New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: concert

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween in Fort Greene with the Dead Zombie Band

The Man in the Long Black Coat leans back against the brick wall opposite 237 Waverly Avenue in Fort Greene, facing an makeshift stage tent. Pam Fleming’s Dead Zombie Band are trading casual, conversational solos throughout an epic, Monty Alexander-style reggae-jazz tune. It’s a warm Wednesday night: the musicians must be sweating hard under the plastic of their full-length Halloween costumes. Pretty much everybody onstage is wearing a mask. Other than Fleming, who has a distinctive, full-bodied tone on the trumpet and flugelhorn, it’s impossible to tell who the other players are.

As readers who’ve followed the ongoing saga of the Man in the Long Black Coat know well, he’s been having a problem with invisibility for a long time now. Although he can’t control it, he’s come to find that he can tell when he’s about to have an episode. And this one is full-on. He was even invisible when he went into the deli around the corner on DeKalb for the little bag of pickle-flavored Utz chips he’s munching on. He knows this because the guy at the counter gave him a quizzical “how the hell did you materialize” look when he went up to pay.

This explains why he has his back to the wall instead of being closer to the band, out in the melee of trick-or-treaters of all ages and their parents. Many of the costumes are fantastic. A boy sea captain pilots a meticulously painted freighter ship mounted on double-red-wagon chassis. A couple of parents with toddlers on their backs wear sassy, pointy-eared cat-carrier helmets, faces invisible behind wire mesh. The most gregarious monster of all is an overinflated orange-and-purple T-rex, bobbing and weaving and photobombing everybody’s pics.

In the middle of the crowd, a pretty woman in a pink wig, dressed as a sexy cheerleader, dances with her friend, who’s rocking a hot feminist academic look. Eventually a couple of bearded men join them. The taller one passes around a flask; the shorter one pulls the cheerleader close to him and nibbles her neck. He’s smitten.

The band are fantastic. The Man in the Long Black Coat has been to this block party a couple of times in the past, but this is the best ever, he thinks. The keyboardist has a lush Hammond organ setting and unleashes a rich, turbulent river of sound. The horns are just as good. The soprano sax player stage left is really on a tear with his or her solos” as the night goes on and masks come off momentarily, there’s no gender correlation with any of the costumes. Tenor saxophonist Lily White comes up to the mic to sing a searing blues number. “Halloween’s not scary but the President is.” The crowd give that one a resounding round of applause. Later the group do a couple more reggae tunes – Fleming’s time in Burning Spear’s band really left a mark on her – and then a couple of slowly swaying, genuinely haunting soul ballads in 6/8 time. Invisible or not, the Man in the Long Black Coat is in his element.

At nine on the nose, a trio of cops show up to shut down the party. Without missing a beat, Fleming reprises a song from earlier in the set with a couple of verses of a lively zombie dance from the band’s 2014 album. The cheerleader and her professor pal lead the bearded guys away, back toward DeKalb; the Man in the Long Black Coat waits until the passing parade of gradeschool kids has thinned before he makes his way out. It’s the one night of the year where people can bump into him without doing a doubletake, and for once he doesn’t mind.

Rock n Roll Suicides of 2018, Live

The Man in the Long Black Coat is lost.

He’s never been on this Crown Heights block before. Then again, before the days of the Long Black Coat, there was no reason for anyone who didn’t live or work, or have friends or family on this block, to be here.

The address he’s looking for seems to be in an unmarked former commercial storefront on an otherwise mostly residential brownstone street. He moseys a couple of doors down to a gentrifier bar and peers in: no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Turning back, he spots a couple making their way into a darkened doorway. The Man in the Long Black Coat follows them: he’s psyched. He likes mysteries.

Another mystery immediately presents itsef when the friendly girl at the door greets him. See, if you’ve been following this oft-interrupted story here, you’ll remember that the Man in the Long Black Coat is having a problem with invisibility. People have been bumping into him, and he’s had several near-misses with Ubers blasting through intersections. It’s not that the Ubers are even running the light like they always do: it’s that they clearly don’t see him.

