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No New Abnormal

Tag: aaron copland

An Ambitious, Politically Charged New Album and a Carnegie Hall Concert by Pianist Conrad Tao

Every year, conservatories around the world turn out scores of hotshot pianists. There’s been a lot of cynical ink spilt over the “sovietization” of how piano performance at that level is all too frequently taught. It’s a career, after all, with endless mutability and speed-reading at the top of the list of desirable assets, right? One of the many problems with that model is that rugged individualists like Lionel Yu, Karine Poghosyan and Melody Fader – all favorites of this blog – don’t fit a cookie-cutter model. Perish the thought that a player with monster technique might actually prefer tunefulness to flash or trendiness.

One of Conrad Tao‘s distinguishing characteristics on his latest album American Rage– streaming at Spotify – is that he goes much more deeply than so many of his contemporaries into the many styles he’s called on to play. The record is all 20th and 21st century compositions, which shouldn’t be a bold move at this point in history – but let’s get real, it is. But lest anyone typecast him as an indie classical guy, he seems to be equally at home in the Romantic repertoire.

Tao gets off to a flying start on the album with the first of two daunting Frederic Rzewski compositions, Which Side Are You On. What’s most striking is how Tao lets the allusive bluesiness in the melody linger, taking his time, parsing the score for plaintiveness and rusticity before the hammering fireworks kick in. When that happens, Tao is there with a stilletto incisiveness, but even then, he backs away as soon as he can for a remarkable resonance, letting those bell-like righthand loops ring out, signaling a changing of the guard – or so it would seem. What an appropriate – and hopeful – piece of music to be immersed in for the first week of the 2019 public Presidential impeachment hearings.

The second of the Rzewski pieces. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues closes the album. The low, low lefthand quasi boogie-woogie is mutedly chilling, vividly evocative of the mechanics of Jim Crow-style exploitation. And although Tao raises the ante a little, he doesn’t relent, looping the lefthand with almost imperceptibly crescendoing intensity as the righthand melody grows more accusatory. The icepick swell to the false ending just a little more than midway through is hair-raising; the sepulchral dynamics at the end are perfectly counterintuitive.

Julia Wolfe‘s Compassion, written in the wake of 9/11, makes a great segue into that work. Again, Tao works the hypnotic and crushing contrasts masterfully, a twistedly chiming funhouse mirror tour of a stalactite cave.

Including Aaron Copland in an album of music inspired by freedom fighters is a stretch, considering his penchant for conveniently folksy music for backwater orchestras…and orchestras in search of a backwater sensibility (for the record, Copland was from New York). But the anxious close harmonies, proto-minimalism and quasi-Mompou belltones of Copland’s Piano Sonata fit in well here. While it doesn’t rise to the invensity of the other two works, Tao’s thoughtfully considered pacing – especially in the rather still final movement – is noteworthy. Tao is playing the album release show at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on Nov 20 at 7:30 PM, with a wildly eclectic program of works by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Wolfe, David Lang and Jason Eckart; tickets are $25

The New York Philharmonic Bring Epic Relevance to a Grim, Pivotal Moment in New York History

Has there ever been such a massive, grimly determined crowd of musicians onstage – and in the aisles – as there were at Lincoln Center last night for the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth? For an especially lavish production of Beethoven’s Ninth, conceivably. But even in that case maestro Jaap van Zweden wouldn’t have had to signal four separate choirs behind his back while facing the orchestra and choirs in front of him.

That he and the ensembles could keep the composer’s maze of insistent counterpoint so steady and seamless speaks to a genuinely epic commitment to do justice to Wolfe’s theme: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its 146 victims. The title of the piece is actually a quote from labor organizer Clara Lemlich, referring to her passion for battling factory owners’ private gestapos in her early days as an advocate for worker’s rights. In an era where working people around the world are facing Industrial Revolution conditions, and amazon.com employees in the UK forego bathroom breaks for fear of being fired, the legacy of the most deadly calamity on New York soil prior to 9/11 has more relevance than ever.

Wolfe has made a career of writing impactful, historically rich work. To be clear, this isn’t her most harrowing composition: that would probably be her utterly macabre string orchestra piece, Cruel Sister. This latest extravaganza follows the insistently rhythmic, towering, Pulitzer Prize-winning intensity of her oratorio Anthracite Fields. Both are unflinching and relentless: the lives of early 1900s New York sweatshop employees and Pennsylvania coal miners are cruelly similar.

