New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: chamber pop

A Lavish, Ambitious, Politically-Inspired New Album by Banda Magda

Banda Magda frontwoman Magda Giannikou writes fluently and fearlessly in an amazing number of styles from around the world. Accordion is her main axe, but she also plays the lanterna, an ancient, magically rippling Greek instrument. Her band’s debut album T’es La put a cheery Mediterranean spin on vintage French ye-ye pop. The follow-up, 2014’s Yerakina, was far darker, established the band as a major force in latin and Mediterranean psychedelia, and earned them a regular spot in the rotation on the New York outdoor summer concert circuit.

The songs on the band’s latest album Tigre –  streaming at Spotify – draw inspiration from freedom fighters in her native Greece battling Eurozone bankster terrorism. The Nicaraguan struggle against corporate-funded death squads became a focal point for punk rock forty years ago. Is this the 2018 counterpart to the Clash’s Sandinista album? It’s more opaque, maybe a wise move considering global circumstances at the moment, but it’s practically just as epic. This is all about the orchestration: sweep and grandeur punctuated by elegant guitar and keys, driven by an eclectic rhythm section. The central theme is stay strong: we’ve really got our work cut out for us.

The first track, Tam Tam, welds a slinky, surfy, Middle Eastern-tinged electic bouzouki line to lush, sweeping new wave: if Chicha Libre had been Greek and had existed in 1982, they might have sounded something like this. Giannikou sings this one in French. She welds those lush strings, lingering guitar and new wave touches to a bouncy samba beat in the chipper, cheery Coração – as the song rises, the orchestration and clickety-clack groove grow more hypnotic.

Ase Me Na opens with a long, sweeping, mournful string introduction, then becomes a swaying Aegean anthem – as with the first track, uneasy, spiky electric bouzouki punctuates the enveloping majesty of the strings. Giannikou saves her most hushed, tender vocal for Muchacha, the orchestra occasionally bubbling over a hypnotically circling tropical acoustic guitar tune.

She blends rapidfire Indian riffage into Brazilian forro in the insistent Vem Moren, rising from stark cello riffage to a brass-fueled dance. Chanson is a lush, starry throwback to the balmy pop of the band’s first album, then the band pick up the pace with the tricky, sauntering metrics of Reine de (Queen of…), which could be early 80s Kate Bush with simmering bouzouki, lithe strings and an ending that goes straight to the Sahara.

The title track is a triptych. Over a cinematic, lavish backdrop, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League narrates Giannikou’s thinly vieied political parable about three girls facing down a thieving tiger .The song itself is a vengeful, indomitably pulsing blend of Romany swing, psychedelic cumbia and qawwali, maybe, up to a mighty, shivery, orchestrated coda.

Starry vibraphone lingers over a brisk, emphatic clave beat in Venin (Venom), Giannikou’s French lyrics commenting on the frustrations of love rather than geopolitics. The album winds up with the swirling, droning spacerock of Thiamandi. Count this among the most wildly ambitious and original albums of the past several months.


Prolific Britrock Polymath Edward Rogers’ Latest Album Is His Best Ever

In 1976, the face of the next decade, if not the decades after was profoundly altered by the UK punk rock explosion. But does anybody remember what the bestselling UK album of 1976 was? It sure wasn’t by the Sex Pistols. And it wasn’t by David Bowie, or Pink Floyd, or Led Zeppelin either. It was a compilation by Americana hack Slim Whitman sold exclusively via tv infomercial. That paradox capsulizes the thought-provoking, sweepingly elegaic esthetic of Edward Rogers’ latest album TV Generation, streaming at Soundcloud. The epic fourteen-track collection chronicles the grim decline of a society that ignored digital intrusions on their privacy and their freedom until it was too late.  He’s playing the Cutting Room on Feb 22 at 7:30 M, opening for the world’s foremost twelve-string guitarist, Marty Willson-Piper, a similarly brilliant, acerbic songwriter and former member of Australian psychedelic legends the Church. Cover is $20.

Originally a drummer, Rogers narrowly escaped a grisly death in a New York City subway calamity that cost him the use of two of his limbs. But he persevered, reinvented himself as a crooner and songwriter and nearly twenty years down the line,  has built a formidable body of work that draws on classic glam, art-rock and psychedelic styles from the 60s and 70s. This latest album is his tour de force: in context, it’s his Scary Monsters, his Message From the Country, his London Calling, simply one of the best and most relevant albums released this decade.