And it’s not that being invisible, for sometimes hours at a time, doesn’t have its benefits. The man has discovered that he can walk into any gentrifier boite in town, check out the band and not have to worry about dropping a double sawbuck on a glass of fancy beer or a tiny, garlic-deprived crostini. He just needs to stay out of the way of the kids staggering around the joint.

Unfortunately, invisibility isn’t something that the man can switch on or off. The bank, the jewelry store, the lumber yard, the supermarket: it never occurs at any of those places. He’s tried all of them, only to be disappointed every time.

But here, it’s a welcome change to be at least marginally perceptible. Because of who he is, the Man in the Long Black Coat’s favorite holiday is Halloween: invisible or not, this is the one time of the year that’s really his.

The long, rectangular groundfloor space is obviously somebody’s home – with a big stage in the back. The hosts are throwing a Halloween kegger, and there are bands. The crowd is demographically diverse, a few in costume but mostly not. Nobody’s taking selfies, and people are talking directly to one another rather than texting. The man is reminded of downtown Manhattan theatre crowds in the days before the Long Black Coat. These people are sharp, and energetic: they all look like they’d love a turn onstage.

As it turns out, many of them end up doing exactly that. One of the drummers opens the night with a few stagy Rocky Horror-style bits. Is one of those ghoul-camp numbers actually from the Rocky Horror soundtrack? It’s been so long since the Man in the Long Black Coat heard the album that he can’t remember. Being ensconsed behind a couch, close to the keg, doesn’t help the memory factor.

Toot Sweet are the first band onstage. Accordionist Mary Spencer Knapp, rocking a leopard-print bodysuit, wields her axe like a guitar. Her vocals are fierce, intense, sometimes channeling righteous rage, like a young Rachelle Garniez. The songs mash up noir cabaret and Brecht/Weill, punk and new wave, with a distant latin influence. The new wave aspect is heightened by the  second keyboard, a synthesizer, taking the occasional keening solo over a nimble rhythm section. The crowd sings along: they want more than they get.

Dressed as a superhero, Haley Bowery – leader of the Manimals – makes her way through the crowd, handing out jello shots. The Man in the Long Black Coat takes one. It’s a scary toothpaste blue, but it tastes fruity and it has a kick. The man doesn’t need it. A welcome if unexpected shift into invisible mode just a couple of hours earlier gave him a chance to crash a shi-shi Alphabet City party and pound one glass of bourbon after another like a college kid. He’s never been able to drink himself visible – usually it seems to work the other way – but the way things are going here, he reasons that this might be the night.

The Manimals take the stage: Bowery on the mic, guitarists Michael Jayne and Chris Norwood trading licks on their flashy Les Pauls, melodic bassist Jack Breslin pushing the songs alongside drummer Matt O’Koren. The Man in the Long Black Coat thinks to himself that this is what it must have been like to see Bowie around the time of the Aladdin Sane album – but with a woman out front. Back when the band were known as Haley Bowery and the Manimals, they had a bit of a glam thing going, but they sound a lot more British and a whole lot more eclectic now. Verses don’t necessarily resolve into choruses and vice versa, and there’s a lot more angst – and depth – to the songs.

And just like Bowie, there’s an alienatedly reassuring ‘you’re not alone” theme to several of the songs. So this is where all the Rock n Roll Suicides of 2018 have gone, The Man in the Long Black Coat muses. Haley was a decent singer back in 2012 – when he saw her at Webster Hall on a twinbill with the amazingly lyrical noir cabaret-punk band Hannah vs. the Many – but she is fantastic now, with a highwire wail that she cuts loose when she really wants to drive a chorus through the roof.

