New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: concert

Irresistible Avant Garde Punk Cello Fun with Okkyung Lee

Over the past year, impresarios Blank Forms have been booking some of the most interesting, individualistic improvisationally-inclined performers in town into some serendipitously unlikely spaces. One of the most entertaining ones, a solo performance by cellist Okkyung Lee, took place ast week, late in the series they’d staged at the James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown,  She tends to push the limits of tonality and uses a lot of extended technique, and this brief set – over in twenty-two minutes – was typical.

And especially funny. Setting up in the back of the gallery, she adjusted her chair. It was a heavy chair, and its metal coasters squeaked and shrieked on the stone floor. Was she going to make that part of her performance? Most definitely – but for just a playful twenty seconds or so, midway through.

She began with a furtive, muted, rustling exchange, a conversation that grew more animated and agitated and then gave way to calm, spacious, flitting motives. The only discernible melody was when she played subtly baroque-tinged if defiantly microtonal variations on a series of fifth intervals on open strings. Otherwise, the show was more about timbre and attack and rhythm – and playful narrative – rather than pitch.

She ended it with a very amusing, extended series of call-and-response riffs, pushing her cello on its stand directly into the crowd. By now, the gallery’s rear room was full, and everybody in the middle of the floor was sitting. Was she going to move around anyone? No way. She took her time, firing off bursts and snippets of sound in various audience members’ faces; a few people found this irresistibly funny, but if anyone else was in on the joke, they didn’t give anything away..

Lee didn’t stop going when she’d made her way all the way through the audience, continuing to the front door, then retracing her steps, walking backwards. She didn’t look over her shoulder once, completely deadpan, Moses in reverse as the crowd on the floor parted once more. And then she was done.

Blank Forms’ next concert, on Nov 23 at 7 PM features trumpeter Nate Wooley and ensemble playing his new suite Seven Storey Mountain at St Peter’s Church, 346 W 20th St.; cover is $10

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]

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.

Magically Haunting Creative Jazz on the Lower East Side

Over the past couple of months, there’s been an intriguing series of concerts, simply called Art in Gardens., featuring some of New York’s best creative jazz artists rotating through three community gardens on the Lower East Side. Saturday afternoon’s concluding concert at the Children’s Magical Garden, a leafy little Stanton Street oasis, was rapturously fun. Although guitarist Ava Mendoza seemed to be the ringleader, this was definitely a democratic performance, bassist Shayna Dulberger, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and Daniel Carter, who began the set on trumpet but then switched to tenor as well, exchanged ideas and musical banter and frequently sizzling riffage with a remarkably singleminded commitment to keeping a garden full of jazz fans entertained.

Free jazz gets a bad rap for being self-indulgent because it so often is: this was anything but. How did this crew keep it so focused? By sticking close to a central note, maintaining a lot of resonant, sustained lines rather than disembodied, herky-jerky notes, and keeping solos terse and thoughtful.

When she wasn’t punching out catchy, looping basslines, including one deviously extended interlude that finally veered away from 7/8 time, Dulberger used her bow for pitchblende washes that drew the music into deep, dark terrain. And the one time she hit a bubbly phrase and the rest of the crew resisted, she backed away, letting the music find its own natural flow.

Carter alternated between airy, sustained notes, methodical rises and falls and one particularly sage, saturnine, deep blues interlude where the band pulled back to let that majesty stand out. Lewis played what might have been the afternoon’s most gorgeous solo – such that there there were any solos at all – with a biting, Middle Eastern-tinged poignancy. Alternating between trebly distortion and lingering, sunbaked, bluesy minimalism, Mendoza managed to make her menacing chromatics and macabre tritones work seamlessly within this unsettled but less overtly dark context.

Finally, she cut loose with a nonchalantly savage series of tremolo-picked upper-register chords, then looped them with a pedal and added even more ominous low harmonies. That was the signal to the rest of the band to cut loose, but even there, the steady lattice of notes between the saxes along with Dulberger’s snaky, circular phrasing didn’t go completely nuts: this storm was headed in a very specific direction, straight to the endorphin center of the brain.

The Art in Gardens series may be over, but the organizers are still booking shows all over town, including an excellent “un-Columbus Day” three-day festival opening on Oct 11 at El Taller Latinoamericano at 215 E 99th St.

Haunting New Interpretatations of Ancient Greek Tunes on the Upper East Side

Last night at Holy Trinity Cathedral on the Upper East Side, clarinetist Petroloukas Halkias and lauto player Vasilis Kostas treated a sold-out crowd to a rare, exhilarating, frequently haunting performance of centuries-old repertoire from the Epirus region of northern Greece.

