New York Music Daily

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Category: indie classical

Beguiling New Sounds From Ancient Instruments

What’s the likelihood that a contemporary composer would write a partita for viola da gamba ensemble? Molly Herron – who plays bass viola da gamba on her new album Through Lines, streaming at Bandcamp – has done exactly that. Although it’s on the minimalist side, it’s very dynamic: sometimes bracing and sober, other times immersive, and unexpectedly funny in places.

Science Ficta’s Loren Ludwig and Zoe Weiss, on standard models, and Kivie Cahn-Lipman on bass viola da gamba, join the composer in this eleven-part suite. Each segment is on the short side, four minutes or sometimes considerably less. The introduction is spacious and on the austere side, rhythmically staggered plucking backed by simple long-tone lines. The dusky tones of gnawa occasionally come to mind.

The quartet follow a study in wafting drones, overtones and fluttering pedal notes with playful, conspiratorial eighth-note phrases, hypnotic flurries and enigmatic close harmonies. Segment four, After Picforth alludes to a stormy anthem, then recedes into atmospherics.

There’s also an overtone-spiced contrast between plucked acerbity and calm ambience; a wry rondo assembled from echo effects; somber, assertive variations on a simple minor chord; and a coy return to the opening theme at the end.

Haunting Turkish Sounds From a Water Tower

Today’s installment of the daily, October-long Halloween celebration here draws on a style familiar to horror movie fans: classical choral music. But this is hardly your typical gothic crypt tableau.

Singer Dashon Burton, of adventurous contemporary classical choir Roomful of Teeth, brought his colleagues his new arrangement of Turkish composer Alev Lenz‘s song Fall Into Me. The ensemble liked it so much they decided to record it in an old seven-story water tank in Colorado known for its incredible natural reverb.

And it’s everything you could possibly want: haunting chromatics, ominously droning lows, but also an unexpected sense of hope. Tiredness and a little torture factor into the English lyrics, dovetailing with the zeitgeist of the past nineteen months. Give this maxi-single a spin at Bandcamp and get lost for five minutes.

A Rare Outdoor Show by an East Village Avant Garde Legend

Elliott Sharp began his career as the most formidable guitar shredder on the Lower East Side and eventually became a major composer of modern opera, among other things. What he’s going to play – guitar or sax, on which he also shreds – and who he’s going to have with him at his show at 4 PM on Sept 26 on his old stomping ground, at La Plaza Cultural at Ave C and 9th St., remains to be seen. Whatever it is, this perennially adventurous sage is always worth seeing.

Sharp’s latest opera Filiseti Mekidesi – streaming at Spotify – is characteristically relevant, an aptly dissociative reflection on the terror of the refugee crisis that began before the lockdown. Being driven from one’s native land to a foreign culture is alienating to the extreme, and the music reflects that. Acidic circular themes figure heavily. While the two words in the title are Amharic – meaning “shelter” and “migration” – there are few moments where any distinctive Ethiopian influence surfaces. The fact that none of the vocalists are native English speakers adds to the persistent, troubled sense of unfamiliarity. Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran takes centerstage in texts by the composer, Tracie Morris and Edwin Torres. Choral ensemble Voxnova Italia also take turns in the spotlight, with chamber orchestra Musikfabrik providing the backdrop.

Massed, disquieted smoke-off-the-battlefield atmospherics rise toward Chinatown New Year chaos, recede and then oscillate as the opera gets underway, setting the stage for much of what’s to come. By contrast, Sharp’s vocal melodies are simple and emphatic, often echoed by soloists from throughout the orchestra. It’s not likely that he’s going to draw on this material, or his other equally provocative operatic work, for the show in the garden, but you never know.

Daniel Hart’s Colorful, Ambitious New Film Score Hits the Screen and the Web

The last time composer Daniel Hart was featured on this page, it was at the end of last year’s annual Octoberlong Halloween celebration of dark music here. The dark soundtrack being celebrated that day was Hart’s score to the 2017 film A Ghost Story. Hart’s latest soundtrack is for the new movie The Green Knight, streaming at Spotify.

