New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie classical

A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

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Persistent Disquiet, a Roulette Show and New Material From Individualistic Keyboardist Kelly Moran

Although multi-keyboardist Kelly Moran’s albums are all solo recordings, they frequently have a psychedelic, gamelanesque quality to go along with a relentless unease. That’s because Moran multitracks herself, and prepares her piano strings for all sorts of strange muted and clock-chime effects. Her most recent album Bloodroot – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates different species of plants, some of them garden variety, some much less so.

The eleven tracks are purposeful to the nth degree, seldom much longer than two minutes apiece. Although she’s playing brand-new material with projections at her show on Sept 7 at 8 PM at Roulette, if you’re lucky you’ll get to hear some of this deliciously brooding material as well. Advance tix, available at the front desk on show nights, are $18.

The first track on the album, Iris, is a miniature, a chiming theme with pregnant pauses. The muting of the strings adds an enigmatic click beneath Moran’s belltone phrasing. Celandine – a close relative to the buttercup – is represented by steady, elegantly circling broken chords that Moran shifts eerily toward the shadows as she adds dissonances. From there she segues into the ornate rivulets of Freesia – it’s not clear how much electronic processing there is on the track, or if Moran has cleverly overdubbed a toy piano into the mix.

In Hyacinth, she bows the strings inside the piano for a shimmering autoharp effect and icy, doppler-like waves. Liatris – a flower akin to smaller-scale tall phlox –  is portrayed with music box-like voicings, anchored by terse, graceful piano harmonies. Moran segues from there directly into the album’s title track, a spare, moody, Satie-esque theme. A flickering prepared piano track approximating the sound of castanets echoes the melody – t’s the strongest and most disconcerting number here.

Moran is done with the calla lily in less than a minute and a half of what could be a mashup of Webern, Mompou and Margaret Leng Tan (for a completely different take on the flower, check out the bittersweet Amy Allison song)

Sea lavender – a favorite of the composer, maybe? – gets two tracks. Statice – a common synonym – is a plaintive anthem with spiky, muted carillon-esque textures. Limonium – the flower’s taxonomical name – could be a duet between horror film composer Clint Mansell and toy pianist Phyllis Chen.

In between the two rests Aster, uneasily – it’s the closest thing to the otherworldly belltones of Mompou here, punctuated by plenty of pauses. Moran closes the album with a salute to the Heliconia, a bright red-and-yellow tropical flower and distant relative of the banana. It gets a surprisingly dark, epic portrayal, the closest thing to grand guignol on this beguiling, rather troubled album. It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of distant menace Moran can conjure up in Brooklyn this weekend. 

Us, Today Bring Their Catchy Postrock Grooves to the Lower East Next Weekend

Cincinnati trio Us, Today are one of those rare bands who’ve refined a sound like no other out group there. It’s easy to categorize them as postrock: the obvious comparison is Tortoise. At other times, they come across as a more minimalist take on Ensemble Et Al at their most energetic. Us, Today’s instrumentals are both purposeful and psychedelic, catchy and hypnotic. Kristin Agee plays vibraphone and keys, with Joel Griggs on guitar and and Jeff Mellott on drums. They’re playing the big room at the Rockwood at 10 PM on Sept 2.

Their latest album, Computant is streaming at Bandcamp. The opening track, No Funny Game is actually far from sinister – Agee’s tight vibraphone riffs dance gracefully over a smoothly undulating, funky groove spiced with Griggs’ gritty textures as it winds out.

Spellcaster (Dr. Spirit) begins in a similar vein but goes through some subtle rhythmic shifts. Griggs mutes his emphatic low notes for basslines and eventually goes echoing through the Van Allen Belt; Agee holds her pedal down for a woozy organ effect. Hello Viewers, a carillon-like miniature, introduces Sharin’, a trickily rhythmic, propulsive number: is that Griggs playing bass or is that fat envelope sound coming from Agee’s bass synth? 

Best Unfriends is a tasty, propulsive motorik groove with echoey dreampop riffage from Griggs. Likewise, WHAT IS TIME NOW. GOODMORNING? has a tense krautrock pulse, Griggs’ incisive riffage burning through Agee’s raindrops.

Circling, buzzy syncopated guitar riffs exchange with the twinkle of the vibraphone over flitting, woozy lows in Greetings from the Master. The album’s most colorful track is Wealthe + Fame + Love + Luck, mashing up minimalist P-Funk, indie classical, dreampop and hints of 80s goth, Griggs’ machete chord-chopping fueling the blaze over a deadpan backdrop. The trio segue into the lingering final number, Eracism and its amusing trick ending.