“Are you wake it awake yet…let’s move along! Turn ont the tv!” Rogers hollers as the album’s tumbling, hypnotic, Beatlesque opening track,gets underway:

So many stories
Too many black holes
Keep you hypnotized
As they take their toll

With James Mastro’s simmering Mick Ronson-esque guitar paired against terse sax, 20th Century Heroes could be the great lost Diamond Dogs track, an enigmatic chronicle of corporate media archetypes whose fifteen minutes expired a long time ago falling one by one as the years catch up with them. Rogers follows that with No Words, a Bowie elegy set to a lush, elegantly fluttering  contrapuntal string arrangement.

The savage kiss-off anthem Gossips, Truth and Lies chimes along on a gorgeous twelve-string guitar arrangement capped off by a tantalizingly brief solo. By contrast, it’s easy to imagine ELO’s Jeff Lynne singing Wounded Conversations, a sunny, jazz-tinged 70s Stylistics-style soul-jazz ballad grounded by fluid, resonant organ.

The album’s centerpiece – and one of the most haunting songs released in the last year – is Listen to Me. Over a brooding wash of mellotron and moody acoustic twelve-string guitar, Rogers offers a challenge to the distracted millions to escape the surveillance-state lockdown:

Voices we hear all around us
Are out to control
Don’t wait for a postmortem
No one wants to know about
Isn’t too long til lost promises
Is this what you want for your future
More lies than we can count
…written by me through your own peephole

Rogers goes back to rip-roaring Stonesy early 70s Bowie for Sturdy Man’s Shout. On This Wednesday in June begins spare and reflective and then explodes, recalling the 1989 Montreal Ecole Polytechnique mass shooting – how sad that this song would be so relevant at this moment in history.

The austere baroque-tinged Terry’s World sends a shout-out to one of Manhattan’s last newsstand owners – an endangered job, “a life denied.” Rogers follows that with The Player, a sardonic, Kinks-style ba-bump portrait of an old codger who can’t take his eyes off the girls he probably wouldn’t have kept his hands off a half-century ago.

The Kinks in baroque-psych mode also inform Alfred Bell, a brisk stroll through a burnt-out schoolteacher’s drab day. The question is, should we be feeling sorry for this poor sap, or the kids who get stuck in his class?

With its gloriously acidic lead guitar, the album’s catchiest and hardest-rocking number is She’s the One, a portrait of a girl who gets what she deserves since she nothing’s ever good enough for her. The album closes with the wryly titled TV Remixxx, a goofy psychedelic mashup of themes from the title track. If you wish that Bowie was still alive and making great records, get this one.

Poignant, Fascinating Korean Sounds in Queens Last Night

It would make sense to assume that a band who’d play a song called The Scream of the Sunflower would be more than a little psychedelic. Much as there were plenty of surreal moments in improbably named Korean chamber-folk group Fairy Tale’s North American debut last night at Flushing Town Hall, the show was more about elegance and poignancy.

“Legend” is probably a better English translation of what the sextet call themselves. Lyrics are very important to this group, especially to expressive frontwoman Myeongseo Jang, so she and her bandmates took turns introducing the songs in coyly fractured English. Their signature sound is piano-based parlor pop laced with terse, expertly played Korean folk riffs and playful trick endings. “Less is more” seems to be their mantra.

Their new album Land of the Poet features new songs with lyrics by Korean poets from across the years, and they played several of those, the most plaintive of them written under the Japanese occupation. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is haegeum (spike fiddle) player Yunjin Ko, whose eerie, slippery low-midrange glissandos and austere, overtone-spiced washes grounded the music in an austere rusticity. That effect was enhanced by the low-register geomungo lute of Juhee Kim, who played mostly low-key rock-style basslines, but tantalized the crowd with a couple of breathtakingly surreal, tone-warping solos. If there’s anybody in the band we need to hear more of, it’s her.