This music is very colorful, entertaining, ambitious and speaks well for the film. Here Hart engages a choir as well as orchestra, through a much wider sonic palette than his horror cinematics. Most of the twenty-nine segments here are on the short side, three minutes or considerably less: there’s a lot going on this narrative, obviously.

The beginning is percussive and flutey. Harp and cello move to centerstage, then orchestra and choir drift through calm and storm. Most of the orchestration is organic, although there are surreal electronic flourishes and effects.

Portents – acidic woodwinds approximate birdsong, a knock-knock from the drums and a stern mini-fanfare from the choir – appear early on. A bucolic guitar-and-flute tune signals the birth of Christ, quite an outside-the-box depiction.

Two central themes are a striking, somberly circling, Philip Glass-like string interlude followed by an even more striking waltz in the style of a medieval Jewish nigun.

A woman sings in Italian to wind up a twinkling, harp-and-cello-driven all-night vigil. The choral interludes can be demanding, and dramatic, and the singers rise to the technical challenges. Interestingly, Hart doesn’t get Elizabethan til the end: throughout most of the score, his harmonies are on the austere, modernist side. This is a rewarding listen for fans of picturesque contemporary composers like Richard Danielpour and Caroline Shaw.

A Sizzling, Cutting-Edge, Wildly Funky String Jazz Collaboration in Long Island City

It’s impossible to think of a more capsulizing moment for music in New York in 2021 than the concert in a Long Island City parking lot last Sunday. Overhead, the skies blackened, but on the ground, string quartet the Lotus Chamber Music Collective and jazz quartet Momentum joined in a wild, ecstatic collaboration that spoke to the indomitability of New York musicians creating the newest sounds around.

Lotus’ charismatic cellist, Sasha Ono, didn’t bother trying to hide how amped she was to finally be able to play her first concert since last year’s lockdown. The electricity shared by all eight players – perched on the back of a trailer and the bed of a battered 1963 Ford pickup – was pure unleashed cabin fever. This crew had obviously been playing and refining their chops during the time live music was criminalized here. And a big crowd had come out for the fireworks, defying the thunderclouds overhead.

The quartet – which also included violinists Tiffany Weiss and Emily Frederick alongside violist Gizem Yucel – opened with a mixture of lushness and groove, Ono and Momentum bassist Isaac Levien doubling up on the fat low end riffage throughout most of JJ’s Dance, by drummer Elé Howell. It was a slinky, shapeshifting number that gave the band a long launching pad to rise through a blend of Afrobeat, trip-hop and psychedelic funk that drew a straight line back to Roy Ayers. From the back of the truck bed, guitarist Quintin Zoto drove it to a searing peak with a long, feral but erudite solo, capped off with some savage tremolo-picking.

Cultural Appropriation, by Julia Chen had a coy calypso bounce fueled by Howell’s loose-limbed clave, with a similarly slinky Levien bass solo, vibraphonist Grady Tesch rippling through what the clouds overhead were foreshadowing.

Ono told the crowd that she’d been inspired to come up with her arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s La Paloma Azul as a reflection on the South American refugee crisis, the strings introducing its lustrous initial theme followed by the rest of the ensemble’s lilting, bittersweet, Mexican folk-tinged rhythms.

The most ambitiously symphonic interlude of the afternoon was when the two groups mashed up Swing, Low Sweet Chariot with themes from Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet (her Symphony No. 1 was the most-played orchestral work by any American composer in the 1930s). Ono and Tesch had come up with that idea after doing a webcast focusing on Price, whose gospel and jazz-influenced music is getting a long-overdue revival. The highlight was Yucel’s stark viola solo amid the polyrhythms and the constant dynamic shifts.

The eight musicians closed the first set with a determined, lavishly funky take of Shunzo Ohno‘s Musashi, debuting string parts which the jazz legend had written for this performance. It was akin to a particularly energetic segment on the Crusaders’ live album with B.B. King, switching out King’s string-busting bent notes for a torrentially icy guitar attack channeled through Zoto’s chorus pedal. Welcome to the future of serious concert music in New York, 2021: if this is any indication, it’s going to be a hot summer.