Some people might hear a few bars of this and confuse it with mathrock. Much as Us, Today’s music is all instrumental, with textures straight from the video game theme park, it’s much more interesting and cinematic. Isn’t it funny how music equated with mathematics so often tends to be spastic and awkward…hardly mathlike, when you think about it.

Fun fact: the band’s catalog also includes the acerbic single The Compulsion of Picture Taking. Somebody had to do that and it’s a good thing it was these guys.

A Hypnotic, Soothing Beehive of Avant Garde Activity at the Mostly Mozart Festival

Last night’s performance of Michael Pisaro’s A Wave and Waves at the Mostly Mozart Festival began with a single, momentary trill from one of the roughly hundred performers seated within the Lincoln Center audience. A woman with her back to one of them turned in her seat indignantly: hadn’t her neighbor heeded the reminder to turn off her phone?

As another, more muffled sound flitted from the other side of the atrium space, the look on the woman’s face was priceless. That little ripple wasn’t a phone. It was a percussion instrument: bells on a string.

There were other comedic moments during the roughly 75-minute diptych, but those were limited to pregnant pauses – the ready-to-pop kind – along with dropped instruments and scores. For the most part, the piece was calm, a minor-league take on John Luther Adams’ vast, enveloping Become Ocean. The effect was like a Soviet Realist poster come to life, a steady bustle of happy worker ants.

The composer introduced the work as a landscape where no perspective is identical. Obviously, no perspective at any concert is exactly the same, sonically speaking, irrespective of one’s proximity to a particular instrument.  Here, these really ran the gamut, from bowed bells and a couple of huge bass drums, to a repurposed coffee can, an upside-down kitchen drawer and what appeared to be a wok with a chain inside, whose player rattled and clinked as she raised and lowered metal against metal.

In general, the sold-out audience’s reaction was rapt attention. More than one person assumed a yoga position (one of them ended up falling asleep, or so it seemed). One of the very few people to leave during the performance did that at the break between pieces – but only after videoing the entire first half.

Where the first part was a calm beehive of rustling. swooshing activity juxtaposed with a series of high, keening textures from the bowed bells, the second half was more animated. Ostensibly a series of shorter waves, those bursts of activity began suddenly and ended cold – and were considerably louder than the hypnotic ambience of the first half of the show. It was here that the musicians – percussionist Greg Stuart and members of International Contemporary Ensemble, along with a motley assortment of performers who ranged from gradeschool age to maybe six times that – were able to cut loose, at least to the extent that they could. Frenzies were hinted at, but never quite emerged, although the maze of stereo effects grew much more lively, with hints of call-and-response.

The remainder of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center is sold out. However, there is a free concluding event, a spatially arranged world premiere by four choirs singing John Luther Adams‘ ecological parable In the Name of the Earth at the Cathedral of St.  John the Divine on Aug 11. The concert is at 3 PM; doors open at 2. Get there early if you want to get in.

And the next performance at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. – where almost all of the most ambitious programming on campus takes place – is on Aug 16 at 7:30 PM with the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro, Jorge Glem. The show is free: get there early if you’re going.

A Far Cry Play a Demanding, Witheringly Relevant Program in Withering Heat in Central Park

It’s already an achievement when all eighteen members of a string orchestra can be on the same page and get everything right in the comfortable confines of a concert hall. It’s another thing entirely to do that in ninety-plus degree heat, facing a Manhattan sunset. Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, A Far Cry really worked up a sweat doing a whole lot more in a brilliantly programmed mix of mostly dark works with potent resonance for the pre-impeachment Trump era. 

The highlight could have been Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, from 1994. Managing to negotiate the thicket of hypnotic, often ominous circular riffage that foreshadowed Glass’ Dracula soundtrack from five years later was impressive enough. Yet the group dug in for both the jokes – the trick ending at the end of the first movement and the “who, me?” exchanges of pizzicato in the final one – – along with relentless macabre understatement. From the muted, wounded whispers of the introduction, dynamics were ripe to rise with a pulse just short of bloodcurdling. Much as the second movement is on the slow side, it’s also very percussive, and the ensemble were on that as well, bassists Erik Higgins and Karl Doty exchanging fanged serpentine phrases beneath circling cloudbanks of melody.