It was astonishing to witness how much vigor and vitality Halkias, now 85, can still bring to the material. Employing round after round of circular breathing, he most frequently channeled a woody, otherwordly, resonant tone that evoked a duduk. In those instances, his steady, unwavering, meticulous control, typically playing moody, often plaintive variations and melismatic microtones against a low, central note, were absolutely spellbinding.

The scion of a legacy of virtuosos that dates back to the 1880s, Halkias also displayed an American jazz influence…but with airy, purposeful, pensive lines rather than endless volleys of postbop. Kostas, his protege, often picked out clarinet voicings on his lauto, sparkling with hammer-ons and pull-offs. It was a clinic in individualistic interpretations of an ancient tradition.

Kostas said that violinist Beth Bahia Cohen’s similarly spellbinding, ominously chromatic voicings would be difficult to find among musicians from Epirus today, let alone here in the US: he was clearly psyched to have her in the band. His fellow lautist Pangiotis Sakkoulas played steady, jangly rhythm, often holding an enigmatic, open minor sixth chord for minutes on end while his bandmates exchanged solos. Percussionist Pangiotis Georgakopolous may only have been playing the defi hand drum for a few months – he’s a jazz drummer by trade – but had masterful touch and sublety, especially when it came to coloring the lows.

The material was as dynamic as the performance. Kostas sang in expressive Greek throughout a mix of lively drinking tunes, resonant love ballads and several plaintive laments. The best number of the night was a moody minor-key ballad based on a four-chord descending progression, featuring some of Kostas and Halkias’ most poignantly incisive soloing. Several of the numbers began with undulating, brightly major-key verses before taking a turn toward stormier, more ominous Balkan terrain. Both musicians took turns opening songs with tantalizingly brief, woundedly vivid solo improvisations. There was no encore: after almost two nonstop hours onstage, the group got a lengthy standing ovation.

Halkias and Kostas also have a rapturous new duo album, The Soul of Epirus, a more intimate, intertwining approach to many of these songs.

New Music Duo andPlay and Cello Rocker Meaghan Burke Put on a Serious Party at the Edge of Chinatown

How do violin/viola duo andPlay manage to create such otherworldly, quietly phantasmagorical textures? Beyond their adventurous choice of repertoire, they use weird alternate tunings. Folk and rock guitarists have been doing that since forever, but unorthodox tunings are a relatively new phenomenon in the chamber music world. At the release party for their new album Playlist at the Metropolis Ensemble‘s second-floor digs at 1 Rivington St. last night, violist Hannah Levinson and violinist Maya Bennardo – with some help from their Rhythm Method buds Meaghan Burke and Leah Asher, on harmonica and melodica, respectively – evoked a ghost world that was as playful and bracing as it was envelopingly sepulchral. Anybody who might mistakenly believe that all 21st century serious concert music is stuffy or wilfully abstruse needs to check out the programming here.

The party was in full effect before the music started. A sold-out crowd pregamed with bourbon punch and grapefruit shots. As the performance began, Levinson sent a big bucket of fresh saltwater taffy around the audience, seated in the round. The charismatic Burke opened with a brief solo set of characteristically biting, entertainingly lyrical cello-rock songs. Calmly and methodically, she shifted between catchy, emphatic basslines, tersely slashing riffs, starry pizzicato and hypnotic, loopy minimalism. The highlights included Hysteria, a witheringly funny commentary on medieval (and much more recent) patriarchal attempts to control womens’ sexual lives, along with a wry, guardedly optimistic, brand-new number contemplating the hope tbat today’s kids will retain the ability to see with fresh eyes.

Dressed in coyly embroidered, matching bespoke denim jumpsuits, andPlay wasted no time introducing the album’s persistently uneasy, close harmonies  with a piece that’s not on it, Adam Roberts‘ new Diptych. Contrasting nebulous ambience with tricky polyrhythmic counterpoint, the duo rode its dynamic shfits confidently through exchanges of incisive pizzicato with muted austerity, to a particularly tasty, acerbic, tantalizingly brief coda.

Clara Ionatta’s partita Limun, Levinson explained, was inspired by the Italian concept of lemon as a panacea. Playful sparring between the duo subtly morphed into slowly drifting tectonic sheets, finally reaching a warmer, more consonant sense of closure that was knocked off its axis by a sudden, cold ending.

The laptop loops of composer David Bird‘s live remix of his epic Apochrypha threatened to completely subsume the strings, but that quasar pulse happily receded to the background. It’s the album’s most distinctly microtonal track, Bennardo and Levinson quietly reveling in both its sharp, short, flickeringly agitated riffs and misty stillness.

