New York Music Daily

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Category: classical music

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since New York Music Daily went live in 2011. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.

The Aizuri Quartet Launch a New Season at a Favorite Upper West Side Classical Institution

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the Aizuri Quartet‘s eclectically entertaining, dynamic performance earlier this month at the popular Music Mondays series of free concerts on the Upper West Side.

The ensemble – violinists Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa, violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist Karen Ouzounian – began with an arrangement of a Hildegard Von Bingen diptych, its somber, stately, plainchant shifting artfully between the high strings and the cello, following a lengthy, aptly otherworldly introduction. The group’s take on Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major, op. 77, no. 2 spotlighted those individual, intertwining voices in as high definition as anyone could have wanted, illuminating its innumerable (some might say interminable) moments of playful repartee.

Then they played Caroline Shaw‘s deviously Beethoven-influenced Blueprint, its tightly interwoven cellular motives eventually reaching a burst of quiet jubilation, in contrast with its airy, spacious accents. There was also an augmented Brahms work on the bill, after the interminssion, but sometimes sticking around for an entire evening of music ia a luxury. The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York concert is. December 4 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with works by Komitas, Haydn and Paul Wiancko.; tix are $30 The Music Mondays series at Advent Church at the northeast corner of 93rd St. and Broadway continues on Nov 18 at 7:30 PM with the Brass Project playing works by Bach, Reena Ismail, Gabriella Smith and a New York premiere by Kinan Abou-Afach

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.

Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.

In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.

The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.

In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.

After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?

It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.

The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.

[for any strange creatures looking for today’s Halloween month piece, this is it: that Carrillo quartet would be perfect for any serious Halloween playlist]

Celebrating a Halloween Classic and Its Enigmatic Composer

Today’s Halloween month installment revisits an iconic piece from the creepy classical repertoire: French early Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. It’s been recorded to death (ouch, sorry), and strangely, it doesn’t seem to be represented here in concert here in New York this month. But there’s a Utah Symphony recording worth hearing, if 19th century phantasmagoria is your thing – and if this recording ever makes it to the web. For the moment, here’s a 1951 New York Philharmonic recording with maestro Dmitri Mitropoulos.

Conductor Thierry Fischer leads the Salt Lake City ensemble through a colorful, careening, deliciously inspired take. Madeline Adkins’ solo violin is jagged, almost haphazard, the simmer underneath is mutedly evil and the group are obviously having a great time with the gleeful grimness of this quasi-tarantella.

The rest of the record holds up robustly. The composer’s Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55 opens with a series of spot-on, momentary solos from oboe, violin, bassoon and clarinet, introducing a slashing chromatic theme. The riffs are short, sharp, Mozartean, the orchestra pulsing tightly underneath. Saint-Saens was a prickly guy and didn’t do himself any favors for the sake of posterity, but this isn’t shalllow music, and the orchestra completely get that. It’s a clinic in classical composition.

The concise, contrapuntal phrasing of the second movement is more warmly crepuscular and early 19th century, closer to, say, Beethoven’s Sixth. Fischer lets the dogs out to leap and waltz around the wry, momentary solo passages of the third, then the orchestra go racing, lickety-split through the jaunty concentric circles of the finale. Still, conceptually, wouldn’t it have been a whole lot more interesting if Saint-Saens had rolled with the menace inherent in the opening movement? Maybe eschewing that was a commercial move, figuring that there’s only so much macabre an audience can take.

The opening of the other symphony here, No. 2 in F, “Urbs Roma” has been ripped off for plenty of pop songs over the years. It’s surprising that the tumbling pageantry of the second movement and the troubled Mitteleuroepean gothic of the third haven’t been also been plundered. The album’s liner notes witheringly quote Claude Debussy as saying that Saint-Saens – who’d trashed the debut of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn – once showed promise of becoming a great composer. Whatever you think of his music – his endless volleys of orchestral counterpoint, his grandiose, Lisztian piano concertos, his irresistible Organ Symphony and perhaps shockingly poignant solo organ works – you can’t deny his gift for pure entertainment. Once again, Fischer gets that, and so does this orchestra.

Slashing, Richly Acerbic New String Music and Reinvented Film Noir Sounds in the West Village

This past evening at Greenwich House Music School, the Sirius Quartet wound up their two-day annual festival of category-defying music with an incendiary, dynamic set, followed eventually but the historic live debut of a trio legendary for a classic of film noir music from two decades ago.

