Here’s a look back at a couple of Sundays ago, which happened to be a tremendous day for live music in New York: yeah, it’s a while ago, but good music is timeless. This was on a Sunday, no less. Goes to show that even gentrification can’t kill good music in this city: unexpected places yield unexpected rewards.
The day began with the New York Scandia Brass Quintet – comprising part of the brass section of the brilliant and underappreciated New York Scandia Symphony Orchestra – playing in Fort Tryon Park way up in Washington Heights. The tourists all went in the direction of the Cloisters; the neighborhood people went down the hill to hear the music. It might seem like an insult to describe a brass quintet as sleepy, but that vibe perfectly captured the feel of the afternoon, and as the show went on, the musicians picked up the pace. The Scandia’s raison d’etre is to spread the word about Scandinavian composers who deserve to be better known here than they are: the early part of this concert felt like it could have been staged in Copenhagen, or Oslo sometime in the summer of 1876, to pull a year out of the air. There were a couple of national anthems, a couple of arrangements of folk tunes, a secondary national anthem that’s sort of the This Land Is Your Land of Norway, and finally a bracingly modernist composition by Anders Koppel, a sixties rocker who found his calling as an avant-garde composer. Meanwhile, the quintet and their conductor took pains to introduce the compositions, engage the kids in the crowd and hold a raffle for the benefit of those lucky enough to be on the lawn when the music started: a pair of lucky couples walked away with some unexpected goodies.
If that was any indication, the concert picked up the pace from there – the orchestra has played a series of June concerts here for the last few years – but it was time to get on the train, and with some Sunday luck get to LIC Bar in Long Island City to watch Wallace on Fire prowl and sway their way through a casually intense set of Americana-flavored rock outside at the bar’s friendly patio space. An outside observer would never have guessed that this was the equivalent of a pickup band, frontman/guitarist J Wallace leading a four-piece group with a keyboardist and drummer who’d rehearsed together maybe once before, along with eclectic bassist Joe Wallace (who’d dropped his pants onstage during his show the previous night at Webster Hall, playing with glamrock party monsters Haley Bowery and the Manimals). Together they evoked Steve Wynn, Neil Young and maybe Son Volt. J Wallace’s laid-back drawl and unselfconsciously biting guitar set the tone, matched by his keyboardist’s soulful wail and Joe Wallace’s incisive, melodic basslines. Uneasily swaying anthems and a couple of laid-back backbeat-driven country numbers were a big hit with the impressively large crowd who’d gathered in the bar’s backyard patio space to hear the music despite some soccer game that had drawn all the neighborhood Europeans into the front room with the tv.
After that, the day wasn’t over yet. Indonesia’s massive, brightly costumed, roughly 40-person Manado State University Choir brought a stunning virtuosity and also a personal warmth to St. Paul’s Chapel downtown. The young singers – some of whom seemed to be younger than university age – greeted audience members personally, shyly but vigorously: choirmaster Andre de Quadros covers all the bases in their lessons in public performance. African-American spirituals are hugely popular with choirs and their audiences in the Indonesian archipelago, and they sang a handful with the same meticulousness they gave to a couple of Mendelssohn works. It didn’t have the improvisational ecstasy of American choirs; by the same token, it was good to see those haunting old songs treated with the same dignity and respect as Mendelssohn, which they deserve. But it was the traditional works that the crowd – a mix of expats, tourists and fans of esoterica – had come to see. The men assailed the first one with a percussive fury as the women’s voices swirled in a counterpoint rich in microtones, then brought it down with a guttural suspense to end it: there’s a lot of cross-pollination between India and Indonesia, and this piece reflected it. A second one took on an even greater majesty as the tightly choreographed singers shifted places almost as much as they shifted notes with a similar intricacy; the enveloping crescendo reached its peak with a third work, the womens’ lushly interwoven high tonalities mingling to the point where it was impossible to keep track of who was singing what. The group closed with a fascinatingly interpolated mashup of an ancient Andalusian Muslim hymn and an English one: “This was from the days when it was normal to be Arab, Muslim and European,” de Quadros remarked dryly, and his words took on a particular poignancy in a neighborhood that’s seen extremists protesting against a tiny second-floor storefront mosque a few blocks to the north. Susie Ibarra’s Electric Kulintang was next on the bill, but the interior of the landmark old church had risen to boiling point, and since her ensemble is New York-based and plays the occasional concert at the Stone, there didn’t seem to be any harm in leaving. Besides, it would soon be time to get to the Rockwood to see Vagabond Swing.