Drummer Kyuyeon Kim was a similarly understated presence: much of the time, purposefully emphatic pianist Youngjin Oh carried the rhythm. Daegeum (wood flute) player Youseok Seo traded brief contrapuntal passages with the haegeum and geomungo when he wasn’t adding precise flickers and flutters behind Jang’s nuanced vocals.

The night’s most arresting song was Dear Boy, a brooding lament with a lyric from the Japanese occupation years, bringing to mind early Genesis with its intricate, tantalizingly brief interplay between geomumgo and piano on the intro and outro. Most of the songs built momentum over an allusive triplet groove fueled by Oh’s steely lefthand. One of the early numbers came across as a mashup of Korean folk and Springsteen stadium rock; a later tune bounced along on a catchy, circling new wave piano riff.

The rest of the set edged toward both darkness and drama but seldom went all the way there, tension and suspense lurking but never showing themselves. A moody strut driven by a downward piano progression had echoes of Tom Waits. It wasn’t until the encore, a blazing sunset tableau, that Jang finally cut loose with a full-throttle wail at the very end.

Fairy Tale’s first tour outside of Korea continues tonight, Dec 2 at 6  PM at the Korean Community Center, 100 Grove St. in Tenafly, NJ. Flushing Town Hall continues to program some of the most exciting global sounds coming through New York outside of the usual Barbes-Drom-Lincoln Center pipeline. One especially intriguing upcoming concert here is on January 26 at 8 PM with another genre-defying Korean band, Black String, who blend edgy guitar improvisation with classic geomungo and flute sounds. Tickets go onsale on December 11, and as with all Flushing Town Hall events, ages 13-19 with school ID get in free.

Little Coyote Bring Their Relentless Angst to Bushwick

The alienation and sadness are relentless through Toronto band Little Coyote’s debut album The Trouble With Teeth, streaming at Bandcamp. Frontwoman/keyboardist Teagan Johnson blends brooding, neoromantic piano with Mike Poisson’s lushly elegant synthesized orchestration, yet with remarkable restraint: there’s more 21st century minimalism than there is Chopin or Tschaikovsky in her emphatic anthems. Little Coyote are headlining an excellent triplebill this Friday night, Nov 10 at Bushwick Public House at around 10 PM; trippy electro/downtempo chanteuse Pearla opens the night at 8, followed by excellent, catchy rainy day psych-pop band Minor Poet at 9. Cover is 5.

“I’ll figure it out,” Johnson intones uneasily as the album’s first full-length cut, The Bottom, winds up – but at that point her voice breaks. All the bluster that led up to it, bassist Aretha Tillotson’s lines rising like waves amidst a hurricane over the insistent drums, can’t lift Johnson out of the gloom that persists throughout this album.

“All my old friends say they can’t breathe,” she laments as the icepick piano chords of Medicine kick in. “Setting off atom bombs in the desert, said there’s nothing wrong wiith forever,” she broods as the alienated rainy-day ballad Daylighit Twilight begins its relentless sway. “Black water, black water swallow me whole/Oh daugher, oh daugher, when will you control the darkness?” she asks.

Teeth Rot is Cure-influenced without being a total ripoff: it’s the poppiest track here (and could do double duty as a commercial for small-batch toothpaste). Annie’s Dead rises from a plaintive, elegiac intro to a roaring blend of noir cabaret and stadium rock: “I’m just a memory, too easily replaced,” Johnson muses.

Byron Patterson’s icy tremolo-picked guitar mingles with stately piano in Lucy Get Blue, while the pounding, turbulent swirl of Electric mashes up two generations of goth: 17 Seconds-era Cure and Amanda Palmer. With its torrents of water imagery, Handshake Tragedy is the album’s most hypnotic track.

“We’ll make it out alive,” Johnson asserts in the bouncy Delirium, but again, she sounds far from certain. It’s clear that it’s going to take more than a relationship to pull this woman up from the bottom of the well: “My heart breaks easy and my bones do too.” The album winds up with the title track, which hints at ragtime but never goes there. Fans of the Mynabirds and Holly Miranda – and all the girls who’ve outgrown that New Zealand goth chick who was all the rage a couple of years ago -ß ought to check this band out. Dig out that black eyeliner and jump on the L this Friday night. 