The next concert at the space at 1 Rivington is on Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with composer Molly Herron and the Argus Quartet celebrating the release of their new album “with music and poetry that explore history and transformation.” Cover is $20/$10 stud.

47soul Bring Delirious Dance Grooves and Sharp Political Relevance to Lincoln Center

In keeping with this month’s Halloween theme, there is a contingent here in the US that doesn’t want groups like exhilarating Palestinian hip-hop band 47soul here. But Lincoln Center is home to every New York community, as impresario Jordana Leigh reminded last night. A big crowd drawing heavily on Arabic-speaking young people from across the diaspora watched raptly, everybody with their phones out, a circle of dancers dipping and shimmying in front of the stage.

The quartet’s Arabic lyrics are excellent, drawing on centuries of allusive, symbolically loaded antiauthoritarian tradition. Graffiti artists vault border walls and random travelers get caught in police headlights, Fences, roadblocks and surveillance are everywhere. There was a line in one of their opening numbers, Mo Light, that translated as “If I could buy my home, I’d do that.” No wonder their music is so restless. Even the most lighthearted tunes, like Move Around, have double entendres: Palestinians are no strangers to relocation, voluntarily or via Naqba.

With electric guitar, electronic and organic percussion and swirling, keening mini-synth, their music can be as enveloping and atmospheric as it is propulsive They opened with a vampy two-chord quasi-reggae number, echoed a little later by a reggaeton-influenced detour into trip-hop. They didn’t even bother to change chords for the hypnotically majestic song in between, the thump of the standup tapan drum underneath looming minor-key string synth ambience.

They really hit their stride and got the guys in the crowd triwrling their keffiyehs with a thumping, syncopated dabke groove, the microtones of the synth shivering over the thump of the tapan and the syndrums, the guitar running  through the kind of warpy tone-bending patch that Mary Halvorson uses a lot. Everybody knew the big dabke anthem after that, jumping around defiantly as the big choruc kicked in.

“Sold out by the left, right when you left, why, you’re not filming?” was the most telling line in the slow, ominously emphatic Machina, a searingly imagistic account of life under an occupation, from the band’s latest album Balfron Promise. After that, they went back to the slinky, pulsing minor-key dabke, dipping back and forth between a watery vortex of sound. Everybody in the group – synth player Z the People, guitarist El Jehaz, drummers Walaa Sbait and Tareq Abu Kwaik all contribute vocals, even when they’re playing pretty complicated stuff.

Ther was some turnover in the crowd before Afrotronix, all the way from Chad via Montreal, followed with a cantering electroacoustic performance. Interestingly, almost all of their beats were organic, the group’s guitarist nimbly building live loops and pulling samples from a laptop to energize the people on the floor while the group’s dancer got a shiveringly intense workout at the front of the stage.

The next nation represented in the ongoing mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. is Cuba. Chanteuse Melvis Santa and her band are on the billlnext Thurs,, Oct 10 at 7:30 PM  These shows are very popular, so get there early if you’re going.

Delirious, Transcendent, Rare Syrian Music with Wajde Ayub at Roulette

Isn’t it bizarre how some chromatics and modes which have come to be associated with the macabre in western music actually connote transcendence and joy at points further east? In his concert Saturday night at Roulette, Syrian singer Wajde Ayub and his lavish orchestra ranged far beyond the famous hijaz mode that so many western musicians have appropriated for everything from Hollywood faux-exoticism to heavy metal menace. Yet it was in that maqam, with its flat-three and flat-five intervals, that he delivered the most thrills of the night. And there were a lot of them.

In his introductory remarks, impresario Robert Browning – whose Associates had booked this show – spoke of how Ayub, a protege of legendary Syrian crooner Sabah Fakhri, was a throwback to the great tarab singers of the 1930s. He wasn’t kidding – it’s impossible to think of a more electrifying way to kick off this year’s series of global music events at Roulette.

Ayub sings on two levels: intense and more intense. The raw power in his meticulously modulated, melismatic baritone was undiminished throughout practically two hours onstage. People line-danced up front by the stage, clapped along and were invited to join in, boisterously, in many call-and-response choruses throughout the night.

The Aleppo-born Ayub is a rare master of Syrian wasla themes and variations, utilizing both settings of classical Arabic poetry and simpler, singalong folk tunes. Much of the repertoire serves as the roots of this era’s dabke music and habibi pop. With the brief flick of a hand, he led the dapperly dressed orchestra – women in black, men in matching black suits with orange ties – through a vast series of dynamic shifts. The music was sometimes majestic and elegant, sometimes stomping and careening, at other times plaintive and delicate.

