New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: classical music

Matt Ulery Puts Out One of the Most Kinetically Gorgeous Albums of the Past Several Months

Bassist Matt Ulery is this era’s great Romantic. Nobody writes more lyrical songs without words than this guy. Blending classical elegance and art-rock intensity with jazz improvisation, his music has a consistently vivid, epically cinematic quality. His latest album, Delicate Charms is streaming at Bandcamp; just so you know, it’s not delicate at all.

Pianist Rob Clearfield gets most of the choicest, most poignant moments here, although everybody else in the band – alto saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Zach Brock and drummer Quin Kirchner – get plenty of chances to make a mark as well. The harmonies between sax and violin sound much more orchestral than you could possibly get from just two instruments, and Kirchner nails the lush ambience with an impressive understatement, saving his tumbles and cymbal spashes for the most dramatic moments.

The opening number, Coping is a theme and variations, Clearfield’s plaintive lines giving way to achingly gorgeous sax/violin harmonies and eventually a steady, cantering drive to a decisive triplet groove through a real struggle of a coda on the wings of Brock’s dancing solo. It’s a mighty payoff.

The Effortless Enchantment has distant latin inflections and a wistful, hopeful theme set to a balletesque pulse, with a similarly hopeful upward trajectory, Clearfield’s insistence and defiant flourishes at the center.

Mellisonant has a slow, saturnine, syncopated sway lit up by Brock’s acerbic, leaping lines and Ward’s guarded optimism. A practically accusatory, lush crescendo, a wary litheness and a ferocious forest fire of a coda ensue before the band bring the song full circle.

The Air We Breathe, a restless, stormy jazz waltz, ironically has one of Clearfield’s most concise, emphatic solos and similarly vigorous work from Ward. At eight and a half minutes, Taciturn is anything but, and has the album’s most lightheartedly leaping moments before the piano and drums come crashing in.

October, with its brisk, pensive, uneasy stroll and bittersweetly rippling piano, could be the high point of the record. As usual, the bandleader’s inobtrusive drive and use of implied melody are a clinic in smart, interesting bass.

The group close the album with Nerve, glittering with echo phrases, glisteningly circular piano and finally a bittersweet bass solo (when’s the last time you heard one of those) from Ulery. Good luck multitasking to this; you might as well give up now and settle in for the ride.

An Auspicious Debut Album and a Brilliant String Quartet From Composer Reinaldo Moya

The sophistication and purposefulness of the compositions on the new album Hearing It Get Dark: Music of Reinaldo Moya – streaming at youtube – speaks to the composer’s formative years in Venezuela’s El Sistema. His music is remarkably translucent and evocative, with influences from minimalism to the baroque.

Chamber ensemble Latitude 49 play the opening piece, Polythene Sonata Product. It’s meant to evoke a factory milieu; there are disquietly starry, Bernard Herrmann-esque moments with the piano front and center, with a tantalizingly lyrical clarinet solo and insistently rhythmic, circular phrases that bring to mind Louis Andriessen.

Moya’s violinist wife Francesca Anderegg plays Bonsai, a tersely dancing, disarmingly anthemic, dynamically shifting solo theme and variations. She tripletracks herself in Violin 3.0, which began as an etude and then took on a life of its own as a bracing, uneasy study in triangulated counterpoint. Philip Glass’ string quartets occasionally come to mind here.

The Attacca Quartet play Moya’s brilliantly picturesque, understatedly haunting string quartet Hearing It Getting Dark, inspired by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The first movement employs a series of short, jabbing echo phrases, striking staccato/sostenuto contrasts and individual voices shadowing each other, with an undercurrent of violence.

The second depicts the fateful final day of central character Quentin Compson, someone whose existential angst has been ripe material for musical interpretation across the decades. Cellist Andrew Yee’s eerily brisk pulse captures a cruelly fleeting present, the quartet nimbly negotiating Moya’s short, practically cell-like phrases which offer neither hope nor closure for a Romantic who has lost his way for good. The coda comes earlier than you would expect.

The concluding movement is a synopsis of sorts, both thematically and structurally, reflecting the dissociative inner world inhabited by Benjy, a classic Faulknerian wise-fool character mourning the loss of his sister. Again, Moya challenges the quartet and taunts the listener with a fleeting lack of resolve. It’s a powerful novel and a powerful piece of music that deserves to be part of the standard repertoire.