It’s one of Glass’ most Lynchian works, and it set the stage lusciously well for an even more dynamically bristling interpretation of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. WQXR’s Elliott Forrest, the night’s emcee, explained that the composer had written it in 1939 before escaping the encroaching fascism in his native Hungary. The ensemble kept their cards close to the vest through the straightforwardly strutting phony pageantry that opens the triptych but then got their claws out for the anguished, jaggedly slashing danse macabre afterward. Likewise, the contrast between the sense of depletion and loss in the second movement and the defiantly jaunty coda was breathtaking. As a musical hail-Mary pass (and raised middle finger at the Nazis and their enablers), it’s akin to Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel cheating the hangman.  

The group closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, rising from stillness to aching, Glass-ine echo effects and then an elegaic processional, a brooding conclusion to an often haunting evening.

The warmup piece – in every sense of the word – was Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K.138, a prescient student work written when he was 15 that lacks the colorful voicings he’d develop just a few years later, but its coy hooks still pop up in movies and on NPR all the time. As one of the band members mused to the crowd, who knew that this piece would ever be played in such a major city, let alone to a full house. Mozart would no doubt be plenty proud of himself.

And a special shout-out to the pretty blonde woman in the black sundress who shared an entire bag of walnut-banana crunch  – a high-class take on Fiddle Faddle – with the hungry blog proprietor seated behind her. If you see this, be in touch – reciprocity is due. 

A Far Cry’s next performance is a program including Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition plus a Jessica Meyer world premiere and works by Bernstein and Respighi at 3 PM on September 8 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The next concert at the Naumburg Bandshell is this coming Tuesday, July 17 at 7:30 PM with popular indie classical orchestra the Knights playing works by Anna Clyne along with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and works by Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat. 

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra Bring Their Epic, Ominously Cinematic Soundscapes to the Jazz Standard

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s debut album The Painted Lady Suite – streaming at Sunnyside Records – doesn’t concern a medieval femme fatale. The central seven-part suite portays the epic, over-the-North-Pole migration of painted lady butterflies from Mexico to North Africa. Even by the standards of Bernard Herrmann, whose work this album strongly resembles, its mammoth sweep and dark majesty is unrivalled in recent years. The band are bringing it to life with a two-night stand this July 17 and 18 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30.

Along with his singer sister Carolyn, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist bandleader is the rare child of musical talent (dad is bassist Jay Leonhart) who’s also produced noteworthy material. Beyond the jazz idiom, the vastness of the music echoes an army of influences as diverse as Pink Floyd, Brad Fiedel’s film scores, Steve Reich and Antibalas (some of whose members play on this album).

The big title suite begins lush and lustrous in the Mexican desert, tectonic sheets of brass alternating with a hefty Afrobeat groove anchored by the low reeds, punctuated by Donny McCaslin’s slashingly modal phrasing. From there the swarm moves north over El Paso in a wave of symphonic Morricone southwestern gothic, Nick Movshon’s shamanistic drums and Nels Cline’s menacing psychedelic guitar interspersed amid the big swells.

North Dakota big sky country is the next destination, Sam Sadigursky’s alto sax fluttering uneasily over ambient, ambered brass ambience in a brooding, Roger Waters-esque soundscape. A couple of ferocious “let’s go!” phrases from the whole orchestra signal a move further north to the wilds of Saskatchewan: Philip Glass as played by the Alan Parsons Project, maybe.

As the migration passes through the chill air high above the Arctic Circle, Movshon’s tersely dancing, staccato bass punctuates serene orchestration, then the circling bass melody shifts to the high reeds, Erik Friedlander’s cello and Pauline Kim’s viola peering through the ether.

The suite concludes with nocturnal and then daytime Saharan skyscapes. With its ominous, repetitive siren motives and the bandleader’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern muted trumpet, the first is awash in dread and mystery. The second builds from a cheerily strutting Afrobeat tune to a blazingly brassy, triumphantly pulsing coda – but the conclusion is too apt to give away.

There are three more tracks on the album. In the Kingdom of M.Q. features dancing, loopy phrases and a little dissociative swirl beneath a bubbly McCaslin solo. The sardonically titled Music Your Grandparents Would Like has a slow, steady sway, tense close harmonies,a crime jazz interlude and a bizarrely skronky Cline guitar solo. The final cut is The Girl From Udaipur, its enveloping wave motion punctuated by allusions to bhangra.