Dawn Oberg’s Nothing Rhymes With Orange: 2017’s Funniest Political Album

What’s more Halloweenish than Putin’s little bitch in the Oval Office? That’s what Dawn Oberg calls him in the scathingly hilarious, Beatlesque parlor-pop title track of her new ep, Nothing Rhymes with Orange. It’s streaming at Bandcamp, and she’s making a relatively rare New York appearance at 2:45 PM at Matchless in Williamsburg on Nov 12. Similarly lyrical, unpredictable, wickedly catchy keyboard-fueled art-rockers Changing Modes eventually follow later in the evening at 5:45; cover is $10.

Oberg is unsurpasssed at sardonically funny, insightful tunesmithing. With her sharp wit, erudite gospel-inspired piano chops and quirky vocals, she’s been pursuing her distinctive, literary parlor pop and artsy rock since the early zeros. She never met a good pun she could resist, and slings one of those after another at the failed casino magnate whose unlikely ascendancy to the one public office he’ll ever hold left the world in a state of shock and horror last November. Until the slow wheels of impeachment reach their inevitable destination, we have this record to soothe the burn.

Oberg’s band here includes Roger Rocha on guitar, Shawn Miller on bass, Erik Ian Walker on organ and Andrew Laubacher on drums. They shuflfle along with with Oberg’s tumbling piano and torrents of lyrics in Information Is Your Friend, a snide response to the deluge of fake news being sent out by the “tweeting twat” in the White House:

Someone smart said a long time ago, the truth will set you free
And it sucks I even have to say it, that I have to sing and play it…

That disillusion is echoed in I’d Love to Be Wrong, which alludes to Oberg’s classic breakup-as-earthquake anthem End of the Continent:

I see four guys on horses
The sky growing dark,
I can hear the rattle of chains
They ain’t coming to help us
Their hostages already slain

Oberg is no stranger to political satire, or irresistible jokes – her 2008 album is titled Horticulture Wars – but this is the funniest thing she’s ever done. And it’s reason to look forward to what she has to say when hubris catches up with that tweeting twat. Let’s just hope he doesn’t start a real war when he finally figures out that he bit off way too much more than he could chew.

Dark, Brooding, Catchy Powerpop and New Wave From Lauren Hoffman & the Secret Storm

Today’s Halloween album, streaming at Bandcamp, is The Family Ghost, by Lauren Hoffman & the Secret Storm. As with yesterday’s album, it’s anything but cartoonish: the unease is pretty relentless, and when there’s menace, it’s typically implied. The music is on the dark side, blending artsy parlor pop, powerpop, and new wave – and it’s catchy as hell. Hoffman’s clear, uncluttered voice is a powerful vehicle for these mostly sad songs.

The opening track sways along on a trip-hop groove, Hoffman’s elegantly restrained vocals evoking Changing Modes’ Wendy Griffiths over Tony Lechmanski’s lingering, Lynchian guitar clang. And then the song hits a blazing crescendo. It’s about being hunted, and escaping that: it’s not clear who the girl and her little brother are running from. In a city where the subways and buses are on track to become part of a surveillance-based system by 2023, songs like this really resonate.

Feel It All Over is a catchy minor-key new wave powerpop hit bolstered by Ethan Lipscomb’s piano and Cathy Monnes’ one-woman string section, Hoffman’s protagonist determined to live at full throttle until the curtain falls. A Britfolk-tinged waltz amped up with burning guitars, Let the Waves Crash on Me is a love song to a would-be escapee: I’ve got your back, I’ll hold your guns while you make a break for it, Hoffman insists.

Sick With Love is every bit as plainspoken and morose as the title indicates, Hoffman pondering  who’ll miss the random strangers in the street when they’re dead. Over an anthemic four-chord powerpop hook, In the Sun broodingly contemplates the hope for something genuinely transcendent. “I’m not that strong, but I’m strong enough to suffer if that’s the price I have to pay,” she laments.

She goes back to mid 80s style Go-Go’s powerpop with I Just Broke up With a Guy Who Looks Kinda Like You, whose title doesn’t come close to hinting at where the muted, somber vocals and narrative are going. The snarling, Middle Eastern-tinged title track is both the album’s musical high point…and its lyrically weakest track. OK, seduce the dude, whatev. And skip the next track – even some tasty, fluttery cello can’t redeem that one.