A Darkly Playful, Timely Jazz Reinvention of a Brooding Schubert Suite

One of the most surrealistically enjoyable releases of recent months is a highly improvised instrumental version of Schubert’s Winterreise, an allusively political protest suite disguised as a collection of lovelorn ballads. Artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Phil Kline have drawn inspiration from the composer’s brooding early Romanticism, but it’s hard to remember if there’s ever been a jazz interpretation of the whole thing. The collective Madre Vaca are responsible for this crazy stunt, streaming at Bandcamp. The group’s drummer, Benjamin Shorstein gets credit for this fearless, inspired, latin-tinged arrangement.

The opening number, Goodnight, is a marching blend of Cab Calloway hi-de-ho, the Beatles’ For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and a little of the original courtesy of Jonah Pierre’s piano.

Likewise, the group play up the phantasmagoria in a strutting, waltzing take of The Weathervane, then they loosen, with the horns – Juan Rollan’s sax, Steve Strawley’s trumpet and Lance Reed’s trombone – getting nebulous until the rest of the band pull them back on track.

Shorstein and bassist Mike Perez rise from a klezmer-tinged shuffle as Frozen grows from an ambered gravitas to a postbop jazz crush with high-voltage solos from sax and piano. They reinvent Loneliness as a moodily energetic bossa, guitarist Jarrett Carter’s sage, spacious solo at the center.

Pierre and Carter converse broodingly in The Grey Head, with a chromatically-charged bristle and a more muted tropical tinge. Percussionist Milan Algood fuels the qawwali-ish groove of The Crow: once again, there are hints of klezmer, hard-charging sax and McCoy Tyner-inspired piano, and bubbly guitar solos.

The group make Monk-ish clave jazz out of Last Hope; even with the new syncopation, the underlying angst cuts through, especially when the carnivalesque atmosphere grows insistent. The version of The Stormy Morning here is a cha-cha, Reed’s chuffing trombone setting up a big coda from Strawley. Pierre’s Schubertian salsa piano is one of the funniest moments on the album.

Pierre and an uncredited vocalist do a serviceable, straight-up classical take of The Sun Dogs and close with a deviously Balkan-inflected take of The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Schubert’s disconsolate portrait of the suite’s protagonist all alone on the ice with only a homeless drunk for company.

The Winterreise has special relevance for our time as well. It wasn’t written under a lockdown, but during a serious crackdown on civil liberties under another repressive regime. Schubert changed the order of the Wilhelm Muller poems he used as text in order to fool the censors.

Rewardingly Dark, Insightful New Interpretations of Beethoven and Ligeti String Quartets

There’s a point toward the end of the Jupiter String Quartet’s new performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14, Op 131 where suddenly a series of echo effects kick in. One is strikingly quieter than the other. What a stunning contrast, and a stunning insight. It’s hard to think of another quartet who have seized on that particular phrase so dynamically – and they reprise that toward the end of the piece.

Obviously, the group went deep under the hood and came away with an interpretation that even in the rarified world of virtuoso classical music is especially meticulous. It’s the first piece on their new album Metamorphosis, streaming at youtube. Even if you’ve heard other quartets do it a million times, this one is worth discovering.

They approach that first movement with wistfulness but restlessness: overall, this recording in general tends to be faster and more vigorous than is commonplace, underscoring the piece’s persistent unease and, in places, unselfconscious angst. The group – violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough – also employ a more old-word, vibrato-laden touch, especially early on.

The subtle differences in the levels of the individual voicings in the second movement are equally revealing; unlike how some other quartets play it, this is more of a sway than a march. The momentary third movement is an emphatic launching pad for the next one’s expressive resilience, particularly in its evocation of Bach, persistently jabbing, insistent pizzicato and staccato, and a whispery setup to the song without words afterward.

Movement five is quite the romp, at least when the composer’s not threatening to send everybody home from the party, a breathtaking contrast with the sudden sorrow of the sixth. Reckless abandon is not what most people would expect, but there’s some of that in the wary, marching phrases of the conclusion.

György Ligeti’s Holocaust-themed String Quartet No. 1 seems like an unlikely companion piece, although it follows a similar trajectory. And this version is equally picturesque, if in a more overtly grim sense,  A violin wanders woundedly through nebulously rising wafts of battlefield smoke. Groupthink seems to plague the menacing authority figures here; aghast chromatic runs give way to muted shock and hope against hope. The demands of the piece on the quartet’s extended technique are daunting, and they negotiate those microtones, and shrieks, and incessant pivots, with the agility of a fugitive from fascists on the prowl. We may have to do the same, if we fail to stop ‘trace and track,” in moments where the only music is sirens or the screams of children torn from their parents.

