New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: classical music

Full Throttle Intensity with Lionel Yu at Carnegie Hall

It’s impossible to remember seeing as many kids in a Carnegie Hall audience as there were for Lionel Yu this past evening. Not just gradeschoolers, but pretty much every age group alive had come out to see the Chinese-American pianist work up a sweat with his superhuman technique, crushing volleys of chords and catchy hooks.

Yu takes the High Romantic as high as it can possibly go – and nobody knows better than Yu that the piano is a percussion instrument. If nonstop thrills are your thing, he’s your man. His chops are astonishing: he lives in that magic space where his fingers hit the keys with a perfectly unwavering attack, just hard enough to unleash the loudest possible sound. Great drummers work the same way, allowing their kits to resonate rather than trying to beat the sound into them.

Yet as much as Yu is all about raw power and breathtaking speed, ultimately he’s defined by passion. It felt viscerally redemptive to watch this conservatory-trained composer attack the keys with blitz after blitz of icepick staccato phrases, often riding the pedal, an effect that would make a lot of piano teachers cringe. In an era where conservatories have been Sovietized to churn out an assembly line of cookie-cutter players, a rugged individualist like Yu stands out even more. That’s probably why all the kids came out to see him: his music is the furthest thing from safe or tame.

Although online pageview counts can never be trusted, his youtube channel boasts over 19 million hits. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, he’s popular enough to pack Carnegie Hall. His compositional style is deceptively simple: high-voltage variations on strikingly direct, translucent themes which often look straight back to the baroque. There’s also a very strong, and catchy Chinese folk influence in his writing, and whenever a simple progression threatens to slide off the table into video game drama or pageantry, he steers clear of cliche, shifting to a slashing chromatic phrase or an accidental.

He began the night with the epic Rolling Thunder, a red herring in the sense that it was the night’s most dynamically shifting number: this evening was all about hard and fast. Never Surrender, with its lightning cascades, dates from ten years ago when Yu was out of work and depressed and trying to write himself out of that downward spiral, he explained to the crowd. Apparently, the attempt was a success.

Gallop, with its Rachmaninovian chromatics, Arabic and flamenco licks, came across as an escape narrative. Yu’s biggest youtube hit, Fires of a Revolution, was also the most challenging piece of the night, ablaze with punishing, machinegunning staccato octaves, a whirlwind descent or three and like many of the other pieces on the bill, a lefthand that was every bit as daunting and exhilarating as the firestorm further up the keys.

The most amusing piece on the bill was Pachelbel’s Nightmare, a scenario where Yu envisioned the composer being taken over in his sleep by a “shadow” figure, the famous Canon turned from major to minor and given a deliciously severe thrashing before something approximating calm finally returns.

Yu has his limitations: like Art Tatum (or Motorhead), ballads are not his forte (they’re not forte enough – sorry). Yu could have given guest violinist Christina Bouey – no stranger to passion and sizzling technique herself – a chart that was every bit as much of a workout. Instead, she was limited to assertive, sometimes insistent phrases that any third-year student could have played, if with less dynamic subtlety. Yu can play quietly and lustrously if he wants, but those moments were gone in a flash as his jackhammer lefthand kicked in. And until he worked his way up to full blast, those quieter interludes felt muzzled.

But for sheer adrenaline, Yu is unsurpassed. Very, very few pianists have the physical prowess to be so forceful and graceful at the same time. Kathleen Supove is a rare example of one who does; Tatum was the same way. Judging from the size and diversity of the crowd, Yu’s time has come. At a point in history where the average age of audiences at the big Manhattan concert halls is 65, we need performers like this guy more than ever.

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A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

A Bracingly Majestic Double Concerto and a Couple of Classy Museum Mile Gigs From Bandoneon Innovator JP Jofre

JP Jofre may be known as one of the world’s foremost soloists on the bandoneon, the little accordion that Astor Piazzolla catapulted to fame. But Jofre is also a brilliant and pioneering composer whose work transcends nuevo tango to encompass the neoromantic, indie classical and jazz. His latest and most ambitious project yet is the first ever Double Concerto for Bandoneon and Violin – streaming at Spotify – which he performs along with violinist Michael Guttman and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This won’t be on the bill at the Argentine-born composer’s next New York performance; instead, he’ll be leading his Hard Tango Band at the ongoing series of free 5:30 PM shows at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec 28 and 29.

