New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: carl nielsen

A Musical Power Couple Salute the Bravery and Fortitude of the Millions Who Made the Great Migration

Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, historian Isabel Wilkerson related the story of a black American soldier from South Carolina who joined the army in World War I to escape the oppressive conditions of Jim Crow. After the war, he returned triumphantly to his hometown, in uniform. At the train station, he was met by a group of white supremacists who demanded he take off his uniform and walk home in his underwear. The soldier refused. A few days later, he was lynched. The murder was never investigated.

As Wilkerson finished with the narrative, singer Alicia Hall Moran and her jazz pianist husband, Jason Moran, launched into a blithe, whistling take of the old vaudeville hit How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree). That crushing sarcasm spoke to the evening’s theme: the legacy of the Great Migration, where six million black American citizens wound up following the road and the train tracks north to escape the hideous antebellum conditions that the southern states reinstated after Union troops withdrew in 1877. We all know the ugly story: until the Civil Rights Movement, it was almost as if the Confederates won the war.

The Morans assembled a vast lineup of over sixty musicians and speakers from jazz, classical and gospel music to commemorate that escape, and the incredible impact it had on American culture, politics and the arts. It’s probably safe to say that even without the influx of southern blacks into the northern states, the raw materials that musicians would combine to create jazz and then rock music were already in place. There’s no question, however, that the Great Migration enabled both to gain critical mass.

The Morans chose an apt venue to debut this star-studded extravaganza, titled Two Wings: The Music of Black Americans in Migration. A century ago, Carnegie Hall was a hotspot for African-American culture: anybody who was anybody in music, almost from the venue’s inception, most likely played here at some point. Alicia Hall Moran’s great-uncle, the great musicologist, choir leader and musician Hall Johnson, was one of them, having made his own Great Migration some eighty years before Jason Moran, proud son of Houston’s Third Ward, also decided to become a New Yorker.

Much of the music on the bill was chosen for its utility and solace to four generations of refugees from the south, although the program deviated jubilantly from that script at the night wore on. The only style that Alicia Hall Moran has been steeped in that she didn’t approach this particular evening was the avant garde. Otherwise, she spanned from jazz, to ragtime, to gospel, to the classicized  approach to 19th century spirituals that Hall Johnson is arguably best known for. And the single strongest song of the night might have been an original of hers, Believe Me. Backed by her husband and the Harlem Chamber Players, she delivered what might be best described as noir cinematic art-soul with a brooding, fixated lower-register intensity.

Likewise, Jason Moran may be best known as one of this era’s foremost jazz pianists, but he’s also a first-rate classical composer, evidenced not only by his film scores but also his historical suite, Cane, two segments of which he played, bolstered by the Imani Winds. Emphatic rhythmic insistence gave way to intricate swirls that brought to mind Carl Nielsen, Moran lowlit in the background. His most breathtaking moment was when he brought out all the eerie Messianic close-harmonied phantasmagoria in James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout – much as Johnson no doubt did on this same stage a century before.

One after another, the cameos kept coming. Toshi Reagon sagely rocked out a Sister Rosetta Tharpe number. Pianist Joseph Joubert made jackhammering jazz out of a gospel standard, while Pastor Smokie Norful showed off not only his spectacular vocal range but also impressive piano chops. James Carter validated his rep as the last guy you want to have to face in a cutting contest, machinegunning through his valves, overtones whistling from every conceivable spot on his tenor sax, throughout a ruthless shredding of Illinois Jacquet’s solo from Lionel Hampton’s Flying Home. Violinists Ashley Horne and Curtis Stewart engaged in a more wryly sympatico exchange in their take of the cakewalk Louisiana Blues Strut.

Metropolitan Opera veteran Hilda Harris shared her stories of breaking the color barrier, matter-of-fact and assured. Rev. James A. Forbes Jr.’s benedictory introduction to Alicia Hall Moran’s shivery take of Lord, How Come Me Here was grounded in here-and-now politics and historical context that would have made Dr. King proud. After a tantalizingly brief, brooding, lushly orchestrated segment from Jason Moran’s score to the film Selma, his wife capped off the night, joined by the entire orchestra and wind section, for a triumphant take of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

The Morans are bringing this program – presumably with the same cast – to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC on April 14 at 8 PM, with other national dates to follow.

Harrowing Relevance and Conversational Charm from the Chelsea Symphony

Is there any orchestra in New York, the Philharmonic included, who have commissioned as many important, relevant new works as the Chelsea Symphony? Saturday night on their home turf on the west side, they debuted yet another impactful piece alongside a sinuously choreographed crowd-pleaser and a mighty favorite from the standard repertoire.

