably serpentine piece, Summer Love in unison, answered by dancing flute and violin in places. A Blue Note puts the strings of similarly innovative Indian trio Karavika front and center in an acerbically chromatic, moodily enveloping piece, the swooping, melismatic violin of Trina Basu anchored by Amali Premawardhana’s stark cello and Perry Wortman’s bass, taken upward by the choir’s resolute intensity. The album winds up with the playful Urban Gamak, Mahadevan and Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal riiffs over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Fans of Indian music will hear things they never heard before on this magical, energetic album; those whose taste in choral music gravitates toward adventurous composers like Arvo Part or Caroline Shaw should also check it out. And the group are amazing live.

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Explore Harrowingly Diverse Reactions to War at the French Institute

Last night at the French Institute, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble sang a sometimes understatedly somber, often outright harrowing program that was as hubristic as it was relevant. Interspersing imaginatively arranged Civil War folk songs and hymns in between movements of Poulenc’s dynamic and rarely performed World War II-era Figure Humaine, the fifteen-piece choir voiced affectingly disparate reactions to wartime terror and the stress of living under siege.

Other choirs have mashed up iconic works from the classical repertoire with other styles, or with lesser-known pieces, with mixed results. Seraphic Fire‘s iconoclastic performance of the Mozart Requiem last year at Trinity Church, incorporating new compositions, worked swimmingly well. An attempt by another group to interpolate rather unrelated material into a dark and troubling Frank Ferko chorale, later in the year further uptown, was jarring and problematic.

In this case, the segues between calm, stoic American hymns or strikingly ornate arrangements of 19th century folk songs with Poulenc’s alternately starkly kinetic and acidically lustrous, Stravinskian themes didn’t make for easy transitions. But Poulenc probably wouldn’t have wanted any of this go to over smoothly: as a survey of human reactions to suffering, it packed a wallop, segues be damned.

Poulenc wrote his suite clandestinely with the hopes that it could be performed after an Allied victory. Turbulent, defiant cadenzas alternated with uneasy close harmonies and brooding atmospherics, all the way through to a triumphant coda fueled by soprano Sarah Moyer’s resolute intensity, just thisclose to a scream. She’d been tipping that pitch all evening long, the flicker of a smile often breaking into almost a smirk as she stood centerstage: she knew what was coming and reveled in it.

The rest of the group shone brightly in the Civil War material, as strikingly reflective of its time and place as Poulenc’s. In attempting to establish a distinctly American repertoire, choirs of that period often souped up folk tunes with elaborate and challenging arrangements. Some of these, like the stark rendition of Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye – the original Scottish version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home – date from then. Conductor Matthew Guard’s own arrangements –  a stately, hazily optimistic version of When This Cruel War Is Over, a plaintive take of Soldier’s Memorial Day and finally a Battle Hymn of the Republic that transcended schoolyard mockery – were true to the spirit of the times.

Likewise, the choir brought emotion, whether the savage cynicism – “Ridicule! Ridicule!” – in the Poulenc, or the funereal nebulosity of the hymn Abide with Me, into sharp focus. Crescendos were vivid and affecting: tenor George Case got plenty of time in the spotlight and rose to the occasion. Likewise, baritone Glenn Billingsley and the rest of the low voices offered endless, steady washes of circular breathing, lowlighting a couple of the folk tunes. Ultimately, the group delivered a message of hope: as much as we have suffered, even World War II didn’t last forever. In times like these, that message resonates just as powerfully.

This was it for this season’s characteristically eclectic series of concerts at the French Institute, but their similarly eclectic film series continues through May; there are also wine events, and a big Bastille Day bash this summer.