Throughout the Double Concerto, there’s a great deal of conversational interplay between the bandoneon and the violin; reduced to lowest terms, Guttman is typically the good cop. Jofre, as usual, gets extraordinary dynamic range out of his instrument, from ominous low drones to chirpy flourishes at the top while the orchestra follows similarly challenging trajectories. Rhythmic shifts are constant and counterintuitive, and the whole unit follows them seamlessly, hardly an easy task.

Jofre opens solo before Guttman sails in overhead, building steely, unresolved intensity to usher in the explosively pulsing allegro movement. The orchestra tackle it with a meticulous but vigorous pulse, its bursts of counterpoint blending such disparate elements as orchestral Piazzolla, Debussy and the baroque. Guttman resolutely answers Jofre’s creepy chromatic loops, then the mighty dance ensues again.

Brooding Jofre atmospherics contrast with wistful Guttman violin, the orchestra and piano adding Tschaikovslan lustre in the adagio. An astringently leaping solo violin cadenza introduces the milonga and its impassioned pulse, rising and falling with Persian-tinged echo effects.

The album’s final three pieces, all duets, have specific titles beyond tempo indicators. Jofre’s rainswept washes and subtle insistence give Guttman a launching pad for his plaintively soaring lines in the elegaic Before the Curtain. Como El Agua maintains the mood with its slow tidal shifts and La Vie En Rose allusions, while Sweet Dreams is a more impassioned lullaby than you might expect. Whether you call this nuevo tango or classical music, it’s characteristic of the ambition and brightly focused melodicism that have defined Jofre’s career up to this point.

A Richly Eclectic, Rapturous Program of Ljova Compositions for Strings at Lincoln Center

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.

World-Class Symphonic Grandeur From an Unlikely Spot

Playing devil’s advocate, here’s how Roger Nichols introduces the liner notes for the Utah Symphony’s sumptuous new recording of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: ”Igor Stravinsky remembered Saint-Saëns as ‘a sharp little man’, demonstrably unimpressed by the sounds emanating from the orchestra in The Rite of Spring. Succeeding generations have perpetuated this view of Saint-Saëns as a carping pedant, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who excelled in providing music that was all surface and little content.”

#gutpunch.

Nichols quickly goes on to explain how that perception is only part of the picture. In the days when it was even more customary (and often necessary) for composers to rely on commissions from the entitled classes to pay the rent, guys like Saint-Saëns would churn out one predictably cheery, cliched score after another. After all, the landed gentry of 1880s France had no more interest in anything challenging or cutting edge than the tattooed newcomers to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy do now. But as anybody who’s heard Carnival of the Animals or Danse Macabre – each written for Saint-Saëns’ family – will agree, there’s a whole different side to his work.

This is a rare recording – streaming at Spotify – where the shorter pieces on the program actually upstage the centerpiece. Conductor Thierry Fischer and the ensemble give Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 every bit of opulent ostentatiousness it deserves, a fullscale orchestral work supercharged with both organ and piano, the icing on a many-layered sonic cake. As classical party music goes, this is about as good as it gets. Recorded live in concert just over a year ago on the group’s home turf, the sound quality is magnificent. Solos throughout the orchestra, from James Hall’s oboe to Louise Vickerman’s harp, are precise and emphatic. Exchanges between various sections of the group are seamless, and the dynamics cover as much ground as a symphonic ensemble possibly can. And the hooks come at you, over and over again: just when you’re humming one, another will jump in and displace it.

The performance of the composer’s only slightly less lavish 1909 suite Trois Tableaux Symphoniques d’Après La Foi is even more of a thrill. If less ambitiously than Bartok, Saint-Saëns by then had fallen under the spell of North African music. While this is limited to what fans of Middle Eastern sounds cynically call “Hollywood hijaz,” the French Romantic was obviously feeding off a big jolt of inspiration and that translates to the orchestra here. Its cinematic vistas may be comfortable and predictably catchy, but they’re hardly shallow. And the wistful finale has poignancy to rival anything Samuel Barber ever wrote. The orchestra follow by stampeding through the chromatics of the famous Bacchanale from the opera Samson & Delilah, every single click of the castanets fired off with relish.

