How do a classical string ensemble adjust to the confines of an intimate Park Slope boite after playing much of the same material on a big Manhattan concert stage? It turned out that the Toomai String Quintet didn’t have to shift gears at all. Their bassist Andrew Roitstein’s playful new arrangements of classical sounds from Cuba and the Americas work just as well at Barbes, where the group had a weekly residency last month, as they do in larger, more sedate quarters. If anything, they were more interesting to watch at in Brooklyn: this blog was in the house for three out of four of their September shows. They’ll be back there on Nov 15 at 8 PM with special guest vocalist Miss Yaya, playing tangos and pan-latin classics followed at 10 by Quatre Vingt Neuf, a raucous hot 20s swing band with a rock rhythm section who also do all kinds of clever arrangements, from Little Rascals soundtrack music to Frank Zappa.
The album release show featured Roitstein and cellist Hamilton Berry, violist Erin Wight plus violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Fortes. There were a couple of substitutions at the Barbes gigs, but the crew consistently had fun with Roitstein’s charts, many of which are based on piano music by the godfather of the Cuban classical tradition, Ernesto Lecuona. A mashup of indigenous themes, Spanish flamenco, the baroque and later classical traditions, a lot of his music is on the plaintive side. The quintet focus on his more lively repertoire, and played upbeat works by Villa-Lobos and de Falla, among others, during the Barbes residency as well. Jaunty minor-key dances and suspenseful nocturnes with a lot of playful exchanges between the musicians are a big part of the picture. As classical entertainment goes, it’s always more fun when you’re right on top of the band with a drink in your hand.