With her piercing blue eyes, boxcutter cheekbones and lithe stage presence, she also looks a lot bigger onstage than she really is. One superhero outfit eventually falls to the side for another superhero look, a unitard this time. Hannah Fairchild from Hannah vs. the Many takes a cameo on harmony vocals and adds her own rocket-fuel wail to the mix. At the end of the show, Haley pulls out an old song, Halloween. “Fuck the rest of them, let’s paaaarty,” is the chorus. The crowd seem to know all the words. The Man in the Long Black Coat gives the band a devils-horns salute: maybe someday we won’t need to shlep all the way to Crown Heights to see a show like this.

Happy Halloween, everybody.

The Manimals play Hank’s on Nov 9 at around 9. Hannah vs. the Many are at the Way Station on Nov 10 at 10.

Celebrating Cole Porter and Philanthropy at Lincoln Center

“Do you know Bob Steel?” the friendly Arkansas orange magnate asked his tablemate – a Red Sox fan celebrating his team’s fourth World Championship in fifteen years a bit early – at this year’s Lincoln Center fall gala last week. Just to be clear, this fan was not ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has also never tried to hide his fondness for the Boston team, and was also present.

“Not personally,” the considerably younger Sox fan replied.

He’s a good guy,” the Arkansan confided, almost conspiratorially. He’d been at UNC while Steel was at Duke; his friendship with the longtime Lincoln Center benefactor has remained strong since. This particular evening was Steel’s “turn in the barrel,” as he’d sardonically told host Patricia E. Harris in the weeks beforehand.

Fundraising consultant Amy Schiller, who was also at the celebration, empathized. For anyone who’s ever been feted at one of these events, it really is a turn in the barrel, she reminded. It’s less a barrel going over Niagara Falls than the kind in a .357: it feels like you’re hurled out into midair at the speed of sound.

Offstage, Steel and his vivacious wife are exactly as humble and unassuming as Harris described them, a quintessential culturally engaged cosmopolitan New York couple with whom you might have shared a “wow, that was something” moment after, say, a performance by the Philharmonic. The fundamental difference is that they may have essentially underwritten that moment of reflection and transcendence. 

They have three daughters. Pianist/singer Jon Batiste dedicated what may have been the highlight of the musical portion of the night, a glistening, rainswept, New Orleans-tinged wee-hours take of Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night to them: “In the steel of the night,” he quipped.

As the lavish swells of the orchestra rose and fell from the lowlit stage, a full house were treated to a full hour of Cole Porter classics. In her slinky lace dress and heels, singer Kate Davis left no doubt as to what Love For Sale was about, her aching melismas giving the protagonist a poignancy to match the Billie Holiday version. The edgiest moment of the night was pianist Aaron Diehl’s simmering, shapeshifting interpretation of Too Darn Hot. The most kinetic points were located at the heel and toe of tapdancer Jared Grimes‘ shoes; he kicked up a storm to rival any sit-down percussionist.

Other than echoing John D. Rockefeller’s insistence that this continent’s flagship cultural institution should be a place for everyone, Steel didn’t say much. In this particular moment, that sort of quiet advocacy for one of New York’s treasures spoke a thousand times louder than any self-aggrandizing tweet ever could.

Batiste is at the Jazz Gallery on Dec 18, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $20. Diehl is at NJPAC in Newark on Nov 29-Dec 2 at various times with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; $20 seats are available.

A Dynamic, Relevant Grand Finale to This Year’s Momenta Festival

Over the past four years, the Momenta Festival has become one of New York’s most exciting annual events. Each member of the irrepressibly daring Momenta Quartet takes his or her turn programming a night. The festival usually ends on violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron’s birthday. This year’s grand finale, Friday night at the Tenri Institute, happened to be cellist Michael Haas’ birthday: he and the group celebrated by going starkly deep into a program centered around Bartok’s harrowing String Quartet No. 4.

. As he explained succinctly before the show, it’s a piece he’d been scheming to play ever since joining the ensemble five years ago.  As was the case last year, admission was free, and there was high-grade craft beer afterward, also courtesy of the hosts. What more could a concertgoer possibly want?

