New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: concert

Misha Piatigorsky’s Unpredictably Fun Sketchy Orkestra Entertains the Crowd in the West Village

This past evening at the Poisson Rouge, pianist Misha Piatigorsky led his twelve-piece Sketchy Orkestra through a long, heavily front-loaded set that was as eclectic as it was entertaining. Piatigorsky is a rugged individualist who’s invented his own style of music: part art-rock, part chamber jazz, part neoromanticism and part soul music. It can be part other things too, but we’ll get to that. His lushly dynamic Sketchy Orkestra is sort of a NYChillharmonic Junior, although Piatigorsky’s group is smaller and also plays imaginatively rearranged covers in addition to originals. With his gruff, sardonic lounge lizard persona and irrepressibly ebullient sense of humor, he impressed the most with the earliest material in the set.

He opened the best song of the night, an original, solo on piano, with a creepy, modal, suspenseful intro straight out of Rachmaninoff. Then a fiery violin cadenza kicked off a blissfully edgy, dancing Sephardic melody over which soul belter Emily Braden eventually sang. They brought it full circle at the end.

Another high point was a hushed, pointillistically tiptoeing, vintage 60s noir soul ballad held aloft by the nine-piece string section. Piatigorsky can be subtle, but onstage, he’s a showman, dueling with his bandmates, shifting meters and tempos on a dime in tandem with ace drummer Anwar Marshall (who also knows a thing or two about propelling large ensembles). Piatigorsky traded riffs with bassist Noah Jackson and then later the violin section during a closing crescendo: nobody missed a beat.

A couple of times during a lustrously reinvented art-rock instrumental version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, he switched up the tempo and took a couple of jagged, two-fisted solos that careened into Euro-jazz territory. Piatigorsky’s playing sometimes brings to mind Dave Brubeck, at other times Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker – especially in the night’s most gospel-tinged moments – and another 60s guy, Reginald Dwight, who almost took Brooker’s place in that band. But ultimately, Piatigorsky is his own animal.

A tongue-in-cheek, funky cover of Strawberry Fields Forever took similar detours into jazz territory without losing sight of the song’s surrealistic charm. “I’m glad I wrote that one,” Piatigorsky deadpanned afterward. “They named a park after it.”

“This next one is by a fellow Jew, a member of the tribe. He loved his women. He loved his drugs.” Piatigorsky paused. “I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about the great Leonard Cohen.” And followed with the most epic version of Hallelujah that anyone ever could have attempted. The strings opened it, a wounded pavane of sorts; from there, the pianist made a mashup of gospel, art-rock and finally vintage Ashford and Simpson soul out of it. Yeah, the song should be retired and was pretty much ruined for good when Jeff Buckley did that florid cover. If only Piatigorsky could have beaten him to it.

There was other material on the bill. Oy, was there ever. Looking back, at least the rapper in the Wu-Tang shirt was good. To anyone who ever plays any of the Bleecker Street bars (and yeah, the Poisson Rouge is one of them, if a more pretentious and expensive one): these rubes from Jersey can’t tell Beethoven from Beyonce. They don’t even listen to music: they watch tv. The internet? What’s that? They’re only here because their parents came here back in the 60s and they think that being in “The City” suddenly makes them cool. They’ll applaud anything you give them. There’s no need to dumb down your set because these people can’t tell whether they’re being patronized, or actually being exposed to something worth hearing. Either way, they’ll be bragging to their friends back in Fort Lee about it.

Oh yeah – if you’re wondering who the hell Reginald Dwight is, he could have been in one of the alltime great art-rock bands, but instead he went solo and started calling himself Elton John. Whatever you think of his schlocky tunesmithing, he’s a kick-ass pianist.

Talavya Treats the Throngs to Torrential Tabla Thrills

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Talavya’s harmonium player Heena Patel scrunched up her face. Facing the crowd, she explained her dilemma.”I tell people that this band plays tabla. They say, ‘No vocals. no melody.’” She shrugged.

And then let those thoughts resonate. “What do YOU think of tabla?” she wanted to know.

The crowd exploded. Sure, there was a good representation of New Yorkers with heritage in the Hindustani subcontinent, but there were more who probably had none. This demographically diverse, typical New York audience had just witnessed a suspenseful, electrifying three-way drum duel between tabla players Rushi Vakil, Kaumil Shah and Mike Lukshis.