What was most striking was how much of a singing quality the instrumentalists brought to the performance. There weren’t a lot of instrumental taqsims (improvisations), but the group made them count. Violinist Michael Abdullah got the most of them; oudist Zafer Tawil also kicked in some frenetic flurries along with kanun player Jamal Sinno’s incisive, lingering ripples and pings. Bassist John Murchson and cellist Khalid Khalifa provided a rich, low undercurrent, often doubling each others’ lines over the mighty percussion section of Johnny Farraj on riq (tambourine), Mahmoud Kamil on tabla and Mohammad Almassri on boomy katim frame drum. Violinist Insia Malik and ney flutist Naeif Rafeh added contrasting airy melody overhead.

Classical Arabic and modern spoken Arabic are quite different, so the subtitles projected during the first three songs were useful for everyone, not just those for whom English was a first language. The lyrics spoke to the age-old, shattering power of female beauty, which Ayub saluted both with imploring and gloriously impassioned resonance. There was also a point where the two women singing in the chorus – Zahra Alzubaidi and Nesma Mohamed – exchanged fond “aw, wasn’t that sweet” looks during one of Ayub’s more forceful variations on a hijaz phrase. Clearly, he’d hit a mark with his colleagues.

Robert Browning Associates’ next concert of Middle Eastern music at Roulette is on Oct 19 at 8 PM with legendary percussionist Pejman Hadadi leading a spellbinding Iranian trio with Saeed Kamjoo on kamancheh fiddle and Kourosh Taghavi on setar lute; cover is $30.

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.

Amir ElSaffar Brings Middle Eastern, Slavic and Jazz Sounds to Otherworldly New Places at Lincoln Center

The annual Jazztopad Festival in Poland is one of Europe’s major jazz events. They advocate fiercely for Polish artists worldwide and commission scores of new works, focusing on blending jazz and contemporary classical sounds. They’ve also been staging events here in New York for the past several years, ostensibly to entice Americans to make the trip over. It’s smart marketing

To open this year’s Manhattan edition at Lincoln Center last night, multi-instrumentalist Amir ElSaffar led a group including Wacław Zimpel on bass clarinet, Ksawery Wójciński on bass and the strings of the Lutosławski Quartet through the Amerrican premiere of his raptly enveloping Awhaal for String Quartet. Seated at the santoor, ElSaffar opened the piece with a bright, enticing riff and slowly unwinding, rippling variations, much like a muezzin’s call or a phrase on his primary instrument, the trumpet.

ElSaffar – one of the most distinctive and unselfconsciously brilliant composers in jazz or anywhere else these days – has made a career blending maqam music from across the Arabic-speaking world with both large and smallscale improvisation, and this performance was typically celestial. Slowly and majestically, the music rose, fluttering violins over portentous, low modalities from the cello and bass: the work of Kurdish compoer Kayhan Kalhor came strongly to mind.

Zimpel added a simple, emphatic fanfare; the strings descended uneasily, micrtonally, ElSaffar singing soulful vocalese in his resonant, melismatic baritone. With the santoor just a hair off, tonally, from the strings, this was where the otherworldly magic really started to kick in. The strings fueled a lilting dance that grew more somber as the volume rose and Wójciński’s off-kilter yet hypnotic rhythm dug in, Zimpel wailing on his clarinet.

The second movement was much more kinetic, with ElSaffar on trumpet, spiky, circular pizzicato from the violins blending with an austere, Egyptian-tinged phrase which became more lush and enveloping over a swaying 6/8 groove. Together the group developed a series of lively echo phrases, part Afrobeat, part Philip Glass.

Using his mute, the bandleader drew the music into a deliciously suspenseful, hypnotically pulsing snakecharmer theme, capped off by a shivery, spine-tingling microtonal cadenza. The group opened the third movement with a bubbling, Appalachian-tinged theme and shifted toward acidic, insistent, blustery Moroccan jajouka, drawing a raucous round of applause from what had been a silent, rapt crowd.

The tension grew toward breaking point as the fourth movement and its overlays from the strings gathered steam, the drifting tonalities taking on more of an Indian edge. A hazy pastoral recede and rise evoked the tone poems of Rachmaninoff as much as Hindustani ghazals, ending hushed and prayerful. Obviously, with the amount of improvisation going on, one can only wonder what the piece will sound like next time out.

ElSaffar’s next gig playing this material is a free performance tomorrow, Saturday, Sept 28 at 11 PM at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in his hometown Chicago. In Poland, festivities begin at the Jazztopad Festival on Nov 15. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Thurs, Oct 3 at 7:30 PM with Chadian electronic group Afrotronix and electrifying Palestinian hip-hop/reggae/habibi pop band 47soul. If you’re going, get there as early as you can becuuse this one will sell out fast