As theatre, this performance was immersively effective: there’s no escaping the angst of these exploited women, in their matching smocks, when they’re singing in unison right next to you. Choral ensemble the Crossing remained onstage while several subsets of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City migrated matter-of-factly from station to station. Dead center amid the maelstrom, van Zweden remained a calm guide through what was often a hailstorm of beats. One of Wolfe’s favorite tropes is to shake up the music with all sorts of rhythmic complexity when a melody is more or less horizontal, and she does that a lot here. The result, tight as a drum, was impressive to say the least.

The introduction took awhile, requiring some patience from the audience before the massed groups gathered steam. “Crushing poverty” became a vivid motif amid a constant, flitting interchange of voices as a transatlantic immigrant’s tale finally offered foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. The interpolation of a plaintive Yiddish song and a phantasmagorical tarantella – most of the fire victims were either Eastern European Jewish or Italian immigrants – was stunningly executed.

Sharply menacing sheet metal shears are a new addition to the world’s symphonic instruments: the choirs were choreographed to employ them to snap out a rhythm attesting to the dangers and mind-numbing repetition inherent to sweatshop labor. Likewise, the way the singers hammered on the word “want” over and over again, a bit later on, resonated on every conceivable level. The coda to this all-too-familiar tale turned out to be more dynamic, and longer, than expected, ending with a kaleidoscopically arranged incantation of the victims’ names.

The first half of the program underscored the difference between decent music direction and genuine brilliance. Maybe it was just a stroke of fate van Zweden had been on the podium for the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s oratorio, August 4, 1964, but making a segue with Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra was as perfect as it was counterintuitive. The instrumental Elegy from Stucky’s suite, and the first part of Copland’s would-be diptych share eerie Twin Peaks vamps and variations, and also jazz influences: crepuscular Gil Evans-like lustre in the former, jaunty faux dixieland in the latter. Clarinetist Anthony McGill matched coyness to muscle while van Zweden couldn’t resist shaking a tail feather, a chance to blow off steam before reality returned with a vengeance in the second half of the program.

There’s a final performance tonight, Jan 26 at 8 PM. Although last night appeared to be pretty much sold out, tickets are available as of this writing (Saturday, 11 AM); at yesterday’s show, the box office was doing brisk business right up til curtain time. This is an important moment in New York history: you should see it.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Play the Show of a Lifetime with Beethoven’s Ninth

It’s hubristic to even think of staging a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Just the amount of space required for orchestra, choir and soloists is daunting. Not only is it one of the most technically challenging pieces of music in the entire classical canon, it’s also one of the most physically taxing. “It didn’t feel like we were onstage as long as we were,” one of the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s cellists exclaimed, flushed and practically winded, after their lavish performance of it yesterday evening.

“Beethoven was insane when he wrote this!” groused one of the bassists. “It’s like the Grosse Fugue.” He was referring to the notoriously thorny coda to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13. But he and the cellist and the rest of the low strings – whose fingers really take a beating in the symphony’s final movement, leaping between registers at breakneck speed – dug in and delivered a performance that was more of a hymn to adrenaline than the ode to joy in the famous Schiller poem from which Beethoven took his inspiration. The rest of the orchestra followed suit. And that’s fine, that’s what music should be about a lot of the time. In context, it was the perfect choice. If you can play this at all, chances are it’ll be good. And it was. The roar of a pretty-much sold-out house afterward affirmed that.

After she’d led the orchestra through a brief fanfare well-known to NPR listeners, conductor Barbara Yahr offered her usual insight. She sees Beethoven’s narrative in the symphony’s four movements as contiguous. The first, a vibrant life somewhat in disarray, awash in ups and downs. The second, a “diabolical dance,” which as she accurately pointed out draws a straight line back to the pizzicato third movement of the Sixth Symphony. The third, a love ballad, and the fourth, a tug of war between orchestra and the low strings, who refuse to accept a new theme again and again until finally, “The one we know from childhood recitals,” as she said with a grin, finally takes centerstage and redeems everything and love wins over all.

Whew. Beethoven influences people who write about him too.

Now here’s an alternate interpretation. Those of us who love Beethoven know how, for all intents and purposes, his Fifth Symphony was really his Fourth, and vice versa, and how the disconnect between when he happened to write a piece and when his publishers put it out occurred all the time. Just like pretty much everyone who writes music, Beethoven had a “song junkyard” full of unfinished ideas in one form or another. It therefore stands to reason that he took the four favorites he had kicking around and strung them together as a swan song. That he was able to tie them together as much as he did, and in the process made it pretty much impossible for any other symphonic composer to follow him, conceptually at least, underscores why the Ninth is such an important piece of music . Even if, say, you find the famous final theme cloying and the Schiller poem it’s based on trippy and unfocused.