On one hand, it was a breathtaking display of supersonic chops. On the other, the first segment of composer Divyang Vakil’s suite Tabla Dreams was just as much of a showcase for subtlety as well as the group’s encyclopedic rollout of Indian beats from across the centuries.

Those chops were matched by a sense of humor. It might be extreme to equate this performance to having three Zakir Hussains onstage, but the effect was pretty close. Each player’s personality immediately made itself known. Rushi Vakil made it look easy and more often than not served as the ringleader, completely deadpan, unless he was winding up a frenetic volley with a final slap and then flinging his hand away, daring his bandmates to match his finesse and power. Shah has an attack with ferocity to match his articulation: imagine a machinegunner who can also hit a target at a thousand yards. The New Jersey-born Lukshis, front and center, rose to the challenge of playing on the level of his Indian-born bandmates, who probably grew up with a tabla in front of them before they could walk. His right hand a blur, his beats spun and somersaulted and sometimes galloped in an endlessly adrenalizing series of tradeoffs along with the occasional stampeding unison passage.

The tabla is the rare drum which can also play melody, and the group delivered plenty of those. The most breathtaking was a recurrent low-register sirening effect. The funniest was when they’d play a series of riffs and then perfectly replicate them by vocalizing in rapidfire takadimi drum language – a playful Indian mnemonic device where every beat from various places on the tabla, from muted, to sharp, to low and warpy, has an equivalent syllable. Meanwhile Patel anchored the music with an endlessly circling series of enigmatic, often ominous modal riffs, serving as co-conductor and signaling changes when the three guys would go off on a rampage.

The suite’s first part was mostly tradeoffs; the second featured the more intricate and delicate beats a tabla player can deliver. The third was a clinic in gats, encompassing both rhythmic riffs and shifting time signatures, rising and falling and finally winding up in a blaze that left both band and audience out of breath. Patel averred that this was the band’s first US performance in a year – hopefully we won’t have to wait another until the next one.

These Lincoln Center atrium performances are amazing. The next one in the ongoing series of performers from around the world is this Thursday, May 25 at 7:30 PM with one of the world’s greatest and most eclectic oud players and composers, Rahim Al Haj. Admission is free; get there early if you want a seat.

Vast, Intricate, Awe-Inspiring Oceans of Sound Downtown

What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.

The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.

The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was  even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.

Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.

So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda.  Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.

It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New  York this year.

Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.

Shujaat Khan Envelops the Audience in Starry, Nocturnal Rapture at the Miller Theatre

Sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan is as funny as his music is deep. His work is characterized by vastness, poignancy, and both subtle and explosive dynamics, but is also spiced with great wit. Friday night at the Miller Theatre, his seemingly sold-out show – booked by the World Music Institute in collaboration with Columbia University’s South Asia Institute – was rich with sparring and musical banter. He tantalized the audience with a fleeting series of gorgeously plaintive riffs early on, then engaged them more broadly with peek-a-boo syncopation. His sparring with father-and-son tabla players Samir and Dibyarka Chatterjee was as much a philosophical dialogue as it was it was a joust between old friends, throughout a rapturous two-hour performance of the nocturne Raga Jhinjhoti.

Khan addressed the crowd candidly before the show, explaining that he had just discovered that an audience Q&A had been planned for midway through the performance. “Does anybody have any questions?” he grinned. Quoting a joke by an old buddy, Khan demurred that “Musicians and paintings are a lot alike: they should be kept at a distance. You didn’t come here to hear me talk, did you?”  Saluting this New York audience for their passion and support for Indian classical music, he then took his time slowly unfolding the raga with a meticulousness and unselfconscious wonder for the simple resonance of a series of minimalistic phrases – like Morton Feldman without the fussiness.

The opening alap (solo improvisation) took Khan at least a half an hour. A couple of times, he threw a glance at the tablas, but the Chatterjees weren’t about to join the conversation yet: Khan was on a roll and they wanted to witness that as much as the crowd did. Slowly and matter-of-factly, he worked both sides of a dialogue, throwing in the occasional, strikingly energetic short phrase, as well as a few luridly shivery downward glissandos that became the night’s most adrenalizing recurrent tropes.