The quartet’s latest album, New World is a searing portrait of the here and now, focusing on discrimination and terror experienced by immigrants and minorities as well as the fascist assaults and bigotry of the Trump administration. While artistic communities as a whole have mobilized against the Trumpies, there are few ensembles in any style of music, let alone new serious concert music, who’ve been writing as consistently and acerbically as this group.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s slashing downward cadenza early on in the night’s opening number, Beside the Point, reaffirmed that commitment, terrorized but still defiant. This piece came across as even more epic live than on album, cellist Jeremy Harman alternating between stark washes and a catchy, trip-hop flavored pizzicato bassline, Fung delivering a couple of mighty crescendos with tantalizingly brief, shivery solos. The tersely conversational interplay between violinist Gregor Huebner and violist Ron Lawrence provided sobering contrast.

They vividly brought to mind the great Kurdish composer Kayhan Kalhor with To a New Day, rising from relentlessly tense, sustained close harmonies to a fluttering, soaring theme punctuated by spare, similarly suspenseful pizzicato passages and a grimly sardonic Vivaldi quote from Lawrence. A little later, they reinvented Radiohead’s Knives Out as a spare, swinging. quasi-baroque string-rock anthem, diverging toward chaos for an instant before reconfiguring with a wary intensity.

The centerpiece was the new album’s savagely colorful title track, a portrait of the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. Quoting from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as well as Shostakovich’s shattering, horrified String Quartet No. 8, the group shifted grimly from anxious, massed, chattering voices, to mournful sustained passages spiced with sarcastic faux-pageantry and a buffoonish accent or two. Huebner took centerstage, finally rising to a frenetic, terrorized crescendo over the rest of the group’s plaintive, doomed ambience in Still, based on the Billie Holliday hit Strange Fruit and its grisly, surreal portrait of a lynching.

Theremin Noir – the trio of thereminist/keyboardist Rob Schwimmer, pianist Uri Caine and violinist Mark Feldman – put out a single 1999 album that’s become revered as a classic of film noir composition. The three seemed especially psyched to finally stage this material, a mix of reinvented Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes and originals. Schwimmer drew chuckles from the crowd, acknowledging the challenges of trying to lead a band, let alone turn pages, with both hands on the theremin:.. Throughout the trio’s hour onstage, a lot of head signals were involved.

They opened with Herrmann’s bookstore scene from Torn Curtain and its haunting, plaintive variations on a melancholy, neoromantic piano theme, Schwimmer switching between theremin and a touch-sensitive synth full of patches evoking everything from a choir to a wind tunnel to a bell tower, as well as a theremin. That enabled him to sit at the keys for long periods without having to leap up and switch back.

An enveloping, echoingly industrial tone poem brought to mind the lingering, metalloid menace of Philip Blackburn’s electronic tableaux. Schwimmer explained that his melancholy Waltz for Clara was a homage to the late, great theremin pioneer Clara Rockmore. His more film noir-inspired originals were spot-on, full of furtive, stairstepping motives, a wry interlude of door creaks amid angst-fueled, subtly shifting neoromantic piano-and-violin themes.

Feldman opened his original, Real Joe with a moody solo before Caine’s piano and Schwimmer’s increasingly surreal synth flourishes joines the mix. Two pieces from Herrmann’s Vertigo score – Carlotta’s Portrait and Scene d’Amour – were the highlights of the night. The former was rich with aching, increasingly enigmatic piano from Caine and morose violin from Feldman as Schwimmer put the quavering icing on the cake. The latter made an apt closer for the evening, with an unexpectedly playful, tongue-in-cheek, loungey jazz interlude midway through, before a return to ineluctable grimness. If the trio had the presence of mind to record their set, and the quality is even remotely usable, they’ve got a brilliant live album to follow up the original studio release.

Thrills and Chills with Organist Jeremy Filsell at St. Thomas Church

“What an extraordinary time to arrive here,” organist and new St. Thomas Church music director Jeremy Filsell reflected during his extensive opening remarks Friday night to kick off this year’s Grand Organ Series there. Considering that he gets to spend more time than anyone else at the church’s new Miller-Scott organ, he’s in an enviable position. This mighty instrument is even louder and more colorful than the old hybrid Aeolian-Skinner model it replaced – and that machine was a beast.

Filsell also spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants. Gerre Hancock, who served as music director here for over thirty years, was one of them, one of the world’s great organ improvisers and a first-class composer as well. Filsell played one of his works, Trumpet Flourishes for Christmas, airing out the fiery trumpet stops located in the ceiling with a playfully triumphant dialogue bookending a swirling joie de vivre over long, resonant tones. Having had the good fortune to hear Dr. Hancock play the piece during the holiday season, over twenty years ago, it’s safe to say he would have approved.