Pianist Carolina Calvache Takes Her Lyrical, Individualistic Style to New Depths

It’s always validating to see an artist follow his or her muse and take their art to the next level. Pianist Carolina Calvache‘s 2014 debut album Sotareño was an ambitious mix of classically-inspired lyricism, postbop jazz and rhythms from her native Colombia. But Calvache is also a songwriter. On her new album Vida Profunda – streaming at Bandcamp -, she backs a murderer’s row of vocal talent in a collection of originals plus new settings of poems from across the ages. Calvache’s style is distinctly her own: 19th century art-song, classical music, jazz and diverse sounds from south of the border all figure in. Most of the lyrics on the album are in Spanish.

Marta Gomez sings the album’s title track, an anthemic neoromantic art-song awash in lush strings, with an understated intensity. Based on a poem by Porfirio Barba Jacob, it’s an uneasy coming to terms with extremes, emotional or otherwise. As Calvache sees it, an unfelt life is not worth living.

Sofia Ribeiro takes over the mic for El Pájaro Yo (The Bird Is Me), a darkly lilting setting of the famous Pablo Neruda poem. Hadar Noiberg’s flute soaring as fearlessly as the lyric. Ruben Blades delivers Te Conocí de Nuevo (I Met You Again), a reunited-for-good ballad, with hope and tenderness over Calvache’s bright, emphatic melody.

Claudia Acuña gives an aching, imploring angst to Sin un Despido (unpoetic translation: We Never Got to Say Goodbye), a glistening, symphonic requiem for the 2015 LaMia Flight 2933 crash whose victims included the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoens. Sara Serpa provides her signature, crystalline vocalese gravitas to Hope, a optimistically clustering number propelled by Jonathan Blake’s drums, Samuel Torres’ djembe and Peter Slavov’s bass, Calvache introducing it with a reference to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Aubrey Johnson brings a bracing, unsettled energy to Childhood Retreat, a poignant setting of a Robert Duncan poem capped off by Michael Rodriguez’s soaring trumpet. Haydee Milanes offers warm and reflection in the Horace Silver-inspired Stella, a tribute to Calvache’s mom, with the composer on twinkling Rhodes and then incisive acoustic piano as harmonica player Gregoire Maret spirals overhead.

Serpa takes over on vocals again for the album’s most stunning song, The Trail, based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow. Calvache ripples and cascades over sweeping string orchestration: at a time when the lockdowners are insisting on increasingly sinister levels of surveillance, this song couldn’t be more timely.

Lara Bello lends a warmly reflective tone to No Te Vi Crecer (I Didn’t See You Grow Up) over Calvache’s glistening lines: as lullabies go, this is a particularly enegetic one. The album’s only dud is a pop song that smacks of label mismanagement and doesn’t take advantage of Calvache’s many talents. This is a quiet triumph of outside-the-box playing from a rotating cast that also includes drummer Keita Ogawa; bassists Petros Klampanis and Ricky Rodriguez; violinists Tomoko Omura, Leonor Falcon, Ben Russell, Annaliesa Place and Adda Kridler; violists Allysin Clare and Jocelin Pan; cellists Brian Sanders and Diego Garcia; oboist Katie Scheele; trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulous and bass clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho.

A Characteristically Haunting, Dynamic New Album of Michael Hersch Works

Composer and pianist Michael Hersch was scheduled to play a marathon weekend at the Irondale Center in Greenpoint back in April. Hersch, who is best known for his compositions, is also a ferociously intense musician and rarely performs, so the series of shows promised to be one of the concert highlights of the year.

The lockdown killed that.

Fortunately, Hersch already had the material recorded. One of the albums featuring works on the bill is his recent release Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, streaming at Bandcamp.

The first work is titled …das Ruckgrat berstand (German for “bent back” ), a setting of Christopher Middleton poems translated into German and performed by  Patricia Kopatchinskaja on violin and vocals alongside Jay Campbell on cello. Sometimes horizontal and ambient, other times disquietingly stark, it contrasts long, airy, doppler-like phrases and acidic close harmonies punctuated by Hersch’s signature short, sharp, sometimes shrieking accents.

Music for Violin and Piano is a pastiche of excerpts from earlier Hersch works, culled from a 2018 concert at National Sawdust – only the second time violinist Miranda Cuckson and Hersch had performed together. He’s a whirlwind on the keys, his sudden, leaping, clustering phrases sometimes evoking Frederic Rzewski, but with a lot more space between phrases (a signature Hersch trope). The otherworldly, eerie minimalism of Messiaen and the dark, persistent restlessness of Ran Blake are other points of comparison. Cuckson’s jagged leads and wary sustain provide an anchor, such that there is in this relentlessly uneasy partita.