The tablas entered, first the father, then the son, then together. Khan scouted the perimeter and eventually settled on an enigmatically energetic, hypnotically circling midrange phrase that he used to anchor the percussionists’ cascading beats. The bandleader recalled having played New York with his own dad, the great Vilayat Khan, forty years ago, likening what the younger Chatterjee had to deal with as being “a deer in the headlights.”

From there, the trio were all about suspense and setting a mood. Just when the volume and intensity hinted that they might finally leave the ground, Khan would pull back. The trio peppered the starry warmth with irresistibly fun echo phrases, almost-pregnant pauses and then finally a brief interlude of low-key vocalese from the bandleader. After finally throwing caution to the wind, building a long crescendo that eventually hit doublespeed,and even more, Khan wound down the performance with a thoughtful, counterintuitive return to the conversation that brought the piece full circle.

The next show on the World Music Institute calendar is by another Indian group, trippy tabla/harmonium ensemble Talavya at the atrium at Lincoln Center this Thursday, May 18. The  concert is free, but you should plan on getting the space on Broadway at 63rd St. at least an hour before the 7:30 PM start time if you want to get in – and earlier, if you want a seat.

Omar Souleyman’s Soulful Rasp and Dancefloor Thud Brings New York Together in the West Village

It was Arabic music that drew what might have been this year’s most diverse crowd at any New York concert. Maybe it’s a stretch to credit Syrian crooner Omar Souleyman for uniting these people, but he definitely brought them together at his sold-out show last night booked by the World Music Institute at the Poisson Rouge.

The wannabe Republican operative leaning against the back wall of the club was bitching to his fiancee about how Donald Trump’s latest misadventures in reality tv-style management might bolster Democratic hopes in the 2018 midterm elections. Neither his fiancee nor her petite friend had much to say in response. Soon after, a mustachioed dark-skinned man arrived and whisked the fiancee’s friend off to the dance floor.

A few feet away, a lesbian couple twirled and whispered sweet nothings to each other in Arabic. Around the corner by the bar, a couple of preciously scruffy Bushwick boys in matching belly shirts did much the same, next to a posse of German tourists chugging shots and beers. Appearances can be deceiving, but the Arabic-speaking contingent seemed to be outnumbered at least three to one.

Souleyman took the stage to thunderous applause, rocking his signature kaffiyeh and desert shades and proceeded to glide back and forth across the stage, engaging the audience in one clapalong after another, for at least half of his roughly fifty-minute set. By the midpoint, he’d loosened up some. His voice haggard from constant touring, he took frequent breathers and left it to his supersonically fast keyboardist – who was the star of this show – to fill in the gaps. Although the duo had help – a pretty much relentless EDM thump-thump along with lots of synthy atmospherics emanating from a vintage analog mixing desk – most of the music seemed live. Resolute and focused behind his Hasan microtonal keyboard, the guy played Flight of the Bumblebee, or its Arabic counterpart, in hijaz mode for pretty much the duration of the set. This feat was made doubly difficult because of the split-second precision required to stay in sync with the relentless click track. 

For all the good vibes and the endless sea of dancers clapping along and making videos, Souleyman’s music is very much attuned to the here and now. After a suspenseful snakecharmer of an introductory taqsim, he launched into Chobi (Longing for Home), a standout track from his forthcoming album To Syria With Love, his distantly imploring baritone rasp set to machinegunning volleys of synthesized violin and flute patches. Souleyman worked more suspense later in the show with a long jam on the cheating anthem Kayan, another track from the forthcoming album, with all sorts of call-and-response between vocals and keys. He didn’t talk to the audience much, although his shout-outs to his home turf in Al-Jazira, Syria – which he hasn’t visited in six years – drew ferociously assertive applause. Is it any wonder that the Trump Administration wants to keep this kind of inclusive musical cross-pollination out of the country?

By the end of the show, the Bushwick boys had disappeared into the crowd of dancers. A tall Asian man stumbled from the melee and clung to a nonplussed music writer to avoid collapsing on the floor. The tall dude’s companion, a pretty woman in her 20s, made it clear that she was sick of him overdoing it. The Republican operative was all by himself in the back of the club: the bath salts had kicked in by now, and he was still swaying, eyes rolled back in his head, even though the music had stopped.

