New York Music Daily

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Tag: Abigail Fischer

The New York Choral Society Sing Masses For Troubled Masses at Carnegie Hall

They’re amazing,” the friendly retiree whispered to her brand-new concertgoing pal, a New York City firefighter in his 20s. A couple of rows closer to the Carnegie Hall stage, two women in their forties, a married couple, quietly affirmed that. And after the mighty voices of the New York Choral Society had wound up their triumphant performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass there last night, a teen in the third row dressed like one of the rappers in the 80s group Kid ’N Play gave them a standing ovation. The accolades on the ensemble’s press page run on and on; this concert attested that just about every demographic in this city shares those feelings.

Spontaneous applause had broken out after the first movement, possibly triggered by how meticulously and seemingly effortlessly way the sopranos in the group had followed soprano soloist Vanessa Vasquez’s exuberant flurries of glossolalia with their own, in perfect unison. If you think that’s hard to do by yourself, imagine the challenge of having to match your bandmates’ cadences with that kind of split-second precision.

This piece got its nickname after the story spread that the composer had been inspired by a British admiral’s pursuit of Napoleon. That might well be true, considering that Haydn was an Anglophile. What it also sounds like is that he wanted to write something so glorious that it would earn him a follow-up commission. Beyond being a flamboyant birthday present for a Hungarian princess, its raison d’etre as a “mass for troubled times” doesn’t really make itself apparent until after the opening festivities. This long party for churchgoing late-18th century one-percenters ran its course before getting switched out for more formidable gravitas. The rest of the soloists – tenor Zach Borichevsky, bass Sava Vemic and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer – locked in on Haydn’s signature humor, as did the choir and orchestra, who took it out in a decisively boisterous, precise yet comfortably fluid series of volleys. 

The original program had that piece first on the bill, followed by Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, Op. 9. Flipping the script and putting the Durufle first was logical in that it’s much quieter and has none of Haydn’s fireworks. But it’s a vastly more profound piece of music, and the ensemble delivered it that way. The program notes alluded to the composer following Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, but other than a muted sense of grief, the two pieces have little in common. And this one is hardly easy to sing, with its so-ancient-they’re-new-again Gregorian chant themes and shapeshifting, uneven meters. But musical director David Hayes led the singers through an impeccably balanced rendition that offered guarded hope, something that’s been gravely in need over these past three weeks or so.

The orchestral performance was as sublime as the voices. Durufle, longtime organist of Notre Dame, peppers the work with poignant cameos: distant terror from a tritone riff or two on the organ; ghastly shivers from the low strings, uneasily starry resonance from the harp and a moment where first violist Ronald Carbone took centerstage in his section in the piece’s most harrowing if understated cadenza. Fischer got a solo as well and channeled deep, wounded soul in vivid contrast to her untethered ebullience in the Haydn.

The New York Choral Society sing the New York City premiere of James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion at St. Bartholomew’s Church on April 8 at 8 PM with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and organist Jason Roberts.


Cutting Edge Sounds at This Year’s MATA Festival

Early in the second part of this evening’s portion of this year’s MATA Festival at the Kitchen, the audience looked on expectantly as a steadily oscillating timbre echoed through the auditorium. It was the motor rewinding the video screen above the stage. Was this part of the program, or just incidental noise? Moments like these are why the festival is worth checking out, year after year. They take more chances than pretty much anybody in the avant garde music world and cast a wider net than most, both in terms of finding global programming, and simply sonics. Could an electric motor be music? The answer, more often than not here, seems to be, “why not?”

The night got off to a hilarious start with a US premiere, Mirela Ivecevic‘s Orgy of References. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer made the most of its over-the-top satire of music-academy pretentiousness, delivering it with operatic high camp against a similarly sardonic mashup of florid dramatic themes, flurries of crowd noise and oration. The text was Ivecevic’s own resume, Fischer having a great time with every gushing, adulatory adjective – and then relished the chance to pronounce the word “oeuvre.” On one level, Ivecevic can personally relate to how misleading and utterly useless a composer or musician’s CV can be, since she books an ongoing series in her native Croatia. On the other hand, she got Abigail Fischer not only to namecheck her but to sing her resume. If that’s not “making it” in the avant world, you figure out what is.

Another highlight and US premiere was Jasna Velickovic‘s solo performance on an instrument of her own invention, the velikon, an amplified board on which she manipulates a series of magnets and coils producing oscillations which grow lower in timbre as they become more magnetized. What began as blips and beats slowly took on jawharp-like warp and then grew lower and lower until she was approaching stygian ocean liner diesel depths. Was she going to take it all the way to where there would be no sound, only subsonics? Not quite. Watching this unfold – with Velickovic’s perfect, practically metronomic timing, as she played a furious chess game of sorts with the objects on the board – was as thrilling as it was to hear. It was like a more smallscale take on Eli Keszler‘s similarly murky sonic explorations.