The orchestra lineup is just as epic as the music. The rest of the trumpet section includes Dave Guy, Taylor Haskins, Andy Bush, Carter Yasutake and Andy Gathercole. Ray Mason and Mark Patterson play trombones, with John Altieri on tuba. Matt Bauder, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Aaron Heick and Cochemea Gastelum round out the sax section, with Charles Pillow on bass clarinet and alto flute. Sara Schoenbeck plays bassoon; Mauro Durante plays violin; Erik Friedlander plays cello. A revolving drum chair also features Homer Steinweiss and Daniel Freedman. In addition to the bandleader, Joe Martin also plays bass, with Mauro Refosco and Leon Michels on percussion.

Obscure Treasures at the Opening Night of This Year’s Mise-En Festival

Before last night’s otherworldly, flickering “composer portrait” of the individualistic proto-serialist Klaus Huber to open this year’s Mise-En Festival, had there ever been an all-Huber program performed in New York? Actually, yes – by Ensemble Mise-En, a couple of years ago. Which comes as no surprise. For the past several years, the Brooklyn-based new-music group have been adventurous as adventurous gets, with a wide-ranging sensibility and fearless advocacy for undeservedly obscure composers from across the ages unsurpassed by any other chamber music organization in town.

While Huber’s work sometimes echoes the stubborn kineticism of Ligeti, the rapture of Messiaen, the poignancy of Mompou and the ethereality of Gerard Grisey, ultimately Huber is one of the real individualists of 20th century music. George Crumb was another contemporary who came to mind as pianist Dorothy Chan shifted from simple, lingering chords, to a sudden horrified flurry capped off by a giant crash, to wispy brushing on muted strings inside the piano in a methodically shapeshifting take of Huber’s trio piece, Ascensus. Alongside her, fluitist Kelley Barnett and cellist Chris Irvine worked slow, deliberate mutations on brief accents and bursts, The audience was spellbound.

Barnett and Irvine joined forces with oboeist Erin Lensing, trombonist Mark Broschinsky, violinist Maria Im and violist Carrie Frey for the night’s opening number, In nomine – ricercare il nome. It was akin to watching an illuminated Rubik’s Cube…or the deck of the Starship Enterprise in slo-mo as harmonies shifted back and forth between the strings and winds.

Im’s solo take of a very late work from 2010, Intarsimile für Violine came across as a less petulant take on a Luciano Berio sequenza, employing extended technique, wispy overtones and the occasional microtonal phrase for subtlety rather than full-on assault. Barnett serenaded the crowd from the Cell Theatre’s balcony with Huber’s 1974 solo piece Ein Hauch von Unzeit, whose trills and misty ambience became more of a lullaby,

Pianist Yumi Suehiro teamed with Barnett, Frey and percussionist Josh Perry for a methodically calm, somewhat benedictory coda, Beati pauperes, whose deep-space stillness brought to mind the awestruck, concluding expanses of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. Perry enhanced the mystery with spacious, distant booms on a big gong as the melody grew more warmly consonant, the group conducted with equal parts meticulousness and quiet triumph by founder Moon Young Ha.

This year’s Mise-En Festival continues through this Saturday, June 30 Tonight’s 8 PM Brooklyn program features solo works by Victor Marquez-Barrios, Patrick McGraw, Amelia Kaplan, Lydia Winsor Brindamour and an electroacoustic piece by Steven Whiteley, performed at the group’s Bushwick home base at 678 Hart St, #1B (at Marcy Ave). Admission is $15/$10 stud/srs; take the G to Myrtle-Willoughby and be aware that there’s no Brooklyn-bound service afterward.

Casually Spectacular Violinist Olivia De Prato Closes Out This Year’s Concert Series at the Miller Theatre

This year’s beguiling series of free early-evening concerts of new and mostly-new concert music at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway comes to a triumphant close this coming June 12 at 6 PM with Olivia De Prato, the unselfconsciously brilliant first violinist of the fearless Mivos Quartet. She’ll be playing solo and duo works as well as leading an all-violin string quartet. That’s a typical move for an artist who doesn’t sit still and doesn’t seem to want to turn down a challenge.

De Prato’s debut solo album, Streya, which came out earlier this year, is as a remarkably accessible as it is daunting to play. Yet De Prato seemed to relish getting the chance to tackle its sharply contrasting nuts and bolts at her album release show this past spring, upstairs at the Momenta Quartet’s Rivington Street second-floor hotspot. She told the crowd beforehand that what she enjoyed the most about making the record is that it gave her the opportunity to capture every possible sound that can be coaxed or wrestled from a violin. Then she did exactly that over the course of more than an hour.