On the way out, there was no Souleyman vinyl for sale, but there was a big crowd milling around the World Music Institute table, everybody signing up for their email list. The WMI’s next show is tonight at 7:30 at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway, with the great Indian sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan, son of the legendary Vilayat Khan. Tix are as low as $15, a real bargain, and are still available as of this hour.

What to Do When a Great New York Band Gets Priced Out of Town

Greetings from North Carolina!

Considering how many thousands of New York artists have been priced out of town by gentrification and the real estate bubble, sometimes you have to leave the state to see them. Case in point: ferocious Americana rock vets Ninth House, who played earlier this evening on the big stage at frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis’ home base, Beale Street Barber Shop in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s combination retro rock-themed haircut joint, music venue, art gallery and vintage store in what appears to be the happening hood in a college town with a well-preserved historic district.

In their ten years in New York, Ninth House started out as a hard-hitting but elegant art-rock band, then went through a series of guitarists who took their music in more of an epic gothic direction and towards jamband territory. As the years went by, Sinnis brought more of a dark Americana focus to the music, which Doktor John of the Aquarian called “cemetery and western.” The handle stuck, and applies even more to the honktyonk and vintage C&W sounds that Sinnis has pursued under his own name.

Ninth House hadn’t played together in over a year. Drummer Francis Xavier – Sinnis’ brother – lives in upstate New York, and guitarist Keith Otten now calls Florida home. They had one rehearsal for this show, but picked up without missing a beat. Otten is one of the great musical wits in all of rock, bringing an unexpected element to Sinnis’ brooding, death-obsessed songcraft. This time out some of that humor was pretty broad – the lonesome trainwhistles in the Nashville gothic shuffle Cold Night in December, for example – but the rest was more subtle and devious. Was he going to extend that outro until he’d finished channeling Social Distortion? Uh hun.

While the set veered into honkytonk as the evening wore on, the restless energy never wavered. The dusky warmth of Ninth House – the band’s signature song – and Down Beneath were balanced by an explosive take of the big escape anthem Long Stray Whim and an absolutely savage bolero-rock version of Fallible Friend, both older songs. Sinnis didn’t push the angst in his resonant baritone as far as he usually does in a bitterly graceful run through Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, another tune from the early zeros, but that gave him plenty of headroom for when he finally went up the scale. And Injury Home, a darkly blues-infused minor-key anthem, was just short of unhinged.

The hard honkytonk stuff – Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, I’ll Have Another Glass of Whiskey (Because Death Is Not So Far Away), and a cover of Ernest Tubb’s Driving Nails in My Coffin – energized the crowd, as did the surprise cold ending of a scorching electric cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky. They closed with an Elvis medley, Elvis impersonator Alex J. Mitchell taking the stage to lead the band Vegas-style through a medley of Mystery Train, Little Sister and a couple of other 50s hits.

Sinnis’ next solo gig is on June 3 at 8 PM at his home base, Beale Street Barber Shop, 616B Castle St. in Wilmington. His next New York area gigs will be June 24 at 8 PM and then the next day, June 25 at 4 PM with his mighty ten-piece honkytonk band 825 at Sue’s Sunset House, 137 North Water St. in Peekskill, NY. The bar is just steps from the Peekskill Metro North station.

While we’re at it, a shout-out to Funck’s Restaurant in Annville, Pennsylvania for their handmade onion rings, a welcome break from the storm that lasted well into Virginia on the drive down. The spacious, comfortable woodframe joint’s kitchen gives you a decent portion, on the pricy side – eight bucks – fried to a crisp that’s just pliable enough not to be flaky. The balance of onion and breading turned out to be perfect; so was the balance of flavor between crunchy outside and the single tasty, sweet, generously cut ring inside. Even better, the rings came with a slightly astringent, grainy horseradish dip that added an unexpectedly welcome dimension of extra heat. This branch of the business – there are two others – has casual but very prompt service. Their menu also includes giant club sandwiches that could have been both lunch and dinner if a couple of peeps in the posse hadn’t been so hungry.