They opened with Eric Nathan’s diptych Four to One, from 2011. Interestingly, this was the only contemporary work on the bill. It set it the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the evening, notwithstanding the iconic Bartok quartet immediately afterward. Right off the bat, it became a harried, relentless, microtonal rollercoaster ride, the group holding fast to the counterpoint amidst the storm. Violist Stephanie Griffin’s plaintive assertions were particularly striking, as was Gendron’s turn in the rather cruel spotlight over a menacing wash in the second part. Haas’ cello was also stark yet prominent: it’s not hard to see why he’d want to program this. It reminded a lot of Michael Hersch’s recent, troubling microtonal work.

The performance of the Bartok turned out to be one of the very best of many witnessed by this blog or its owner over the past couple of decades. The persistent sense of doom the quartet parsed with razorwire intensity had particular resonance in this post-2016 election era. Menacingly emphatic gestures leapt from the dark interweave of the first movement, danger drawing ever closer. The circle dance in the second was just as macabre, especially with the exchanges of voices between instruments. Haas’ plaintive cavatina, echoed incisively by violinist Alex Shiozaki, brought the longing and if-only atmosphere of the third to a peak: it was impossible not to think of Shostakovich being influenced by this when writing his String Quartet No. 7. Both the savagery and after-the-battle emotional depletion of the final movement were just as indelible a reminder of the perilous consequences of fascism. The more things change…

Augmented by the Argus Quartet – violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, cellist Joann Whang and guest violist Rose Hashimoto – the Momentas wound up the program with a triumphantly anthemic take of Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C Major. The young composer wrote it at nineteen in a rather successful attempt to outdo Mendelssohn at teenage octetry. The main theme has a suspenseful Andalucian feel, which grew to echo the Ravel bolero in places: together, the group reveled in the dramatic foreshadowing, even if it grew facile in places. A more mature composer might have written it half as long, but even so, when the synopsis of the final movement finally circled back, there was no denying how much of a party this merry band had brought.

The Momenta Quartet are currently on tour: their next gig is tomorrow night, Oct 24 at 7:30 PM playing works by Agustin Fernandez, Roberto Sierra, Eric Nathan, and Philip Glass at Santa Teresa Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Argus Quartet’s next New York show is on Nov 13 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, playing an excellent, diverse program including Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” along with works by Haydn, Ted Hearne, Juri Seo and Christopher Theofanidis. Cover is $25/$15 stud.

Avalon Jazz Band Fuel the Revelry at Symphony Space

On one hand, it was mystifying to see a sold-out crowd sitting sedately through the first three songs of the Avalon Jazz Band’s sold-out show at Symphony Space Thursday night. On the other, it was validating to see the group earning appreciation as a first-class jazz act. Too few swing bands get props for their chops.

This show was the second in a weekly series here called Revelry. Musically speaking, it’s the most exciting thing to happen to the Upper West Side in a long, long time. There were never many venues in the neighborhood to begin with and there are even fewer now. So Symphony Space is really filling a need by booking all sorts of artists who’ve probably never played this far north.

This Thursday, Oct 25 at 8 PM the venue has Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a polymath on oldtime blues guitar, banjo and piano who may be the single most talented musician in all of New York. Ticket buyers 30 and under get in for $20, which is ten bucks off the regular cover charge. The downstairs bar stays open during the show and afterward; last week, ushers were grinningly handing out wristbands which entitled concertgoers to 20% off at the bar. All this is a different kind of return to the venue’s glory days in the late zeros and earlier in this decade when they were booking a ton of global talent in addition to the usual classical and jazz acts.