Over the years, the people of the state of Utah haven’t done themselves any favors by pulling stunts like withdrawing from the Boy Scouts of America since girls are allowed to join Scout troops now (you’d think that it would be the other way around, that all the boys would want to join the Girl Scouts for the sake of the enormous profits in selling cookies, but that’s a topic for another time). Rather than reinforcing any regional preconceptions, this album reminds how great art sometimes flourishes in unlikely places. Put this on your playlist along with the best-ever recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra…if you can find it.

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

A Rare NYC Performance of a Centuries-Old French Epic

Music Before 1800’s monthly concerts give ambitious concertgoers a chance to hear rare works that sometimes haven’t been performed here for centuries..or maybe ever, in the hundreds of years since they were written. Most of these shows are at Corpus Christi Church at 529 W 121St St., just up the hil from the 125th St. stop on the 1 train. You can get in for as little as $10.

Has Marc Antoine Charpentier’s Christmas Pastorale, dating from around 1686, ever been performed in New York? If so, Music Before 1800 may have staged it. For serious verisimilitude, they’re bringing in French vocal and instrumental group Ensemble Correspondances to the church play it this Dec 16 at 4 PM. The ensemble – whose name means “connections” – recorded it a couple of years ago, and have a new album of Charpentier’s La Descent d’Orphee aux Enfers streaming at Spotify. It’s a good way to become acquainted with how they tackle Charpentier’s alternately lavish and spare dynamics, as well as his similarly diverse themes.

If you can get used to a Gallic group who roll their R’s, Spanish style, this album will immerse you in elegant, sometimes unexpected counterpoint, with striking yet comfortably balanced contrasts between the men’s and women’s voices. While this was not written in contemporary French, if you speak the language, the dialogue is remarkably easy to understand. While the suite’s theme may be on the hellish side, the music is anything but, with sinuous flute harmonies woven into lushly lilting strings and a thicket of viola da gamba, all imbued with the ambered, slightly astringent tone that period instruments deliver. As is the custom with digital recordings these days, the album is divided up into 26 separate tracks, many of them less than a minute long.

Soprano Caroline Weynants displays a stately but fetching, almost imploring delivery at times. As the protagonist’s journey becomes more perilous, the music grows more stark and austere, then tilts toward an epic grandeur. Breathlessly scampering nymphs, desperate shepherds, cowardly lovers, all sorts of torments and ghosts pass through the sonic frame. The way the group motor along in places, it becomes very clear that our hero and his entourage can’t wait to get the hell out. Lively operatic drama gives way to a brightly flurrying fanfare and then a moodily waltzing downward trajectory: Euridyce, show your face so this poor guy can go home! “Stay with us forever,” is the choir’s solemn response. The end is every bit as somber as the intro is buoyant.

A Lushly Kinetic Album and a Chelsea Show by Inventive String Quintet Sybarite5

String quintet Sybarite5’s imaginative instrumental reinventions of Radiohead songs earned them worldwide acclaim, but their Thom Yorke fixation is only part of the picture. On their latest album, Outliers – streaming at Bandcamp – they bring their signature lush, kinetic sound to a collection of relatively brief, energetically balletesque pieces by some of their favorite indie classical composers. The result is part contemporary dance soundtrack, part 21st century chamber music: the connecting thread is tunefulness. They’re bringing that blend to a show at the Cell Theatre on Dec 7 at 8 PM; cover is $27.

The album opens with the catchy, punchily circling Getting Home (I must be…), by Jessica Meyer, the violins of Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney bustling tightly alongside Angela Pickett’s viola, Laura Metcalf’s cello and Louis Levitt’s bass.

Yann’s Flight, by Shawn Conley vividly echoes Philip Glass’ work for string quartet, right down to the dancing pizzicato from the bass and the cello’s stern counterpoint. As the group build the piece, hints of an Irish reel contrast with stillness, then more triumphantly rhythmic images of flight.