Rebecca Turner Brings Her Richly Jangly, Anthemic Songcraft Back to the East Village

Songwriter Rebecca Turner earned a devoted following around the turn of the century for her catchy, anthemic blend of janglerock, Laurel Canyon folk-pop and the occasional detour into starker acoustic folk or more ornate psychedelia. In a lot of ways, she represents the vanguard of ex-Brooklynite musicians caught between the very tail end of the cds-and-college-radio era and the age of streaming and vinyl. She puts out albums at her own pace (she’s working on a new one, helmed in the studio by husband/bassist Scott Anthony, recently responsible for remastering the Feelies’ latest vinyl reissues). She also has an 8 PM gig coming up on May 7 at Hifi Bar, the scene of her most recent Manhattan gig.

That was last year, and it was killer. She had a five-piece backing unit for that one including Anthony on bass and Rich Feridun on six-string lead guitar; John Sharples, playing twelve-string, was the band’s not-so-secret weapon. They opened with a backbeat-driven anthem with torrents of lyrics and tantalizingly unresolved chord changes. The Cat That Can Be Alone, she explained, was inspired by an Anita O’Day quote relayed by Love Camp 7’s Dann Baker, something along the lines of “The cat that can be alone is better off than the cat that can’t.” It turned out to be a bouncy Beatlesque number, Turner soaring to the top of her range with a hint of country twang. She and the band wound it up with a tongue-in-cheek segue into the O’Day version of Tenderly.

Turner’s next number was period-perfect Lakeside Lounge rock from around 2000, a mashup of  swaying vintage 70s C&W-tinged with Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, The set hit a peak midway through with a rousingly jangling take of the Byrdsy anthem The Way She is Now, Sharples choosing his spots and leaving them out to glisten in the bar’s low lights.

Another backbeat anthem, That Did It, was part 60s electric Dylan, part Amy Rigby at her jangliest, with a delicious blend of six and twelve-string guitars meshing with Turner’s acoustic. She followed with Idiot, a similarly catchy, wryly propulsive number. A low-key, matter-of-factly fingerpicked take of the ballad Comfort You Up brought the lights down, Erica Smith joining to add lush low harmonies. Then they picked up the pace again with the lilting, bucolic My Morning.

The cover that had everyone in the crowd mystified was a BeeGees song from the 60s, Sun in My Morning, Sharples’ twelve-string filtering down into it as if in a Turner painting. Arguably the best song of the night was a new one, Tom Tom, shimmering in the twin-guitar jangle, up to a suspenseful turnaround on the chorus and a fiery, twangy Feridun solo. For the encore, Turner aired out what’s become her signature song, Brooklyn Is So Big. It was cute and wistful when it came out: it’s heartbreaking now, considering how many of Turner’s contemporaries have been priced out. It’s a good bet Turner and the band will bust out a lot of this material at the show this weekend.

Go See Michael Winograd at Barbes Again Tonight

You have to hand it to Michael Winograd. For his April residency at Barbes, he had the chutzpah to wait for a month with five Saturdays in it. The supersonic, dynamic clarinetist and esteemed klezmer composer/bandleader has one night left in that residency, tonight at 6. Miss it and you miss being in on what could someday be considered a series of legendary performances.

They’ve been that good. This blog hasn’t been witness to a series of shows this adrenalizing since Steve Wynn’s residency at Lakeside Lounge, and that was in another decade. Although Jewish music is Winograd’s passion, his writing and his playing transcend genre. His body of work encompasses circus rock, flamenco, noir cabaret, psychedelia, otherworldly old ngunim and sounds from the Middle East.

“Did you ever hear this guy back in the day, like, 2003?” the Magnetic Fields’ Quince Marcum asked the beer drinker to his right at the bar a couple of weeks ago.

‘No, I didn’t,” the drinker replied. The two sat silent, listening to Winograd and his large horn-and-piano-driven ensemble romp through a darkly vaudevillian melody. “I see what you mean, though. This reminds me of Luminescent Orchestrii.”

“Exactly,” replied Marcum. “Everybody was doing this back then.” And he’s right. The emergence of bands like World Inferno and Gogol Bordello opened up new opportunities for jazz musicians and players coming out of Balkan and klezmer music.