That the world premiere of Aaron Dai’s Four Miniatures for a Dark Age would threaten to upstage Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 speaks as much to the power of Dai’s suite as to the orchestra’s commitment to it. Shostakovich’s fingerprints were all over the music: macabre tritones and sudden bursts of eerie chromatics leapt out from every corner of the orchestra. There were also more than hints of sarcastic faux pageantry – a twisted variation on Hail to the Chief, front and center – and frequent descents to Bernard Herrmann-esque Hitchcock film territory. Cadenzas were fleeting, seldom more than a bar long, requiring instantaneous focus which the ensemble delivered over and over. As is, the suite deserves widespread programming; if Dai could expand each of the themes and make a symphony out of them, that would really be something to look forward to.

Soloist Sarah Koop McCoy got more than one standing ovation for her performance of Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. With rich, woody lows, keening highs and slinky midrange, she maintained a constant intensity as conductor Matthew Aubin brought all hands on deck and kept them there. Nielsen’s music is so much fun to conduct, and play, because he keeps his ideas constantly shifting from one part of the orchestra to another. Aubin’s long association with this group shone throughout a warm, conversational rapport, notwithstanding the music’s persistent unease: Nielsen’s late-career, tentative flirtation with the Second Viennese School. Yet not everything here defied resolution – there was a nod in a samba direction, a dixieland detour, and finally one of the funniest fugues in the repertoire, played solo by McCoy with deadpan flair.

Aubin ceded the podium to Nell Flanders for Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. The orchestra began almost tentatively, then got loud fast and careened forward from there. But if there’s any well-known symphony that an ensemble can do that with, it’s this one. On one hand, the composer’s vast interweave of one catchy riff after another never reached the point where it felt particularly contiguous, and the orchestra seemed rather rudderless. On the other, this was an opportunity to get to know parts of the score that easily get subsumed in epic grandeur. So maybe that’s six of one, half a dozen of another.

And those solos, bursting from every dusky nook at St. Paul’s Church on West 22nd Street, were consistently bright and briskly executed, from basses to brass. Over the decades, parts of the symphony have been used in scores of movies and NPR themes, emerging triumphantly here to remind everyone what their provenance was.

The Chelsea Symphony’s current season is dedicated to socially relevant works: it seems they’re finally making it official now after years of advocacy for important causes. Their next concerts are March 8 and 9 at 8 PM with a fascinating program beginning with the world premiere of bassist Tim Kiah‘s Fascist Baby; a second world premiere by Benjamin Louis Brody; the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major; a rare suite by 20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck (a neglected figure this orchestra have rescued from obscurity), and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. The Saturday night show switches Haydn concertos, substituting one for cello. Both shows are at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St.; suggested donation is $20.

The New York Scandia Symphony Sell Out Symphony Space

Many years – maybe decades – before Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic were thrilling audiences with the sweep and majesty and blustery fun of Carl Nielsen’s symphony cycle, maestro Dorrit Matson was doing the same thing and more with the New York Scandia Symphony. She and the orchestra specialize in both classical repertoire and new music from the Nordic countries. Much of what they play is rare and relatively obscure, at least south of where the aurora borealis is flickering. Which makes them a unique and important part of this city’s cultural fabric.

And they’re not such a secret anymore: from the looks of it (a few empty seats in the balconies), their Thursday night concert at Symphony Space was sold out. The orchestra rewarded the crowd with rousing, dynamic versions of material that for the most part is not typical for them. This time out, the program wasn’t about discovery as much as it was revisiting some of Scandinavia’s greatest global classical hits via a joint 150th birthday salute to both Nielsen and Jean Sibelius.

The one lesser-known piece on the bill was Nielsen’s quirky, strikingly modernist Flute Concerto, quite a departure from the late Romantic material he’s best known for, but characteristically flush with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) good humor. Soloist Lisa Hansen held the center with minute command of dynamics while jaunty motives made their way through a characteristically labyrinthine arrangement that was closer to a series of funhouse mirrors than the often stormy intensity of Nielsen’s earlier works. One of those on the program, the Overture from the opera Maskarade, balanced stiletto precision from the strings against the goodnatured rambunctiousness of the brass section (this orchestra’s brass has a visible camaraderie and chemistry, and will sometimes perform as a separate ensemble).

Drama, suspense and foreshadowing permeated the lushness of Sibelius’ At the Castle Gate (from his Pelease et Melisande suite). Matson brought the drama up several notches further with a roller-coaster ride through his Karelia suite, unleashing the triumph of the first movement, dipping to a long, enveloping sweep upward and then a graceful balletesque pulse that alternated with mighty stadium bombast. The orchestra closed with a similarly triumphant yet warily colorful take of Finlandia, leaving no doubt that this was written not as a piece of nationalistic pageantry but as a slap upside the head of Russian Tsarist aggression.

In addition to performing in concert halls, The New York Scandia Symphony puts on an annual free summer series at Fort Tryon Park, typically on Sunday afternoons in June: check back at their site for details.