Last week, it was a four-piece version of Avalon Jazz Band. They opened with a charming, chirpy, playfully conversational take of the old French standard Coquette, frontwoman Tatiana Eva-Marie shimmying and teasing cartoonish riffs – and an irresistibly droll bass solo – from her bandmates. By the night’s third number, people of all ages were beginning to leave their seats and heading down in front of the stage to cut a rug. The snazziest dance moves of the night came from a couple who looked to be in their seventies, clearly old pros at swing dancing.

After starting in Paris, the singer led her quartet to Romany territory – Tatiana is half French and half Romanian – then to New Orleans and finally brought the music full circle. Guitarist Vinny Raniolo aired out his vast bag of riffs, from punchy Django Reinhardt swing, to warily resonant Chicago blues, fleet postbop and some eerie, tremoloing Lynchian resonance capped off with tremolo-picking that was sometimes fluttery and sometimes an icepick attack.

Violinist Gabe Terracciano showed off similar chops, from jaunty Bob Wills-style western swing, to airy Stephane Grappelli-esque phrasing, lots of sabretoothed Romany riffs and stark blues as well. Bassist Wallace Stelzer was amped pleasantly high in the mix, serving as the band’s Secretary of Entertainment with his wry sense of humor, the occasional tongue-in-cheek quote and solos that echoed the guitar.

The songs in the set were just as diverse. They’d played this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival, so that was still on their minds. The highlight of the set was a brooding, saturnine take of Hoagy Carmichael’s New Orleans, with new English lyrics by a Crescent City friend of Tatiana’s. Her original, There’s Always a Moon Over New Orleans made a brisk contrast, inspired by the fact that when the band were down there, they never got up until after the sun went down. They mined the repertoire of Charles Trenet and Charles Aznavour for wistfulness, then went scampering up Menilmontant toward the end of the set. Afterward the crowd filed out to the bar, just as Tatiana – who by the end of the set had drained most of a sizeable glass of whiskey – had been encouraging all night. 

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element

Drifting Through Dystopia and the Classics with Max Richter

This past evening at the Town Hall, pianist/composer Max Richter joined forces with a string quintet subset of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for a night of elegiacally enveloping, meticulously unfolding themes contemplating the apocalypse and the aftershock of a deadly terrorist attack. To careful listeners, the often hypnotically circling performance was also a guided tour of Richter’s big influences.

The paradigm for composing film music these days is akin to a mathematical proof in reverse, to start from simplest terms and build steadily from there toward whatever drama the script calls for. The sighing two-note riff that Angelo Badalamenti employed to open the Twin Peaks title theme is probably the most effective example. Richter is one of the great masters of that craft, a minimalist who can get maximal if the director needs it.

This was a night of generally very dark music, enhanced by the two cellos – ensemble leader Clarice Jensen and Paul Wianco – alongside violinists Laura Lutzke and Yuki Numata Resnick, and violist Caleb Burhans. The program paired a sonata of sorts, Richter’s 2008 work Infra – arguably the least kinetic ballet score ever written – with theme music from the dystopic sci-fi tv series The Leftovers

The former, a dynamic and often very still piece written to commemorate the July 7, 2005 London tube bombings mashed up Philip Glass and Brian Eno (with a few nods to a Schubert piano trio). The Leftovers score reinvented Bach and also referenced night-sky Beethoven – although the most egregiously clever quote was lifted verbatim from Cesar Franck.

Other than a dissociatively hammering, very effective interlude in the early part of Infra, any third-year piano student could have played Richter’s slow, steady, methodical variations on simple major and minor arpeggios. The brilliance was how judiciously he pieced accidentals into the fabric, from ultraviolet gleam to pitchblende finality. He occasionally switched to electric piano in the music’s starriest moments, particularly during the second half when he used a setting very close to the phantasmic tinkle of a toy piano.

The strings wove Richter’s rises and falls through increasingly complex, Renaissance-inflected counterpoint with similar dexterity. The high point of the night may have been in the early part of Infra, distant comet trails of harmonics sparkling from the strings and anchored by Richter’s simple, emphatic accents and block chords. Jensen’s vigorous propulsion beneath Resnick’s keening flickers brought to life similarly tasty contrasts. When the Leftovers score finally decayed from a dirge to defeated, lingering low-register horizontality, the devastation was visceral.