The other illustrious prececessor Filsell was referring to, of course, was John Scott, who succeeded Hancock and tragically did not live to play the organ he had so much of a hand in designing. Scott reveled in utilizing every color and every texture he could find, and Filsell seems cut from the same cloth. He opened the show with a solo transcription of Julian Wachner’s showy, chuffing Angelus, originally conceived as a concerto for organ and orchestra. It gave the organist a prime opportunity to show off the various sections of the new instrument, without spending much time in any one place, all the way through to a coy wisp of an ending that had the crowd chuckling.

Jean-Jacques Grunenwald’s Diptyque Liturgique, from 1956, provided Filsell with more terse, purposeful passages utilizing the organ’s bright, French colors, both with calm Widor-esque atmospherics and more opaque, Alain-like passages, starriness contrasting with a long, portentous crescendo.

Calvin Hampton’s In Praise of Humanity was more playful yet unsettled, Filsell nimbly negotiating its tricky 5/8 metrics, echo phrasing and nymphlike clusters, primarily utilizing the organ’s many flute stops. The piece de resistance was Marcel Dupre’s embittered, vastly symphonic triptych, Evocation, Op. 37. Written in 1941, after the composer had whisked his organist father away from the imperiled Rouen cathedral, only to see him die enroute, the piece is riddled with vindictive anti-Nazi imagery. Filsell played up the variations on a cannon-fire motif along with the Shostakovian sarcasm of a pompous march, a stuffy waltz and a phony fanfare or two.

An exquisitely tender solo on what Dupre would have called the cromorne stop was arguably the highlight of the concert. Fisell also went deeply into the suite’s minute details and expansive dynamic shifts, from distant, airy unease, to grim, resounding chords and defiantly conspiratorial flurries, all the way through to a masterfully spaced yet ineluctably savage ending. What a thrill, and what a relevant piece for our time.

The next concert in the Grand Organ Concert series here is on October 19 at 3 PM featuring Christophe Mantoux playing a dynamic all-French program of works by Messiaen, Durufle, Tournemire, Vierne and Franck. Cover is $20.

Riveting New Sounds and Old Crowd-Pleasers From the Claremont Trio

If the Claremont Trio’s forthcoming album is anything like their concert last week to open this year’s Music Mondays series on the Upper West Side, it’s going to be amazing.

The program was typical of this venue, a mix of rapturously interesting 21st century works along with a couple of old warhorses. The three musicians – violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin and pianist Andea Lam – offered some gleefully phantastmagorical Halloween foreshadowing with four folk song variations by Gabriela Lena Frank. Careful, wary long-tone overlays between the musicians quickly gave way to a devious, ghostly game of peek-a-boo, carnivalesque pirouettes and wary, lingering, Messiaenic chords.

Helen Grime‘s Three Whistler Miniatures – inspired by an exhibit at the Gardner Museum in Boston – were more austere and ominously resonant: rich washes of cello, mordantly assertive piano and slithery violin all figured into the mini-suite’s striking dynamic shifts and desolate reflecting-pool chill at the end.

The two warhorses were Dvorak’s Dumky Trio and Brahms’ final trio, No. 3 in C Minor. The former was a Slavic soul party, fueled as much by the violin’s elegantly leaping Romany-flavored cadenzas as much as by Lam’s alternately romping and unexpectedly muted attack. The three women played up the music’s pensive side, leaving a lot of headroom for the composer’s series of triumphant codas.

Where they pulled back on the Dvorak for the sake of emotional attunement and contrast, they did the opposite with the Brahms, Lam in particular adding extra vigor, which paid off particularly well in the andante third movement as she added a degree of gravitas. Otherwise, there wasn’t much the Trio could enhance: the music was lovely, and predictable, party music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of 19th century Germany. As proto-ELO, it wasn’t up to Jeff Lynne level.

Music Mondays continues on October 7 at 7:30 PM at Advent Church at the corner of 93rd St. and Broadway with the Aizuri String Quarte playing works by Haydn, Hildegard von Bingen, Brahms and Caroline Shaw. Admission is free, but you’ll have to get there at least least fifteen minutes early if you really want a seat at what has become one of Manhattan’s favorite classical spots.