The more-or-less weekly outdoor series in the parking lot out behind Culture Lab, 5-25 46th Ave in Long Island City continues at 5 PM tonight, July 24 with careening, microtonally-tinged electric blues band Jane Lee Hooker. The space is just down the block from LIC Bar, further toward the water; take the 7 to Vernon Blvd.

An Intriguing Outdoor Concert of New Classical Works on the Water Next Week

A rare auspicious development that surfaced during the past sixteen months’ lockdown was that New York musicians became more resourceful than ever. Deprived of venues and concert stages, people improvised in more ways than usual, creating new spaces for audiences and players with a much greater inclusiveness than the old, profit-driven club model. One holdover from the days when indoor concerts were forbidden – not so long ago! – is a very intriguing outdoor show this July 21 at 7 PM where 21st century classical ensemble Contemporaneous play a program of new works by Alex Weiser, Zachary James Ritter, Yasmin Williams and toy pianist Lucy Yao, plus a world premiere by Yaz Lancaster at Pier 64 at 24th St. and the Hudson. The show is free with a rsvp.

For an idea of at least part of the bill, dial up Weiser’s 2019 album And All the Days Were Purple at Bandcamp. It’s a series of often very moving settings of poems from across the Jewish diaspora which the composer found during his archival research at the YIVO Institute, where until the lockdown he ran the public programming.

The first track is My Joy, a minimalist, slowly vamping setting of a regretful text by Anna Margolin, pianist Lee Dionne following a subtle upward trajectory in contrast with the hazy strings of violinist Maya Bennardo, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Hannah Collins beneath soprano Eliza Bagg’s understatedly plaintive, soaring vocal.

The strings rise to swirls and subside, punctuated by dramatic shocks in the second track, a brief tone poem of sorts simply titled titled with an asterisk. It segues into a haunting setting of Edward Hirsch’s poem I Was Never Able to Pray, Bagg’s airy, austere delivery in contrast with a somber bell motif.

Longing, a very thinly disguised early 20th century erotic poem by Rachel Korn, follows a series of elegant, upwardly stairstepping figures. There’s a similar subtext in Poetry, a text by Abraham Sutzkever where Bagg channels a deep, soul-infused sound over a slowly drifting piano backdrop.

She takes an airier approach to Margolin’s Lines for Winter over Dionne’s insistent, reflecting-pool piano and the swells of the strings. A second asterisked instrumental interlude follows as a segue, awash in extended-technique strings, swooping and dipping microtonally and shedding high harmonics.

The album’s big, understatedly angst-fueled ballad is We Went Through the Day, which Bagg sings in the original Yiddish. The big concluding epic is Three Epitaphs, with text reflecting on the brevity of life by Williams Carlos Williams, Seikilos and Emily Dickinson. Percussionist Mike Compitello joins in the pointillism of the first part, Bagg’s long, resonant tones sailing overhead. A reflecting pool of echoes and then a wistfully drifting outro conclude this soberingly immersive collection.

The Overlook Champion Exhilarating, Riveting Works by Black Composers

Tuesday evening at the Hispanic Society of America, violinist Ravenna Lipchik of the Overlook flashed a knowing grin to her violist bandmate Angela Pickett, seconds before the string quartet launched into the third movement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasie-Stücke. With a passionate, syncopated pulse, a breathtaking melody burst out from the strings of the four women gathered in the front of the basement-level gallery space. This wasn’t exactly a witchy tarantella, or a slashing Balkan dance, but it had elements of both, blended into a breathtaking High Romantic triumph that quickly became the most exhilarating interlude anyone in New York has played for an audience this year.

Wow.

Admittedly, by normal standards, the number of concerts in this city this year has been the lowest on record since probably the 1700s. Still, this was a reminder of everything that was stolen from us during the lockdown – and what we need to get back, and this new string quartet are at the front of the pack leading the way.

The Overlook dedicate themselves to resurrecting material by undeservedly obscure black composers, and championing this era’s crop. Coleridge-Taylor’s five-part suite – recently recorded by another paradigm-shifting group, the Catalyst Quartet – was the legacy piece. Until recently, this once famous composer, conductor and contemporary of Dvorak and Brahms was largely forgotten outside of the organ demimonde. Judging from the rest of his work that’s recently been revived, he’s long overdue.

Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber music is more Slavic than Dvorak and has the same kind of playfulness and intricacy as Razumovsky Quartet-era Beethoven, combined with sometimes stark, sometimes stirring elements of African-American blues and gospel music. This piece had all of that, a gorgeously bittersweet theme and variations along with a devious return to that blazing dance before a somewhat more mutedly heroic coda.

The ensemble – which also includes cellist Laura Metcalf and violinist Monica Davis – bookended the piece with two more recent but equally fascinating works. Guest Tanya Birl-Torres introduced Leila Adu‘s If the Stars Align with a brief meditation suggesting we connect to a comfortable space in between the earth that grounds us, and the world above which gives us life.

Adu is better known as a singer of ornate, soaring art-rock, in a Kate Bush vein, so this was a revelation The music was deceptively simple, built around a series of subtly, increasingly complex gestures that grew into a more complex web, following a steady counterpoint, a series of handoffs and catch-and-follow. There was also a bustling, vividly urban interlude complete with sirens and busy crowds, as well as a flurrying intensity with echoes of Kurdish folk music.

Birl-Torres also served as narrator during the hazy, enigmatic introduction to the concluding work, Shelley Washington’s Middleground. The quartet dug into the piece’s insistent minimalism, akin to a similarly rhythmic but somewhat gentler Julia Wolfe, expanding a steady interweave, its close harmonies and short, emphatic gestures echoing the night’s first piece.

The Overlook’s next scheduled performance is Sept 12 at 4 PM with music by Eleanor Alberga, Florence Price, and Chevalier de Saint-Georges at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace about a block south of 162nd St. in Washington Heights, The concert is free; take the A/C to 163rd St.

A Slashingly Relevant New Album of New String Quartet Works From Quartet121

When Quartet121 put out a call for string quartet scores, they really scored! The ensemble – violinists Molly Germer and Julia Jung Un Suh, violist Lena Vidulich and cellist Thea Mesirow – are a magnet for world premieres. Their new album, simply titled Call for Scores – streaming at Bandcamp – comprises three acerbic and powerfully relevant new works.

The first piece is Rachel Beja‘s Punti Invisibili di Contatto, with a theme focusing on the tension between individuality and being part of a whole. The group flit through playful exchanges within lots of space, then the harmonies begin. Lots of extended technique is involved: percussive flickers, keening harmonics and slithery glissandos The more the piece coalesces, the more severe the harmonies and gestures become. A wicked slide signals a muted pedalpoint, but the rhythms remain unsettled the rest of the way: this is a posse of rugged individualists! A state anthem for South Dakota, or the freedom fighters in Beja’s native Israel, maybe?

Latvian composer Anna Ķirse’s electroacoustic Mundus Invisibilis, a contemplation of how the microscopic world influences the one we can see without magnification, is next. There’s computer-voiced text about the birth of a mushroom, then sheets of astringency balanced by plucky accents. The dynamics shift to a rhythmic insistence versus haze and brief poltergeist bursts. The mushroom eventually blooms with acidic tremoloing phrases and sharp, short, stabbing motives: not your typical forest-floor presence.

The final work is Mexican composer Rafael Rentería‘s Hashtag Capital Gore, a glitchier electroacoustic piece on themes of violence against women. The score calls for the performers to immerse their feet in buckets of ice while playing. They follow a series of brief crescendos, a forest of shivery tonalities that stops short of sheer horror, then the tension rises with greater intensity. There’s a false ending and a coda that’s too apt to give away. To the group’s credit, if they in fact put their feet into the ice for this, they don’t race to warm up again. As the world wakes up from the media-induced terror and paranoia of the past seventeen months and returns to normal, let’s hope this group continues on a path that’s off to a flying start.

A Far Cry Storm Back into Action at the Naumburg Bandshell

From 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual series in the history of music. It has been as much of a godsend to witness the return of these performances this year as it was tragic to lose them in 2020. Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell, huddled under their umbrellas in relentless rain that finally grew to monsoon proportions, a crowd of about a hundred undeterred concertgoers thunderously welcomed back a familiar presence on the stage here, seventeen-piece string ensemble A Far Cry.