The first and third nights of Winograd’s residency here featured the big band. Opening night seemed like mostly original material – although with Winograd, it’s impossible to tell since he’s so deeply immersed in centuries’ worth of minor keys and slashing chromatics. Night three seemed to be more on the trad side.

Night two was a performance of a psychedelic, serpentine suite based on a Seder service. The clarinetist was joined on that one by keyboardist/singer Judith Berkson and Sandcatchers guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Berkson channneled Laura Nyro blue-eyed soul and gritty Waitsian blues on her electric piano when she wasn’t venturing further into the avant garde. Fruchter wove a methodical, even darker tapestry of eerie Middle Eastern modes as Winograd shifted between conspiratorial volleys and a lustrous, ambered resonance. It was the quietest and most rapt of these shows so far.

Last week was arguably the best so far, which makes sense since a residency is supposed to be about concretizing and refining the music. For this one Winograd had a rhythm section and a not-so-secret weapon in pianist Carmen Staaf. Incisive, meticulous yet purposeful and unselfconsciously powerful, she brought a Spanish tinge to several of Winograd’s tunes – notably the angst-fueled waltz that opened the show – that brought to mind Chano Dominguez. Meanwhile, Winograd played with equal parts clarity and breathtaking, practically Ivo Papasov-class speed. It was one of the most thrilling shows of the year so far, something that Winograd could easily replicate tonight. See you at the bar at six:  Kate and Kat will be working and it’s going to be a wild night. The Dirty Waltz Project play oldtime Americana in 3/4 time afterward at 8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charan-Po-Rantan’s Accordion Intensity Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

Monday night at Joe’s Pub, any perception that Japanese sister duo Charan-Po-Rantan were merely cute, adorable, kooky real-life anime characters vanished the second that accordionist Koharu cut loose a vast, deep river of minor-key melody. Dressed in almost-but-not-quite-matching pastel cartoon pastiche outfits and matching headpieces, she and her singer sister Momo delivered a dynamic and often ferocious set of mostly original Romany and klezmer songs…in Japanese. But their charisma and tunesmithing transcended any linguistic limitation. It’s a fair guess that less than half the crowd spoke that language, or Romanes for that matter.

Momo spent the entirety of the show with a pretty hefty stuffed pig under her arm. Was it actually attached to her outfit? As it turned out, no, but that didn’t become clear until more than halfway through the two’s tantalizingly brief hour onstage. The show started beguilingly but slowly, the sisters seemingly taking their time on getting a handle on how to approach this refreshingly multicultural, demographically diverse downtown New York audience. Quickly, the energy went to redline when they brought up Alicia Svigals for an absolutely feral rip through a familiar Romany folk dance number (it wasn’t Djelem Djelem, but if you’re a fan of Balkan music, you’ve definitely heard it). Svigals, a founding member of the Klezmatics, possessed with chops as spine-tingling as they are elegant, seized the opportunity to revel in volley after volley of microtones and scrapes and glissandos. She would return late in the set for a Charan-Po-Rantan original that was only slightly less intense.

The two built momentum as the show went on, then dipped to what ironically might have been its high point, a gorgeously bittersweet, waltzing lament. Momo briefly left the stage to Koharu, who took her time building a darkly bouncy loopmusic instrumental, eventually capping it off with wistful vocalese over a playfullly offcenter beat. Although the duo’s originals were the most ornate and rawly exhilarating of the material in the set, they also played a handful of covers. A popular video game theme and variations drew chuckles from the crowd, as did a cover of the old 50s hit Sukiyaki. The only miss was a cheesy Neil Diamond song that’s been done before as J-pop – and only about half the crowd seemed to recognize it.

At the end of the set, Momo finally left the stage with what seemed to be a fifty-foot mic cable and went into the crowd, teasing the guys, standing on chairs and holding the audience rapt with her powerful, melismatic delivery. Where Koharu gave everybody chills with her rapidfire rivulets and stormy cloudbanks, her sister proved every bit as powerful with a similarly expansive range from the very top to the darkest lows in her register. Charan-Po-Rantan are playing a live score to the original Godzilla at the Japan Society tomorrow night, April 28 at 8 but the show is sold out. For fans of awe-inspiring accordion music and low-budget monster movies, there’ll be a waitlist at the box office at 333 E 47th St. starting an hour before the show.