 

An Urbane, Greek-Adjacent New Live Album From the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center just got back from tour in Greece…and brought a record back with them. Their new album, Odyssey – streaming at PBS – bolsters the argument that more artists should make live albums, classical ensembles included. It’s also genteel party music. 0riginally broadcast on PBS” Live From Lincoln Center, it features both standard repertoire and more obscure material diversely associated with Hellenic culture.

It begins with Tara Helen O’Connor’s dynamically swaying, often broodingly muted solo take of Debussy’s Syrinx for Flute and concludes with a gregariously cheery, occasionally beery rendition of Mendelssohn’s Octet For Strings in E-flat major. The ensemble – violinists Sean Lee, Danbi Um, Aaron Boyd and Arnaud Sussmann; violists Matthew Lipman and Paul Neubauer; and cellists David Finckel and Dmitri Atapine – have a particularly good time with the teenage composer’s clever echo effects in the second movement.

The two partitas in between have a more distinctly Greek flavor. Emily D’Angelo brings an unexpected arioso intensity to the miniatures of Ravel’s Cinq Melodies Populaires Grecques for Voice and Piano, over Wu Han’s nimble shifts from Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics to misty, muted Mediterranean balladry. Then Neubauer teams with Boyd for a quartet of short pieces from George Tsontakis” Knickknacks for Violin and Viola. The only Greek composer included on the album gets a particularly strong interpretation: with the music’s insistently rhythmic, acerbic call-and-response enhanced by excellent recording quality, the duo evoke a considerably larger ensemble.

Then they team with O’Connor for Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, which the extensive liner notes describe as “a bit of nostalgia marking the end of an era.” Well put: Mozart is cited as an influence, and the Italian baroque also seems to be a strong reference in the livelier, more balletesque movements.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – a roughly 180-member, rotating cast of world-class talent – are celebrating fifty years of exploring the vast world of small-ensemble repertoire, in intimate performances that continue year-round from their home base at Alice Tully Hall.

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

A Starkly Relevant New Album and a Governors Island Show by the Very Serious Sirius Quartet

The album cover illustration for the Sirius Quartet‘s latest release, New World – streaming at Spotify – has the Statue of Liberty front and center, against a backdrop that could be a sunset with stormclouds overhead…or smoke from a conflagration. She’s wearing a veil. The record’s centerpiece, New World, Nov. 9, 2016 won the Grand Prize in the the New York Philharmonic’s New World Initiative composition competition a couple of years ago. The message could not be more clear. It’s no wonder why the group are so troubled by the events since then: both of their violinists are immigrants.

They’re playing a free concert featuring their own materal plus original arrangements of Radiohead and the Beatles this Sept 7 at the park in the middle of Governors Island, with sets at 1 and 3 PM. You can catch the ferry from either the old Staten Island Ferry terminal at the Battery – to the east of the new one – or from the Brooklyn landing where Bergen Street meets the river.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s Beside the Point opens the album. In between a wistful, trip hop-flavored theme, the group chop their way through a staccato thicket capped off by a big cadenza where the violin finally breaks free, in a depiction of the struggle against discrimination.

Currents, a tone poem by cellist Jeremy Harman has stark, resonant echoes of Irish music and the blues: it could be a shout out to two communities who’ve had to battle bigotry here. The epic title track sarcastically juxtaposes contrasting references to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8: look how far we haven’t come, violinist/composer Gregor Huebner seems to say.

Still, another Huebner composition, is based on Strange Fruit, the grisly chronicle of a lynching and a big Billie Holiday hit. Ron Lawrence’s viola chops at the air along with the cello over an uneasily crescendoing violin haze, the group coalescing somberly up to a horrified, insistent coda. Their version of Eleanor Rigby has a bittersweet, baroque introductory paraphrase and some bluesy soloing, finally hitting the original melody over a propulsive, funky beat. As covers of the song go, it’s one of the few actually listenable ones.

The album’s second epic, More Than We Are rises slowly through allusions to Indian music to a persistently wary, chromatic pulse fueled by Harman’s bassline: you could call parts of it Messiaenic cello metal. To a New Day is even more somber, flickering pizzicato passages alternating with a brooding sway grounded by a hypnotically precise, stabbing rhythm.

The Chinese-inflected 30th Night has a dramatic vocal interlude amid quavering cadenzas as well as phrasing that mimics the warpy tones of a pipa. The album’s second cover, Radiohead’s Knives Out is louder and more jagged than Sybarite5‘s lush take on the Thom Yorke catalog. The group return to the neo-baroque with the album’s rather sentimental closing cut, simply titled Cavatina. Contemporary classical protest music doesn’t get more interesting or hauntingly diverse than this.