Eric Byers’ Pop Rocks is a playful, coyly bouncing staccato web of cell-like, Glassine phrasing. Dan Visconti’s triptych Hitchhiker’s Tales begins with the alternating slow swoops and momentary flickers of Black Bend, slowly morphing into a majestic blues with some snazzy, slithery, shivery work from the violins. The considerably shorter Dixie Twang gives the group a launching pad for icepick pizzicato phrasing, followed by another miniature, Pedal to the Metal, where they scamper together to the finish line.

They dig into the punchy, polyrhythmic scattato of Revolve, by Andy Akiho, with considerable relish; Levitt’s understated, modal bassline anchors the lithe theme, the violins eventually rising to a whirlwind of blues riffage. Mohammed Fairouz’s Muqqadamah, which follows, is the most pensive, airy, baroque-flavored track here.

The rest of the album is inspired by dance styles from around the world and across the centuries. The band expand deviously from a stark, wickedly catchy 19th century minor-key blues theme in Kenji Bunch’s Allemande pour Tout le Monde. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Kompa for Toussaint also builds out of a minor-key oldtime blues riff to some neat, microtonal hints of a famous Nordic theme, then an enigmatic mist. Sarabande, another Byers piece, slowly emerges from and then returns to a wistful spaciousness.

The album’s most shapeshiftingly catchy track, Michi Wiancko’s Blue Bourée blends blues, the baroque and a little funk. The final number is Gi-gue-ly, by cinematic violist/composer Ljova, a delicious, Balkan-inflected, trickily syncopated tune that grows to pulsing misterioso groove. It’s a party in a box, probably the last thing a lot of people would expect from a contemporary classical string ensemble.

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

Whether Russian orchestras actually play Shostakovich better, or French organists are best suited to perform the work of Louis Vierne, are debatable questions. What was indisputable last night was how vastly attuned the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were to their countryman Arvo Part’s somber, rapturous mysticism. It’s impossible to think of a more apt program for a New York series called Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

The concert was a confluence of unlikely serendipities. Beyond the rare opportunity to witness these two legendary ensembles together on American soil, the material on the bill was what many consider to be peak-era Part. Everything dated from1990 and later, with one of the arrangements a 2018 North American premiere. Better yet, the composer himself had suggested the inclusion of his soberly crescendoing, cell-like 2006 string orchestra piece, Fur Lennart in Memoria.

On a macro level, the performance was as meticulously serious as its overall gloom was pervasive and relentless. In particular, conductor Tonu Kaljuste made masterful use of the innumerable spaces that punctuated these works, leting the natural reverb of the high-ceilinged Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola resonate as profoundly as the music itself.

The ensembles only missed the big American costume-party holiday by a couple of weeks. To be fair, the only point where the sound reached fullscale horror was in the stalking pulse, gothic chromatics and brief series of muted, shrieking motives in the concluding suite, Adam’s Lament. The message, here as elsewhere, seemed to be that no human alone should have to bear the burden of being cast out of paradise, all alone in a hostile world.

The rest of the program was every bit as troubled and serious. Even celeste player Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann’s graceful comet-trail phrases and bittersweet starriness tended to simply mingle with the otherwise rather stygian, even creepy tones of Salve Regina. Mysterious bass drones anchored alternately moody and robust accents and call-and-response from the choir throughout an understatedly dynamic take of Part’s Berliner Messe, the oldest piece they performed. The string orchestra brought a gorgeous, Gorecki-like, hypnotically circling ambience to Silouan’s Song, rising to a windswept ethereality. And the Prayer, from Part’s Kanon Pokajanen suite, perfectly synopsized the concert’s slow, steady, spacious majesty, artfully developed variations on simple, emphatic phrases and lustrous contrast between highs and lows from both the singers and the strings.

The two ensembles are currently on US tour; the next stop is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. in Stanford, California; you can get in for $32, less if you’re a student. After more lighthearted holiday fare next month, Sacred Music in a Sacred Space’s programming keeps the intensity high with a performance by longtime St. Ignatius organist Renee-Anne Louprette with uilleann piper Ivan Goff on Jan 20 at 3 PM; tix are $25.

What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a different solo instrument, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.