So from this point of view, the piece de resistance at this performance was that clever and richly interwoven first movement. The doomy main theme is akin to the theme from the Fifth Symphony, times two. Watching conductor and orchestra weaving through the waves of uneasy bluster juxtaposed with moments of joy, holding nothing back in reserve for what was to follow, was a blustery joy to witness. The second movement came across not as diabolical but heroic and triumphant, precision matched to unrestrained passion. Maybe the composer put the third movement in for the sake of a momentary breather, awash in lustrous high/low harmonies, and the ensemble seemed glad to back off for a bit.

It took a total of three all-ages choirs: the Ars Musica Chorale, directed by Dusty Francis; the Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale, led by Nelly Vuksic, and Seraphim, conducted by Robert Long, to deliver the fourth movement’s titanic polyphony, and they did with a precision and robustness to match the orchestra’s herculean efforts onstage. The choral soloists: baritone Peter Stewart. soprano Rachel Rosales, mezzo-soprano Jan Wilson and tenor John Tiranno, all punched in strongly when their moments came.

Not having seen this performed since childhood (and hating it at the time, and wishing it was over), it was impossible not to be caught up in it – and to be grateful for the opportunity to revisit it and learn something new. Plenty of new things, actually. The Greenwich Village Orchestra conclude their most ambitious season to date with a pops concert – something which, if they’ve done it before, they haven’t in almost twenty years – on May 7 at 3 PM featuring singers Grasan Kingsberry and Betsy Struxness.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Winds Up Its Season on a Dancing Note

Is it fair to expect a five-year-old to be able to identify ballet music? At the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s joyously kinetic performance yesterday, Annabel, the five-year-old in this blog’s posse, did exactly that, without any prompting. Does that make her precocious…or simply normal? Is a physical response to music an innate human trait? If a child doesn’t respond to music in a visceral way, is that a trouble sign …or just that the kid might need some sleep, or might not like a particular style of music? How many parents ask themselves questions like these?

Although this particular program was not devised as a children’s concert, there were several, ranging from preschool through middle school age, scattered throughout the crowd with their parents…and they were into it! And aside from boisterously applauding between pieces, they kept still. And that probably wasn’t easy, considering how much fun the orchestra was having. Who had the most? The pointillistic trumpet section – Warren Wernick, Ian C. Schaefer and Richard Perry Woodbury III? The percussion section – Gerard Gordon, Jamie Reeves, Julian Bennett Holmes, Sunita deSouza and and Benjamin Vokits – who got to air out a carnival’s worth of rhythms on everything from deep timpani to clashy cymbals to twinkly vibraphone? Conductor Barbara Yahr, a lithe and meticulously graceful presence in front of the ensemble, finally signaling the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappricio Espagnol with an unselfconsciously triumphant reach for the rafters?

The concert’s unifying theme (pretty much every performance by this orchestra has one) was global music with a Spanish tinge. The simplest and most obviously derivative was Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, fleshed-out variations on folk themes to open the show. Four dances from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia suite vividly evoked field hands conspiring, a balmy romantic waltz deep in the wheat, and cowboys on a race across the plains (this is where the trumpets had a ball), up and out on a victorious vamp.

Dancers Orlando Reyes and Adriana Salgado (whom Annabel found absolutely entrancing) swayed and intertwined elegantly against the alternately stately and plaintively lyrical pulse of a couple of Astor Piazzolla works. As a bonus, the noir-tinged Fracanapa and a lush, string-fueled arrangement of Milonga del Angel, then Osvaldo Pugliese’s earthier Negracha were lit up with guest soloist JP Jofre’s wistfully lyrical bandoneon.

Yahr grinningly introduced the Rimsky-Korsakov as anything but authentically Spanish, and she was right on the money, but it made for a delirious romp just the way it was, an indelibly Slavic suite spiced with Russian Romany riffs rather than anything genuinely evoking flamenco, or Romany sounds from west of the Balkans. And there were hints of klezmer in there too, throughout the boisterious overture and variations and the more subdued waltz that later on becomes a “Scene e canto gitano” or well-intentioned, propulsively lyrical facsimile thereof. This was the concluding concert in the GVO’s 2013-14 season, sending both parents and kids out into the reception afterward humming what they’d just heard.