Even more intense to witness was dancer Melanie Aceto, her wrists and ankles attached to fishing line that manipulated strings inside a piano via a series of pulleys assembled overhead. Performing the New York premiere of Megan Grace Beugger‘s Liaison, Aceto began carefully and fluidly before evoking the relentless angst of a prisoner straining against her bonds. And the choreography actually produced genuine melodies, albeit simple ones, typically low drones and hammering motives (the low A and B flat were conjoined and attacked to one of the pulleys) against keening high overtones. Which would rise, raising the angst factor every time Aceto retreated back toward the piano after another seeming attempt to break free of her shackles. As the frame holding the pulleys over the piano trembled and swayed, the spectre of real horror – Aceto cutting a carpal vein or even her jugular, as she pulled and twisted – appeared within the realm of possibility. As far as sheer fireworks were concerned, it was impossible to top – and happily, there was no bloodshed.

There were also a couple of other works on the program, one a brief, mechanistically blippy audio-video montage  – ostensibly taken during the first Gulf War – sped up long past the point of unrecognizability. Maybe that was the point – although that point would have been lost if there hadn’t been program notes for it. There was also a droning piece by the Montreal trio of Adam Basanta, Julian Stein and Max Stein that paired long sustained electronic tones, simple chords and sudden electronic cadenzas with amplified lamps of assorted sizes and sounds. Given the three guys onstage with their laptops, there were umpteen opportunities for interplay and drollery that went by the board. Rather than any kind of conversation, amusing or otherwise, it evoked the experience of living in a building with bad wiring. Somebody comes home, turns on the AC…everybody on the hall loses power. Then somebody hits the breaker box and it’s back.

The MATA Festival continues through April 18; the remaining schedule is here.

Missy Mazzoli Writes a Brooding, Lingering Homage to a Legendary Nonconformist

Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar – The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (out recently from New Amsterdam) is billed as an opera, but it’s closer to mid-70s art-rock in the vein of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway than it is to, say, Verdi. If you have to hang a name on it, you could call this album a song cycle. It’s a potently moody, cinematic suite. The lyrics (not written by Mazzoli) are prosaic and don’t really add anything, but the music is intense and often haunting. Mazzoli is a star of the indie classical world, walking the uneasy ground between the avant garde and rock with a style that’s ethereal and hypnotic yet often wary and brooding. This album – a recording by the original cast who premiered the piece earlier this year in New York – attempts to trace the life of the legendary, chameleonic, crossdressing 19th century Swiss adventurer and feminist who traveled throughout North Africa as a man, embraced Islam and ended up dying at 27 in a flash flood shortly after reuniting with her Algerian husband. Mazzoli seizes on this and the many other tragic aspects of a stalwart nonconformist life with a tumultuous, sometimes tormented score, played with verve and intensity by NOW Ensemble conducted by Steven Osgood.

Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer ably channels her inner soul sister, along with sopranos Celine Mogielnicki and Amelia Watkins, alto Kate Maroney, tenor Tomas Cruz and baritone Peter Stewart. And as dynamically charged as the ensemble’s performance is, the star of this show is pianist Michael Mizrahi, who shines especially on Mazzoli’s pointillistic, often hard-hitting, challenging staccato passages. This is a long album: fifteen tracks, almost an hour and a quarter worth of music. Since this is billed as an opera, most of the tracks segue from one to the next.

Wordless vocal harmonies rise with a rainswept ominousness as it opens, over wary, dark layers of piano chords, shifting back and forth from quiet to anxious with surreal flickers of electronics: it’s Mazzoli at her lingering best. Sara Budde’s bass clarinet pulses alongside Alexandra Sopp’s flute and Mizrahi’s insistent piano pedalpoint on This World Within Me Is Too Small, followed by the hypnotically shifting choir juxtaposed with cascading piano on Capsized Heart. A lush but tense seashore scene is followed by the lively polyrhythms and contrapuntal vocals of I Have Arrived, which manages to foreshadow doom despite its upbeat intricacies.

A Godspell-ish faux soul song, an aria for Fischer over an ambient backdrop and then a trickily rhythmic number sung in French continue the narrative and maintain an understated unease: by now, it’s obvious that this is not going to end well. Eberhardt survived an attempt on her life, illustrated by another eerily echoing round of vocals, followed by an Indian- and Middle Eastern-tinged piece featuring lushly psychedelic guitar from Mark Dancigers. After that, The Hunted is as ironically bubbly as Oblivion Seekers is downright menacing, Mizrahi leading a doomed lovers’ theme as it rises with the flute over the orchestra.

Dancigers’ searing guitar and Fischer’s increasing sense of dread peak as the next track rises and falls, followed by a death scene, echoes of plainchant amid the torrents and whirlpools. It all ends with Here Where Footprints Erase the Graves, a bitter requiem where the whole ensemble eventually rises to a machinegun crescendo driven by the guitar and flute. If you’re not a fan of opera, don’t let that designation scare you off – this is a strong and decidedly un-fussy album that in a perfect world would be as easily embraced by the kids who discover Pink Floyd year after year as the lonely minority who prefer to blast Philip Glass or John Adams on their playlists.