New York Music Daily

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Tag: andrew roitstein bass

The Toomai String Quintet Return to a Favorite Park Slope Spot

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.

Lush, Lively, Inventive Cuban String Sounds From the Toomai String Quintet

Last night at Symphony Space, the Toomai String Quintet played an irrepressibly dancing album release show for their new one, Cuerdas Cubanas, which would have made Ernesto Lecuona proud. The “Cuban Gershwin,” as bandleader and bassist Andrew Roitstein aptly characterized him, is well represented on the record and likewise in the concert program, a mix of elegantly serpentine themes with the Cuban composer’s signature blend of European classical, flamenco, Romany and indigenous sounds.

Cellist Hamilton Berry grinningly told the crowd that Roitstein’s new arrangements, many of them based on material originally written for piano or orchestra, were pretty awesome, and he wasn’t kidding. Roitstein has an obvious affinity for Lecuona’s work, and his bandmates  – who also include violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Fortes and violist Erin Wight – reveled in his nifty exchanges of phrases and contrapuntal voicings.

You might not think that a singer who’s made a career in opera, as Roitstein’s sister Alina has, would necessarily be suited to singing salsa, but she also obviously gravitates toward this music. A magnetic presence in front of the band, swinging her hips and negotiating the lyrics in impressively fluent Spanish, she delivered cheery and frequently coy versions of hits made famous by Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and others.

A slinky, loopy bass and cello interweave set up Gendron’s plaintive vibrato in the night’s lilting, opening instrumental, La Comparsa. True to its title, Zamba Gitana had emphatic Romany riffage and some neat handoffs between the two violinists. The exchanges between band members were even more incisive in the phantasmagorical Gitanerias, which the group began as a real danse macabre.

There were also plenty of lighthearted moments in the set, including but hardly limited to a jaunty santeria dance, an animated thicket of pizzicato in Lecuona’s En Tres Por Cuatro, and the balmy nocturnal ambience of Manuel Ponce’s Plenilunio. There was also an interlude where a small battalion of young string players who’d been workshopping Cuban music with the quintet joined them and added extra ballast to the Israel “Cachao” Lopez hit A Gozar Con Mi Combo. Solos are still a work in progress for these kids, but when they played along with the rest of the band, the music was absolutely seamless.

The quintet encored with Lecuona’s Andalucia, shifting from uneasily acerbic Arabic-flavored chromatics to an indomitable, triumphant sway. It’s hard to think of a more perfect way to close such an eclectically enjoyable show. The Toomai String Quintet have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes coming up this September, where you will undoubtedly get many opportunities to hear a lot of this material.

Revisiting a Legendary Piazzolla Concert in Central Park

Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, violinist Lara St. John teamed up with pianist Pablo Ziegler to celebrate the legendary 1987 concert there by Astor Piazzolla, immortalized on the Central Park Concert album. Joining them were fellow nuevo tango enthusiasts Hector Del Curto – rising with gusto to the challenging role of Piazzolla himself, on bandoneon – plus bassist Andrew Roitstein and guitarist Claudio Ragazzi. This had to be the first time an electric guitar playing through a chorus box has ever been broadcast on WQXR (then again, QXR is part of the cool crowd now, as part of the WNYC family alongside hot internet classical station Q2). Arguably, tango is the definitive noir genre, all angst and raging against the dying of the light. As ripe for parody as some tango is, what makes Piazzolla’s work stand out perhaps more than any other factor is that he never went over the top, preferring a constant, aching sense of suspense that the musicians onstage established quickly and seldom wavered from.

As he recounted to emcee Midge Woolsey, Ziegler was making his first return trip to the bandstand where he’d been on that rainy night 25 years ago, unabased to remind that Piazzolla had chosen him for the band because he liked Ziegler’s ability to improvise. Which is still his forte: whether anchoring the songs with a rich chordal approach or embellishing them with jaunty flourishes or raging torrents, he was fascinating to hear, through a set that mixed songs played the last time he’d been here along with two originals: his insistently longing requiem for Piazzolla, Milonga Del Adios, and his long, lushly shapeshifting Muchacha De Boedo. Like Ziegler, both Del Curto and St. John grew up playing Piazzolla, and it showed. Perhaps so as not to trigger any comparisons to the legendary composer, Del Curto played with a rippling, upbeat energy, for the most part leaving the angst to St. John and Ziegler and occasionally the rest of the band.

They dug deeply into the material right from the start, with a brightly glimmering, hard-hitting version of Michaelangelo, then played up the jazz and ragtime aspects of Muerte Del Angel, then brought the lights down with the dirge Introduccion Del Angel, bandoneon and violin sailing over the murk below. They gave Ragazzi the chance to go deep into the shadows with an echoey, distantly menacing solo introduction to the relatively obscure Mumuki, lept and jumped with abandon throughout the shark-fishing narrative Escualo and mined every ounce of noir urban bustle from the complicated arrangement of Tanguedia. Ziegler opened Piazzolla’s elegy for his father, Adios Nonino, with a long, poignant solo, then brought it up with an aching intensity as it crescendoed out. The final two Piazzolla pieces were an uneasy version of the rather avant garde Lunfardo – another relatively rare number from the 1987 concert – and then a fiery, violin-fueled Libertango. The audience responded thunderously; the group, oblivious to the helicopters circling overhead, rewarded them with a hard-hitting minor-key romp whose title was lost in the applause. Most of the musicians on the bill now reside in New York, so while a second performance of this program probably isn’t in the cards, something similar is bound to happen. Watch this space.