The album’s title suite comprises fifteen pieces for violin and cello, inspired by texts by Robert Lowell – madness, torment and death are recurrent themes in Hersch’s work. Austere clouds of harmony slowly shift through the sonic picture. Minute timbral changes alternate between airiness and grit, often drifting into richly unsettled microtonal territory. Sudden swells and fades give way to keening, oscillating harmonics, occasional Bartokian irony or muted gloom. The finale is a drifting, Shostakovian elegy. It’s music to get completely lost in, yet Hersch always finds a way to jar the themes out of any kind nof resolution.

This doesn’t have the sheer horror of Kopatchinskaja and International Contemporary Ensemble’s performance of Hersch’s End Stages, but it’s still plenty riveting. Of all the composers working in new music today, Hersch is as individualistic as anyone and may well be the very best.

Transcendent, Harrowing Antifascist Shostakovich Concertos From Alina Ibragimova

Just a couple of months ago, violinist Alina Ibragimova made the front page here with a performance of a rare, lush French Romantic sonata by Louis Vierne. That’s right – in addition to his iconic organ symphonies, Vierne wrote gorgeous music for strings. That choice of obscure masterpiece is typical for her. How does she approach Shostakovich’s much better-known Violin Concertos No.1 and No. 2? Click onto Spotify if you have about forty minutes to spare away from multitasking: this is music you can’t turn away from.

What’s most notable about this record, performed with the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, is that this is the first-ever recording to feature the blistering finale of the Concerto No. 1 as the composer originally wrote it. Legendary violinist David Oistrakh, premiering it in Russia in 1955, asked Shostakovich to give him a break and let the orchestra carry the twisted “burlesque” theme that opens the movement for the sake of a momentary breather before the fireworks begin again. The composer agreed to the change: it’s too bad he’s not here to hear Ibrigamova do justice to the original.

Getting there is a riveting, harrowing ride: Shostakovich’s empathy for his fellow citizens’ suffering under Stalin is as poignant as his caricaturish portrait of the regime is savage. In an era of seemingly daily assaults on our civil rights, this music could not be more relevant. Jurowski draws muted suspense from the low strings and a poignant moment from the bassoon as Ibragimova parses this distant nightmare scenario with a focused, cello-like midrange intensity and just the hint of a tremulous vibrato. Shostakovich wrote it in 1948 amid Stalin’s murderous assault on the Russian intelligentsia but kept it under wraps until seven years later; that choice may have saved his life.

The clarity of the sense of abandonment in the lament before starry harp enters the nightscape is absolutely shattering. The contrast between the chilly, close-harmonied, bronzed gleam of the orchestra and  Ibrigamova’s plaintive resonance as horror looms closer is just as chilling.

The bustle and whirl of the second movement here are just short of frantic, part savage parody of Soviet pageantry, part dance of death, Ibragimova’s violin whistling while the world implodes around her. The aching crescendo of the bittersweet third movement is visceral, her tight harmonies and astringent chords cutting through the smoke pulsing right behind her. Her echoing dynamics in the cruelly marching solo afterward are breathtaking, as is the gleefully ghoulish dance that wraps up this antifascist classic.

The 1967 Concerto No. 2 seems much like a reprise of its predecessor, through a glass, darkly. The ensemble open in the same brooding, otheworldly vein, Ibragimova channeling a plaintive insistence, the enemy always lurking at the door. Anxiety rises, spiced with a ruthlessly cynical quote or two from the 19th century, down to a slow, moody paraphrase of a country dance theme.

The second movement’s underlying pillowy gloom and the violin drifting high above make a sharp contrast. The goofy exchange between Ibragimova and a lone trombone as the third gets underway is priceless, setting the stage for more serious-minded jousting and eventually a bristling violin cadenza with more of a cynically cartoonish tinge than the ghastliness it echoes. Forget about Stalin for a minute: imagine the kind of hell that Brezhnev, or Krushchev, or Reagan could have unleashed if they’d had apparatchik Mike Bloomberg’s minions in charge of their “trace and track.”

Elegant, Intricate, Individualistic Guitar Instrumentals From Duo Tandem

Duo Tandem play gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic guitar music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines. Their new album Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi is streaming at Spotify. Guitarist Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left.