This wasn’t the first time she’d played the title track solo. At an earlier Miller Theatre show, she opened a Mivos program with its uneasy, jaggedly dancing mix of resonance, ghostly flitting motives and even more sepulchral harmonics, planting her feet with the determination of a ballplayer intent on launching a long drive deep into the stands. While the classical tradition calls for playing a piece in perfect sync with a composer’s intentions every time out, the reality is that the best classical players will feel a room and adjust accordingly, just as a smart jazz or rock musician will. In this intimate Lower East Side space, it was fascinating to watch De Prato back away from that tenacity and let the spectres of her husband Victor Lowrie’s work waft with considerably more whispery mystery.

Beyond daunting displays of extended technique – insistent percussive accents, endlessly shifting deep-snowstorm washes and acidically shivery overtones – she let the sheer tunefulness of the material speak for itself. A Ned Rothenberg pastorale circled and circled, tensely, before De Prato pushed up the roof and let in the sun – metaphorically speaking, anyway. She danced through the distantly baroque and then Asian inflections in a Reiko Fueting number before closing the show by inviting up the great Missy Mazzoli to join her on keyboards for a rare duo performance of Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin.

Based on her darkly meticulous, moodily clustering Vespers For a New Dark Age, this seemed more kinetically starry than the artfully overdubbed album version. For anyone who remembered Mazzoli’s magically articulate performances with her swirling chamber-rock band Victoire back in the late zeros, this was a fond look back at a time and place gone forever. Mazzoli’s chops are just as sharp now as then, and the push-pull between the instruments, contrasts between austerity and more hopeful, cascading phrases were brought into stark focus. It’s unlikely that Mazzoli will be part of the concert at the Miller on the 12th, but there will definitely be special guests, including Rothenberg on clarinet.

Rapturous Nightscapes From an Invisible Orchestra by Pamelia Stickney

Pamelia Stickney is arguably the world’s foremost theremin player. By any standard, she’s done more than anyone else alive to take the original electronic instrument to new places. While most musicians use the early Soviet-era contraption for horror-movie shivers or comedic whistles, Stickney plays melodies on it. At various points in her career, those have ranged from desolate deep-space tableaux to earthy symphonic extravaganzas. At her tantalizingly short set this past weekend at Barbes, she led her ironically titled Transcendental Dissonance Quartet through a similar, stylistically vast expanse of styles, from film noir themes to lowdown latin soul to elegant chamber jazz improvisation.

Stickney plays theremin as if she’s playing a magical, invisible, somewhat cranky bass. Standing perfectly still, her right hand controlling the volume, she bends her left hand at the elbow, expanding her fingers outward to hit the notes. She saves the instrument’s signature, quavery, creaky-door effects for when she really needs to make a point. This time, she opened with a low bass synth sound that George Clinton would undoubtedly love to have in his arsensal.

Meanwhile, Stuart Popejoy – playing piano instead of his usual bass here – delivered tersely incisive, moody variations on a stark, Lynchian theme while Danny Tunick’s vibraphone sprinkled stardust throughout the tableau, violinist Sarah Bernstein completing the picture with airy washes and spare, plaintive  countermelodies. They would stick with this eerie, surreal thousand-layer cake of textures throughout their roughly fifty minutes onstage while Stickney channeled the sound of massed voices, a cello (which she also plays, among many other instruments), and various kinds of brass. Her m.o. is simple: a theremin takes up a lot less space when you’re on tour.

Midway through the set, she moved to the piano for a slowly unfolding, hushed duet with Bernstein, who finallly got the chance to move through the magical microtones that have become her stock in trade over the last few years. Then the whoe group reconfigured for a final nightscape.

Stickney is back in New York this September, where she’s doing a week at the Stone with a series of ensembles. In the meantime, she’s back on her home turf in Vienna this week, with gigs on May 24 at the Ruprechtskirche at Ruprechtspl. 1 – where she’s playing cello alongside the carnivalesque Hans Tschiritsch & NoMaden – and then on May 25 with her Scrambolage trio with pianist Monika Lang and cellist Melissa Coleman at Roter Salon, Wipplingerstr. 2 at 8 PM; cover is 15€/10€ stud.  And for New Yorkers, Bernstein is playing the album release show for her most lyrically-driven album yet this May 30 at 9ish at Wonders of Nature.

Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.