As vivid as the affinity was between the piano and string section, this was an electroacoustic performance. The lighter, glitchier electronic touches were a minor distraction; the louder ones subsumed the band. Obviously, the economics of touring make it impractical for a group that isn’t funded by all kinds of corporate or nonprofit money to bring along a full choir and low brass section. Considering how much reverb the sound engineer had put on the strings during the second half of the show, witnessing this music stripped to just Richter and the quintet would have been a lot more interesting simply because everybody could have been heard. And these are great musicians. Having to dig in and fight with a recording may have robbed them of the opportunity to play with the extraordinary nuance they’re known for. In those moments, it was impossible to tell.

Sold-Out Revelry With Balkan Brass Monsters Raya Brass Band at Symphony Space

There’s something refreshingly new and exciting happening in what might seem to be an unexpected space on the Upper West Side. This past evening, Raya Brass Band sold out Symphony Space, delivering a wickedly tight set that was just feral enough to seem like the six-piece Brooklyn Balkan collective were about to leave the rails at any second. They didn’t really do that until the end of the show, when they left the stage and went down into the crowd of dancers gathered at the front of the stage.

That’s right – dancers packing the floor at Symphony Space.

How did this neighborhood institution, best known for its annual classical music marathons and the NPR shows that tape there, suddenly get so cool? They’ve got a new series they call Revelry, where if you’re thirty or under, you can get in for twenty bucks – ten dollars less than older folks have to pay. Meanwhile, the downstairs bar stays open throughout the show and afterward. But you can get a drink at any club in town. What’s most exciting about this series is that Symphony Space is bringing in fresh talent that’s probably never played the Upper West Side before. They’ve imported some of the roster of bands from Barbes – Brooklyn’s best venue – and from other scenes as well.

Raya Brass Band packed Barbes back in January, but they always do that. It was dowmright inspiring to see them do the same in upper Manhattan in a space four or five times as big. Although they varied their tempos from funky to lickety-split, and their meters from a straight-up 4/4 to who knows what – some of these Balkan beats are impossible to count unless you have to play them – the show was more like one long jam with a thousand dynamic variations. There were a couple of Macedonian-style vamps where the group would shift back and forth between major and minor…an endlessly delicious series of sharp-fanged chromatic riffs…a klezmer-inflected number late in the set…and a final slinky, darkly glistening river of Ethiopian jazz after over an hour onstage.

Co-founder Greg Squared played the whole show on alto sax this time out, making it look effortless as he flickered between microtones, occasionally playing through an octave pedal for a spacy, techy effect. Trumpeter Ben Syversen didn’t spar with him as much as simply trading off long, goosebump-inducing volleys of chromatics – although he did a little jousting with accordionist Max Fass. Who is the band’s true anchor, providing rich washes of sound that were serendipitously up in the mix (sometimes the accordion gets lost at a place like Barbes) .

Nezih Antakli provided the boom on a big standup tapan drum, while fellow percussionist Kolja Gjoni played a standup kit: nobody could have asked for more cowbell. Tuba player Steven Duffy brought both slithery vintage Bootsy Collins basslines as well as pinpoint-precise oompah, and finally the kind of funny WAH-wah solo that every tuba player ends up having to take at some point.

The big takeaway here; if you live on the Upper West or points further north, Revelry at Symphony Space is the place to be on Thursdays nights. The next show is Oct 18 at 7:30 PM with the charming, female-fronted Avalon Jazz Band playing cosmopolitan European swing. And if you’re up for a shlep to Barbes, Greg Squared is playing there every Sunday night in October at 7 PM with a rotating cast of New York Balkan and Middle Eastern talent. Psychedelic Romany jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel plays there afterward at about 9:30 with his band.