They were just as happy to see the audience. This was the group’s first concert since February of last year. Violinist Jae Cosmos Lee mentioned that they’d played their share of webcasts and broadcasts, as just about every other ensemble that managed to stay together during the sixteen-month lockdown here in the northeast ended up doing. Still, he confided that his most sobering realization during that time was how crucial the relationship between performers and audience is. “Without you, all this would be…” he searched for a word, “Nothing!” This wasn’t just Sergeant Pepper trying to take all the girls home. This was sincere.

That energy was more electric than the sky overhead: Lee enthused that this was the group’s most exciting moment onstage, at least since a show in Slidell, Louisiana where it was “raining sideways” and one of the violinists burst into a solo version of Orange Blossom Special while her bandmates waited for the sky to clear.

Throughout this particular downpour, the music was transcendent in the purest sense of the word. They opened with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, bristling with dynamics, from the stiletto staccato of the first movement, black velvet resonance from bass and cellos in the anxious second part, and a lithe pulse throughout the baroque-tinged dances they wound it up with.

Joseph Bologne, a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a slightly older and very colorful contemporary of Mozart, is all the rage now, represented on this bill by a kinetically stately take of his 1778 Sinfonia Concertante Op. 13, No. 1, which has actually never been recorded. Maybe A Far Cry can jump on that bandwagon too.

The two pieces de resistance among many were a couple of Jessie Montgomery works. She’s one of us, Lower East Side born and bred, and the group did her justice with a plucky, emphatically circling, meticulously playful take of her 2012 work Strum for String Orchestra. And they luxuriated in the wealth of subtly cached microtones and slowly glissandoing swells in Source Code for String Orchestra, from a year later.

Silouan’s Song, a 1991 Arvo Part composition, made an apt segue with its somber, spaciously paced minimalism. The group closed with the High Romantic joy and angst and ultimate triumph of Teresa Carreno’s 1895 Serenade for Strings: a love song, a passionately wary waltz that offered a fond nod to Chopin, moments of pensive calm ceding to a heroic coda that simply would not be denied. Meanwhile, the cadences of the storm overhead seemed to be keeping pace with the music to the extent that the crowd started laughing whenever there would be a pause, or a crescendo capped off with a thunderclap or an explosion of rain.

This year’s Naumburg Bandshell concerts continue on July 20 at 7:30 PM with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra playing works by Purcell, John Blow and others. The recently renovated bandshell is a little closer to the west side; take the 72nd St. entrance and get there early – an hour and a half early isn’t too early – if you want a seat.

Cellist Arlen Hlusko Finds Mesmerizing Beauty in Scott Ordway’s New Solo Suite

Cellist Arlen Hlusko’s new recording of Scott Ordway’s Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello – streaming at the composer’s music page – is a bundle of contradictions: sprightly and immersive, old and new. Drawing equally on the baroque and current-day minimalism, it’s on the slow, pensive side, but with all sorts of dynamic shifts and demands on extended technique. Hlusko really sinks her teeth – and her bow, and her fingers – into this. It’s quite beautiful in its own austere way, emphatically rooted in the lows. Some of this could be a work for solo bass.

She begins the suite with a stately, minimal, circling baroque-tinged pizzicato theme which  instantly reveals the room’s rich natural reverb. She picks up her bow for the echoingly brief second movement, its long, rising tones and harmonically-spiced chords.

Her attack grows spikier and more forceful, occasionally with percussive boom or plucked glissandos, There are a handful of passages with striking low/high contrasts and uneasy close harmonies, as well as one centered around expressive allusions to a well-known Bach theme.

Movement nine has rich contrast between the almost feral attack of the first part and the wistful, wispy ending. From there, Hlusko shifts energetically from increasingly complex, raga-like variations around a pedal note, to aching, slowly crescendoing single-note lines, to what could be a fondly anthemic 19th century folk ballad. Ordway brings the suite full circle as a warmly resonant pavane.