With its blend of enigmatic guitar, swooping cello and incisive keys, the album’s most ornate, witchiest number is The Dragon: “You’re a tease and a flirt,” Hoffman tells the monster. The album closes with the sad waltz Til it Lasts: “I won’t be so brave next time,” Hoffman tells herself, “You die for their love, or die of it.” Nothing more Halloweenish than that.

An Edgy Debut Album and a Williamsburg Show by Intense Cello Rockers the Icebergs

The Icebergs are New York’s hardest-working cello band. No disrespect to the great Serena Jost, but the Icebergs maintain a punishing late-night gig schedule. If there’s any midnight band in New York, it’s the trio of frontwoman Jane LeCroy, cellist Tom Abbs and O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry. That’s even more impressive when you consider that LeCroy also fronts the similarly intense, politically fearless avant garde duo Ohmslice with multi-instrumentalist Brandon Ross. The Icebergs have an edgy debut album, Eldorado, streaming at Bandcamp and Ohmslice have a show this Friday night at 8:30 PM at Pete’s.

If you can forgive the appropriation of an iconic album title (ELO’s epic, symphonic 1974 masterpiece is arguably the greatest rock record ever made), this is an edgy, lyrical treat. The opening track, Needleworker is about piecing things back together, literally and metaphorically, LeCroy’s soulful, blues-infused voice channeling 19th century African-American gospel starkness as she chronicles everything she’s got to stitch up over a brisk groove spiced with all sorts of tasty low-midrange riffs from Abbs. This gist of it is that this century’s American culture is hardly woman-friendly.

Sonnets 57 & 58 is a propulsive, echoingly uneasy 6/8 art-rock shuffle, Abbs’ terse overdubs and distant washes of sound over Rogers-Berry’s savagely ornate attack, a cynical, Shakespearean-inspired cautionary tale about women subjugating themselves. The catchy, witchy, hard-hitting Similitude could be a particularly energetic track from Rasputina’s first album

Then the band slows down with Proves My Love, a spare, darkly bluesy, imagistic account of less-than blissful domesticity: “Prison keeps you away from me, I visit you eternally,” LeCroy intones matter-of-factly .

Abbs rattles around a tasty reggae bass riff, Rogers-Berry answering back as Broken Heart vamps along: “I’ll take all your pieces put them together then smash your crown,” Le Croy announces. Swear looks back to an iconic, bluesy Stooges classic, Abbs overdubbing shivery, evil guitar licks way up the fingerboard over the drums’ fluttery accents.

“I’m a different ghost every day,” LeCroy muses in Gold, over a Siouxsie-esque vintage new wave pulse and Abbs’ gritty, distorted multitracks. Borders mingles Raw Power-era Stooges blues with Slits minimalism – it’s as vivid a menacing late-night-urban tableau as it is a defiant Trump-era anthem.

“I can’t find my Eldorado,” LeCroy laments over Abbs’ slinky, bouncing, gnawa-tinged bassline in Bad Map; then she takes her Kafkaesque search further toward hip-hop. As Abbs does throughout many of these songs, he works a lingering/rhythmic dichotomy for all it’s worth in Draw Me. Over an anguished whirl obscuring the song’s ominously bluesy undercurrent, LeCroy offers a catalog of doomed imagery in the album’s most intense track, Gun:

Everything tries
Everything fails
This life is a cross
And a bunch of nails

An echoey mashup of dub reggae and cello metal, Dear Lifeguard is a similarly gloomy oceanside tableau. The album winds up on a similar note with the surreal Decode. In a city oversaturated with vapid indie conformity, it’s good to see these three keeping the spirit of smart, individualistic, fearlessly relevant downtown New York rock alive.

Turkish Star Halil Sezai’s Brooding Revolutionary Ballads Haunt the Crowd at Drom

Saturday night at Drom, Turkish crooner Halil Sezai eventually got the crowd singing along. But he didn’t do it with flag-waving Eurovision-style stadium cliches. He did it with a carefully crafted set of allusive, slow-to-midtempo ballads about revolution and the relentless stress of life in a police state, in styles ranging from moody parlor pop, to methodically crescenddoing anthems awash in minor keys, with microtonally-infused fills and solos delivered by his absolutely brilliant clarinetist. To call this music for our time is an understatement to the extreme.