They open the record with the first of a handful of Cyprian Rhapsodie, a steady, brooding, briskly strolling minor-key blend of Romany jazz, the baroque and rembetiko. It’s essentially an overture to the triptych which follows. The first part is slower, with a spare Emirzade solo and a little more counteproint; the second is more sober and austere, with some magically nuanced echo phrases from Anderson over walking bass figures. The conclusion comes across as a sunny Mediterranean bouzouki tune with an unexpectedly moody bridge, the lead shifting from Emirzade’s precise walks and chords to Anderson’s bracing tremolo-picking.

The two slowly shift Valse No. 1 from melancholy to somewhat more animated terrain, with more of the album’s initial Greek Django atmosphere. The album’s sixth track, another rhapsody, has some coy call-and-response amid the Mediterranean baroque phrasing.

Valse No. 2 is more wistfully reflective, with lots of gentle twin lead lines. The three-part Turkish Suite begins with an enigmatic circular theme and variations, shifts to a slow, spacious, mutedly saturnine midsection and winds up with the album’s most intensely crescendoing, chromatically biting coda.

Romance has the most traditional baroque counterpoint on the record. The next rhapsody reprise makes a good segue, adding a little beachy Greek flavor to what otherwise could be Telemann or Handel. The album’s final suite, Three Fragments begins with could be a Django Reinhardt reinvention of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, continues with echoes of Debussy and Satie and concludes with surreal baroque Romany swing.

Likewise, the album’s epic closing number shifts from brooding chromatics to Bach-like interplay. This is a richly melodic showcase for Belevi’s distinctive, elegant compositions, which deserve the inspired interpretations they get from Emirzade and Anderson.

Violinist Movses Pogossian Pulls Together a Stunning, Uneasy Album of New Armenian Classical Music

It’s astonishing how influential Armenian music has been, considering how small the country is, not to mention the pre-World War I holocaust there which resulted in the murder of as much as 85% of the population and most of its intelligentsia. While Armenian culture has thrived throughout the global diaspora, in the past hundred years the country managed to withstand a stifling Soviet occupation and emerged with wellspring of new music. Violinist Movses Pogossian‘s new album Modulation Necklace – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates a series of intense, powerful, edgy works by 21st century composers from throughout the global Armenian community.

Artur Avanesov’s somber, stately, acidically crescendoing Quasi Harena Maris begins as a microtonal string quartet played by Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violist Morgan O’Shaughnessey and cellist Niall Ferguson. The composer enters, on piano, with a brooding minimalism as the strings recede to wisps and washes. His fierce block chords shift between dark neoromanticism and unsettled close harmonies, the strings echoing the dichotomy between anthemic intensity and relentless, blustery unease. The sparse, clustering suspense on the way out is chilling. On one hand, there are echoes of the great Danish composer Per Norgard; on the other, this is like nothing you’ve ever heard. What a showstopper to open this album.

The quartet of Avanesov, violinist Varty Manouelian, violist Scott St. John and cellist Antonio Lysy play Ashot Zhrabyan’s Novelette. The ache of the string introduction is more visceral here, Avanesov pouncing in as they reach a horrified peak. Hazy atmospherics alternate with bracing swells, together and individually, the pianist punctuating the storm as it passes through and then returns with a marching vengeance. A stabbing, suspiciously petulant insistence peaks out, then the stern strings take over and end with an unexpectedly quiet triumph.

Avanesov, Manouelian and Tyler deliver Michel Petrossian‘s A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire with equal parts individual playfulness and a tight cohesiveness, yet one which remains unsettled until a starkly decisive conclusion. It’s an exploration of identity in an increasingly syncretic world. Have we lost a heritage, or are we creating a brand new, more universal one? The answer seems to be yes to both questions.

The UCLA VEM Ensemble: Hwang and O’Shaughnessey with violinist Aiko Richter, cellist Jason Pegis and mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen tackle Artashes Kartalyan’s Tekeyan Triptych, a setting of poems on longing and posterity by Vahan Tekeyan, a major 20th century figure. In the liner notes, Segen gets high marks from the ensemble for her Armenian pronunciation; the dynamically shifting music echoes late Debussy, with melodies that range from the baroque to Armenian traditional melodies, most anthemically in the second number.

Saxophonist Katisse Buckingham and percussionist Dustin Donahue’s take of Ashot Kartalyan‘s five-part Suite for Saxophone and Percussion shifts from kinetic high/low contrasts, to jaunty bits of vibraphone jazz, a hint of furtive suspense, a beautifully bittersweet ballad and a booming, dancing coda. Avanesov ends the album with seven miniatures from his Feux Follets collection, which range from warm neoromanticism, to lingering minimalism and biting Near Eastern modes. If this is typical of what’s coming out of the Armenian world now, we need to hear more of it!

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.