Sezai sat for the duration of the show, which made sense considering that he doesn’t overemote. Although he’d build to long, resonant phrases to cap off a chorus, he sang with remarkable restraint, always seemingly holding something in reserve. Although he doesn’t have a particularly low voice, he didn’t fly up the scale, remaining grounded in his upper midrange.

Likewise, his band had a nuance matched by few rock bands. Turkish rock tends to be more informed by classical and Turkish traditional music – or in its loudest moments, European metal – than it is by comparatively simple American pop. About three songs into the set, all of a sudden a tersely swaying drumbeat entered the picture. As it turned out, the drummer had been there all along, but up to that point he’d just been adding just the ghostliest flickers of a cymbal or a rimshot.

An acoustic rhythm guitarist held a steady, emphatic forward drive while the group’s superb, eclectic pianist ranged from stately, angst-fueled neoromantic lines to a few detours toward early 80s jazz when the clarinetist switched to alto sax. The bassist would often open a song with judiciously fingerpicked acoustic guitar leads, then in a flash would put down the guitar and then hold down the lows on his four strings. The clarinetist’s volleys of tremoloing, deep-woods mystery and sometimes the macabre contrasted with the low-key sonics behind him. Botanica, and Firewater, and maybe Procol Harum came to mind, but with less emotive vocals than any of those art-rock bands.

Besides being New York’s most welcomingly intimate venue for sounds from around the globe, Drom is one of the few American clubs to regularly book Turkish rock music. There are two fantastic, very different bands there tomorrow night, Sept 30: at at 8 PM, wild accordion-driven Chilean psychedelic band Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna are the latest stars from outside the country to make their US debut here: $15 adv tix are highly recommended. Then at 11:30 PM there’s a free show by excellent Queens rebetiko band Rebet Asker, playing dark Greek gangster and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s through the 40s.

Tredici Bacci Kiss the Sky at Barbes

This is what old NEC students do when they’ve had too much to drink: play slow, simmering oldschool soul vamps, take a stab at faux-operatic vocals and then bop their way through a bunch of summery, serpentine instrumentals inspired by 60s Italian cinema. At their most recent Barbes gig back in July, Tredici Bacci did all that tighter than most bands could do sober.

Not everybody in the band was half in the bag. Singer Sami Stevens was a force of nature and then some, giving the music all the drama it demanded with her full-throttle vibrato and passion worthy of a primo Sophia Loren role. Keyboardist Evan Allen went from creepy with his tremoloing funeral organ, into outer space with the synth and then all the way back to the Middle Ages with a wry electric harpsichord patch.

The strings shimmered and shivered behind the blaze and blips of the horns – this is a big band – through a cheery mix of mostly original material, a lot of which sounded like 60s Burt Bacharach on steroids. They did one Morricone cover, but in a similar vein. The lone spaghetti western number, late in the set, was an original, and turned out to be the night’s best song.

Bandleader/guitarist Simon Hanes was in a surreal mood: “Gimme a generic bossa,” he ordered the band, and they obliged: practice this enough at conservatory and you can pull it off in a split-second like this crew. Then he had Stevens free-associate on random topics over the music, and she ran with it: she’s funny, and managed not to embarrass herself. The effect was akin to Ingrid Sertso doing her stream-of-consciousness jazz poetry thing with Karl Berger’s improvisational big band, but at doublespeed and a couple of generations removed.

Barbes is home base to a whole slew of the funnest bands in town: organ-fueled psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things; mesmerizing Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa; Afrobeat monsters Super Yamba; fiery Ethiopian jamband Anbessa Orchestra; spectacular Bollywood cumbia band Bombay Rickey; and at the top of the list, slinky noir soundtrack trio Big Lazy.  Count Tredici Bacci as one of the newer additions to the elite: they’re back at Barbes on Sept 28 at 10 PM. The Austin Piazzolla Quintet, who open the night at 8, play both classic nuevo tango and originals in the same vein and are also excellent.

And Stevens also leads an oldschool soul group whose next gig is at the Parkside (the Brooklyn boite at 705 Flatbush Ave between  Winthrop and Parkside,  no relation to the Manhattan one) – on Oct 20 at 9:30 PM.

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.